Rob Russell is a dynamic artist hailing from Johnson, TN. His style is a blend of Rockabilly, Americana and Alternative Country. His music captured my ear right off the bat for it’s heartfelt, energetic and poetic quality. It has a very real feel to it and I highly recommend taking a listen to Rob’s work. In this interview I covered a wide variety of topics from the creative process, sources of inspiration, making and keeping a band together, to how he copes with struggling as an artist with a demanding full time job as well – and an awful lot in between. Rob is not only an interesting musician, but an interesting person as well; take a look and see for yourself.
GOM: How many songs do you write in a month?
Rob Russell: I probably start 3-4 song ideas every month, but I usually finish a bunch at a time. I finish something like six to eight songs a year, out of fifty or sixty ideas — that’s not much of a batting average, but I like to think that I’m shooting for quality as opposed to quantity. Plus, I don’t have the pressure of a publishing deal bearing down on me.
GOM: Where do you start? Lyrics? Music?
Rob Russell: I’ve tried to write music separately from lyrics, and vice versa, but lyrics usually come to me in the form of tunes or little scraps of melody. I’ll sometimes use something I’ve written separately, like a poem or a story, and work that into a song I’m trying to flush out. More often, I’ll fuse song ideas together — “Broken” is an example of that. It started out as two separate songs: one about the death of my mom’s cousin, who she and my father were very close to, and one about Hank Williams. When the “I was changed from this creature that I am” chorus hit me during the composition of the “rut” song, I knew it was a song I wanted to finish, but I didn’t know where to go after the second chorus. Pillaging the other song just made sense, the themes seemed to fit — not living the kind of life you think you should be living — so I just brought the lyric ideas in line with the melody. To be honest, I don’t know if this method always works — I sing a different fourth verse live than is on the MP3-site version. But, at the time it happened, it felt like magic!
GOM: Do you always write lyrics from a personal experience perspective or more from out of the blue imagination?
Rob Russell: Because of the way I write, in bits and pieces, I can’t really separate the two a lot of the time. The more personal material is tricky. Sometimes stuff that I write has a resonance for me even years later; sometimes it feels false after a month. All in all, I rarely write anything that’s strictly autobiography — it’s always a heightened reality the storyteller’s living in, because that way the certain feeling or emotion I’m trying to capture can be re-experienced. I don’t write, “I was feeling sad.” Instead, I might write, “every word you don’t say makes me sad” — put the feeling into some kind of dramatic context. Of course, we all write because we are driven by our imaginations to express ourselves through language and music, and our imaginations are colored and shaded by our own personal experiences, so the two are really completely interconnected.
GOM: Who are your lyrical influences?
Rob Russell: There are quite a few lyric writers who astound me on a regular basis: Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and Graham Parker to name just a few. Lately I’ve been listening more to writers who really seem to be in tune with the sound of their words, not just the meanings, but the emotional force of the word choices and the phrasing. Parker’s “Discovering Japan” off of Squeezing Out Sparks is just amazing in this way — his phrasing, his rhyming choices just absolutely rock you; “You Can’t Be Too Strong” off that same album has word choices that are just so right — no other words could’ve been used. Van Morrison is that kind of writer — more mystical and more poetic — but very much interested in the sounds of his words.
GOM: Are you able to connect with the audience in live performance? What do you think is the driving force within that connection?
Rob Russell: You know, for me it’s hit or miss on that one. I’m much more comfortable fronting a band, but a lot of the people who come back to see me show after show, buy CD’s and stuff off the website, seem to respond to my solo performances. There’s a group of people who were at a show that I put out on CD last year, Alive on 7th Street, and that particular show actually took place in 1997, but when I started selling the CD on MP3, several of them e-mailed me to tell me I was leaving songs out. I’d edited them out because of sound glitches or whatever, but they remembered the actual set, was the scary thing! For me, connecting with an audience live is about giving all of yourself to the performance, believing in what you do and also showing your vulnerability. I’ve fronted bands that were super-slick and bands that were half-rehearsed but spontaneous, and the audience will go with spontaneous 90% of the time. Not that I’m advocating not rehearsing — having a solid group that knows and can really dig into your music is essential — but keeping it loose is key. Same thing for playing solo — whatever you have to do to make it fresh, whether it’s playing an unfinished new song or some random cover someone screams out at the bar, go for it!
GOM: What other activities in your personal life fuel your creative endeavors?
