When West Virginian singer-songwriter Logan Venderlic stumbled into town a few years back, it was as a hungry troubadour looking to make his mark. His debut, self-titled album from 2012 had him spilling out words and poetic earnestness with the zeal and familiar angst of a more steely-eyed Conor Oberst. Venderlic toured hard, hitting a few dozen states and the entire Eastern seaboard over the next few years promoting his songs. He landed an appearance on NPR's Mountain Stage with Brandi Carlile and garnered favorable coverage from iTunes and the Wall Street Journal. In short, he appeared every bit the up-and-coming indie musician.
So how do we find him now, in 2016, residing in Asheville and fronting new band, Emma's Lounge?
As it turns out, the two aren't really related. Venderlic and his then-girlfriend, now-wife moved to Charleston on little more than a whim, just "wanting to get out and go somewhere different" than their college town of Morgantown, W.Va. The North Carolina move was similarly inspired.
"We lived there for three years and really loved it there, but we were both looking to get back toward the mountains a little bit," Venderlic says from his new home.
As for launching the band, he cites a combination of catalysts.
"It was a long process," he admits. "I played under my own name for a little over six years. Had some success, toured a lot. But I write band songs, not just solo artist kind-of-things. I really wanted to have a crew of people I could collaborate with and play consistently with. I was always kind of cobbling together these backing bands last minute."
After some prodding from Charleston's Wolfgang Zimmerman, who had been producing Venderlic's new album even before the band formed, Venderlic began putting out feelers.
"I was just looking for good musicians who were good people too," he says of the process. "The violinist [Kenan Hopkins] was one of the first additional guys I added in along with the bassist and drummer. He just said he'd love to play the violin, he's classically trained, and he could also play guitar, and he just didn't want to play bluegrass. He's really into prog rock and stuff like that."
That suited Venderlic just fine — in fact, one of his motivations for starting the band was to get away from the Americana-tinged sound that came naturally to him as a solo artist.
"That was where I sat comfortably as a solo musician," he points out. "But with this band, my initial thing was I just wanted to rock more. I loved folk music, but I thought the scene had gotten a little pretentious. Some of the newer bands coming out, it just didn't seem real. I wanted to rock, to be a little more raw and loud and different."
And it's clear from the advance singles from the new album that this is a very different version of Venderlic. Gone are the loping indie-folk tunes that populated his debut. Instead, Emma's Lounge tends to crackle through genres like putting on hats, often feeling like a puckish new-wave band with chamber-folk instrumentation. Hard-charging tunes like "The Margin" and "Shakin' and Swayin'" feel more Arcade Fire than Bright Eyes, while Venderlic's exuberant vocals recall the rebellious freedom of Joe Strummer circa London Calling, when the Clash frontman became similarly unmoored from the straitjacket of his direct influences. The band calls this new sound folk wave, a pointed effort at escaping limiting roots-rock tags.
"I had gotten some reviews from my old album about sounding like Conor Oberst. Which I was pumped about at first, but I didn't want to be that, I wanted to be my own thing. Just trying to carve out our own niche."
He's found that niche with Emma's Lounge, particularly when Hopkins takes off on a prog-tinged violin solo or when keyboardist Meg Heathman's voice intertwines with Venderlic's. This is a band poised to confound expectations.
"The more we play together as a band, we're trying to be more and more dynamic," Venderlic explains. "Especially live, we're really trying to Trojan-horse people. The songs on the album are these nice, poppy three-and-a-half-minute-long songs. But if you see us live, we extend stuff and get kind of funky and jammy, all psychedelic and weird."
This weekend's show is designed as a "soft" album release — the band is working with new booking and press agents for a more formal launch in early 2017, although the record will be available at shows and on their website. "We've been waiting and waiting to put this record out," says Venderlic. "We just want people to be able to hear it."