Whenever Joel Ansett plays a show in Spokane, it's something of a family reunion.
The singer-songwriter was born and raised in the area — his parents still live on the South Hill, and he comes back a couple of times every year — but he's lived in Denver for the past few years, pursuing a music career.
"I got married, we threw all our stuff in storage — we didn't want to pay rent while we were on the road — and went on a three- or four-month tour playing coffee shops and little bars that were looking for gigs," Ansett says from his Colorado home. "While we were on the road for that, Denver popped up as a place we might want to go."
And that's where Ansett, 27, and his wife ended up in 2014. Since then, they've had a son, now 16 months old, and Ansett released his first LP, 2015's The Nature of Us. It was a big step for a guy who says he didn't start to seriously pursue a music career until college.
"I consider myself more of a songwriter than a musician, honestly," Ansett says, noting that his first experience making music was formulating melodies to accompany his sister's poems. "It was in high school choir class where I really started to love the way harmonies worked," he says, and from there he started writing his own material while he was working toward a history degree at Pittsburgh's Grove City College.
Culling from such influences as Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, U2 and Chris Martin of Coldplay ("As a melody writer more than a lyricist," Ansett says, "though I think he would even say that about himself"), Ansett started cultivating a musical following around Pittsburgh. Now he's feeling his way in the music scene of his current home city.
"It's a family, for sure, and I'm still finding my way in the family," Ansett says. "The closest cities are seven- to eight-hour drives, so for that reason it's its own little community that's isolated and grows together. From what I've seen, everyone has each other's backs."
The Nature of Us was funded through Kickstarter (Ansett raised $25,000 in just 30 days; "I took that as a sign," he says with a laugh) and recorded over the course of a month at Iron Wing Studios in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Ansett admits that he walked into the sessions without many fully formed songs, but the finished product offers a lusher, glossier and sometimes poppier sound than the spare folk tunes featured on its predecessor, the appropriately titled Living Room EP. The influences of those arena rock and indie pop artists Ansett talked about also come through more clearly.
The process of recording that album represented something of a turning point for Ansett, both stylistically and pragmatically. If it worked out, he says, he knew music was a legitimate career move. And if it didn't? Well, maybe he could still play a few shows on the side.
"It was teetering on the line between hobby and profession," he says. "But since putting that out, it has become a profession. ... It was honestly a big learning experience for me. I didn't go into the studio as prepared as I could have been, but it being the first full-length, we made the best of it and came away with something I'm proud of."
Music is now Ansett's primary focus: He performs with a trio around Denver, he works on the weekends as the music and arts director at a local church, and he's started a songwriting collaboration with Ryan Innes, a contestant on the reality competition series The Voice. And when he hits Spokane on Friday night, it'll be just Ansett and his wife running the whole operation.
Ansett last performed at the Bartlett in November when he was home for the holidays, and he's returning with the same minimalist setup — a guitar, a vocal effects pedal and a whole lot of hometown fans.
"They usually end up being more introspective shows, very stripped and hopefully thought-provoking," Ansett says. "I'm really comfortable with that, and I enjoy the simplicity of it and the honesty of it." ♦
Joel Ansett with Mark Ward • Fri, July 28 at 8 pm • $8/$10 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174