When David Boone steps onstage under the hot lights, cheers erupt. Boone, who is 31 and handsome, with sparkling green eyes, a trimmed beard and brown locks that fall loosely past his ears, looks like a rock star, although he isn't, not just yet.
Boone lays into his guitar like he's wrestling it down and belts out "It's better to love than to lose it all," leaning fiercely, abruptly, into the mic, writhing to his driving rhythm. His voice is warm and graveled—bold enough to capture a room and distressed enough to illuminate slivers of urgency and heartbreak.
The song resounds in Missoula's cozy Monk's Bar. There are seven musicians backing him up, including two drummers, but Boone owns this night, which is a celebration for his new music project, Dawns.
At one long wooden table sit DJs from The Trail 103.3 FM, the rock radio station, which is a sponsor of this show and has put Boone's new batch of songs in regular rotation.
Tonight is also the premier of one of Boone's new music videos, which is projected onto the wall of Monk's. It's locally made and surprisingly well crafted, showing a young couple wandering along the wintry banks of Rattlesnake Creek, riding the Caras Park carousel and eating ice cream by the railroad tracks. The guy blindfolds the girl and leads her through an old house into a dark backyard, where she's surprised by a group of friends standing around a campfire. It's her birthday. A little boy brings her a candlelit cake. As she blows the candles out, the video ends.
The song, "Tail Lights," has an Americana pop sound, with a swelling chorus that feels like the aural translation of an endorphin high. Boone recorded it in September 2011 in London with a major producer. It's a big step up for Boone, from coffeehouse singer-songwriter to collaborating with a large cast of musicians and making high-production albums with music videos to match.
Boone, a songwriting machine, has been playing folk and rock around Missoula for over a decade. He creates the same kind of keen, raw songs that draw people to Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Boone's a showman who somehow shows little sign of ego.
Yet Boone has struggled with manic depression for most of his adult life. Aptly, perhaps, he tends to write in two different veins: stark folk songs about gritty realities and bright, dramatic pop songs that even have string arrangements.
Now, with interest from a hotshot producer and a surge in local radio play, he seems to be on the brink of stardom, of fulfilling his dreams and the dreams of thousands and thousands of others who chase that one big break, never knowing when it will come, or if, or where. But Boone will know where it began.
When William Boone was a young man, he rode his horse into a small Northern California town and saw Mary Healy for the first time, sitting under an apple tree. In time, the couple settled near Seeley Lake, in Dogtown. They lived in a small three-bedroom house on an acre of land, which William bought from his brother-in-law for $1. Mary raised cocker spaniels and Persian cats for sale. William worked at the sawmill. Their children—David Boone and his two brothers and two sisters—played in their yard and were pulled on inner tubes down snowy back roads by William on his snowmobile. It was beautiful. David was happy. He knows they were poor but he doesn't remember feeling it. When he describes that time"Grinding our own deer meat on the kitchen table ... going fishing, running down the road"it's like he's sifting through rubble for proof of it.
The Boones went to church every Sunday and sang hymns. Mary didn't want David to listen to rock music but William would sneak out to his truck with his son and they'd listen to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. David was about 7 when he got his first guitar. A week later, William accidentally crushed it as he and the boy were wrestling. It took another five years before David got another, at Christmas. His parents said he'd been bad all year and wasn't getting anything. But when he went to help his sister get her present from behind a curtain, there was an electric guitar and amp waiting for him.
And then the darkness: His parents divorced. Mary moved to Washington state. His sisters went to live with family friends. His older brother went to live with their grandmother. His father moved into a small cabin near their old Dogtown house, where Boone and his younger brother slept in a backyard camper.
Boone immersed himself in music, listening to Top 40 and playing along to Men At Work, Billy Joel and Fine Young Cannibals. He traveled to Missoula to buy his first albums: Tarkio, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Nirvana's In Utero and the Counting Crows's August and Everything After.
