By Annette Hinkle
Growing up on the East End, Raphael Odell Shapiro was known locally as a talent to watch. His teenage roles in theatrical productions for Stages, the Ross School and Bay Street Theater had a lot of people expecting they’d one day see him on the big screen or Broadway stage.
Now, at age 25, Mr. Shapiro still loves performing…but these days, it’s all about music. And home? That’s Austin, Texas. He’s been there since January.
“This is the first time I totally moved my stuff out of my parents’ house,” says Mr. Shapiro, who grew up in Sag Harbor. “Even my car is registered in Texas.”
That’s a serious move. Fortunately, Austin is a great place to be a young musician, and it’s where Mr. Shapiro is half of Odell Fox, an acoustic Americana duo, which he formed just over a year ago with his friend Jenner Snow Fox.
The two met as undergraduates at Yale University and both played in Tangled Up In Blue, Yale’s American folk ensemble. As Odell Fox, the duo share singing and songwriting duties and offer up original tunes and complex harmonies with Mr. Shapiro on guitar and Mr. Fox on mandolin and guitar. Joining them on stage from time to time is Lauren Tronick, a fiddle player and soon to be Yale graduate who is also the group’s manager.
This Thursday, Mr. Shapiro returns to his home turf with Mr. Fox and Ms. Tronick when Odell Fox perform their own blend of folk, bluegrass and soul at The Coast Grill in North Sea. It’s a very different kind of show than local audiences are used to seeing him in, and when asked how he developed his affection for roots-inspired music, Mr. Shapiro admits it’s not something he encountered much growing up on the East End.
But at Yale, Mr. Shapiro majored in American Studies, an interdisciplinary major that introduced him to many facets of American culture — including its music. Among the topics he explored as an undergrad were the Delta Blues, American literature and poetry, and even the Velvet Underground.
“I focused on 20th century cultural history, music and literature,” says Mr. Shapiro. “I’d quote ‘Leaves of Grass’ in every essay I wrote, but it was that kind of major. I felt they really allowed us to create our own track.”
And it would seem that track prepared him well for life as a musician.
“It gave me a background and knowledge in American history and narrative,” Mr. Shapiro notes. “It’s a really nuanced view that affects the way I write and listen to music and appreciate Americana music. I think this is an experimental country and one still really screwed up in a lot of ways, but one of the things that came from the pain are the amazing art forms of jazz, blues, folk and bluegrass.”
Travel has also helped inform Mr. Shapiro’s vision. From working at an arts camp in Sitka, Alaska, and living in California with Mr. Fox and his family, to hanging out at a friend’s ski condo in Colorado, and now, living in Texas, his experiences have deepened his understanding of the complexities of the United States and encouraged him to think outside the myopic East Coast box.
“I think any shift in perspective is important, but especially for an artist. With the American folk tradition, there’s a big trans-generational story telling aspect to being on the road and traveling, and that definitely feeds my songwriting,” explains Mr. Shapiro who adds that leaving New York was also a liberating influence.
“I was living in New York and sort of halfway trying to be an actor, a musician and a boyfriend, but I wasn’t good at any of them,” he admits. “One of those things fell away on its own and I realized New York is a very hard place to live without a lot of money.”
Though he’s only been in Austin since January, Mr. Shapiro is already finding a supportive community of musicians and a relaxed environment where he can make music exactly the way he wants to.
“As much as New York has to offer, I just needed a slower pace and I realized that pretty quickly,” he said. “In New York, all the songs I wrote were about leaving New York. Songwriting is a mystical magical experience. It’s sort of intimidating, beautiful and frustrating and I don’t have control over it.”
But it certainly seems to be telling him exactly where he needs to be.
Odell Fox performs Thursday, April 28, at 6 p.m. at The Coast Grill on Noyac Road in North Sea. The concert benefits ZimKids Orphan Trust, an organization for orphaned children in Zimbabwe that has a long relationship with the Ross School (Mr. Shapiro’s alma mater). During the concert, efforts will be made to Skype with ZimKids in Africa. Those donating $25 or more will receive a doll handcrafted by a ZimKid and a discount on dinner.