Here Comes a Regular
Jeff Klein's Dark World-View
Jeff Klein is a young man with a serious dark side. He's only 24, but he doesn't have that freshly scrubbed look. He's got a wisp of a beard on his chin, and his black hair hangs in his eyes. That's unfortunate, because his eyes may be his most distinguished features. Barely glimmering, they're apropos to a songwriter with such a dark world-view. They only light up when the talk turns to his favorite songwriters, most of whom are as disheartened as he is.
To many, Klein is a newcomer to the Austin music scene who just released his powerful local debut, You'll Never Get to Heaven if You Break My Heart, on local indie label India Records. And yet, he's been living in Austin for three years now, and has appeared at such venues as the Cactus Cafe, Ruta Maya Coffeehouse, Flipnotics, and even opened shows for Bob Schneider at Antone's, when Lonelyland was a band.
That people are just discovering him here in Texas doesn't surprise him, naturally -- that's the nature of the music business -- but he claims to be better known in places like L.A., Chicago, and New York. In Austin, he's known and appreciated by some local musicians of note (Jon Dee Graham and Ian Moore are big supporters), and in the larger scheme of things, that means a great deal to someone on their way up.
Klein began that journey in Newburgh, New York, where he grew up, on the Hudson River halfway between New York City and Albany. He began gigging in local clubs around the area by the time he was 14, playing open mike nights and such. He then moved to Boston to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, but only lasted a year.
"It wasn't my scene at all," he remembers, "because it was like trained musicians playing fast, hot guitar licks, and I was the guy who liked to write songs. I took a class with Livingston Taylor on songwriting that seemed kind of silly to me. I got a lot of good experience when I was in Boston. I did some shows with Evan Dando. I played a lot.
"After a year, though, it was so expensive to live there, and I wasn't into paying $25,000 a year to go to college. After four years of that, to be $100,000 in debt and to be a musician who has to pay it back was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard of."
So he moved back home and finished school at New Paltz State, just up the road from Newburgh. He continued to gain good performing experience while there, and even moved into the New York City scene, playing places like the Bitter End, Bottom Line, and the Mercury Lounge. He developed quite a following, and managed to sell 3,000 copies of his first CD, 1998's self-released Put Your Weight On It.
He claims not to like that album these days, saying it was made under the influence of a couple of friends who were acting as his managers at the time. The backing musicianship is a little too jazzy for his tastes. Nevertheless, his buddies moved to Austin that year and convinced Klein to come down and check it out.
"I moved to Austin because I was tired of that whole scene and I didn't want to live in New York City," he explains. "There's no money playing there, and the scene was really rough.
"So I came down, liked it, and moved down here on a whim. Things started going really well when I got down here, but it got to the point that I was managing [my two friends], because they couldn't really handle what I was going through.
"It's funny that they don't live here anymore while I still do. When I first moved here, it was with my longtime girlfriend and my best friend, and within three months, they didn't like it here and left. And the friends that I had come down here for moved away a couple of months after that, so here I was stuck alone and not knowing anybody and just playing music. I think that was good for me."
As has been chronicled many times in the past, the musicians of Austin have always been accepting and nurturing to newcomers with talent and so it was with Klein. He got onstage a couple of times with Jon Dee Graham, who always plugged Klein's upcoming shows. He opened a couple of shows for Moore, and that opened more doors for him as well.
Moore's backup band at the time was Mark Addison and Nina Singh, who are the prime movers behind India Records; the former also produced You'll Never Get to Heaven. Moore's manager Jan Mirkin played a crucial role in Klein's rise as well, bringing him to the attention of song publisher ASCAP, which invited him to play at their 1999 South by Southwest showcase, and wound up endorsing the young songwriter as one of their top unsigned new artists.
ASCAP was also instrumental in Klein getting his music played on television. His songs have appeared on such shows as Young Americans, Wasteland, and Dawson's Creek, and the royalties from those, which can be substantial, have kept him from needing a day job. Along the way, he's had interest from major labels -- landed a couple of demo deals -- yet no one has offered him a recording contract.
"I had a couple things going last year," he says, "but there's this skeptical enthusiasm over the whole singer-songwriter thing. In the past two years, I've been in the office of the top A&R guy for every major label. They've either given me money for some demos or I get, 'You're not a heavy metal band with a DJ. You're not wearing a mask or make-up and shaking your ass onstage.'
"It's weird because I think everybody realizes how bad music is, but they can't help it. I think that things are going well for me now, because between things like Coldplay and David Gray, the male singer-songwriter thing can come back around.
"I can officially say I do not understand the music industry. One reaction I get is, 'You know, this is great, but can we get it a little bit shorter, a little more upbeat?'
"When I was 18, there were major labels looking at me and they kept on putting me off. I have some friends on labels and they get screwed all the time. I know how tough it is. It's really easy to get lost in the shuffle. None of the business people know what's going on. I'm trying to be as stubborn as possible, because I'm young. I know I have time to fuck up."
One thing that is obvious, something those same A&R guys with their tied hands will tell you, is that Klein can write songs. Interesting and deeply emotional songs. You'll Never Get to Heaven is filled with moods that are dark and inviting. These are songs in which Klein appears to be not just baring his soul, but ripping open his chest so we can see his guts.
"I've always had these crazy things happening in my life and I get ideas from them," he explains. "There's no doubt that I'm on the moody and dark side. I think it's easier for people to relate to music if you write what you know. If you write about your experiences, people can relate to them because everybody goes through the same things.
"I'm pretty self-absorbed," he says with a sly chuckle. "I like dark, sinister, and evil. I like taking an emotion and going overboard on it."
For influences, it's not surprising that he declares acts like American Music Club, Nick Drake, the Red House Painters, and "any kind of good, rainy-day music" as his favorites. He's a bit young to remember the Replacements, but he claims Paul Westerberg is his hero.
"He's great for one liners. I got turned on to him by one for my older brothers."
Taking this all into account, it's no surprise that Klein is a cynical old man at heart
"I don't think people care anymore," he declares. "People don't go out to see live music anymore. Everything is just instant gratification and if you have to sit down and think about it for a second, forget it. People are always talking about the esoteric thing that I do, I'm like, 'It's not that esoteric if you sit down and listen to it for a second.'"
Jeff Klein's SXSW showcase is Friday, March 16, at the Pecan Street Ale House, 10pm.