The current issue of Oklahoma Today has—among many interesting and thoughtful pieces of writing that warrant you purchasing the issue—a story I worked on over several last months last year, discussing the arts-centric development of Automobile Alley in OKC with the lovely people at Factory Obscura, Oklahoma Contemporary, and elsewhere.
Without limits: Songwriter Richard Marx releases diverse new album after four decades of hitmaking for The Oklahoman
The world, according to Richard Marx, “is not out there waiting for a new Richard Marx album.”
In his past life as a pop star, 56-year-old Marx had four consecutive platinum albums starting with his 1987 self-titled debut. On those records were seven consecutive top five singles, including the Grammy-nominated “Right Here Waiting,” released in 1989. When the late 1990s ushered in a wave of new pop artists that dethroned the de facto hitmakers, Marx’s pop dominance, and that of many of his contemporaries, all but disappeared from the charts.
“In the late ’90s, I put out an album that kind of just didn’t do what the other ones did,” Marx said. “At first I freaked out. Then I looked at it more pragmatically, that it wasn’t just me: It was Bryan Adams, it was Billy Joel, it was John Mellencamp. We all stopped having pop hits right around within a year of each other, which made me feel a little bit better.”
And thus, a very specific, specific Richard Marx — the one with big 1980s hair — is preserved in pop culture amber, earning a permanent spot in the pop canon at the expense of being an occasional nostalgic punchline. The masses aren’t chomping at the bit for a new Marx record; that much is true. What’s also true is that they’ve probably been listening to him this whole time anyway.
After his 1997 record didn’t perform as well as its predecessors, Marx, who started out writing songs for and performing on the records of other people (including Kenny Rogers, Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire), refocused his career on that collaborative work. As a songwriter, he’s had a No. 1 song every decade for four decades running. Some of his genre-spanning hits include NSYNC’s “This I Promise You,” Josh Groban’s “To Where You Are” and Keith Urban’s “Long Hot Summer.”
Keeping his finger on the disparate pulses of pop, rock, country and adult contemporary led Marx to where he is today, about to put out a new record — ”Limitless,” out Feb. 7 — whose songs are all over the place. When Marx announced the album last year, he noted he “wasn’t really sure what making a new album meant for an artist like me.”
“Pop music is and always has been and always kind of should be a young person’s game,” Marx said. “I certainly had my day on the charts, but I feel that my skill set is still strong, and I think in terms of young music. I don’t just listen to old Creedence Clearwater Revival records, as great as they are. I listen to Halsey. I listen to Post Malone. I’m influenced and inspired by a lot of new pop music.”
This creates a natural quandary for Marx as a songwriter for himself: “In certain ways, what I’m coming up with is kind of odd for someone my age.”
Parts of “Limitless” lean country, others rock ‘n’ roll. There’s acoustic balladry, but there’s also electronic dance music. All the songs were culled from demos and snippets collected over the last several years.
“It’s a pretty schizophrenic record,” Marx said. “I just kind of went with what songs spoke to me the most. At one point, when I had this collection of songs, I was like, wow, this s— is so all over the place. And then I listened again and I thought, oh, it’s OK, because it’s all it’s all my voice. As long as that’s consistent…let’s face it — I can do whatever I want anyway. It’s not like I’m walking some tightrope.”
The album includes co-writes and collaborations with Sara Bareilles, Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon, Marx’s wife, Daisy Fuentes, and his son, Lucas Marx. It is a project of passion only, in essence, something Marx called a “selfish exercise.”
“Of course I want people to love the record, but that’s not the motivation. I remember what it’s like to be an artist whose last album sold three million, four million, whatever, and there’s pressure. You want to keep your fan base, but you want to grow,” Marx said. “All of that mental f—ery is gone; I don’t think about any of that. It’s just that I love these songs.”
The record’s sole cohesive thread may be Marx’s voice, but the songwriting chops that netted his stardom in the first place are ever-present. They’re also the aspect of his career he’s most proud of.
“I feel like being a songwriter, being the person that creates something from nothing, is really a noble profession. That’s what I consider myself, first and foremost, and I think that’s what I do the best,” Marx said.
Songwriter first and performer second, Marx kicks off a string of concerts Thursday at the Tower Theatre. The shows aren’t in support of “Limitless,” though attendees may hear a new song or two.
“It’s possible that a new record can help fuel ticket sales and vice versa, but that’s not even in my head,” Marx said. “I’m active on the road because I really enjoy it. The main goal for me is to always be able to go out and do shows if I want, and I think the only way to get to that point in your life is to keep out there.”
And then, laughing, in a nod to that specific Richard Marx of yore, he admitted, “It certainly helps to have a catalog of songs people know.”
At 14 years old, songwriter and author Allison Moorer awoke to the sound of gunshots outside her Alabama home. In the pre-dawn dark, her father shot her mother and then himself, leaving Moorer and her then-17-year-old sister orphaned. Moorer’s new memoir, both the book and its companion record, are called Blood. In them, she recounts her parents’ turbulent marriage, a childhood full of both music and fear, her ironclad relationship with her sister and fellow acclaimed musician Shelby Lynne and how that earth-shattering early morning altered her life forever.
