If the album cover collage of hotel room photos, the inside cover photo of the open road, or the album title don’t clue you in, the list of cities where the songs on Su Casa, Mi Casa were recorded—everywhere from Affalter, Germany to Lexington, Kentucky—will: Doug Hoekstra is a traveling folk singer, and this is a snapshot of his life on the road. “All songs are by Doug Hoekstra”, the liner notes indicate, “and feature Doug Hoekstra on vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica”. Hoekstra is a modern-day troubadour, the offspring of Bob Dylan and his contemporaries. Su Casa, Mi Casa, packed as it is with 18 songs and a handful of interview clips and bits of banter, is a small selection of recordings from, as Hoekstra puts it, “years of traipsing around the world, guitar in hand”. It’s an audio document of the awkward and sometimes magical interaction that occurs between performing musicians and their audiences, as the musician presents his songs, his babies, to onlookers in cities across the globe.
There’s moments on Su Casa, Mi Casa when Doug Hoekstra comes off like a prototype, or stereotype, of the modern-day folk singer: singing ultra-serious, almost heavy-handed, songs about social problems; making hokey-jokey comments between songs (or in one case, “Laminate Man”, building an entire song around one). The ghost of the 60s hangs heavy, particularly on songs like “Birmingham Jail” and “Sam Cooke Sang the Gospel”, and Dylan’s voice rings through Hoekstra’s from time to time. It’s a style of folk music which carries a gravity and literalness that’s easy to mock, yet Hoekstra’s sincerity and humility about his work shouldn’t be underestimated. His real songwriting gift, though, lies outside the scope of these ultra-serious, almost preachy songs. At least half of Su Casa, Mi Casa showcases a different style of songwriting, one that’s meditative in a more poetic, less direct way, and also displays an intimacy and sense of detail that are the mark of a keen observer of life, someone who knows how to write songs that take people places in a vivid way. Hoekstra isn’t just traveling the world for the sake of entertainment. He’s soaking up places and people, and then using his pen and guitar to capture them as completely as those tools can.
A delicately strummed guitar, itself invoking a certain atmosphere of contemplation, and then a husky but also hushed voice:
“I was sleeping on the porch, /
Painted yellow green and blue, /
Dreaming of a lover that I once knew, /
Choices pounding in my head.”
Combined, these things immediately transport us to a certain time and place, to a very particular state of being and questioning. In the interview clip that serves as the concluding note of the album, Hoekstra says of his songwriting tastes, “I like lyrics that make you feel like you’re there, that give you some sense of place—the wind on your skin, maybe, the way things smell—almost like cinematic scenes, really.” That’s the perfect description of his most effective songs: they truly take you places.
The song titles on Su Casa, Mi Casa help illustrate Hoekstra’s obsession with places, with moments, with memories: “Here and Now”, “Driving to Georgia”, “Black and White Memories”, “Elusive Dreams”. Perhaps the most powerful song on the CD is “Broken Tower”. In a sing-songy melody, over a starkly shimmering guitar (and occasionally a capella), he sings a love song centered around one particular evocative image, with a detailed series of images wrapped around it. The song has a hushed sense of beauty to it, like a whispered secret that makes sense but doesn’t. Similarly, songs like “500 Miles Away” gently welcome us into a specific place and time, and accompanying state of mind. And we feel comforted, like a home has been built for us within a song. Maybe that’s an apt way to describe the skills of a traveling musician, as building small homes all over he world, and welcoming strangers inside. That’s a skill that transcends genre that immediately erases the preconceived notions some of us bring to certain types of music or music audiences. When he’s carefully constructing places out of words, and notes, and sounds, Doug Hoesktra stumbles onto something magical, a genuine secret power music can have.