The first time I saw or heard of Joshua Novak was five years ago at the South Park Music Festival, 60 miles southwest of Denver. At the last minute, this slight, sweet left-handed boy with a right-handed acoustic guitar was moved with his backing band into a rough bar on the main drag where, for two days, the indie music world mixed and mingled with 400 or so high-country townies.
The locals in this bar had been led to believe that a very hot young female singer was up next. When they got Novak instead, one misanthrope started right in with homophobic catcalls. Novak either never heard or never acknowledged the man’s unwelcoming, infantile greeting. He just pushed on. The tension quickly eased when a local woman told the jerk to shut up, and he left in a huff. Novak wasn’t presenting himself, then or now, as anything other than what he is – just a guy who’s here to sing you a few piercing songs of love and loss.
We’ve all since learned that Novak is one of the only openly gay male singer songwriters in the Denver music scene. And unlike, say, when R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe was becoming one of the world’s biggest rock stars, Novak isn’t nebulous with his pronouns when he’s singing about being in love with a man. Which makes him not only one of the most unassuming rockers you’ll ever meet — he’s clearly one of the bravest.
Fast forward to Saturday night at the Hi-Dive. Playing before a who’s-who of a local music community that has fully embraced him, Novak celebrated the release of his five-years-in-coming debut full length CD, “Dead Letters.” He’s 30 now, and boasting a significant gay following that was out in support on Saturday.
After a rousing set backed by a full band, Novak was left alone on the stage for a solo encore. And as he launched into a signature balled — a lovely, lonely rumination — some (apparently gay) jackass yelled out, “Stop messing around and take your shirt off, Josh!”
I have no idea whether Novak heard this man any more than I know whether he heard that brute in South Park five years before. But I couldn’t help but note the symmetry of the catcalls and wonder … “This is progress?”
Objectification is, of course, better than malicious public ridicule. Still, friend or foe, I found myself again wishing for Josh Novak that everyone would just shut the hell up and let him sing. Because he writes some of the most heartbreaking and provocative songs you’ll ever hope to hear, as is evidenced throughout “Dead Letters.”
Novak, who retains remnants of the trademark nervousness that makes his stage presence only more appealing, played songs new and old with Tiffany Meese on backup vocals and keyboards; her husband, Patrick Meese, on drums; Churchill’s Tyler Rima on bass; Nate Marcy on guitars and occasional help from two string players. Together, they offered up a lush and lovely cascade of songs with resonant lyrics like those from perhaps Novak’s best-known and catchiest ditty, “You’ve got a heart like a tidal wave,” and, from “La Muerte Del Amor,” “You’re pretty like a funeral – and you know it.” Novak shoots for the heart, and almost always hits his target.
These are songs of love in all its forms – destructive, seductive, unacknowledged, unreturned, taken and then taken for granted. And, in those rarest of cases, fully realized.
His finishing song — a cover of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” — included the line, “Am I ever going to meet a man like you?” That’s Novak: Singing what’s in his heart the way he performs on stage – with an utter lack of ambiguity.
Note: “Dead Letters” is available at Twist & Shout.
A taste of Kissing Party’s opening set