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Billy Sedlmayr

“In other parts of my life,” says Billy Sedlmayr, “I couldn’t have done any of this. It takes too much discipline.”

On a late afternoon in the barely waning summer, Sedlmayr talks about the long road making his solo album “Charmed Life,” 12 songs (stories, really) written from the other side of his greatest struggles, sung in a world-weary voice that perfectly complements his words.

After years of drug-addiction and a decade behind bars, Sedlmayr found his calling as a writer, combining lessons learned in prison workshops with a heavy dose of perspective from the experience and, at long last, the focus necessary to actually get shit done.

Sedlmayr, a founding figure in Tucson’s punk scene who later played in Giant Sandworms, returned to music with something to prove, wanting to match all of the old bandmates and peers who’d long ago surpassed him.

“The music, I felt like it was undone. It felt like I’d never accomplish anything that my homeboys had accomplished. The guys I grew up with and came up with, in every band, most guys went on to do something,” he says. “I never finished anything I started. I got kicked out, or I screwed it up. I let a lot of things go.”

With Elton John playing softly in his Midtown apartment, Sedlmayr talks about his time with the Giant Sandworms in New York, with him, Howe Gelb and Dave Seger (Sedlmayr’s old bandmate in The Pedestrians) sharing an one-room apartment.

“At that point, we really hoped. I know we were a schizophrenic sort of band, but we had some good stuff. Every band I’ve been in I enjoyed,” he says.

But too often, Sedlmayr himself was the one who broke up the band.

“That got so old after I’d lived it. You miss out on a lot of things that you wanted, that you dreamt of,” says Sedlmayr, 53. “No matter what happens with this record, inside a piece of me will be really, really happy that people believed in me.”

Recording an album began to change from a one-day-maybe dream into a tantalizingly real possibility when Sedlmayr met Gabriel Sullivan, a musician barely half his age.

In 2009, Sullivan was booking music and regularly playing at the Red Room. He signed Sedlmayr up for a weekly songwriters’ showcase and the first impression was a strong one.

“Right away from the first show, he asked me to sit in and after that I knew that this guy really had something,” Sullivan says. “I didn’t have a clear vision of what it would be, but I knew I wanted to help this guy document his music.”

Sullivan worked out a full-band arrangement for one of Sedlmayr’s songs, “Tucson Kills,” and produced a live performance video. Potentially a test run for a series of videos that didn’t come to fruition, the clip ultimately formed the backbone of a Kickstarter campaign. It went down to the final hour, but Sedlmayr and Sullivan reached their goal of raising $10,000 to record and manufacture a full-length album.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think of putting out a solo record per se. That seemed pretty far out there, like a lighthouse in the distance or something,” Sedlmayr says. “When Gabe mentioned it to me, I got interested, I still didn’t believe it was going to happen. When the Kickstarter happened, I sat there in shock for a night. Be careful what you wish for. We had to put out and I felt apprehensive.”

Aside from the obviously autobiographical “Tucson Kills,” the songs aren’t particularly personal, but reflect Sedlmayr’s world-weary view on his surroundings, stories he’s seen or heard along the way.

“When I wrote that, I knew I couldn’t say that it wasn’t me. Usually, I write out of a desperation of some sort, good or bad, a need to get something out, to say something,” he says. “But every song isn’t a confessional. It’s not that heavy. It’s stuff I’ve seen or watched.”

Sedlmayr’s dedication to writing came from working with Richard Shelton, the renowned poet and essayist who first established a writing workshop at the Arizona State Prison in 1974.

“It was incredible,” Sedlmayr says. “Dick was super kind to me. Watching him work and reading his work was a huge influence. To have that kind of commitment… and he never got a penny. Only heartbreak.”

Writing became Sedlmayr’s way of dealing with not only the time in prison, but his past, and he was published in five issues of the Rain Shadow Review.

“Some cats get zen in there, but I didn’t find it to be a place of zen. It’s a lot of trouble and a lot of bad shit,” he says. “I never thought that I shouldn’t have been punished. I never felt that way. There’s a place you have to learn in yourself. Punish yourself and then rise above it.”

Still, after his release from prison in 1995, Sedlmayr found himself back in prison on a drug charge in 1997. At first, he felt comfortable being back inside.