His 7th and 8th grade teacher, Clifford Nelson, became his role model and support. Nelson was an extraordinary teacher, Boone says. "He probably could have lived in a nice home, doing well for himself, but he put everything into his classes and teaching, in putting on plays and taking kids to Glacier or Yellowstone on field trips every year."
Nelson introduced Boone to folk music, artists such as Bob Dylan and Don McClean. When Boone started his first band, Faucet, in high school, Nelson helped them record an album. He also got them their first paid gig, at Seeley-Swan High School's homecoming.
A day after the dance, Nelson was murdered in his trailer. The crime has never been solved.
"It was this chaotic, bizarre movie—a nightmare," Boone says.
The next semester, at 16, he dropped out of school. He moved with a friend to Mexico, where they rented a cinderblock apartment and kept a pet scorpion. When Boone returned to Montana nine months later, he started playing music again. He also began to unravel and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was hospitalized several times and ended up in the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs for a few months.
With the help of family and friends, with medication and time, he began to get better. He played in a band called Open to Closure and played coffeeshops and recorded solo albums with songs about everything from religion to relationships. He started using songs to revisit his life in Seeley. "I know in theory that I had the most beautiful childhood," he says. "And I'm always trying to find my way back to that."
Hard enough to bend
When Boone finally returned to Seeley in his early 20s, after a five-year absence, he took pictures of every street he'd been down, of his childhood home and the land where Nelson's trailer once stood. He printed and enlarged them and hung them on the walls of an old barn, where he set about making music. "I'm going to take pictures of all the places I've experienced emotional heartache growing up," he said at the time, "and while I sing, I'm going to let them wreck me again."
The result was his fourth album, in 2006, Hard Enough to Bend, a gritty, painfully honest gem. It wasn't just great for a local album; it's some of the best work by any singer-songwriter in the past decade. On the opening track, "4th of July," Boone recounts his dad seeing his mom under that apple tree. The tenderness of the stories is cut deep by a minor-key weightiness. Stark contrasts give the album texture and cohesion: The small-town pleasures of Seeley Lake are coupled with the sorrow of broken families. People who harden themselves to love find that hard veneers are the most fragile of all. Everyone has heard these themes before. What personalizes Hard Enough to Bend are the details. Lyrical turns like "I grew up on the outskirts of heaven" followed by "You'd be surprised but I ain't never going back" show a Springsteen-like awareness of what home means. When he finishes "Norfolk Bay," Boone doesn't just fade out; you can hear him stand up and walk out of the studio, still playing his guitar, a recording detail that mimics the album's frankness.
Love, at last
Stephanie Boone met her future husband for the first time in 2003, at Missoula's Break Espresso, where he and Tom Catmull were performing their solo works. David asked if she could move her table to make room for them to play. She obliged without thinking much of it. Then, during Catmull's song "Black Coffee," with the line "Black coffee in the morning sure tastes fine with you," she had a sudden premonition.
"I've only had two in my life," she recalls, laughing. "And this one was me and Dave walking down a wedding aisle ... So I was like, 'Ohhh-kay. So, I guess I have to ask this dude out.'"
They went out, they drank tea and she told him about the premonition. They were engaged three months later. After their wedding, they hit the road on a tour of coffeehouses for a year and a half, where their only rules were to spend no more than $7 a day and never stay in hotels.
"It was hard, but looking back, it was great," Stephanie says. "I like when you're living that kind of life with no attachments except hoping that your car works and takes you to the next place. We really got to know each other. After that year, I thought, 'If we can do that, we can do anything.'"
Stephanie, a personal trainer and co-founder of The Girls Way, a nonprofit that supports young girls through exercise and educational activities, is similar to David in some ways. They joke that because they're both dreamers, they are, together, doomed. Still, Stephanie provides structure. If she were his manager, she's told him, she'd make him do yoga once a week. She always has to be aware of his mental health, she says, "and so does he. And that's forever. But I think it helps to have a partner who's in tune to you."
