From the corporate world to the artistic landscape, from the South to the North and back, Josh Vasa’s last decade has been full of transition and a rediscovery of self —even down to the name of his current musical project.
“Sanyasi is a personal nickname from my grandmother.” Vasa explains. “It’s in an Indian language called Telugu, the third most spoken language in India, out of 16 languages. Sanyasi is essentially a monk who leaves the material world to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It’s used colloquially as an endearing, affectionate term, like a light-hearted ribbing of someone.”
Vasa’s artistic journey has been both lighthearted and introspective. Though he originally began with six years’ worth of piano lessons, the usual middle school desire to impress the opposite sex led him to start playing guitar. He began playing along to the likes of Dave Matthews and Garth Brooks. He continued music while attending Birmingham-Southern College.
“I started songwriting my senior year with a friend of mine who played the drums,” Vasa says. “We started writing some material together. His name was Mac Kramer and we called ourselves the Kramer Philharmonic. He was the brother of the girl I was dating at the time. That evolved into VASA.”
That band, which also included Birmingham songwriter Brad Lyons, became Josh Vasa’s main project in the mid-2000s. The group’s heavy rock sound, influenced by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, helped them book shows at WorkPlay, Bottletree and several local festivals. However, circumstances soon took Vasa down a different musical path.
“I had several life changes one after another,” Vasa says. “I got divorced, I quit my job to pursue music full-time in New York, and then my dad got diagnosed. I moved back to Birmingham and was still working on music, but at that point, VASA had taken a break because of my move to New York. I moved back, and because of the life stuff going on, the heavy rock stuff I was doing with VASA didn’t make sense to put out.”
He began absorbing the folkier indie music of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver as well as alt-country/Americana heroes like Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams. Forming Sanyasi allowed him to explore this “softer” element of songwriting. However, soon after opening for bands like Sixpence None The Richer and releasing its first album, the band entered a state of gradual inactivity.
“Sanyasi put one album out two years ago, Suitcase and Soulful,” Vasa says. “It was doing pretty well and was one of the top selling albums on Bandcamp. Then my dad passed. Literally, four weeks before he passed, we released the album. It took the wind out of the sails for Suitcase and Soulful. I stopped playing for a few years with only a few gigs here and there.”
However, reconnecting with Brad Lyons a few months ago for the Southbound Winter Carnival soon rekindled Vasa’s musical ambitions. Incorporating more rock elements — with a collective including bassist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Shawn Avery — Vasa now finds himself going back to some of the sounds of his original band. He’s even considering retiring the Sanyasi name.
“I think there’s something about the artistic evolution to take a break from what you have been doing, and then coming back to it with a fresh perspective,” Vasa says. “Then, you decide whether you want to continue with that type of sound or continuing down the evolutionary line with the new direction. Even with this new album I’m working on, I’m trying to figure out if I want to go back completely to VASA… I want to come back with that fresh perspective and incorporate the new elements.”
This fresh perspective has also influenced his approach to songwriting. Though he normally likes to bring songs fully fleshed out, he hopes to fill the latter half of his next album with compositions constructed and arranged completely in the studio.
“I want it to be more eclectic than anything I’ve done before,” Vasa says. “I want to intentionally force myself to make myself uncomfortable.”
His day job as festival director of the Sidewalk Film Festival could also be cited as an influence for how he presents his lyrics and music.
“People would ask John Coltrane what he was thinking about when he played saxophone,” Vasa says. “He said that each note he played was telling a story. That’s what any good art is; you’re telling a story. In something like film, you’re telling something that can be autobiographical or fictional, but either way you’re telling a story. That’s something that’s interesting about my approach to music [with] this album and [the] last album — to get introspective and try to ask myself what stories I want to tell.
“With the last album, I went there with a lot of sadness and melancholy because of the divorce, my dad [and] other family death and losses,” he continues. “A lot of quarter-life stuff — the transition from college to being a working adult and what you want your life to be in the next five or 10 years. It’s interesting to see what material I’m going to focus on now, 10 years after I started songwriting.”
Sanyasi will play WorkPlay with Shaheed & DJ Supreme and Jon Vogel on Saturday, April 23. The 18-and-up show is $10 with doors opening at 8 p.m. For more information, visit workplay.com.