It never hurts to ask. That's what floated through Spokane-based singer-songwriter Brian Stai's mind when he was ready to record his sophomore album, Your Dreams. He'd been told that the best way to flourish as a musician is to study the methods of your own artistic influences, so Stai reached out to Doug Williams, a producer most notable for his work with alt-folk quartet the Avett Brothers.
"I called him up and asked what his hourly rates were, and it was pretty similar to Spokane," Stai says, knowing that airfare and hotel accommodations would inflate the price tag. "I thought to be able to work with someone like that, with his experience, would be really cool."
A few months later, Stai was in rural Winston-Salem, North Carolina, surrounded by vintage recording equipment in the old wood frame house that Williams has converted into a studio. Stai's dad, himself a lifelong musician, drove down from their home state of Iowa to play bass and supply some backing vocals, and they spent three days in the very building where some of the artists that influenced Stai had also worked.
"It was cool to know that some of my favorite songs were recorded right there in the same place," Stai says. "It was really inspiring."
Stai, 26, grew up in Iowa, where his dad was a musician who played in cover bands and at church functions. He got his first guitar when he was 12, but it wasn't until he was a student at South Dakota State University that he actually began writing his own material.
"I started to get into it more, and developed my own kind of style," he says. "I didn't actually start singing until end of my junior year of college, [and] I didn't start writing songs until the summer after I graduated."
He says he likely gravitated toward artists like Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Bob Dylan out of convenience as much as anything else: Their songs were easy to learn, and their vocal lines didn't exactly require honeyed vocal chords.
"You start off imitating influences, and then you make it your own," Stai says.
He and his wife were married just days before moving to the Inland Northwest in 2015, when the Catholic ministry they worked for placed them at Eastern Washington University.
"We originally thought we'd come out here for a year or two and then move back," Stai says, "but it kind of grew on us."
And now he's an active part of the Spokane music scene, performing regularly around town and and hitting places like Seattle, Portland and Sandpoint on weekends. He's mostly been playing solo, with the occasional accompaniment on fiddle or cello, and plans to slowly build a full band.
Stai enlisted some renowned local musicians — Marshall McLean, Jenny Anne Mannan, Caroline Bickford — to flesh out some tracks on Your Dreams, so it still feels like a Spokane album even though it was mostly recorded 2,500 miles from here. Released in December, it's a collection of stylistically spare songs, often just Stai and his guitar, and his lyrics inspire mental images of dusty country roads, of clear night skies, of twisted old trees like the one on the album cover.
It's also, in certain moments, a meditation on getting older and growing into yourself, and about gaining the confidence to just go ahead and ask for what you're looking for.
"Pick yourself up by the boots," Stai says on the album's second track, possibly to himself. "You are a man."
Stai says that the attitude of his music has subtly changed since he became a dad last year, and as he enters the back half of his 20s, his art, he says, is getting more reflective.
"It's this very sobering time. You start to slow down. It's not just 'I can do whatever I want' anymore," he says. "These awesome things are happening, but there's uncertainty, too, amidst that. It's not just, 'This happened and everything is perfect.' The album definitely has some of that soul searching." ♦
Brian Stai with Traveler of Home and Quinnell • Sat, April 7, at 7:30 pm • $5 advance, $7 at the door • All ages • The Big Dipper • 171 S. Washington • bigdipperevents.com • 863-8098