By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
To fully retell the storied musical career of Ian Newbill would require more space than this newspaper can offer in its 24 pages.
The broad strokes begin after Newbill’s graduation from Noxon High School (50 minutes from Sandpoint by way of Montana) when he moved to Bozeman to attend Montana State University. It was there that he decided music would be the passion to which he would dedicate his life. In 1987, he and a friend drove a barely-running van to Los Angeles and “did the typical rock ‘n’ roll thing,” he said, “living in a studio apartment with cockroaches and selling everything we had to survive.” It was the age of hair metal, and Newbill found himself playing the Sunset Strip.
Style and bands changed over the years, and in the ‘90s, “Nirvana happened,” launching rock into new territory. Newbill evolved accordingly, and despite always being a guitar player and songwriter, found his voice and fronted his first projects. That eventually led him to modern country music, which mirrored his rock roots, and ultimately a small deal to make an album. In 2009 Newbill recorded LA Rodeo, and in 2012, he recorded Twenty Year Town on his own.
As for further record deals, “nothing ever really stuck.” Newbill went a different route, playing in cover bands and with a young, up-and-coming country artist opening for bands like Big & Rich, Lee Brice and Eli Young Band. Then, COVID happened, and Newbill found himself back home with the opportunity to take all he’d learned and apply it to an entirely new adventure: solo acoustic sets.
The Reader caught up with Newbill ahead of his Friday, Jan. 6 gig at Matchwood Brewing to talk about embarking on the first solo project of his career and what it means to play for the folks back home after decades of “chasing the carrot.”
Sandpoint Reader: Now, you’re here and you get to play music for [people back home]. What has that been like?
Ian Newbill: It’s been very cool — the fact that this year has been the first year that I’ve done a solo gig. During COVID, the only positive thing during that time when things were shut down was it gave me time to hone my craft as a solo acoustic guy. I’ve always played in bands. Most people would think that it would be a pretty easy transition; you just grab an acoustic guitar and play. But, in a band situation, you have the comfort and the support [of bandmates], and it’s loud. Doing a solo thing, there’s nothing to hide so you’ve got to be on your game, especially vocally. You have to be right on. You can’t hide behind a drummer and a loud band behind you. It’s been a really cool contrast.
It’s really nice to see people genuinely interested and attentive when you’re playing. I notice that now. I’m doing songs in a style that seems to be hitting people — a diverse style of music. Not just country, but ‘70s pop rock — anything from Luke Combs to Cat Stevens and everything in between. …
Generally, it seems to be working with what the crowds want to hear, too. I could play 20 original songs, and people might go, ‘Oh, that’s OK,’ but at the end of the night if you’ve had a few beers and you hear some guy pull off “Purple Rain” or something like that, that’s something that everyone can relate to.
SPR: I think there’s a balance to be struck, especially when you’re a solo musician and you haven’t always been, and you did spend a lot of time playing in those cover bands, so you know that takes a different kind of skill. Even scarier than not being able to hide behind a band is not being able to hide behind “Purple Rain.”
IN: Exactly. … I have a looping [device], so I can play multiple things at the same time, like a bass part on my guitar, or thump out a drum beat, and loop it, and then I have a harmonizer, too. I call myself between a single and a band. I’m in that gray zone where it’s a lot of sound for one person. … It’s a lot of extra work, but it pays off in the sound.
SPR: Something that strikes me, because you do have such a long career in music and in so many different genres, here you are — you recorded that first album when you were 40. People are so quick to think that being a musician is a young man’s game, but you’re proving that you’re able to reinvent yourself and learn and enjoy the learning.
IN: It’s just like in any profession, technology changes. What you learned 30 years ago is not always going to hold up 30 years later. You start a video store and then videos are gone. … Up here, now that I’m getting into the scene again, I do miss the energy of playing with a band — people dancing, or at a festival — that’s the one part that I miss the most, I guess. … There is something to be said for a big crowd that’s rowdy and wants to have a good time, so … I might throw a little project together.
SPR: One of my questions was going to be — because you are so keen and willing to evolve with the times — what’s next?
IN: Yeah, I think it would be cool to have a southern rock, country band with a little attitude. …I’m continuing to write, too, and adding new originals to my set. I’m just trying to get inspired again, and I have some songs with some publishers in LA. I continue to go down there to record some songs, and to just keep plugging. … I’ve been chasing the carrot for so long. I think I’ve enjoyed playing music this year more than I have in the past, too, just because you don’t have to worry about a manager or someone who wants you to change your style. As long as people will listen here, you can do what you want. I can play an original song that got turned down by a producer and no one cares. I can figure out what’s a good song now.
Ian Newbill live at Matchwood Brewing •Friday, Jan. 6, 6-8:30 p.m. FREE. Matchwood Brewing, 513 Oak St., 208-718-2739, matchwoodbrewing.com. Listen on Soundcloud or Spotify.
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