The book is a heart-piercing work of heady prose told with astonishing detail and candor, touching on witnessing abuse, praying for the safety of her family and even reading her parents’ autopsy reports for the first time as an adult. The companion album is a case study in processing trauma through art. Combined, they’re a career-defining release of poetry found in mystery, in human complexity and in unhappy truths.
Immediately following a battery of interviews including high-profile features on CBS This Morning and NPR’s Fresh Air, Moorer embarked on a cross-country tour to speak about the book and perform a few selections from the record. She’ll be at the Woody Guthrie Center on Dec. 5 for a free reading presented in partnership with Magic City Books and the Bob Dylan Center.
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Becky Carman: What kinds of conversations did you have with Shelby before you started telling your story, since this is her story as well?
Allison Moorer: I didn’t talk it over with her; I just started the work. When I got into it, I let her know that I was doing it. I needed her in some instances to check my own memory, or I wanted to get her perspective. We did communicate about it some but not as much I guess as some people might think. It’s just about this very specific place and time in my life. I do feel like I am the witness for my immediate family, the four of us. I do feel a responsibility, especially to my sister, to make sure I get it as right as I can. She has told me that because I did do this work, she has been able to see her own experience in a different way and to see her own trauma in a way that she had maybe not allowed herself to see it before. That’s the biggest reward I can ask for.
Carman: Why was now the right time to tell your story?
Moorer: I’ve had some people ask me, ‘Why did you wait so long?’ And I don’t even really know how to answer that other than to say I certainly wasn’t prepared to write a book about this when my first record came out. I wasn’t even prepared to talk about this part of my life. What led me to write this—and this is crazy—but in 2010, about six weeks after my son was born, I was asked to be a guest on Maya Angelou’s radio show. Of course, I said, ‘Of course.’ She asked me about my childhood, my upbringing, and she said, ‘Well, now you have [your son] John Henry, so what are you going to tell him when he’s old enough to ask? How are you going to explain this to him?’ And I didn’t have an answer for her. That put the idea in me to start writing it down.
Carman: Unpacking a traumatic childhood event is one thing, and writing about it is another. Are those things separate for you, or was the writing a tool to work through this?
Moorer: I think I’m a person who processes through art. The exercise and the discipline of writing helped me uncover a lot of my feelings and a lot of detail about this subject. There were places I put myself to recall things that I had maybe not thought about since they happened, but I had my tools: I had made my stack of index cards with memories on them or topics that I wanted to look into or just words that seem to trigger me in some way. I’ve got a lot of photographs that I would look at, a lot of artifacts. I have to tell you, I remembered some things that shook me to my core. I remember several times just holding on to the side of my desk thinking, ‘How am I going to write this down? This is too painful, or this is too complex, or this is too much to try to put into a paragraph.’ I did my very best. I know that. And I wrote and rewrote. I think I wrote this book four times.
Carman: There’s a song on the record where your sister wrote music to your father’s words. Did you have to ask her to do that?
Moorer: She found the lyric in his briefcase shortly after they died, and she put music to it, so it’s been with us all this time. Neither one of us have ever officially recorded it, so I thought this record would be a good time to do that. I feel like it serves a couple of purposes. It is a window into his character for sure, because that lyric comes straight from him. It also let me say to him finally, ‘OK, you get to be heard.’ That was important to me.
Carman: In one of your journal entries recently, you talk about living on the ‘woo woo’ side of life, and in the book you talk about praying and about wanting to go to church. What do faith and spirituality look like in your life now?
Moorer: Being in touch with my own spirituality and keeping a really close relationship with faith—however it looks on whatever day that is—is really important to me. There’s so many things in life that we cannot control. In fact, we can’t control any of it, and the idea that we can is a total illusion. If I get too close to that, I can absolutely spin out. I started a meditation practice several years ago. I’ve always been interested in Buddhism and the concept of having absolutely no control over anything.
And you know, I can go both ways on that, because I am a person who seeks symbolism and seeks meaning. I can on one hand think, you know, there aren’t any accidents, and I don’t want there to be. There’s a reason for everything that happens, and we have a path, and we can choose how we walk it, but there is a greater plan than what we think there is. And then the other hand, I can think, well, none of this makes any sense … it’s absolute chaos. That presents a problem for me as a practical person. I’m like, well, which is it? I just figure I have to do the best with this that I can, and that means that I can only do something about me.
Also, I think if I stay in touch with my spiritual side, which calms me greatly, I’m able to do something like this. This process is making me highly vulnerable. Not only have I put all of this out into the world, I’m now having to talk about it. And it’s still not easy to talk about 33 years down the road. It’s still a painful subject, so I have to dig in there. The difference for me now, because I have done emotional work that I needed to do, is I don’t necessarily feel like the world is out to get me. Because this happened, I embodied the message that the world is not safe, that the world is a very dangerous place. I’ve operated on this sort of high-alert and hyper-vigilant system. What I’m trying to do now is be OK with that vulnerability and trust that anyone who asked me a question doesn’t want to hurt me.
Carman: Did any of the questions about your parents that you started with get answered?
