Welcome to the first edition of our Spotlight Artist of the Month series – where we introduce you to musicians you should know and keep an eye on. Our March selection is a man you have probably heard play, but may not know his name. As this artist's solo career emerges, we think it’s time for you to meet the man behind the guitar. His name is Oscar Albis Rodriguez and he is everywhere.
As so many musical journeys do, this one begins with forced piano lessons at the age of five. Albis was raised in Rhode Island, where he began to spread his artistic wings. He played in bands through high school, before venturing to New York City as part of the jazz program at New York University.
In time, Albis got heavily into the DIY punk scene. He toured “every basement between here and San Francisco and then all through Canada.” In a bit of a genre-jump, he then joined A Great Big World. A whirlwind tour ensued - and he has not stopped moving since.
Flash forward and Albis plays guitar, bass and piano - in addition to singing, writing, producing and engineering. He has toured a large part of the world and performed for countless people. Now, he is digging back into his solo work. This multitalented artist took some time to sit down with TheCelebrityCafe.com’s Erin Huestis to talk about his career. While we were at it, he brought bandmate Hannah Winkler along for the ride to help perform a couple tracks off his acoustic-leaning 2016 album, Animals.
TheCelebrityCafe.com: When you first moved to New York, what was it like going from Rhode Island to New York City – and NYU no less?
Albis: It was overwhelming. You know, RI is really small and so it wasn’t – this is going to sound like I’m gloating. It wasn’t difficult to be like the all-state jazz guitar player. My senior year I was the all-state jazz guitar and jazz bass player. That’s one of the things that helped me get into NYU I think. But yeah, it was crazy. I got placed into a graduate student ensemble and they just messed with me, on a musical level. It was like musical hazing. And my guitar professor – who may or may not read this – was really hard on me. But I also kind of thrive in those situations.
It was intense. Everyone was like super talented. There was just a high concentration of talent. I think jazz as a culture is pretty competitive. It’s almost like a sport. So, I wanted to not be a jazz guitar major after my first semester. But luckily I stuck with it.
TCC: There is an ongoing battle among artists about whether it makes sense to go to conservatory... Do you feel like it helped you later in life?
A: Okay, honestly, I think going to school in terms of education and musical development and – I don’t want to say networking – it was really about making friends. For that it was amazing. [But] If I had a kid, I don’t think I would encourage them – if they were going to do music – I don’t think I would encourage them to go to college…
I think it does have its place. With that band A Great Big World, sometimes we do ‘clinics’ I guess. And college students will come in, sometimes music business students. And we’ll just talk. For me, I talk about things I didn’t learn in college that wish I did. They didn’t really teach us how to get a gig, or how to do your taxes or how to save money. Just practical life stuff that I think most musicians are kind of clueless about.
TCC: So let’s talk about punk. Were you into it in RI, or was it really NY bring that brought it out of you?
A: No, I was into it in RI. But I didn’t realize there was such a huge connected network of people. And this was before Facebook and MySpace even. So, in a way it was almost easier. Because there weren’t that many people that were throwing house shows. And it’s like once you met the right people; all of a sudden you got connected to everybody. And it’s much different now.
TCC: We were listening this week to some of your projects before the one we’re talking about today. It was interesting to hear you go from heavier punk stuff over to A Great Big World. Can you talk a bit about how you wound up with them?
A: Well, we all play at this club called Rockwood Music Hall. And there is a scene there and a community. And their bass player and producer Chris Kuffner knew me through friends of friends. When they became A Great Big World and put the band together, I think I was like their third guitar player to come in or something. And it just kind of clicked.
I joined at the right time, because we did like four or five shows – before I joined the band they had been working on getting a deal – and then after those five shows they were like ‘We got signed to Epic!’ And I was like [laughing] ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ I don’t know what that means for you guys or me, but it’s cool. And then when the “Say Something” thing happened, it was almost like being in the Beatles. Like, all the TV. And it was just crazy. That was a really good time. It was like two years straight where it was just kind of nuts.
TCC: How do you maintain your sanity through that?
A: Well, at the time I didn’t [laughing]. Everyone’s got their things that they do. Drew, our front of house guy, meditates in the back lounge of the bus for 20 minutes every morning. Actually he and the bass player do that. The tour manager, this guy Gary Waldman, who I’ve become really good friends with, plays banjo on the bus all the time. And I got into it and then he was giving me lessons. And now I’m full on, I love specifically clawhammer banjo music. Which is like learning Latin. It’s a dead art, but something about it really resonates for me. Also, touring at that level is a lot different than the DIY tours and it’s really comfortable I think.
