As singer, guitarist and songwriter of the Jayhawks, Gary Louris built a deeply compelling body of music whose artistry and integrity won the loyalty of an international audience and the respect of both critics and his peers. With Vagabonds, Louris launches his solo career on a high note, delivering a deeply felt, exquisitely-crafted set that features some of his most evocative and personally-charged work to date.
If Vagabonds has a recurring theme, it's the search for something to believe in-a soulmate, as reflected by "True Blue," "Baby Let Me Take Care of You" and "To Die a Happy Man;" or a guiding, unifying principle, as intimated in "Black Grass," "We'll Get By" and the title song.
"Sometimes I write with a specific idea in mind, but mostly it evolves from the subconscious, and that seems to make a more interesting song for me," Louris explains. "That approach always leaves something between the lines; otherwise it becomes too specific. On this set of songs, there's the element of searching or yearning for an answer of some kind, and looking at yourself at a certain age and realizing, ‘God, I still have not figured this out at all.'"
The sense of spiritual striving is manifested not just in the lyrics but in the ensemble vocals of what was semi-whimsically dubbed the Laurel Canyon Family Choir, which includes the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs, the Chapin Sisters and Black Crowes' frontman Chris Robinson. A longtime Louris supporter, Robinson produced the album with noted engineer Thom Monahan, whose resume includes recent releases by Devendra Banhart and Matt Pond PA.
Vagabonds was recorded at Hollywood's Sage and Sound Recording with an ensemble that includes bassist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson, drummer and Vetiver member Otto Hauser, pedal steel player Josh Grange and keyboardist Adam MacDougal. The album's effortlessly soulful performances are the product of Louris' rapport with this close-knit group of Los Angeles-based musicians. Louris and his fellow players cut the album's tracks in loose, organic fashion, emphasizing inspiration and spontaneity over formality.
"This record's a little different for me," Louris notes. "I've made records in a lot of different ways and I've learned that what I love the most is the synergy of a group of people playing together and the nuances and mistakes that happen live. That was really exciting for me; you'd finish the take and what happened at that particular moment is what you hear on the record."
This approach was well suited to Louris' new songs, which balance brooding introspection and melodic uplift.
In addition to preparing to tour behind Vagabonds, Louris has been engaged in a number of varied projects, including an upcoming collaboration with fellow Jayhawks co-founder Mark Olson, with whom he previously reunited for a low-key-but rapturously received-acoustic tour in 2005.
Gary Louris began his recording career with the fabled Minneapolis indie combo Safety Last before co-founding the Jayhawks, who in their two-decade career rose from their indie roots to international prominence. Concurrent with his time in the Jayhawks, Louris was a charter member of the part-time alt-rock supergroup Golden Smog, which at various times also included members of Soul Asylum, Wilco, the Replacements and Big Star. Along the way he also found time to lend his writing, performing and production talents to albums by acts as diverse as the Black Crowes, the Dixie Chicks, Counting Crows, Joe Henry, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Roger McGuinn, Maria McKee, Nickel Creek, Carrie Rodriguez, Tift Merritt, the Sadies, and the Wallflowers.
After more than 20 years with the Jayhawks and building a powerful repertoire of collaborations, Gary Louris has much to reflect upon with the release of his first-ever solo album: "I'm stepping back into my own head a little more. I think this record is a search for meaning, knowing one may never find an answer. But maybe finding the answer isn't the point. Maybe the questions are more important than the answers, and I think that is somewhat liberating. It is almost a celebration of the pain, the pain of existence."
This metaphysical element is evident in the lyrics but also in the instrumental performances, especially Grange's yearning pedal steel, which seems to occupy some previously unexplored astral terrain. Together, the backing vocals, instrumental textures and understated rhythms provide the album with its singular character. And while the resulting tracks are clearly the work of this distinctive artist, there's a previously unexplored element present as well "I thought it sounded like me," he says, "but friends I played it for said it sounded like I had moved into a different area, in a good way-that it was a different side of me."