BY HOBART ROWLAND
“Bernadette Peters had me up to her place in New York,” says Jim Boggia, his eyes aglow. “We sat on the coach and played songs together. She’s like, ‘Do you know ‘Faithless Love’ [as sung by Linda Ronstadt]?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t think I know that.’ And she sings it, and it was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard. Man, that girl can sing.”
Just another improbable chapter in a life of odd convergences and screwy twists of fate. It’s a life that’s seen the Philadelphia-area singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist go from cover-band purgatory in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to a sort of 9-to-5-matrimonial stupor in Chester County, to playing backup gigs with casino madame Peters, quirky songstress Jill Sobule and Canadian rock diva Amanda Marshall.
Looking at him now - with his light-brown, shoulder-length hair half-hidden beneath a oversize winter hat and an overall fashion sense that implies some post-grunge casualty - it’s hard to imagine Boggia hamming it up with Bernadette at Tropworld. Apparently, though, he cleans up quite nicely - something he learned to do while playing wedding gigs around the area.
“I had a whole other life,” he says.
It’s also a life that has seen its share of tragedy. In the last few months, Boggia has had to absorb the deaths of his father and grandmother - both which occurred soon after the musician left Marshall’s touring band last August to devote more time to his own music. And while Boggia won’t reveal his age, his ties to the ’70s give him away.
Also obvious is the fact that this, his first true solo venture, has arrived later than sooner.
And it’s about time. Because while Boggia has already demonstrated what he can do for others (’Glory,’ which he co-wrote for Christian artist Jaci Velasquez, went gold back in ‘98), the stuff he writes for himself is also worthy of note. It’s a well-founded fusion of cleverly familiar retro-pop flourishes, world-weary sensitivity and a million tiny pinpricks of regret - the product, perhaps, of once enjoying a comfortable suburban lifestyle and suddenly having to scrape together change for the R5.
But Boggia isn’t about whining over what was. Rather, his best work celebrates the past in giddy, rose-colored splashes of detail. ‘Bubblegum 45s,’ one of five tracks on a spare, self-produced demo Boggia is currently shopping to labels, says it all: “Take out the Fisher Price! I got memories trapped in vinyl and they come to life,” Boggia sings. “All that I have to do is set the needle down/And I’ll have to smile because I know.”
Just then, precise backup harmonies kick the tune’s slight, piano-only melody up a notch for a chorus too worn-in and catchy to carry a ’90s born-on date: “… that I’m gonna be right back in my room when I was four/Bubblegum 45s scattered on the floor.”
In fact, Boggia has been scouring eBay’s online auction site for one of those old Fisher Price classics. But no luck as yet. (Alas, all that I could offer Boggia was a line on a long-broken Close ‘n’ Play.)
‘Bubblegum 45s,’ like the rest of stunning, bare-bones demo, is awash in the familiar references. Varying traces of the Beatles, the Raspberries, Big Star, Elvis Costello, Simon & Garfunkel, even Stevie Wonder (in the form of Boggia’s scratchy white-soul vocals) find their way into Boggia’s songwriting recipe, one that is firmly anchored in the then and now. Never mind that the hooks seem to drip from Boggia’s fingertips like so much fluorescent finger paint.
“My music is for hard-core pop music geeks who sit in their room and listen to records all day,” Boggia says. “Basically, I am my own audience.” And as if there was ever any doubt about his obsession with the Fab Four, Boggia was the guy behind the early-’99 reenactment of the Beatles’ final, rooftop gig - which, unlike the original performance, went off without a hitch atop HMV on Walnut Street.
Given his obvious talent, you have to wonder why Boggia wasted so much time
on the sidelines. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“I like playing in other situations,” he says. “Because when I play my music, I’m always choosing from what I know and what is comfortable. So when I go out with other people, invariably they’re going to ask me to play things that I wouldn’t necessarily think of. So it helps to fill the well.”
Since moving to Philadelphia 13 years ago, Boggia’s well has been anything but dry.
During his married phase (he divorced in 1995), he held down a solid job at Ensoniq (maker of keyboards, processors and the like) in Malvern. Aside from his ties to the aforementioned acts, he has worked with Juliana Hatfield, Carly Simon and any number of lesser-known artists. He co-wrote a song with producer David Hentschel for the soundtrack to the Oliver Stone football opus Any Given Sunday which didn’t make the final cut. Boggia also plays frequently with his friend and roommate, local singer/songwriter institution Ben Arnold.
When asked to explain how he compiled such a funky resume, Boggia is at a loss. “All these stories are so complicated,” he groans.
These days, though, Boggia is taking pains to assure that the focus doesn’t wander too far from himself. Late in ‘98, he assembled an impressive backup outfit that includes longtime Philadelphia friend Mike Frank (keyboards), Huffamoose’s Kevin Hanson (guitar) and Erik Johnson (drums), and former Ray Charles sideman Steve Beskrone (bass). The group has been playing on and off around Philly, and in label showcases in New York, where a number of music-industry folks have taken to Boggia’s demo.
And if a record deal does come along, Boggia’s goal is simple.
“Ultimately, I’d like to do something that I’m happy with,” he says. “Something that doesn’t make me wanna flee the room when people start to play it.”