Foy Vance, Trevor Sensor
Tuesday, Oct. 11, with doors at 8 p.m.
The Merry Widow, 51 S. Conception St., www.themerrywidow.net
Tickets: $15 advance/$20 day of show, available at venue and its website
Barely into his 20s, Trevor Sensor is one of the most enigmatic young singer-songwriters on the road. He’s already been signed to the Jagjaguwar label (Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr.) and is now touring in support of a double-shot of EPs released over the past year. Local fans can become acquainted as he opens for Foy Vance at the Merry Widow.
Even though he’s always written songs, Sensor had no plans to become a professional musician. Instead, he described his entry into the national music scene as having more to do with fate and “true luck” than anything else. His contract with Jagjaguwar and subsequent EPs are the result of one of those right place, right time fantasies for which many musicians hope and dream.
Sensor’s life-changing moment began at one of his regular sets at a college bar in Pella, Iowa. That night, Fate brought guitarist Dave Keuning (The Killers) to Sensor’s stage. Keuning recognized Sensor’s instrumental and lyrical prowess, later putting the young musician in touch with people in the industry to help him reach a wider audience.
“I think [a life in music] chose me more than the other way around,” Sensor said. “It just kind of happened. I’ve been making songs, and little stories and stuff like that, since I was a kid. I planned to keep doing art no matter what. The financial means have come along for me to do that and nothing else.”
One thing that could have captured Keuning’s ear is Sensor’s artistic maturity. While he may be young, his arrangements and lyrical content reflect a veteran who has been there and done that. This aspect of Sensor’s sound is ruled by a vocal style that has been torn by asphalt and tarred by late nights in dimly lit bars.
Sensor accents all of it with lyrical content that gives his listeners a passionate, unfiltered look into the secret life of America’s small town, which makes him an artist truly influenced by his surroundings. His obsession with small-town life began in his hometown of Sterling, Illinois, and followed him to the small college town of Pella.
Sensor’s love for America is largely founded on the observation that its many small towns offer some of the best places to hide. From within, Sensor met a variety of characters and situations that serve as his muses.
“It’s like that small town [Cornish, New Hampshire] that J.D. Salinger, the guy who wrote ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ went to when he got out of New York City,” Sensor said. “The people in that town protected him. It’s not always universal that all small towns are safe havens, but I think that there’s something more genuine about it than city life. I find more real people there.”
Sensor feels his albums are worlds all their own with songs serving as microcosms within these diverse artistic realities. His debut EP, “Texas Girls & Jesus Christ,” serves as a guided tour through a world filled with smoky barrooms and broken dreams. Sensor says it was defined by the introverted nature of its five songs, each marked by a rawness, with very few production frills and very few instruments. Sensor fills each track with unique vocals laced with his trademark grit and classic, intricate trips across his acoustic guitar. “Texas Girls & Jesus Christ” has the air of a classic ‘60s folk album with Sensor’s modern small town observations.
“Starved Nights & Saturday Stars” is the second 2016 EP release from Sensor. As promised, he takes his listeners into a different world. The stripped-down nature of “Texas Girls & Jesus Christ” is replaced by a raucous honky-tonk attitude and a studio full of instruments.
With a rowdy arrangement and Sensor’s roaring croon, the album’s opener “When Tammy Spoke to Martha” is the perfect anthem for the modern honky-tonk. A psychedelic spoken-word piece called “Another Night at Lamppost Lounge” closes the EP, with Sensor’s poetry woven through five minutes of ambient sounds. Clearly, Sensor used this track to expertly break any stereotypes and concepts that have been created by the modern singer-songwriter scene.
With “a hundred and something” songs in his repertoire, Sensor and his label decided to “trickle” his work to the public. The decision also aligned with his desire to avoid the music industry standards that creatively shackle other artists. For Sensor, these two EPs represent his desire to defy expectations on both the business and the artistic levels.
“I always hated the concept of how bands have this great three- to five-album run and then start tapering off,” Sensor said. “The people that I always liked, like Tom Waits and Bonnie Prince Billy, do whatever the hell they want. They don’t abide by those business standards. They just make great art every time.
“The guitar can only offer so much for songwriting,” Sensor continued. “It’s the same with the piano. Sometimes you just have to do additional manipulation to get out different sounds and try to make it as abstract as possible. Nobody really complained to me when I wanted to put it out, but I knew that it defied everything that a singer-songwriter is supposed to be.”
Like many artists, Sensor views every facet of his creative process as a work in progress. When discussing his music, he gives the impression art cannot be rushed or forced. Even so, he plans to start recording a full-length album over the next year. So far, Sensor’s musical ideology seems to be paying off, and it does not seem his mindset will change anytime soon. Why should it?