Moorer: No. So many people throughout my life have indicated that my father was someone they admired, and I understand, especially from an intellectual perspective, how he was so attractive. He was charismatic. He was talented. He was smart. He was good-looking. A lot of these people showed up to his funeral and said, ‘He affected my life, he did this for me, or we love him for this,’ and I’ve never been able to figure out why we saw such a different person at home. I can blame a great deal of that on alcohol for sure. But that was one of my questions: Who was this person that I did not know? I didn’t get any big answer about how he turned into who he ended up being.
When I got the autopsy reports, I saw that there was a third cartridge found on the ground, and every time I would approach someone to try to help me figure that out, I would hit a dead end, or they would stop corresponding with me. I finally just had to say, ‘Well, I can stay on this track, and I can try to get an answer to this question, or I can just let it go and decide that something’s telling me I don’t need to know the answer to this question.’ I have to be OK with the unknown, or I can just stay on the hamster wheel forever. I just had to get off. The lesson for me was I have to make peace with the fact that I’m not going to know everything, and I’m not supposed to know everything.
On the band’s new record The Thunderbird, Beau Jennings and the Tigers chronicle stories about fisherman Jimmy Houston and Dairy Queen employees lamenting their fate. Jennings sings about Tulsa’s BRONCHO hitting a ceiling as a local band and throws out a baseball metaphor to capture the plight of an Oklahoma death row inmate. It sounds ridiculous laid out like that, but these disparate fabrics share a common thread connecting Jennings’ recent songs: It all feels kinda true, when he puts it that way.
Jennings has never shied away from plainspoken lyricism, whether in his band Cheyenne, active from 2003 to 2012, or on his solo efforts, including The Verdigris, an ambitious 2015 record-and-documentary combo about his search for connection with hometown hero Will Rogers. The latter consumed Jennings’ creative energy for nearly a decade from inception to release, and on the other side of it, he was, in his own words, “ready to get out of [his] own way.”
Bolstered by a solidified lineup of collaborators including longtime Tigers Michael Trepagnier, Chase Kerby and Dustin Ragland, Jennings made the record he was looking for—a feel-good, 35-minute rock band LP worth spinning from start to finish. It’s full of just as many frank, Jennings-esque lines as any record he’s been part of so far—“The Empty Bottles are playing tonight,” he sings about a local alt-country cover act, “I think I’m gonna get a sitter”—and still manages to come across as a fun-loving collection of universal truths on the modern Oklahoma experience.
* * *
Becky Carman: At the end of Cheyenne, I got the sense that going solo was maybe not a creative decision but a circumstantial one. What were you thinking when that was happening?
Beau Jennings: Cheyenne always had a bunch of lineup changes, and then our guitar player left, and I was not feeling like finding a new one, even though I had always done that. A small record label wanted to put out the second Cheyenne record, and there was some self-preservation instinct that, because they had a small recording budget, made me be like, ‘Use this to kickstart a solo career.’ I was kind of feeling it internally, and then an opportunity happened, so I could see where it maybe seemed tentative.
Carman: You mentioned to me a while back that you were trying to sort of take things more seriously with this album release. How so?
Jennings: I realized a while back who listens to what I do, and it’s a certain demographic: people my age. [Jennings is 39.] I’m trying to really reach out to those people, to try to build a smaller but more dedicated audience as opposed to just reaching everywhere for whomever might kind of be interested.
Carman: The Verdigris was a long-term, really ambitious project. How did it change how you make and release music?
Jennings: It was so much fun, even though I wasn’t doing anything that no one else had done—historical music has been done before, and documentaries have been done before. It still felt like, ‘Nobody else in the world is working on an album about Will Rogers right now.’ It was really engrossing for me and felt like I was just doing something new. I’ve been chasing that feeling for a while. What I tried to shed from The Verdigris was the seriousness of it. I wanted the new record to be more loose and carefree and just feel different.
Carman: Over the years, what’s been your philosophy about what’s worth putting into a song?
Jennings: I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I have this book called Hemingway on Writing. It’s a collection of different places where he’s commented on the writing process. He’s just like, whenever you’re stuck, think of one true thing and write it down. Then think of another true thing and write it down. That’s been helpful to me—to really, with a fine-toothed comb, go through any line and ask, ‘Is this line bullshit, or is this true? Are you putting on some air or affectation? Are you communicating something that in 10 years is going to resonate?’ Trying to whittle it down to true statements and also trying to make less of a statement, if I ever did, and just let facts exist.
Carman: Are you one of those regimented songwriters or a ‘catch the inspiration’ type?
Jennings: I’m a big believer in putting in the time and work, but it’s never worked [laughs]. I only have good ideas when I’m doing something else, and I gotta pull over and write it down. Maybe the clocking in part is exercise, and then game time is when the idea strikes. That’s my latest theory: You’re always working with those muscles so that when a real idea occurs, I know what to do with it, or have a sense of how to at least start.
Carman: What’s your favorite moment on the record?
Jennings: That song “Gettin’s Good” feels really good to me. That song’s probably one I’m most proud of, that feels kind of new and is getting at a sound I’d like to get better at.
Carman: You’re leaning into the Springsteen.
