This Hero Needs Frontiers

Brad Lauretti is a hard man to catch, even when he wants you to. Sometimes he even outpaces himself, as he’d done to disastrous effect just days before sitting for questions at Rain Dogs. His body had quit on him.

Brad Lauretti had the flu.

That’s bad enough in any occupation. But when your occupation requires (a) singing and (b) logistics, there’s just nothing you can do. Community outreach can go only so far. Lauretti is an accomplished musician, best known for his folk duo This Frontier Needs Heroes, but he’s also the founder and CEO of Jacksonville Songwriter Residency, which the 36-year-old spent the last year building. The Residency’s goal is to lure serious singer-songwriters from around the world to live and work here for a week at a time and, in the process, draw more national attention to the vastness and vibrancy of Northeast Florida’s music scene. Its had a showcase scheduled for Feb. 1, during Community First Saturdays on the Northbank Riverwalk. His body didn’t cooperate.

Lauretti made the show — you couldn’t keep him away — but he was unable to perform. He was still dragging days later when we talked. His voice was strained and raspy, practically inaudible on playback.

“Residency programs are more common in the visual arts,” he tells me. “A little bit less common are writers’ residencies, for a novelist or poet. Me being a musician, I wanted to create the same thing for songwriters.”

One Spark presented an opportunity. After unveiling his vision there, he applied for one of the Spark Grants offered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. His was one of four projects selected for the Council’s inaugural round of grants — the others were Jenny Hager’s public art initiative Sculpture Walk, Swamp Jax Radio and the Looking Lab, which seeks to put art into empty storefronts in the Spark District — divvied up from a pool of $60,000.

That district spans about 35 square blocks of Downtown. And right on its edge is the Omni Hotel, where the Residency’s selected songwriters stay for a week, performing in and around the area. But their primary job while here is simply to write.

“When somebody comes and writes a song in a place, the place is intrinsically part of that song, forever,” Lauretti says. “It changes what people think about a city.”

The First Wednesday Art Walk on March 5 will see the project at its most visible yet, inside its host hotel during the re-opening of Juliette’s Bistro Downtown. Its March showcase, the first inside the Omni, is headlined by Woody Pines. 

Lauretti came to Jacksonville in what he calls “a very serendipitous way.” Back in 1999, he graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s in philosophy, a degree of which he’s made little use. He traveled, working in Austin and San Francisco and setting up “informal residencies” there. He also formed TFNH in 2008 with his sister Jessica, and recorded and toured with that project. “I just kind of have a wandering spirit,” he explains.

TFNH arrived in Jacksonville to play at the former Underbelly in 5 Points. “I was looking for a change,” Lauretti says. “When [Underbelly] opened up the Downtown location, I came to be the resident artist” — a gig that entailed booking, promoting and performing. “I was thinking I was just going to stay for the summer, and that was about it, but everything just fell into place.”

That was two years ago.

What he found here was an opportunity to meet all sorts of bands and play music in all sorts of places. He had a chance to explore Florida. More than that, he saw an opportunity, through both the Residency and his own academic ambitions, to make his corner of Florida a better place to live.

While he’s been developing the Residency, Lauretti has also been remotely finishing his master’s degree at The New School in New York City. His thesis, “Creative Placemaking: How Culture Affects Development,” focuses on how Jacksonville can utilize culture to benefit development on a wider scale.

“Where the market fails, culture comes in,” he explains. “And culture is the only means of development when the market fails. There are cities all around America who are using culture to revitalize neighborhoods, post-industrial spaces, stuff like that.” (Interestingly, the model he draws from is Liverpool, whose own greatest cultural export arrived in America 50 years ago this month.)

Take Detroit, a city facing extraordinary challenges. “There’s actually a nonprofit up there that is acquiring homes and giving them to writers,” Lauretti says, “because they recognize that artists and writers are creating intellectual property. Culture is such an important component of the economy. It’s always been considered something frivolous and nonessential, but actually cultural events themselves have overtaken tourism as a larger part of the economy. So Jacksonville, or any city, really, if they want to develop, they need to attract creativity, because they increase the quality of life that attracts business growth.”

That leads us back to the Residency. Lauretti points to the words of David Byrne and Patti Smith, legendary songwriters both, who have in recent months effectively declared New York “over” and encouraged artists to stay where they are and build from there.

“Especially for established artists who are already touring and making albums, the whole ‘music scene’ concept is getting more decentralized,” he says. “For artists, it’s not as necessary to go to a big culture-producing city like New York or Nashville or Austin or San Francisco. You can actually live anywhere you want and have access to the same opportunities.”

An outside observer, steeped in the prevailing perceptions of local culture and its broader value, would consider Lauretti’s professional trajectory counterintuitive at best. After all, while seemingly everyone else working in art and/or music is trying to advance northward, to the point that the Big Apple has become as much a vacation spot for Floridians as vice versa, Lauretti ditched the hipster mecca of the known universe to set up shop here.

It was there, in New York, that he
co-founded This Frontier Needs Heroes six years ago. And it was from there that the duo evolved, taking on several distinct musical incarnations whose unique approaches to the same basic material results in music that often sounds like they don’t even share the same composers. It was just a two-hour drive from that spot, in Philadelphia, that the siblings’ beautifully arranged, critically acclaimed third album, 2013’s Hooky, was recorded.

Lauretti could, at this point in his career, go anywhere, but instead he chose, and continues to choose, Jacksonville.

The Residency is fully funded through Sept. 30, and Lauretti hopes to expand on it. He’s also presenting a songwriters festival during One Spark 2014, held in mid-April.

“I think I’ve grown quite a lot,” he says. “It’s been a humbling experience, you know? It’s hard to move to a new place, any place. I think New York is actually one of the easiest places to move to, in a sense, because it’s so massive. It’s ultra-competitive, but it’s kind of like an open competition.”

Living here hasn’t changed Brad Lauretti’s approach to the art of music, but it has enhanced how he goes about the business. And the impact of his efforts has already begun to reverberate throughout his old stomping grounds.

“I have friends in New York who are from Jacksonville, and I didn’t even know until I came here,” Lauretti says. “And they’re emailing me, like ‘Why did you move to Jacksonville? What are you doing down there?’ ”