Not enough is ever made of the legacy of a box of old family records when it comes to serious young songwriters. There oughta be a holiday once a year to give thanks. Keep this in mind when songs from DREAMERS, Sherman Baker’s wonderfully crafted new EP, bursts out of your speakers.
Baker, for one, can thank his Uncle Bill in Sacramento, California. “At fifteen, I promised my parents that I would switch to guitar lessons if they would let me quit piano, which I hated and refused to practice. I quickly fell in love with guitar, and began learning all the songs of the day—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Guns & Roses, Metallica. My Uncle Bill, however, who had recently passed away, left me a box of old records-- mainly Dylan and the Beatles. I learned “You Got to Hide Your Love Away,” off of HELP.I played it for my best friend, Laura. We fell in love and stayed together for five years.”
The boyish, heart-on-his-sleeve Baker is a Sacramento native. His love of words runs in the family. Baker’s namesake, his grandfather Sherman, was a writer and New York editor for St. Martin’s Press, and the man responsible for finding and publishing one of the most famous of American novels--1958’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER.
Like his friend and recent producer, Jackie Greene, multi-instrumentalist Baker has been singled out by area critics as a pop-rock/Americana gem of a songwriter. As a young teenager in the early 90s, he was shy, and spent most nights alone in the family garage singing along to those favorite records from Uncle Bill. Much too inward to play guitar in front of more than a few people, let alone sing, Baker woodshedded and studied the essence of his musical heroes—Ray Davies, John Lennon, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan.
A move to San Francisco after high school and a chance in local theatre led to change. “My shyness seemed more bearable in a group situation” he remembers. Two years later, in 1998, he was auditioned and accepted into the Masters Program at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre School of Acting. “For three years, day and night, it was theatre---from Shakespeare to Mamet. I played young, tortured, lonely, fucked up characters. No doubt, my songwriting is mostly autobiographical. The tortured thing is not an act. I don’t like to lie. A lot of people say they write about themselves and then it really isn’t them. This is me.”
Baker’s last performance as a lead actor on stage was as Woyzeck, from the play of the same name. To Baker’s notion, it’s not ironic that two of his favorite artists, Tom Waits and Jeff Buckley have connection to this dark play—Waits wrote music for an adaptation—his 2002 album BLOOD MONEY is the result. Buckley played the same character as Baker, the mentally unraveling German soldier, in an off-off Broadway run. Says Baker, “In the middle of Woyzeck, I walked out with my guitar and sang a wonderful Kurt Weill song. It was ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.” I knew right then that it was music, not acting for me.”
Still, Baker spent a year in L.A, was signed by a top acting agent, auditioned for television during the day and performed his songs in local cafés at night. After a year, he moved back to Sacramento. “That town, that life--it wasn’t me.”
His first night back in early 2002, he played an open mic night at The Fox @ Goose, met Greene who was playing there too, and found a musical compatriot. “I came back into town knowing a lot of old folk music and old blues songs. We liked the same stuff.” That eventually led to Baker’s version of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” on a live Dylan tribute CD, POSITIVELY 12th ST., released on Greene’s local label, Dig Music.
Since then, Baker has played regionally and self-released a CD where he combined his influences of old country and blues, 60s pop and more modern artists like Wilco, Radiohead and Elliott Smith—whom Baker says ‘is my Dylan.” In that time too, his own natural voice emerged and DREAMERS, his five-song EP has just been released.
“DREAMERS is the first CD I have made that I feel begins to represent me and my musical path,” says Baker. Music critic Jackson Griffith (Sacramento News & Review/Pulse Magazine) is a fan. He writes, “Baker recently released a five-song EP of his own songs that’s a real delight. Dreamers takes him out of the Americana pigeonhole and plants him in pretty firm pop-rock territory… Baker has a reedy voice similar to Chris Collingwood’s, and his sense of melody—especially on the pastoral “San Francisco”—would fit right into a Fountains of Wayne album. Baker had some A-list help: the talented, former Sacramento producer Robert “Flossy” Cheek (An Angle,Two Sheds, Britches) co-produced four songs; Jackie Greene produced “The Glass.” The only unfortunate thing about Dreamers is that it’s so short; a full album as consistently good as this might really turn some heads.”
Says Chris Macias, the pop music scribe from the Sacramento Bee: “San Francisco” is a tune from Sherman Baker, a leading singer-songwriter from the Sacramento area, with shades of Elliot Smith and Bob Dylan, and a delicate yet somber vibe.”
Along with regional touring with simpatico drummer Matt McCord and bassist Shawn Hale, Baker is working now on “my heartache record, my break-up record.” That “particular brand of honesty” his compatriot Greene referred to with DREAMERS is in full bore. “I cry in front of everybody, so don’t take it personally,” Baker offered with a slight smile as he walked out the door.
--Mindy Giles, 2007