With the release of his debut full-length album, “THE WAR OF WOMEN,” acclaimed singer/songwriter Joe Firstman more than delivers on the promise made by his widely praised “WIVES TALES” EP. Where the latter collection explored the more laid-back side of Joe’s music, the album reveals the full scope of the 23-year-old’s prodigious talents. Produced by Rick Parker and Joe Firstman, and mixed by Jack Joseph Puig, “THE WAR OF WOMEN” cruises naturally and irresistibly from piano-driven ballads to sophisticated pop to rollicking roots-rock.
“The album is terribly vast,” says Joe. “There’s a million different styles going on – everything from two-step shuffles to giant pop ballads to really heavy driving rock ‘n’ roll. It’s this big grandiose thing, with all these emotions running through it.”
Throughout “THE WAR OF WOMEN,” Firstman displays a rare gift for unforgettable melodies and poignant and provocative lyrics. The 15-song collection embraces soulful pop symphonies like “Now You’re Gorgeous, Now You’re Gone” and “The Adventures Of The Empress Of Harlem And The Amazing Subway Boy,” tender love songs like “Saving All The Love” and “Chasing You Down,” and dynamic rockers like “Breaking All The Ground” (the first single). Impassioned, imaginative, and utterly captivating, “THE WAR OF WOMEN” marks the striking premiere of an exceptional new American artist.
Raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, the son of a professional opera singer mother and a “lazy genius” dad, Joe gravitated towards the family piano at the age of 12. He learned to bang out a tune in order to amuse friends and family, but soon learned that musical skill offered other more exciting benefits.
He developed an insatiable love of music – from the melodic genius of Elton John and the Beatles to the lyrical complexity of Dirty South hip-hop heroes like OutKast – and soon began penning original songs. Despite his father’s hopes that he might pursue a career in sports, Firstman began singing and playing piano in his first band while still in high school. The group – known as Isabelle Soul – developed a small but loyal fanbase playing parties and coffeehouses on the Charlotte scene.
The band ended when Joe left the family home to attend Western Carolina University. After a year, he decided that academia didn’t hold the same allure as playing rock ‘n’ roll, and he moved to Raleigh. As luck would have it, his ex-band mates in Isabelle Soul attended school in the area, and they reformed under the moniker firstMAN. They quickly established a faithful following, but Joe found himself artistically unsatisfied.
“We were playing jam-bandy Dave Matthews rip-off college pop,” he says, “which was cool for a while, but we weren’t pushing the envelope. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I needed to figure out what kind of songwriter I wanted to be.”
The Raleigh years also saw Firstman’s musical inspirations expanding r rapidly – the Southern-fried rock of the Allman Brothers, timeless singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne, and above all else, bluegrass. The traditional sound and naturalistic lyrical approach of the genre had a profound effect on Firstman’s songwriting. “I thought bluegrass was just the most powerful music I’d ever heard,” he recalls. “Sweet harmonies, very simple story lines. As a writer, I’d already realized that we’re all here because of the story. If you can get a story across, then you’ve got a song.”
Joe’s story took a turn when he met his first true love, Shannon Marie. The relationship was often rocky, often magical. Shannon Marie proved to be the young tunesmith’s muse (as evidenced on the touching “WIVES TALES” track which bears her name). Firstman credits the experience with giving him a greater emotional palette to draw from. “It was adulthood in Technicolor,” he says. “We were young and dealing with amazing things. I was trying to be more adult than I was, and she was trying to cope with being the girlfriend of the band guy. I’m a big believer that if you’re going to write a lyric, you can’t beat around the bush – I want to see it and I want to feel it. And I think without those experiences I wouldn’t have had that sense.”
As Joe’s life became more tempestuous, he also decided that he needed greater musical control over firstMAN. The other members weren’t as eager to follow Firstman’s musical lead, and that ended that. Joe knew he had to make a move, so he worked double shifts waiting tables, and saved as much money as he could in a month and a half. In February 2000, he bought himself an $18, one-way Greyhound bus ticket and headed out west to Los Angeles.
“I figured, ‘What the hell?,'” he says. “I was young, I had nothing better to do. The hard part wasn’t making the move; that was easy for me. What was tough was leaving Shannon Marie, but I knew that I had to pursue my dream. I had written a lot of songs and really felt like I was prepared to make a real stab at it.”
Joe dove head first into the L.A. music scene, playing piano at an Italian restaurant, and then forming a small combo. A tireless self-promoter, Joe played the game for all it was worth, gigging at any barroom or club that would have him and commandeering every stray piano he could find. From hotel lobbies to dimly lit saloons, Joe’s desire to share his music was indefatigable.
