When not writing his own material for Black Swans or solo albums, Jerry David DeCicca spent a lot of the last decade producing long-neglected outsider songwriters like Larry John Wilson, Ed Askew, and Bob Martin. Over time, he noticed that many of these old-timers had a strong sense of place in their material, a deep connection with both natural and human surroundings, that DeCicca found himself lacking. “That was something that either I was too close to in Ohio, and I didn’t know how to capture it, or it just wasn’t strong enough,” he admits.
About four years ago, though, DeCicca “moved to the land of the double-wide”, as he says in “Lazy River”, picking up stakes with his partner Eve and finding a home in New Braunfels, Texas. They ended up about halfway between Austin and San Antonio, and a world away from the flat, wintery, big box store littered central Ohio. The two of them rented first in a little place near the mansions of New Braunfels, where 300 yards from his front porch, DeCicca could put a float in the water and drift downstream for hours.
“It’s good and it’s bad, but it hasn’t changed much,” says DeCicca. “You still have the dance halls. There are a lot of trees, a lot of rocks. Driving 30 miles in Ohio used to be an event. Here it’s going to have a beer. There’s a different sense of time and space.”
There was also a lot of music, says DeCicca. “It’s not the type of music I play. It’s pretty one-dimensional. That’s the drawback. You’re not going to see somebody playing anything aside from cowboy hat country music. And some of that’s awful, and some of that’s exceptional, and it’s everywhere. Every bar has people doing that. And a lot of the people are pretty literate kind of guys, more so the older guys or the ones that don’t get popular. So I don’t really fit into that. I’ve got some buddies who play that kind of music, but I don’t know how well it would go over. I’m not wearing cowboy hats or anything like that. I don’t know how well it would go over.”
But even if he didn’t exactly blend into the scenery, DeCicca thought he had something to say about his new home and was the genesis of his latest record, Time the Teacher. “I kind of felt that I could write songs that could capture how I was feeling in a new world that I was living in and that it could still be Texas without having the cliché of Texas.”
Away From This World of Acoustic Guitars
DeCicca wrote the songs for Time the Teacher the way he always writes songs — working them out with just an acoustic guitar and his own voice. “The songs that are a little bit more syncopated were all things that I had finger-picking patterns for, and the ones that are a little bit lusher are ones that I was going to strum,” said DeCicca.
When he was satisfied with the material, he sent demos off to his friend Jeb Loy Nichols, an American songwriter now based in Wales, who with his wife Lorraine makes up the band Fellow Travelers. “I’ve known Jerry for about 25 years,” says Nichols by email. “We met in the mid-1990s when I was in a band called Fellow Travelers and was recording for Okra Records. The owner of the label, Dan Dow, owned a record store where Jerry worked. Jerry knew more about most things than most people. He knew all the good stuff. I remember that it was a mutual admiration of the writer Robert Olmstead that really got me interested in Jerry.”
The two artists became fans of each other’s work. Says Nichols,”Jerry can see around corners. He’s got a way of seeing the inside of things, of narrowing in on what needs to be said. It’s some kind of x-ray vision, and he’s very funny. There’s no one in the world who writes or sounds like Jerry.”
But the songs that DeCicca had sent this time were different. “I was mesmerized by how specific were the locations and how universal the sentiments. He seemed to be writing about a very real, very known, very lived place, but he was able to do it in a way that transcended the subject matter,” Nichols explains. “He gave you the big and the little in the same package. I feel like, for me, every record he’s made has gotten better, but this record reached a new level of strange, personal commitment. And, as I said, it’s often very funny.”
“He emailed me and said, I love these songs. I think they’re your best songs,” DeCicca remembers. “Let me produce it. I want to get you away from this world of guys with acoustic guitars.”
“I’m not a huge fan of the singer/songwriter thing. I instinctively lean towards jazz and hip-hop and soul — all that overly earnest strum, strum, strum, strum thing irritates me,” Nichols admits. “When I heard Jerry’s songs and realized how beautiful they were, I immediately thought of Billie Holliday and Abbey Lincoln and all the great damaged and weary and romantic jazz singers. Jerry sounded like that to me — and the songs sounded like that. So I thought it’d be great to try at least and see if it would work. Plus, not having any money, I had to ask my friends, and most of them come from the jazz/improvisation world…”
Nichols brought in British pianist and composer Matthew Bourne, who lives in London and records for the Leaf Label. “I sent him some of my demos, and I redid some of them, and he basically copied my guitar parts to piano,” says DeCicca. “For instance, a song like ‘Watermelon’ he copied my guitar part identically. He added a couple of flourishes. And then a song like ‘Mustang Island’ where I was kind of strumming it, he had more room to add his own voice to it.”
“The whole thing sounds like him anyway. His attack. His phrasing,” says DeCicca. Once the piano parts were done, the guitar parts came out. And then, in came the jazz.
Brass and reed sounds define Time the Teacher, giving it a warmth and sense of artistic exploration. Says DeCicca, “We knew we wanted horns but knew we didn’t want it to be like a Salvation Army band, and we knew we didn’t want it to be like straight Southern horns, like the Memphis horns.”
Surprisingly, the first call went to avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton. “We were just like if we could get anybody in the world it would be Anthony Braxton,” says DeCicca. “And of course in three minutes you can find his phone number on the internet. So Jeb called him up, and Jeb used to live in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he would go out a lot and see the Sugar Hill Gang and see free jazz, so he had a really good conversation with Anthony because he used to go see him in New York.”
Braxton was too busy, but the idea of recruiting free jazz players stuck. “We wanted the horn players to be able to express themselves and to respond to the lyrics,” DeCicca explains. “That’s why on some of those songs, especially ‘Lazy River’ the horn player has a really good sense of humor about it. And ‘Walls of my Heart’ the horn player is definitely listening to the lyrics while he’s playing it.”
Nichols also brought DeCicca’s voice, which is naturally quite soft, way up in the mix, often supported by some truly beautiful backup singing. “We wanted it to be kind of sound immediate, and we wanted it to sound kind of where you could listen to it, and your mom could like it. It was going to be something that was musical and had a sense of humor. And anything about it that had any sort of darkness was going to be something that was going to be counteracted by the horns or the backing singers,” says DeCicca. “Even though Jeb and I worked with some of these Southern guys we were also thinking about people like Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and how they were willing to let the song hang on the voice.”
DeCicca says that, in some ways, he had to let go to make Time the Teacher since Nichols, Bourne and the jazz musicians who play on the album had so much autonomy in shaping its sound and mood. Yet it has, paradoxically, turned into one of his most personal, autobiographical records yet. “I think ‘Lazy River’ is my favorite. Because that’s really the song that I remember sitting on my front porch, looking across the street, I’m living in this new world, and it’s like I went from living someplace that was grey, cold and flat to living somewhere where there are rivers, and I’m a guy wearing flip-flops now. Just like, I’m the same person but all these other things in my life are different, and I felt things changing inside.”