A Sonoran Song Cycle

Jacob Acosta’s new CD is inspired by the Grand Canyon State

Jacob Acosta
Jacob Acosta

Jacob Acosta has lived in the desert for as long as he's made music. He was born here, and he's embraced it. The same goes for songwriting. After releasing more than 10 albums, Acosta is putting the finishing touches on his most ambitious project yet: Desert Sounds.

"I've lived in Arizona most of my life and wanted to write an album inspired by it," Acosta said. "I've never really written a concept album, and definitely never written something so inspired by a particular location."

The songs originally began as personal stories, but grew into a sprawling image of the entire state through a series of vignettes: The desert rain, the canyons, Sonoran wildlife.

"It gives me the opportunity to think about what I love about where I live." Acosta said. "I would finish a song and think, 'OK, what's next to sing about?' Or, 'Well, now I need to write a song about the Grand Canyon, because I'm singing about the outdoors.'"

Beyond just the landscape, Desert Sounds examines the culture, places, history and people of Arizona. He says it works well for multiple kinds of listening, whether people want to hear about the natural or dive into the history of the state.

"I've never had to prepare for my music to be so relevant to people," Acosta said. "It really shows the community of listeners that you care about the place and want people to learn about it."

In preparation for recording the album, beyond mustering inspiration from the landscape, Acosta listened to many local bands that capture the "Arizona sound": rock 'n' roll infused with Latin flair, accompanied by string and trumpets.

He moved beyond these dusty sounds, however, mixing in some fun pop elements to keep listeners along for the ride.

"Including a pop element really worked for the desert, actually." Acosta said. "I tried to keep a positive edge to things because we have enough negativity going on already."

The lush pop sounds span 14 tracks and an hour of music. The songs take you melodically and methodically through the state. It all starts with the prelude: "Dawn to Dusk." Acosta particularly loves the wildlife of the desert, so that's where he started. The first track is a soundscape of animal noises and ambience, before bursting to life with the titular second track, "Desert Sounds." There is whistling, strings, marching drums, shakers, piano and incredibly uplifting vocals.

Beyond the evocative lyrics, the songs on the album are all sonically inspired by their subjects as well. Songs about the southern border are gilded with mariachi brass; the tracks depicting nature have an idyllic delicacy; when the people are described, the songs are passionate and epic.

When it came to drafting the songs, hiring musician friends for backup, recording and producing, all-in-all it took Acosta almost three years to create Desert Sounds.

"I knew I had to take my time with it," Acosta said. "And I'm really glad I did."

Beyond composing and singing each song, Acosta also plays the guitar, piano, bass, timpani and additional percussion. Alongside him are Courtney Pinski and Dale Clark on violins, Jason Allen on bass, Mike Ankomeus on flute and trumpet, Adam Guenthner and Jeanne Mayer on trumpets, and Andre Gressieux on percussion.

Just because the songs are mostly fast-paced and catchy doesn't mean Acosta strays away from more difficult topics. In the vast and impressionistic "Seven Kings," Acosta confronts death through the view of a violent cowboy outlaw. In "Little Spring," Acosta describes the plundering of Native American lands by colonizers.

There are specific references throughout the album to Arizona locations, including the Juniper Mountains, Ribbon Falls and the Tohono O'odham Nation.

It all culminates in an eight-minute instrumental extravaganza, expertly filled with musical motifs from throughout the album. The "Desert Sounds Finale" encapsulates just about every image that comes to mind when you think of desert music, or the desert at all, for that matter.

Hotel Congress will host the Desert Sounds album release party, which Acosta says is the perfect place for an album on the desert landscape and Arizona's history.

"I knew that when I was done with the album that Hotel Congress was where I wanted the release party to be." Acosta said. "It's a great place with a lot of history."

Acosta plans for the night to be a "very full experience." Beyond performing music from the album, the colors and stage setting will all evoke Desert Sounds. And after the show, Acosta sets off on the Desert Sounds Tour which will take him all up and down the state over the course of a month and a half.

He will sing the songs of Arizona while traveling through it, and at the end, play one last return show here in Tucson, where it all started.

"If I could bottle up Arizona for you in an hour," Acosta said, "this is how I would do it."

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