Omar Velasco: The transition from sideman to ‘Golden Child’

Omar Velasco
Omar Velasco

By Harriet Kaplan

Omar Velasco, a longtime sideman for A Fine Frenzy and then in Jonathan Wilson’s band, comes boldly out of the shadows on his debut album “Golden Child” — a cinematic, evocative and diverse blend of rock, folk, world and Latin influences.

There is a warm intimacy throughout Velasco’s musical landscape, but also a sophistication to the writing and arrangements. He’s earned comparisons to compared to the likes of James Taylor, Michael Franks and Paul Simon, with nimble lyrical phrasing that never encroaches on his stock-in-trade: earnestness. “I’ve always tried to be honest as I can about things I care about,” he says. “That to me is very important in writing songs.” And that  honesty manifests itself in a number of songs on “Golden Child” that have their origins in his nomadic childhood, including “Family Tree” and “Great Big House.”

Buzz Bands LA recently caught up with the singer-songwriter-guitarist — who is doing the free Monday night residency in January at the Bootleg Theater — for a conversation that covered his musical inspirations, recording “Golden Child;” collaborating with Jonathan Wilson; the new bilingual album he plans to start making in March; and his desires to plant his own garden and fit camping back into his busy schedule.

With the release of “Golden Child” in August, do you officially call yourself a solo artist now?

I feel I have been one for sometime now but the focus is there now that wasn’t before. It marks a beginning.

How has your background playing for Jonathan Wilson and A Fine Frenzy and the culmination of your life experience to date informed your writing in general and specifically for the songs on “Golden Child?”

My experience with both Jonathan and Allison Sudol (A Fine Frenzy) was like going to school for me in many ways. I learned a lot from them both the craft, ins and outs of songwriting and performing. It certainly was influenced by them both. In terms of life experience influencing “Golden Child” specifically, this being my first full-length, I was able to draw on my whole life up to this point. I think that happens naturally with your first go-round. On the second one, you have a smaller pool. Unless you can go back to the first one and find things you missed. I think a lot my childhood influences my music.

What do you draw on from your childhood?

It was multicultural and pretty nomadic. Musically, there was a lot of types of influences. A lot of world music. We spent some time in Mexico. It gave me perspective. Once you have two or more points of views, you can more easily have a third, so on and so forth. It’s allowed me to see both sides of the coin which can be difficult at times. It’s because you don’t stand fully on one side or the other. There was a lot of traveling in my upbringing along seeing a lot of beauty and nature. That makes its way into the music.

I read that Jonathan Wilson was involved in the recording of the album and it was actually made at his studio in Echo Park? Did he help you co-produce it? What was it like working together outside of the former band context?

Jonathan is an inspiring guy and he inspired me with his ideas. Also with his musicianship. His dedication to creating excellent music. That’s the main reason why and other than our friendship, I like to be around him. It made a lot of sense to collaborate with him. We had been working together already and had a rapport. I love his studio and it’s a magical place.

What was your biggest challenge?

Because the album was made when I was touring a lot with Jonathan, it was made somewhat sporadically. I would lose my place a little bit and have to delve back in it once we got back from the road. I had to work extra hard to keep a sense of congruency and timelines.

Did you come with completed songs to the sessions?

Most were all written. There were a couple of rewrites that I later made. It’s a produced album. There was some live playing. We took our time layering it the way we wanted to.

Who is the “Golden Child?”

Besides it being a specific person in my life, the female has been the guiding principle throughout my life. Like a guardian angel. “Golden Child” is a love song to that archetype.

What has been the response to your album when you play live? I noticed you have been performing around primarily in Los Angeles and Northern California. You also did a date in New York supporting Odessa? How did that show go? Do you plan to tour nationally to promote Golden Child at some point?

It’s been really fun. I love playing those songs. I like to write a lot. We have been playing new songs already, too. It seems like people really enjoy the songs. The shows have been really great. Traveling with Odessa was really great. The tour lasted a week and there were four dates. I’m ready to do more of that. I enjoy doing it by myself as well. I prefer a band but I don’t mind playing by myself.

What do you enjoy about playing live?

