Tucked away in an alley off Street 51 clustered with small Japanese restaurants is Embargo, a craft beer bar co-founded by Jeff Baker, a sometimes reluctant singer-songwriter formerly of suburban Vernon Hills in Chicago, Illinois. He’s been slowing stepping back out into performance after taking a break for a couple of years, and will on Thursday 21 be taking part in the latest of the Original Sessions series, alongside Mirasol Aguila, at Java Tuol Tom Pong. Leng Pleng ventured into the alley (“Congrats!! you found us” is helpfully written on the wall) to chat to Jeff about guitars, burn out, songs and audiences.
“I got my first guitar when I was 13, a Squier – Fender’s cheap brand – a Stratocaster in candy apple red, with a music stand, a capo and a tiny amp, all in one case. My parents wanted me to get into something, anything – I was kind of lazy – I don’t think they expected me to be as obsessed with the guitar and music as I became. I had tried band in middle school, my sister played the clarinet so I gave that a try, but I never went to any practices, and when we had the school concert I didn’t blow into it, just pretend I was playing. So it seemed like my musical endeavours were done. But once they got me the guitar things just lit up, and I started to find my own music selection.
“Pop punk was a big one, I was listening to Green Day, Blink 182, The Offspring – melodic, aggressive, fun – and I just started to play along, with power chords. The stuff in the book that came with the guitar was all boring, Mary had a little lamb. I thought what if I just learn power chords and move them around? I took some guitar lessons, my first teacher was a rock’n’roll dude in his 20s. We just went through records and he taught me proper technique, and that gave me a foundation.”
Not being academic or athletic, Jeff found the guitar helped him stand out a little. “Nobody else in my school was playing guitar or anything, I think that was part of the motivation. I didn’t try singing until high school, when I was in a little punk rock trio, but I had no idea about breathing or finding the right key, so I was just yelling as loud as I could. Really, really awful, but fun nonetheless. And all of a sudden I became “Jeff in the band”, a cool appeal when you’re 16.”
Once in college, Jeff discovered the capo. “I found I could do a lot of stuff with a string open, like Blink 182 or Alkaline Trio, using that technique to play rhythm and lead at the same time, in a fast chuggy way. I realised that I’m going to have to move the capo around to find the right key, and also have the same effect, because you can’t do that all in standard tuning. I came upon it by accident: if I can’t sing in this key all I have to do is move the capo. Now I use the capo on almost every song, because I have an extremely limited vocal range. If you look at a setlist it always has a number next to the song so I know where to put the capo.
College also gave him a chance to study abroad. “I did a semester in Phnom Penh at Pannasastra University in 2012, and then another in Chiang Mai, which sparked a new interest in travel. After graduating I was in Bangkok and met the other owner of Embargo, Kimmo [Hakala] – I saw him playing drums at our favourite bar, Fatty’s, and we formed Fathers of Medicine. It was a pop funk trio I guess, but a little bit heavier, alternative maybe. We had a really good bass player named Jerome who added a whole depth to it. That was incredibly fun, and we played a lot of shows. People really came out and listened, and I wasn’t used to that – at all the shows we played in high school people just came to hang out, or at the open mics in college I was too shaky, not good.
Reawakened musically, Jeff headed for New York City. “I lived there for three years, teaching at a Manhattan preschool as a day job, and had nights and weekends to do music. On weekends I would have two shows, sometimes three shows a night if it was busy. I was really hustling, playing as much as I possibly could, at any venue that would have me, playing in bands, trying to make it work in any way. Which is a great way to burn out.”
Slowly the burnout crept up. “That romantic image of New York everyone has from movies and such, it’s not really there. It’s not like the Simon and Garfunkel days where everyone’s hanging out at the shop, and you meet this producer. I’d go to open mics at these esteemed places, Arlene’s Grocery, The Bitter End where Bob Dylan used to play, and there’s nobody. New York seemed like a city that was trying to stay relevant. And I never liked living there. I thought that was a good place to be to see the music scene, but it wasn’t really. So it was kind of disheartening.