Rob Russell: My job, for one. I’m lucky to be around people who talk about writing, and care about writing, every day. Writing and talking about writing are a regular part of what I do running a writing center. Reading is, of course, a constant source of inspiration. I love great stories and fresh language. Lately, I’ve been trying to collect and read all of Kinky Friedman’s detective novels lately. He’s a damn fine songwriter, but his prose is just incredible. The novels’ plots are really nothing, just a hanger for the language, but that language is not to be missed! I tend to read and re-read the authors I love — Garcia Marquez, Hawthorne, John Irving, Dennis Johnson. I love movies, too — Woody Allen’s stuff I watch over and over again. A lot of times when I write I think in terms of scenes and visual images — that’s from being addicted to film. Listening to new music is important to me, not just because I’m a music lover and a fan, but because listening to new things helps me to get outside my natural references, enlarge my field of vision. Lately, I’ve been casting a pretty wide net, listening to Brit-rock guitar bands like Travis and Coldplay, some old folk and country anthologies, the O Brother! Soundtrack and the In the Country of Country Music , and some obscure soul stuff. Sometimes I feel limited when it’s just me and the guitar, same old chords, same old voice, but letting new music in helps me enlarge the possibilities of songwriting.
GOM: Tell me how you navigate the interpersonal dynamics of creating and keeping a band.
Rob Russell: I wish I knew! It seems like something is always changing when you have a band, and when you’re a member of a band, forget it — just sit down, shut up and hang on! Seriously, I’ve been in tons of bands, and a few decently successful ones (musically and personally), but there’s no one rule or way of operating that can bring ultimate band harmony. Bands are a give and take proposition; the best bands are the ones that have the most creativity among the members, but these are also the hardest ones to keep together. Strong personalities clash, that’s just a given. As far as having a backing band, where you’re essentially the “boss,” you book the gigs, you call the rehearsals, you have to pay them (in a band there’s always the “band fund” where money is kept for the “good of the band” — when it’s a backing band, that doesn’t seem to work). Still, one thing is true in both cases — to make good music you have to have inventive, creative, and capable people around you. A bunch of players who’ll do whatever you want them to do may sound like a good idea, but it sure won’t sound like a good band when you hit the stage! So, it’s a balance.
GOM: What kind of musical training do you have?
Rob Russell: Not enough to help me or hurt me, I guess. I wish I’d paid more attention in Music Theory class, to tell the truth. And I wish I’d practiced guitar more when I was younger — my lead chops are just non-existent! The two best things I ever did, music training-wise, was to take guitar lessons from a guy named Jim Gibson, and to switch to playing exclusively bass for two years — Jim’s to blame for both. What little I know of song structure, harmony, scales, etc., I learned from him. I wanted to be in a band in high school, and I was not the heavy metal type, looks-wise, so nobody was interested in me as a guitar player. But they needed bass players. And I became a pretty good bass player I think — learned to sight read, learned to get into a groove. It helped my guitar playing a lot, that’s for sure, as well as my timing. Not only was Jim an excellent guitarist, he had great taste in music — and those things don’t always go together. When he moved from Tennessee to California (and he’s probably still out there now, I guess), he gave me two of his records — Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow and Springsteen’s Born to Run. I loved both, but guess which one changed my life?
GOM: Even though you claim that you don’t make much money for doing this, do you find it rewarding and what do you think it would take for you to be able to generate more income from your music?
Rob Russell: For me, it comes down to two things: time and focus. If you have a full-time “day job” that you enjoy, like I do, working and doing other things related to work — taking classes, writing papers, going to conferences — is going to take up a lot of your time. The time when you are available to focus on music is, if you are a good time manager (which I’m not), compartmentalized — it’s weekends and the odd weeknight. And, obviously, that’s no way to make a career in music. What I find rewarding is connecting with people, reaching people through my music. I think that’s what every artist (and I hope I don’t sound too pretentious) is really looking for: a good audience. With the Internet, I have been able to get my music out into the world, beyond the little smoky bars in a small southern town, to places like California, Texas, Sweden, the U.K.
GOM: Do you think that the structure of corporate dominated music, that seems as if it’s target marketed to people based on commercial appearance has caused the lesser known but perhaps more musically gifted artists to not only be overlooked, but to be held back?
Rob Russell: Yes, but I think this is almost always the way it has been. Dylan, Elvis, The Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana — these are aberrations more than anything else, certainly not the norm. Look at a Top 40 chart from 20 years again and see if you recognize even half of the artists on it by name. I think it might be even more openly cut-throat and evil than it used to be, but record companies weren’t ever run by saints! It is a shame, however, that artists and bands these days don’t usually get the kinds of three-four album commitments they used to get from major labels in the 70’s and 80’s. In the past, artists were able to fall down a couple of times before the record company lost interest. I mean, what if Dylan’s label had axed him after his first release, which sold almost nil, or Springsteen’s after his first two records went nowhere? Record companies just don’t seem to have the guts to make a commitment and stick to it these days; great writers and singers like Robbie Fulks and Radney Foster get cut loose from majors after one release doesn’t hit the top of the charts. If anything, this climate keeps fringe performers like me happier to be on the fringe, and free to make music that challenges convention. Hell, I just want to be a cult hero! I’d rather have a career arc like Loudon Wainwright III or Richard Thompson than Back Street Boys — where will they be in ten years? Wainwright and Thompson have careers spanning five decades, but hardly anyone knows who they are. That’s cool.
