The first thing you notice about “To Whom It May Concern,” the new album from longtime Austin singer-songwriter and bandleader Ray Prim, is just how wide-open his music is. Like much of the best music our city has produced over the decades, it’s nearly impossible to pin down as one genre or style.
With multiple vocalists and two violinists carrying the melodies and a solid rhythm section locking down the groove, Prim and his six-piece backing crew create songs that carry accents of soul, rock, R&B, pop, folk, jazz and more. But ultimately this music stands apart from all those genres.
That’s exactly what Prim wanted when he shifted gears about a decade ago, after many years of working hard to make it big with the band 7 Stones. From the mid-’90s to 2004, that band recorded three albums and toured extensively, playing riff-based hard rock that never quite broke through to a larger audience.
“When I left 7 Stones, I told myself, ‘I’m not going to let anybody tell me exactly what I have to play,’” Prim says. “I just felt like we were in a box: We have to do rock, and it has to be heavy, it has to have a groove to it, we have to change time signatures.”
What Prim wanted was more artistic freedom. “My main thing is being creative,” he says. “If I want to write a little two-minute song, just me on an acoustic guitar, and play it at a show, I want to be able to do that. If I want to bring in three horns, and get funky and do whatever, I want to be able to do it.”
He reaches that place beautifully on “To Whom It May Concern,” the second studio album he’s made under his own name. Prim, our Austin360 Artist of the Month for September 2017, will celebrate its release with his band on Sept. 15 at North Door.
Like 2012’s “Five,” it was recorded with producer Omar Vallejo, who worked from a rough blueprint that the band established with a live album recorded last fall at the now-defunct South Austin coffeehouse venue Strange Brew. The live record featured many of the same songs that appear on the new album, but they’re fully fleshed out on “To Whom It May Concern.”
Guest vocalist Suzanna Choffel (who’ll open the record-release show) helps bring out the emotionalism of “No Need,” which features a string arrangement by McCallum High School student Wil Brookhart. The Fresh 2 Def Horns take the uplifting “I Promise” to another level. Throughout, Prim’s secret weapon, vocalist Mexican Chocolate, brings out the rich colors that permeate Prim’s music.
That Prim, who’s plenty able to reach high notes with a natural sweetness and grace, often puts the spotlight on Mexican Chocolate is telling. “I’m my own singer and I’ve got my own style,” he says, “but the reason I let him sing certain songs is that there’s a certain range and feel I want, and he can bring it. He’s a unique individual, and I think that helps a lot.”
Their partnership was perhaps fated. Mike Robledo (Mexican Chocolate’s given name) used to work with Prim, whose day job is helping to facilitate truck deliveries at IBM. One day Prim happened to hear his co-worker singing to himself. “I was like, man, is that you singing? Why don’t you come sing with me?” Soon Prim had dubbed him Mexican Chocolate. He’s become central enough to Prim’s music that when Prim plays the occasional acoustic show without his full band, Mexican Chocolate usually is with him.
But when Prim started building out his band a few years ago, it was actually the violins that came first. Impressed by a stripped-down, string-enhanced performance he heard Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice give at Bass Concert Hall, Prim set out to construct something that could have a similar effect. He found April Stephens at an instrument repair shop where he’d dropped off his guitar for some work. He’d known Kristen Randolph since his 7 Stones days; when she learned he wanted to work with violinists in his new outfit, she signed on.
Bassist Alberto Ferrer and drummer John Ray both turned up via Craigslist ads. Keyboardist Marianna Tanguy, the most recent addition, had been in the local soul-funk outfit Uncle Bruno. It’s noteworthy that the group still doesn’t have an electric guitarist, though the new album includes contributions from a couple of them, including Andre Moran of local rock/pop band Belle Sounds.
“Electric guitar is the next core thing I’m going to use,” says Prim, who played electric guitar in 7 Stones but prefers to anchor this ensemble on acoustic guitar. Still, he’s looking forward to the expansion so he can further flesh out his musical vision. “I think once I get that,” Prim says, “there’s going to be levels to this stuff.”
A key to Prim’s success is that he wants his fellow players to stretch out and help shape the sound. He credits them with re-imagining songs such as “Stormy Haze,” one of the most fully fleshed-out numbers on the new album. “It didn’t sound like that sounded when I made it” as a demo, Prim says. “I give them the leeway, and I say, ‘Hey, what can you contribute?’ In my experience, when people feel invested, the passion will come out more. So I trust them. My thing is to write a skeleton and then bring everybody together.”
Those skeletons often come from Prim’s participation in songwriting groups that issue “prompts,” lyrical phrases issued to members of the group who must then work that phrase into a song. The ultra-prolific Bob Schneider runs what’s perhaps Austin’s best-known songwriting group, and Prim has taken part in that one. But its never-ending nature led Prim and songwriter Tom Meny to start up an offshoot, called Soulwriters University, that operates in semesters, with regular breaks to allow more time for working on recorded versions.
Prim’s deep involvement in Austin’s music community isn’t something he foresaw when he moved here from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a quarter-century ago at age 22. But just as that Rice show divined a new direction for his music a few years back, Prim was inspired to start pursuing music after attending a Depeche Mode concert with friends in Houston in the early ’90s.
That neither his current band nor 7 Stones really sound anything like Depeche Mode reflects Prim’s open-minded approach to music. He just follows his inspiration at any given time, without much concern as to how it might be categorized.
“That has helped me, but it’s also hurt me,” he says. “What happens is, people who like R&B may like three of my songs. People who like rock might like two of my songs. People who like strings and acoustic music may like four of my songs. So it takes me awhile to find an audience that will listen to everything. That’s how I am: I listen to everything, if it has melody. If the melody’s good in a song, then I like it.”
If the breadth of Prim’s music has made finding his audience a challenge, his hyper-creative nature also sometimes runs counter to what might be best for career momentum. Rotator cuff surgery this summer kept him from playing guitar, so he found an online site that allowed him to build songs from short samples, resulting in a handful of recordings he made under the name One Armed Bastard.
When a 2016 Black Fret grant afforded Prim $17,000 to help record and release “To Whom It May Concern,” some of his supporters suggested he might benefit from taking more time to set up its release. That just wasn’t in his nature. “They were like, ‘Why don’t we wait till like next year, February?’ There’s no way I can sit on that album from May till February of next year. I write too much for that, man.”
It’s all part of the way Prim realigned his priorities after 7 Stones called it quits. “What I didn’t like was me trying to push it along,” he says. “I have no regrets; I really tried to make it when I was in 7 Stones. But it’s stressful, and it makes it no fun.”
Nowadays, Prim keeps things in check by generally playing only once a month or so. He says he’s not averse to playing more, and perhaps touring some, if the new record takes off. But that’s not the end game for him.
“I like creating music,” he says. “I’d rather be at practice. I’d rather be writing. There’s nothing that feels better than when you’re at practice, and you’ve been working on a song with a band, and then all of a sudden, that one time it clicks, and you’re like, ‘Whooooh.’ And then you’re chasing the next time. It’s like, ‘We got it, now let’s chase another one.’ That’s the high I get.”
RELATED: Our 2016 Austin360 Artists of the Month
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Ray Prim
Recordings: “To Whom It May Concern,” out Sept. 15; “Live at Strange Brew Lounge Side” (Goose Creek), 2016; “Five,” 2012.
Record release show: Sept. 15 at North Door (7 p.m., Suzanna Choffel opens, $20-25, ndvenue.com).