Seven years ago, when I was at an open-mic night at the now defunct Foothills Café in King, a quiet, somber-looking musician took the stage. Carrying a weathered guitar and a rugged, cool air about him, he began his set with a humble and shy stage presence. With a few simple chords, the room suddenly belonged to Dylan Vee.
With a wavering, soft voice, similar to that of Connor Oberst, he played a few songs, and vanished again back into the crowd, leaving listeners bewildered at the sudden rush of raw talent and poetry they had just witnessed.
And that was the last time many would see Dylan, whose real name is Dylan Venable, perform.
Having played a slew of open-mics and random house shows, Venable was never able to overcome his fear of playing in front of crowds, preferring the solitude of recording in his bedroom.
It seemed this musician was gone and never to return to playing in front of an audience, leaving only his few recordings behind. But during a show this summer, I looked up and saw Dylan Venable hugging a few friends, nervously hunched as he talked with people. With faded jeans tucked into cowboy boots, Dylan walked over to where I sat.
“Do you have a lighter?” he said in his soft, Southern accent. I asked him if he was playing that night and he laughed for a moment, then a sort of sadness came to his face. “No, not tonight.”
But even at that moment, it was as if I’d rediscovered this great musician. He had finally surfaced and was out in the crowd. But as we spoke and the night carried on, it was clear that as Dylan stood next to the stage as each performer went on, he longed for the music, whether it was his own or someone else’s, it looked as if the music is what made him whole.
Dylan Venable, who performs under the name Dylan Vee, began recording music at the age of 15 tucked away in his bedroom with simple array of instruments at his disposal, using only a few microphones and a four-track recorder.
“It was mostly a way of getting things out,” said Venable, now 27. “I could never really find anyone who wanted to play music with me, and so I just did it myself.”
Playing all the instruments on his home-recorded albums, Venable was able to capture a unique sound. With brief moments that touch on genres such as lo-fi and garage rock, Venable managed to take his self-taught style and produce a raw sound that nearly mesmerizes and pulls the listener in, all done with a soft, gentle approach that resounds in a contemplative quietude.
“I’m more of a be-by-myself sort of guy,” said Venable. “I never could quite get over playing in front of people or doing all the show stuff. It’s terrifying. But recording at home, working on things in peace, it doesn’t get much better.”
With more than nine albums recorded and several more demos never released, Venable’s 2010 effort All Kinds of Sad showed a new maturity and was perhaps his most popular album.
Complete at eight tracks, All Kinds of Sad plunges deep into a realm of loneliness and solitude that few songwriters are able to capture without overwrought sentimentality or cliché.
Similar to the iceberg theory of literature, Venable’s lyrics and music play just upon the surface of themes and images, drawing the listener in deeper and leaving them to contemplate the subjects on their own.
A remarkable feature of the record is the structure of Venable’s writing. Rarely sticking to the straightforward format of verses and choruses, all eight songs hook the listener into a feeling of bizarre intrigue, leaving them wondering what comes next. Similar to Nick Drake or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the music plays off the poetry of the lyrics, and vice versa.
The reclusive and lonely nature that’s prevalent in Venable’s songs is also present in his social life.
“I really just prefer not to talk about myself if that’s okay,” Venable said, just outside Test Pattern. “I don’t mean to offend you or cut you off. But what’s going on with you?”
Since 2011, Dylan Vee has been on hiatus from playing live shows and releasing new recordings.
[pullquote]To listen to Dylan Vee’s music visit dylanvee.bandcamp.com[/pullquote]
“I want to get back into playing live again,” he said. “And I will, sometime or another. I’m working on a new record, so we’ll see how it goes.”
But even without the live shows, there is a beauty that remains in the albums he has put out; they have become a precious commodity, as if he prefers to engage with his audience one on one, keeping the art of his music in a pure and intimate setting.
Raised in Mt. Airy, a small town off Highway 52 most famous for being the setting of the Andy Griffith show, Venable began playing music under the name Wild Blue Yonder, the same name as the 2005 film by Werner Herzog. Venable collaborated with a variety of friends on early recordings. The demos feature unique elements in the sound, such as bells and the prominent clack of a typewriter in his 2009 release Wild Blue Yonder / January ’09.
Certainly, there are a number of undiscovered gems in the world of music, and there are plenty of popular artists that should maybe have never began playing music in the first place. But there is a certain amount of joy and excitement when you can discover one of these gems all on your own.
In a little fold of paper, with song titles typed on the back, my brother first gave me All Kinds of Sad. Within the first moments of driving around and listening to this gentle, sad voice, it was as if I were being let in on a secret; as if the album had been meant for me, directly from an artist who was saying, “Come here, listen to this.”
Though it has been six years since his last performance, Dylan Venable remains a friend and advocate of local music, constantly in attendance at shows of his friends Tim Poovey, the Genuine, the Girl Friends and many others. The love of songs and the musicians who play them are what made Dylan Vee take up the guitar to begin with, and I can only hope it will bring him back to the stage once again.