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Clockwise from right: Josh Quarles, Antonia and Jonathan Vassar, and Chris Edwards gather for a Sunday practice at the Vassars’ log cabin
Jonathan Vassar wears plaid Western-style shirts with pearly snaps, plays acoustic guitar and lives in a log cabin, but he's also a punk rocker.
"There's an etiquette that comes from those punk house shows," Vassar says, "a really strong underground network. Doing it yourself, not relying on a promotions company."
Watch video of "Match Made in Heaven"
Punk etiquette, which has nothing to do with mohawks and piercings, informs Vassar's music career — primarily in its reliance on community and collaboration. His melodic songs, with lyrics filled with references to history and nature, are musically sophisticated yet evoke the feeling of a casual campfire singalong.
At 31, Vassar has been involved in Richmond's folk-music scene for more than a decade. He began by attending local shows and meeting musicians like Mark Snyder of Spike the Dog, Paul Watson of Sparklehorse and Patrick Phelan of South.
Pull Up a Chair and Listen
You may have to arrive early to get a seat at the Listening Room Series , free shows curated by Jonathan Vassar and friends that generally feature acoustic Americana music. The shows are on the third Tuesday of every month, with performances starting at 8 p.m. at the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. , but there will be a special show March 29. For more information, visit therichmondscene.com/profile/TheListeningRoom.
- March 29: Anousheh Khalili, Miramar and Bayard Richard
- April 19: The Green Boys, Hope for Agoldensummer, The Great Unknown
Jonathan Vassar and The Speckled Bird are set to perform two Richmond dates this spring. For details, see jonathanvassar.com.
- April 28: 7 p.m., Chesterfield County Library, 9501 Lori Road, Chesterfield
- May 14: 1 p.m., Brown's Island
"They were really encouraging," Vassar says, allowing the young man to sit in once in a while. Watson, whom Vassar considers a mentor, is "a real inspiration."
"Jonathan is certainly a world-class-caliber writer," says Watson, who has played duets with Vassar. "He's prolific, too," he adds, recalling a time when he asked Vassar how many songs he had ready for a demo. The response was that he had enough songs for five albums.
"He's one of the best," Watson says. "He mentored me, and I mentored him."
Since moving here from Alexandria as a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman, the unassuming Vassar has been creating just such a network of friends, mentors, artists and musicians (the lines often blur) in order to pursue his goals of making local music accessible and smoothing the path for out-of-town bands who play here.
His main musical focus is Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird, a four-person folk group that includes his wife, Antonia F.D. Vassar, on accordion. Vassar sings and plays harmonica and acoustic guitar, usually a baby Taylor with silk-and-steel strings that produces "a brighter sound and a softer tone," halfway between a rowdier steel-stringed guitar and a muted classical guitar, which "can't be heard in a band," as he notes from experience.
This spring, the group — which also includes cellist and guitarist Joshua Quarles and Chris Edwards on mandolin, banjo and electric guitar — is focused on learning and recording songs for a new album that will come out at the end of the year.
Vassar writes the lyrics and e-mails them to Quarles, who sets them to music. "I just pick up a guitar," says Quarles. "I'll play something completely random. The lyrics guide me in a certain way. It usually comes at once."
Vassar's creative style is different from Quarles'. "I definitely try not to fence myself in at all," he says, writing as much as possible even if those efforts don't lead to a song right away. Though Vassar's early songs are fairly straightforward narratives, his inspirations are often visual, describing a landscape or a scene. Now, he says, "it's basically creating a big scrap pile of phrases and images."
Once a song is written, Vassar and Quarles share it with the band's two other members, who jokingly call themselves "music geeks." Antonia Vassar, who often lends vocals to the group's songs, is a classically trained vocalist and a staff soprano in the St. James's Episcopal Church choir, in addition to her full-time work in VCU's library system. And Edwards, who is set to move to Portland, Ore., after his May wedding, is pursuing advanced degrees in choral conducting.
"We started getting together for dinner for a couple of years," Edwards notes, "and then we started bringing instruments. It was an interesting progression." At first the three musicians played Vassar's songs. In 2009, Quarles joined the group and changed the writing and composing process. This allowed "more group ownership and space for vocals and ornamentation," Edwards says.
So while the self-proclaimed geeks are discussing harmonies and writing down chord progressions, Quarles and Vassar — the more casual duo — follow their instincts. It makes for a quick process when the band is learning new songs.
Keeping rhythm with his bare feet slapping the floor, Vassar sings a song once through, reading the lyrics off a printed page and occasionally looking over to Quarles to make sure he's hitting the right notes. Then Antonia and Edwards talk to the composers, figuring out where their harmonizing vocals should enter, or whether the banjo or electric guitar is more appropriate. Antonia, Edwards and Vassar begin singing " ooohs " during the bridge, and Quarles soon joins them.
