DFW Music News

Joshua Dylan Balis Makes Most of His Time on Earth Before It Burns

Joshua Dylan Balis started all over musically after a fiery year.
Joshua Dylan Balis started all over musically after a fiery year. Cal & Aly
It’s predictably unpredictable. Life-altering events are rarely planned or considerate of our daily schedules. They’re rather impolite in that way. For singer-songwriter Joshua Dylan Balis, a barrage of sirens, plumes of black smoke and a shutdown elevator on a chilly February morning in 2019 in downtown Dallas ushered in a new way of looking at life.

The then 26-year-old also happened to be half naked when it all went down. The restaurant on the first floor of the Mosaic building where he lived had caught fire. Thanks to some late-night shifts at the Twilite Lounge in Deep Ellum, the bar and music venue co-owned by his father and fellow musician, Danny Balis (Bastards of Soul), he wasn’t the most alert early riser in those days. As he scurried shirtless down the fire escape stairs from his 16th-floor apartment, survival wasn’t even the first thing on his mind at that moment.

“It’s so odd, but this is how distracted and frazzled I felt right then,” Balis says over the phone from his home in East Nashville, where he’s lived since September 2019. “I was running down the stairs and there was a girl in front of me, and my pants and my belt were still undone, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is weird, I’m chasing a girl with my pants falling down.”

Now 29, Balis is set to release his first full-length album, fittingly named We’re On Fire.

Balis figures the ordeal lasted only a few minutes for him, and he’s able to joke a little about that wild morning now, but he wasn’t laughing much about it then. Along with not being able to fall asleep, an overall uneasy feeling of powerlessness nagged at him in the months following the fire.

Before the fire, he had been involved in a car wreck that could’ve easily ended up worse than it did. More often, Balis wondered whether, if his life ended in a flash, he would feel he'd made the most of his time. In terms of his music, he didn’t feel as though he had.

After releasing his debut EP, Modern Gospel, in 2016, crippling stage fright kept Balis from touring to promote it. And he wasn’t keen on the recent music he had recorded for a new record.

But following the February fire was a period of dedication to make the most of his time and talents. Balis made peace with his feelings on the full-length album he recorded in Dallas to follow up the EP. With the backing of local label State Fair Records, he had a set of songs ready to see the light of day, but he knew it wasn’t what he wanted to put out into the world. Those recordings were scrapped.

When he listened to those songs, Balis heard mainly the sounds of him compromising on his vision. He didn’t hear any joy, and he didn’t hear his own conscience leading the way. He had relied too heavily on others for the record to have any power or clarity. Music was still the central focus in his life, and as 2019 rolled on, his fire-induced life urgency led him to make a move even more dramatic than scrapping an album. In September of that year, Balis moved to Music City.

“It was almost a symbolic move to me more than anything else,” he says. “I needed to make a record, a good one, that I believed in. I had spent so much time in the room with other people, passing ideas around, that I had forgotten how to follow my own intuition. I had fallen out of touch with myself, and I started over with just my guitar. It was a relief and it was a reminder that I could never go back and compromise again.”

The move to Nashville proved to be “a rich period” Balis says. Memories, thoughts, sounds and feelings that had been suppressed under the weight of collective compromise bubbled to the relocated creative surface. His love of country and folk-rock came through on the new songs he wrote, but so too did his vision for something grander, more unique. Exploring any sort of sonic innovation was something he had been insecure about before, but that was then.

"I had spent so much time in the room with other people, passing ideas around that I had forgotten how to follow my own intuition. I had fallen out of touch with myself, and I started over with just my guitar." – Joshua Dylan Balis

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Of course, he wasn’t short on inspiration when it came to material for new songs. That smoky downtown morning was sitting in his songwriter’s memory bank, waiting to be withdrawn. The title track to his new album We're On Fire (out on Friday, May 13) is a stunning example of what an artist can do when allowed to create in his own voice.

On top of a gorgeous, dreamy arrangement with just a hint of Americana twang, Balis sings about the precious impermanence of life by crooning, “Time is gasoline, and we’re on fire.” It’s simple to understand why that tune is perhaps the most prominent on the record, but it closes out the collection.

The atmospheric opening number, “All in My Head,” is the shortest track on the album, lasting 45 seconds, but it might be the biggest sign that Balis has fully delivered on the artistic autonomy it took years for him to claim. Singing only “All in my head” slowly three times over a melodic drone, Balis seems to be letting the listener know up front exactly where the proceeding music and stories originated.

In between the album’s distinctive opening and closing, Balis rolls out other examples of his own sonic desires, which may or may not have gone over well had he relied on the visions of others for his own creation. “Lydia” is a jangly heartland rocker that provides Balis’ voice a higher place to elegantly soar. “Stories” is a folksy, Americana anthem, while “Grandma” is a delicate acoustic look into the past and what it means now.

When you factor in the traumatic nature of 2020, the pandemic, the last presidential election and the many other defining moments and movements of the past couple of years, 2019 feels like it’s much further away than it really is. That’s certainly the case for Balis, who in the time since he descended 16 floors with his pants falling down has discovered an appreciation for life’s fragility, found a new home and finally released the record that he wanted to make.

“After the fire, it’s cliché, I know, I was reminded,” he says. “I could go at any second, and it’s like, OK, what am I doing here, and why, because this ride can be over so quickly.”
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Kelly Dearmore