The idea of being the supporting cast member has been continuously popping up in my life over the past couple of months. From conversations about being a better assistant than a boss to being a supporting actor in this crazy thing, we call life, to digging deep into the life of the Bay Area’s go-to guy when it comes to booking a touring or session musician, Jeff Symonds.
For the past 25 years, Jeff Symonds has been that guy in the background helping everyone around him shine, but now he is ready for a little of that light himself. With that, he released a jam-packed debut, ‘Riverrun.’
Creating a baker’s dozen worth of tracks, Jeff Symonds did not hold back with his debut. He threw himself into ‘Riverrun’ and no pun intended, ran with it when it came to delivering a record that could satisfy a variety of music lovers out there. The album kicks off with a gritty tale of a family tree with “Florida” and then suddenly invites listeners to a party with the upbeat ways of “A New Place.” Along the way he shows off a lot of heart in songs such as “Elegy” and “Luckiest Person Alive,” but it is when he gets into more alternative beats that he soars.
There was a decent amount of this record that played like a classic college radio station in the ‘90s, complete with flannels and REM posters on the wall. Be it the underdog anthem “Out of Here” or “I Never Lie (When It Comes to the Truth),” a song that could have been on the soundtrack to Winona Ryder’s ‘Reality Bites’ back in the day. Or it could very well be on the soundtrack to any movie looking to explore that era once more in the future. Even “Kissimmee” with its more country intro, settles into a song that Michael Stipe fans would adore. Each of these would be a great addition to a radio playlist, but my pick for radio domination would have to be “Shades of Grey.” That is a song meant for the FM-dial.
Throughout the record, what stands out above everything is the way Jeff Symonds is able to weave together words in ways that relay actual stories to those listening. As soon as “Florida” plays, visions of that grandma are as vivid as the diner in my personal favorite, “Music I’ve Forgotten.”
I could probably write a whole other review on this song alone as it reminded me a bit of the way John Mellencamp delivers his songs – that sort of mix of singing and talking to a tune that one just cannot ignore. It is a love song, but it is also a memory that 99.9% of people can relate to because who has not shared a meal with someone they were infatuated with at a diner, at a Denny’s? I live for a Grand Slam, and I live for “Music I’ve Forgotten.”
Jeff Symonds has spent a quarter of a century helping a cascade of Bay Area musicians with their careers. Whether it was sitting in with them at the studio, showing up to a gig to play in their band, or hitting the road to support – he has been there. Now, it is time for him to step away from the background and towards the front of the stage because ‘Riverrun’ has more than proven he is ready.
‘Riverrun’ is like a sample platter when it comes to genre as Jeff Symonds pulls from various decades and styles, and the result is a record that people from all walks of life can enjoy. So if you are music collection has an array that features REM, The Police, and/or Counting Crows, then you will want to add Jeff Symonds’ ‘Riverrun’ into the mix, and enjoy.
Jeff Symonds’ ‘Riverrun’ is available now on all major music and streaming sites.
Written by Kendra Beltran
Q&A with Jeff Symonds
Q: Was there a pivotal moment that led you to step out of the shadows at the Bay Area’s go-to guy for touring and sessions, and into the spotlight as a solo artist?
JEFF: There sure was, I woke up one day and realized my next birthday was my 50th, and I was hit with a desire to make some art to mark the time. I was like an immediate promise to myself. At the same time, all of the artists that I usually make work with were not planning to record, so I realized that if I wanted to make art, I’d have to make it myself. So I booked some studio time and went in without any real expectations, and ‘Riverrun’ is the result. It came together really quickly once I took the first step.
Q: The best records are the ones that surprise you at the press of play and take you on a journey. ‘Riverrun’ has so many styles coming together under one roof. Have you always been someone who likes to pull from various places for inspiration?
JEFF: Absolutely, my friend James once said that no one he knows chases new sounds like I do. It might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me. I was deliberately trying to reference a lot of different sonics on the record. It’s supposed to be a journey from childhood to adulthood over the course of the record, so I tried to have the song’s inspirations draw across time as well, so there’s 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s stuff in there, but hopefully through my filter so that they’re a little unique and sound like me and me imitating someone else.
Q: A couple of songs that really captured my heart were the ones that reminded me of ‘90s-alt radio. Songs like the underdog anthem “Out of Here” and “Kissimmee.” Looking back at the ‘90s and then looking at music today – what do you think has been the industry’s best move, and what has been its worst from then to now?
JEFF: Oooo, good question. The industry’s #1 mistake, without question, was not getting in front of Napster. Once the iPod came out, all the record companies should have come together and created a Spotify-style music hub: $20 a month, with 100 free downloads, all at the highest quality with a great organization.
They would have had quality control (half the stuff on Napster sounded awful), would have continued to hold people to the idea that music has monetary value, and they would still have total control of the industry today. Who wouldn’t have paid $20 a month in 1999 to have all music at their fingertips? It would have felt like the deal of a lifetime. I couldn’t believe they didn’t do it. I kept waiting for them to figure it out. Instead, they took people to court, ran CDs into the turf, and musicians have had to reinvent the model themselves.
In terms of best moves? Live performance matters again; to survive as a band now, you need to be able to bring it on stage, and not much makes me happier than seeing a band do a great set. I welcome the pressure of being a great live act—I’m glad that’s part of the success equation again.
Q: While I adored those songs, my favorite was “Music I’ve Forgotten” because who doesn’t fall for a love song set in a Dennys? With that, if you had to compare the musical aesthetic of ‘Riverrun’ to a diner menu item – what would it be and why?
JEFF: Ha! Yeah, I’ve had way too many important life events happen in a Denny’s. Classy guy. In terms of a menu item…hopefully, ‘Riverrun’ feels like comfort food that doesn’t make you sorry you ate it afterward. In keeping with the Denny’s theme, it’s a breakfast: bacon, eggs, pancakes, and coffee? MAYBE a cheeseburger for lunch, if that’s your thing? I think eating anything Denny’s serves only after 6pm is just asking for trouble.
Q: Every song was like a story to unfold. Were you someone that grew up always jotting your thoughts down?
JEFF: That’s interesting – not consistently. I kept a journal for two to three years just for the discipline of it, but it wasn’t particularly artful or exciting to read. But you’re right that I love stories. A lot of my closest friends are amazing storytellers and funny as hell, and songs have been one of the ways that I’ve captured and made stories of my own.
Q: ‘Riverrun’ is out now and wonderful, but are you already planning the follow-up? Are the creative wheels turning when it comes to making new music?
JEFF: Aw. Thanks, and yes. I have a series of new singles that will start coming out this summer, and I have 3-5 tracks ready for the next one. It turns out the once you turn on the faucet, water keeps coming out of it. That said, I do hope to get some time playing ‘Riverrun’ live over the next year and living with the album as it is; I hope people find it worth hearing and then coming back to.
Q: Lastly, what would you like to say to others out there who are touring or session musicians who may be too scared to do their own thing?
JEFF: It takes a big leap to decide that your art is worthy of other people’s precious time and attention. It’s even harder is to finish it, let go of it, release it, and let other people own it. I gotta say though, it feels great. Having all these songs that now live on their own makes me feel like I’ve done my part and contributed to the thing I’ve loved my whole life.
Interviewed by Kendra Beltran