Music and geography are deliciously intertwined. The music we’re exposed to as kids, the people we meet and the vibe of our hometown all impact the tunes a songwriter composes.
So, it’s no surprise that the latest batch of songs from Portsmouth’s Johnny Sippell ooze with a laidback island vibe reminiscent of his native Charleston, South Carolina. And when we factor in his years living in Texas and Hawaii, it’s easy to see how this well-rounded songwriter’s musical foundation, labeled Coastal Americana, was built.
“Being from the Charleston area, I guess I grew up with a lot of different musical cross currents. Coastal Americana seems to sum up my sound,” he said.
Sippell grew up in a musical home and was urged by his guitar teacher to attend music school. “My dad has a great baritone voice; he always sang and played all kinds of records, like Getz/Gilberto, Sinatra and Harry Belafonte,” he said. “My stepmom is a retired music teacher and is still active in the Charleston Symphony Chorus.”
Sippell began taking guitar lessons from Earl Johnson in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina at age 10. “On Saturdays, he’d take me to his guitar studio, where I’d help out the beginner students while he worked with the more advanced players,” he said. “Then we’d have a jam session where he’d let us improvise.”
Eventually, he picked up a bass guitar and played in bar bands through his high school years.
“[Johnson] encouraged me to attend North Texas State University,” he said. “[The school] didn’t recognize electric bass as a legitimate instrument, but I read treble clef well enough to get into the jazz guitar program.”
How did Sippell wind up in Texas and Hawaii? He married Mary Sippell, now an anesthesiologist at St. Anne’s Hospital, and as luck would have it, all their moves for her schooling were in states with amazing music.
“My wife got into medical school in San Antonio. My friends recommended me to the Austin soul band, The K-Tels, when they needed a bass player,” he said. “We played the Texas circuit on weekends, San Antonio, Houston, Corpus Christi, Dallas and Shreveport. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when Sam Moore from Sam and Dave hired us to play some gigs in Florida. What a legend.”
Sippell’s other Texas music memories include playing in a duo with Monte Montgomery and opening for Bob Dylan, Kenny Loggins and The Dixie Dregs.
Hawaii, the next stop on his music journey, made him an even more well-rounded musician. “Mary had gotten a full Army med school scholarship [and] we lucked out when they sent us to Honolulu for four years to pay back Uncle Sam,” he said.
He learned to play Latin style bass and even got a Reggae gig in Japan. But things changed when their daughter, Margeaux, was born in 1996. ” I made a radical career move and became a stay-at home dad, or as I like to say, a low maintenance trophy husband,” he said.
Amazingly, gSippell’s latest album, “Haints and Anglers,” was recorded in one nine-hour marathon session with an all-star crew of musicians at Graham Mellor’s Uptown Sound in Providence.
“I did quite a bit of prep work to pull that off,” he said. “I made a demo of the six songs so the musicians could get an idea of what the songs were about. You basically want to let talented people do what talented people do, offering direction only when needed.”
Each tune on the record is like a tasty stew that mixes Sippell’s styles into songs that let you feel what he was feeling, with a carefree laid-back vibe.
You can hear Sippell doing his bass magic around town with the Fran Curley Trio, and he hopes to be doing his solo act at some local venues soon. Stay tuned.
“Haints and Anglers” is available worldwide on Spotify, iTunes and Amazon. To learn more, visit sippell.com.
When: Sunday, May 29, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., with The Fran Curley Trio
Where: The 5th Element