Texas-based multi-instrumentalist John Dulfilho is responsible for a lot of great music, whether as founder of The Deathray Davies and I Love Math or as drummer with psych-pop Elephant 6 collective Apples in Stereo. With eight albums to his credit since 2000, Dufillho has another 45 or so fully finished songs sitting in his back pocket – a collection Apples’ frontman Robert Schneider calls “a production masterpiece” and describes as “high art.” Dulfilho is releasing 14 of these tracks under the moniker John Singer Sergeant, whose self-titled debut will be released on April 10 on Kirtland Records.
On his first full-length album since 2008, John Singer Sergeant finds Dufilho taking a high-minded route: the name refers to 19th Century American painter John Singer Sargent and the album lives up to its namesake with a colorful, impressionistic sonic palette buzzing with creativity and full of inspired collaborations. Dufilho recorded, performed, and mixed the 14 backing tracks entirely by himself, aside from a few piano parts played by Rich Martin, then invited a cast of musician acquaintances and close family friends to replace him on lead vocals. Included in this crop of guest contributors are Ben Kweller, The Apples’ Schneider, Rhett Miller, Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, Kool and the Gang’s remarkable Sir Earl Toon and indie chanteuse Sarah Jaffe, each of whom lends their own recognizable vocal stylings to Dufilho’s music.
The only hard part, Dufilho says, was letting go a bit. “At first I was a little afraid, I’ll admit. What if, after finishing songs, I didn’t like the end result? Fortunately, that didn’t happen, not with me or with them. Everyone’s been really happy about the way things have turned out. I love the idea of someone else singing my words and melodies. I’m not the greatest singer around by any stretch, so it can be a bit limiting. I’m lucky to have willing friends who happen to have amazing voices.”
The finished recordings are like nothing that Dufilho has ever released prior. Stylistically, the disc bounces from genre to genre, touching on everything from a disco funk jam (“Dizzy Joy” featuring Sir Earl Toon) to experimental (“Birdy Num Num,” inspired by Peter Seller’s 60s film The Party, which features Dufilho’s wife, Danette, and friend, Letty Gomez) and “Jinxed” (featuring the Apples’ Robert Schneider), a dreamlike romp through a shimmering sonic landscape. Despite the wide range of sonic and lead vocal variation, the album is unified through Dufilho’s remarkable pop songwriting sensibilities and knack with arrangements.
Infectious and exhilarating, the collection is the most fully realized project Dufilho has completed to date; he’s already inspired to begin work on a second volume of songs to be recorded in this same collaborative vein.”I’ve got a whole list of people I’d love to work with,” he says. “Dreams are good.” Better than dreams, however, is preparedness. Fortunately for Dufilho, that’s not a concern. He’s got all of the songs written already.
For now, dig into the 14 tracks on John Singer Sergeant. Each track stands on its own, making for an album you can listen to again and again while continuing to discover something new — some nuance or musical pop culture reference — that adds to the experience. With John Singer Sergeant, Dulfiho has created a project that’s even bigger than the sum of its parts.