San Jose native Drew Orepeza, lead singer of Almost Honest, didn’t always know that music would be his chosen path.
“I always liked to sing. I sang in high school (Pioneer). I didn’t do anything formal, but I would sing at parties,” he said. “I sang at a rally once for fun.”
Even though both of his parents are musically inclined, it wasn’t until after Orepeza graduated from San Jose State University, where he received a degree in Business, that he felt like music was perhaps the right direction for him.
“I was at one of those points in my life where I wanted to do something different. I was a personal trainer, and I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing,” he explained. “So, I decided to drop everything and move to LA when I was 20. So, I started music when I was 20-21. I was a late bloomer, a late starter.”
It was also around this time that Orepeza was introduced to his Almost Honest band-mate, Justin Florence.
“[Justin’s] brother was a radio DJ, and I had cut a demo. I gave it to [him] to listen to; I wanted his critique. It wasn’t very good at that point. He thought there was promise, and he said, ‘My brother is a guitarist. He just got out of a project and he’s looking for something different.’ So he introduced us, and we met at his house one night, and we just jammed. It just kind of clicked.”
Flash-forward to the present, Almost Honest is currently gearing up to release their debut record this early this summer.
This past April, in between flying back and forth to LA to put the finishing touches on Almost Honest’s record, Orepeza and I had an opportunity to sit down one night in Downtown San Jose to talk music, the band, and what to expect from their first record, which Orepeza said, “sounds nothing like what you’ve heard that we’ve done before.”
What artists had an influence on your music?
Growing up, I listened to a lot of 70’s rock. James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and a lot of classic rock. I think for me, what kind of got me into music was more of the indie scene stuff. An artist named Ernie Halter, Tony Lucca, and some LA guys. I started listening to them around the time I started writing. They kind of inspired me to pick up a guitar and start writing. So, it was more of the indie-folk kind of rock stuff that really got me to where I am with my writing.
How long had you and Justin been playing together before you started playing shows?
After about two months of just trying to throw some songs together, we had a song or two, and we played covers. We had a 6-song set. We played a coffee shop probably like two months after we had met. It was like 12 people. It was like a little coffee shop, but it was fun. I’ll never forget it.
We were really green, but people were like if you guys stick with it, you guys have something special.
How does the dynamic between you two work on stage?
When we play shows, like when we played The Roxy; we had eight, nine people on stage. It’s a big band. For some bigger shows, we’ll use the band. We started out doing the acoustic stuff, and in both settings, I really feed off him and he feeds off me. We’re kind of like centerpieces of it and it will always be that way.
You know, we write all the songs, all the music. We’ve been together since day one. But, it’s definitely going to grow into more of a band feel. Like a OneRepublic type of thing more than anything. We get compared to them all the time. Our live show is more along the line of that cut. I enjoy the rock feel. We have more rock feel on the record, and I like that, because it kind of lets me cut loose a little
With your songwriting process, do you start with the lyrics or the melody first?
It’s kind of evolved over the years. Earlier, when we were first starting out, I was doing a lot of the writing as a whole. Then it kind of grew into – Justin would write the music, I would help him write the music, then I would do the lyrics after. Now, it’s really organic. Like, “A Good Thing” one of our newer kind of R&B songs; we wrote that seriously in like 25 minutes. I wrote the music and made the beat and I had it sitting around for a couple months, and I had some friends that were like, you guys really need to write something, it’s kind of cool, it’s different. We sat down in the studio and we wrote that in like 25 minutes.
So, it depends. I wouldn’t say that we have a certain way we do it. It’s kind of like a feel thing. Like me and [Justin] are feeling creative and we’ll go to the studio. We’ll just sit down and hopefully something good comes out of it.
What do you think sets you apart sound-wise from other singer-songwriters that are out right now?
As far as what is setting us a part sound-wise, I think it’s kind of fresh, because we’re really conscientious about our musicianship on the record. The guys that play on the record, Juan Nelson from Ben Harper’s band played bass, Kenny Aronoff played drums; he’s phenomenal. We’re really big about musicianship.
