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Singer/songwriter: for most people, the term still brings to mind the sound of one voice and a fingerpicked guitar, or a quiet piano, sketching a monochromatic study of one individual’s emotional landscape. Mike Baker, who performs and records as the Northern California alternative pop/rock act Radio Nowhere, is not that kind of singer/songwriter.
Possessed by kaleidoscopic musical visions and a tendency to spend more time singing about hostage crises than inner pain, Baker plays a whole pawnshop’s worth of different instruments and handles all of the engineering and production chores in solo pursuit of his own brand of panoramic sound.
It’s an amalgam of loud guitars, mistreated beatboxes, catchy choruses and a reverence for classic pop song form that marks Radio Nowhere as something like the missing link between Tom Petty and Duran Duran. Fans who’ve always loved these artists, plus Neil Finn, Aimee Mann, Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, but wished that they’d turn their guitars up a little bit, will definitely notice a kindred spirit at work in Radio Nowhere.
Radio Nowhere first came to public attention on the San Francisco Bay Area bar & coffeehouse scene, while Baker was working an endless series of strange day jobs – rooftop acorn remover, online rock’n'roll trivia oracle, farm animal impersonator (including a stint as the successor to the late, legendary Mel Blanc [aka Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.] as the famous Berkeley Farms cow) – devoting nights to honing his skills as an electric guitarist and building up his catalog of original songs.
A demo tape of these songs caught the ear of several local musicians, most notably original Counting Crows drummer Steve Bowman. “We went mountain biking in the Oakland hills," Baker recalls, "and in between crashes, he told these hilarious stories about opening for the Rolling Stones. I screwed up the courage to play him my demo, he really liked it and offered to help me put a band together.” With Bowman as de facto musical director, a rock star lineup that included members of Primus, Mazzy Star, and the bands of Chuck Prophet, Peter Gabriel, and Jackson Browne came together to record Baker’s debut album and join him onstage.
“The core of the band was there and sounding fantastic,” remembers Baker, “but we really needed keys. One of my friends, a public school teacher in Richmond, said ‘oh, there’s this guy at my school who plays piano – he might be interested’: turned out to be the guy who’d played piano on Van Morrison‘s “Moondance” record, and a bunch of Bonnie Raitt‘s stuff besides. I said I thought he’d do…”
The resulting album, “Interstate Medicine” – underwritten entirely by friends and fans in a pioneering example of crowdfunding – garnered critical acclaim and an award from the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Several songs from the album were picked up by radio stations worldwide, and soon ecstatic reviews were coming in from places like Scotland, Germany, Australia, and India.
Before long, acclaim for the first album began to transition into demand for more music. Radio Nowhere's subsequent releases - "Days Between Stations" and "Under Strange Skies" - start with Baker’s old standbys – acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and piano – and spike them with buzzy synths, dubbed-out snares, effected washes of sound and the odd sample to create music poised somewhere between then and now, organic and electronic, sloppy and robotic.
You might guess that Baker's lyrical preoccupations don’t exactly fit with the bland love songs and anodyne navel gazing that pervades pop radio and TV drama soundtracks these days, and you’d be right. A quick scan of Radio Nowhere’s lyrics reveals references to New World history, kidnappings, capital punishment, latent Catholicism, medieval torture devices, genocide, shanghaied sailors, running from the highway patrol – “all the catchy stuff!” he says. The songs also toy with an element that seems to have gone AWOL from much of today’s music – humor – with occasional sly twists and asides in the manner of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello.
Radio Nowhere is currently ensconced in the studio, working on an album’s worth of new songs that will be released one by one, as they’re finished, throughout 2012. The new tracks are developing in very different directions, yet each one is still stamped with Radio Nowhere’s trademark devotion to thoughtful lyrics and widescreen sound.
released 01 January 2011
Written and recorded by Michael Baker
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