When George Kuhar was a kid in Austin, Texas, he dreamed of growing up to be equal parts Elvis Presley and Luke Skywalker.
If you’ve been following the trail this local musician has been blazing since he got to town in 2006, this childhood vision might strike you as surprisingly prescient.
Kuhar‘s music is quite varied and not easily described — you really have to listen to it — but generally speaking, two of the styles he plays could be called acoustic gospel and alternative electronic.
“One is more honoring my roots, I suppose, and one is more trying to forge in a new direction,” Kuhar said of the difference in his creative personas. “Maybe one is going forward and one is going backward. And I think that’s healthy.“
When you hear him perform — whether with a ukulele or a synthesizer — the term “original music” regains its full meaning.
On Saturday, Kuhar will release his first solo album, “Live At the Rookery in Juneau, Alaska,” a recording of the acoustic show he performed at the local cafe in January. The album features 13 original gospel songs, with Kuhar accompanying himself on guitar and ukulele.
Kuhar, who grew up singing in the choir and once entertained notions of becoming a priest, said the first songs he ever wrote, at age 13, were religious songs. But though his new album is classified as gospel, it isn’t intended to be associated with Christianity. Rather the word applies in a broader sense, as an expression of personal truth, springing from his desire to have an understanding about the world and share it with others.
“I’m someone who believes all the answers are within, and the way I receive answers is song-writing,” Kuhar said. “It’s a type of meditation for me. With an instrument and a voice you can tune yourself in like a radio and surprise yourself with what comes out.”
In addition to Elvis, a big influence on Kuhar’s gospel style was a chance meeting at the Lucky Lady with a guy named Chuck, a self-proclaimed gospel singer with a style all his own.
“Late, late at night he plays me this tape – and there’s no way I can do an impersonation of it. It was like a combination of speaking in tongues and some sort of primal grunting. It was very real. I’ve never seen him again, but that was very, very inspiring in its own peculiar way.”
Kuhar said the sound of Chuck’s voice, as a pure expression of feeling, was what struck him.
“Later, when I was writing songs, I was thinking, ‘Hey these are kind of like gospel songs, saying something about the nature of the universe, of life and death, and all those things,’” he said. “He had a feeling, and he made a sound out of it. And the sound is what is soul stirring.”
KXLL Program Director Andy Kline, who was at the Rookery concert in January, said he finds Kuhar to be a profound songwriter whose performances match the power of his writing.
“This concert was wonderful because it was very organic — just George and a guitar for much of it, and he doesn’t hold anything back. He isn’t afraid to lay his emotions bare, and has a very vulnerable way of singing at times.
“A great example is ‘Bring, Bring, Bring,’ in which he talks about the struggle of everyday life, the way we need to try our hardest everyday. He starts the song with a dream that he has lost everything, and he rebuilds his life throughout the song with a proclamation that through struggle, we find value.”
The CD is available for download on CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.
The album release party, which begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Rookery, also marks the kickoff for a new local record label, Shadow Island Records, which Kuhar started with Bridget Cross, his wife and musical collaborator.
The pair, who play together in a band called Playboy Spaceman, plan to release their own projects through the label before possibly opening it up for other artists.
“This is just the beginning,” Kuhar said. “One of the goals of the label is to create more avenues for my songwriting so it can find expression and come to fruition.”
“And we’re hoping to lay some groundwork for more alternative music in Juneau,” Cross said. “We feel there’s a need for another type of music here.” Both Kuhar and Cross praised the work Kline and others at KXLL have done toward that end.
Getting the label up and running is a project Kuhar is funding in part with a Rasmuson grant he received this year. Part of the money will go to the purchase of new equipment.
“I haven’t cashed the check yet and I want to be very careful about how it’s spent,” Kuhar said.
Several projects are already in the works. Kuhar and Cross recently formed a new band, The B Team All Stars, with Tiger Pilot’s Morgan Deering and Nick Wagner. The four musicians shared the stage at a KXLL Battle of the Bands event last fall and at the Glitterz event in March, finding plenty of common ground to build on. They performed a few weeks ago at the adult prom and hope to put out a single through Shadow Island Records in the near future.
Prior to that, Kuhar and Cross hope to release a Playboy Spaceman CD, a joint project that showcases more of the Skywalker side of Kuhar’s musical personality.
Another project in the works is a recording of the couple’s original “Nosferatu” soundtrack, which they performed live at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council a few years ago and plan to perform again at the Gold Town this fall.
Cross also has her own solo project underway, but says it takes her a lot longer to get her songs ready than it does her husband.
“I’m slow. He’s fast, but I’m slow. My goal is to have something finished by the end of the year," she said, adding that it will probably be an EP of four or five tracks.
As many know, Cross has an interesting history. In the 1990s, she played with famous indie bands Velocity Girl and Unrest, playing at Lollapalooza and sharing a stage with Tool. She also sang backup vocals for punk band Fugazi on a couple songs. After leaving Unrest, she formed a band called Air Miami, and since arriving in Alaska formed another, Maybe It’s Reno, which also involves Kuhar and former members of Unrest. Maybe It’s Reno put out a self-titled album in 2008, featuring 10 of Cross’ original songs.
Not surprisingly, Kuhar and Cross have had a big influence on each other since getting together.
“We come from very different places and being able to share those different places with one another has helped the other find a missing potential,” Kuhar said.
They share another bond as well — a kidney.
In 2007, Kuhar became very ill with chronic kidney failure. After hearing about the long wait for a suitable donor, Cross made the decision to donate her own.
“Sometimes I think about it like it’s still mine,” Cross said with a smile. “It’s still working for me, kind of.”
Kuhar’s illness and recovery had a big influence on his music, turning him back toward the acoustic gospel music of his youth. With the exception of one song written in 2002, the songs on the new album were all written since 2008.
Cross was invaluable in helping him get the album out, Kuhar said, giving him feedback on the album’s parameters and telling him when it was time to back off from tinkering.
“The CD probably wouldn’t be coming out if it wasn’t for her,” Kuhar said. “I’d probably be sitting on it."
Cross said she hopes the label will make it easier for both of them to get their music out to more ears.
“That’s our hope with Shadow Island, to have an audience,” she said. “It’s so important for us as songwriters to have a product, something tangible.”
Cross will also perform at Kuhar’s album release party, most likely a retrospective of her work, including selections from her days with Unrest, Air Miami and Maybe It’s Reno.
The couple will also probably do a few tunes together, Kuhar said.
Also a possibility: Kuhar may debut a new song he’s been working on, inspired by a remix of a Mister Rogers song, “Garden of Your Mind,” he heard on KXLL. A video for this new song will be featured in this weekend’s JUMP film festival, Kuhar said (he also does video work), and marks a new sound for him, one involving more elaborate instrumentation, including piano and strings (all played by Kuhar). He may release it as a single on Shadow Island Records, or end up doing a whole CD of songs based on that style, he said.
It’s clear that the formation of Shadow Island is great news for Juneau — just between the two of them, Kuhar and Cross could keep it active for a few years, putting out projects that highlight their passion for new music and commitment to Juneau audiences. And who knows where they will go with it after that.
For Kuhar, channeling his creative energy in that direction isn’t even a question; it’s just what he does.
“There’s a poet named David Budbill and in one of his poems he says that the purpose of life is to shine as brightly as possible. We owe it to life to shine as brightly as possible, no matter what we get in return. That’s been kind of something I’ve been carrying around with me for a little while now.
“Ultimately, that’s the best I can hope for.”
Kuhar’s album release show will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Rookery. For more on Shadow Island Records, visit www.shadowislandrecords.com.