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Turn Me On: Brian Whelan

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Since leaving Dwight Yoakam’s band in 2015, Americana singer/songwriter Brian Whelan and former member of indie rock band The Broken West has continued to tour as a sideman and solo artist in support of his second solo album, Sugarland.

Although thirty-six-year-old Whelan is a staple of the Cinema Bar in Culver City and the Grand Ole Echo in Echo Park, his various touring commitments have kept him on the road for much of the past two years. Luckily for Los Angelenos, Whelan is in town through the year playing local venues and working on his third solo album.

After some gigs in Nashville for Americanafest, Whelan had barely landed in Los Angeles when he spoke on the phone with Rock Cellar. He shared insights into his multi-faceted career from his years as a member of The Broken West through five years in Yoakam’s band to making Sugarland with luminaries such as Herb Pedersen from the Desert Rose Band and Gabe Witcher from The Punch Brothers.

Whelan, born in Seattle before his family moved to San Jose where he attended high school, moved to Los Angeles to study music theory at USC. After turning twenty-one, Whelan started regularly attending the Cinema Bar — the infamous and intimate west side bastion of honky tonk-flavored Americana subversion — to see Randy Weeks from The Lonesome Strangers. Whelan’s days at USC helped him master the skills needed to be able to serve as a dependably excellent session musician and touring sideman on vocals, as well as a variety of instruments including guitar, keyboards, mandolin and accordion.

His nights at the Cinema Bar helped foster his love of American roots music and introduced him to many of the musicians he’s played with during the fifteen ensuing years. Whelan remembered, “[Studying at] USC just helped my career out in countless practical ways. When I’m playing in a band or in a recording session, I can speak the language and understand what’s going on. When I was twenty-one I started going to the Cinema Bar to see Weeks. And Mike Stinson was the drummer in his band. I gradually worked my way into being in bands with Randy and Mike. And Tony Gilkyson, their guitar player.”

After graduating from USC, Whelan spent roughly four years from 2005 to 2009 playing bass and singing backing vocals as a member of The Broken West. Whelan shared that the Broken West experience was, “Pretty typical of what a lot of young bands go through. I was 25 or so when I signed my first record deal. And we kind of took that ride. And there was some infighting. And the band broke up. I was able to kind of come through that experience relatively unscathed”.  About a year after the break-up of The Broken West, Joshua Grange, another Weeks band member, was ending his tenure with Yoakam’s band and recommended Whelan for the newly vacant position.

Whelan reflected, “When I started working for Dwight, that really kind of cemented my place and interest in the LA roots music scene. It felt more like I was in the right place”. Whelan wistfully ruminated, “I had that gig for five years. The most valuable thing, is that I was so inspired watching Dwight, that I quit the band to go solo”.

Whelan released his first solo album, Decider, in 2012 before leaving Yoakam’s band to devote his full attention to recording his second. Released in 2016, Sugarland features eight distinct, exhalant, unforgettable rockers and two devastatingly rueful ballads.

In all of thirty-five minutes, these songs take the listener on an impressively expansive, endlessly jubilant musical and emotional journey. Whelan’s evocative vocal delivery and his sincere desire to weave together his favorite strands of American roots music are a central part of what make him such a compelling artist and what make Sugarland such an assured and memorable musical statement.

The album kicks off with “Americana”, which equally celebrates and satirizes the genre and its branding. The song is one of the three on the album to feature a fiddle solo by the Grammy-nominated Witcher, and also showcases a banjo solo from Pedersen. Of how they came to play on the album, Whelan recalled, “Mitch Marine did a great job of producing that record.  He brought in Gabe. We said, ‘This song, at least on its surface, sounds like it’s making fun of this genre of Americana’. We thought it’d be fun to have fiddle and banjo solos. Gabe recommended Herb and gave me his phone number. He came in, did three takes, packed up his banjo and left. He obviously did a great job. It was a really cool experience to have a little piece of that real, LA country history on that record”.

While the album overflows with high octane Americana rock, the most effective and memorable track is arguably “Suckerpunch”, the brutally melancholic yet staggeringly beautiful ballad that serves as the album’s show-stopping mini-opus. Whelan co-wrote the song with longtime friend, indie folk singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers. They, by Whelan’s account, “ended up writing a song, by accident, that was very much about me. When you look at some of your own worst qualities. There’s a certain catharsis that takes place when I perform that song. Because it’s about as naked and honest as I can possibly be in a song. I have to give Phoebe a lot of credit for drawing that out”.

As Whelan spends the rest of 2018 working on the follow-up to Sugarland, Los Angeles audiences can see him play a handful of shows with his full band, and hopefully more to be scheduled. Currently confirmed dates include September 24th at Harvard and Stone and October 9th and 23rd at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, where Whelan has recently been performing Monday and Tuesday night shows that have been crowding the dance floor. Whelan’s current set features favorite selections from his first two albums, exciting covers and previews several songs from his next album including the first single, “Rock and Roll Dream”.

When asked what about these upcoming shows he’s most excited about, Whelan responded “I’m at this point now where the band feels really good and really tight. And I just want to play as much as possible. I especially want to play for people I don’t know. Because I want to know if it’s working. And see if I can get them to be interested or to dance. Americana music has a timeless, universal appeal. That’s the kind of thing I’m hoping to tap into”.

To turn yourself on to Brian Whelan, click on the embedded Youtube videos to hear some choice songs of Whelan’s, or go to https://www.brianwhelanmusic.com for upcoming live dates and multiple options to listen to songs from or purchase Whelan’s two solo albums.

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