From Bible School to Knifepoint in Belize, Jacob Metcalf Travels World for Music

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Singer Jacob Metcalf appears at a bookstore on Northwest Highway with a truck that's been vandalized in celebration of his last day at work, silly-stringed with so many colors that it resembles an unraveling, mobile Jackson Pollock painting. In contrast, he's dressed entirely in beige. Metcalf has been part of the folksy Americana band the Fox and the Bird for the last few years, playing banjo and singing — "As a sidekick," he says — and now returns to the solo project he started back in the mid-2000s.

In the last decade, Metcalf has taken several eventful detours, traveled extensively and changed his major at "a little Bible school near Little Rock" from Philosophy and Religion to English Lit and then Graphic Design. " I even considered joining a nursing program," he explains. "It took me seven years to figure out I needed to drop out of college. I'm just fiercely indecisive."

The last statement seems implausible when faced with the cohesiveness of his upcoming debut album, Fjord, an instrumentally ambitious album which sparkles with melodic poetry. Tracks like "Ein Berliner" evolve at a European pace and have a pictorial quality, like the soundtrack to a kiss in the rain. "Some of these songs are 10 years old," he says. "I've failed to record this album half a dozen times before I found the right recipe and the right combination of people."

Not surprisingly, it wasn't always a pleasant process. Quite the opposite, at times. "Getting this thing finished was an absolutely excruciating experience, but I appreciate the entire journey." He describes a songwriting process that included a reclusive journaling habit more interminable than Anais Nin's (or that serial killer in Se7en's), saying, "I'm so excited to start taking in again. I haven't been able to read books for years."

Metcalf started taking piano lessons around age five because he was in love with his babysitter: "She knew how to play the Batman theme song by Danny Elfman, and I just thought that was the finest thing I ever heard." Eventually, his parents were no longer able to afford his lessons. "My mom refused to let that happen," he remembers. "She entered into arrangements where she would clean the house of my piano teacher in exchange for our lessons, which continued for 10 years."

He moved to Texas despite his phobic fear of it — he imagined it was a giant expanse full of cowboys — and first went abroad to Greece. "That trip was motivated by the admiration of ... another crush I had, but these days I'm more fascinated by intergenerational love, familial love and philos love," he insists. "I've heard enough love songs."

His traveling makes for some attractive anecdotes: He talks of nearly magical islands off Nicaragua, getting a fever of 106 degrees and stepping over a cow to get to a doctor in India, being told by a man with a machine gun to get off a pyramid in Egypt and getting robbed at knifepoint in "no-man's land" in Belize. "I realized then, this is real life, it's not video games or Nat Geo," he says. Left undocumented and penniless, he slept on the street for 10 days, ultimately being taken in for two weeks by a large family. "There are people everywhere who are already your friends."

Around 2008 Metcalf wrote a MySpace post seeking fellow musicians. The response resulted in the Jacob Metcalf Band, and another project, Fox and the Bird, which he's also still a part of. His namesake band would dress up in in sailor or civil war soldier costumes and go on DIY tours. But soon after, following what he calls "the longest winter of my life," he put the band on pause to travel once more, and signed up to work on cargo ships until bandleader Dan Bowman asked him not to leave. He's glad he stayed in Dallas: "I think this is the perfect city to foster my growth, our growth. The pace of the city doesn't require its artists to starve or have three gigs in one night. To make it in Brooklyn you have to claw your way. This community is very cooperative."

Performing live, however, is a different matter for him. "For years the thought of stepping onto a stage would turn my heart into a broken beat machine," Metcalf says. "The reason you write songs is because you're under stress, because the world is uncomfortable and you feel pain. I don't know why you'd want to share that darkness with people, but I remember my mom saying, 'When you have a friend, you multiply your joys and divide your sorrows.'"

Metcalf hasn't played a show as frontman in three years, except for open mics "just to spread the word" and to start from scratch, in a sense. The Fjord album release party taking place at The Kessler on January 22 kicks off a series of dates that include a stop at The Empty Bottle in Chicago. While Metcalf's essential touring band of four or five musicians includes Chinese guzheng, cello and violin players, Metcalf plays guitar and sings himself. Lately, like in a recent KXT studio session set to air on Friday, he's assembled a small orchestra of a dozen classical musicians. More than a musician in a band, Metcalf considers himself a "composer and performance artist."

"Soundtracks are eventually where I want to go," he says. "I have scored and produced original music for almost a dozen weddings." As he sees it, "Fox and the Bird is more folk-Americana and I consider my music to have a cinematic, orchestral quality. I want to eventually end up in the concert halls. That's where I see this music truly blooming."

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