In 2011, fans celebrated Belle Histoire’s Best New Artist nomination at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. But two years makes a big difference in a band’s life.
In 2013, vocalist Jane Smith planted new musical seeds with her solo venture Decker while insisting Belle Histoire was merely on hiatus. But when guitarist Austin Livingood stepped up to the solo plate last summer and knocked his debut EP, The Weightless Anchor: By Plane (I), out of the park, the writing was on the wall.
“There was kind of an unofficial thing, but everybody went their separate ways,” Livingood says over Ethiopian-blend coffees at Carabello Coffee in Newport, Ky. “I love [the band members] all dearly but that’s just the way things go sometimes. We all had different life stuff going on and wanted to go our own directions.”
Livingood’s CEA nominations for Best New Artist and Singer/Songwriter completely validate his rapid solo ascent. His debut EP, co-produced by Seabird’s Ryan Morgan, was an immediate sensation; his sophomore set, The Weightless Anchor: By Train (II), released last week, is the second triumphant installment in a conceptual Indie Rock song cycle that wraps up with a third release later this spring. It’s a fascinating construct that reveals itself slowly and surreptitiously.
“On the first EP, the track listing is actually 1, 3, 5, 7,” Livingood says. “The actual track listing for the second one is 2, 4, 6, 8. But there’s a third one — and I can’t release the name yet — that’s the conclusion of this whole thing.”
With Belle Histoire, Livingood was a supportive and enthusiastic collaborator, but the spotlight has illuminated a 22-year-old songwriter and performer of improbable depth and diversity. Livingood is a shiver-inducing hybrid of The Cure’s Robert Smith, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Jeff Buckley, bubbling with contemporary Indie Rock energy and rootsy Midwestern soulfulness.
The combination sounds neither forced nor overthought.
“I’m loving every second of it,” Livingood says. “You learn about yourself when you start creating and releasing your own stuff. A lot of this even started while I was with Belle. We had gone on tour in the spring and I think the storyline started there. It’s been cool to see that evolve. Every show I’ve played thus far hasn’t just been a show, it’s been bigger than I’ve even thought about, and I’m just some guy in Cincinnati writing stuff because I feel like it. That’s been pretty cool.”
Music has consumed more than half of Livingood’s life. At 12, his father presented him with an acoustic guitar given to him by his own dad. The elder Livingood taught his son the three chords he knew and the die was cast.
“It’s a copy of a Martin, nothing fancy. I’d done musical things growing up, but I didn’t really know what to do,” Livingood says. “My dad showed me G, C and D, and that’s where it started. “
After standard teenage bands, Livingood assembled a group during freshman year of high school and prepared for a show at Newport on the Levee. With worked up covers of Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy, they hit the stage.
“I don’t think we completed one song,” Livingood says with a laugh. “I’m pretty sure five people looked at us and left, in a five-second span. It was bad, man.”
Livingood’s first real band experience came at age 18, playing with A Wayward Heart. A much-anticipated opening gig gave the guitarist confidence and a glimpse into an imagined future.
“We had the opportunity to open for Audio Adrenaline, a big Christian band I looked up to,” Livingood says. “They asked us [to open], which was pretty cool. I remember it feeling pretty tangible.”
Like any neurotically healthy artist, one of Livingood’s original goals was the approval of others, which he found with A Wayward Heart and then Belle Histoire. He subsequently found another reason to write and perform.
“I’m not trying to earn approval, I’m trying to stay true to what I want to deliver, to my identity,” Livingood says. “When you do get the approval of others, it feels good, but as I move forward, not away from Christianity, but away from a need to be accepted by other people or artists, I think I’m starting to come into my own and figuring out what direction I want to strive for.”
The subject of Christianity in music often leads to divisive discussions, but Livingood’s healthy outlook maintains that people are Christians, not music. Livingood’s message is more spiritual than literal and, based on his first two releases’ compelling content, he’s got a broad and fascinating horizon to explore.
“My first performance as Austin Livingood really hit home big time,” Livingood says. “Your sweat and blood goes into this, and I really feel like it’s such a blessing to see that. I’m not hiding behind anything. I had the opportunity to play in the background with Belle Histoire and now there’s a lot more freedom.”
AUSTIN LIVINGOOD plays the Best New Bands showcase at Bogart's on Saturday, Jan. 18. Click here for show info and here for more on Livingood.