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You'd think an EP called The Great Recession would be a whiny, shadowy affair full of foreboding and dread, but the three-song set by William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up has a lilting optimism that belies its title. For all its talk of goodbyes, going to hell ("Farewell") and losing all the "sweet things" ("A Soldier's Tale"), there's nothing sad about it.
William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up want you to believe their gospel-driven blues songs, driven by Ishmael "Ish" Herring's raspy vocals, are deeper than they sound. There's talk about "consumption," the "corrupted social system" and the "receding shallows of the American Dream"—but with their easy, swinging vibe and joyous melodies, the songs counter all that.
For Herring, the juxtaposition is just about right. After all, he has used music to transcend hardship ever since he was a kid, being shuffled in and out of foster homes in Kansas City. "When I was a little boy, I was too short to reach a microphone," he recalls. "So I would take a chair, turn it on its side so the ends of the legs would be level with me [and sing]. I didn't even know what an audience was; I just knew I'd like to perform and sing."
The self-taught musician (he plays guitar, piano and drums) first tried his luck in New Orleans and landed in the streets. Herring then went for the ultimate American dream—and headed for Hollywood. "Lack of guidance, self-sabotage and a failing economy landed me on the streets of LA," the 27-year-old says. He stepped off the bus with $70 in his pocket "and the clothes I was wearing when I jumped on a Greyhound to come here." His first night in Hollywood, an insane tweaker attacked him with a knife. "I had no place to go or sleep, I had no life skills, and I had no idea what I was in for."
Luckily, he could sing. He posted a Craigslist ad asking for $100 for his vocal services, and Orange County producer PM Romero replied. "When he first contacted me, I ignored him for weeks," Herring says. Romero was working on a documentary-film project, and finding a musical collaborator was a huge plus. "Once I realized the scope and flavor of what he wanted to do, I was on board," Herring says, adding, "I was still homeless at the time—through our work, I was able to get set up with a place and have something to live on. He saved my life."
The duo named themselves William Pilgrim, after the protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. "We share a lot of likeness in our stories: questioning fate and free will and dealing with the illogical nature of human beings," Herring says. The All Grows Up, which is essentially PM Romero, was crucial in making sure The Great Recession was heard by the right people. Orange's Moonlight Graham Records and Exene Cervenka have championed them and released the three-song EP last June.
Herring—who has slept in alleys and abandoned houses, on street corners and underneath bridges—says he's in a much better situation now. "I live in a two-bedroom apartment with roommates and love it," he says. "It's great to be back in a place where I'm allowed to be."
But his favorite place to play will always be the street corner. "It's where the common man and the rich man intersect on the daily," Herring says. "Even if I get big and famous, you will catch me on Hollywood Boulevard with a guitar, hanging out with my folks from the gutter and swigging a bottle of rum with the dirtiest bums you've ever seen."
This article appeared in print as "The Bright Side of the Great Recession: William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up find optimism and salvation in their new EP."