Jennings: I totally get why that song would come off as that. I try not to deny my influences too hard, but I don’t go for them either. I can’t sing like that. If I could sound like that, I would. At least in my humble opinion, I aim for something, and I miss it, so I end up somewhere else.
Carman: Now that the record’s out, what do you think of it?
Jennings: We can play the record front to back at a show. I’ve never really had that before, where the record works as a setlist too, and I’m really proud of that. A lot of the feedback has been just how the record feels good. A lot of times you put your bangers up front and then the more introspective stuff at the end. I like that this is a little more even feel all the way through.
Carman: There are things on the record that don’t sound like they were your idea, like the way that you push your vocals and stylize them. What was the outside influence on the way you performed on this record?
Jennings: A lot of that was Michael Trepagnier. When we were recording the vocals, he encouraged me to do things I didn’t normally do. I’m a limited vocalist, so it’s really easy for me to play it super safe. Anything new or different I did maybe started with a desire for me to do something new, but also him making me.
Carman: What do the Tigers enable you to do, onstage, or just in terms of mental space, that you couldn’t do before?
Jennings: Performance-wise, I have total confidence. This is a very musically solid group, and I feel like they can pretty much do anything they want. I’ve always liked this idea of me being the worst member of the band. I’m the weakest musically for sure, and that just makes me better. The rising tide thing is kind of how I look at it.
Billie Eilish has never bought a CD. The 17-year-old platinum-selling musician revealed this about herself in an early 2019 interview with NME to much online disbelief—presumably from people older than her, who couldn’t fathom a music fandom scenario without physical media.
This bit of modern music trivia sparked disbelief from 23-year-old Braeden Lemasters and 22-year-old Cole Preston, both of Los Angeles pop rock band Wallows, which also features 22-year-old Dylan Minnette. They have been playing music together since their early teens, and their debut album Nothing Happens was released earlier this year on Atlantic Records. You can buy a copy of it if you’re old. You can stream it if you’re young. You can stumble onto it accidentally if it exists anywhere in the same orbit as something else you consumed online.
Lemasters called Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations “a wormhole.” Preston, seated among boxes of CDs he’d packed up during a move, called streaming music a “schizophrenic” endeavor, touting its convenience, knocking its low artist pay and launching into a sharp critique of the medium affecting the message.
“For us, it was like, ‘Oh, you need to write your name on your album cover, and it should be at least this big, otherwise people won’t be able to read it on their phone,’” Preston said. “The packaging, the whole tangible element of it is totally lost. Big art in general is considered to be sort of highbrow. I think the big art involved with music is just kind of gone away because of how tiny our devices are.”
Lemasters chimed in, stifling a laugh. “I heard the Mona Lisa is considered lowbrow. Because it’s so small.”
Art historians estimate it took Da Vinci at least four years to paint his biggest work of art, which is in reality very small. Wallows has been even more patient. Though the members are young, the band itself is not: Minnette and Lemasters became friends at nine and have been writing songs together since they were 11. They met Preston shortly afterward and went through a handful of iterations and regrettable band names before the official “debut” of Wallows in 2017.
Wallows released a few singles that year, an EP in 2018, and then Nothing Happens, a John Congleton-produced full-length record chock full of beachy, Strokes-inspired pop rock tracks. After a lot of waiting, things are finally happening for Wallows. So why call the record Nothing Happens? And why are things finally happening now?
“When we were kids and really trying to do it, we would always be like, ‘Man, nothing’s happening. Nothing happens for us ever no matter how much we work,’” Preston said. “When we were probably 15, we joked that whenever our first album gets created—whatever happens, however it happens, it’s going to be called Nothing Happens. When we had the lyrics and had the whole theme of the record, I think that the title just made sense in a totally different way. You can go through all these things in your youth that feel so heavy and serious and like the end of the world and all that. But at the end of the day, once you power through it all, it sort of feels like nothing really happened.”
When it seemed like nothing was happening for Wallows, plenty was happening professionally for Lemasters and Minnette, who have both been actors since they were very young. This other career at least partially answers the question of “Why now?” for Wallows. The band’s major-label debut comes in the wake of Minnette’s lead role as Clay Jensen in the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. And though Minnette’s newfound notoriety is inextricable from the sudden escalation of Wallows’ profile, it is certainly not its only cause.
“Dylan and I … wanted to be actors when we were very, very, very young, but I think it was always in our DNA to be musicians, that was what our main thing would be when we got older,” Lemasters said. “It’s not like we’re actors [who said] ‘Hey, let’s capitalize and be musicians because I can play a G chord!’ We’re actually passionate. I spend my free time trying to perfect this, and I’m constantly listening to music and trying to broaden my stuff.”
Nothing Happens melds a variety of influences, including apparent heavy inspiration from the early-2000s garage rock revival. The songs are as guitar-driven as they are synth pop, and the lyrics exhibit both youthful hubris and earned enlightenment.
“I say the wrong shit at the right times,” Minnette sings in the earworm single “Scrawny.” He goes on, “I can still have wisdom and look like a child.”
