.The Quiet Irony of Tony Jay

San Francisco musician Michael Ramos creates his own ‘Perfect Worlds’

Michael Ramos lets the music take him wherever it wants to go. He’s been playing in bands since he was in high school and began recording his original songs soon after. “Once I had access to a multi-track recorder, I realized I didn’t have to be dependent on other people’s schedules,” he said. “I could construct a song that sounds like a band, even when nobody else was free to hang out and play music with me.”

As the technology evolved, Ramos linked his recorders with computers. He created songs he could put up on various digital platforms, although he was initially shy about sharing them with friends and family.

“I realized Bandcamp was more reliable for saving my demos and songs I was writing for other bands, than my computer and tape recorder,” said Ramos. “I wanted to store them under a generic name, something people would scroll by, and not click on, so I came up with Tony Jay. I’ve been recording under that name for almost 20 years.”

At the same time he started recording his music as Tony Jay, Ramos was working a day job and playing drums, bass and guitar in many other groups, including April Magazine, Flowertown, Al Harper, Cindy and Sad Eyed Beatniks. He also sat in with friends whenever they needed an extra band member for shows or recordings. 

“If somebody wanted to pay me a livable wage to not do a day job, I’d consider it,” Ramos said. “I play music ’cause I find it enjoyable, not for external validation. A long time ago, I accepted that it wouldn’t be a money-making enterprise. If anybody buys anything off the website, it’s a pleasant surprise.”

His latest offering with Tony Jay, Perfect Worlds, is a 13-song collection that delves into romance and heartbreak, with side trips into sadness, anxiety, depression and emotional isolation.

“My lyrics draw a lot from my own perceived failures and relationships that didn’t work out,” Ramos said. “It’s human nature to think about the ‘what ifs,’ or the ‘if I’d only done thats,’ or the idea that my life would be perfect, if that person didn’t leave me.

“When I was writing and composing,” he added, “there was a lot going on in my life that I wished was different. The songs became my own perfect worlds, where I had control over what was happening.”

The album took shape after Mike Schulman, head of Oakland’s Slumberland Records, called Ramos to ask what he was up to. “I went through the songs I was working on, wrote a few more, and sent them off,” Ramos said. Schulman said he’d put the collection out, as a vinyl record.

“I got together with my bandmate Kelsey Faber in the bedroom of my Bayview apartment,” Ramos said. “She brought along her stuff: guitars, a Casio keyboard, percussion instruments and a glockenspiel. I had my 4-track recorder, guitar, bass, computer and a digital interface. We set up mics and jammed until things started to jell. I’d press record, then it was on to the next idea.”

The duo cut dozens of new instrumental tracks and added parts to songs Ramos had already been working on. When they had several cassettes full of ideas, Ramos uploaded his favorites to his computer and began editing them. His bandmates, drummer Cameron Baker and guitarist Alexis Harper, came in to overdub percussion and backing vocals.

“At the same time, I was helping my friend Kevin make a video for his project, Sad Eyed Beatniks,” Ramos said. “While I was riding downhill, with a video camera attached to my bike, I fell off. I had to spend a couple of weeks healing at home. The lyrics were written during that time of isolation. I also mixed the album and did more backing vocals.”

The finished album features multi-layered soundscapes and subtle vocals with a wistful aura. “Isolated Visions” captures the insular sense of the Covid shutdown with strummed acoustic chords, slide guitar fills with a George Harrison feel and Ramos’ whispered vocal.

Ramos plays quiet, shimmering electric guitar chords on “Ice In The Jar.” It’s a ballad that describes the end of an affair with quiet desperation, intensified by Ramos’ barely audible vocal. A familiar R&B progression and chiming arpeggios add to the irony of “Just My Charm,” another song haunted by the memories of happier times.

On stage and in press photos, Ramos wears a fright wig, black lipstick and white pancake makeup. “I started doing that when my friend and April Magazine bandmate, Peter, cobbled Halloween costumes together from pieces we found in a thrift store,” he said. “We were laughing about all the effort a small local band goes into to play music in a small divey bar.”

He continued, “I thought the look, juxtaposed with the quiet sound of the music, would be compelling in a way—none of the elements would be on their own. Turns out, it lets me feel more comfortable on stage than I usually do.”

To listen to ‘Perfect Worlds’ and the rest of Tony Jay’s extensive back catalog, visit: tonyjay.bandcamp.com. Also available at: slumberlandrecords.com.

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