Few classically trained vocalists could come up with a rap like "This is just me sayin' I like you / in my wet dreams I'll always bite you," or realize that formal breath-control techniques could be used to imitate a DJ's scratching. Such are the realms of undercut expectations and barely controlled chaos where Pittsburgh vocalist Gene Stovall seems to thrive.
"Part of the fun of the [live] show is the audience doesn't know what we're going to do," says Stovall. Indeed, his name on a bill is less a known entity than a guarantee of surprise. He might show up at a hip-hop open mic with an acoustic guitar and a self-penned ballad like "Windchimes"; sing jazz standards in a swank Downtown joint; rap with live hip-hop band Eviction Notice; or sit in with The Boogie Hustlers or any number of local groups.
Throw in Stovall's roles as a local promoter and studio sideman, and you get an idea of his omnipresence in the local music scene, even as his artistic identity seems maddeningly elusive. "This city kinda forces you to do everything yourself," he says; he compares himself to Pulp Fiction's jack-of-all-trades character: "I'm like The Wolf."
Stovall got into music and theater early, experimenting with his trademark vocal scratching in middle school. He briefly attended CAPA High School and then music school at Duquesne University. While at Duquesne, he started listening to WXDX and "fell in love with Nirvana and Oasis," expanding his musical worldview and prompting the formation of Eviction Notice. "I was always the one trying to explain how all music is the same music," he says.
Lately, he's intent on solidifying his artistic output, however kaleidoscopic and shape-shifting: He's preparing to finally release his debut studio album in January. The album's title, Gene Stovall vs. Geno Jive, refers to a duel between his personas, "the side that studied opera and the side that raps," he explains.
Songs that will appear on the album include "Sittin' Here in My Room," a broody torch song atop a rock-solid live band that ends in an improvisational sparring match between a saxophone and Stovall's melismatic runs. "Sarah Smile," a love song with jaw-dropping multi-tracked vocals and odd harmonies, seems to have escaped from Prince's fabled vault -- perhaps a distant cousin of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." Attempting to represent all the musical avenues he's wandered over the last 13 years, he hopes the album sets the stage for future exploration -- such as a psychedelic opus entitled Muppet Face.
Stovall says the time is right for a release, as his career seems to be picking up: This week, he's headed to Cincinnati for Scribble Jam, a four-day hip-hop fest featuring headliners KRS-1 and Atmosphere, where Stovall will be sitting in with The Famous Mr. Nobodies. Next month, he's opening for Lenny Williams and Howard Hewett at the Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead (Nov. 8); performing at Light Up Night (Nov. 21); and speaking at a music-industry seminar at Pitt (Nov. 21). Catch him this Thu., Oct. 23, at Shadow Lounge's Embedded Music Showcase, presented by Rhyme Calisthenics.
Lounge Act featuring Gene Stovall and Carlos Péna. 5 p.m. Thu., Oct. 23. CLO Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-519-0129
Rhyme Calisthenics Presents: Embedded Music Showcase, featuring Def Jux artists Junk Science, Bisc1, Loer Velocity and Iller Than Theirs, and Gene Stovall, Thelonious Stretch and DJ Huggy 9 p.m. Thu., Oct. 23. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. $7. 18 and over. 412-363-8277
- In character: Gene Stovall