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The Bard of Tomales Bay 

Jesse DeNatale gets back to nature

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
There's something about the backwoods of Marin County -- maybe it's the air or the water or all those old, green trees -- that brings out the mythopoetic, mystic, dreamy side of so many artists, and musicians in particular. When San Francisco native Jesse DeNatale returned to California after years living back East, it was the North Bay vortex that swallowed him up, and the gentle, rolling hills that fed his muse.

In many ways, DeNatale was the archetypal California counterculture drifter, hanging out with his friends, playing guitar, getting high, and working at odd jobs like painting houses and busing tables. But then, as middle age and mortality loomed, and fellow musicians such as folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliott and neo-Beat bard Tom Waits offered their encouragement, DeNatale decided to make music his full-time job.

His debut album, Shangri-La West, out this month on S.F.'s Jackpine Social Club label, has earned DeNatale numerous comparisons to Irish poet-rocker Van Morrison, who recorded some of his most beautiful and recognized work while living in Marin in the early 1970s. In conversation, DeNatale tips his hat more readily toward Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but doesn't discount the influence of Morrison, who was a youthful favorite -- and a local figure in his day-to-day life.

"I remember I was washing dishes, back when I was a kid," recalls the soft-spoken DeNatale, speaking by phone from his home in North Beach. "I worked the graveyard shift at the House of Pancakes in San Anselmo. Van Morrison used to come in there and write. It was kind of a rowdy, crazy place, but he'd come in and stay all night. I never went up and said hi or anything, of course -- I was just the dishwasher."

The fortysomething DeNatale was a child of the hippie-era Bay Area. Born in San Francisco, he grew up in suburban San Rafael, where his love of music was first fueled by his parents' record collection -- which ranged from Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima to Billie Holiday's jazz ballads and the Mexican-American rancheras his mother sang when she was young -- and later by the expansive free-form FM rock stations that beamed out of the city. In the late '70s, after high school, DeNatale moved to the East Coast, where a job at a rural commune drew him deeply into the alternative lifestyle.

"Woolman Hill was an old Quaker center on 110 acres in northwestern Massachusetts that was leased out to a number of people, who started an alternative high school for kids to come and live and develop in ways where they weren't developing in the public schools," recalls DeNatale. "It was a pretty creative endeavor. I went to visit a friend who had been working there, and when I arrived I found out they needed a ceramics teacher. Since I had spent most of my time in high school off in the arts wings, I just kinda fell into the job. I was only 19 and probably shouldn't have been teaching, but they needed someone, and I just kinda fell in love with the place."

Although he thought he'd found a new home back East, DeNatale eventually returned to California (he's unclear when), where he started a family and took a series of random jobs. Music was always a part of his life, but so were alcohol and other substances, and somehow he never applied himself to becoming a full-time musician. When a few "real close scrapes" (with what he won't say) and the deaths of some close friends seemed to sound a warning bell, DeNatale decided to straighten up and devote himself to his art.

Rather than drink or use drugs, he instead started relying on solitude and nature as a way to tap into the "altered state" he finds necessary to reach his muse. He also began performing at venues throughout the North Coast, as well as at various hip SOMA nightclubs here, slowly honing his stagecraft and learning how to present his internal emotional life to the patrons of taverns and bars.

At first, DeNatale found that the intensity and rhapsodic expressiveness that drew audiences to his music often made it difficult to perform. "It used to get in the way a little bit," he admits. "I didn't know at first how to do a performance. It was this big emotional experience, and yet you had this audience there, watching you. It was kind of like when you're watching someone sleep -- you know, how it's kind of not right. Maybe for the audience it wasn't that way at all, but for me, as a shy person, it was really hard to get used to. Then I started to figure out how to work around that, and make it more of a performance."

He also decided to be more focused about crafting his songs and getting them recorded. Unlike as a teen drudging in the diner, as an adult DeNatale found it easier to network, and he introduced himself to some of the musical legends who lie low in the North Bay, including the notoriously reclusive Tom Waits.

"I was living up near the coast in Point Reyes," remembers DeNatale, "and I saw him in town, up around Sebastopol. I went up and asked him if I could send him something, because I was working on some songs. Then I kinda forgot about it, but I was at home one night and heard something on the radio that he had done, and it really knocked me out. So I decided to write him a letter, and I slipped in a cassette of some songs. ... Since I was living kinda close to him, I really just wanted to connect with him as a songwriter. A few months later he called me up and told me how much he liked the material and wanted to set up a meeting and talk. He was interested in knowing what I wanted, and offered his assistance. At that point, though, I was already recording my album, Shangri-La West, so we just hooked up a few times and talked. I just liked him as a person -- he's an incredibly generous, funny guy, smart, philosophical, and charming."

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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