Wallows is a study in diametrics: throwback rock ‘n’ roll and laptop pop, showbiz veterans and industry newcomers, the kind of dudes who stream every day but would love it if you bought the largest of all the media they offer: a vinyl LP. They’re awash with obsessive fans on their social accounts yet seem to be living, all things considered, pretty normal lives.
“When we get old, will we regret this?” Minnette croaks on another Wallows single, “Are You Bored Yet?” “Too young to think about all that shit / And stalling only goes so far when you’ve got a head start.”
Now, finally, Wallows has gotten its decade-in-the-making head start and is finding out what happens when Nothing Happens finally happens.
Hi! I’ve started a regular feature at I Ate Oklahoma on one of my culinary true loves, noodles. “Noodling” will be a monthly review on—hold onto your hat—noodles consumed at any one of Oklahoma’s finest and/or worst noodle-serving establishments.
Jay Farrar, songwriter and singer for Son Volt, laments the state of things in no uncertain terms on the band’s new record, “Union,” released in March of this year.
“Lady Liberty, are you still here?” he sings in his trademark melancholy voice in the midst of 13 songs tackling prominent headlines from the last few years, the immigrant experience and the fate of whistleblower Reality Winner, among other things.
Farrar formed Son Volt in 1994 after leaving Uncle Tupelo, the band he co-wrote for with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Son Volt has undergone several lineup changes and done some stylistic experimentation since, including the blues-focused “Notes of Blue” record in 2017.
For “Union,” Farrar largely focused his songwriting in the traditions of protest folk songs, with calls for justice and character narratives inspired by tracks like Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Son Volt recorded a portion of the record at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and several songs at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center to draw inspiration from the museums’ namesakes.
Son Volt returns to Oklahoma for a Tuesday show at the Jones Assembly. Here he comments in a recent interview for The Oklahoman:
Q:As a non-Oklahoman, when did your relationship with Woody Guthrie start?
Farrar: The relationship with Woody Guthrie probably started when I found Woody Guthrie records in my folks’ record collection. Eventually I started buying his records and seeing the connection and the inspiration he gave to Bob Dylan and that sort of continuum. Woody was a spokesman for the underprivileged, and he kind of represented the idea that there’s more to life than just making a buck.
Q:Why was it important to you to record at the Woody Guthrie Center, in close proximity to his material?
Farrar: Part of it was a field trip just to get out of the studio, and the other purpose was to kind of highlight people that have made a difference — Woody Guthrie is one, and Mother Jones is the other. I felt like it would be a good challenge to get out of the recording studio to a different environment and maybe be inspired along the way.
Q:The Woody Guthrie Center is located on a street that was named after a member of the KKK, in a district of Tulsa that was formerly named after him. There are a lot of juxtapositions like that in this part of the country. How do you think being from the Midwest and South has affected your relationship to a folk music, and to politics by extension?
Farrar: I didn’t know that. Being in the middle of the country does inform the way you think about things and your sensibility. When you have members of your own family and friends that you know think differently than you, you have to kind of walk a fine line. That’s more or less the approach I tried to take with “Union”— putting some ideas out there for discussion really is what it’s all about. A lot of it was coming straight from headlines: “The 99” is kind of a composite sketch of the Dakota Pipeline protest and the Ferguson protest and the Occupy protest, going back a few years. “Union” is just kind of acknowledging the cultural divide that’s going on. That’s something you run into every day being in the middle of the country.
Q:You’ve said that it felt like a responsibility to address these topics in your songs. Is that the responsibility of a songwriter or just the responsibility as a human being?
Farrar: To me, they’re one and the same. Protest music seems to me to be a longstanding tradition that I was exposed to early on. It was much more pervasive going back to when I first started listening to music in the ‘70s, music that had come from the ′60s, the Vietnam War era. It was just much more commonplace then and through the ′80s and ′90s with punk rock. Protest music seems to be disappearing in some ways. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
Q:Do you have any sort of apprehension or concern about the shelf life of a record that is dealing with current events?
Farrar: I do and I don’t, you know. I don’t know if my songs will have a shelf life, but I’m certainly glad that people like Neil Young decided to do what they did, write a song like “Ohio.” To me that’s a timeless song, but during the writing of the songs for “Union,” there was a midpoint where I at least thought of that and tried to present two sides to the record. There are a few songs that are non-topical, where I was trying to kind of be inspired by a more regular rock ethos.
Q:With your song “The Symbol” (about a Mexican immigrant) as a parallel for Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” it seems like these sentiments are more timeless than I think we want them to be.
Farrar: That’s right. Unfortunately it’s almost like a certain theme that can just be updated every generation.
Q:When you’re writing, do you just write songs, or do you know that you’re writing a record — a collection of songs?
Farrar: It’s usually about three songs in probably. You get a sense that this is where the songs want to go either thematically or perhaps sonically.
Q:One of the hallmarks of your songwriting and producing is establishing guideposts for yourself like alternate guitar tunings or switching musical equipment, or even just deciding that you need to write so many rock songs on a protest record. What are some of the other parameters you set for “Union”?
