Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ayler Young‘s second album Portal marks the culmination of a dramatic period in the New York City-based Young’s life. The music came together quickly in a Brooklyn studio at the end of a year-long journey, one both geographical and emotional. It took Young across 25 countries, through a whirlwind romance and marriage that unraveled during the course of his peripatetic globetrotting.  Returning to his Manhattan home, Young took refuge in the songs he’d been writing before, during and right after his travels.

“Music has always been the best way to divert my thoughts from my actual reality,” Young muses. “Even though I was feeling quite bummed out, I knew that I wanted to make an upbeat record. I wanted the sounds to be healing and fun, the lyrics to be candid and insightful with a groove that would make them dance.”

The results of his post-travel labors, Portal, bears little of the weight of an over-stamped passport or the scars of a love gone wrong. It is, for the most part, upbeat and ingratiating, an entry into Young’s personal world, where the vibe is often funky, sexy, always welcoming, and the performances refreshingly old school, with a live band of smart, seasoned musicians. Young evokes the never-ending beats of New York City dance floors and the sort of jamming that used to happen in decades gone by at such storied venues as the China Club and Trax.  It’s the same well that Daft Punk has recently been drawing from, though Young’s take on the sound is more organic than robotic.

Explains Young,  “I started making more upbeat danceable songs because I’m friends with so many deejays and they are always introducing me to so much music.  And I’m out all the time so I’m hearing dance music more than anything else. During that crazy year, I really noticed that all around the world, everywhere I went, the music is based on this 4/4 pumping, almost house-style beat. I wanted songs that had that easy four on the floor so people anywhere could latch on to it.”

Joining Young over the course of two weekends at Williamsburg’s Mission Sound Studio was a stellar crew of musicians and co-writers. Guitarist-banjo player Brandon Seabrook had been christened “Brooklyn’s shred guru” by the Village Voice, which also named him NY Guitarist of the Year in 2012. For the instrumental “Montage”, Young had a “nice little chord progression and we let Brandon run with it. We weren’t sure we were going to put it on the album, I didn’t have lyrics for it, but Brandon picked up his guitar and did some amazing things.” Grammy Award-winning guitarist Simon Katz was a veteran of innovative British groups Jamiroquai and Gorillaz, and he collaborated with Young on two of the funkier tracks, “Let it go” and “Come On Over”. Pianist Erik Deutsch has toured with Citizen Cope and Rosanne Cash, among others, and produces his own soul-jazz discs. Similarly drummer Tony Mason has a long list of jazz and rock credentials, as a session and touring player. Actress-singer Bridget Barkan had been a touring member of Scissor Sisters and now brings a soulful fervor to Young’s live sets.

“We recorded on two separate weekends,” Young says. “We tracked 17 songs in four days. We went straight into the studio and just took ‘em one by one. I don’t think we took more than a second take on any one song, with no prior rehearsals. We’d rehearse a song, get a little groove going, and then track it. All the main rhythm tracks were played simultaneously, with everyone playing together in isolation rooms, a very unmodern way of doing it. I picked the players I respected the most at the time. They really knew how to communicate with one another and then I threw in a couple of other musicians, like Brandon and Prince’s horn/flute player Jay Rodriguez, and Chris The Berge from Groove Collective.”

For Young, nightlife has been a parallel career to music, though it was with music that he first established his reputation in the city. Shortly after college, Young found himself in the enviable position of assistant music director for an off-Broadway, sixties-themed musical, Café A Go-Go. When his boss left the show, he took over as its music director, a prestigious spot for a fledgling artist. He then had an equally successful run in New York City’s super-competitive restaurant and nightclub business. He helped to conceive of and open such successful venues as the Tribeca Cinemas, The Box in the East Village/London, and the recently opened Louie and Chan’s.

His dual work life shows. On stage, he’s a natural host, urging an audience to come closer and dance, stepping back to give each of his fellow musicians a turn in the spotlight, reveling in the group dynamic – the energy passing between listeners and players in the space of a room. His attitude permeates the record too. It’s easygoing in the upbeat tunes, honest in its slower, more intimate moments.  He offers just enough of himself, while making all of us feel at home. (In his apartment, he keeps a Happy Birthday banner up permanently – “It’s always someone’s birthday,” he reasons.)

In fact, some of the most seemingly autobiographical material comes from a few carefully chosen cover songs. Nellie McKay’s “The Portal” perhaps comes closest to addressing the turbulent year he’d spent on the road. Recalls Young, “I met Nellie after one of her shows and I told her how much I loved that song. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘It’s such a sad song.’ Her version connected with me. I felt the whole year I went through was captured with these lyrics.”

John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels”, more broadly speaks to Young’s ongoing concerns, his ardent pursuit of music versus the professional byways he’s taken that have kept him solvent throughout: “I felt connected to the lyrics, you know, ‘people think I’m crazy, doing what I’m doing…’ His writing reflects a lot about my own predicament. And it’s another opportunity to tip my hat to one of my favorite artists.” Young’s version of Leon Russell’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” is another touchstone to his life:  “The version I knew was Freddie King’s from the Texas Cannonball album [released on Russell’s own Shelter Records]. His guitar playing on that song always just blew me away. It’s a song that my Dad and I used to listen to. And I used that album as inspiration for the first CD I made – Back In the City, from 2011.  We even brought the vinyl into the studio while we were tracking.”

This year, Ayler continues to perform internationally and in his hometown of New York City.  Look out for his new album Portal, out on September 9th, 2014.

-- Michael Hill

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