BY ALEX DIBLASI
For singer/songwriter John Presnell, no matter how many projects he has going on, it’s still not enough.
The Astoria resident is perpetually on the move, whether he is in the studio, premiering his first music video, scoring indie films or performing on stage. Most recently, he gave his first full concert in several years, supported by a backing band at Arlene’s Grocery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“This is our first time playing together, and these guys actually just met today for our first rehearsal,” he said from the stage, eschewing the usual band introductions and instead jokingly introducing his bandmates to one another as they shook hands. Fronting his five-piece band, Presnell has a commanding presence, undoubtedly a by-product of his acting background.
His between-song banter during the show is both charming and funny, introducing songs with wit and smiles rather than the typically dry stories so many other artists present. Music may be his life, but Presnell refuses to take himself too seriously.
Growing up in a musical household, Presnell was raised on an eclectic diet of rock, jazz and classical that gave him a unique vision of what music can — and should — be. Presnell finds himself just as inspired by British songwriters like Paul McCartney and Kinks founder Ray Davies as he is by American crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. He holds an exceptional fondness for music from the Great American Songbook.
“The sensibility – the craft – that goes into those songs is phenomenal,” he said, adding that Cole Porter was a particular favorite.
However, Presnell expressed his frustration with the recent spate of musicians releasing albums of songs from yesteryear, including McCartney’s most recent release, “Kisses on the Bottom.” It isn’t the quality of the songs he finds dissatisfying, but instead the concept of established songwriters relying so heavily on other people’s tunes.
“The best songs [on “Kisses On The Bottom”] were the two songs McCartney had written,” Presnell said. “Imagine if he had done a whole album of songs like that!”
That particular style of playful and whimsical songwriting makes up roughly half of Presnell’s repertoire. The other side of Presnell is a spiritual one, reflected in a number of songs that deal with reincarnation and karma.
“We live in a cause-and-effect universe,” Presnell said of his philosophy.
This cosmic edge is certainly present in his work, but never overly preachy. Presnell is quick to point out the balance between his spiritual side and his knack for humor, describing his style as “elegant, but bohemian.”
This motto underlines Presnell’s most recent recording project, a collection of songs with the tentative title “Come Back Down.” Through this work, Presnell hopes to update what he calls “a more sophisticated sensibility” in popular song and bring it to modern pop music, without entering retro territory.
His refined take on songwriting is both literate and humorous, balanced by a few serious numbers. The songs – many of which he played at Arlene’s – reflect his diverse influences, ranging from Indian raga to English music hall to psychedelic pop.
With one album in its final stages, Presnell is already hard at work on unearthing years of his own demo recordings, all captured on audio cassette, to begin work on another release. He is also in the preliminary stages of drafting a musical.
Regardless of his number of current projects, Presnell looks excitedly towards his promising musical future.
Presnell’s next show will be July 25 at Zirzamin, located at 90 West Houston Street in Manhattan.