“On Make Music New York Day I got to play in Times Square, in a passage in between two buildings, a 30 minute set, and I didn’t even have fun at that point. Crazy. It’s in New York City, Times Square, hundreds of people walking by me and looking at my set, and I couldn’t enjoy it. That’s when I started to question what I was doing, when it wasn’t fun.”
However, New York City’s loss was Phnom Penh’s gain. “After New York I came here to Phnom Penh, I met up with Kimmo again, and we started Embargo. I didn’t even buy a guitar, there was a sinking feeling in my gut when I thought about it. I think it was good to take a break and wait for the right time to come. So back in September last year I was talking to Kimmo about playing again, and I’d come to understand that this city is really warm and welcoming for a musician. I don’t see much ego, and most crowds are pretty good listening crowds. It’s way different from the most recent comparison I have, which was New York; really the antithesis.
Songwriting came relatively early to Jeff, while in the punk trio in high school. “While I was not great at singing, I could write songs and play guitar pretty well at that point, in a pretty fast and very Green Day-ish style. I would sit and listen to the music, and think ooh, there’s somebody else who’s gone through this feeling, everything’s going to be okay, somebody else feels this way. And if they’re successful, which is most of the people you’re listening to, it’s like a dream. This person can demand all this respect from people, and money, and power, by being honest and emotional. You don’t have to be a tough guy.
“I would listen to songs over and over, and then when I had the song in my head I would change the lyrics to the same melody – what if it said this instead, and then this would rhyme with this. So I would sit down and write the new words out – of course it was always about girls or a break up or whatever was going on at 16. I struggled with it, but if I could find a little catchy melody, and then use that as a template to fill in – okay, with that melody I need seven syllables, seven syllables, four syllables, four syllables. It’s like a fill-in-your-own-adventure.
Undeterred, the songwriting went on, with some success. “One song I’ve written and recorded that I’ve gotten some traction is Bed
Bug. People posted about it, it got to 15,000 plays on Spotify. One of the least favourite of the songs I’ve written – it’s funny how that works. Here, I just wrote this, and people like it. Yet when I spend three months perfecting a song, and I get a yeah, whatever. Dammit! What am I doing this for? Myself, I guess.”
Bug was one of two songs (the other is I am) given the treatment by a producer/engineer in New York. “I recorded my voice and guitar and he did all the other stuff through samples and ProTools. He’s a magician. He made it radio quality. That was a pop kind of thing.”
The Original Sessions concert was originally scheduled in December but postponed to this week by the November COVID events. “I’m really looking forward to that. I’m getting back into it again, and it is fun. Original Sessions is like a storyteller kind of thing, an intimate listening crowd, you can explain a bit about the songs, and where you’re coming from. Hopefully I can make that work.
“And now that I’m getting the itch again, I hope to do more shows. It can be a genuinely difficult job as a performer to win people over. As I performer I have to get that out of my head – I’m not here to impress anybody, I’m going to play the songs that I like to play, and some of the crowd will not like it, I know that, some of them will, that’s good, play to them. When I played at Oscar’s on the Corner in October there was a lady sitting at the bar – it was cool that she liked the set, and was really watching, but she asked me specifically about a line in one of my songs, and I was, like, damn, that’s cool. That’s the only motivation I need: that one person was listening, and related to it or whatever, that really is what it is all about, it has to be or otherwise this all becomes very fake.
“I don’t think about the listener when I’m writing, I just think I’m going to be 100% honest about how I feel about this subject, and there’s bound to be somebody else out there who feels the same way.”
Original Sessions featuring Jeff Baker and Mirasol Aguila, is at Java Tuol Tom Pong on Thursday 21 January at 7 pm. Tickets $12. Tickets will be very strictly limited and social distancing measures will be in place. All concert-goers are required to wear a mask.
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