Listening to "Rumble and Sway," the debut EP from young British blues-rocker Jamie N Commons, it's hard to believe that the singing and picking style he assumes on Americana- and gospel-infused tracks like "The Preacher," "Have a Little Faith" and "Wash Me in the Water" was a talent he discovered only gradually.
He simply gave up one day on his first dream career — singing opera professionally on the English stage, after acquiring a degree in classical music.
Appearing today in The City, he has been busy lately, putting finishing touches on his first full-length album.
He already has opened for Bruce Springsteen, appeared alongside U.K. neo-folk stars like Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons, and taken a backstage meeting with Elvis Costello (who was impressed by his cover of "15 Petals").
In 10 minutes in a hotel room, he wrote a little growler called "Lead Me Home" for AMC's zombie TV show "The Walking Dead," which is featured on its "Original Soundtrack — Vol. 1."
But the classical scores he learned at a university were what taught him how to project vocally.
"I really thought that I wanted to do opera," he says. "I loved the drama and the pieces and all that kind of stuff, and I learned that you've got to sing every day, no matter what, to 'maintain the instrument,' as it were. But then when I got to school, and actually lived a version of what that life would be? I quickly turned tail and ran, and then focused on the other music I was interested in."
Commons' finest moment was performing in Britten's "Peter Grimes," which was in English and relatively easy to learn. He says, "I was Sailor No. 3, and I had one line: 'There's been a landslide up the coast!'" he says. "I ran on and did that very dramatically, and then shuffled off to join the chorus again."
His worst time was struggling to master the Italian libretto of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," then being upbraided by his professor for pronouncing the vowel sounds incorrectly. "That was the final nail in the operatic coffin," he says.
But secretly in his dorm room, Commons — who resided in Chicago for several years as a preteen, when he discovered the Allman Brothers — taught himself to play acoustic guitar, via classics by Ray Charles and Mississippi John Hurt.
He perfected his raspy new snarl at London open-mic nights, sometimes five a week.
"I did that for about two years," he says. "And the more my love grew for acoustic blues and folk? Hey, the more my love for opera waned!"
IF YOU GOJamie N Commons
Where: Café Du Nord, 2170 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today
Contact: (415) 861-5016, www.ticketweb.com