The soft, warbly intonation of Jesse Strickman's speaking voice doesn't match what you'd expect from a rock frontman, nor does it shift that much when he sings. Then again, Strickman is by no means typical. In real life, he works in an organic ice cream shop, adheres to a strict vegetarian diet, and is fluent in American Sign Language. He was pathologically shy as a kid and suffered crippling stage fright — Strickman said that when he played punk shows as a student at Saint Mary's College High School in Albany, he'd sometimes "black the whole thing out" because it was so traumatic. He's the kind of person who could look very important behind a cash register, yet seem demure onstage.
Even today, as the lead singer and songwriter for Oakland band Dear Indugu, 26-year-old Strickman seems improbably self-effacing, never so much a rock star as a balladeer. Perhaps that's to his credit. At the very least, it ensures that there's little disconnect between his stage persona and his everyday self. That was readily apparent during the band's EP release show at La Peña Cultural Center last Friday. Strickman emerged in an orange crocheted scarf and thanked everyone for coming, in the same obsequious tone you'd use to thank the popular girl who deigned to attend your birthday party.
The mood quickly picked up, especially with the addition of canned sound effects (a rainstorm and a low peal of thunder, culled from Dear Indugu's new EP). Strickman's goal, it seemed, was to create an airtight stage show that adhered to the record wherever possible, but also had a dramatic arc. He started small, launching the first song, "Black Dress," as a solo guitar number. It was a grim choice for an opener, as the lyrics are about suicide — though only a careful listener would know that, since the sweet chord changes belie the subject matter. A gorgeous blush flowered over Strickman's cheeks as he sang.
Midway through the song, the rest of the band arrived: electric guitarist Joshua Owings, who started playing music with Strickman in sixth grade; drummer Chris Nishimoto, who held down the rhythm section for one of Strickman's high school garage bands, AP (to the singer's present-day embarrassment, the acronym stood for "Advanced Placement"); and bassist Van Jackson-Weaver, an Albuquerque transplant who studied alongside Owings at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Both Jackson-Weaver and Owings wore fedoras — Owings' nearly blotted out his entire face, the rest of which was hidden beneath a woolly beard. Both spent most of the show staring at their instruments, though every once in a while they'd lift their heads and croon.
With the addition of new conservatory-trained personnel, Dear Indugu has grown from a lean one-man operation to a bulky four-piece, which is occasionally a six-piece — the last two songs also featured a trombonist and trumpeter. This makes the music sound much richer, Strickman said, noting all the added ornamentation. Owings and Jackson-Weaver help write the horn parts and the background harmonies, weaving Strickman's ideas into a more formalized structure. Songs that sounded raw on the singer's original demos receive more sure-handed contours. There's always a rise and a bridge, and occasionally a vamp that bleeds into the next number.
That emphasis on craftsmanship suits Strickman's personality, even though he doesn't boast the same classical background as his bandmates. What distinguishes him from other self-taught composers is a near-obsessive tendency to edit and refine. He says a lot of songs in Friday's set generated from ideas he'd had in high school. "Frame of Gold," for instance, is a tune he wrote at age eighteen while looking at objects in his bedroom and waxing nostalgic — memory, he realized, is actually a vessel into which sentiment can be poured. "Circles," another song poached from high school, is about endlessly spiraling depression. For all its pathos, most of his music is swaddled in warm melodies and jaunty rhythms, which serve as a kind of hygienic varnish.
Songwriting is a process of constant tinkering for Strickman, and it's not unusual for him to start a tune, cadge it away for a few years, then rewrite it with sharper language and fatter orchestration. His music isn't that sophisticated, but it's carefully limned, almost to the point of obfuscating the emotional content. That showed in Dear Indugu's recent concert as well, which was a surprisingly decorous affair. Interwoven in the band's 45-minute set were two acoustic duets (one with two guitars, the other with Strickman on harmonica and Nishimoto on tambourine), two sextet ensemble pieces, and several painterly guitar interludes.
Strickman says it has to be that way. He's a closet perfectionist, and a songwriter who insists that every tune be its own self-contained narrative — and, moreover, that the lyrics convey the emotion from which they spawned. That might go back to his being shy in high school, and relying on music to communicate. "Someone was telling me the other day that 'No one talks like you,'" he said, admitting that many people find his soft voice disarming. He takes that as a compliment.