When Saginaw native John Bee started American Opera in 2011, it began as a side-project. Five years later, the one-man indie rock band has become his primary outlet for expression, a gateway to world travel and a way of life.
Bee describes his sound as “introspective and personal songwriting/storytelling from a one-man-band that weaves seamlessly from in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll, to quietly-picked guitar and sweet singing.” In the past, he has played nearly all of the instruments on his albums, layering the tracks to create a full-band sound. More recently, however, he started working with other musicians to create the first full band version of American Opera.
“Truthfully, I named the project American Opera because I always wanted it to grow into a full band,” he said. “American Opera was initially supposed to be a side project for my previous band, Your Best Friend. It wasn’t until we stopped touring and consequently broke up that I took the project into a different direction. After the band dissolved, I wasn’t ready to stop playing music and touring. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be ready to hang it up. I love it too much.”
While he’s been a solo act for a few years now, Bee misses some of the camaraderie that comes with taking a band on the road. He counts his tours with Your Best Friend among his favorite experiences.
“That was the most fun I’ve had touring,” he said. “There’s something about being young and dumb while traveling the country with your close friends.”
The latest tracks from American Opera are more personal and show a softer, more intimate side of Bee’s songwriting. The real-life content of his songs leaves him vulnerable, but also allows him to connect with his fans on a visceral level.
“Performing is probably the main reason I do it at all,” Bee said. “It’s my favorite part of what I do. I love writing, I like recording, but playing live is the feeling that I’ve been chasing since I was 12.”
Bee was inspired to pursue music at an early age after seeing his older brother’s band.
“I remember playing my first show in front of my entire junior high school,” Bee said. “It was so nerve-racking and exciting. We were awful, but I’ll never forget how limitless I felt on stage. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”
While the chase is both physically and emotionally exhausting, performing is a type of therapy for Bee.
“Some songs reflect my fears of what I’ll turn into someday, some songs look at the past,” he said. “I use the songs as an outlet to explore ideas that I’m too afraid or ashamed to explore in real life. I can be more honest about some of the thoughts that pop into my head.”
Bee cut his teeth listening to bands like Thursday, Reel Big Fish, Blink 182, and Less Than Jake and attended alternative/punk rock music festival Warped Tour for the first time in 2002. In 2015, when American Opera performed at the Warped Tour, it was a surreal experience.
“When I finally got the opportunity to play the tour, it was a dream come true,” he said. “I remember sitting on my couch and kind of bumming about where I was at with my career and I got the call. It was a really special moment and served as a reminder as to why I do what I do.”
While he wonders what his career would be like with backing support from a major music label, Bee is currently unsigned.
“At first, it was in an effort to control my music and because I was afraid of labels,” he said. “I was raised in the D.I.Y. world and that’s a hard habit to break. I still book most of my tours and manage every aspect of the band.”
American Opera’s latest tour brings Bee back in the Midwest, with dates in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. The tour hits Mac’s Bar Saturday. While the Saginaw native has traveled the nation and is based in New York, he still has love for his home state.
“Michigan is loaded with fantastic artists and musicians,” Bee said. “There’s something about the writers from the Midwest that I love and can relate to.”American Opera
With Colt Slee, Eric Smith and Alex Kosta 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9 $10/$8 adv. Mac’s Bar 2700 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 484-6795, macsbar. com