It wasn't always easy, but the young transplant is finding his way in Seattle's music scene.
Soon after arriving in Seattle, Jason McCue was ready to quit performing music for good.
After exploring Philadelphia’s voluminous DIY scene while studying for a year at Drexel University, the alt-folk songwriter moved across the country and enrolled at Seattle University. Armed with a guitar and a batch of quirky acoustic numbers, a not-so-confident McCue tepidly set out to break into Seattle’s house-show circuit. It didn’t go so well.
The young transplant, who grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, landed spots on two “huge” house shows in front of about 90 people. While larger more up-tempo bands got the ready-to-party crowd moving, they were largely indifferent to his spindly solo folk songs.
“I went into it thinking, ‘Yeah cool, so many people will see me!’ ” recalls the 21-year-old, bellied up at a Cherry Street Coffee House near campus. “But it was really 10 people who were watching me and then 80 people who were partying.”
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However, since those rocky first Seattle gigs, McCue has been on a creative tear, releasing four albums in the past two years, including his new “PANGAEA” LP due Friday, March 9, via Portland’s Fluff & Gravy Records. He plays a release show Friday in Washington Hall’s Lodge Room, a venue chosen in part because he’s still getting comfortable playing Seattle’s more raucous bar scene.
The more friends the self-described introvert made, the more he explored his new city, and with subsequent shows found pockets of the Seattle scene more his speed. Eventually, McCue hooked up with a loose collective of creative Seattle University students called Friends and Friends of Friends, which threw house shows and other “artsy events where people could be themselves.”
“It was exactly the vibe I had been looking for my entire time in Seattle at that point,” he says of one encouraging house show, just a flick of a guitar pick from his coffee-shop perch. “It was a bunch of indie kids sitting cross-legged on a basement floor, which, that’s my target audience [laughs].”
Winning Sound Off! — MoPOP’s highly regarded 21-and-under battle of the bands — last year likely didn’t hurt his confidence either, as he found himself on festival stages like Bumbershoot. McCue’s prolific streak of churning out bedroom recordings has also paid dividends on “PANGAEA,” which sees the imaginative songwriter taking more risks.
Its eccentric melodies with layered pitch-shifting highs could easily fall flat if not delivered with McCue’s quiet gusto and precision, as heard on “The Events Following the Permian Extinction” — perhaps his heaviest tune to date. Despite being recorded on his laptop with a USB mic, it’s also his biggest-sounding album, thanks largely to his Sound Off! prize pack, which included an electric guitar, drum kit and synthesizer. The record was professionally mixed and mastered at the Vera Project (another Sound Off! perk), giving the indie-folk wunderkind’s meticulous acoustic picking the clarity it deserves.
“It’s able to tell a story in a way that I hadn’t been able to before,” he said a week earlier. “It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while now.”
That story plays out musically and lyrically over the thoughtfully woven concept album using Pangaea as a thinly veiled metaphor for a failed relationship and the forces that drive people apart. The theme was inspired by a mass extinctions course he took and a trove of borrowed library books about the Mesozoic era. (“It was gigantic picture books — I don’t want to seem like it was tiny font, like an intellectual or anything,” he confesses with a chuckle.)
Despite the new album’s brawnier sound and getting a taste of what a pro studio hand can do with his intricate music, McCue expects to stick with his laptop recording setup for the next crop of songs he’s already working on. The solitary nature of his DIY recordings has become a part of his unarguably productive creative process that’s sped up the maturation of his songwriting.
“I like being alone. I like having my headphones on, having my door shut to my room,” McCue says. “It gives me the environment that I need if I want to make something.”
Jason McCue “PANGAEA” release show. 7 p.m. Friday, March 9; Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave., Seattle; $9, eventbrite.com