By Eleni P. Austin
“It’s been so long since I held anyone in my arms, it’s twice as long since that was you, and somewhere down the line I lost my boyish charm, it was boring me, guess it was boring you too.” That’s Nine Mile Station, hoping for a little emotional rescue on “Fall Into The Sea,” a track off their debut album, Open Highways.
How is it that a couple of East Coast natives (New York and Miami, respectively), and current West Coast (L.A.) denizens, have made the best Heartland Rock record since ‘80s touchstones like Tom Petty’s Hard Promises, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow and Steve Earle’s Guitar Town? The road they traveled to get here was a circuitous one.
Will Hawkins was born and raised in New York’s Hudson Valley. He came from a musical family, his mom sang in the church choir but it was his Uncle Eddie and cousin Tommy that became seminal influences. During the ‘60s, Eddie played drums with a plethora of local bands. Tommy played guitar with ex-Plasmatic, Jean Bouvier. As a teen, Will attended several NYC shows, hanging backstage and even meeting iconic Rockers like Cars guitarist, Elliot Easton, Little Steven, flamboyant Plasmatics front-woman, Wendy O. Williams and Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens.
Growing up, he was inspired by artists like Buddy Holly, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, along with bands like Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M. and U2. As a kid, he played clarinet in the school band. By his teens, he’d picked up the guitar. Nascent childhood compositions gave way to full-fledged original songs.
He relocated to New York City in his early 20s, intent on pursuing a career in music. He recorded a couple of solo albums that garnered radio airplay and a modicum of sales. He also shared stages with other up-and-comers like Ryan Adams, Norah Jones and Ray Lamontagne.
Fast-forward a few years later and Will had pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to create new musical opportunities. After watching Echo In The Canyon (a documentary about the early Laurel Canyon music scene), he became intrigued with Fernando Perdomo, a musician featured in the film’s live performances. Since arriving in L.A. nearly a decade before, the Miami transplant had been making a name for himself as a singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer.
Will felt as though Fernando could be the Mike Campbell to his Tom Petty. Luckily, the pair had mutual friends in common. Once they connected, it felt like kismet. When Will recruited bassist Brendan Vasquez and drummer Nick Moran, all the pieces fell into place and Nine Mile Station was born.
Following a one-off collaboration with legendary Rolling Thunder Revue violinist Scarlet Rivera on a version of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” NMS hunkered down in Fernando’s Reseda Ranch recording studio at the height of the pandemic. The result is their debut, Open Highways.
The album kicks into gear with a trenchant trifecta of tracks. The opener, “California,” simply crackles with authority as a pounding tribal tattoo collides with squally guitars, vroom-y keys and tensile bass lines. Will’s roughhewn rasp echoes antecedents like Springsteen and Mellencamp. Lyrics speak to burning ambitions and deferred dreams; “You know this old town ain’t never been able to hold me, you know this old town ain’t never been big enough to hold me, you know I gotta get out now, you know I gotta get out while I still got the means to know how, I gotta go to California.” Combustible guitar riffs ricochet through the break, as souped-up organ notes rev and ignite, mirroring the lyrical urgency.
Up next is “Caught In The Rain.” A brawny bruiser, it’s anchored by a locomotive rhythm, low-slung bass, chunky power chords and flinty violin accents. The arrangement splits the difference between West Coast Swing and the Texas Two-Step. Lyrics unspool a sad-sack saga of a cuckold consistently duped by a duplicitous trophy wife; “Well, here’s a little story that never gets old, about a man and a woman and a pot of gold, there’s a moral somewhere I know, if you listen close/Yeah, he’s got a girl and he loves her so, she’s the prettiest damn thing and everyone knows, she runs around his back ya know whenever he’s not home, and you know he’s coming home real soon, and when he does you better give that boy some room.” The tension ratchets and stakes are raised as spiraling guitars ping-pong between each verse; “The other shoe is gonna drop and when it does, there’s gonna be a fight.” Fernando’s stratospheric solo, wraps around nimble violin runs on the break, just as the proverbial shit hits the fan. Fluttery organ fills and Gospel-inflected vocals urge the song to a stinging crescendo.
