Inspired by listening to 1960s folk records by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Dave Van Ronk, Sam Perduta took up music his sophomore year of college.
“I figured that’s got to be easy — I could do that,” he recalls.
He got an acoustic guitar, taught himself numerous folk nuggets, and began writing his own songs, which “were probably rip-offs at that point.” Over time, though, he found his own voice as a songwriter.
Perduta leads and writes the songs for local rock band Elison Jackson. Over the past two years, the group has played about five shows a month, and more when they have done mini-tours. Their EP I Do Believe She Flew Out the Drainpipe, which came out last year, received a rave review on CT.com from Chip McCabe as “hands down one of the best things you’ll hear out of the CT music scene this year.” The group just released their new LP, Do Not Fear to Kill a Dead Man, on the Telegraph Recording Company label and it deserves to garner similar acclaim.
Perduta began playing live solo acoustic shows in 2009. The nucleus of the band formed the following year, when he started gigging with drummer Kevin Marrs and upright bass player Greg Perault. Lead guitarist Mike Kusek and keyboard player Dan Hollenbeck joined up within the past year, not long after the recording of the group’s Drainpipe EP. And the group’s name?
“In a moment of poor clarity, I called it Elison Jackson because I thought that was my grandfather’s name,” admits
In fact, his grandfather’s name was “Elson,” not “Elison.”
“It was just a typo I had to keep,” Perduta says with a shrug.
The group has a strong command of the dynamics that makes performances exciting, able to deftly shift a song from a whisper to a roar. Perduta says that Elison Jackson isn’t “a polished band.” That’s fine with him. Among his favorite recordings are live tapes of Bob Dylan from the mid-1960s.
“If they were a band today they would not be considered worthy of Bonnaroo. They were just a raw band and messed
up a lot,” says Perduta. “I would rather have a band making mistakes but pushing buttons than doing the same thing all
Early on, Perduta wrote lyrics and then tried to craft a melody to fit. Now he sees that approach as forced.
“Now I don’t worry about writing songs. They just gestate throughout the day,” says Perduta.
The gestation process is Perduta’s method of quality control. While he also composes on acoustic guitar, often his songs take shape just through singing. Once the vocal melody becomes lodged in his memory — “If I don’t remember it, it must not have been worth it” — he then finds the right chords on the guitar and records a demo.
Although Perduta’s lyrical approach has been described as “storytelling” in some reviews and blog posts, that’s not really accurate. His songs strike me as aural cousins to modern figurative painting, hinting at narrative. Before he dove into music, Perduta was involved in filmmaking. He sees his lyrics more as setting scenes or creating vignettes. They evoke moods or a sense of place.
“A painting or a still frame of a movie can tell a story,” says Perduta.
In the opening song of the new record, “Tongue on Fire,” Perduta sings: “With your crooked smile and your parted lips/And your tongue on fire and your acid trips/I have slept in gutters and coughed in the sand/I have seen your lover in the frying pan.” When Perduta begins singing, his vocal is accompanied by a ghostly whistling wind sound from a “singing saw” played by guitarist Mike Kusek.
With touches like that, the past feels present in the songs of Elison Jackson. Unusual for contemporary vocalists, Perduta sings in something of a baritone croon with just a hint of a quaver. The lyrics are haunted. Acoustic and electric guitars jostle for space with the wheezing sounds of vintage organs. But this isn’t a conscious choice by Perduta to evoke some mythical past. Instead, it is the natural result of Perduta’s influences coloring his own choices in the recording studio.
“The music I like could have been written at any point and could work in any form,” Perduta says.
It’s a quality he strives for in his own songs, that “they could be played acoustic and sound as powerful as played with a band. Or they could be played on a banjo or a piano.”
Folk music remains a touchstone. Along with the records made by big name folk revivalists in the 1960s like Bob Dylan, Perduta is fascinated with many of the songs archived by Harry Smith for his Anthology of American Folk Music and chronicled in Greil Marcus’ book The Old, Weird America.
But his recent recordings — made with producers Bill Readey and Matt Thomas of Fuzzy Rainbow Productions — also reflect Perduta’s affection for 1960s recordings such as Forever Changes by the Los Angeles-based group Love — a psychedelic-era masterpiece in which acoustic and electric guitars are accompanied by strings and Tijuana Brass-ish trumpet solos — and the late career records of Phil Ochs, which featured more ornate arrangements than his earlier protest broadsides.
“When we put out records, I try and make it something I would enjoy,” Perduta explains. “If I don’t, then I feel like it’s a failure.”
Article by Hank Hoffman