It’s the perfect complement to being in the studio and writing. That tends to be an introverted practice. The playing out is a chance to connect. To also set the dynamic of the songs with people. Ultimately, that is most rewarding I would say. It’s that reciprocal thing that fuels everything to me.

How did the residency at the Bootleg come about?

I did a show at The Bootleg a few months ago when the [booking agent] changed. We had a good time and I talked about doing a residency. This being the first one for us, I don’t know exactly what to expect, but it’s a chance to bring together obviously the people who enjoy the music but also peers of mine who I respect and admire. I get a chance to have an evening with several of them. I love the Bootleg. I think it’s one of the best venues of that size.

So you’re going to have a band support you? Will it be the same players or different ones?

For the most part, it will be the same. I might mix it up a little bit. That’s the other thing. You get to play around a little bit. I plan on playing many of the songs from the album. I also want to take the opportunity to play new stuff.

Is the new material going to be part of a new album?

I’m going to start recording it in March. There is going to be a lot of Spanish singing and lyrics on it. I’m excited about it.

Can you tell me anything about the songs?

I sang a bit of Spanish on “Golden Child,” and that was the wedge that broke the dam. I was apprehensive for a long time. Spanish is my first language, but I always felt awkward singing in Spanish. Most of the lyrics I heard and loved were in English. You have that innate knowledge on how to shape words in songs. I’ve been discovering with Spanish, it’s liberating in a different way to sing in that language. I’m really liking it. It started with doing a couple cover songs I remember from my childhood. It felt great and the response was really good. I can see the album being half English and half Spanish. It’s about tapping back into part of my heritage. Also in terms of culture here, certainly in this state, it’s something that’s changing a lot. It feels like a good time to make this record and get back those roots.

Did you set out to make an ambitious and diverse album with Golden Child? It really covers a lot of ground and wide-ranging subject matter.

I don’t consider the lyrical content of any of the songs to be ambitious in sense that I’m trying to pontificate or be on a soapbox of any kind. I don’t know if that was ever my intention. I’ve always tried to be as honest as I can about things I care about. That to me is very important in writing songs.

Who and what are your musical influences?

I’m influenced by music I love listening like anyone else. A lot of that music has been older music. I find it more interesting to listen to it technically and for the recording itself as well as the engineering. I love Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and George Harrison. It seems to me, during the time of the music released by those artists, a pinnacle was reached. In the recorded music arts, there was a perfect storm. It’s not like it has been downhill since then. There is a lot of amazing music now. I love a lot of current music and listen it to it as much as I can. I don’t learn as much as I do from these earlier recordings. I also learned a lot from Jonathan and the crew as I got into recording about the minutiae of the technique of what snare was used a particular song or recording and where was it made and how to mic it. It also has an influence how you listen to things. There’s a lot of classical and European also African music in my upbringing. My dad was a big fan of that. I like that combination. I’m happy I got that from them.

What is next for Omar Velasco?

Working the [new music video] footage and the residency are two pressing things. I always like to continue to write. If I let that go, rust never sleeps, so to speak. There is always so much to do. I want to get my garden going. It’s been so pitiful this past year.

Do you like to grow things?

I would like to. I would like a nice little garden with stuff you can pick and eat. I haven’t gotten it to work on it yet. That’s one thing I want to do. You have to put your hands in the dirt. If you don’t do that, you’re just floating around all the time. It’s important to grow something, raise it and eat it. I think it would be good for my mental health. The older I get, I realize the importance of being in one’s own body. Like the yoga movement and working out, I’m sure there is a vanity to it, but on a deeper level, we all know we are not just brains in a jar. You have to move and feel connected to the ground. Otherwise, I feel like a kite with no line. I like camping, too, but don’t get enough time to do that, either. There’s a lot to do and I’m excited. The main thing is I want to keep making good music. Another side effect of getting older you have to be conscious of your time. There are so many things if you are not careful begin to encroach on your time to do what you need to do. Above and beyond anything else, I want good music and hopefully everything will translate into it.

||| Live: Omar Velasco plays every Monday in January at the Bootleg Theater.