Last year, Quad Cities-based singer/songwriter Lewis Knudsen decided to give up substitute-teaching to devote himself full-time to music. Lots of musicians make a similar leap, but few of them commit to it as fearlessly and smartly as Knudsen has.
He performed at open mics and got gigs wherever he could - restaurants, bars, wineries, nursing homes, birthday parties, company parties.
He set out to write and record a new song a week in 2013, a project that ended up generating 40 tracks (all of them available on his Web site at LewisKnudsen.com/songs-from-2013). For the uncharitable who think Knudsen was a slacker for falling short of his goal, the song-a-week project was waylaid by a three-week tour of Europe through the Germany-based Songs & Whispers organization.
He assembled a band and professionally recorded the self-released album Joy, Pain, Love, Songs. - whose debut he'll be marking with a June 5 show at the Redstone Room.
And while studio recording can be a challenge for neophytes, Knudsen sidestepped that issue in two ways - by fine-tuning the songs in live settings and having the process come to him by tracking with mobile equipment in his quintet's practice space. "It was exactly like being in my living room and recording the whole album," Knudsen said in a phone interview last week.
Based on preliminary masters for the 12-song album, the 30-year-old musician - who plays piano and guitar - has put down a strong foundation. It's a somewhat crazy mix of wit and easy sentiment, showtune-y piano pop, rock, and warm acoustic-guitar pieces, and earnestness and subversion. Knudsen's versatility in singing, writing, and playing is augmented by the band's saxophonist and violinist - used sparingly to precisely create a breadth of sound matched by the variety of song styles.
On the punchy piano pop of "Cost of Living," Knudsen builds on the refrain of "Life is not short. / It's long," twisting that twist on the cliché and crafting a bright celebration of struggle and failure: "Make sure they laugh / 'Cause you're gonna cry / When you do your best / Finish last and sigh." By the time it accelerates toward the finish line, I found myself infected with the deep desire to cheerfully fall on my face.
The song is followed by the sharply titled "All My Chains Are Songs," a slow lament that is all simple, unfiltered heart. The name is the only thing clever about it, and it's a bit jarring after the joyful complication of "Cost of Living," yet Knudsen sells the hell out of it - and other songs that traffic in pure emotion.
One might expect something similarly sincere from "I Don't Have Anything to Hide," but the title is a brief bluff immediately undercut: "I don't have anything to hide / Except my heroin. / I don't have anything to hide / Except my gambling. / I don't have anything to hide / Except my sex addiction. / Aside from that / I don't have anything to hide."
And then, of course, the list grows - from minor missteps ("I was on the job sleeping") to war crimes ("mass genocide"). It's a fun conceit, but in the accumulation of sins and the soft piano treatment (punctuated on occasion by thick outbursts of bass), it becomes something greater - a provocative exploration of serial deception and guilt as elements of the human condition, without ever articulating the point directly.
I doubt the whole of Joy, Pain, Love, Songs. will play well for many listeners, because the album careens so wildly - opening with the bluesy sax-and-guitar grind of "All I Need" and closing with the jazzy, jumpy piano ditty "Dance" and covering a lot of territory in between.
At the same time, I can't imagine many people not finding a handful of tracks to love depending on their tastes.
The somewhat uncomfortable mix isn't particularly damaging, and it's likely a function of what Knudsen learned during his song-a-week project. Rather than crafting a cohesive album, he's collected a group of songs that touch on myriad aspects of his personality - no matter how messy or disparate the result.
"One thing that I struggled with for a long time with songwriting was always changing stuff," he said. "There's something to be said for sticking with your idea. If it's catchy and if it's good, just go with it. Don't think too hard about it and kind of let it be itself ... and let it go. ... Sometimes you just have to finish it up and see what happens. ... During that project, it was all about finishing."
The Lewis Knudsen Band will perform a CD-release show on Thursday, June 5, at the Redstone Room (129 North Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). Admission to the 7 p.m. all-ages show is $5.
For more information on Lewis Knudsen, visit LewisKnudsen.com.