Munster native S. Joel Norman celebrated the release of “Traveling Light,” last week with a headline performance at The Metro in Chicago and is thrilled that radio is already picking up on the title track/single.
Norman’s sophomore release is the follow up to his 2011 debut, “Take It In Stride,” which made this columnist’s “Top 10” list for that year in The Times. It is available in multiple formats – digital, CD and as a limited edition vinyl LP. It can be ordered at all online music retail sites and at: www.sjoelnorman.com
While “Take It In Stride” was more laid back “Traveling Light” shows tremendous growth for Norman, who has lived in downtown Chicago for the last few years. There are plenty of horns, some tremendous gospel group backing vocals and other adventurous changes.
These elements really collide well on “Don’t Need A Reason,” which opens up Side B on the vinyl LP version of the album with a funky Blues Brothers/Stax Records kind of infectious groove making it impossible to sit still.
“We just kind of stood on the shoulders of what happened last time with the first album and took it from there,” said Norman. “Since the last album we found out who we were as a band, what worked, what didn’t, what I liked to write, and what turned me on as a musician.”
Norman credits much of his sound to producer Marc Nelson of The Alley Recording Studio in Valparaiso. Although many fine recording studios are closer to Norman’s Chicago home, he comes to Valparaiso to lay down his tracks primarily because as he put it, “Marc gets it! Marc is more than just an engineer. Marc is an artist and thinks like an artist.”
Nelson saw Norman gigging out one night and invited him to appear on the “Live From The Alley” PBS-TV show Nelson was producing at the time. “I thought I was just going to roll in there rock style – drums, bass, guitar and knock it out,” said Norman. “Marc had other ideas. He wanted to add horns, gospel singers and I remember I spent the whole night before our taping writing horn parts.”
Norman’s robust R&B growl falls somewhere between Joe Cocker and Van Morrison. His songs reflect personal experiences and people he has known.
The song “Traveling Light” is Norman’s most personal and reflective song to date. “There was an old chapel in Shelbyville, Michigan I used to go to as a kid and it was a really beautiful experience for me. I remember the way I felt going to that chapel and how much it meant to my whole family that we were there together. My life has changed so much since then but I wanted to find a way to bring that old life and my new life together in a song, to reconcile them in some way. That’s where ‘Traveling’ Light’ came from and is all about.”
“Growing up I always had a knack for music but never thought it would be a career. I was born in Lansing (IL) and we moved to Munster when I was about 2 years old,” said Norman who has long gone by his middle name of Joel rather than his first name of Steven. The adding of S. to the front end of his name has become a frequently asked question by the media and he confessed that he takes creative freedom while telling various humorous versions on what the S. means.
“The truth is, I’ve always gone by Joel and the reason I added the S. and stared going by S. Joel Norman professionally is because I couldn’t cash a check once that had been made out to ‘Joel Norman’. So I put the S. in front of it so I wouldn’t have problems when it came to getting paid,” he laughed.
“I literally had to be fired from a job I had at a college I was working at before I thought maybe I should try making some money playing music,” he recalled. “I was 24 at the time and I’ve never looked back.”
His strict Dutch upbringing introduced Norman to gospel music early on and have his antique collecting mother brought an old piano home that instantly became a hit fixture with her young son, she signed him up for lessons.
“I think Mom just got sick of me just pounding away on it, and said, ‘So I guess I need to get you lessons!’ so when I was four I took lessons and that sort of started it all,” recalled Norman who went on to study at Wheaton Conservatory of Music, where he was the first to perform juries with a valve trombone, the first to perform an all-jazz recital, and the first to receive a bachelors degree in a new field of study he tailored.
Along the way Norman has composed and arranged pieces for orchestra, chorus, and jazz ensemble as well as scores to many Arena Theater productions, including “The Madwoman of Chaillot” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He was most recently commissioned by Northern Illinois University to compose original songs for their Shakespeare production of “A Winter’s Tale.”
Next up for Norman are doing as many gigs as possible to promote “Traveling Light” and in spring he’ll be part of a musical cruise in the Caribbean that he is clearly looking forward to after such a harsh Midwest winter.
“I’m just enjoying getting out there and playing with my band,” concluded Norman, who hopes to book a date later in the summer back home in Northwest Indiana.
Email Tom Lounges at firstname.lastname@example.org