GOM: What do you think is needed to help American artists break out of that commercial appeal trap – and receive the support that they need?
Rob Russell: I think this is more of an individual issue than one relating to a larger group, or genre. This probably sounds harsh, but it’s what I think: you have to make a choice. If you want it (commercial success), go for it. That means, a lot of times, following both your heart and your head. When I was in college, there was a guy my age who played the same local open mike night as myself, almost every Wednesday night. He was awful. I mean really bad. So bad, as a matter of fact, that they used to turn the lights off on him to get him off the stage. Where’s he now, twelve years later? Well, if you check out CMT for more than 30 minutes, you’ll probably see him — his videos are in almost constant rotation there! The difference between him and me wasn’t natural talent (because he really didn’t have any — not that I do, either), it was desire. That’s what he wanted: to be a country music star! And he did it. Again, it’s a matter of focus. Personally, I can hardly listen to any radio station for more than a song at a time, except for my local public radio station, so I’d have been miserable chasing his dream, playing that music. But for him, it was his choice, and he followed it.
GOM: Do you feel that you have an inherent or intuitive understanding of musical structure or do you approach it from a purely technical perspective?
Rob Russell: Probably a little of both. I know the “rules” of song structure — pop, country, rock, bluegrass, whatever — these are easy to figure out if you listen to the genre enough. What makes a song yours instead of an exercise in formalism are the choices you make, and that comes from you, your imagination, your own sense of what works and what doesn’t. I can listen to a song and say, “That still needs a bridge.” Sometimes, I can. A lot of times, especially lately, I’ll let the song and my mood dictate structure. I’ve been playing a lot more lately with getting outside the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop structure, even when I’m writing simple pop songs.
GOM: How do you deal with the stress of basically working two jobs?
Rob Russell: Not well. I go through periods of putting the rock and roll thing on hold, using that time to write songs and just re-charge my batteries. Then, I’ll start rehearsing a band and hit it pretty hard for six to nine months, playing lots of gigs, promoting my music, traveling regionally to shows and conferences if I get the chance. Right now I’m in “down time” mode. I’m working with a friend of mine who’s agreed to co-produce my next project. So, this year, my big push will be recording a full-on CD, getting distribution, etc., instead of doing a bunch of shows with a band. This will, hopefully, be my first fully-realized album project. In the past, I’ve put out tapes and CD’s with my bands, but they’ve all been either EP’s (no longer than eight songs) or just collections of demos. Some interesting stuff (the best of it is on Underyears — http://www.mp3.com/RobRussell — & The Bystanders’ Greatest Hits, Volume One — http://www.mp3.com/thebystanders), but not really the kind of thing I think I’m really capable of. I’m a short story writer, but I’m gearing up to write the Great American Novel!
GOM: What do you see as our most pressing problem as a society?
Rob Russell: The replacement of real life with a vicarious life lived through the media. We’re bombarded by messages from TV, radio, the Internet, and this constant pummeling doesn’t allow for much time to just sit back and assess what the messages mean. I know I’m guilty of this, and I often have to just remove myself from the temptation of constantly “plugging in” to the media stream, since I’m a child of all that, raised with TV, video games and computers. When we do that too much, we replace what’s real in our lives — friends, family, engagement with books and creative thought — with a surrogate that doesn’t require active participation. And I’m basically lazy; so are a lot of people. It’s not exactly world hunger, but I think we might need Apathy-Aid to combat “world apathy” in the 21st Century!
GOM: When you come across a promising new artist in your town do you find yourself leaning towards helping them up, or do you feel more of a sense of competition?
Rob Russell: I do feel competitive, of course; when I see a great band or singer, it makes me want to do what I do that much better. I tend to get a little hard on myself for not doing more in terms of shows and promotion if I see somebody really taking off locally, but I really shouldn’t be that way — I’ve got my own little niche and I’m happy there. In terms of helping new artists, I got the chance to “produce” a demo for my brother’s alternative rock band last year, and that was a lot of fun. I try to offer encouragement and, if they want it, my opinions based on my experiences. I try to be the same type of mentor to them that local guys I looked up to were (and still are) to me. My biggest mistake in this area is that I tend to push the younger guys maybe beyond what they want to do; I’ve learned from this, learned to back off and just be a supporter.
Thank you so much Rob for taking the time to appease my inquiry mind.