Farrar: On “Notes of Blue,” I had concentrated more on using alternate tunings. That was also more of a skeleton crew of myself and Jacob Edwards and Mark Spencer playing a bunch of instruments. This time we had a band chemistry. We’ve played a lot of shows together on the road, and that’s reflected on this record. The guitar solos were handled by Chris Frame; I sort of stepped back and let him do that so there was a new flavor, a new perspective that was different from “Notes of Blue.” We talked about getting out to different recording environments where you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the idea of being challenged sort of makes things fresh in a way.
Q:If the songwriting is your half of a collective social responsibility, that implies there’s a hoped-for or expected response. You put this record out into the world. Now what do you want people to take from it?
Farrar: I sort of feel like I’m just asking questions, you know. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that these songs add to the discussion.
Pressed about the ardent devotion of Hanson’s fan base—many of whom celebrate and follow the band with the same fervor as they did when “MMMBop” dominated airwaves in 1997—Taylor Hanson offers an explanation as simple as it is true: “It’s hard-fought,” he said. “We just keep putting in the time.”
It’s been 22 years since “MMMBop” and 27 since the brotherly trio’s first-ever performance at Tulsa Mayfest, when its eldest member (Isaac) was 12 years old. The true believers who have followed the band since those early days will have much to celebrate this month, starting May 16 with the start of the annual “Hanson Day” gathering celebrating the band’s formation. Thousands of Hanson fans from around the world will descend on Tulsa for the three-day event, with a stacked itinerary including a dance party, a painting class, karaoke, and a Saturday night concert at Cain’s Ballroom available only to Hanson fan club members.
Following Hanson Day, The Hop Jam—the band’s annual beer and music festival—takes place May 19 in the Tulsa Arts District. The fest includes another Hanson concert performance, as well as sets from the newly reunited Phantom Planet and Joshua & the Holy Rollers, fronted by the youngest Hanson brother, Mac (not a member of Hanson, the band, proper).
The weekend also marks the band’s first Oklahoma show on their String Theory tour, an international slew of dates pairing Hanson with orchestras across the globe for a two-act performance. Hanson partnered with renowned composer David Campbell (Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift) for the orchestral arrangements, and Campbell also led the symphony that performed on the companion album. The sold-out Friday concert with the Tulsa Symphony will feature old and new material from the Hanson catalog to tell the story of the band’s nearly three-decade arc in a way fans have never heard before.
String Theory, a couple of years in the making, launched in the fall of 2018, following the band’s two 2017 releases, a Christmas album and greatest hits compilation Middle of Everywhere, commemorating Hanson’s 25th anniversary. The landmark afforded Hanson a reason not only to embark on an ambitious project like String Theory but also to contemplate the career that led to it.
I spoke with Taylor Hanson about String Theory, the dedication of Hanson fans, and looking back on 27 years as a band.
Becky Carman: When did the idea for String Theory start to take shape, and then how long did it take to actually bring it to life?
Taylor Hanson: We had it on the bucket list of possible ideas, and it actually became a project when we headed toward our 25th anniversary. The original idea was to do 25 cities for 25 years with an orchestra. There was a lot of interest, and it was great to see that, but also we had a long runway to figure it out. We needed to find the right arranger and get plugged in with some of the symphony programs, and that was going to take more time.
While we were working on the groundwork, it really started to become clear what the creative project would be. We recognized that it needed to be new work, a new message. We decided to use the show to tell a story instead of saying, “Let’s pick the most famous songs,” or, “Let’s pick the songs that are most likely to have strings on them in the original recordings.”
We said, “Well no, can we tell a story? Can we take people on kind of a journey with this show?” And that kind of liberated us to think about every song as a possibility, and it also inspired us to write more. We saw the gaps in the narrative we wanted to tell and wrote those new songs.
Carman: How did the partnership with David Campbell happen?
Hanson: He’s an icon, kind of known for working in contemporary rock, pop, R&B, and working with classical. We met him on our first record when he did some arrangements. We kind of did a Hail Mary [when we] reached out to him … He’s working with Paul McCartney and Muse and Pharrell—all kinds of incredible people—but he was excited about it. He understood what we wanted to do, that we didn’t want to just do string pads behind a song, that we wanted to really create something that was exciting to an orchestra. And he signed on.
There were at least 12 months of really active work on the creative but much longer than that working on the vision, the logistics, and the process, understanding how to actually go about implementing it. We wanted the project to be something that, after we’d done the show, we wanted people to say, “This is rewarding and engaging and musically exciting.” That’s what we were hoping, and we could not have done that without David.
Carman: From a songwriting and arranging perspective, what was the most surprising part of turning your older material into something essentially different?
Hanson: The most surprising thing I think is that all of the DNA is in there. You learn that from producing records over time, that a good, core melody is something you can grow from and something you can shrink down to. We definitely had questions about some of the songs that were not especially, immediately identified as poised for classical treatment … Some of the songs that have ended up being really great in the show, like “Where’s the Love?” or even “MMMBop,” which people know as a very straight-up pop song, work really well with the symphony.
Carman: This project is interesting because it’s a challenge to yourselves as artists, but it’s a little bit of a challenge to your fans to ask them to come along with you. How have these audiences been compared to what you guys are used to seeing?
