Gyasi – Finding Freedom In Glam Rock & A Thrift Store Snakeskin Blazer
When people think of glam rock the images that come to mind are usually grandiose, and over the top, but Nashville’s Gyasi is proving you can do glam rock on an indie budget.
“It’s the energy that makes it,” he says, adding, “You’re only limited by your imagination.”
Motioning towards his jacket, he notes, “This really cool snakeskin purple blazer, I think I got this for like $40 at a thrift store.”
Glam rock, however, is about more than just a look, or a sound for Gyasi, it’s about freedom.
“The freedom in it, the freedom of being yourself, I think that’s what it really comes down to, and that’s very freeing to other people, seeing if someone is living in their power, living in their authentic self, I think other people find that very empowering.”
Living his authentic self wasn’t always easy for Gyasi, especially as a kid growing up in rural West Virginia, but his love of music was there from the start, and was nurtured by his father, and a man who used to smuggle records into Soviet Russia, and throw secret rock n roll shows while dodging the KGB.
Down In The Holler
Gyasi was raised in West Virginia in an area locally described as a holler. A land form distinct to especially mountainous areas, Gyasi describes a holler, saying, “When the mountains form a bowl shape, within that is the holler.”
His parents put down roots there in the ‘70s, well before Gyasi was born, with his father originally from the New England area, and his mother hailing from Ohio. With a slightly hippie ideology they embraced life in the holler, and Gyasi would grow up in a very old school way.
“I was raised very close to nature, and in harmony with the land around us, gardening, and hunting for food. Almost no television. We had electricity, but like outhouses. It was living off the land completely. We raised a lot of chickens, and peacocks, and turkeys, and my mom had horses. It was just a very harmonious way of living … the way people did a long time ago, but don’t much anymore.”
As a child, he remembers, “I was really like a sponge, really interested in as many things as possible – history, different cultures, music, old blues music, all these different things that nobody else was really into around here.”
When he started school he’d find his upbringing, an his interests, made him just a bit different from the other kids
“I went to public school, and it was just like oh wow, I don’t fit in with ANYBODY. They made it very clear that I was different, too. It wasn’t a particularly welcoming culture at that time.”
For Gyasi, however, music was already part of his life, and a love he was learning about on a daily basis.
From Russia With Tunes
Gyasi’s love of music began at a very early age. “I started playing the drums along with Beatles records when I was four. I kinda got into The Rolling Stones after that, so I was listening to a lot of ‘60s, and ‘70s rock from the get-go, and also a lot of old blues, and early jazz.”
One of his biggest musical influences came in the unexpected form of a Russian family that had immigrated to the United States in 1990, right before the fall of the Soviet Union. The family had bounced around the U.S. for a bit, eventually landing in Gyasi’s West Virginia holler under the false pretense that they would have a place to housesit while there. After arriving, they found there was no house to housesit, and they were stranded.
Gyasi’s family had two houses on their property, a Jenny Lind house built in the early 1900s that they were living in, and a larger farm house that was built in the late 1800s. With the farmhouse being uninhabited, they offered it to the Russian family, who gladly accepted. “They lived there for 16 years,” he remembers, “so from the age of 2, until I was 18, and their daughters basically became my sisters, and they were like extended family.”
The family was fluent in English, with both the mother and the father having studied English literature at Leningrad University, but it was another aspect of the father’s personal history that would result in a strong bond between him and Gyasi.
“In Russia in the ‘70s and ‘80s rock n roll music, and English literature, anything having to do with Western art was completely illegal,” Gyasi explains, “so there was a whole scene of young people, which Alexis, the guy in the family, was a part of – these young people that were really thirsty for knowledge, and art. He studied abroad in Liverpool in the 1970s, and he smuggled in Bob Dylan records, David Bowie records, all this literature, 1984, and he smuggled that all into Russia, and spread it around, and shared it with his friends, and they would make bootleg copies. There was this whole illegal underground Russian rock n roll scene happening where they would throw secret house shows, and try not to get caught by the KGB.”
When Alexis came to the States, Gyasi says, “He brought all of those stories, and also an incredible record collection with him.”
For a young Gyasi, this became a master class in something he was already enamored with. “I was into rock n roll because my dad’s record collection was amazing,” he says, “but I think specifically Alexis, and that family, he was really into T. Rex, and was really into David Bowie, and kind of taught me how to appreciate Lou Reed – ‘Listen to this record, and listen to how Lou Reed tells this story.’ … (He) helped me understand why that art was good, what was so powerful about it, and just the context of all of these things. I was very lucky.”
Finding His Own Sound
Realizing early on that he was on an artist’s path in life, Gyasi dove into everything music related. “I was trying to learn as much as possible,” he says, “I got really into playing a lot of early blues, and acoustic music, and Led Zeppelin was a huge thing for me.”
He remembers, “When I started writing music, and singing, it’s like all of those influences … there’s a certain point, especially as an artist, as a writer, I was trying all different things, and trying to find my voice. The first few songs I wrote, they just ended up sounding glam … it was just kind of a natural thing, all of those influences came out that way. It took a while to figure out how to develop it.”
A Big Setback
As Gyasi was developing his sound he would be confronted with an unexpected hurdle in the form of a major hand injury.
“I was prescribed an antibiotic that caused tendon damage in my hand,” he remembers, “I was playing guitar one day, and popped a tendon. It was horrible.”
The damage was extreme.
“I had two years where I could barely play. I ended up moving back home to West Virginia just to heal my hand.”
While he was healing, and unable to play guitar, he reached for a pen and a pad.
“A lot of that time was like, OK, I can’t just shred, I can just try to write songs, so I was writing a lot.”
Two years of writing led to Gyasi’s 2022 album, Pronounced Jah-See.
Doing It Live
While an injury led to the creation of Pronounced Jah-See, it was a fully recovered Gyasi’s live shows that led to his recently released Baby Blue EP, which features the title track, and three live singles.
A year ago Gyasi landed a coveted Saturday night residency at The Electric Jane in Nashville. While most residencies in the city require bands the play a certain number of pre-determined covers, Gyasi’s is 100% his own material.
The weekly residency reaped some unexpected rewards.
“I hadn’t really foreseen how impactful that was gonna be,” he says, “Playing every week, the band just go so tight. It just impacted our live show immensely, playing that often.”
The live tracks on Baby Blue come from a show Gyasi performed last September at a venue in West Virginia named Carnegie Hall, and he says, “It’s a good representation of us as a live band,” noting that their weekly residency has them “locked in, and communicating.”
Performing live on such a regular basis has done more than just make the band tight, it’s also given Gyasi a chance to connect with people on a personal level. This has made an impact both on audiences, and on Gyasi himself.
“I remember this young girl who came to a show, and she was just was very very thankful, and very touched. She felt like … she just felt very out of place in general, in her life, in the world, and she said that my music really made her feel not so alone. It connected with her, and made her feel like somebody understood her. That I think, really, to me that’s the goal, that’s the most beautiful thing about making music. That was how I always felt, so it means so much if my music can make somebody feel the way I would’ve wanted to feel, and the way I did feel when I saw great bands when I was younger, and great artists, and the solace I kind of felt in the artists that I love. Being that artist to somebody else like that was really special to me, really magical.”
That’s the magic of Gyasi, the magic of glam rock, and the magic of a thrift store snakeskin blazer.
For more Gyasi, check out gyasimusic.com.