There's a palpable sweetness to this relationship, a you-and-I-against-the-world vibe. When David says, "We play shows three or four nights a week," the "we" means Stephanie and him, even though she doesn't play music. When Stephanie tries to recall the name of her favorite song of his—that country tune he wrote during a five-minute soundcheck at the Great Falls fair—she says, "I guess we haven't named it yet."
There are hard times in their relationship, too. Arguments. Failures. Dropped responsibilities. But there's little evidence of ruin. She knows that his songs can arrive without warning and at inconvenient times. "And it's always when we have to go somewhere," she says, laughing. "Like, if we're about to go out to dinner, he'll be writing a song. And then he just has to write it. That's how it works. I know that I'm married to Boone, so I will always be late, forever."
Here's to losing control
David recalls a line from Orson Welles's The Third Man: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
That's how he's always felt about music: Art requires suffering.
After the stripped-down, isolated Hard Enough to Bend, Boone wrote its near-opposite, Tales of Gold, an album filled with musicians and optimism. For its release, he booked the Wilma Theatre and pulled in a large crowd.
"I really wanted to go all-out on arrangements and spare nothing and take my time and work with everyone I'd ever imagined working with," he says. "It was on the other end of the pendulum—not dark, but very hopeful."
Naturally, he followed that with State of the Union, an aggressive, angry rock album.
Yet, light or dark, as a musician and an artist, Boone feared he was treading water. It wasn't that he wanted to be famous; it was that he couldn't stop writing songs, and he was envisioning huge musical and visual projects that require time and money, people and equipment.
In 2010, he was in the midst of building a house for himself and Stephanie. The housing bubble had burst, so getting loans to finish the job was difficult. He was approaching 30, which, he says, "strangely came with an inordinate amount of pressure that I was putting on myself. I was always building this home to build a life to build a family to have something solid to be rooted to. But I was at this pressure-cooker moment, creatively. I was really wishing that my music by that point had created the opportunity for me to make the music I wanted to make, to do the type of performances I wanted to do ... My walls were coming in."
He kept wondering, At what point do you give up on your dreams?
In desperation, he wrote an album's worth of songs in a week. He gathered seven musician-friends and asked if they'd fly to Bozeman with him and record the songs for an album. It was a Hail Mary play.
"Certain things had not worked out up to that point," he says. "I wasn't doing art the way I wanted to: unrestrained. There were a lot of limitations—at least in my own head. I was like, 'I'm going to do this album. I'm frustrated. I'm upset with where I'm at in life and I'm going to use that and I'm going to break through a wall.'"
The first three days, nothing worked. Boone and the others had brought with them a lot of outboard equipment and none of it was compatible with the studio. Each day marked money drained from Boone's already tight budget. When they were up and running, it felt forced. In order to now squeeze seven studio days into four, the group recorded until 4 a.m. and then started again at 7 a.m. Boone wasn't sleeping or eating. He collapsed in the studio and ended up hospitalized for a day.
"It had been many years since I'd gone through any of that," he says. "The guys I was working with just kept pushing forward with parts of the material and the demos ended up getting recorded, but ... it was a disappointing, bummer experience for everyone involved."
He returned to Missoula, to working on the house and writing songs. Meanwhile, he'd discovered The Doves and some other U.K bands. Stephanie thought his music might go over well in the U.K. Maybe he should send a demo to someone there?
He looked up the producer of The Doves's Kingdom of Rust album: Danton Supple, who also had worked on his favorite Coldplay albums, Rush of Blood to the Head and X and Y. He sent an email with music to Supple's management company, 140dB. It was the only time he'd sent his music out blindly like that.
A few weeks later, he got back a note asking him to fly to London to record with Supple. That same week, he found out he was going to be a father.
"I don't hear David Boone"
It took a year to make it happen, but in September 2011, David and Stephanie got on a plane to London with their newborn son, Meyers, and an intern, Peter Horton, a graduate of the University of Montana entertainment management program who was working with Boone to get experience developing an artist.
