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Cook County Native Cobi Off To Fast Start As Solo Artist

Dec 01, 2017 02:03PM ● Published by Editor

By Andrew Travers of The Aspen Times - November 30, 2017

You can't get off to a much better start as a solo artist than Cobi did with his debut song.

The singer, guitarist and former member of Gentleman Hall's first single, "Don't You Cry For Me," became a viral sensation in 2016 — quickly racking up some 27 million streams.

He followed the song up with the five-track EP "Songs from the Ashes" and is currently supporting Black Pistol Fire on a tour that comes to Belly Up Aspen on Friday night. The show marks Cobi's Colorado debut and puts him in the opening slot before one of Aspen's favorite live acts in Black Pistol Fire, the fearsome Austin-based duo that puts on dependably unhinged rock shows in the downtown club.

Along with the "Songs From the Ashes" material, Cobi said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, he'll be previewing a handful of new songs from his forthcoming full-length solo debut at the Aspen show. 

"Don't You Cry For Me" is an allegorical poem about racial injustice, set to Cobi's stark blues guitar riffs and an electronic backbeat with touches of R&B rhythms and high-drama gospel. The way it caught on surprised Cobi. 

"To have a moment where something is really taking off — and not only that, but for it to be something that means a lot to me — that was a special moment," he said.

The music video underscores the song's social justice message – depicting lynching and police brutality in a powerful short film directed by Adam Villasenor and Reza Ghassemi. Asked about his social duties as a musician and how he sees activism fitting in with his music, Cobi quoted Nina Simone, who said, "An artist's duty is to reflect the times." 

"I feel like that's a privilege artists have and don't often use," he said. "['Don't Cry For Me'] built its own message and I felt like I was just the vessel for it at the time."

Born Jacob Schmidt, Cobi grew up in Grand Marais, Minnesota – a tiny hamlet on Lake Superior far up in the northwoods and on the edge of the untrammeled wilderness of the Boundary Waters.

"It's like nowhere else in the country and maybe in the world," Cobi, now 31, said. "It's definitely got some magic powers."

Its extreme remoteness and extremely cold winters gave Cobi a lot of time indoors, during which he taught himself blues guitar by playing along with old records. His godfather, a blues aficionado and record collector, guided the youngster through rock and blues history.

"He had this whole room full of records and CDs and everything you could think of," Cobi recalled.

He began playing the blues as a kid and traveled to see his first concerts including Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and BB King. By high school, he was driving around Minnesota and Wisconsin playing in a blues cover band.

"I wanted to be a 60-year-old bluesman," he recalled with a laugh.

He went on to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he formed what would become Gentleman Hall and quickly found a national following. When the band broke up in 2015, he embarked on his solo career and aimed at moving away from Gentleman Hall's pop-centric material into bluesier, more experimental territory.

"For me, it's been a really good move," he said of his burgeoning solo career.

He'll be playing with a three-person band in Aspen. Praising them, he noted that no one is truly a "solo" musician.

"Being a solo artist, nobody every really does everything alone," he said.

But the key element of the solo career is Cobi's complete creative control. He's used that freedom to craft a sound that blends hard blues with old-school R&B and gospel and has drawn comparisons to Hozier. But with just a handful of tracks released so far, Cobi is still just beginning to define his sound in public, building compositions on top of a blues foundation.

"Everything has expanded from there — that's where a lot of the bluesy, gospel influences come from," he said. "But I'm really inspired by what's happening in music these days. I try to bring a modern approach to that vibe."

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