This article was originally published in the August 2018 Princeton Echo.
People have sometimes been confused when first encountering the duo Dharmasoul in concert.
Between vocalist/guitarist Jonah Tolchin’s blues-inspired playing and Kevin Clifford’s almost contrapuntal drumming, people look around to see if there are other musicians onstage, when it’s just the two of them.
Listen for yourself when Dharmasoul plays at the Hopewell Theater, Thursday, August 11, the first time at the venue for the two musicians from Princeton. The concert is part of a tour showcasing the duo’s 2018 album, “Lightning Kid.”
“We play mostly outside of this area, so the Hopewell Theater is the closest we’re playing to Princeton,” Tolchin says. “It’ll be us two in Hopewell, and that’s what we’ve mostly been doing on this tour, and it’s been working out very well.”
Incidentally, the Hopewell Theater is just about a year old and, on Saturday, September 8, the venue will welcome poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon and his band Rogue Oliphant to mark its first anniversary with songs and spoken word. The eclectic consortium also includes Princeton native Chris Harford, Warren Zanes, and Cait O’Riordan, among others.
Dharmasoul celebrates its genre-resistant classification, but on its website names Medeski Martin Wood & Scofield, Vulfpeck, D’Angelo, and a few other contemporaries as influences. The group also notes “throwback influences” such as the Meters, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band, and Stevie Wonder.
The Staple Singers are a special favorite of Clifford’s, who discovered them while studying music at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“I became obsessed with Pops and Mavis Staples, loved how their voices blended, as well as their honesty, soul, and authenticity,” he says. “They’re a part of my consciousness, remind me to speak from the soul and heart.”
Tolchin names J.J. Cale, Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Ry Cooder, and John Scofield as a few other distinct influences, but adds that he is just scratching the surface. “It’s kind of endless,” he says.
The two 20-somethings behind Dharmasoul have their senses and hearts open and are paying attention to what’s happening around them.
Listen closely to the lyrics of Dharmasoul’s songs and you’ll hear that the two men have their senses and hearts open. The 20-somethings are paying attention to what’s happening around them, as well as around their global neighborhood, planet Earth.
To this listener, Clifford’s song “Bless Your Children” touched on the bittersweet suggestion to “hug your loved ones tightly when they leave in the morning, because they may not make it home that evening.”
“I started writing that song in 2014, right after the Ferguson incidents, the rioting outside of St. Louis,” Clifford says. “But then I was hearing about the refugees in Syria, and then the Standing Rock crisis, and each time I added another verse, and the song grew.”
“I kept the song open to whatever was happening in the world, whatever might inform it,” he says. “Dharmasoul was the right platform, the right time to record and perform the song.”
“It’s a reminder to ‘look at the landscape, look how people struggle,’ especially for someone like me, a privileged white person who doesn’t have to go through these kinds of things,” he adds. “I write that I don’t know what these things are like, but I can offer my help and prayers.”
Another fine song on “Lightning Kid” is Tolchin’s “Chosen One,” something he had been working on for quite some time before the band formed. He explains that it’s a different take on the story of Jesus Christ.
“It also speaks to my frustration with people not taking responsibility,” he says. “People I witnessed were not practicing what they were preaching, not following the teachings I saw in Christ.”
“It’s told from the first-person (perspective) of Jesus, and that was an interesting process,” he continues. “I was thinking, ‘What would Jesus say if He came back in 2018?’ It was an experiment, and this was what came through.”
Dharmasoul may be one of few contemporary bands that can name Princeton as its hometown.
Clifford currently lives in Pennington, but his mom, Lucile Clifford, lives and teaches music in Princeton, and he mostly grew up there.
A pianist, she has been teaching privately for more than 30 years and currently works at Music and Arts Center in Mercer Mall.
His father is William Clifford, the CEO of the medical tech venture capital group Spencer Trask, based in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“He was the lead singer of a rock band in high school, and he turned me on to a lot of the 1960s music that got me into music in the first place,” Clifford says.
