Breaking The Law For Music
When I was underage, my brother let me carry his amp past doormen so I could sneak into bars for his shows. No one ever gave me trouble, but they did give me looks of respect: I was with the band. I brought the music.
I had played some crappy venues with punk bands, but this was different. These were adults, and these were real musicians. This was my brother, who had been playing religiously for over a decade and gave me my first bass and my first Parliament album. As a kid I watched him wear out a Stevie Ray Vaughan VHS by learning every solo, 7 seconds of tape at a time. I didn’t have the talent or dedication to truly be in the band, but I wanted to be part of it, and he helped me get closer to music.
Something We Share
From years of listening, playing and going down endless rabbit holes of who played on what album and how musicians were connected, I have learned quite a bit and fostered a passion for music, and sometimes I feel as if all I can do with it is to listen and talk about music. It can be hard to apply this passion to help people who care about music, but I always stick around to thank a band after a show. It is hard to apply all this knowledge, outside of paying attention to Rob’s shows and offering my thoughts on what went down or listening to new songs.
A New Idea For Music
Something clicked for me during that show. I had worked with numerous startups and tech companies, most recently helping a group of filmmakers and creators circumvent the traditional industry structure. What I saw on stage was how this could work for musicians.
3 bands with overlapping musicians that collaborate the way a company can only dream of, and make a product people will love. Music that I wanted more people to get to experience. I also saw the challenges facing them in doing it. This is not the type of music that will generate the next summer jam or Grammy appearance, but it is the type of music that a lot of us enjoy. These are not the musicians looking for riches or fame, but a way to keep playing for more and more people without having to give up creative control or take a gig as a waiter. How could these musicians get this music to more people and sustain the effort of doing so?
What It All Means
In that moment I saw the real chance of being part of the band. The real chance to use my passion and my skills to help more people make music and more fans hear it. The real chance to be with the band, and a contributing member to it.
Lights Are Burning is made up of 10 songs that I wrote in a wave of inspiration, feeling intensely awake to those powerful, fleeting moments of opportunity in life. The title track is about those potent moments that come our way.
A New Sound - Lights Are Burning
All of these ingredients came together, and what emerged was a collection of songs with catchier hooks than anything I’d written before. Themes range from intensely going after you want, to enjoying love. But the common thread driving each song is that soulful, burning feeling.
Recording the Album
To capture this burning feeling in an album, I called on the worldclass musicians I got to know during my eight years in LA. I’d long been hearing the sounds needed to bring these songs to life: deep, fat low end from the bass and drums, warm, soulful Fender Rhodes, swelling B3 organ, gritty Wurlitzer and electric guitars, lead vocals with the right mix of grit and soul, rich vocal harmonies…
I developed the vision for this album with producer and bassist, Ethan Phillips. Ethan is a top-notch producer and my favorite kind of bassist, who lays down that solid, grooving low end you can feel in your feet. He's worked with many musicians I love: was the long time touring bassist and Music Director for Brett Dennen, helped produce the new number 1 De La Soul album, and has played with other major acts like Fun, and Fitz and the Tantrums. He brings all of this experience to helping create the right vibe for this album.
In July 2015, we laid down the foundation for each song. We recorded rhythm guitar, bass, drums and Fender Rhodes live to tape in a really fun studio just drenched in good 70s vibes. Such a rich, authentic sound.
From there, we layered all those vintage and new sounds I wanted, and the album emerged.
For Love Of Covers and Ben E. King
I have always loved covers, both as an excuse to hear a favorite song again and to hear what other artists bring to something I know. A cover can allow us to fall in love with parts of a song that were not as present in the original artists arrangement, while showcasing what makes the person performing it unique. Whether reviving standards or putting a new spin on a typically out-of-genre gem, some artists have a unique ability to breathe life into a song that did not need more life in the first place.
No one has ever been better at this than Aretha Franklin.
If you want to see the ultimate performance, skip to the end. Otherwise follow the evolution of one of my favorite songs, "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)", originally recorded by Ben E. King. Interestingly, or at least of interest to me when I learned this during writing, the song was co-written by Ben E. King's wife and the co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün.
An all-time Favorite - Ruby Johnson
I found Ruby Johnson when I was digging into Stax, one of my all-time favorite records labels. I came for Otis Redding and stayed for the MGs, plus a long line of musicians they backed. Ruby Johnson never had commercial success and stopped singing professionally in 1974, but her sole soul album is one of the best I have ever heard. Written and produced by Isaac Hayes, and backed by Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, she still steals the show.
Kelly Clarkson and The John Mayer Conundrum
I am including this as an example of how hard it is to do something compelling with a cover, even if you have the talent. Kelly Clarkson sounds great, and the band is as professional as it gets, but somehow the soul is stripped out of the song when compared to other versions. You can't do much when you cut a song short and need to reach a mass-audience, so we can put the blame on Fox (which is always fun anyway).
The Master Of Masters, Aretha Franklin
No-one is better at a cover than Aretha, and like a lot of singers her greatest hits were written by other people. Unlike other artists, she was often not the first person to record them or make them famous. The songs may have been classics if she did do them first, but familiarity with them does not take away from what she brings to the table. If anything it gives her a well-tread canvas to make her masterpiece.
The list of songwriters on Aretha Franklin's greatest hits is impressive, and it is amazing her versions stand out next to their's. Included: Paul Simon, Otis Redding, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, John Lennon, Ahmet Ertegün, Phil Spector, Jerry Wexler, Carole King. She always sounds like herself, but takes a cue from earlier versions.
As my brother once said, "Covering the Beatles is tough. You either need to play it spot on or bring something they didn't".
She always did.