By Chloe Roth
For the past four years, Ed Masuga has consistently delivered pure folk music. His dichotomously sharp finger-picking guitar and soft melodies make for easy, pleasing listening, and if you close your eyes you might find yourself transported to a Dust Bowl-era railway car. Steeped heavily in the folk tradition, his songs are simultaneously old-fashioned, timeless, and timely. With the bare minimum of Internet presence, the elusive San Francisco-based songster, though he can't be called a Bay Area "native," maintains a mysterious backwoodsman identity. The almost literary stories of his youth seem to come straight out of a Dickens novel. I caught up with Mr. Masuga (that has a nice ring to it!) to ask him how his itinerant childhood has informed his work.
The youngest of 10 children, Masuga lived a rootless childhood, constantly drifting with his large family from shack to motel to forest to casino, usually around the San Bernadino Mountains and Big Bear Lake. Returning from the hospital with a birth tag on his wrist that read "Boy Masuga," and for lack of a chosen name, his family referred to him as "Boy" for the first few years of his life. "When people started calling me Danny, my actual name," Masuga says, "I refused, preferring to go by my middle name Eddie, after the '70s country singer Eddie Rabbit." Masuga grew up around music, his folks and family always singing together wherever they went. Masuga says that his father, who came from a polka-singing Polish family, "has always seemed somehow to know every song out there," which probably helped him win a trip to Puerto Rico on an episode of "Name That Tune" when Ed was "just a tyke." And his mother's traveling occupation, as a cook in bar kitchens, exposed him to a whole world of juke box country music.
Out of all the places Masuga has lived over the years (the East Coast, Alaska, Ohio, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and Montana), he says that the Bay Area, especially the trees and hills of the East Bay, "has something special that always brings me back." Of Berkeley in particular, where he has lived sporadically since 1999, Masuga says "it's kind of like a second home for me in a way. Or a third or fourth."
Both his 2006 self-titled debut and his 2008 sophomore record Lonely Dog consisted solely of Masuga's unadorned voice and guitar. His new record, Let Me Tune My Heartstrings, breaks away from the sparseness of the first two albums. Female vocal harmonies by Ed's "longtime best friend-extraordinaire Kate Grindlay" meld flawlessly with his voice to create a new fullness, rich and soulful. Flying solo in the past, his live performance has recently evolved into a group project with Grindlay on accompanying vocals, Ethan Lee on bass, and Mike Carreira on drums.
If you check his MySpace page every now and again like I do, hoping to see a local show listed, you'll oft be disappointed. But Ed Masuga has made a sudden reappearance in the Bay Area, with five shows scheduled over the next two months in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Bolinas. Jump on the bandwagon quickly, for with Ed's wandering ways, who knows when you'll catch him in the Bay again.