Perhaps because I live in one of the top rainiest cities of America, I find myself quite often flipping through radio stations only to recall the statement on my vehicle’s back window: I’d Rather Be Listening to Otan Vargas. Vargas’ debut, released at year’s end, 2009, is a well crafted acoustic grunge album which I find is best suited for rainy days.
Somber and achingly honest, Alone examines angles of solitude while revealing a ray of hope. Preparing a new EP, Otan Vargas spoke to Resonance about living his dream as a musician in America.
MC: I would like to discuss the upcoming EP, but first let us visit your 2009 debut, Alone. The songs tell of rejection and isolation, but also personal responsibility to make a change. Tell me how those themes came together for you in creating that album.
OV: I don’t really know if I have a concrete explanation for that. I didn’t plan to write any of it; I still don’t consider myself a songwriter. I just feel it and then somehow the words and music writes themselves. Probably my only contribution was trying to keep myself from judging the music when it came and just let it be.
MC: One of my favorite pieces is “Cloudless Sky.” The raw emotion brings forth your grunge band influences. Would you share the inspiration behind that?
OV: I find Grunge a lot more sincere than other genres. It focuses more on raw emotions and not the musical skills.
I’ve been listening to it ever since I was 10, that was like 1994. I first heard of Pearl Jam, then Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. I wasn’t really familiar with Alice In Chains back then; they don’t play much of their songs on the local Filipino radio, so the ones that I knew of were just the mainstream Grunge, and then I learned about [lesser known bands like] Mother Love Bone, Screaming Trees, and Mad Season.
MC: It has been five years now since you arrived in America from your homeland in the Philippines. Did you ever think then where you wanted to be today? How has the journey been?
OV: I never imagined any of this happening. It’s been 5 years since I moved here in the U.S. but still whenever I see a U.S Flag or any landmark I find myself in awe and still excited.
I still can’t believe that I’m here and I’m very grateful, even more for the great things that have happened in the past few years.
Some things haven’t really changed for me. I still don’t know where I’m going. I still can’t imagine where I’ll be in another 5 or 10 years. I don’t know how to plan things out. I’m not really good at planning life, maybe because I know it’s not in my hands.
Sometimes I do have visions for myself, and those are the things that I aim for in life. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to go, but I just trust my intuition and just keep following it.
MC: Based in New York, what do you find is the biggest challenge to being an indie artist?
OV: I don’t really consider making music as a challenging act. If you’re an Indie Artist trying to make it and you consider writing and playing music a job, then I will say that it’s going to be a tough and challenging ride for you. There are lots of great talents and very skillful musicians out there. But if writing and playing is something that is natural for you and it serves a higher purpose than fame and money then I can say that you have already made it.
MC: A highlight of 2010 was your August performance at the Jones Beach Boardwalk Bandshell Show in Long Island, NY. Tell me about your experience playing in front of thousands of people.
OV: It was surreal! I can’t believe that I was up there in front of thousands of people. It’s one of those things that I never imagined doing. All I wanted was to express what I feel and maybe somehow it would find someone else who might feel the same way, and then we could share it together. But I never imagined that I would be sharing it with thousands of people!
MC: You are preparing to perform at the Aaron Lewis benefit concert, It Takes A Community. Tell us about the cause and who else will be performing.
OV: It Takes A Community is a non-profit organization founded by Aaron Lewis of STAIND and his wife Vanessa. ITAC’s primary goal is to raise funds to support the Community Education Center in Worthington, MA. The charity’s focus is reviving rural communities throughout the greater New England area. It will be a 2-night charity concert; August 19th will feature Country Music Night and August 20th will be the Rock Music Night. I will be playing the August 20th show and will be sharing the stage with Aaron Lewis of STAIND, Corey Taylor of SLIPKNOT/STONE SOUR, TESLA, and LO-PRO.
MC: In 2009, you were called on stage by Aaron Lewis to perform one of his own songs, “It’s Been Awhile” and he commented afterward that on that night you sang better than he did. How will it be to share the stage with him as a performer?
OV: I still think that nobody can sing his songs better than Aaron Lewis himself, but it was really nice of him to say that. It really boosted my confidence as a performer. It was an amazing experience sharing the stage with him. He is an amazing performer, songwriter, and good person as well. Sharing the stage with him is like a dream for me.
MC: You’ve recorded covers from several bands, namely Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, The Verve Pipe. But you particularly like Staind, even commenting in your album liner notes that Aaron Lewis saved your soul. What is it about their music that affects you so deeply?
OV: I think they’re a band that you can listen to no matter the mood you are in. They write soft and heavy music well. Their words and melodies are very transparent so that anyone can easily relate to their music. And if you decided to dig deep you’ll find that they really worked hard on every song that they write. It’s the combination of the simple honest words and the complex yet sincere accompanying melodies that really touch me.
MC: You’ve been growing a loyal following since your debut album. One fan wrote in your comments section, “If I could only listen to one artist the rest of my life, it would be you.” What have your fans meant to you?
OV: Thank you, [the fans] mean so much to me. They make me better than who I used to be. Knowing that you have someone who supports what you do makes you feel like you’ve reached some success. The best thing you can have is someone who truly believes in you.
I treat them as friends not just fans. If I could talk to them every day one on one I would.
MC: I like the humble readiness to change mentioned in your new song, “Maybe I.” Tell me about your current project.
OV: It’s just another song, another chapter in my life. I think “Maybe I” is about seeking to blame things outside of us, though I’ve always believed in that saying, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” I still find myself lost most of the time, and this is just me being honest with myself on where I am at the moment.
MC: We’re looking forward to hearing new music from you soon. Anything else you’d like to add?
OV: Thank you so much to everyone who continues to support what I do. Thank you for giving me a portion of your time and some space in your life. It means so much to me….
Thank you for everything. God bless.
Saturday, 8/20/11, 5:00PM EDT
Pines Theater @ Look Park
Saturday, 9/03/11, 6:00PM EDT
Jones Beach Bandshell, *free*