Sonoran Soul: Carlos Arzate

On Got Me Wrong, Carlos Arzate explores struggle with melody

Carlos Arzate's first full-length album is the result of a patient, natural progression.

The folk, soul, country and blues styles that inhabit Got Me Wrong are a stark contrast from the heavy, intense rock music Arzate sang for years in American Android. But the songs that came when Arzate turned his focus to his own music sprung from a deeper well.

"This is an introduction to the variety of music that comes out of me," Arzate says. "I'm calling it Sonoran Soul, but it's not genre specific. When I'm writing songs alone, they're folk, but when the arrangement comes together, they show the diversity of music that I come from."

The change for Arzate began happening in earnest in early 2011 after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot. The angry, anti-establishment attitude at the core of American Android fit more with the country's divisions and polarization than the hopefulness and inclusiveness that Arzate felt inside. Ryan Alfred recognized that songwriting spark and gave Arzate a big push to keep it going.

"In American Android, it was becoming difficult to make the material I was coming up with fit the group," Arzate says. "It wasn't a bitter split or anything. I'm really proud of the music we created. But I was being more productive artistically pursuing the singer-songwriter thing than the cacophony of American Android."

In Arzate's mind, the musical change isn't even a particularly big one. He's always been a big fan of passionate vocals, whether it's classic gospel and soul, '80s ballads or the '90s grunge and alternative like Alice in Chains, Radiohead and Pearl Jam that became the chief influence of his American Android singing.

"I found passion in rock and I wanted to capture that," he says. "But I've been influenced by a lot of different music. It wasn't always hard rock. I asked myself what do I want to do in music? What was my goal? I don't quite know what kind of artist I am yet. I know I'm a singer. I know I'm lucky enough to have a voice and I've been able to write these songs."

As Arzate began writing more and more songs, Alfred, who leads Sweet Ghosts (with Katherine Byrnes) and plays bass in Calexico, has remained at his side, first as steady encouragement, but as time passed, as bandleader and producer for The Kind Souls--the somewhat fluid cast of musicians that flesh out Arzate's compositions.

Got Me Wrong features 11 songs, from blues stomps to ballads, from quiet folk to heart-swelling gospel, from a quick and quiet waltz to an eight-minute epic that builds and crashes like a monsoon storm. The versatility that comes out on record starts with the songwriting, with Arzate being careful to follow the songs where they go instead of trying to lead them to a specific place.

"Folks may think of me as a hard rock singer, but I grew up listening to the soul music my mom would play. I listened to gangsta rap and had a religious period from '94 to '98 when I listened to nothing but gospel and Christian cover bands. When I started writing other songs, they came in all over the map," Arzate says.

The songwriting ramped up as Arzate began playing more and more guitar, realizing his artistic path was separate from the music he'd been playing with American Android, both conceptually and musically.

Arzate's first step to record his new solo music came in July 2012, with the Letters from Loveland demo EP, recorded by Tom Beach. The stripped-down, three-song recording featured just Arzate on vocals and acoustic guitar, with backing vocals from Byrnes and Keli Carpenter. Included are what Arzate calls "primitive incarnations" of "From Here" and "My Darlin Dear," two of the more powerful songs on Got Me Wrong.

"It's been a progression," Arzate says. "Ryan telling me to develop my songwriting gave me momentum and Tom saying 'Come in and record some,' gave me more confidence. Then the Fly Away EP was received well by KXCI. It's been a slow trajectory. It has to be calculated and careful for me at this point in my life. It's definitely quality over quantity."

When he writes songs, Arzate often holds onto the spark of an idea until he can find the meaning for it.

"I just write songs as they come to me," he says. "The melodies come and I'll start to write and that's still my M.O. Some songs happen over a period of time. I'll have the melody and keep working on it. Whatever the lyrical content is, has to be believable to me. I want to be able to sing it every night."

"My Darlin Dear" in particular illustrates that perseverance. The song dates to 2010, the year after Arzate's sister died, following a long hospital battle. Arzate was sick himself and woke up the middle of one night in cold sweats. As his wife ran him a bath, he started humming, at first nothing, but slowly a melody emerged.

"Mentally I wasn't there," he says. "I started humming, just to find a center in myself, to calm myself and that gave me peace. The next day as I started to get well, the song just came to me. Like all songs, I just listened and it was given to me. I just translate it."

Arzate says he's grateful to the Indiegogo supporters who funded the Got Me Wrong project, raising $1,000 more than the goal.

The Got Me Wrong cover photo reflects the stark and personal quality of the music. It's a close portrait of Arzate himself, laying in water, his hair submerged, but his face above the water. The photo, by Taylor Noel Thoenes of Taylor Noel Photography, used a classic camera, with no flash, Arzate lit only by fire.

"I wanted this to be a vulnerable introduction. I'm putting these songs out there, for better or for worse and I wanted the cover to reflect that," he says.