Published March 8, 2016 Updated October 3, 2016
Dusty Santamaria saunters in from the rain—guitar slung over his back, black nail polish on his fingernails—and approaches the candlelit table at the Liquor Store. Before he can sit down, he comments on the Blur song booming through the room from the overhead speakers.
"Interesting music," he says sarcastically, his brow furrowed.
Before we can make introductions, or even shake hands, he's delicately addressing the situation with the young woman tending bar. He motions to the surrounding shelves, stacked with vinyl records and the idle turntables. When he finally takes his seat, red wine in hand, the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" comes on, and Santamaria is swaying back and forth in his chair, arms raised in a "hallelujah" pose.
"It's funny that we're doing this now," he says, still grooving. "I'm moving to Los Angeles in a week."
He continues unprompted: "The working poor in L.A., I really resonate with. I need that around me in order to thrive. There's so much soul in that community. I love so much about Portland, so much about Oregon, but it's complacent. It is. I don't think anyone could argue that."
Over the next half-hour, Santamaria talks about growing up in Rainbow, Calif., among the Mexican migrant community, living his childhood mostly in his imagination, then seeing the Cramps at age 15 and feeling enlightened. He moved to New Orleans in his early adulthood, toured the country with his band, the Commercial Rockstars, published two books of poetry and painted two gallery shows. Upon moving to Portland, he befriended local poet laureate Walt Curtis, toured with his best friend Galen Ballinger as the Singing Knives and drove a graveyard-shift cab until Uber demolished the local taxi industry. He's eked out a living with gigs around town, where the usual compensation structure is a gratuity-based style.
Strange as he may seem upon first glance, the guy is nothing if not an artist, and everything most folk singers claim to be—at least as origin stories go.
Santamaria has released two solo albums, Existential Detective Rock n Roll and Now That I've Stopped Killing… Vocally, Santamaria's closest analogue is early Dylan, but the instrumentation is more a Southern-Creole-voodoo hybrid. Melodic lines follow well-tread territory from the bourbon- and Beaujolais-splattered American Songbook. It's possible his appeal is best conveyed in person, because while it's palpable listening to his records, it's not nearly as overt as when you hang out with the guy. It seems tragic we're about to lose him.
"I've always had one foot in and one foot out in Portland," Santamaria says. "I've written a lot of songs at this point, and I don't have a lot of national recognition or anything, but I feel like I have a pretty good catalog. I'm an oddball artist, and this is what I think I can do to help others."
He pauses to take a sip of wine, then exclaims: "Los Angeles! Yeah, there's somebody I want to study under that lives down there. A guy that's really involved in chaos magick."
I ask if he's always looked for a mentor when moving to a new place, and he nods and chuckles: "We're just the residue of all that's come before us. I've had heroes, yeah. I think I am my hero."