“We had it down,” he says. “We sacrificed every bit of door money, any money we’d get to keep, to put people on the guest list. I would go out to the bars seven nights a week, shake hands, meet girls, and say ‘My band’s playing tomorrow night at the Whisky, I’ll put you on the VIP list.’ They’d tell their friends, ‘This kid is putting me on the list, let’s go to the Whisky.’ I’d end up with a guest list full of young, pretty girls, and where there’s girls, there’s going to be guys. Where there’s guys, there’s going to be drinking. And when you’re selling drinks, the club owners love you. So every time we played, the place was packed. And once we got people in the room, we won them over with the music.”
Firstman’s emotional sound and powerful performances soon became the buzz around town. In 2001, he was named Singer/Songwriter of the Year at the Los Angeles Music Awards. Signed to Atlantic in early 2002, Joe went to work with producer Rick Parker to record his debut album. The duo found themselves spending 14-hour days in Parker’s Sandbox Studio, immersed in a torrent of creativity and productivity. “I couldn’t help myself,” Joe laughs, “I was in the zone!”
By the end of the year, Firstman had crafted dozens of fully fleshed songs of extraordinary depth and diversity. With such a bounty of material, Joe decided to pave the way for his full-length premiere with the “WIVES TALE” EP, released in March 2003. “I wanted the EP to be just a collection of music that was recorded in a nonchalant fashion during the making of the LP,” he says. “The album is a lot more aggressive, a lot more rock and roll.”
Which brings us at last to the August 2003 release of Joe’s first “proper” album. “THE WAR OF WOMEN” veers from the country-tinged pop of “Can’t Stop Loving You” to the breezy El Lay blues of “Car Door (Dancing In The Aisles)” to the late-night crunch of “Slave Or Siren.” Among the many highlights is the raucous rave-up, “Speak Your Mind,” which includes the stirring gospel pastiche, “The El Centro Spiritual.”
“I had been listening to a lot of bluegrass, and one morning in the shower it occurred to me that I wanted to write a spiritual,” Firstman says. “I started singing, and the words just started coming, ‘Leave me and believe me, Lord, ain’t nothing I can’t afford…’ When I got to the studio that day, we cut it right away. Then we overlaid 40 harmonies on there and made it the most soulful thing I’ve ever heard.”
As “THE WAR OF WOMEN” sessions came to an end, Joe’s music began to generate a buzz from those lucky enough to hear early mixes. Among those new Firstman fans was one of Joe’s all-time heroes, legendary songwriter Bernie Taupin. Joe was fortunate to collaborate with the celebrated lyricist on two songs, including “Tin Cans And Tear Drops,” written for an upcoming Willie Nelson album
“Bernie’s my favorite lyric writer of all time,” Firstman gushes. “The buck stops there; he’s the top of the game. Getting to work with him is just the most surreal thing! And to be able to write something for Willie is just amazing as well. One of the first musical things I remember was my grandmother, ‘Big Mama,’ when I sat on her lap and she’d sing, ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.’ All these years later, here I am writing songs for that guy that she was singing!”
With “THE WAR OF WOMEN” finally ready for its close-up, Joe has continued to garner advance attention and praise. In late-June, he hit the road as the opening act on Sheryl Crow’s SRO summer concert tour, earning raves from fans and critics alike. “It’s not often an opening act receives a standing ovation; not only did Firstman receive one, he earned it,” said the South Bend Tribune. “His 40-minute set walloped the audience with its energy and its promise of what this young singer- songwriter may accomplish.” The Des Moines Register lauded: “The band vibrated with the sense that they had something to prove… Firstman appeared every ounce the promising star. The audience hung on his every word…”; while the Ft. Myers News-Press described Joe’s set as “amazing… Firstman’s bluesy voice worked perfectly with the roots rocker numbers, and, when he shifted to piano, the band sounded like a mix between Lowell George-era Little Feat with a dash of The Band and a touch of the Black Crowes.”
In late-August, shortly after the album’s release, Joe is being featured in the Sundance Channel’s original documentary series, “Keeping Time: New Music From American Roots.” Joe’s segment, a personal exploration of the creative songwriting process, is part of the episode entitled “Art of Song.”
Joe Firstman’s journey has seen this multi-dimensional artist travel from smoky Southern saloons to the bright lights of the Hollywood hills. With the release of “THE WAR OF WOMEN,” the ambitious singer/songwriter is about to embark on yet another extraordinary adventure.
“I was sitting down on the couch thinking, ‘After all this work, everybody can finally hear what I’ve been up to. There’s going to be something in the store that has my name on it and that’s going to be available for anybody to listen to.’ Man, when you look at it like that, it’s truly incredible.”