Within 15 or 20 minutes, the group is playing the new song, a minor-key affair called "The Wreck of the St. James" about a steamer boat that exploded on Lake Pontchartrain. It sounds pretty darn good to the casual listener. Of course, to the musicians' ears, there's more fiddling to do. Edwards and Antonia talk about counter-harmonies, while Vassar says he'd like an "atmospheric sound." Next, he's digging in a beat-up leather bag for a capo that will fit Edwards' Deering Goodtime banjo, and they are on to an up-tempo song, "The Heron and the Hummingbird."
With Edwards' looming departure for Portland, times are about to change for the Speckled Bird; the group hasn't decided whether it will replace him with another musician. What will be even harder to lose is the nearby presence of their friend.
"We're just gonna cry," Antonia declares plaintively.
Prints and Patterns
The Speckled Bird is just one corner of the Vassar empire, though that description would make him smile sheepishly. He also is the co-owner of Triple Stamp Records, a music label, and Triple Stamp Press, a screen-printing business. A six-color press resides in his friend and business partner Wil Loyal's Forest Hill basement.
The record label and the printing firm are intertwined; some of their business is printing posters, CD packaging and T-shirts for their signed acts such as Loyal's band Homemade Knives; Loyal's wife, singer Anousheh Khalili; and David Shultz and the Skyline. The record label produces CDs and digital downloads.
Triple Stamp Press' products generally have a vintage feel, incorporating old maps and tweaked versions of Victorian illustrations, some depicting chimeras. The firm's first production was The Cost of Comfort , a set of 20 signed giclée prints by artist and friend Ryan McLennan, enclosed in a box made from Baltic birch and white pine. The project, which had a limited run of 300, took six months to complete and was a bite almost too big for Loyal and Vassar. Now they take on smaller projects with faster turnarounds.
Loyal and Vassar call themselves "besties," having met about 10 years ago when Vassar was playing a lot of solo shows around town. Loyal, who also plays folk, liked Vassar's music, and gradually the two became friends and business partners. Vassar spends so much time at Loyal's house that a mutual friend once thought he lived there — and wondered how Antonia felt about that.
"There's not a lot we do that the other's not involved in," says Loyal, laughing. Just as they've made close connections with musicians, Loyal and Vassar are well acquainted with other Virginia screen printers, a rare enough breed that jobs are plentiful. They often send business back and forth, Vassar notes.
At VCU, Vassar was drawn to painting. "I really wanted to be an artist," he says. As reflected in his songs, Vassar has a great interest in landscapes and the Hudson River school of painting, but he had other ambitions. "I wanted to do film studies," he said, "but I got laughed at." Decades earlier at the university, his father had a similar experience when he tried to major in accordion.
Vassar's family is creative through and through: His mother paints, and his father and sister both have taught piano. As a boy, Vassar learned to play, too, but "then I decided piano wasn't cool enough. I turned to guitar." He also used to sing — all the time — which drove his sister crazy. At age 12 or 13, he'd imitate the singing bush from the movie The Three Amigos , Vassar recalls, laughing. Following the lead of his father and his wife, Vassar's learned accordion too.
While studying at VCU, Vassar learned about screen printing. He also began performing solo in local bars and making friends in the music scene. After three years, college began to seem like a waste of time, so he dropped out and spent a couple of years working as a baker at Betsy's in Carytown (now Bin 22 at Betsy's).
In 2000, just before Vassar left school, Antonia met him at a friend's dinner party. ("I didn't know it was a date," she says, "and he did.") She was 19 and a VCU vocal student; he was 21. Soon after their meeting, she went to Italy for a semester. When she got back to Richmond, they moved in together the very next week.
"That was it," Antonia says, clapping her hands with certainty. They make a cute pair, she with a dark curly bob and birdlike features and he with metal-framed glasses and rumpled brown hair that is often covered by a knit cap. Both stand a little shorter than average, which comes in handy in their century-old log cabin — Quarles and Edwards have to duck their heads in the doorways. And they have strong instincts for hospitality, offering iced tea, beer and, jokingly, tequila to afternoon guests.
Vassar has several tattoos with special meanings: a bear graphic created from a screen print his uncle made, the lion that serves as Triple Stamp Press' symbol, a compass rose, and his first tattoo, Shel Silverstein's Giving Tree, marked with the initials of a close friend who passed away. "Most of my tattoos are directional," he says. "They make me more confident."
When Antonia's family, who live in Chesterfield, met Vassar, "he just fit right in," she says. Vassar joined them on many family vacations, and the couple spent time exploring central Mexico, where Antonia's grandmother lived for 25 years. They lived in Oregon Hill and then Carytown, where he could walk out the door and be just a couple of steps from his job at a bakery. "He'd wake up at 3 and be home at 7 a.m.," Antonia says of his job — she'd sometimes forget he'd even been at work.
Eventually, Vassar went back to VCU and earned a degree in art history. He began working as a screen printer, which seemed to be a viable way for him to make a living in the arts.
"He's a stand-up guy," Antonia says of her husband. "There's a lot of intention in what he's doing. The press complements his [musical] work."