“There’s something wrong with that, something sick,” Sedlmayr says. “That’s not where I’m at anymore.”

Sedlmayr still keeps up with a weekly writing workshop at the University of Arizona’s poetry center. He’s writing short stories and prose poems and working to finish his novel. “It’s easier for me to do than writing a song. They come slow,” he says.

“Billy clearly has a circle of people supporting his writing and his novel and I have no doubt that will come to fruition,” Sullivan says. “But he had flames with a lot of different musicians in town flickering out by the time I met him. When I started to play with Billy, he was really on his own. We’d play in the living room and that was the only time he got to jam with anybody.”

Right after the Kickstarter, to keep the momentum going, Sullivan booked a night at Waterworks Studio, recording “Korah’s Rebellion” and “El Terco Corazon.”

“I could imagine the sound I wanted for Billy’s music, and that night I got the rough sketch that we used for the rest of the album,” Sullivan says.

Then came working out the rest of the songs.

“Billy had 30 or so songs that he wanted to try,” Sullivan says. “Right away, the first thing we did was get together twice a week all December (2012) in my living room, just me and him with acoustic guitars, and pick one song a day to work on arrangements and trim them down. Most of his songs had seven or eight verses. They’re brilliant words, but every song was packed to the brim and it was a lot of trimming to get songs that had more focus.”

Sedlmayr takes a lot of his song lyrics from prose, good ideas or good lines from short stories he’s written or other things in progress.

“I get an idea and I put the words to the story. Some of them are old. Some I worked on when I was inside, some right after I got out,” he says. “‘Tucson Kills’ came to me in five minutes, but all of them weren’t that way.”

Sedlmayr “woodshedded” some songs with childhood friends and old bandmates like Seger, Van Christian and John Venet (The Pedestrians). Still, playing with Sullivan began to transform the songs.

“We had to carve them back a lot,” Sedlmayr says. “I gave up a lot of my ideas about stuff and went with the flow. There are a lot of verses left hanging around, but you don’t want every song to be ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or something.”

For recording, Sullivan brought the band in and taught them the songs on the fly, recording at most three takes.

“The music was performed really delicately, really quietly and for the most part was trying to bring out the imagery that was already there in Billy’s lyrics, adding some sonic imagery that matched,” he says. “It was always about keeping Billy on top, keeping the focus on his words and his voice and that concept went all the way through mixing. That really keeps it a solo record.”

The sound blends folk and rock, a sort of Americana, resting on acoustic guitars (including 12-string and nylon-string), pedal steel and upright bass, with accents of trumpet, congas and accordion.

“I hadn’t really done a super loud rock ‘n’ roll thing in a long time, since I was drumming. I couldn’t imagine at my age doing that. It would be a little awkward. Rock ‘n’ roll is a young man’s game. I get that. But this record has energy to it and it has soul to it,” Sedlmayr says. “I believe in the record. I feel weird saying it’s my solo record. A lot of people really, really helped. Gabe produced it and the musicians he chose worked out pretty perfectly.”

Joining Sullivan in what they call the The Mother Higgins Children Band (named for the original juvenile detention center in Tucson) are Thøger T. Lund on bass, Jason Urman on keyboards and accordion, Connor Gallagher on guitar and pedal steel and Winston Watson on drums.

Another album’s worth of songs were recorded and left off “Charmed Life.” Sullivan and Sedlmayr experimented with three different song sequences, each with different groups of songs (one even left off “Tucson Kills”). All three created different moods and they went with what gelled together best.

“But with this sequence, more than a mood, when I listen to it, I see Billy. I feel Billy. Everything is tied together because of the songs we chose. It’s a really important picture of who Billy is and what his character is,” Sullivan says.

For his part, Sedlmayr says he’s always wanted to get his songs down and let other people hear them, but it was Sullivan who gave him the confidence it could be done.

“When somebody says ‘your record,’ I think ‘Yeah, right.’ Had it just been me with an acoustic guitar and the tape running, it wouldn’t have been the same. What we came up with was something really unique and different. I’m really proud of it and really proud of Gabe. I gave up control and it was fairly easy because playing with him is such a gas,” Sedlmayr says. “My hope is things grow with it. I’m a hard learner and things are a lot better, but there’s always a lot of room for improvement with me.”

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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