Passionate about drums and percussion since around age 10, Clifford absorbed the melodies, harmonies and rhythms of both jazz and classical music.
While in high school at the Hun School, he studied percussion with renowned teacher and performer Peter James Saleh, embracing Afro-Cuban and Brazilian drum set styles. Clifford gave equal energy to rigorous studies of marimba, timpani, xylophone, and snare drum.
Clifford was then accepted into the Jazz Studies program at Loyola.
“I studied with first-call drummer Wayne Maureau and performed in the (university’s) top wind ensemble and jazz band, including a performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival,” he says.
In the beginning of his sophomore year, however, Clifford started experiencing serious tendinitis in his hands and wrists and had to put the sticks down for about a year. He switched majors to English with a film concentration, graduating with a BA in 2014.
After going through a variety of physical therapies, he gradually readjusted his drumming technique to keep his hands healthy.
Before joining forces with Tolchin, Clifford had performed with numerous groups in all kinds of genres, from Gypsy Jazz to hip-hop.
In addition to recording and performing with Dharmasoul, Clifford works part-time as a private percussion and drum set teacher. Since summer, 2016, he has also been teaching at the Music and Arts Center.
Tolchin was born in Trenton but raised in Princeton. His mom is Susan Danoff, an esteemed children’s storyteller who has performed at numerous schools and given workshops in storytelling and writning. His father, Neal Tolchin, is a professor at Hunter College in New York City, teaching the survey on American literature, as well as multi-cultural literature.
Tolchin credits his dad for turning him onto the blues, especially the likes of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Robert Johnson. Working in a record store during his college years in Mississippi, the elder Tolchin collected some choice vinyl, which he played around the house while Jonah was growing up.
“Kevin and I both have eclectic taste, and we channel it into different things,” he says. “But my first love is the blues: I love all of that Mississippi Delta blues, and especially people like Mississippi John Hurt, that fingerpicked guitar style.”
After spending some time at Princeton High School, but finishing high school out of state, Tolchin was accepted at the California Institute of the Arts as well as Prescott College in Arizona. Instead of college, however, he chose to hit the road and launch his solo career.
Just one year out of high school, Tolchin had released an EP called “Eldawise” and the full-length “Criminal Man,” and was also performing at the Newport Folk Festival.
In 2013 he was signed to Yep Roc Records, which released his next two projects, 2014’s “Clover Lane” (inspired by growing up on Clover Lane in Princeton), and “Thousand Mile Night” in 2016.
Performing, writing, and recording music is Tolchin’s full-time career. He also produces albums and does session work as an instrumentalist for other artists.
Though they both grew up in Princeton, Clifford and Tolchin never met until they were 15, at the 2008 National Guitar Workshop in Milford, Connecticut. There were many guitar players, but only one drummer (Kevin), and one night out at a blues club Tolchin and Clifford found themselves playing together.
“On the bus ride (to the club), I saw a kid with a straw hat and denim overalls, carrying a cigar box filled with harmonicas,” Clifford says. “People were jamming to the Grateful Dead, and Jonah was whipping out all these harmonicas.”
“As the only drummer, I played with a bunch of people, but when Jonah got up on stage, there was this electricity,” he adds. “This was the feeling I wanted to replicate as much as possible (when playing music). In fact, I wrote about it for my college essay because it changed my life.”
The name Dharmasoul reflects the friendship between Tolchin and Clifford and helps remind them why they’re creating this music.
When the two young guys discovered they were both from Princeton, they decided to get together and jam in Tolchin’s basement later that summer. Then they went their separate ways.
It was Tolchin’s album “Clover Lane” that brought the two musicians back together.
“I was at Loyola and Jonah was touring, but he Facebook messaged me in late 2013 and asked me to play with him at South by Southwest (music festival) in Austin, and we had a great time,” Clifford says. “Then he called me for another gig, at the Perkins Center in Moorestown, and that was really the catalyst for us to play together again (regularly).”