Hanson: One of the things that’s cool … is it sort of gives everybody permission to just be mellow and quiet. We’ve certainly seen some online posts where people came to the show not knowing what they were in store for, and expecting to be jumping up and down and being raucous from the beginning, and this is a show that starts with a ballad. Seventy percent of the show is new songs or deep cuts—with an orchestra.
We’ve heard some great feedback, which I think says that it’s resonated. There is a deeper message through this sort of project that really speaks to who we are and what we’re about, why we do what we do. It’s really a show about perseverance, about surviving through challenges and seeing the bigger picture. Most concerts, you do that in maybe one or two songs, but in this particular show, it’s one building arc. That’s something I’m really proud of, and I feel like a lot of the audience has joined us in that.
Carman: What imprint has String Theory left on you as a songwriter or a live performer?
Hanson: It has forced us to take on the new. Even though we’ve done many tours, and every tour is different, this is different on a whole other level. When we walked into those first few shows, we had genuine nerves about it because you’re working with the best players in a completely different discipline, performing to a chart that’s not going to change. If you step left, they’re not going to step left with you; you have to hit your mark. It made us really have to pay attention and not give ourselves any passes. As a result, I feel like we’re tighter and hopefully sharper than we’ve been.
Carman: The past few years, you’ve taken some time to look back. Are there any reflections about your career so far that maybe felt like new information to you?
Hanson: We try to not spend too much time looking back. You’re always struggling to add new things to the story, a new song, a new tour. Partly, it’s been enjoyable just to have permission to reflect … because you’re consciously saying hey, we’ve reached a benchmark, and this is a great time to recognize that history. We’ve gotten past a bunch of things that might have killed us, but we’re still here. I think that gives a little boost of confidence, and for the fanbase that has stuck with us, I hope for them it’s an affirmation that they backed a group that has been in it for the long haul, and it has been worth it.
Concert Review: Ariana Grande tells fans what they want, delivers in OKC for The Oklahoman
Ariana Grande’s Thursday night OKC “Sweetener World Tour” stop opened like her 2018 album “Sweetener,” with a stunning display of the 25-year-old singer’s a cappella vocal prowess by way of “raindrops (an angel cried),” an abbreviated cover of the Four Seasons’ heartbreaker “An Angel Cried.”
Grande’s expansive voice filled the arena as she rose from below the stage floor in a “Last Supper”-esque dining table vignette, so entangled in her crew of dancers you could hardly see her, though she was all you could hear—a pattern that repeated itself throughout the night.
Her aesthetic is so thoroughly crafted and so completely realized that, on stage, she’s become part of it rather than it being part of her. The stark pastel palette of her last two records, her thigh-high boots, faux ponytail and her close-knit cronies are so ingrained with Ariana Grande the brand that the seamlessness of it all makes her pint-sized frame as invisible as she is larger than life.
None of this is a criticism. Grande is singular among her pop contemporaries on sheer vocal talent alone, but her prolificacy—February’s “thank u, next” full-length was released only six months after “Sweetener”—strikes another chord altogether. Thursday’s 90-minute set felt lightning-quick, every addition a crowd favorite or hit single, and it managed to contain mostly songs released within the last calendar year.
She spoke very little through the five-act concert, barring the occasional standard, “Oklahoma City, how you feelin’?” and another of her Grande-brand signature moves: She says, “I love you.” A lot. Not just at her shows, but on Twitter to nobody in particular, on Twitter to individual fans, and always, always lowercase.
That love is a two-way street between Grande and her most devoted Arianators, an estimated 18,000 of whom filled the ‘Peake (including a few perplexed significant others, doting parents and tired children). They’re a group with whom she appears to have made an implicit agreement to share not just her songs, but within them her happiness (the jaunty “successful,” sung solo and center stage), anxieties (“breathin’,” the night’s most spot-on and impressive vocal performance) and grief (“fake smile,” sung completely stern-faced, middle fingers up during the chorus), and in return she receives a rather fierce, almost militant dedication.
Despite that love connection, Grande kept a distant, even keel—”F— a fake smile” indeed—and stayed firmly within her character playbook, subtly shape-shifting between minx, as on “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” and broken-hearted, as on “everytime.”
Grande, who got her start on Broadway before graduating to acting on Nickelodeon, is a brilliant technical performer. Thursday’s show was likewise brilliant in concept and material and exceedingly technical in execution. It felt like a departure for a pop star usually so gifted at displaying her humanity, particularly in the face of tragedy, of which she has suffered plenty, including the 2017 suicide bombing after her concert in Manchester and the 2018 overdose death of her friend and former partner Mac Miller.
The knowledge of that fragility and grief, and that’s it’s tackled so literally in many of her lyrics, only served to emphasize that the entire OKC performance felt more rehearsed and Instagram-ready than it did emotive, down to the T-Mobile-sponsored pre-concert signage encouraging cell phone usage.
“Click, click, click and post,” go the lyrics to her single “imagine.” “Drip-drip-dripped in gold.”
Really, that’s not a criticism either. Instead, it is, to quote Grande herself in “make up,” “It’s a mood, it’s a vibe, it’s a look.”