We want to appeal to hardcore music lovers who really listen to everything and people who like pop. I’m hoping and I think that we have the ability to bridge the gap. I think that we kind of have a big demographic that allows us to reach people who enjoy both sides of it. Not just bubble-gum pop and not hardcore Wilco or something like that. I think that’s what makes us unique.
Alright, let’s talk about your band’s name, Almost Honest. What’s the story behind it, because when I hear your guys’ band name, my mind goes to the Josh Kelley album, Almost Honest.
Okay, that’s funny that you brought that up. There’s actually another reference. There’s an 80’s metal band called, Megadeth, they had a song called “Almost Honest.”
And I was actually really into that record, that Josh Kelley record, and that was kind of around the time where I was starting to play music, as well. I think maybe subconsciously that was in the back of my head. We were coming up with a few band names. One was like, By The Wayside. A lot of them kind of sounded like they were either a metal or a punk band, but we wanted something kind of unique. We were sitting there one night, and I was like, “Almost Honest.”
I feel like it’s a bold phrase, because I think a lot of people in life are almost honest. It’s like you’re not really lying, but you’re not really telling the truth. It’s the gray area. I feel like it’s something that’s used a lot and it’s not really coined as a phrase.
And I think our music really coincides with our name, because it’s hard to peg us to one genre. When we do shows, we’ll cover country songs, we’re kind of across the board. It’s hard to say what genre we’re in. Our producer has a hard time saying, “You guys are this.” Which is good and it’s bad, because when you’re explaining your music, I don’t really know how to describe what we are.
I have an R&B background that would be kind of my roots. I love R&B; Boyz II Men, Babyface. I really think it fits what we’re all about. I think it’s catchy. It’s a conversation starter, everyone always wants to know what it means.
The first time I saw you guys play was in 2009, and I am wondering how much has your music has progressed in the last couple years?
As far as the evolution of our music, it used to be more singer-songwriter folk, almost folk-y? I keep thinking that it always kind of had an R&B underlining to it. Like making this record and when we write songs, we think bigger. We think about rather than just me and him just sitting there playing a gig and how’s this going to sound, we think about how’s this going to sound with bass and drums and strings, or whatever else we want to put. We think about the bigger things.
We were lucky enough to make a record with Grammy-winning producer and mixers that pushed us to the limit, to our ability. We’ve grown so much because of it. When we make a record now, as a story, as a whole, how does the record flow from beginning to end? Does it all make sense? Is there a theme to it? Can you play it from beginning to end and does it feel right? I think that’s the difference between where we are now and where we were before.
So, you probably had these things in mind when you were organizing your track listing for your record?
Absolutely. I think that this record really tells a story. It’s a very honest record. Everything that is on the record, every song is something personal that I went through. I don’t write very metaphorically; I write very much to the point. If I say it, it’s happened to me. It’s weird to air all your laundry, but I think that will resonate with people. I think that they’ll feel that. That’s important to me.
Well as a listener, I appreciate that. Because you can listen to a song, and it might not be the same situation, but you still can sympathize and get where you’re coming from. When a song is superficial, a listener won’t be able to relate to the song as much, if at all.
Exactly. My goal is to connect with people. I want to connect with people through the songs, and I think that this record is going to do that.
On the topic of the record, what was the overall recording process like?
Oh man. It’s been scary, humbling. When you get with somebody that has years and years of experience and a resume, and has won a Grammy, you get tested a lot more. You’re forced to go out of your comfort zone. For me, singing, I thought, oh, I can sing in tune. I’m comfortable. But when I got in the studio and started cutting vocals for the record, I realized that it’s not about sounding great, it’s about portraying the song.
Sometimes we would do the vocal 40-50 times for one song. We’d spend two days on one song, because even if I sounded good, the emotion I was admitting through my singing wasn’t coming across the way my producer (James Saez) wanted it to. I learned that going back now when we were mixing that it’s more about the performance. Maybe it sounds a little off, but if the emotion comes through in just maybe that line in the song, it’s that much more powerful. I think that most young musicians and inexperienced musicians make that mistake that they want everything to sound clean, good, great, but if you look back at great records in the history of music, a lot of them weren’t great singers.
