John Isaac Watters writes poems of deep reckoning, set to sublime music and narrated in the tremulous voice of a man who’s haunted by the answers he gets when he stares into the abyss and asks “Why?” A graduate of USC in architecture, Watters has released three albums since 2009 — “Parachute Tramps,” “Casas” and “Campanas” — yet remains something of a buried treasure in L.A., except to those who have unearthed his live performances at places like the Hyperion Tavern, the Hi Hat and other small clubs.
His new three-song release “Past Hope Now” closes the book, at least temporarily, on work he will release as a solo artist; in 2018 he will focus on Rainstorm Brother, his collaboration with Tyler Chester. That said, “Past Hope Now” is not only a flash of Watters’ most brilliant songwriting, but in collaboration with Gema Galiana and Anthony Nikolchev, it is a stunning short film documenting the story of a young couple struggling to keep it together in the desert.
Galiana and Nikolchev are practitioners of the form of dance/performance art known as movement, and combined with the spectacular cinematography by Jakub Klawikowski in Wonder Valley and the Salton Sea region, the stars of “Past Hope Now” express an otherworldly vision for the three songs in the triptych.
“I’d been friends with Anthony and Gema for a while,” Watters says. “I’d been going to their performances, and they were coming to my shows. Anthony and I started talking about making something together, combining what he does in movement with my music. I think we were initially discussing the idea of making something for live theater, but eventually it morphed into this short film/long music video. Anthony wrote the narrative based on his interpretation of songs that he chose for the film.” After seeing the first version of the film (which has played at festivals but just became available online), Watters re-recorded “Train for the Desert” and “Build Myself a Gun;” the third song, “Bring the Jailhouse Down,” came from an old session with producer Raymond Richards.
The vast desert landscape is oft-used as a metaphor for the aforementioned existential abyss, but thanks to the players and Watters’ cathartic songs, not quite like in “Past Hope Now.”
||| Watch: “Past Hope Now”