Grande is managing the weight of her persona with a clear-headed artistry, participating in her own machine without descending into blandness, repetition or self-parody. Her “Sweetener” tour is actually remarkable in its control and precision. She essentially told her fans what they wanted, then delivered it to the letter.
To quote that other famous lowercase poet, E.E. Cummings (stylized as e.e. cummings, like all these song titles): “see i will comfort you / because you smell so sweetly / put up your little arms / and i’ll give them all to you to hold.”
During the making of “thank u, next,” the album, Grande famously took six of her girlfriends to Tiffany & Co. and, riding a champagne high, bought seven matching rings. The trip inspired the deliciously vapid “7 rings,” during which Grande preened with her girl crew, singing, “Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms,” a nod to shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s trademark.
That Cummings poem continues, “every finger shall have its ring / and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy.”
Grande encored with the title track from “thank u, next,” a peppy breakup anthem synopsizing a handful of relationships and distilling the lessons into a tidy package. It is, like the entire concert and like Grande’s career arc as of late, bursting with the sum of its parts and perfectly calculated fun—an uncomplicated tribute from Ari to her own mood, vibe, look, happiness. Lowercase in its emphasis but impactful nonetheless, drip-drip-dripped in gold.
Don’t dream it’s over: M. Lockwood Porter sees a better world coming for The Tulsa Voice
In his music video for “The Dream Is Dead,” Tulsa songwriter M. Lockwood Porter is at the tail end of the fifth stage of grief—acceptance.“The dream is dead, and everybody knows it,” goes the refrain, as an energized Porter, awakened by a glimmer of hope buried deep in a barrage of bad news, hangs fliers across Tulsa in hopes of inspiring human connection.
“There’s a better world coming,” taped to the glass of a hollowed-out community center.
“I will do no more hoping.”
“I will get out on the street.”
The single, from Porter’s new album Communion in the Ashes, makes a salient point about our collective sense of doom, whether about politics or about society as a whole. He’s right: The dream is dead. Everybody does know it. So now what?
Porter’s complicated relationship with “the dream,” in the sense of the classic American dream, started early, in his hometown.
“Growing up in Skiatook, I didn’t think, ‘I live in this town where there are less opportunities for people.’ I thought everyone was the same. In a lot of ways, I based my conception of myself around the American dream … that I could be this self-made person,” Porter said. “That really got challenged for me over the last decade in a lot of ways. Going to Yale gave me a sense of it because I thought I was coming in on equal footing, but a lot of those kids went to board schools, prep schools … they know things I don’t know, and I may never understand the world the way they do. There’s a barrier to entry.”
He graduated in 2009, shortly after the Great Recession, and moved to the Bay Area of California as he and his friends struggled to make sense of their new economic reality. While there, he taught for four years in a low-income public school, illuminating the dearth of opportunity for people who grow up in poverty.
“Seeing how much of a struggle it was for everyone with basic things like health insurance made me question that fundamental optimism I’d had,” Porter said.
He mourned that loss on 2016’s How to Dream Again. “Anyone can make it in the USA / All you have to do is struggle and pray,” he laments on “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be.” Throughout that album, Porter not only laments the loss of his American dream but also recontextualizes for himself what it means to be a songwriter on the other side of that.
“Am I a coward to keep singing songs of sadness and love / With so much blood in the streets, so many bombs up above,” he sings on “Sad/Satisfied.”
“I started trying to fuse songwriting, art, the sociopolitical interests I have,” Porter said. “It stopped being interesting to me to record country songs about being sad.”
Before leaving California for Tulsa, he wrote the songs for Communion in the Ashes, his political tendencies heightened in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
“I spent a year, like a lot of people probably, depressed, afraid, trying to figure out. I’d just made a record about the political situation in our country, and then things got even worse,” Porter said. “I didn’t want to make the same record again. Out of that, I tried to find a more positive take.”
He recorded the album with a handful of longtime collaborators including engineer and drummer Peter Labberton, guitarist Jeremy Lyon, bassist Bevan Herbekian, keyboard player Jeff Hashfield, and vocalist Tracey Holland. Much of it was recorded in live band takes with few rehearsals, and that confidence and energy contribute to the calls to action in the lyrics.
“I wanted to make a record that communicated optimism. Even though things are so bad, we should try to do something about it,” Porter said. “Where the last record was really about the grief of losing that future I thought I would have, this record is kind of about me trying to find some belief system to replace that.”
“I will do no more hoping,” says the flier tucked under a windshield in downtown Tulsa. “I will dig the dirt myself.”
Protest records are nothing new, but Porter’s position is more that of a fatalistic pragmatist. It’s a uniquely modern perspective that could capture the heart of discerning nihilists everywhere.
“If I’m being 100 percent rational, the outlook is pretty bleak, but I’m choosing to have faith that we can do something,” Porter said. “That attitude guides my thinking about the world we’re currently living in, my political outlook. We have no choice. In my small way as a musician or just as a member of society, with whatever little microphone I have, I feel like it’s important for me to normalize the idea that we can do big things.”
“Our redemption song can topple walls, but first we must compose it,” Porter sings, before nearly all the sound drops out from behind him, save for one brave, lone guitar. “The dream is dead, and everybody knows it.”