“There are certain albums that cry out to be the soundtrack to a long road trip,” Americana UK decrees. “White Owl Red’s Existential Frontiers is one of those, whether you’re driving from Nashville to Memphis or Norwich to Middlesbrough.” While back in the U.S., Skope Magazine writes: “White Owl Red mixes a rustic form of Americana with the shaggy dog style of Modest Mouse’s early honest output.”
In Review: “Existential Frontiers” could be the modern space cowboy’s collection of personal anthems, 14 wieldy and introspective tracks filled with verses that ask questions and answer with even more questions in search of a universal truth.
Listening to the album musically it sounds like it is offered, a blissful selection of Roots / Americana songs with a taste of the Appalachia foundations it is drawn from. With mentions of travels, places seen and places been, the ever wandering spirit looking for a place to call home. But, deep within the lyrics, there is so much more, a voice making meaning from the seemingly unconnected moments in life.
“Existential Frontiers” has it’s upbeat moments, imagery of old barn dances and the simple life float within the “mind’s eye”, and with that you have tracks that make you think of a guy on a front porch of a cabin, strumming a guitar, with his faithful coon dog snoozing at his feet looking out onto the valley, then you turn to see the singer’s perspective and the grass trends up the road to where the road meets the gate of the big glass dome, and you look through into the stars and satellites hovering n the vastness of space. Then, like the track “I’m A Saint”, the turn of the amp and the upbeat tempo is a New Age Zen Master in a Black Leather Jacket striding a Harley…. I don’t know if this was the intention of Josef McManus when writing the pieces or during the recording process, but there is an underlying difference in what he says and the feeling I get from the music.
Music, Lyrics and meanings of said same are, as always, subjective, maybe I am seeing and hearing things that are not there, but this album is very entertaining and makes me think, and think not of the norm, but the beyond, of a place and space in time that is beyond the realm of the theoretical, and into the fantastic, that “Twilight Zone”, within the Twilight Zone itself.
The album has been making waves both in the states and internationally. Radio PRVI Slovenia contends, White Owl Red “has managed to capture all the (musical) innovations of the Californian West Coast from the second half of the 1960s and put it into an updated form for a half century ahead.” Marino Serdons of the Belgian music website Keys and Chords exclaims the album is “so diverse, so emotional, so melodic…so honest!”
This music is not just honest and fun, it is intelligent and thoughtful. Stomp and Stammer’s, music critic Bobby Moore reflects that the album “tackles deep questions with music inspired by the Wild West mythos…there’s no Lone Ranger coming through those swinging saloon doors to solve contemporary, grown-up problems. That theme exemplifies a postmodern attitude that doesn’t toss out the Western music baby with the dated cowboy trope bathwater.”
This is not all, the press here and abroad, in fact globally, have been singing the praises of his work, an, if could be considered, Josef McManus is a new global troubadour, singing his songs and taking his “simple life” philosophies to new levels around the world.
When asked about his influences, Josef McManus says, “I wrote my first song in 1992 while studying sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. I had always considered myself a writer and a poet, but it wasn’t until I was deeply inspired by Kurt Cobain’s songs and all the raw musical energy that came out of the grunge era that I felt the urgent need to buy an electric guitar and an old tube amp at a Chicago pawn shop in Wicker Park and start writing my own songs.”
“The directness and grittiness of Grunge inspired me,” he adds. “At the time, I was interested in the concept of finding the beauty in the imperfection and flaws in life while expressing that through my art, in contrast to the dominant culture cult-of-perfection.
After the Art Institute I began teaching myself copper etching printmaking and often stopped by Tony Fitzpatrick’s art studio Big Cat Press, in Wicker Park to park, to pick up on his process and study his technique. One day Tony asked me to give his buddy Steve Earle a ride to the Old Town School of Folk Music where he was teaching. On the drive over, we talked about art and fishing and Portland (my hometown) and music. He was teaching a songwriting class at the Old Town School back then, and he encouraged me to take his class.”
