"The snow just started within the last hour, just fine little snowflakes but it's a winter wonderland," says Harold "Happy" Chichester from his Columbus studio. "I've got my coffee and it's just so beautiful."
It's more than just seasonal beauty and Starbucks' finest that has Chichester living up to his jocular nickname. The former Royal Crescent Mob/Howlin' Maggie multi-instrumentalist is basking in the glow of his freshly minted solo career, which officially kicks off this week with the Valentine's Day release of Lovers Come Back, his exquisite debut solo studio album on his own PopFly label.
The "studio" qualification is necessary because of the official concert bootleg, Live at the Aladdin Theatre, which Chichester released nearly four years ago. Originally a limited, numbered and signed disc of a Portland show, Chichester finally manufactured a wider pressing because of demand.
"Looking back now, I really hadn't gotten my shit together as far as doing solo shows," says Chichester. "But the audience grew as I played and I think of it as the authentic sound of a poorly attended show. We put out the signed and numbered home-burned edition of that show, then someone told me they saw one of those on eBay for like $50, and I thought, 'That's crazy ... we'll just put it out."
Chichester's solo fortunes are merely the latest in a long string of amazing musical accomplishments. A gig with Ray Fuller and the Bluesrockers in the early '80s morphed into the Punk/Funk madness of the beloved Royal Crescent Mob, regional heroes who made the transition to the national stage just in time for it all to fall apart.
Chichester and the Mob had close ties with the Afghan Whigs, and that connection led Chichester to a unique role as an occasional fifth Whig on piano and vocals in the studio and on stage, an off/on role he has continued to play with Greg Dulli's Twilight Singers.
At the same time that Chichester was serving as the Whigs' utility player, he was also fronting his own band, Howlin' Maggie. When Chichester realized he was being shoved through the major label meat grinder once again (Maggie's debut was on Columbia), he decided to take the band back to indie status with their 2001 Hyde album. Unfortunately, world events trickled down to play out on a more intimate stage.
"The release date for Hyde was 10/11, one month after 9/11," says Chichester. "We were trying to work the single from that album, which was 'Love is All Around (x4)' and it was difficult. And it was the first release for our little independent label PopFly and we were learning as we went. And we basically went broke."
With prospects dimming daily, Chichester realized it was time to dissolve Maggie; the band played their last shows in the summer of 2002.
"The gigs were farther between and we were trying to get sponsorship for the tour," says Chichester. "Money just became the factor that made it unsustainable. I made the decision — despite my apprehension — I was going to try to do a solo thing. That meant recording a solo album and reinventing myself as a solo performer. That's what I've spent the past four-and-a-half years doing."
Chichester's solo star began rising almost immediately. He had already laid down the basic tracks for the song "You're Blowin' My Mind," which was an old song that hadn't worked with any of his band configurations. In the course of a single night, Chichester's solo path was revealed to him through two significant events.
"I had every track down except for the bass, which I was struggling with," recalls Chichester. "Lucky for me, my studio is next to a music club on High Street and I went down to see if I could round up a couple of horn players for a different song, and I ran into Foley (aka Joe McCreary), who I'm a huge fan of; he spent years playing with Miles Davis, and I came to know him when I went to see him play every Tuesday. I couldn't find any horn players but Foley said, 'Hey, I wanna see your studio.' So I played that song to ask his advice and he listened up to the first verse and he said, 'You gotta bass? Plug it in.' At that point, I was ready to pee my pants. He recorded that bass track and I was speechless.
"Then he split, and I got a call from Shawn Smith out in Seattle and his band Brad was getting ready to hit the road to promote their album Welcome to Discovery Park. I had asked him if he had any shows in Ohio that I could maybe open, and he called back saying, 'We want you to do the whole tour and you can ride the bus with us and you and I can share a hotel.' All the anxiety and ambivalence I had about staking out a little solo career went away."
Chichester's opening tour with Brad was perhaps the most influential step in approaching the recording that eventually became Lovers Come Back. He had sequestered himself in his studio and was creating in a vacuum without any outside input. Foley's bass tutorial and Brad's audience showed Chichester the error of his ways.
"Being able to play every night really showed me that it would be a mistake to make an album the way I was going about it, without going out on the road and trying out the songs on an audience," says Chichester. "Instead of having a band to give feedback and guide the direction of the process, I would go out and play the songs for audiences and feel out the responses there. That established a pattern of recording and writing and then hitting the road. In the four-and-a-half years since I started recording, I've been back and forth across the country — and Canada as well — several times and had a chance to find out what was working, what I wanted to say with the album and who the audience is and who I'm talking to."
Along with the time taken by writing, recording and touring, Chichester also worked several other interesting projects into his already burgeoning schedule, including a collaboration with choreographer Anna Sullivan that resulted in a five-performance run at New York's FringeFest last summer, helping Brad's Shawn Smith with his upcoming solo album and Chichester's first score, for an independent short film titled Zoe's Day.
"I'm the type of person that has a knack for finding those kinds of things or having them find me," says Chichester. "They're great diversions for me."
As a result of all of his various sonic activities, Lovers Come Back is an incredible amalgamation of everything Chichester has done to date, from edgily-skewed Indie Rock to gorgeous, melancholic Pop to shuffling, shambling Funk to a soulful blend of it all in an expansive and almost cinematic soundscape.
"The process that I undertook with this album, I refer to it as the house of mirrors," says Chichester. "When you're in the studio by yourself, there's no band to tell you 'That was a good take,' or 'You should sing that chorus again,' and get that instant feedback and built-in support group. Me working on my own became disorienting. Being able to work on other people's projects and go out and tour and play the songs in front of audiences, those were the things that helped to balance the otherwise one-sided process of recording this album."
HAPPY CHICHESTER celebrates his new album release Friday at the Southgate House with guests Shawn Smith and Cari Clara.