Shifting gears, the aforementioned “Fall Into The Sea” finds the four-piece drifting into more expansive territory. Feathery piano partners with electro-static guitar licks, sylvan keys, angular bass lines and a propulsive beat. Nuanced lyrics navigate the rocky shoals of a failed romance and a legacy of missed opportunities; “And I know my love is like fast food, always looking so much better than it tastes, I’ll take a bite of that and worry about it later, when I can see, oh yeah, when I can see….I lost everything I’ve loved and feared and it’s buried in the sand and I’ll never understand.” Shivery guitar riffs snake through the verses, underscoring the dueling emotions of angst and ennui. Trembling rhythm guitar gives way to an incendiary lead guitar solo that is by turns, Bluesy, cyclonic and vaguely Prog-Rock-y.
The best songs, “Hit The Ground” and “Open Highways,” arrive back-to-back, midway through the record. The former is a Soulful Rocker, powered by growly guitar, shadowy keys, gnarled bass lines and a loping beat. Taking a page from Johnny Lee, Will’s been looking for love in all the wrong places, even though it was always right in front of him; “I’ve been waiting a lifetime just to find you, and all along you were hiding in plain sight.” Even as the miles separate them, this long-distance romance seems built to last; “A thousand miles still stand here between us, whenever the phone rings it feels just so right, I can feel you here with me, holding you close and telling you everything’s alright, cause Baby, it’s alright.” Coruscated guitars spark and pinwheel on the break before the final instrumental denouement.
The latter is a mid-tempo groover that weds willowy guitars, wily bass lines and slippery keys to a hopscotch beat. Unrequited love evolves into the real thing, while pensive lyrics provide reassurance and understanding; “I know you’ve been hurt and abandoned, and maybe you’ve forgot what it is to try, to let someone in who won’t control you, and doesn’t let the best parts of you die, I know you’re tired and lonely, sitting in that house all by yourself, you got your books, your cats and your candles, but you can’t find room for anybody else.” The anthemic chorus sweeps away storm clouds of apprehension; “Now the sky is clear and the highway’s open and there’s nothing left standing in our way, and I’ve got no fear, and I’m still hoping that you and I are driving the same way.”
Other interesting songs include a faithful take of Tom Petty’s chiming, Byrdsy masterpiece, “The Waiting,” and a a rollicking rendition of David Poe’s Honky-Tonk heartbreaker, “New Friends.” The album closes with “Breathe.” Wah-Wah guitars envelope coquettish violin, coy bass lines and a tick-tock beat. Lyrics take a possessive lover to task; “You can’t keep me in a tiny little box, sitting on your dresser collecting dust, you can’t keep me in the palm of your hand, holding so tight that I can’t understand.” Fernando unleashes a scorching solo that underlines the fact that lyrics have him, caught in a trap and he can’t walk out. Ultimately, suspicious minds and self-doubt doom a relationship; “You and me, and all your insecurities, your pain and lies and everything you compromise, the trust and fear and everything you’re holding oh so near, I can’t breathe anymore.” It’s a decisive end to a deft debut.
Nine Mile Station fleshed out their sound with a little help from their friends, Lainey White added some sweet violin while Michael Russeck contributed killer keys. Backing vocals were handled by Marisol Koss, Cristina Vane and Dan Rothchild. The record was one of the last projects mixed by legendary Al Schmitt. The multi-Grammy winner worked with everyone from Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini to Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young and Steely Dan.
Will, Fernando, Brendan and Nick have locked into a solid groove. At just eight songs, the record is a relatively short spin. But the good news is they’re already working on a follow-up. In a recent interview, Will confided that he constantly challenges himself to get out of his own head and pay attention to the narratives that unfold right in from of him.
He noted “the best part is, as we get older, we gain more knowledge and experience. For me, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized what’s really important, and I focus on the life in front of me. I follow the open doors, taking the opportunities that are mine. It was really inspiring recently, to see Bonnie Raitt win a Grammy in her 70s…the journey never ends and I’m not done as a songwriter. There are so many stories to tell.”
Open Highways manages the neat trick of sounding loose-limbed and sure-footed, fresh yet familiar. Self-assured melodies are matched by succinct lyrics, economical arrangements and expansive instrumentation. The best part is, this is just the beginning. (Nine Mile Station and The Clouds will play at FURSTWURLD GALLERY/PERFORMING ARTS in Joshua Tree, Ca. on Saturday, February 25. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/somewhere-music-presents-nine-mile-station-and-the-clouds-furstworld-225-tickets-520869313137.