He’s got a Ph.D. And a Kickstarter project for a SoulBluesJazzFunkFolk/Gospel album called “Late to Love.” An album that takes its name from St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” A project with the stated intention of making “the craft of the music its main priority.” The soundtrack of a man “seeking redemption through a profession of belated love, told in multiple layers of regret, gratitude, and hope.”
So, yeah. A bundle of contradictions.
Here’s an interview he recklessly agreed to do with me, his usually reliable judgement no doubt clouded by the distracting throes of raising money for his debut album. (He’s got Wiseblood Records on board, though. So he must be doing something right.)
Sam Rocha: I started playing guitar when I was five years old. This was fueled partly because I was raised in the charismatic renewal movement of the Catholic Church, so the ability to play music was, in a certain sense, very practical. I’ve never taken a “break” from playing guitar and, over the years, I’ve had a chance to learn a lot and play in different venues and styles. I sing now, too. I’m self-taught and play entirely by ear. A musical analphabet, that’s me! In many ways, this life-long relationship to music is, perhaps, the best way to understand my academic interests or, at least, the context to them. But, for me, music is my first love in terms a craft. Especially the guitar. Truth be told, I am very much still getting used to the idea that I am an academic. Being a musician is a more comfortable and worn-in outfit.
JS: I have a great-uncle who plays astonishingly well by ear. I’m in awe of you instinctive types. Do you think being self-taught has had a significant impact on the kind of music you love/you write/your own distinctive style?
SR: I used to be very insecure about my musical illiteracy and I am still quite aware of the technical weaknesses that exist in my playing from a lack of formal training. In truth, I do not consider myself to be a fantastic or even very good guitar player, even by untrained standards. Wes Montgomery I am not. Virtuoso is not my thing. But I also know that I can play and express myself; I have developed a vocabulary and style that belongs to me. A voice. That is, really, what I think my lack of training has given me, a mode of expression that I’ve built, by imitation and practice, on my own. It works best in folk forms of music: blues, jazz, soul, and pop. But I love all kinds of music. I never grew up listening to classical music, but the first time I heard a live symphony I wept. It was just so beautiful. And I think there is a symphonic aspect to all composition, even when improvising a jazz solo or phrasing a vocal line.
JS: You say you’ve developed a vocabulary; a style that belongs to you; a voice. Why does that matter? Why is the background … and the sincerity of the artist important? Why isn’t it just about the artifact? The product? The results?
SR: First of all, I am very allergic to broad claims about the arts in general. I think we can make certain provisional observations and claims that sometimes have relevance across different mediums, but, in the end, this sort of generic aesthetic talk strikes me as being antithetical to the very particular work of doing the art itself. In certain mediums, I am not so sure that the artist matters in the same ways, but I do think it would be an odd occasion when an algorithm replaces the artist. Art without agency seems problematic. Even in the algorithm case, the programmer would be the artist. In my music, and in the sort of musical expression I work in most often, there is a constant balancing act between technique and rigor, on the one hand, and expression and originality, on the other. Too many “good” players and singers I hear don’t have a sound that they own. They are good, but not original. Excellent karaoke singers and players. That limits, at least for me, the degree to which one can communicate something that goes deeper and further than the notes. Soul music is not always about singing in key and playing smoothly. It is also about being vulnerable and willing to deliver an honest phrase. I love live albums for this reason. One of my favorites is a Marvin Gaye live album where he is playing the material from “What’s Going On?” He is sick for that show and cannot sing his usual perfect, glossy vocal. But he really works with it and manages to say and show more than I hear in the studio album. That’s one example. As a folk musician, though, I always, almost by definition, will tend toward the sincere over the technical. But that is not an absolute; it just speaks to what I do best. There are rewards and liabilities. So I keep on working.
Joseph Susanka: How does your desire for “sincerity over technicality” tie into your decision to make this album “about Augustine?”
Sam Rocha: I don’t really desire sincerity over technicality so much as that is the balance of my toolset, so I work within that as best I can. What makes that interesting, perhaps, is that it seems to be the opposite of another “outfit” that I wear, as an academic. Having a Ph.D. and being musically illiterate is, to some people, a contradiction or an oddity. But this gets me to why I love Augustine’s Confessions. First of all, Augustine was a professor of rhetoric and he detested the Academy and, more interestingly, struggled to submit his head to his heart, to put his great intellect under the authority of love. For me, this is the real distinction that transcends my work as an artist. But, really, I don’t want this album to just be “about Augustine,” at least not in a literal or clumsy way. It needs to be more than a musical book report or a sappy tribute. I will use some themes that people can recognize and some images (the cover is going to be a pear) that Augustine lovers will recognize, but I want to use Augustine to say something new, rooted in the ancient. This, of course, is very Augustinian, but, most of all, it prevents me from falling into this very disturbing trend I see in Catholic art. Literalism. There is something prosaic and deeply uninspiring about some of the artwork out there from Catholics these days. I would like for there to a be poetic approach to this album, which means that I will take some chances and, also, use lots of jazz methods in the way I approach and execute the soul music. But the answer to “Why Augustine?” is, really, very simple: it is because he is something of an everyman. He is a modern man in many ways, I can relate to him, and he has convicted me in many ways about my own need to confess, too. This album is trying to emulate that, in my own way.
JS: Say more about why you find him “relatable.” I love him, and I consider him the most brilliant mind I’ve ever encountered. …but that brilliance often makes him a bit less relatable to me. So…why relatable? Why call him an Everyman? (And then, and perhaps most interestingly, why “modern?”)
SR: I can see how Augustine can be seen as not the least bit relatable. Part of that is the fact that a prolific super genius is pretty intimidating. But that, I would like to claim, isn’t the whole picture. From an intellectual standpoint, this guy wrote the Confessions, an unprecedented personal account, filled with story and testimony. Self-disclosure. Also, Augustine seems to, for the first time in history, consider something like “the self” as an object of study, verging on a proto-psychoanalysis. For this reason, and many others, he is sometimes referred to as “the first modern man.” His conclusions are wildly different (and better, I think) from Descartes, but his interior focus is very similar. Also, the appeal of Augustine’s stories in his Confessions is, I think, because they are relatable. And then there is Monica, the sine qua non of the Confessions, in my view. I want to argue that, in Monica, we find the nontechnical cor (heart, in Latin) of Augustine’s Confessions. Monica, the African soul singer!
JS: So, what sort of “musical self-disclosure” should we expect from this album?
SR: Oh, dear. It’s all self-disclosure. Some of it is so intensely and intimately personal that only the poetics of music can communicate it without being scandalous or downright ugly. This is something Augustine does too, I think. He does not disclose too much, he leaves room for the imagination. But it’s all the usual, human stuff: shortcomings as a father, a husband, a brother, a friend, a Catholic, a teacher, and more. I am a terrible person, really, and this album is about seeking redemption and forgiveness for it. It is an album that comes from a place of intense joy, but a melancholy joy of being given a number of second and third and seventh chances, and hoping for not too, too many more. For grace.