TCC: You released some music back in 2010/2011 and then there was a span of time off. Then you came back in 2014 with Smoke and Ghosts. So was it that mayhem that was responsible for time away from your own project? What inspired you to dig back into it again?
A: Well, it’s funny, when I was recording Smoke and Ghosts in Vermont, A Great Big World, that’s when they got signed. So we tracked the record and then I came home that summer to do overdubs and stuff and then we left for tour. And then it really slowed down for a while and I would work on it whenever I could. Our front of house guy, Drew [Thornton], was mixing the record. Which was great and he did a great job. But then we had the same kind of issue, where we were both on tour. He was mixing as much as he could on tour. But yeah, we just had to take a break. And then at some point, both of us were like ‘We have to finish this.’
TCC: You are perpetually very, very busy.
A: I have a hard time saying no to people.
TCC: We were going to ask how you pick the projects that you’re involved in. We looked at your Facebook page and counted about 24 bands listed on there.
A: I mean, at any given points, there’s never really more than like six or seven bands active and doing stuff. I know that sounds crazy.
TCC: That’s still quite a large number.
A: It’s a lot, but it seems doable. Or, I mean, it has been doable – to a point. I tend to just play with people if I like their music. They say there’s three M’s in music about whether or not you take a gig. And that’s music, mates and money. And if you have two of three, you should take it. If you have all three, that’s amazing.
I definitely play with bands strictly for the check at times. I don’t have a problem saying that. But it’s better when it’s all three things. And then I occasionally give someone who's just starting out a break on my rates or whatever. Just so they can get moving, you know? Yeah, so it’s basically those three things.
TCC: Let’s talk about genre. You’ve covered a wide array of things. Do you have something that at this point in your life, in this moment, really pulls to you as your home base?
A: Yeah. Sort of what I’ve been writing as of late. It’s on the sad but rockin’ side of things. And it’s sort of going back to what I was writing when I was in this band called Nakatomi Plaza, which had a very political bent on personal relationships. With what’s happening right now in the country, I kind of feel like it’s impossible to not – The way I’ve been describing it to people is like, with what’s going on in my personal life, it’s like there’s this one pain train on this one track. And then the country is also kind of bottoming out right now, in this weird thing. And it’s like these two trains are travelling next to each other.
So a lot of stuff I’ve been demoing as of late is sad but angsty. It’s definitely louder and more rockin’. I can’t wait to play shows with it, because the last record was pretty much all acoustic. And we had a good time with that, but now I want to go and do more rockin’ stuff. I imagine it will always be like that. Going back and forth between the two.
TCC: So your new music that’s coming up – it takes slightly more of a political stance?
A: Yeah, it’s like dealing with your personal stuff, but in this crazy environment that’s happening. I can’t separate the two. I know people that can, which is maybe unfortunate. Though maybe that’s better for them.
TCC: So what does 2017 look like for you?
A: Musically, this record. Me and Hannah play in a bunch of other bands together. So I’m looking forward to doing shows with all of them. A Great Big World just recorded a cover – and I’m going to leave it at that. It was really fun, because it was one of the first sessions where we all contributed and it felt like a band, which was cool. They are also working on a musical and we help them out with that occasionally from time to time. But honestly, this year is mostly for me. I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection and trying to find some spiritual growth and just try to grow as a person. It’s as important as music right now.
TCC: So you performed for us earlier. Can you tell us a bit about what you performed?
A: [“Redwoods”] is about a couple who has an open relationship and the difficulties that come with it…. “Runners” is more about escape. Whether that’s an addiction or suicidal thoughts. The record is pretty dark [laughing].
TCC: Do you find that writing about the darker side of life is cathartic?
A: I do. I used to think that you had to have a terrible life to have good art. I don’t want to believe that anymore. But it certainly helps. Yeah, it’s nice to express it that way. Because in a way, for me, it’s more coherent than perhaps talking to someone about it. Though as of late I’m getting better at that. Anything to kind of express what’s actually happening, I think is good for anybody.
Check out Albis live in NYC on Sunday March 19th at Rockwood 1.