When asked about his latest album, Don't Go Back To Sleep, Ayer sees it first as a call to action for himself. "This group of songs has really become a collective note-to-self on how I want to live. They were all born out of moments where I was going along in my day-to-day life, and something shook me out of the autopilot rhythm, and reminded me that I better open up and dig in right this second." After a listen, this creative desire is abundantly evident throughout Ayer's sophomore release. He admits they are heavy themes, even for a singer/songwriter. And yet Ayer is able to pull off that timeless trick of great songwriting, where weighty topics take on a light touch, so that they draw you in and uplift.
This magnetic quality has served him well as he has toured the country and steadily built his grassroots audience over the past 4 years. His DIY practices were given a hefty shot of adrenaline in 2007 when the John Lennon Songwriting Competition awarded him the 2006 Lennon Award in Folk for his song "Evaporate." With the award came increased visibility, opportunities to tour the UK, and many new faces in the audience at shows. But for Ayer there was an even more valuable outcome. "It was a real lesson for me. "Evaporate" was the song I wrote most immediately for myself on the first album. That’s how they all should be, but you start thinking about the band arrangement and musical influences, and how it’s going to sound live. Those things creep in. ‘Evaporate’ didn’t have that at all. And I finally had total confidence that just taking creative instincts and running with them is always the best call." The song was on Ayer’s first full-length, self-released album, This is the Place, recorded in Nashville and produced by Jason Gantt (The Chieftains, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill). Of that album, Performing Songwriter Magazine said, “This is the Place has it all: tight arrangements, excellent musicality, and imaginative lyrics. If you’re looking for great music, this is the place indeed.”
Ayer grew up in McLean, Virginia, and got his start singing along to old cassette tapes of Elvis and Paul Simon on car rides. When his dad got him his first guitar as a teen, he started writing songs that same day. After moving to northern California, he started sharing his songs locally, while studying philosophy and music at Stanford University.
Though his songwriting started as a hobby, it quickly became his main focus. “Honestly, I started school thinking I’d study physics, but that changed real fast. And while people around me were playing music and writing songs here and there as a break, playing and writing became all I wanted to do.” Though studies in music theory & history at first informed his songwriting, the dry academics of a regimented music department became increasingly uninspiring for him. It was Ayer's interest in philosophy and his affinity to the lyrical elements of poetry that ultimately gave voice to his writing. The works of writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, and Rumi, as well as songwriters such as Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen make a significant impact on Ayer's own lyrics.
After spending some time out of school writing and playing local gigs, he left the comforts of northern California (“the most pleasant, relaxed place on the face of the Earth” he says), and ventured east to the manic excitement of New York City. “I realized I was either going to hang out in the Bay Area and not push my music the way I wanted to, or I needed to change the scene,” says Ayer. “I was ready for a place where I'd be surrounded by creative people, in an environment that was good and challenging. There are probably a dozen music shows on any given night in New York that I'd like to see... there's no better place to grow musically."
Over the last six years, Ayer has been writing and recording new material on a regular basis. His independent releases include Static (2003), New Songs (2005), This is the Place (2006), Live Sessions (2007), and The Center Ring (2007).
Sticking to his resolution to support himself with music, Ayer would draw lines across maps and find places to play. He began to build followings across the country by playing whatever coffeehouse, music club, or street corner he could find, in the process honing his sound and performing style. Functioning as his own booking agent, merchandiser, promoter, and publicist, Ayer put his focus on bringing his music to an audience, rather than waiting around for his 'big break'. “I always felt if I write songs and I get to play them for people, that I'm already doing what I want to do, and at some point help will come along, when the time is right."
It’s not surprising that deep messages lie behind his indelible, well-crafted tunes. Ayer’s song lyrics have the substance, wit, and relevance that hearken to the best songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s. In "Roy G. Biv," Ayer brings his clever observation to the peculiarities of nightlife: "We go to bars at night/we insist they dim the lights/and then we try to see each other in the dark." The Latin flavored “Pretty Poison Things” draws lyrically from his high school job in a record store at the mall, written from the perspective of a girl who worked in the food court.
One of Ayer’s personal favorites, “The Revealing” is inspired equally by his experiences in the music business as by a past relationship. "Sometimes you put yourself out there, and stick your neck way out, and don't get the reassurance back that you hoped. I've realized it's still the best way to go. Build a fire, and let the rest come as it may. It's a theme that comes up a lot on this record.. that being yourself is not a means to some end. It's the whole deal."
Ayer musical experiments on Don't Go Back To Sleep compliment his lyrics with sounds and styles that go beyond his familiar territory of folk, pop and rock. The instrumental moment at the end of “Awake” is reminiscent of the chiming of a Tibetan prayer bowl. The warbling tones of a vintage harmonium tell their own story on “The Revealing." And the decidedly un-bluegrass use of the banjo provides a quiet texture on the album's final track, “Highway Home."
As it is with his music, to sit and talk with him you get a fast sense of his unabashed joy in being able to share his songs. He declares that the more places he visits, the more unshakable his optimism becomes. “You've got to become more aggressive and fierce, and fight for your positivity in these times. It’s easy to become nihilistic, and arrive at the post-modern idea that everything has been done, and sincerity is cliché, or a shadow of some past promise. But there is true value in getting a bunch of people in a room and singing songs together; there is nothing more optimistic and unselfconscious than that."
In the end, Ayer's approach to music seems inseparable from this world of sincere statements and earnest interactions. "Try and be honest, and you realize that what you used to be embarrassed about as a kid is what you like the best about yourself.”
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