Singer-songwriter Van Pierszalowski has started three bands in the past decade: Port O’Brien, an indie-folk favorite of the Bay Area in the late aughts; the power-pop group WATERS, technically still a band; and his current solo work as Van William, which brings the lyrical and poetic intimacy of Americana together with those powerful pop melodies and hooks. Thursday night he’ll be at the Independent promoting Van William’s debut album, Countries.
Through these years, much has been said about Pierszalowski’s relationship to place — specifically, Alaska. Port O’Brien is the name of the Alaskan bay where his parents met, and the many summers spent there on his father’s commercial fishing boat have been a creative wellspring. But rather than place, Countries is an album about loss.
The timeline goes something like this: Port O’Brien formed in 2005 here in San Francisco. Their hit, “I Woke Up Today,” was anthemic in the indie scene and expressed an unabashed (perhaps naive) excitement about existence. The group disbanded in 2011 after garnering international attention, and Pierszalowski headed for Oslo, Norway. There he fell in love and started a new band, WATERS. WATERS was clearly a natural progression from Port O’Brien thematically, and explored higher-sheen production styles and pushed the pop hooks to the forefront.
In 2013 Pierszalowski and WATERS moved back to San Francisco and three members of the Tambo Rays (Greg Sellin and siblings Brian and Sara DaMert) joined the band. The first night back in San Francisco, Pierszalowski wrote the first Van William song, “The Country,” with then-girlfriend Marte Solbakken. “We had just moved to San Francisco, and it was our first night in our apartment and it was just hardwood floors and no furniture and, you know, boxes and that kind of scene.”
Two years later, Pierszalowski signed a publishing deal with Warner Brothers and left SF for Los Angeles. “Tale as old as time…We got priced out.” Though he says the Bay still feels like home, and he misses a lot of the Bay Area food (“It’s really insane how much better the burritos are in San Francisco than they are in LA”), Pierszalowski was happy to have a shift.
Then, the losses started to pile up. WATERS lost their label backing. Pierszalowski and Solbakken broke up, and his father retired after 50 years. “(Alaska) was a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge part of my life and identity. The fact that (my father) retired and sold the boat makes it basically impossible for me to go back up there. There’s nothing for me up there anymore.” Of the two possible life paths he’s always envisioned — being a musician or a fisherman — only one remains. “It’s a little terrifying.”
Countries became therapy. “I was going through a lot of dark shit, and these songs…really encapsulated that experience.” The first single, “Revolution,” which featured Norweigan folk-pop duo First Aid Kit and explored the anxieties of relationships, exploded. It was premiered by NPR and racked up over 5 million streams on Spotify. Pierszalowski knew this was the direction he had to move, putting all his focus on the album.
“I want a revolution / you want a short solution / we never could see eye to eye / You wanted retribution / I came to the same conclusion / It’s a story as old as time”
Released in January of this year, Countries is aching and intimate even as many tracks lift energetically. “Never had Enough,” for example, opens ripe with energy, and then you find the thread of deep melancholy in it. That thread grows until the instrumental breakdown does just that — breaks down in a painfully beautiful and tense argument with the song’s dominant mood. In the video for the song, Piersalowski sings, “Yet I never had enough of you in my life,” his face writhing in pain as Laura Burhenn (the Mynabirds) dances wildly behind him.
The playfulness on which Pierszalowski has built his musical kingdom is not lost in this pain. In some ways it is more believable; more satisfying to hear. The unabashed, naive excitement is replaced with a soulful insistence on singing loudly in the midst of heartbreak. His explanation of “The Country,” which like most art created in the current political era carries a double meaning:
“It’s about the loss of youth, in the scope of (the) American Dream sense… When you’re so young and you’re so full of life and you can kind of just look out into the country and it’s kind of this open and optimistic place to be and it’s full of wonder and then the chorus just hammers it home, the gross inequalities and unfairness and challenges of what it takes to be just a young person trying to make it in this country in particular…It’s this slow devolving of your hope and your fear into the realization that you’re going to have to pay for every little thing you get and “they” (I think of that as the 1%ers if you will) they’re just on a different set of rules. But then the bridge…”They can’t take the rhythm from our heart”…despite that, they’re still going to lose. They can create as fucked up of a system as they can for the rest of us but at the end of the day there’s nothing they can do to take the spirit from you if you work hard for it.”
Pierszalowski must be working hard, because his spirit remains strong. He has his eyes forward on a possible hybrid headlining Van William tour, where he can sprinkle in hits from Port O’Brien and WATERS. And though he recommends that you listen to Countries stoned and lying on your bed or driving on an open road, you could also give it a go at the Independent on Thursday night.