David worked in the studio with Supple all day, every day, using the Bozeman demos as a foundation. They recorded with string arranger Audrey Riley, who'd also collaborated on albums with The Smiths, The Smashing Pumpkins and The Cure.
Supple immediately latched onto Boone's music because of the way it captures an authentic Americana sound while still being uniquely Boone's, he says. "You can't help but be drawn to what he's saying. All the songs make epic emotional and dynamic journeys, even in demo form, taking you seamlessly from these intimate intros to the almost orchestral, anthemic finishes."
The London studio experience had no glitches, no drama. It was a foreign, refreshing feeling.
"It was fun, and in a way it was kind of sad," says Stephanie, "just because I wish we could do that with his music all the time. That's the environment he thrives in. We felt at home, even in this studio where big groups like the Counting Crows and The Killers had recorded."
When the EP was finished, the Boones, Supple and the 140dB management group sat in the studio and listened to what they'd created. It was a different sound than what Boone had ever made before. To Boone, it felt like an arrival.
He was surprised when one of the managers spoke up and suggested that he abandon his name for something else, saying, "To be honest with you, I don't hear 'David Boone.' I don't hear singer-songwriter. I don't hear acoustic guitar and folk music ... I hear a soundscape, a larger vision."
Boone didn't understand what that would mean for his identity. But, he says, as he thought about it, it began to make sense."There was something really invigorating about the idea. I'll always be David Boone and I'll always be able to do a David Boone album, but this is a turning point. It's removing certain attachments and letting the music just speak."
Straight from the Cuban leagues
Most of the songs on Boone's forthcoming EP have been tuned down a step—a choice he made when he wrote one of the early songs, "Evidence and Answers," on a broken, three-stringed guitar at 3 a.m. The result is the kind of dark strum and rolling drumbeat you hear with late Johnny Cash tunes, mixed with the bright, resounding pop that makes U2's "Beautiful Day" feel so expansive. The lyrics reflect that, too: concrete detail, the kind that flooded Hard Enough to Bend, is tempered by broad strokes of abstraction. The "you" and "me" and "we" is no longer rooted in Dogtown. It's everyone and everywhere.
It's also much more commercial than Hard Enough to Bend ever was. Yet it's still Boone, maybe because the songs still come from the same place, written at ungodly night hours or in moments of uncorked emotion. When he cut the Bozeman demos, he planned on making an album called Here's to Losing Control. That was when it was a David Boone project. After the London recording, he's calling it All of a Sudden.
Boone has taken the advice of the London crew and discarded his name. He replaced it with the more abstract "Dawns" as a way to evoke a new beginning and to encompass the shifting cast of other musicians he's playing with, as well as the music videos and the people who help him make them.
He's completed three videos from the EP songs. The most recent, for "Better to Love Than," is the most stylized so far. It depicts a father and son whose intense relationship, from kitchen arguments to deathbed redemption, is interspersed with childhood flashbacks in gauzy light. It premiers this week at the Crystal Theatre during First Friday, where Boone will also re-screen the first two videos, "Evidence and Answers" and "Tail Lights."
The videos have all been directed and shot by Missoula filmmakers Patrick Cook, Brandon Woodard and Mat Miller. In June, Boone and the crew will travel to the Sun Tunnels in the Great Basin Desert, in Utah, to film the EP's final video, for the song "Beam of Light." On the summer solstice, the concrete tunnels, built by artist Nancy Holt, frame the sunset and sunrise. The summer solstice is also the day the Dawns EP will be released.
A few weeks ago, Boone called senior Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt, the third time he'd tried to contact Hiatt to get the magazine to take a look at the Dawns music videos. Boone knew it was a longshot; like the rest of the music industry, mainstream music media typically doesn't take the time to filter through unknown artists for the next new thing.
"I just wanted him to take a look, that's all," says Boone. "But he said to me, 'I've gotta be honest with you. You're kind of trying to go straight to the World Series here.'"