The couple married in 2004 at the Bolling Haxall House on Franklin Street, a formal space that Antonia transformed into a celebration of the Day of the Dead, a Mexican festival marked by its display of ghostly brides and grooms and skull art. Unsurprisingly, music played a major role in the proceedings: Phil Murphy and Paul Watson performed during the ceremony, Antonia's best friend sang, Vassar's dad brought out his accordion, and Johnny Hott and Piedmont Souprize played at the reception.
"My parents are extremely happy I married Antonia," Vassar says. "She kind of pulled me in line." He's not talking about a Behind the Music -style tale of drug blackouts; instead, his wife got him to stop smoking. He now uses his metal cigarette case for business cards.
Meanwhile, Antonia's grandmother had moved to Richmond and bought a 100-year-old log cabin on the south side of the James River, near the Huguenot Bridge. She died soon after coming here, and the Vassars moved in, amid Mexican folk art and aged family portraits. The home is also where the Speckled Bird recorded its first EP in 2007, before Quarles joined the group.
"I learned the accordion so I could be in the band," says Antonia, laughing. "Growing up doing classical music, there isn't that collaborative element. I think Jonathan has always been a collaborative musician, [yet] he's not an extrovert at all."
The couple has since moved to the cabin next door, while Antonia's parents renovate the original home. The Vassars' cabin, comfortably furnished with a worn leather sofa and paintings by McLellan, as well as the Mexican relics, has become a crash pad for many out-of-town musicians. Their three cats — the concave-faced Persian, Yum-Yum, couch potato Emma and the black blur Bosco — provide constant company.
"We have a place for you to stay," Vassar says, especially when a band doesn't have a hotel room in its budget. Groups from Boston and Philadelphia, which has a similar indie-folk scene to Richmond, and Virginia towns often find themselves at the cabin eating dinner and, of course, playing a little music.
Vassar is behind The Foundry, a local coalition of indie musicians, designers, record-label owners and other creative types, with a goal of making independent music more accessible to listeners and to provide resources for out-of-town bands. A website, thefoundryrva.wordpress.com, lays out contact information for media outlets, restaurants, stores and other places of interest to musicians.
"I want people to think of Richmond and say, ‘Yeah!' " says Vassar, striking a Fonzie thumbs-up pose. Too many musicians have come here and were booked at the wrong club or encountered difficulties getting around the city, he adds, getting a bad impression of Richmond. "We try to help them have the best show possible. We want to hook them up in the right network. It's pretty ambitious, but I think it's working pretty well." In return, he and the Speckled Bird have made good friends in other cities, particularly in Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, where they frequently play.
The Listening Room Series, which began in 2009, grew out of that ethos. The free shows, typically featuring three acoustic sets on the third Tuesday of the month, "all started when Richmond was cracking down on venues" without cabaret licenses, Antonia notes. She and her husband, plus four other partners, started the series, which recently moved to the Firehouse Theatre Project after 15 months at the Michaux House on Franklin Street.
Music groups from here and other cities, plus a few Richmond businesses, got behind the idea of a show during which an audience actually sits down and listens to music without TV, drinks and talking — the typical distractions of the bar scene. College kids, parents, professionals, senior citizens all come — "a Kumbaya cliché," Antonia jokes.
Besides the quiet environment, another draw is the relatively early hour of the shows (as opposed to those at bars) and the fact that they start on time at 8 p.m.
"It's a function of getting older," notes Loyal, who has performed with Homemade Knives during the series.
"We don't want to stay up till 2 a.m.," adds Vassar. "Neither does Antonia. We'd get grouchy."
The shows have been advertised mostly by word of mouth, although the Richmond Scene website — a go-to for local music lovers — posts lineups and reviews. Most shows have drawn 125 to 150 people, filling the Michaux House. The Firehouse, with about the same capacity, provides a theater-style venue, Antonia notes, with seats already set up. The first show took place in February. Bands are showing strong interest; the series is booked through the fall.
Meanwhile, Vassar has his hand in other musical projects. He and David Shultz, who is on the Triple Stamp label, formed Ophelia with accomplished musicians Grant Hunnicutt and Willis Thompson, recording an album released at the end of 2010. The sound, which resembles early Wilco, isn't too far removed from the Speckled Bird, but Thompson's percussion adds urgency. Lyrically, the songs are "stripped-down narratives," less poetic than the Speckled Bird songs, Vassar notes. He and Shultz trade lead vocals and often harmonize together.
Recording took place at Shultz's wife's river house, in a tiny burg called Ophelia in Northumberland County. "We'd record, eat, play some games, record again and go to sleep," Vassar says.
He and Antonia are also working on a side project, a semi-classical duet called Bird and Her Consort. Their repertoire will include a mix of arias and French café music (think Edith Piaf), tunes appropriate for weddings, parties and art openings, Antonia says. The project's also an excuse for the couple to spend more time together, she adds. "We're both so busy, we relish being homebodies."
No matter what direction the Speckled Bird takes next, two things will remain constant for Vassar: playing and writing songs and staying in Richmond. "I've never understood the compulsion to go to New York to make it big as a musician or an artist," he says, "when you have a network here."