Finding his voice
In his debut CD, former Isotoner Clint Asay displays a knack for serious song.
Thu Apr 16 2009
When Clint Asay moved to New York from Portland, Oregon, to work as a boom operator in 2001, he had a plan, of sorts, for busting into the film biz: He started waiting tables at the now-defunct Time Cafe, which was housed in the same downtown building as Killer Films. "I thought Christine Vachon would discover me," he admits with a laugh. She didn't. But at his next stint—as a cocktail waiter at Sidewalk Caf—Asay wound up discovering himself.
It was there that he made his first leap into music by taking the stage with pal Ben Lerman during an open-mike night. "It was just as a joke," he says. But when they busted out with a Bryan Adams cover—Lerman on keyboard and Asay on guitar ("I knew C, E minor, A minor and D," he recalls)—it was a hit, inspiring the duo to form the gay-comedic band the Isotoners, which quickly grew to a foursome with members Jim Andralis and Bryce Edwards. The Isotoners developed a cult following with songs like "Go Go Boy," "Subway Love" and "Gay Divorce," playing around town until breaking up in 2004. That turned out to be good timing for Asay.
"I wanted to start doing more serious stuff," says the musician, who is alternately earnest, goofy and amusingly self-deprecating in an interview. "Once you start doing comedy, you have to do it. I had to get out."
After improving mightily on the guitar, learning instruments including the ukulele and lap harp, and struggling through several failed attempts at finishing an album, Asay celebrates a major success this week: the release of Hawthorne to Hennepin. It's the debut CD from his band Clint, Michigan, on Kiam Records, the independent label run by queer Brooklyn musician (and Asay pal) Jennifer O'Connor.
"He is extremely talented —and a bit of a perfectionist," O'Connor says. "But what really makes this record great is that he lets you inside his world and gives you a sense of who he is."
On vocals, the band features Asay with Amy Bezunartea (now O'Connor's girlfriend, thanks to this project) , who has a voice Asay fell in love with soon after a friend introduced them. "I don't think I sing very well," he admits, "but together we're magic." Others on the CD include Mason Brown on mandolin, Sam Lazzara on drums, and Kenny Mellman, of Kiki & Herb, on piano. Former Isotoner Andralis makes appearances—as do other local talents, such as former Moldy Peaches guitarist Toby Goodshank and Shortbus-featured vocalist Scott Matthew.
Hawthorne's 11 melodic, plaintive and at times haunting tracks were written by Asay (except for one sweet cover of Voni Morrison and John Russel's"Act Naturally" and a harmony-filled O'Connor beauty, "Ready to Go"). They delve into tough topics, including isolation and longing for love ("Be My Man") and the death of his younger brother at 21 from a heroin overdose (the title track). "We fought all the time, so I have felt all these unresolved issues around it," he says.
Other songs— including "Basements of Churches"—deal with Asay's own immense struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. "I was completely out of control for a while," he admits, adding that he's been sober for five years now. A far cry from the Isotoners material, the album is inspired by Asay's heartache. "I feel like it's the easiest thing for me to write about—something that's personal and devastating," he says. "Comedy is easy too. It's the in-between stuff that's hard."
The CD title—referring to the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, and to Hennepin County, Minnesota, both places where he lived for a number of years—reflects what Asay says was a desire "to sing about a map of my history." A native of Cody, Wyoming (where the young, gay Asay was the only boy on the girls' school gymnastics team), he fled what he calls a "turbulent home life" at 16, living on his own and finishing high school in nearby Jackson Hole. After a couple of Midwest detours, he settled in Portland, which he now considers his hometown, staying until he was 22. During that time, he was diagnosed with and treated for with stage-four Hodgkin's lymphoma, which quickly gave him perspective. "I moved here the day after chemo ended," he explains, "because I had always wanted to live in New York."
Now, it seems, everything is coming together at once for the former nomad. He's planning a summer Northeast tour with his band and hopes to soon make a video to help boost their visibility on the Logo network—all while he finishes up an Addiction Studies Certificate program at John Jay College and continues on for a bachelors degree. "I want to be an addictions counselor," he says, "because I totally get it, and it sucks."
The Hawthorne to Hennepin CD release party is Thu 16 at the Living Room.