In 2017 the two men toured with blues/soul singer and sax player Helen Rose, playing all around the U.S., in New York, Los Angeles, then back on the East Coast and New England.
“We three were playing at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge (Massachusetts) and our friend Chris Freeman from the band Parsonsfield, and Kathleen Page (now Dharmasoul’s agent), were at the show,” Tolchin says. “They encouraged us to make our duo a band project.”
“This was late June, 2017, and Dharmasoul didn’t exist yet,” he continues. “However, it was very clear that we were going to do this, and by July we had come up with the name.”
In August, 2017, Dharmasoul recorded its debut album “Lightning Kid,” at Verdant Studios in Athens, Vermont, with help from Brendan Moore on keyboards, Laurence Scudder on viola, and Matthew Murphy on bass. The crew recorded the full record live, with minimal overdubs.
“We’ve officially been a band for almost exactly a year, and some great things have been happening,” Tolchin says, adding that their songs have had some 200,000 streams on Spotify.
The Princeton Record Exchange (where Tolchin and Clifford have spent many hours and many dollars) has embraced the new duo. On Record Store Day in May, Dharmasoul performed in a teeny-tiny space at the PRX.
“They liked us so much, they invited us to play on June 1, our album release day,” Tolchin says. “Our record is there (at PRX) with the Local Artists section, on CD and vinyl.”
The duo has just been signed to Boston-based booking agency “Concerted Efforts,” which also represents Booker T. Jones, Irma Thomas, Steeleye Span, and Rhiannon Giddens, among many others. Tolchin and Clifford are pleased to be in such well-regarded company.
“We’re discussing what the next step is,” Tolchin says. “Honestly, it’s ‘to be determined’ right now. But we know we’ll be touring the Southeast in September, playing around Philadelphia and the tri-state area, as well as doing more shows around central New Jersey. Hopefully we’ll get out to the West Coast, too.”
“We’re continuing to grow things and strategize, and we have a really good team of people,” he adds. “This is obviously what we’re dedicated to and passionate about.”
By the way, what about the name “Dharmasoul?” Dharma is essentially the Buddhist concept of cosmic law and order. How did this notion find its way into a band name?
“It’s about our friendship,” Tolchin says, adding that he and Clifford really connected over their interest in Buddhism, and they have done considerable thinking about how it shapes their partnership.
“When we reunited just a couple of years ago, we both realized that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author, played a big part in guiding us through our lives, our journey,” Clifford says. “We bonded over that, and (the philosophy) became part of the band in a subconscious way.”
“We don’t claim to be outright Buddhists, but we use it as a tool for us to be inspired, to stay grounded,” he says.
“We try not to do too much talking about Buddhism,” Tolchin says. “The name ‘Dharmasoul’ is almost more for the two of us to remember why we’re doing this, why we’re creating. It’s an inspiring thing to create music when you’re both coming from similar intentions.”
Dharmasoul, Hopewell Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Saturday, August 11, 8 p.m. Tickets start at $22. 609-466-1964 or hopewelltheater.com
Howard Fishman Quartet, Saturday, August 4. howardfishman.com
Rogue Oliphant featuring poet Paul Muldoon, Chris Harford, Warren Zanes, Cait O’Riordan and others, Saturday, September 8. rogueoliphant.net
Past Princetonians, present stars
Princeton High School alumna Arielle Jacobs stars as Jasmine in the current production of Disney’s “Aladdin” on Broadway. The show is running at the New Amsterdam Theater, 214 West 42nd Street, in New York City. The show is familiar territory for the 34-year-old Jacobs, whose older brother, Adam, played Aladdin in the musical’s original cast. More information: aladdinthemusical.com.
Sculptures by the late Joe Brown — a boxing coach at Princeton University starting in the 1930s who became famous for his sculptures of boxers — are on view at the Pedersen Gallery at 17 North Union Street in Lambertville through Saturday, August 4. More information: 609-397-1332.