Boone laughs. "In my head—and I wish I would have said it—I was thinking, 'Well, actually, I've been in the Cuba baseball league for the last 16 years."
To the lighthouse
The house Boone built sits in a cozy neighborhood near downtown Missoula. It has a Spanish villa-feel to it, with insides full of polished barn wood, curtains of coffee-bean burlap and a rooftop deck that overlooks a quiet street. You might hear Springsteen's Nebraska filtering from the kitchen boombox, if Boone isn't playing guitar—which is rare. On one recent day, as he strums his acoustic, Stephanie smiles warmly, holding Meyers, who is entranced, bobbing to the music, staring wide-eyed at his dad. His life so far is wrapped in his father's music.
One recent night, when David was on child duty, Meyers started crying. It was Stephanie who had to comfort him.
"I was thinking of the crushing weight of obligation," David says with mock solemnity. "It was one of those things where everything was getting way louder and the baby yelling is getting louder and your voice is getting louder and the whole world is getting louder."
Through the screaming, Stephanie hummed Meyers a made-up lullaby and David picked up his guitar and played along with her tune, writing the song to her:
"I see lightning, we're in trouble, can't you see, it's just me. Let's stop fighting over rubble of a city we don't need. Climb the mountain to the lighthouse, send a message through the skies. When all of this sorrow is over, that's when all of the trumpets, and all of the lions, all the saints, all the sirens, will be making lots of noise, will awaken from their silence. And, Oh! Oh! I will be by your side!"
That song is destined for the second Dawns album, which David has nearly finished writing.
A week after first talking with him, Boone tells me he was thinking about contrasts and the notion that you need dark to have light or suffering to have art. He says he thought about how, if you took away the dark sky, the stars wouldn't disappear. They'd just shine infinitely. And so, he says, he doesn't believe that Orson Welles quote anymore.
"I was thinking of it in terms of when I was having my session in London. There were no hiccups; it was completely productive. I think it's a lie that when you have craziness that you're more creative. Yeah, you're productive and you feel like your mind is working on a different level than it's typically working at, but I don't think you're a master of your craft if you can't create at your most masterful level, when you're totally at the helm."
Meanwhile, he keeps writing. He has yet another project that he's written songs for, about history and how people forget and remember. That material has been growing for four years now, he says, waiting its turn. "I will be an old, old man," he says, laughing.
He still has nightmares almost every night, he says, in which he accidentally builds his and Stephanie's villa on the land he grew up on in Seeley. But now he also has dreams that are becoming realities.
He's hoping to record with Supple again this fall, first in Montana, then in London, to finish the full-length album they began. After London, Boone will fly to New York to play as a featured artist at the CMJ Music Festival.
Seattle-based radio promoter Kevin Sutter, who spearheaded campaigns for the debut albums of Nora Jones, Jack Johnson, Pearl Jam and David Gray, is working to get Boone in regional radio markets. Jesse Barnett, also a renowned radio promoter, is on board to take him national. Brooklyn publicist Jeff Kilgour of Tijuana Gift Shop is taking the reins on television, print and online promotion.
In an industry where no one's keen on risk, all this PR will cost Boone money—he jokes that he's looking at kidney market options—but he and Stephanie have decided they're not throwing in the towel just yet.
"We're at this place in life where we can keep going and keep doing this because we believe in this wholeheartedly," Stephanie says. "But it's so hard when you've never felt the relief. I feel like Dave and I have been in this boxing round together for seven years and it's like, will you either beat us up or can we just win?"
For First Friday, David Boone hosts the "Better to Love Than" video premier, which includes screenings of his other videos "Evidence and Answers" and "Tail Lights," Friday, May 4, at the Crystal Theatre. Come for food and drinks at 5 p.m., with the screening at 5:30 p.m. Or, come by at 7 p.m. for food and drinks and catch the screening at 7:30 p.m. $5 suggested donation. Go to the Dawns kickstarter page to check out and support the project.