After hearing David Corley's debut album Available Light, one could say the Lafayette native arrived out of nowhere at age 53, akin to hitting a homer in his first at-bat.
But the album is a product of a 30-year cross-country odyssey of self-exploration, one of those rare moments where a lifetime of experience comes to bear in a single album you have to hear. It is that experience which shines through, particularly in his gritty, road-worn voice, which he uses to bring the movie of his life into vivid technicolor.
"It's kind of like a Super 8 movie," Corley says of the title track. "You can hear the projector running, or you can hear the crackle of the vinyl on your record player. It's the movie of your life, how time passes. It's about dealing with life as it comes."
That life has taken Corley from Lafayette to New York City, then LA and eventually Athens, Ga., where he lived on the fringes of the jangle-pop scene in the late '80s. While bands like R.E.M. found their voices, he struggled to develop his own take on the sound.
"My problem was I played piano and couldn't get that jangly Athens sound," Corley says, laughing. "A friend of mine played me Swordfishtrombone by Tom Waits when I was about 20. That was the first one of his that I heard. And that sort of changed the game for me, because I went 'Ah! See? You're allowed to do it like that!' He played piano and the same sorts of tunes that I play, so that helped a lot, it took me down a different path."
Corley says he didn't come from a family where music was a profession. But everyone in his family played piano, and there was always music in the house. Though he fought against the conformity of formal lessons, as a young man he'd always loved playing piano. It was when his uncle exposed him to the Beatles songbook at age 10 that he really felt pop music's influence.
"That was one of my biggest influences, learning all those songs," he says. "I can remember playing 'Penny Lane' growing up and I didn't really hear it on the record until I got to college. Then it was 'Oh! So that's how that song actually goes!' I was playing my own backwards version."
After high school he says he struggled, writing songs but not really having any experiences to back them up. "I was from the country in Indiana when I was 20 years old, learning to write songs, and I really didn't have life experience to write about so I knew I needed to go do some things. I took some big chances, going to New York City then moving to Los Angeles. Going to school in Georgia just because I needed to know things. I needed some culture, I needed to meet some people to get some experience."
During the three decades between his high school years in Lafayette and his release of Available Light this fall, Corley did everything from tending bar to being a bike messenger in New York.
"I was a roadrunner," he says. "I was a threat to grab on to buses, I was fighting with the cab drivers. You could make $100 to $125 a day if you worked hard and you stayed in great shape, but it was incredibly dangerous. After two years I decided to give it up before I got hurt."
It always led back to music. In his case, Corley eventually was teamed with music industry vet Hugh Christopher Brown, who he'd hoped could help him develop his songs enough to get a publishing deal. Instead, the two quickly connected on an artistic level and went to work recording Corley's particular vision of the small-town Indiana experience, working almost exclusively with analog recording equipment.
"With all the technology today, even kids who may be talented and creative don't really know what they're hearing yet," Corley says. "But they have the access to all this technology to where they can just inundate you with songs. I can't really use technology like that well. We used all analog technology for this whole record. I think that gives it a warmer sound."
Having listened to many of the artists he's been compared to over the last few months, Corley loves to talk about the songs he wishes he'd written, everything from Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" to Tom Waits' "Downtown Train." But when asked what makes a "perfect" song, he takes pause.
"To me, music is very magical when I write it," he explains. "When I listen to something, there's a certain thread that runs through the song where you can just feel when an artist means it. I have two rules about writing a song: one is you better have something to say, and the other is you better have something to say. That's all I have."