Tom Petty’s not a great singer, but people like him, because they believe what he says. When he sings something, maybe he doesn’t sound great, but you believe him. I think I’ve learned to focus more on that, than trying to sound good all the time. And that was a big step for me.
This is actually the second time I’ve heard of this. I read about another singer in their bio online, that their producer told them to basically just let go, and that it doesn’t matter what you sound like. And to be honest, I was like, what producer would tell you that?
It’s so true, though. It’s kind of like the hidden secret. It’s easy to press record and record somebody with what you have now these days, you have auto-tune; you can anyone sound good. They made like Paris Hilton sound decent, and she can’t sing shit.
I think that there’s another level to what makes a great singer, other than just having a good voice. I think it’s the ability to connect. Let me just say this, my producer taught me this, and I live by it. When I go in the studio and I cut a record or I’m on stage, I try to think about this all the time and he told me this: “Sometimes you have to fall down the stairs and land on your feet.”
When people go to a show and you see like an Eddie Vedder or you see Lady Gaga to some extent, whoever it may be that you’re into, the moment when they’re vulnerable and you’re seeing it, and you’re drawn in, because they don’t give a shit. They’re just singing a song. They don’t care what they sound like, and they don’t care what you think is what makes it that much more powerful. That’s the difference between good and great singers. That’s what I aspire to be. Hopefully someday, I can do that.
How would you describe the tone of the record?
That’s a great question. It’s funny, because we have a young following. We played a high school, and it was fun. But I think there’s a bit more maturity to the record. The concepts on the record are more mature. It tells a chronological story. It’s about being cheated on, it’s about seeing somebody that you were with and you see them again and they’ve had a kid, and it drives you nuts. It’s about going back and forth in a toxic relationship and you know it’s not right, but you can’t stop doing it.
It’s about believing in relationships again after you’ve been through these things, and it’s about never forgetting those lessons that you’ve learned when you go forward. I think that’s kind of the story of this record. When you hear the last song on the record, hopefully you feel like somewhat of a resolve. Okay, all this shit happened, but there’s hope still. I think that’s important, because no matter what, I don’t want to get cheesy on you, but no matter what happens to you, you have to learn from all those things, as horrible as they may be, they make you who you are. And who you are is alright, and that should be okay with you. You have to take all those things, good and bad, learn from them and move forward. I think I’ve done that to some extent in my personal life, and my next record hopefully won’t sound like this. It’ll be a little happier.
What do you want your audience to take away overall from your album?
I want people to get to feel like they know us, and that’s important for a first record. I think that people will feel like they know who we are, and they can connect with us and say, “Oh, we know who Almost Honest is.”
What is something that you’ve learned so far?
The biggest thing that you have to learn as an artist now is that it’s all about fans. That’s all that matters. And the way to get fans, sometimes you have to give away free [music]. A fan is somebody that comes to your shows, and that wants to personally meet you, wants to know you, and wants to follow you story. Those are the people that allow artists and musicians have a career. I want to have a career. That’s what I want to do. And that’s hard to do, and it takes time. And you have to be smart about it.
Knowing the state of the music industry right now, what drives you to keep moving forward?
If I look back at my life, I can put a song to it. I just want to make that impact on people. Whatever my message is to them, like you said earlier, if they can take that song and feel something from that and better themselves, or maybe they write to me, and say hey, that really moved me. That’s why I do this. I don’t do this to make money; there’s other things I could be doing. I’m not doing this to get rich, because it’s hard to make a lot of money in this business or make money at all. I just want to make an impact whatever way I can. That’s the most rewarding thing about it to me. I love doing this.
Almost Honest will be kicking off Left Coast Live 365 alongside Distant Dice on June 16 in Downtown San Jose. The band will be giving a sneak peak of their upcoming record. Click here to buy tickets.
For more info on Almost Honest, check out the band’s official website.