Biography

Singer-songwriter and folk musician Joel Rafael has been writing and performing for over 50 years, beginning as a drummer with his first band, a jazz combo, in the 6th grade. After transitioning from jazz to surf music in junior high, Rafael soon found himself swept up by the rise of folk music in the early sixties. He began learning chords on a cheap guitar he picked up in Tijuana, until he was able to afford a more respectable instrument by selling an expensive rifle he'd been given. He soon became the resident folk musician of his high school, performing in hootenannies, benefit shows, and on open stages, polishing his style. He began incorporating his own lyrics and melodies into the folk format, and by his senior year he was gigging in clubs his classmates were too young to enter.

Rafael enrolled in college at Cal State Fullerton, because the Vietnam War was raging, and the draft was very real, but only stuck it out for two semesters, before moving to Los Angeles, where he could perform on stages at the Troubadour and the Ash Grove. Eventually those clubs started catering more to rock groups, and, after losing his student deferment, his draft status was again 1A, so Rafael headed north to Oregon with a group of outlaws, artists, writers and mystics. “I had gotten pretty good at my craft, and this would have been a good time to develop my songwriting further, but it was also a time of LSD and psychedelic experimentation which caused me to look inward. It was a time of growth and self-discovery.”

While in Portland, Rafael was busted for hashish as part of a citywide sweep of the entire counter culture. He was released with two five-year probations (ten years) to be served concurrently, and was forbidden to reside in the State of Oregon. Still intending to avoid the draft, he relocated back to Los Angeles where he found work at North Beach Leather, while honing his songwriting in the musically fertile hills of Laurel Canyon. An opportunity to assist a friend open an "old world" leather shop took him north to Seattle. From there, he eventually retreated to the mountains, where a minimalist lifestyle surrounded by nature provided a setting for thoughts and songs to evolve.

The draft board caught up with Rafael in the Cascade Mountains, and demanded he report for a physical. Instead he relocated and settled in North San Diego County where he learned to grow avocadoes on a ten-acre ranch. Within a year the draft was ended, and with his probation finally behind him, Rafael's songs no longer reflected the idealism of his teen years. By chance he heard Jackson Browne perform an opening set in Los Angeles. “The way he presented his songs was so honest and forthright, and that was a big influence on me. This was a period when I think I came into my own as a songwriter. I was free of so many things that had distracted my musical development, and I started to find my voice. It was then that I realized that I wanted to pursue songwriting seriously, and really make a go of it.”

In nearby Encinitas, Rafael began to play his songs in front of an audience again, at the Blue Ridge Guitar Shop, where he also began a lifetime friendship with Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin. During the late 1970s, Rafael performed around Southern California in various groups including as a duo with Rosie Flores. In the early 1980s, he found a niche in San Diego County as an opener for nationally touring acts for several local promoters, which allowed him to grow as a performer of his own original songs. Shortly after Rafael recorded his first album Dharma Bums (1981) with San Diego songwriter Richard Bowen, Jesse Colin Young added him as an opener on a tour of the Southwest. In the early 1990s, with the mentoring support of Paul Rothchild, the Joel Rafael Band was born.

After releasing two albums with the Joel Rafael Band, Joel Rafael Band (1994), Old Wood Barn (1996)), he was invited to join Jackson Browne's Inside Recordings for a third album, Hopper (2000), which would end up being the band's last. In 2002, with his daughter Jamaica Rafael on violin and guitar-player Carl Johnson, he wrote and performed the musical score, including five original songs, for Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, in celebration of John Steinbeck’s 100th birthday. After a week of performances at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, the live recording became part of NPR archives where it surfaces annually. 

Having performed for five years on the Woody Guthrie Festival, Rafael released an album of all Woody Guthrie tunes, Woodeye (2003) - which included one song for which he composed the music, and one original talking piece combined with a Woody Guthrie song. Within two years he had recorded another album of Guthrie songs, Woodyboye (2005), and this one included four additional Woody Guthrie co-writes with lyrics given to him by Woody's daughter, Nora Guthrie.

After six years devoted to recording Woody's songs, Rafael found himself again touring the country, but this time as part of a road show of songwriters dedicated to presenting Woody Guthrie through his songs and prose. When it was time to return to his own songs, with more than an album's worth of material, he went to Austin and put together 13 songs with a band of musicians who backed Stillwater, Oklahoma native, and Austin icon Jimmy LaFave. The resulting Thirteen Stories High (2008) introduced a new musical collaboration embracing Rafael’s original work and included Steve Earle’s “Rich Man's War” and Jack Hardy’s “I Ought to Know.”

By the time he released his next album of original songs, America Come Home (2012), it was the year of Woody Guthrie's Centennial Celebration. Two of Rafael's co-writes with Guthrie were published in Every 100 Years: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Songbook, and he performed on several tribute concerts around the country presented by the Woody Guthrie Archives in partnership with the Grammy Museum; the most notable, the final 2012 show at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was filmed for television.

As a solo performer and with his band, Rafael has opened shows and shared stages with artists including Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, John Lee Hooker, Arlo Guthrie, Bonnie Raitt, John Trudell, Laura Nyro, Kris Kristofferson, Dar Williams, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Odetta, and Taj Mahal.

In 2015, Joel Rafael released a ninth album, Baladista, delivering ten essential ballads that embrace and celebrate the human spirit and reflect the half-century journey of an American Songwriter.

Rose Avenue (2019), Joel Rafael’s latest work, gracefully defines him and his contribution to the American canon. The ten-song masterpiece includes nine originals that reflect the honest accounting of a man in his 70th year, with a lifetime’s insight into the songs he writes; as well as a full measure of gratitude for what has been, and what lies ahead.