We all have musical safety blankets in our collections — the albums we turn to when listening to the unfamiliar seems exhausting. They’re the bad-day albums, the songs that sound as familiar as a parent’s or partner’s voice on the other end of the receiver. Get listeners talking about these albums, and you’ll usually learn something intimate about the way they see the world.
For the last six years, I have written about music professionally, sharing opinions on songs that changed my life, songs I’d rather forget and, for the most part, songs that occupy the middle ground between the two. In that time, I have watched social media and streaming music services redefine what it means not only to consume it, but to write about it. I’m in the business of curation at a time when everyone’s a curator. One goal for professional music writers is to rise above the “amateurs,” to listen to an absurd amount of new music and serve as a filter to help people find — best-case scenario — their future musical safety blankets.
In late 2006, just as I was starting college and music culture was starting to turn toward streaming, a folk singer named Adam Torres released an album called Nostra Nova. At the time, he was a student at Ohio University, the midsized state school nestled in the Appalachian foothills, which I also attended, as well as a member of the folk-rock band Southeast Engine from 2005-08. I found his music via a dormmate who was cooler than me. At first, going to Torres’s shows felt like homework — Intro to the Local Scene, since a who’s-who of Athens, Ohio, musicians play on the record. The more coffeehouse sets I saw, the more I realized his music was something beyond the usual undergrad complaint rock. What struck me first was his nasal warbling of words, which alternate between earnest and slightly goofy. Then came an appreciation for his ability to mix orchestral grandeur with something as unobtrusive, even quaint, as finger-picked acoustic melodies. He’s a guy who doesn’t say a lot, but you can sense he’s always taking in his surroundings.
With Torres’s music, each song is its own world, and different worlds require different artistic renderings. “Breakneck Jane’s Fifteen Minute Escape” is a saga out of True Detective, with a cello crescendo matching the criminal protagonist’s deteriorating mental state. The lyrics to “Fate is Kind” volley from vampires to janitors to going bowling, where fate’s kindness somehow inspires a shotgun wedding after Torres nails a 7-10 split. I couldn’t figure out if the reason it resonated was because Torres was likely singing about the same bowling alley my friends and I frequented in this small town in southeastern Ohio. I figured at some point I’d stop caring so much about his music, most likely after I had traded that bowling alley for a bigger one in a new city. But I never did.
When I began writing professionally, I thought I’d use my platform to introduce Torres’s music to a wider audience, but it never felt appropriate. For one thing, Torres hasn’t made a proper album since Nostra Nova, instead releasing a small-run, seven-song collection of home-recorded demos two years ago via DZ Tapes, a podcast/blog-turned-cassette label run by a former OU associate, Brett Isaacoff. The self-titled collection, inspired by his time in Ecuador, made it to Spotify, though only one of the songs, “Mountain River,” has cracked the 1,000-stream mark. Torres hopes to re-record some of these demos as fleshed-out productions for his next proper album, something he hasn’t had the resources to make in eight years.
Even in their rough state, these new songs have the same simple magic that drew me to “Alone Together,” the high point of Nostra Nova. With each flutter of xylophone and sweep of cello, “Alone Together” sways like a slow dance, so much so that I could picture it soundtracking a prom scene between two teenaged misfits in an indie flick. Lyrically, I’ve debated its meaning over these last eight years: Does Torres mean that these two people are bonded by their mutual aloneness (not to be confused with loneliness) and that they should embrace that? Or that they are together consciously and experiencing the world as a unit? I’ve teetered between these two meanings — often depending on my own relationship status — but one thing has remained the same: “Alone Together” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I just don’t know how to convey that to other people. For the first time in my life, words don’t feel like enough. I’ve only shared “Alone Together” with one person — a man whose friendship started to transcend mutual aloneness — via burned CD featuring only that song, in what seems now to be another lifetime ago.
But why is this song mine to share? Why do I feel some ownership over Adam Torres’s music? Whenever I see a musical “tastemaker” staking a claim over an unknown artist by heralding their sounds, my stomach somersaults. This is someone else’s art, and though this may seem overly precious to say, a simple tweet or blog post staking a claim cannot begin to capture the intricacies of the music’s creation. The point was hammered home as I started emailing with Torres a few months back, after having dinner with him during South by Southwest in Austin, where he now lives with his musician wife, their motorcycles and a pick-up truck. The two other men at our dinner were Torres’s former bandmates, and fixtures — either onetime or current — in the Athens, Ohio, music scene. We chatted candidly about “The Industry,” in which three of the four of us work. Though he’s an endlessly laidback and good-natured guy, Torres had little to add in this conversation and wouldn’t fake it. For the last couple years, he’s been focusing his efforts on environmental policy research as a grad student in the Latin American Studies and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Getting recognition is something that kind of stews in me and throws me off,” he wrote in reference to his recent grad school commencement. Imagine what the frenzy of hype would do to someone like Torres. We assume that to be an unknown artist is to crave attention, but maybe the ones worth hearing would rather their work remain intimate. Maybe that makes the enjoyment of it better, too. Sorting through the unknowns for a life-altering song like “Alone Together” is like searching for a needle in the hay. And when we find it, should we share it? I would argue that holding these secret songs to myself, in a world of oversharing, has genuine power. Yet, at the same time, I was happy for Torres when, months after we started emailing, word came that Misra Records plans to reissue Nostra Nova. It’s a shot for his work to find the audience it deserves, through a label with personal ties: Misra is now run by Torres’s former Southeast Engine bandmate Leo DeLuca, who played drums on Nostra Nova.
“I’m not sure what I want with my music, other than to keep creating and keep being prolific,” Torres wrote me. “Being able to express the inexpressible with music is the greatest thing in the world, mostly because I am so bad at expressing myself otherwise. Having a bigger audience for my songs would be nice in some ways, but I’ve always felt guarded about the tradeoffs with the politics involved with it. From my experience, the effort made toward focusing on politicking and promoting is diametrically opposed to the vitality and life force of the music and songs.”
He’s not wrong. The time Torres has spent not promoting his work he’s used to write 100-plus songs in a small room in his house during the wee hours of the morning. A few months back, he joined Twitter, made a fan page on Facebook and uploaded all his released music on SoundCloud. Each week, he’s released a rough version of a new song from his Golden Children collection along with Facebook dispatches so self-aware, they border on apologetic. In all the time he’s pursued academia instead of musical success, it makes me happy to know he’s continued writing songs for himself. He tells me he’s burned out by “the debris and drudgery of daily life,” not to mention the rules of engagement that accompany a burgeoning career in academia. Were he to see success in music, it would be another career path full of rules and regulations of its own, only this time his music would not be a mental escape from it.
It’s a bit odd to discuss someone you know personally in terms of an aesthetic, but Torres’s new songs remind me of the Tallest Man on Earth at his most stripped down, though less anxious to be anthems and more willing to meander toward the experimental. I expect full production would edge these songs — on which Torres often sings in falsetto — toward the calmest corner of freak-folk, and make Torres an apt opening act for someone like Hiss Golden Messenger. To steal a phrase from author Cheryl Strayed, Torres’s work is a collection of tiny, beautiful things. It’s a way of seeing the world, with the realization that our own odd adventures and small brushes with mortality are important but just one piece of a much larger shared experience.
I wish Torres musical success — because he deserves it, and because I’m not a bratty teenager who wants “My Bands” to stay underground. But not having to engage in internet-based conversations surrounding his music is indeed of great comfort. And yet, here I am, on the internet, trying to start a conversation around his music. I just hope my words are enough to capture these tiny, beautiful things.