To quote the artist: “I dare you judge a book by its cover.” Even his deceptively simple name is riddled with symbolism. In a world where style passes for substance, Con is indeed a rare breed: a prolific writer who bridges broad pop sensibilities and deep Southern blues/ rock roots with an uncanny gift for cadence, rhyme and rap that defies his upbringing, and connects the dots between hip-hop heads, surfers and folkies alike. While Mr. Con began his creative life as an underground MC and street poet, his style evolved to encompass and embody a variety of styles. An amalgam of classic rock, blues, hip hop and folk, Joe has dubbed his unique blend of music New Americana. On his newest album, “Living Machine,” Con returns to his native Kentucky literally and figuratively, self-producing 14 tracks of starkly understated folk perfection.
Originally from Nonesuch, a tiny one stop sign hamlet 20 miles outside Lexington, in the heart of the bourbon and bluegrass region of the state, Joe’s young life was split between two worlds: the solitary and contemplative life of an only child raised by a devoted single mother in the country, and the relative chaos of being a middle child in a largely dysfunctional step-family in town with his dad. This back and forth not only prepared him for a life on the road, it made him a resilient, well-rounded person and a multi-dimensional artist. In addition to the ubiquitous presence of rock & roll, Con’s formative years were fostered by heavy doses of hip-hop, the genre which would eventually act as a springboard to his career as a rapper and later as a guitar wielding troubadour.
Joe cut his teeth and honed his craft in the SF Bay Area after graduating high school in 2000. Over the next five plus years, while obtaining his undergrad degree in English (he graduated from UC Berkeley with honors in ’05), he formed several bands, performing hundreds of shows and recording half a dozen well received independently produced and released projects. In 2007, he left San Francisco to travel, visiting and playing in Paris, Maui and many points in between, before eventually landing in Burlington, VT, where he lived for nearly a year. There he put hip-hop on the back burner and concentrated almost exclusively on honing his acoustic guitar playing and songwriting, often accompanied by his rack mounted harmonicas. His goal was to develop his singer-songwriter abilities until they equaled or surpassed his already incredibly advanced rapping. Along the way, he discovered that beneath the obvious disparities between these seemingly incongruous styles, lies a wealth of similarities and a deeper shared musical heritage. When he learned to harness the diverse powers of each, the true Joe Con sound was born. Finally he was on his way.
Con left the coast and headed west a second time, migrating to Los Angeles in 2008 to further his career. He renewed his hip-hop connections and began furiously writing and recording with several producers. After opening for Snoop Dogg in 2010 as half of the MC/ DJ duo ConCave (with DJ Caveman), Joe began to feel the limitations of simple beat based performance. As he sought to expand his sound, Con became immersed in the musical scene of Venice, CA, which at that time centered around a quasi-underground speakeasy called The Stronghold. There he met several friends and collaborators, gaining much local notoriety as an excellent and unique performer. Eventually he formed a band called The Real Thing, which played nearly a hundred shows all over LA and the California coastline. Though the next few years were creatively productive, both in the studio (recording the critically acclaimed EP “I Choose You” with Golden-Globe award winning producer Jimmy Harry) and onstage, (performing at Lightning in a Bottle and recently completing The Summertime Blues Tour with The Real Thing– which hit dozens of funky bars and honkey tonk saloons from San Diego to Monterey and included a blazing set at the 2014 Lightning In A Bottle festival), Con never settles in one place too long, musically or geographically. So in the early fall of 2014, he disbanded The Real Thing, left LA and returned to central Kentucky to record and self-produce the album which would eventually become “Living Machine.”
Though the songs were written over a period of nearly fifteen years, many were brand new, and none had ever been recorded. Con enlisted the help of engineer Erik Nystrom from The Elephant Rooms, a small, now defunct studio in the picturesque horse farming town of Midway, and went to work. On a shoestring budget, over the course of just a few months, the album was born. Con’s vision was to create a collection of haunting, minimal folk songs that sound timeless rather than dated. Far from a purist, and typical of his stylistic hybridization, he incorporates elements of several genres, including gospel, country, soul, blues, and most notably hip-hop. Not a concept album, the project nonetheless tells a musical tale that is essentially a microcosm of Con’s own journey: a small town kid who follows his dream and his muse to the big city before eventually returning with the hard won lessons of experience. The price he pays is the bittersweet beauty and aching sadness of his songs. And when the songs are as brilliant and varied as the fourteen that comprise “Living Machine,” it is a price worth paying.