Joe Firstman is a little overwhelmed by the praise he’s received for last year’s That Santa Fe Channel. The record straddles the line between Southern rock and Echo Canyon folk-rock, complete with lush harmonies and the easiest of Americana grooves. It’s as musically dexterous and authentic as classic Band or Gram Parsons.
It didn’t come out of nowhere, but it’s been a while since anyone has seriously paid attention to Firstman. He released a solo record on Atlantic in 2003 called War On Women, and held bandleader duties on Last Call with Carson Daly between 2005-2009. When he made That Santa Fe Channel, the Cordovas’ second record, it was done in Nashville, completely independently and on a shoestring budget; he didn’t get a record deal until months after the record was finished.
“[I was] completely off the radar. Dead in the ditch,” Firstman says. “I had the first Cordovas record out there and a small body of work, but [with That Santa Fe Channel], people were like, ‘We thought we got rid of this guy.’”
Now, he’s busy working on the next Cordovas’ record. He spoke with me on a break from the recording session—in the same L.A. studio where he recorded War On Women.
“The stakes are higher than ever. We have a label deal, and a lot of people’s opinions are involved,” Firstman says. “We want everybody involved. We got a good label that puts out good records.”
Firstman, originally from South Carolina, moved to Southern California, excited at the opportunities that awaited and hoping that California would rub off on him.
“I love California. I love the influence it has on rock ’n’ roll, but I realized when I got out here that people really wanted to sound like where I was from,” Firstman says. “Cordovas is definitely a Southern band.”
Even with a deal with Atlantic, he was never able to build a career as a singer-songwriter. After his Carson Daly gig, he retreated to Nashville. Once there, he put together Sunday night sessions with friends and local musicians, sometimes jamming out endlessly on Grateful Dead tunes. Everyone was encouraged to hop on the vocals. The power of these big harmonies and group grooves inspired him to make the first Cordovas album.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for there to be one main guy,” he says. “I personally view my artistry as best when there’s other talented people at work.”
The record got some attention, but he didn’t have a band to tour very much with, so kept his eye out for musicians to form an actual band with.
“The staleness of the backing back thing, there’s a lot of that in Nashville. We want to make sure that everyone deserves their own baseball card—each guy is special,” Firstman says.
In winter 2015, he and some other musicians went to Todos Santos, Mexico, a place Firstman goes every year to write music. They wrote what would become That Santa Fe Channel and spent the next year tweaking the songs and recording them, mostly live in Nashville.
Firstman has never felt so in touch with his creativity, and he’s never sounded so in tune with his Southern-rock roots.
His renewed focus: “Playing songs that you believe in and that help tell the story of you, the man,” Firstman says.
The Cordovas play at 9pm on Thursday, Dec. 19, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. 429-6994.