by Rachel Reeves
Setting up a 20-minute interview with a well-known musician usually takes weeks and many corporate-inflected emails. At precisely the time of the interview, a publicist will call, connect the call, listen in on the whole conversation, and often interject when 20 minutes is up. The experience feels vaguely like getting a call from prison.
When my editor emailed me this year’s BeachLife Magazine assignments, he included a list of press agents. “ Donavon Frankenreiter represents himself,” he wrote beside a lone AOL email address. “Of course he does.”
I understood that by this he did not mean Frankenreiter is only mildly famous. Nearly 20 years after releasing his first solo album, the singer-songwriter is still actively touring all over the world. What he meant was that Donavon Frankenreiter came to music from surfing.Music is not an industry to him, but, like surfing, means to a voyage, a way of life.
Frankenreiter, now 49, grew up in Mission Viejo in the 1970s and 80s. He was a surfing-obsessed kid in a landlocked city. He took the bus every day to the San Clemente Pier.
“I was always looked at as this, like, fuckin’ inland surfer, so I was never really welcomed anywhere but also welcomed everywhere,” he said. Once he could drive, he surfed all over San Diego, occasionally in the South Bay, but San Clemente remained his favorite break.
A Billabong rep noticed him when he was 15 and offered him a sponsorship that would continue for decades.
Frankenreiter picked up a guitar on a surf trip when he was 16. From that point on, his guitar accompanied him to surf contests around the world. He played in a band called Sunchild when he was home and sang around campfires on the beach with guys like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, and Jack Johnson.
In the early 2000s, Frankenreiter released his first self-titled album under Johnson’s label, Brushfire Records. Several songs from that album became hits and Frankenreiter began touring. Always he took his wife and two boys, now 19 and 14, with him to places like Brazil and New Zealand and Japan. (Both sons are surfers.)
Frankenreiter’s music has been called surfer-campfire rock, or acoustic surf rock, or soulful. One way to describe the sound is that it makes you want to smile. As a writer for popular surf forecast website Magicseaweed.com put it, “you can’t go far wrong with a bit of Donny when the sun’s out.”
His music sounds like a carefree summer day, and that’s what he wants it to sound like. Other musical artists are political, he said, but he’s addicted to music for the same reason he’s addicted to surfing: it’s meditation.
“I feel like those are the places I can escape and get away from all the noise of life,” he said. “Those are special moments: playing music and surfing. It’s important for people in their lives to find something that can help them escape from all the noise. I think that’s what drives people crazy – all they hear is bullshit forever and they never get a break.”
Both music and surfing, of course, can be either transcendent, meditative experiences or frantic, adrenaline-fueled experiences. He loves all their iterations.
“Sometimes I get nervous before going on stage and very rarely does anything else in my life make me nervous,” he said. “It’s like this addictive, crazy feeling of like, holy shit, you’re on the edge and you’re on stage and you jump off this cliff and it all happens and sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s fuckin’ rough.”
The beautiful moments keep you going. The rough ones keep you humble. It’s all part of the experience of music, of surfing, and of being alive.
“I just really love existing,” Frankenreiter said. “‘Cause I fuckin’ wanna learn. I don’t know everything. I don’t know anything, really.”
Frankenreiter, who lives mostly on Kauai with his family, also has a place in San Juan Capistrano, so spends some time in Southern California. Last year, he made a surprise appearance onstage with G. Love, joining in for a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Of performing at this year’s BeachLife Festival, he said simply: “I can’t wait.”
Donavon Frankenreiter plays BeachLife Festival on Saturday, May 14.
Photo by Rodney Bursiel