SANTA MONICA — Aras Baskauskas concentrated on his cocophoria sandwich before talking about his new solo album, "The Tree and the River."
"I need to get better at talking and chewing at the same time," the UC Irvine alumnus and "Survivor" winner said during a lunch interview at his favorite Santa Monica vegan eatery, Euphoria Loves Rawvolution.
Getting better at things is what he's best at. With a seemingly bottomless supply of energy, this 6-foot 4-inch former basketball player has packed more into his 30 years than most people do in a lifetime.
On a Division I basketball scholarship to UCI, he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and master's degree in business — all in five years. He then went to Lithuania, where his father was born, to try out for a number of teams, though he declined a contract and moved back to Los Angeles to focus on yoga.
After winning $1 million on "Survivor" at age 24, he paid off his father's mortgage and founded an ironic Santa Monica-based, Russian-style winter hat company, Tundra Gear.
He's a mostly-vegan yoga instructor living in Santa Monica and a hobby gardener concerned about the robustness of his heirloom tomato plants. He volunteers at a youth camp. He's a bicycle commuter.
In 2006, Baskauskas opened a yoga studio in Cape Town, South Africa, where he ventured after "Survivor: Panama — Exile Island" to escape the backlash of post-reality television fame.
He said he struggled with his self-image and external validation following the show's broadcast.
"We all have our personal barriers," he said. "After I won 'Survivor,' I got really depressed. It was just too much. Too much exposure to the elements, to myself, to the world. I couldn't vibrate that high for that long."
His mother, Santa Monica resident Theresa Carey, also mentioned his struggles, but compared his experience to a picture he drew as a child that prophesied his character.
"I'll never forget it," she said. "It hung on the fridge for years. It was a globe with the continents drawn in brown crayon. Swirls of blue ocean. And superimposed above it was a stick figure basketball player spinning a ball. The caption below it was 'rise above.' That's Aras in a nutshell. He's always found his way into and out of things on his own."
And now, having recently picked up a guitar for the first time since childhood, he is rising above as an accomplished, unsigned singer-songwriter with a brand new album.
"I know how all that sounds … and you're probably thinking, 'Of course he teaches yoga,'" he said, poking fun at himself. "I know it sounds crazy, and a lot of it was, but by going through all that I discovered my real passion is music. I just wanted to use that to make something that would stop people and give them a moment of space. Inspire them to explore their own moments."
Crazy or not, his commitment to pursue music has spurred success.
He plays the L.A. circuit regularly and has toured Australia opening for Chad Stokes Urmston of the band Dispatch. In 2009, his song "Save Me"made it on to the NBC show "Mercy." By another stroke of luck, he met and became good friends with acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, learning valuable trade lessons like "never pick up a guitar unless you mean it."
His tall frame filling his chair at lunch, he explained his name, Aras — Lithuanian for eagle — of his band's name, Odd Us — how his given name should be pronounced — and of his musical trajectory.
Initially uncomfortable with the exposure that "Survivor" gave him at such a young age, Baskauskas also chose Odd Us to disassociate himself from the show.
"I didn't want people to be introduced to my music as, 'This is from the guy who won 'Survivor,'" he said. "I know if I was introduced to an album that way, I would immediately have a bias against it. I'm not as strongly opposed to that association anymore, though, especially if it means the art will reach a broader audience."
He self-released "The Tree and the River" in December, making 1,500 copies of the seven-track album, each with a notable presentation.
The disc is enclosed in a 20-page, hand-illustrated, canvas-bound storybook, pressed with a custom-designed red wax seal of a tree and a river. It tells a love story based on the title track of the album, describing a tree that falls in love with a river, but due to innate differences the relationship (and the tree) do not survive.
"You know when a song is finished," he said. "And when I had finished a handful of them, I realized they were becoming something. I thought, 'Well it's something now, so let's give it all the legs and wheels and wings it needs to do its own thing. And it became an illustrated story. And I think it stops people and begs them to look. I've been the tree in that story. I think we all have at some point."
Baskauskas, who noted that a guitar "literally serves as a shield for your heart as well as an amplifier for your emotions," put down the instrument at age 7, after being told he'd have to resort to an acoustic version because the electric one he was given by his aunt, Lynn Carey, lead singer of the popular 1970s rock band Mama Lion, was too loud. He didn't expect to pick it back up again at age 26, crediting Bob Dylan for the urge.
"I never thought I'd be a songwriter," he said. "I was driving back from a doctor's appointment one day and heard a Bob Dylan song on the radio. It was 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door.' And I thought, 'I want to learn how to play that.'"
Baskauskas immediately headed over to Truetone Music in Santa Monica, where he bought his left-handed Alvarez guitar and eight lessons with renowned guitar teacher Shawn Fleming. A classically trained musician who has taught at Truetone for 13 years, Fleming was impressed by Baskauskas' dedication and is fond of his record.
"He was the kind of student you really want to have and look forward to teaching," Fleming said.
Renowned producer Tony Berg, who has 40 years' experience in the business and has made records with famous artists, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel, took on the project after meeting Baskauskas only once. Recognizing that he had talent, but was still too green to make a record, Berg coached him one-on-one for a year, focusing on vocal and guitar techniques.
"He immediately struck me as a great songwriter, charismatic, unselfish as a listener and just a very considerate guy," Berg said. "Aside from liking him immediately, I was compelled to help him. He told me that his love is his music and that it was what he wanted to do. And after meeting him, I wanted to help him do it."
Very pleased with the outcome of the album, which features many talented studio musicians and accompanying harmonies by vocalist Amy Kuney, Berg said, "I think the record is just beautiful. It's reminiscent of a time and place we all have. It never succumbs to the cliché. Aras wanted to create something tangible and not something sensational. Something of enduring words. And he did."
So what is the next for Baskauskas?
In addition to a show booked Aug. 24 at WitZend in Venice, he hopes to have a visual premiere for the album, holding a film festival competition showcasing each track with a different video, though details are still in the works.
He's working on a music video for the album's first track, "Sword in the Stone," which illustrates his and her perspectives from the same relationship with a split-screen technique.
"There's a moment in there when the characters realize they've been arguing with themselves and looking at their own reflections and projections of each other," he said.
"I'm not good at big things, but I'm good at making little things bigger, creating moments for people to think about," he continued. "And for this, making music videos, I don't just want to make a video. I want to make something to watch that stands on its own, on mute, without my song behind it. It's complicated, but beautiful. It's like the abrupt end of the album."
The last track, "Rain on Me," ends with a sudden cut out of sound.
"That's intentional," he said. "I want to leave people with that moment of positive uncertainty. I want to inspire people to shift and do something they wouldn't otherwise think to do."
To listen or buy Odd Us' music, visit, music.oddus.com.
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