By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer
Jason Webley likes to keep his long, peculiar tours nice and simple.
Generally, he drives from the previous night’s show alone, arriving at the next venue by midday, he said. After performing, he feels social, so he hangs out with fans. They might do something odd together, like visit the cemetery. Then he sleeps at a fan’s place; he feels a bit lousy in hotels. The next day, after breakfast, he does it all again.
This is how he spends his life. He plays about 200 shows a year, he said.
Tonight, the grind will be a bit easier, as Webley plays a rare show in his hometown of Everett, headlining a benefit for KSER 90.7 FM. The show is at an unusual venue — The Sisters restaurant.
Granted, Webley is an unusual guy.
“I have a cult following all over the world, my music is a mix of gypsy and punk,” said Webley, 34, offering some rote descriptions of his career. “These things are not exactly accurate or how I want to be perceived, but you have to use labels to cut through things. I do have a cult following.”
Webley sings in a growling rasp that can sound a lot like Tom Waits. He often gets compared to people such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, other men with cult followings. He said they weren’t major influences on his playful, dark music, though. Instead, the Mukilteo-raised singer points to “The Sound of Music” and “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson as big inspirations.
He started developing his sound at the University of Washington, where the multi-instrumentalist began playing his signature instrument, the accordion. His parents bought one at a garage sale. He noodled around with it at parties, and found it could “unify a room.”
“The accordion is only about 200 years old, which, you know, in the history of types of instruments, it’s just a baby,” he said. “It was one of the first really versatile and portable instruments that was also really loud. You can play bass lines, chords and melody and harmony fairly loudly, with one instrument, and still have your voice free to sing, which made it a very popular instrument in the real sense of the word ‘popular,’ of the people.”
That also made the instrument ideal for a street performer, Webley realized. With a safety cushion of about $10,000 in the bank, he decided to try to make a living through music after graduating with degrees in theater and music technology. He took the accordion down to Pike Place Market in June 1998.
“Nervous has never been the right word, but I sure didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “And I wasn’t that very well prepared. I didn’t have much repertoire on the accordion, and I didn’t have much stamina.”
He also didn’t have a permit, and was told to leave the market. He played a little farther away, attracted a crowd and wound up landing a gig from a woman in a band who heard him play.
He was off.
He released five albums during the next 10 years, eventually founding his own label, Eleven Records. Now, his MySpace profile has been visited 650,000 times, attracting fans from New Zealand and Germany. His songs have been played more than 1.1 million times at the page. He played a show in Siberia last year for about 1,500 people.
Admittedly, that was one of the biggest headlining shows of his career. He usually plays smaller venues. Attendance at the intimate Everett show tonight may not top 100 people.
And that’s just fine.
“I don’t think everybody can do what I do,” he said. “I think everyone can do something in life they enjoy, but if everyone started picking up an accordion and travelling around the world, life would be miserable for me.”
Reporter Andy Rathbun: email@example.com or 425-339-3455
8 tonight, KSER benefit, The Sisters, 2804 Grand Ave., Everett, $11, 425-303-9070, brownpapertickets.com
8 p.m. Tuesday, Fremont Abbey Arts Center, 4272 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, $7, 206-701-9270, brownpapertickets.com
Hear Webley’s music and find details on concerts at www.myspace.com/jasonwebley