A delicate guitar pattern, a distant wordless choir, a deep, underlining organ, a string section that swoops in and out, and a hushed vocal melody seemingly sung an inch from the ear: “Stand back waiting on a dream that will never return. I sit back thinking of ideas that’ll never be heard.”
On a String, Reno troubadour Tyler Stafford’s forthcoming album, is a work of remarkable intimacy. The production is mostly Spartan and tasteful, but even when there’s a vocal choir and string section, Stafford’s voice and guitar are in the forefront, his voice comfortable, quiet, conversational, enunciating every lyric with precision, the cleanly picked guitar lines equally eloquent. But intimacy is the defining feature—the music might echo out as though in a concert hall, but at its core it never leaves the living room.
“It’s all acoustic instruments, organic sounds,” says Stafford of the record. “No synths, no Auto-Tune.”
Musicians on the record include bassist Zac Teran, pianist and arranger Eric Andersen, strings from the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra, and a vocal choir that includes Kate Cotter, Dave Berry, Michelle Pappas, Lacey Mattison and other luminaries of Reno’s singer-songwriter scene.
Stafford gives a lot of credit to Andersen for the complementary string arrangements that always enhance the songs without adding sonic clutter.
“Eric did an amazing job,” says Stafford. “He’s one of the most versatile, talented musicians around.”
But at the core of every song is Stafford—one voice, one guitar.
“It all just really supports the lyrics,” he says. His lyrics, he says, are all feelings, emotions, that he hopes he’s able to express in a way that’s understandable. “I try to be as honest as possible. Each song should be an honest representation of what goes on in my head.”
He spent his teen years in Reno, and then was gone for a few years, mostly playing baseball at the college level. Now, he gigs around town regularly, playing coffee shops and restaurants, mostly performing solo or occasionally with a trio.
“I think it makes you a better player to perform solo,” he says. “Because I want people to like the song on its own. I want them to have listening experience, not just start dancing around.”
Another advantage to performing solo is that he can work easily without a set list, tailoring each performance to the room. His solo performances often include a number of covers of other songwriters who he admires—including James Taylor, Dave Matthews and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum. Those three songwriters might seem disparate, but Staffard’s idiosyncratic folk music finds the common ground.
In contrast to his usual solo performances, his upcoming record release show, Sept. 24 at Hawkins Amphitheater, will feature more than 20 musicians, including the string section and choir to help him realize the more expansive vision found on the record.
“A lot of songs on the album I performed solo before we did record,” he says. “And the stuff we built around the songs—it’s almost surreal how well it came out when we completed it.”