Billy Iuso can be hard to sum up.
The New York native has played his way around the world as a guitar player, singer, and bandleader before settling down in the Big Easy.
He has been embraced by the jam band community and has responded accordingly, but, unlike most jammers, he strives to tell lasting stories through his songs.
He often sings about love and understanding, yet his natural temperament tends to bring him closer to confrontation.
Although he lives every bit the musician’s lifestyle of dive bars and late nights, he is a devoted family man and concerned father.
So it can be hard to understand Billy Iuso sometimes.
That’s okay with him. He prefers “overstanding” any day.
The term, which has its origin in Middle English as a synonym of “overreaching,” has taken root in Jamaican culture as a more positive form of understanding, which is how Iuso first encountered it.
“I always thought it was better than ‘understanding,’” Iuso said. “‘Understanding’ seems like we don’t know what’s going on, but ‘overstanding’ seems to explain it a little better.”
Iuso, now 46 and with a son set to attend the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship in the fall, has been trying to overstand a lot about life lately.
So when it came time to record his latest album, it seemed natural that the term would become the name of the album as well as the name of the first song on the album.
“That’s where everything kind of stemmed from,” he said. “It’s kind of a positive way to look at things, I think, but it also points out a lot of things that are going on.”
The title track actually came together with the help of Iuso’s longtime friend Art Neville, who also contributed the bouncy organ part that seems to kick the album off in a burst of sunlight.
“I had written most of that song, maybe 80 percent of it,” Iuso said. “All of the music is me, and then Art came and played on it. I said ‘man, why don’t you help me finish the lyrics since you played on it?’ So I went over to his house one day and just sort of picked his brain and showed him what I had. He shouted out a few things, and they ended up being lyrics, so we wrote the song together.”
“Overstanding” the song seems to set the tone for the whole album, which is unusual for an Iuso album.
“I never set out to create a ‘concept album,” but it kind of turned out that way,” he said. “Pretty much all of the songs have a focus on a general theme, except maybe ‘She Moves That Way,’ which is a little different. I feel this album is probably the closest to my personality and what I’m about these days.”
And while the worldview may not always be sunny, it isn’t all dark either.
“I don’t hear it as a dark album, I hear it as a realistic album,” Iuso said. “That first song is really just about coming to grips with your surroundings and how you interact with other people and how you’re effected each day. It’s kind of positive, I thought, but it also points out a lot of things that go on.”
One reality of life in New Orleans is that it isn’t for everyone, and especially not for those who are easily consumed by the darker side of our famed nightlife, as the girl who is the focus of “She Moves That Way” finds out.
“There’s a bartender in town, an attractive young girl, who I saw in a bar one night, and the line in the song ‘way too young to be playing with fire/dens of thieves and caverns of desire’ just came to me,” Iuso said. “That’s kind of how the whole song started.”
While Iuso said he created a fictional character around that one line, the truth of the song can be found in his reaction to seeing the real life bartender in action.
How Iuso reacted really shines a light on where he is today as opposed to 20 years ago.
“As a man, I looked at her as ‘wow, that’s an attractive young lady,’” he said. “But, on the other hand, I have a daughter. I know the ropes. In my 20s, I definitely would have looked at that in a whole different way.”
That sense of grown-up pragmatism overlays much of the album’s songwriting, from “Inner Demons,” to “Been Through Hell.”
“I’ve been really into the storytelling of songs lately, which I think has really become lost art, especially in my genre with the jam band thing,” he said. “I mean, what happened to songs? Nowadays, it’s just jams. That’s disappointing to me.”
Iuso responds to that trend with an album of 10 concise and focused tracks, the longest coming in just short of five and a half minutes, and each telling a story about change.
“I can’t change the whole world, so I just focus on my neighborhood and the people close by,” Iuso said. “I’m just growing up. I’m learning how to deal with other people.”
And he is understanding how to overstand the world in a whole new way.