In the last decade, Cory Driscoll’s music career has taken him from his native Jacksonville to Tallahassee to Los Angeles to Asheville and back home again. His current project centers on the River City and the perils it faces because of climate change. The indie singer spoke to Folio Weekly about his forthcoming concept album Tropical Depression.
The eponymous pun may smack of Jimmy Buffett, but Alan Jackson beat him (and Driscoll) to it. The depression of which Jackson drawls on his 1992 track is ironic, a facile juxtaposition of some unnamed, idyllic vacation setting and the relentless country-and-western saudade that haunts him. You can take the boy out of the country, etc.
Driscoll’s Tropical Depression, on the other hand, is literal.
“I started writing the album during Hurricane Matthew,” says Driscoll. “We lost power for five or six days, so I was just playing music by myself in the dark. The songs were not necessarily about storms, but it got me thinking about weather and storms in general. I would use that disruption metaphor to talk about things going on in the country and in my own life.”
He continued writing for another 11 months, at which point, Hurricane Irma appeared and made clear that Matthew had just been the opening act. Driscoll was once more in a darkened home, strumming an acoustic guitar and trying to make sense of what was happening around him. It was a sign.
“Hurricane Irma seemed like a logical book-end,” says Driscoll. “Songwriting for me has always been about personal growth. And when you're writing a personal narrative, life keeps going. You need to find your own place, wrap up that particular period and move on to the next chapter.”
Driscoll hastened to finish writing before the power was restored. The result is a concept album set for release next month. The subjects range from personal turmoil—including the vicissitudes of raising a child with an estranged partner—to the national farce that is the Trump presidency to the global threat of climate change.
The set is structured by the rhythm of the storm, with tropical jubilation giving way to an ominous foreboding and, ultimately, disaster. By album’s end, the proceedings become threadbare, semi-acoustic. The power has gone out. The closing track, “Hurricane Season,” is a campfire sing-along-cum-laundry-list of the nation’s ills, a folksy “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the 21st century.
Driscoll called in A.J. Donahue, Dave Pinkham and Sam Lloyd to interpret the tunes. All comrades from his former Tallahassee-based groups Curious Animals and Young Adult, these musicians had since spread out across the nation; they reconvened in Asheville for rehearsals. Tropical Depression was then recorded in Jacksonville with the assistance of veteran local musician and engineer Jeremiah Johnson.
Driscoll joined forces with Jacksonville artist residency program and publishing house Long Road Projects for the digital release and physical edition, a white vinyl record showcasing art and design by Florida artists Phillip Estlund, Dustin Harewood and Jamie Jordan.
As the team grew, they decided to celebrate the collaboration with a special soirée at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens the second week of September. Driscoll’s five-piece band (including recording engineer Johnson, also a multi-instrumentalist) will perform the songs live in the museum’s Terry Gallery, overlooking the gardens destroyed during Hurricane Irma (which are slowly being rehabilitated). A portion of the proceeds benefit the Cummer’s Garden Reconstruction Fund.
Also on the bill is meteorologist Mike Buresh, who will outline why Northeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to climate catastrophes. The Cummer event is organized in part by progressive music-and-art series Avant.
The timing of the release and performance is not accidental. With just a couple of short months before a crucial midterm election, now is the time to raise a bit of consciousness.
“It fascinates me that climate change is even a political issue,” Driscoll muses. “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree on it. We see it happen in our own city. And yet half the population rejects the whole idea.”
It’s true. The chorus of nationally syndicated conservative talk radio blowhards is relentless, haranguing listeners daily with sophistry so bald that it basically amounts to: “Who are you gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?” If overwhelming scientific consensus doesn’t loosen the scales from those eyes, however, then perhaps no outside force will. The other half’s climate-change epiphany will necessarily be a personal affair. Cory Driscoll hopes Tropical Depression will help voters connect the dots for themselves.
“I’m less motivated by the desire to change people’s minds than a desire to speak the truth,” the singer says. “The storm theme is simply trying to bring home what the experience of climate change feels like on an individual level. And, having experienced these climate disasters, we should be able to identify what it means to be good stewards of the environment without anyone else having to tell us.”
Cory Driscoll's Tropical Depression Record Release & Performance, 7 p.m. Sept. 14, Cummer Museum, 829 Riverside Ave., coryjdriscoll.com, $15