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Jesse Beaman gaining international audience without traditional album-making

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

The man behind the Phantom — Jesse Beaman does it his way with My Empty Phantom.

In 2009, Sufjan Stevens told Paste Magazine, "I no longer have faith in the album anymore. … Can't an album be eternity, or can't it be five minutes?"

The interview came four years after Stevens released his canonical Illinois, and the message gave the impression that he was running from the prospect of releasing a follow-up. To the relief of indie rock fans, he released the full-length Age of Adz and the 50-minute All Delighted People EP the following year, thereby reminding us that both the traditional album structure and his musical well remained intact.

But his question lingered on my mind while researching Austin's Jesse Beaman, aka My Empty Phantom. Beaman — who grew up in San Antonio and moved to Austin at 17 — has a 2012 touring schedule that stretches across four states (including Washington and California) and four countries (including Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany). The 24-year-old has been supporting the moody, one-person Phantom exclusively since 2008 on just a few musical sketches he keeps on his Facebook, SoundCloud, and MySpace pages. He has never released an album and, if his touring schedule is any indicator, he doesn't need to.

"It's because I'm more of a performer then a recording artist," he wrote via email. "Recordings are just a product. A performance is more personal and real."

While it's unlikely anyone would dispute his take on performance, the small trove of online videos one can find of MEP drive the idea home. A pro-shot performance of "One Umbrella" (on Vimeo) shows Beaman laying a shivering piano arpeggio onto the loop pedal, then teasing a few floating fills out of the drum kit and turning back to the keys, laying and looping more pensive piano harmonies and then going back to the drums. In print, it sounds a bit rudimentary, droll even, but in performance, the skeletal parts become a fleshy and evocative sum.

On stage, he's deliberate and humble while seeming slightly preoccupied with looking so. In our email interview, he's expressive but careful. No answer is divisive, unless it embraces some new but proven idea (such as his word-of-mouth internet success). He refers to longtime friend and occasional collaborator Austin Brite as "a real sweetheart!" and two questions in discusses the years leading up to his parents' divorce generating an impetus to create and resulting in his musical project's name.

"I feel great now," he said. "I've grown up a lot since I was 17."

Beaman occupies that strange space between bright-eyed youth and weathered adulthood and it's reflected in his sketches and speech. "Fire is Born" (also on Vimeo) begins with slow, tender guitar notes, becomes accented with echoing fret scratches, and then builds into a flurry of drum breaks and melancholic melodies. The feeling is that his emotive pieces — often bearing melodramatic, verbose titles like "Lights of a Long Lost City" — tap into some sort of primal adolescence, even if his qualifies as a late one.

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