Adam Torres stands still at his Lamberts show during SXSW 2017, cradling an acoustic guitar against his chest like a pastor clutching a sacred text. He sings folkloric, lonesome lamentations of a degraded wasteland, tense violin strokes and solemn, slow strums underpinning his vulnerable falsetto. "Over the plain with no one in sight/ Wrap me around/ Juniper arms."
Like Jeff Buckley appropriating "Hallelujah" or Leonard Cohen pining for "Suzanne," Torres' timbre assumes an ethereal quality, carving and twisting against a towering mountain edge before coasting back down to the ground. His voice gives off a crystalline clarity and assumes even greater intimacy from pen to paper by evoking a wayworn traveler along the Appalachian trail. There's a drifting, wide-eyed fascination to it.
In fact, this vagabond musical begins in the Appalachian Midwest of Athens, Ohio. On the quaint streets of this small county seat, Torres achieved relative cult status in his indie-folk band Southeast Engine, laying claim to a fame mostly confined to college-town circuits. In 2006, while still juggling the band, he released his solo debut Nostra Nova, a dynamic album raging glockenspiel epics, somber acoustics, and rumbling rock flourishes.
"When I put out Nostra Nova, I didn't really think about an audience outside of my friends that lived in Ohio," says Torres. "There were really only two venues and the music scene was only a couple hundred people. Everyone knew each other."
A "modular" work, its players checked in and out of the studio throughout the course of a year. Torres employs swatches of raspy vocal flutters that crack to reveal layers of beautiful chamber folk orchestration flourished by breakneck guitar strums, harp lullabies, and sedated melodies. Moments including "Voices From the Top of the Mountain" and "Angry Sun" strip away to a falsetto that feels isolated and vulnerable and offers a glimpse to his future releases.
"Sometimes things would sit for over a month, and then maybe we'd record vocals and scratch out the guitar takes," offers Torres, who views it with a more critical eye than its eventual audience. "It's not necessarily the most concentrated record."
While balancing Southeast Engine, Torres' own music became "a second priority at the time." After the band achieved moderate success, Torres dropped out of college to tour the country. Austin graced the itinerary in 2008.
"The band was excited to go to South by Southwest to meet some manager of Arcade Fire or something, but in the end I felt like we drove 20 hours straight to drink coffee with this person in the hotel lobby for essentially nothing," recalls Torres. "It was fickle, and I felt like our whole philosophy on how to make music was invalidated by a system that treated bands like bags of potato chips to profit on."
Disillusioned, he quit the band and even guitar. In the long, wandering path that followed, Torres took up a spate of nonmusical endeavors, including volunteer work in Ecuador, graduate school in Austin, and an environmental research policy job on the Rio Grande River in South Texas. Time passed and without really realizing it, one day he found himself sitting on a bedrock of songs written during his travels.
Not only did Torres venture his way back to music, he even signed to influential roots indie Fat Possum Records.
"It took a lot of time for me to realize that the way I create and write music is separate from that world of the music industry," contemplates Torres. "While Fat Possum has given me more opportunities, I've learned to care less about logistics."
As he grappled with his interpersonal ambivalence about the industry, whispers about Torres began resurfacing as Nostra Nova accrued enough of a following to prompt its re-release in 2015 by Misra Records, a label with local ties and a back catalog boasting Destroyer, Phosphorescent, and Shearwater. A year later and 10 years removed from his debut, Torres released Pearls to Swine, a haunting splice of Appalachia country (see "Texas Platters," Sept. 9, 2016).
Paralleling a strain of avant-garde Americana artists like Steve Gunn, William Tyler, and Greg Vanderpool locally, Torres creates vast geographical expanses musically, over which his voice glides spiritlike. Sloping hills ("Where I'm Calling From"), starry skies ("Daydream"), lofty mountain ridges ("High Lonesome"), and sprawling rivulets ("Mountain River") all run through the singer's keening moan. Sweeping violins and lullaby instrumentals wash into ambient landscapes on "Outlands" and "Juniper Arms," the sounds coursing like wind through desolate plains.
Unlike Nostra Nova, which lurches with a pop-gleaned intensity rooted in collegiate Ohio, Pearls to Swine, recorded at Cacophony Recorders with Erik Wofford after Torres moved here in 2011, rises into an endless Southwestern sky.
"I remember living in Albuquerque and being able to look in any direction and see how expansive the world is. To see a landscape stretching over 50 miles was a beautiful and wondrous experience," recalls Torres. "While the album enraptures my feeling of whenever I look at Big Bend or the Grand Canyon, it also envisions how humans pollute the world and environmental degradation."
Just as Pearls to Swine borders a wasteland, so, too, does I Came to Sing the Song. Released not even a year after the former, the EP extends Pearls to Swine with four tracks that were left off. They're bare, intimate, acoustic threnodies swirling in Torres' head, his trademark falsetto coupled with finger-plucked melodies that imagine an expansive countryside dotted by dust devils, rolling tumbleweeds, and rising, red-hued mesas. Minimal instrumentation and the space between sounds rolls the songs along an expansive grassland as far as the eye can see (revisit "Texas Platters," Feb. 24).
Mirroring the artwork from I Came to Sing the Song, Torres stands in solitude.
"It's always about envisioning the world as being uninhabited, how the world used to be untouched by civilization," explains Torres of his songwriting process. "When I lived in Albuquerque, I saw the mountains and expansiveness of everything. To me, the world was like a planet, not a city confined to buildings and the nearest street."
Torres' panoramic view of the world also transcends into "Dreamers in America," his contribution to the Our First 100 Days project protesting Donald Trump's presidency. Born part Latino and part Apache, Torres navigates the world through his own hymns, lensing the rich history of his ancestors as he traces their steps.
"The history of this country is deeply rooted in people moving from place to place, so by nature this country is like this runaway place," says Torres. "This intersects and connects with my own family's history as well, and my music is my best attempt to reconcile the motivations of my own history with the motivations of my country's history."
While his wayward path has wound from Albuquerque to Athens then Ecuador, he's been content to put his feet up here in Austin for the last six years. Since he admits a dissonance between the "weird, intimate" music he makes and his generally being booked into "mixed drink" bars, it’s sometimes difficult to find venues catering to his soft acoustics and his friends, "my family," that make Central Texas worth the extended stay.
"Austin feels like home," nods Torres.
Adam Torres appears at Antone’s with Austin’s Molly Burch on Thursday, July 27.
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