Josh Farmer might have ended up completely different if a jazz piano teacher hadn't lived in the small town of Manhattan, Mont. His mom got him to take lessons from the teacher when Farmer was a boy. His dad, a guitarist with a penchant for classic rock songs like "Stairway to Heaven," introduced him to the stylings of British jazz pop singer Jamie Cullum. In a small town you're often exposed to music through Top 40 radio, and Farmer listened to his fair share of John Mayer and Coldplay, but it never clicked with him in the same way that Cullum did.
"It blew my mind," recalls Farmer. "I pretty much listened to him all the time and crafted a lot of my songwriting and my piano licks from that one guy."
As is the case with most kids, he didn't really dig piano lessons at the time but was grateful for them later. And, even after he quit the lessons halfway through high school, he continued to play piano on his own, which led him to other musical dabbling.
"I started the guitar about the time that I started liking girls," he says. "Junior high. Trying to get the girls with the guitar. And I also played the trumpet in regular school band."
Farmer's aversion to formal lessons extended to college. He tried out University of Montana's music program in the fall of 2007 without much luster. "I was not ready for college," he says. "It was all me, but I blamed it on the school at the time."
He felt ready for an adventure that was real and meaningful, so he moved to New York City–a place with a very different Manhattan. He took classes at NYU and found a mentor who helped expand his approach to jazz. He was lonely. He fell in love with a girl and, for the first time, started writing his own songs. He'd hole up in a cool piano practice space on campus where he'd compose songs of yearning. "The songs were about her, and she totally didn't reciprocate the feeling." He laughs. "So it was perfect. I got a lot of great songs out of it."
After five months in the big city, he was ready to go back to Montana.
"I was young and I didn't know anybody there and so it was a reality shock," he says. "I was done. I was trying to work a job at Times Square for the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. I was living in Chinatown so I was taking a couple of subways and it just finally wore on me. I'd always wanted to get out of podunk Montana but I fell in love with Montana when I was in New York."
At 23, Farmer is still young. The way he looks with his long, dark, bandana-ed hair, sparkling eyes and contented smile gives you the sense he's a free spirit. He never finished music school, but he now has regular gigs in Missoula with five or so different bands. For the last three years he's played Jazz Martini nights at the Badlander, where the club–usually brimming with electronic DJ parties or rock shows–is transformed into a candlelit evening clinking with cocktails.
Recently, he's cultivated his own band, the Josh Farmer Band, which features Tommy Pertis on guitar, Valley Lopez on drums and Jesse Christian on bass. The group raised over $5,000 on Kickstarter last month to support the recording of an EP, which will be released at their show this week. Unlike his first melancholy songs he wrote in New York, these have an upbeat, funky vibe. It's a smooth collection, mixed by Pertis, who is a professor in UM's music department. There's a slight jam band feel with tinges of classic jazz.
On "Sapphire Eyes" Farmer's breezy jazz piano solos and warm, soulful vocals fuse with Pertis's hot Latin guitar licks to make a saucy dance tune that feels like it's soaring on the wind–which seems like just the place Farmer wants to be.
The Josh Farmer Band plays two shows in one night at the Top Hat Fri., Aug. 31. The Family Friendly Friday show is free and goes from 6 to 8 PM and is followed by the EP release show at 10 PM with Reverend Slanky. $5.