WEST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN: Purity is an incredibly risky thing to re-interpret. But Richard Barone has pulled it off with his new album, Glow, taking a new look at the core of pop music and then sharing the view with the rest of us.
Already known as frontman for underground No Wave aces the Bongos, as well as a cultural music maven who started his journey as a 7-year-old Tampa Bay DJ, Barone took chances as he drew inspiration from the classics. An unabashed study in songwriting, Glow was made with no less than NY icon Tony Visconti serving as Producer, while accomplished co-writers Paul Williams (“Rainy Days and Mondays”, “We’ve Only Just Begun”) and Jill Sobule (“I Kissed A Girl”, “Supermodel”) helped pen new tunes.
Spur-of-the-moment melodies were encouraged at all times in the making of Glow, which was captured in environments across NYC ranging from Steve Addabbo’s (a producer on two tracks) famed Shelter Island Sound, to the Magic Shop where Steve Rosenthal recorded, mix and produced “Odd Girl Out”, clear to Barone’s solitary laptop. A prototype Digital Les Paul guitar comes into play, and the mastering by Jon Marshall Smith was its own meticulous chapter as well. Hoboken-based label Bar/None Records completes the positive regional circle with distribution.
From the grippy hooks of the opener, “Gravity’s Pull” to the ‘70’s Lennon angst of “Girl”, the anthemic soar of “Candied Babies” to the sugar-crusted grip of “Radio Silence”, and the unsettling evening of “Yet Another Midnight”, so many moments of Glow pop punchy into the eardrums. We spoke to West Village denizen Barone near the eve of his record release party, happening Sunday October 10, at Le Poisson Rouge.
What was your inspiration for Glow? You’ve had a rich and varied career so far, so what direction did you want to go in with this new record? What do the results say about how your own aesthetic has evolved?
The idea was to make an entirely spontaneous album, in which all or most of the songs would be written, arranged and recorded in the studio itself, in one process, in collaboration with my producer(s).
This approach is the opposite of my previous albums and indeed most recordings, which are written, demo-ed, arranged, etc…, in separate processes over a period of time. My goal was to have the concepts and material be as fresh as possible. We recorded almost entirely in Logic — one track was recorded using Garageband, and one was an analog recording.
That’s a good way to spin the process. In your humble opinion, what distinguishes your own artistic approach? How do you see your own take on the craft of songwriting and recording?
Ah, you assume my opinion is humble! Isn’t that a little presumptuous? Well, like Popeye said “I yam what I yam.” My approach, when I am the artist, is to be an artist. A look at my catalog will tell you I’m fairly eclectic – and will experiment at any opportunity. But, also that I have a respect and love for the classic song form.
When I produce or arrange music for others, they are the artists, and I assume my role as conduit. I have a great respect for all the different roles it takes to make something special.
It’s great to be able to mix and match those perspectives. You had an interesting range of production experiences creating this album – from bare-bones DIY to Shelter Island Sound. Vintage synths also played a major role. What guides the choices of your tools and facilities?
I would say it was a much wider range of production experiences than you describe that resulted in Glow. From the desk in my living room, using the built-in, pin-hole mic in my MacBook Pro to the soundstage at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound in California. Shelter Island with their awesome vintage and contemporary gear, Looking Glass, and Tony Visconti’s private studio were each unique settings to record in, and the various locations give a lot of the diversity of atmospheres we were looking for.
As I said previously, the songs were written, arranged, and recorded as one process, so the sounds and instrument choices are, in a manner of speaking, written into the song. Into the script. The parts were written and composed just as the songs themselves were being created, which I feel gives the album an unusual integrity of composition and production.
While all of the songs are examples of this, “Yet Another Midnight” comes to mind, as it uses some extraordinary synths, including the EMS Synthi 1 from the early 70s, which happened to be in the studio that day. Besides playing its flat keyboard, we used it to ‘treat’ my guitar, and Tony Visconti used its joystick to pan and circulate my guitar in the stereo image.
And the title song, “Glow”, recorded with Steve Addabbo, happened spontaneously as I was just showing him the chords on my new Gibson digital Les Paul, and we started recording the just-written song on the spot. I wrote the bridge while I was recording the first and only vocal take.
Sounds like a wild ride at times! Obviously, just as important with Glow are the heavy-duty collaborators you worked with. Why was Tony Visconti a good match for this project as Producer – what do you feel like he brought to Glow?
There are not enough words to describe what Tony brought to Glow. The combination of his artistic sensibilities and history, and my familiarity and admiration for his previous work, combined to the point that we were both in a position to bring out the best in each other.
A quick glance of the liner notes for Glow will reveal that we wrote several of songs together, that he played an incredible variety of instruments, sang backgrounds, and arranged most of the album with me. He is the kind of all-round musician that makes working with him an absolute pleasure, and explains his long-term associations with his artists.
That must have been an amazing workflow. On the songwriting tip, why did you choose to work with Jill Sobule and Paul Williams on this record? How do they inform and challenge you as a songwriter, and what did you take away from those experiences?
Well, I started writing songs with Jill Sobule in the early 90s… Our first collaboration appears on my (1993)album Clouds Over Eden. We have collaborations on three or four of her albums as well. She tends to be more narrative, that is, her style is more story- and character-driven than mine normally is, so the challenge lies in combining both our approaches in the same song and getting a desirable result. “Odd Girl Out” is an example, as it has a folky, storytelling verse and also the kind of massive pop chorus I favor.
Paul Williams, of course, is a songwriting icon, and deservedly so. The challenge was to keep up with him. Lyrically he is totally tuned in, his words flow poetically and naturally, and I strove to keep the music supporting and underlining the words. The performance of “Silence is Our Song” on the album was recorded live on the radio without overdubs.
The lesson I learn from every songwriting collaboration is that if we do it right, the result will be bigger than the both of us. It’s a kind of alchemy that I describe in my book, FRONTMAN (Hal Leonard Books, 2007).