Santa Cruz folk-rocker Anthony Arya burst onto the scene in 2018 on NBC’s talent competition, and since then has put out a pair of albums and enrolled at Stanford. He talks to Lookout about his influences, what goes into his songwriting and when we should expect his next record.
When Anthony Arya takes the stage, expect a journey. Whether delving into history or spinning a story, the Santa Cruz singer-songwriter blends inspiration from jazz, blues and rock with the influences of Bob Dylan.
Though he’s only halfway through college at Stanford, Arya already has a number of milestones behind him. In 2018, he starred on NBC’s “The Voice” at age 15 before going on to release a pair of albums — “Going To California” followed by “The Road.” He also performs with a Grateful Dead cover band called Chasing Ophelia as well as a jazz trio, Life is a Cabaret.
Arya and his band hit the stage Wednesday as part of Ted Welty’s weekly local showcase at Michael’s On Main in Soquel — and he has a handful of other dates scheduled over the next month at Santa Cruz County venues including Felton Music Hall, the Midtown Friday block party and Cork and Fork in Capitola.
We spoke with Arya about how he developed his signature style and the moments that inspired him along the way; the conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
How did you develop your style of music?
In third grade, I joined this after-school rock band and, at the time, I was playing drums and singing. I went through a lot of different styles growing up; I got into jazz a lot and I played in a few jazz bands going through high school. As I got even older, I started really focusing on singing. And then once I found the guitar, it was sort of the endgame. I started writing my own originals and getting out there and performing more in the local Santa Cruz songwriting scene.
I also grew up listening to a lot of blues. I became obsessed with Bob Dylan and Jim Croce and all those great songwriters — and just the art of songwriting. I feel like all of those contributed to what kind of manifests itself in my songwriting today. It’s just this amalgamation of influences.
What was it like to be a contestant on ‘The Voice’?
It was just surreal because I had grown up watching the show with my mom, seeing all the different artists that would come and really appreciating each style and the artistry that everyone brought. I think that’s what really started my appreciation for all kinds of different music. So when I was actually on the show and in the behind-the-scenes kind of process in L.A., being out with all these contestants in the same place for the whole summer, I loved it.
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Can you tell us a little more about that experience?
I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a large sense of camaraderie or perhaps some competition, but it was definitely just a big community. No one was overly competitive. It was really that we all knew that we were there because we love music. We ended up jamming out by the fire pit at the end of the day, all the time. I would play my new original music for people before I even released my first album. These guys were hearing my tunes — and singing along at times!
In terms of the actual performances, I sang some folk-rock classics that I really loved. I first got picked up by Adam [Levine, one of the “Voice” judges] after doing Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song.” And I went through a couple of rounds and was stolen by [judge] Jennifer Hudson when I sang a Jim Croce tune called “Operator.” Even though I’m a songwriter — and I obviously at the end of the day want to be playing my own music — I was fortunate to be playing tunes by songwriters I really do admire.
What similarities and differences do you see between your second album (‘The Road’) and your first (‘Going to California’)?
I think I carried forward that core folky songwriting and passion to tell stories into the second album, but maybe with a more anthem-like quality. I always feel like there’s a dynamism in the second album that really pushed it forward and gave it a new life. I love to read history and write about that, and that carried through. I mean, I had plenty of historical terms and experiences that I wrote about in “Going to California,” but on “The Road,” there are songs like “Judge Taylor,” which tells a story of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, and there’s “USS Tullibee,” which was about a Pearl Harbor submarine that sank.
So you’re a bit of a history buff?
Yeah, definitely. And that’s what I’m studying in college [at Stanford] right now going into sophomore year. People ask if I’m majoring in music, but I’m thinking more American studies because everything I read really influences my own songwriting. It’s something that I’m passionate about — and also the songwriters that I admire always did that.
So how do you go about writing lyrics for a new song? What does that process look like?
Songs come to me in all different ways, but I keep a note document in my phone and that’s steady across my albums. It’s full of what I call interesting phrases — things from life and conversations and books that I’ll write down. And then that’ll really spark a song or even just a lyric, that will then kind of blossom into something more, because I’m always noodling around on the guitar throughout the day. So when I feel a sort of a certain vibe or just a certain chordal pattern, I’ll open that app and check out the interesting phrases — and a song can sometimes come out of that in the span of a couple of minutes or a couple of years.
I’ll give you an example of a song on my first album, “Going to California” — it’s called “Apartment 713.” I was walking in San Francisco and I saw the side of a bus stop. There was an advertisement there and it said that “women in Apartment 713 are irresistibly charming.” I thought that was such an odd and peculiar phrase.
When can we expect to hear that next album?
I gather these new original tunes and I like to play them out live for a while — because they go through a natural progression from just me sitting down with a guitar, playing them for myself, to then playing them live for people. And then adding more instrumentation, playing with my band and teaching them those new tunes. Sometimes a song is not in its final form when you immediately write it. I haven’t necessarily been able to do that with this pandemic because of the limited amount of band shows, but I am currently making all the demos for the new tunes. So that is the first step in the process. Hopefully by the beginning of early next year it’ll be out.