Four years ago, Jeff Socia decided to reenter the Michigan music scene.
The Traverse City Americana singer-songwriter created a home studio, started playing live shows and honed his songwriting chops. Socia continued to build his momentum until last March when COVID-19 hit and instantly shuttered the live music world.
“I started booking some stuff on my own, and then last year happened. It’s probably a story you’ve heard a lot from other people – the lockdown was the time they were going to record and release something. I decided to go along with that story and take it one step further,” he said.
Nine months later, Socia dropped his thoughtful, melodic full-length debut album, Release, via all streaming platforms. The fervent 10-track project whips listeners down cozy, winding alt country roads filled with life-changing tales of love, growth, gratitude and risk.
“Everyone needs a release a right now, and this one happened to be mine. Hopefully, when someone listens to it, this can be their release. It’s been cool for me to hear from people who listen to my songs from elsewhere,” Socia said.
“I’ve gotten feedback from people in Ireland and other places. What we do here touches other people, and it’s their release. You never know what you’re going to put out there and how it’s going to affect someone. That’s why I called it Release.”
Throughout Release, Socia eloquently covers the gamut of emotions, experiences and encounters ranging from hard-earned life lessons to pivotal personal triumphs. Each intimate track ventures down different paths, whether real and imagined or taken and not taken.
“Everything I write has a story to it or behind it. I like the alt country part of it because back when I was doing the Nashville thing it was a literal interpretation of a song. Now with alt country, you see people like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, and the lyrics they put out there are not a literal translation of what they’re trying to get across. It’s more of a feeling they’re trying to get across and the different ways to tell it,” Socia said.
In an alt country fashion, Socia beautifully shares a twangy, uplifting tale of changing course mid-life on “California.” Vivid slide guitar, buoyant acoustic strums, clanging tambourine, radiant harmonica, hopeful electric guitars and calm drums prompt listeners to follow their dreams at any age.
As the ideal sonic companion, Socia sings, “Those trips up the coast you didn’t make/Hot summer nights/Where the stars were yours to take/I don’t know if you’re gonna go/If you do, there’s one thing you should know/If you go to California, I’ll be waiting for you/I’ll be here, I’ll be all right/If you say you need to stay there/Just go and enjoy the weather/I’ll be here, I’ll be all right.”
“I loved the way ‘California’ turned out, and it was a total 180 from where it was when I first wrote it. The lyrics never deviated, but the mood deviated. The lyrics fit this mood so much better, so that’s what I ended up going with,” Socia said.
“‘California’ is very loosely based on my brother, who’s an actor and filmmaker. He lives in Dallas, but he has to work in California. For me, that’s my visual of how it must be for him and his family. His wife and kids are in Dallas, but he has to go to California and New York.”
After changing course on “California,” Socia quickly trades past burdens for future opportunities on the uplifting spiritual anthem, “Something So Free.” Jovial acoustic strums, peppy mandolin, thumping drums and soft bass lighten the personal load as Socia reflects, “I made a sign of the cross/And hope bad news will pass/She says don’t you leave me here/No matter how long it lasts/They keep looking through tired eyes/The trouble won’t come back/Cause it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“It’s an evolution of my songwriting over the last year. For me, I love listening to what I wrote the first part of the year compared to this part of the year,” said Socia, who’s also inspired by Justin Townes Earle.
Socia continues to wipe the slate clean on “I Found Love,” a hopeful ode to renewal and growth. Vivacious mandolin, pensive acoustic strums, upbeat violin, delicate tambourine and serene bass provide a sense of purpose as Socia sings, “I’m just looking to find some simpler days/Hold your hand in mine/Find some time to pray/A groaning sound is all that I hear/Someone’s truth is just a lie/A lie just causes fear/In all of this, I found love/I found something to believe in/When all else makes us giving/I found love.”
“With ‘I Found Love,’ in all this, no matter what it is, you can find something in the darkness. There’s stuff out there if you just search for it. That’s what that song came from. The line in the second verse, ‘I see a young baby learning to crawl,’ it was my nephew. You think about those small moments, and no matter how dark life is, that’s love,” he said.
To shape the alt country pathway for Release, Socia collaborated remotely with Griffin, Georgia producer and former Third Day touring guitarist Jason Hoard of Black Cat Studios. The duo assembled the arrangements and instrumentation for the album’s 10 heartfelt tracks over nine months and presented an intricately woven Americana project.
“I’ve always loved his playing; he’s an awesome mandolin and banjo player. I realized that’s the Americana sound I wanted on my album. In March, he put a Facebook post up when the pandemic hit, and he said, ‘I’m not going to be touring for a while. I have some time, so if anyone has some stuff they want to get done.’ That was my key to work with him and do it,” said Socia, who also worked with Jeff Yantz at Bay City’s White Trash Studios to master the album.
Socia started laying the foundation for Release while growing up in Bay City. At age 12, he learned guitar and studied with Patrick Shannon and Darin Scott while playing in several bands. By high school, he started writing songs, joined Kinky Pink and performed in a school talent show before transferring to Saginaw’s Center for the Arts and Sciences (now Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy).
“For the first part of the day, I was at my normal school, and then I drove to Saginaw and took jazz studies. I studied with Dr. Billy Howell, who’s a legendary jazz trombone player. He would have Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz players come in because he played and recorded with them,” Socia said.
After high school, Socia attended Alma College on a football scholarship, but joined the jazz band instead. While majoring in jazz studies, he toured with the jazz band from Michigan to Florida and later left Alma College for Music Tech of Minneapolis.
“It was a great environment; you’re around musicians all day every day. I had a chance to see that scene unfold and play in cool bars there while being in Midnight Tea. I also got to record at Pachyderm Recording Studio a few weeks after Nirvana was there recording In Utero,” Socia said.
Three years passed before Socia relocated from Minneapolis to Bay City. The move home meant playing in big band and polka projects and co-writing with songwriters in Nashville before taking a decade-long hiatus from music.
“I got done playing a gig in Minneapolis one night, and I decided to move back home. I didn’t see how I was going to be successful there. Once I came back home, I played in an acoustic band for a while, and I tried to get a different band going. I never could find the right players, but I was doing other things as well,” he said.
By 2008, Socia moved to Traverse City, started building his home studio and continued playing guitar. It wasn’t until 2016 that he seriously reconsidered returning to music and eventually opened for Americana singer-songwriter Shawn Butzin two years later.
Those musical experiences ultimately spurred the creation of Release and continue to fuel Socia’s creative songwriting journey into 2021.
“I’ve watched my songwriting grow over the last year, and the stuff I writing now I wish it could be on this album. You have to set a definite date to release something, and this just happened to be the right time to release this project. It doesn’t mean I’m done releasing stuff; I’m expecting to have something in March with one single a month after that,” he said.