Punching Back In
Boulder Songwriter Beth Preston Returns from Hiatus
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
When she moved from San Diego to Boulder in 2007 my partner, Irene, was hoping to discover Colorado musicians who moved her as much as the reggae-tinged San Diego-based alt-folkie Beth Preston had. So one can imagine Irene’s surprise when she went grocery shopping at Vitamin Cottage shortly after settling in Boulder and saw her favorite modern Southern California singer-songwriter perusing the freezer section. Preston had also fairly spontaneously migrated to Boulder (where she has family) just after making serious waves in the San Diego music scene and having one of those “What does it all mean?” revelations. Playing big-time venues like the Casbah, touring North America and Australia and seeing what could’ve been a pretty clear path to stardom in front of her, Preston chose a route currently much-less traveled by young musicians: stopping for a while to take a look around.
“I just kind of took a break from music, and I’ve been reevaluating the purpose of it and how I want to approach it,” Preston, who hasn’t released an album since 2006’s bluesy Inside Fire, says. She also concluded that the now-rampant trend of musicians focusing more on Twitter, Myspace and Facebook than their craft had not surprisingly preyed on her as well.
“Trying to do your own promotion and things like that definitely takes a lot of time and energy,” Preston says, “and I definitely think that was part of my downfall before. I wasn’t really supporting my heart and my music, and I was always wrapped up in the computer and phone calls and kind of stressed out all the time. So I think that it is probably a good thing for people to spend more time just on themselves and their hearts and their spirits.”
“On the other hand I understand the pressure to get the word out there and get people to come to shows,” Preston continues. “So I think it kind of depends on what your aim is and who you have helping you. That’s kind of the conundrum of being an independent solo artist.”
In the year 2010, an up-and-coming musician without an internet presence is about as rare as a hockey player in 1990 without a mullet. Preston does have a long-latent Myspace with three of her songs on it—and a smidgen of biographical information—but from what one is currently able to read about Preston online, it could almost be surmised that she passed away when she moved to Boulder a few years ago. The truth is much more interesting.
“I think [Boulder] was kind calling me here,” she says, “because my family was here, and I found it really easy. I found an amazing group of people here that became my really deep family, and I just love it here. I love the mountains and I love the huge sky and the weather, and it’s just really perfect for my life right now.”
Playing much smaller venues than she was used to before relocating from Southern California has been refreshing, too.
“I like playing to all sorts of crowds. I’ve played at the Fox Theatre here a couple of times, and that’s a great venue, but I’ve also played really small little venues like the Tonic [Oxygen] Bar on 10th and Pearl. It’s more of just a sharing circle; it’s way more intimate, and it’s nice to have a sort of personal unplugged thing going on and be able to talk to people and tell stories and that sort of thing. I really enjoy that very much. It feels like less of a performance and more of, like, ‘sharing time.’”
Listening to Preston’s robust voice tear through an unruly garage-rock track like “Shell Shock” from Inside Fire—which sounds like Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval interpreting Beck’s “Loser”—it’s hard to imagine such a brash, sultry singer-songwriter embracing “sharing time” at a hippified oxygen bar in Boulder. A closer listen to Preston’s catalog, however, proves she’s been a deliciously crunchy from the beginning: The mellow wisdom of “Paper, Ink and Plastic” is as much Ani DiFranco as American Beauty-era Grateful Dead; “Excess Baggage” shows the world-music influence of Xavier Rudd, who Preston once toured Australia with; and the confident urban reggae of “Red Red Earth” and the seductive “Be Your Love” makes one assume Preston was born with dreadlocks.
But is she a hippie? Preston burst out laughing when asked that burning question.
“That’s real funny,” she says after the giggles subsided. “You know, my dad always called me a hippie and I always thought it was funny. Actually, when I was younger I really liked it because I felt like I was recognized as a particular kind of being. I dunno, whatever makes you comfortable, I guess.”
“Depending on where I am, if someone calls me [a hippie] I can take it like a compliment and feel like they’re recognizing me, or I could feel like they were judging me and thinking that I’m a little weird. But I think for the most part I’m just an open being. My first priority is love and the earth and helping people be inspired and keeping a flame of inspiration in my own life.”
One person who has returned the favor and greatly inspired Preston lately is her boyfriend, the 25-year-old Boulder singer-guitarist Daniel Cooper. His incredibly sweet and gentle acoustic songs make a lot of Preston’s recorded work—and even a few new demos she shared with me—sound downright punkish in comparison. Preston has clearly kept the most raw, original and captivating aspects of her own music—including a very raw reggae influence and her love for vintage folk—intact since leaving San Diego, but she’s gleaned a lot from Cooper and his love for more soft-edged artists like Ray LaMontagne.
“We’re definitely kindred spirits when it comes to music,” Preston says of Cooper, an Ohio native who has been a Boulder resident for the past five years. “We’ve shared a lot in the past few years and influenced each other with a kind of similar heart-chord in music. Daniel and I have started to collaborate quite a bit and I think that’s kind of the next avenue I’ll be taking.”
On his song “Temezcal (Walking Home),” part of a collaborative CD called Beloved—which will be officially released Sunday night at the Laughing Goat—Cooper sings “Listen deep / close your eyes / Listen to the music in the skies / your eyes open your soul unbroken.” His lyrics declare that “love will heal all scars,” and Beloved’s placid, trippy music is no doubt in agreement.
The Beloved album features musical contributions from Cooper and Preston, along with Tierro Lee and Gilly Gonzales of the Colorado-based “tribal psychedelic” band Kannal and even young Boulder Symphony Orchestra violinist Ilya Goldberg. Preston says she and Cooper hope to tour together eventually, and she has a treasure trove of new music she wants to record soon, so the bill she’s sharing with Cooper at the Laughing Goat on Sunday could be a foreshadowing of the outspoken singer-songwriter’s long-awaited musical re-emergence.
“I’m still kind of reinventing my path with music and seeing where it’s moving me,” Preston concludes. “I’ve been focusing on other things. I also do healing work; I do massage therapy and I’ve been getting into sound therapy more and more and seeing where that’ll take me. But I would like my music to be the main source of my abundance and living, so I’m gonna keep working on that.”