South Philly’s That Dream Was Our Life finds beauty in the banal
For years now, Philly has been a nurturing environment for DIY and bedroom musicians, from the orchestral pop of A Sunny Day in Glasgow to the GBV-inspired punk nuggets of former Temple student Alex G. On the smaller, quieter side of things is James Cuartero, who writes and performs under That Dream Was Our Life, and who for 2 years now has been self-releasing simple, lovely songs mostly drawn from his life in South Philadelphia.
In the past 20 months, Cuartero’s released 11 EPs, with a 12th due this week, all self-recorded on his iPhone from his South Philly bedroom. Each EP—whose names range from Inside Us There Is a Word We Cannot Pronounce and That Is Who We Are to We Are Very Happy Together—contains four to six songs, which run the gamut from quirky electro-pop jewels to gripping, melancholy melodies. That’s 60 songs total, in less than 2 years—although Cuartero tells me has many more ready to go. Later this fall, he hopes to collect 10 or 12 of his favorite and release them as his debut LP.
“Well, they’re not all gems,” he says with a laugh when I ask how he’s able to be so prolific. “But I think they’ve improved from the beginning of the project to now.”
Cuartero finds inspiration in the vibrancy of city life, from birds chirping outside his Wharton Street window to late night hangs at neighborhood bars. These experiences are then transformed into songs, whose dreamy, diary-esque quality is part of what makes them so compelling. Cuartero jokingly calls the genre “brunch-core” because, he tells me, it’s music you could listen to over brunch.
“I’m a huge brunch fan,” he continues with a grin, rattling off top spots like Sam’s Morning Glory, Green Eggs, and Café Life. “I could eat brunch three meals a day.”
It’s only fitting then that we meet at Royal Tavern (another of his picks) for our interview, to talk things out over a proper brunch—Bloody Mary and a salad for me, poutine for him. As we wait for our order he tells me “I actually have a song about this place”; the song, titled “Heaven Is a Place Called Heaven” is a stirring piano jam about hanging with your crew ‘round midnight, talking about faded dreams (“Meet me at the Royal around eleven / I don’t like to drink but I love the sound of people.”)
“I’d say South Philly is probably a subject matter in about half my songs,” he continues. Others set the scene at nearby Garage (“Point Breeze Kate”, with reference to “skeeball machines and 300 kinds of beer”) and Sabrina’s Café (“Is Everything As Good As You Hoped”), or poke fun at South Philly hipster culture (“Vegans With the Need to Constantly Remind You That They Are Vegan”).
“I like to write songs that when you listen to them take you back to a certain time or place,” he explains. “Even songs that deal with tough times; listening back you feel ok because you’re past it.”
In fact, tough times were what inspired Cuartero’s songwriting binge to begin with. “2013 was a rough year for me,” he says. “A relationship ended, my band broke up, and I found myself with lots of time to write. So I just wrote and wrote and wrote. By the end of the year, I had 50 songs.”
Cuartero’s very first song as That Dream Was Our Life is titled “Things I Learned When My Car Burst Into Flames” and describes a particular traumatic event that left him with a burning corpse of a Subaru on the Walt Whitman Bridge. “You can still find YouTube videos of it,” he says with a half-grin.
It was a friend who suggested he release compositions five at a time—but then 4 months in, he abandoned that plan, and “I just began writing new ones,” he admits.
Songwriting is nothing new to Cuartero. Growing up in Haddonfield, NJ, he played in some bands in high school but found the dominant sound of most teenage bands not in tune with his personal tastes. “I was into bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, plus stuff like The Smiths and The Cure. All my friends wanted to play heavy metal.” He pauses for poutine. “I started off doing home-recoding because I had no one to play with. I would have two cassette decks and would dub back and forth.”
Cuartero moved to Philadelphia in 2011 and has found the city to be his home and muse ever since. Still, that didn’t prevent him from experiencing an intense bout of writer’s block this past spring.
To combat it, he enrolled in a class at U Penn’s Kelly’s Writer’s House titled “Adventures in Songwriting” taught by Philly folk-pop sweetheart Birdie Busch. The new perspective was exactly what he needed. “Birdie was super enthusiastic,” he tells me. “It was great.”
As our brunch winds down, I ask Cuartero what’s coming up next. First, there’s the next TDWOL EP release, on the way this Thursday. Then he tells me he’s toying with whether or not to re-record songs in a proper studio for his debut LP, and already has a new songwriting challenge ready to launch. “I’m thinking this time I’ll do a monthly single series,” he says. Not surprisingly, he already has a trove of ideas.
So what’s his favorite place to hang out when he’s not working or writing? “There’s this one pier near the Washington Avenue Green, at Columbus Boulevard,” he tells me, excited. “It’s surrounded by tall grass with this one narrow path, and it’s pretty much completely abandoned. There’s this one rusted out truck completely covered with graffiti, like between the Walmart and the Pep Boys. It’s a great, private little spot.”
It’s just in line with Cuartero’s songwriting to find beauty in the overlooked and unexpected.