In 1994 McManus enrolled for a year of songwriting classes at the Old Town School. “It was an amazing place to learn the craft of music. There’s this great lineage of songwriting that came out of that building.” Josef moved back to the West Coast from Chicago in 2003, and continued to hone his craft, with frequent visits to the intimate settings of open mics from Portland’s Red and Black Cafe to Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall.
He released his first album Americana Ash in 2014 under the artist name White Owl Red. As Rootstime Belgium put it, Americana Ash was an album that “made a clear choice from the outset to embark on the path of better alt-country music.” In 2017, he released his second album Naked and Falling, which received international acclaim and airplay in 2017-18 while charting on the AMA Top 65 Chart, the FAR Chart top 10 and the Root 64 Airplay Chart top 20. It was ranked in the top 100 albums of 2017 by the Alternate Root Magazine.
To date, McManus he has released a total of 38 original songs (including a Christmas song) to streaming and for sale on all major platforms. In the last five months, he’s made three music videos that are currently gathering the attention of new fans.
His raw, organic storytelling and roots music vibe square up in the Americana aesthetic. A standout on this new album is “Union Fight Song,” a feisty, socially incisive rock anthem in the classic folk protest vein, or as Music Critic Henry L. Carrigan Jr. puts it, “it could be a new anthem for working people.” In counterpoint, the one minute, twenty second ripping ‘I’m A Saint’ is a freewheeling cowpunk song at its most engaging, which Scope Magazine says “recalls Beck’s early anti-folk work.”
Another standout is the song “Everything but Crying,” of which music critic Jim Hynes says, McManus “displays his true gift for melody.” Tinnitist Music Blog of Canada describes, ‘Wishing You Well’, as “a lovely, thoughtful and ultimately uplifting missive that wins you over even as it maintains the high standards and timeless traditions of American folk music.” The Winnipeg Free Press, states, “McManus is a wordsmith” and appreciates “his sweet delivery and ability to craft memorable language that sticks in your mind.” While music critic and author of the book Americana Music, Lee Zimmerman, writes that McManus is “the artist worth watching” characterizing White Owl Red’s new album as both “melodic and mesmerizing.”
A poet at heart, Josef has a passion for lyric-centric music. When asked about what makes good lyrics he responds with the question, “What is scary for you to write about…go there. What I want to hear in a song is where it all unravels. Tell me about the ambiguity, where we don’t have the answers. Sing to me about when life gets messy, when it’s not clear and you’ve lost your direction. For me it’s not about good vs. evil, it’s about making mistakes and learning from our mistakes and making more mistakes because the landscape is always changing and we aren’t heroes, just little kids in grown up bodies, with blind spots all over, trying to figure out this wild and beautiful and terrifying thing called our life. This is what I aspire to touch with my music.”
“However,” McManus adds, “it’s important to also just let the music be fun and see what emerges. find it can also become a trap take myself to serious in my songwriting. My songs are fictions that often attempt to describe a deeper truth”. None of his songs, he says, are exclusively autobiographical. “I pull from my own stories as well as ones collected from other places and people to get at something true and descriptive about the human condition. Each one is like a collection of twigs in a crow’s nest that all sort of fit together to make a song.”
When asked why Americana, his reply, “Americana, as a genre of songwriters, as I see it, is a movement toward honesty in music. I see it as a post modern reclaim of the roots of why we make music, a sonic inquiry into what it means to be authentic, what it means to be human in these strange times, and to express that in an innovative manner while consciously standing on the shoulders of the artists and poets that came before. Three chords and the truth still holds true as the minimum bar. There is no formula for authenticity in music. At it’s best, it is music for the brave.”
Where did the name White Owl Red come from? “That’s complicated… at the most basic level, white is for purity, red is for passion and the owl an animal that is mythological seen as both wise and magical in many cultures. The subject of magic is a reoccurring subtle theme woven through my music.”
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