Donavon Frankenreiter builds his own identity
October 26, 2006
When Donavon Frankenreiter released his self-titled debut CD in 2004, it was impossible not to feel that, to some degree, someone else was pulling the strings on Frankenreiter’s career. It was, in fact, a specific someone: Jack Johnson, who had scored hits with the mellow albums “Brushfire Fairytales” and “On and On.””Donavon Frankenreiter” was released on the Brushfire Records label, owned by Johnson. The album was co-produced by Johnson and Mario Caldato Jr., who had produced Johnson’s “On and On.” The single “Free” featured not only Johnson on vocals, but also Johnson’s vibe, the easygoing, almost hushed, but upbeat sound that had earned Johnson an early following among surfers on beaches from California to Hawaii and beyond. Frankenreiter, like Johnson, was in fact a pro surfer.The connection between the two must have seemed especially tight to Aspen music fans. “Free” was ubiquitous on local radio the summer of 2004, and the Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 2004 Labor Day Festival kicked off with a Friday-night lineup that included Frankenreiter as the opening act, and Johnson as the headliner. (Sandwiched in between was G. Love & Special Sauce, another act on the Brushfire roster. The concert drew a Jazz Aspen record attendance of 11,000.)Despite the success of “Donavon Frankenreiter,” Frankenreiter knew he would have to soon stand on his own, without the tie to Johnson. That moment has come quickly. “Move by Yourself,” Frankenreiter’s sophomore recording, released in June, is Jack-free. Frankenreiter produced the album himself; it was released on the Lost Highway label.Perhaps most significant, “Move by Yourself” moves largely to its own beat. The opening title track rides along not on Johnson-style acoustic guitar, but on a fresh take of ’70s soul. The lyrics – “Don’t ever be somebody that you’re not” – seem like a mental note Frankenreiter was written to himself. The soul feel – washes of organ, lush strings and wah-wah sounds – carries through into “The Way It Is,” and is bumped up with the backing female chorus on “Let It Go.”
Frankenreiter never planned to mimic Jack Johnson. But in 2003 when the two met up at Johnson’s Mango Tree studio in Oahu, Frankenreiter didn’t have a musical plan at all. Frankenreiter, then 30, was familiar with the company and the location: He had first met Johnson in the late ’80s when he rented a room from the Johnson family on the Oahu’s North Shore, a spot famed for its waves. But Frankenreiter, who has been a professional surfer since the age of 16, had yet to learn his way around a recording studio. He showed up with a batch of songs, and put himself in Johnson’s hands.”The first record, I didn’t have a band, really,” said Frankenreiter, speaking from a tour bus rolling through Utah. “I went into the studio with Jack and Mario, and they put the record together. The songs were written on the acoustic, and I didn’t hear any other instruments on them.”When the CD was released, Frankenreiter finally put a band together. And with a trio of hand-picked musicians in place – keyboardist Eric Brigmond, drummer Craig Barnette, and bassist Matt Grundy, who had played on “Donavon Frankenreiter” – he was able to assemble the more distinctive and fleshed-out sound that marks “Move by Yourself.””The band’s been together for a year,” said Frankenreiter, who grew up in Southern California. “I’ve been showing these guys the songs on tour, and they had time to work on them in the studio, on the road. We all know which direction we wanted to go in. They really saw what we were going after.”Another influence was the music Frankenreiter had been listening to: soul singers Mavis Staples and Otis Redding, Van Morrison’s 1971 classic, “Tupelo Honey.” That helped give him some idea of what he wanted to do at Retrophonic, the St. Augustine, Fla., studio that is half an ocean and a full continent removed from Johnson’s Mango Tree studio.”The instruments we used were very old instruments,” said Frankenreiter, who plays tonight at Belly Up, his first local appearance since the 2004 Labor Day Festival. “We used 2-inch tape; it’s all analog and never got thrown on the computer.”
“Move by Yourself” splits the difference between classic soul and acoustic beach-rock. Frankenreiter, who still travels the world as a surfer – he appears in surf films, and is featured in the TV series “The Drive Thru,” which chronicles what happens when five surfers go on the road to make a movie – has a mellowness that will probably never leave him. Shouting soul in the manner of Otis Redding just isn’t in his nature.”I can’t imagine playing a super-heavy rock ‘n’ roll, because I don’t have a super-loud voice,” said Frankenreiter, who lives in Laguna Beach with his wife and 4-year-old son. “I can’t belt it out. So [“Move by Yourself”] is a blend of everything. I heard clavinet, good old bass and drums.”Frankenreiter says he is grateful to Johnson for the kick-start he gave his music career. Frankenreiter’s move from Brushfire to Lost Highway came with Johnson’s blessing. (Both labels are part of the same conglomerate, Universal Music.) But Frankenreiter said he knew some distance had to be established.”I didn’t want to be the guy following Jack,” he said. “I didn’t want people to say, ‘Don’t listen to him; he’s just another Jack Johnson.’ That bummed me out.” (No one could say that Frankenreiter was emulating Johnson’s look: Frankenreiter is shaggy, Johnson generally clean-cut.)When Frankenreiter made the label jump, he was unfamiliar with Lost Highway. “The guy from Universal said go talk to the guys from Lost Highway,” he said.Frankenreiter has yet to meet any of his label mates, a list that includes Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. The biggest perk he has gotten was free tickets to a concert by Van Morrison, whose recent country album “Pay the Devil” was released by Lost Highway.
“After I signed the deal, I saw the artists, and what they were all about,” said Frankenreiter. “I was honored to be on that label. It’s fun to be part of a label where we’re not three artists piled in the same category.”I’d love to meet Willie, Ryan Adams. I’ve got a lot to learn from guys like that.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org