|Petra Haden, James Williamson and Frank Meyer. Photo: Heather Harris|
It’s a tough task. Not many musicians can even come close to achieving it.
Bury yourself in songs, painstakingly tweak the things here and there, lose copious nights’ sleep with the riffs and lyrics lodged in your head. You can’t count sheep to doze off if you can’t herd the elements of a song together to your satisfaction.
James Williamson and the Pink Hearts may have done it, though.
"Behind the Shade" is an album that should stoke people from start to finish — yes, the whole damn way. If your heart and soul is in the right place in the rock n’ roll realm and if you need something solid to grasp onto in the musical form during these uncertain times, this is it.
It's a nonstop offering of a multitude of styles, ranging from the hefty rocker to kick things off in "Riot on the Strip" to the uplifting country stunner in "Pink Hearts Across the Sky" to the gut-wrenching "Destiny Now" to the gritty "Miss Misery" and on and on.
The album -- which will be released June 22 on Leopard Lady Records -- gets better with each tune and leaves you wondering what's around the corner after each song comes to a close.
"I'm glad to hear that, because that's how I feel about it," said Williamson over the phone from Hawaii on a Sunday in April.
He continued with a bounce in his voice that seemed as if he wanted to reach for his guitar and rip into one of the songs on the spot:
"Maybe the beauty and the strength of this album is that it's kind of old school in a lot of ways, but by the same token, it sounds oddly current at the same time," said Williamson, who is especially fired up about "Revolution Stomp," which screams 1969-style MC5.
Williamson rolls on about the album, which the group will bring to life at gigs on June 29 at the El Rey in Los Angeles and June 30 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco:
"It's very diverse in the material and very listenable, which really to me is key because there's so many albums that you listen to three or four tracks and that's all you'll ever listen to. This one, I feel like you can listen to the whole thing, and you can keep listening to it and it doesn't really get that old."
TWO OF HEARTS
The former member of The Stooges has struck gold with vocalists Frank Meyer and Petra Haden, who also plays violins on five of the tracks while Meyer slings guitar on one of them.
Williamson previously ripped it up on stage with Meyer, who was one of the eight vocalists who performed at the "Re-Licked" concert in 2015 that featured Stooges rarities culled from the guitarist's solo album of the same name.
"I was impressed with his delivery, his vocals, and then come to find out, he could write lyrics like crazy," Williamson said of Meyer, who co-wrote nine of the songs on "Behind the Shade" with Williamson. (Paul Nelson Kimball and Alejandro Escovedo were also crucial contributors, and we'll get to that later.)
Meyer absolutely cuts loose on his share of the vocals on the Williamson-produced release.
"He's one of the most enthusiastic guys I've ever run into and he's just got energy that won't stop," Williamson said. "I was just blown away, really, when we were writing the songs. The way I write is I write riffs, and if I like them, then I'll use those as the basis for the song and have somebody come up with the lyrics and we can flesh out the remainder of the song from there. That's the way I've always written, and so with Frank, man, I'd give him a riff and the next day I'd get lyrics. I'm like going, 'Wow!' (laughs), I can't keep up with this guy. He's just been like so on board with this that it's really refreshing. So I sort of feed off of his energy and Petra's to sort of keep this thing rolling."
One lyrical passage from "Miss Misery" stands out: "It keeps me stitched together. It keeps me hanging on."
On that song, Meyer takes the lead vocal while Haden eases in on the harmonies and together they take the song to an even higher plane.
"They can sing all day like that," Williamson said.
"Between her and Frank, they either are singing the lead vocal or they're singing the harmony on everything. It's kind of like one big duet, if you will. But on the other hand, when she takes the lead on some of the more delicate songs, she just kills 'em. I feel really good about having her in the group."
Williamson had also worked with the Haden several times in the past -- notably on The Stooges' final album "Ready to Die" in 2013 -- and knew she would be the perfect third piece to the main core of the Pink Hearts. On the album, there are session musicians galore who handle bass, piano, keys, lap steel, sax, trumpet, drums and percussion.
Haden especially shines on "Pink Hearts Across the Sky" and "Destiny Now."
"I knew what her capabilities were and I felt like, 'OK, well so, putting Frank with kind of a gravelly voice, if you will, together with Petra, who's like super exact, it might really be an interesting combination," Williamson said. "So, we tried a few of those on demos in LA, a few of the early ones like 'Destiny Now' and 'Behind the Shade' and so forth, and just loved the way they came out, so that's how we sort of pressed on and made the album."
He added about the recording sessions: "It's been a lot of work, but those guys are so good that it makes it a lot easier. You don't have to do a million takes or stuff and they're good when you get 'em."
Williams noted that Michael Urbano kills it on drums, as does the rest of band... "And I won't even mention the guitarist," he joked.
As a former grade-school trumpeter, I can't help but get Williamson raving about Steffen Kuehn's insane blasts on "This Garden Lies."
"When I wrote that song, I always felt there was something else that should be there," said Williams, who called upon Kuehn to add a spark to past records. "One time I was just sitting around and I came up with that little passage, if you will, and I ended up showing him that on guitar. And of course, he had to play it higher on the trumpet, but I think it worked beautifully, and then of course, he just completely nails the solo."
|Photo: Sarah Remetch|
A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS
The vinyl version of the album finishes with "Behind the Shade," but Escovedo's CD bonus cut, "Died a Little Today," is a stellar, somber closer to the whole deal as the listener fades off into the sunset. Williamson, who re-did Escovedo's arrangement, feels fortunate to have that song in the mix and gives Haden 100-percent approval for her performance on the tune.
As for "Destiny Now," There's Something Hard in There friend Kimball not only penned the lyrics but was the first one on board with Williamson's Pink Hearts journey.
About a year ago, Williamson felt like he had some more music in him and began fiddling around with some riffs.
He tells how the seeds for the album were sown: "Try as I may, I really had to sort of face the face that I can't write lyrics (laughs). So I started looking around and of course, one of the first guys I thought of was Paul, because I knew him and he does write beautiful lyrics. So I had him over and sat down with him and discussed it and gave him the track I wanted to work on and he was happy to do it and came back with that beautiful lyric on 'Destiny Now.'"
A few of the compelling lines are: "I got a million reasons I've been pinned to this spot. You gotta fall to pieces, to see the pieces you got... You wanna try perspective, I've got plenty to share. We gotta stay connected, to get anywhere."
Kimball noted after hearing some of Williamson's demos: "I just heard melody lurking inside it, and that's what appealed to me. It reminded me a little bit of an early Pretenders track, you know what I mean? The combo of power and tunefulness that they had is totally one of my favorite things to hear in a good rock song."
"I was inspired by conversations I'd been having with my girlfriend. Hers was the perspective I was trying to write from, but of course I wound up fudging it a bit. It's about finding the courage to make your own future from whatever shit hand you get dealt, to convince yourself to see possibility in even the most challenging moments," Kimball added. "I wanted to write something that felt both anthemic and optimistic, because that's what the guitar felt like to me, but also grounded and real at the same time. And because the subject matter felt a little uncomfortable for me, for some reason that felt like a good sign to keep going."
Kimball is thrilled to have Haden lay her emotions on the line while singing his lyrics.
"(It's) pretty flattering to hear how closely she and James stuck to my melodic ideas and phrasing. That was really affirming of my instincts, which is always a welcome feeling to get from musicians you respect and admire," said Kimball, who currently performs in a San Francisco Bay Area acoustic duo, Wax Moon, with John Blatchford.
GETTING A BOOST FOR RETURN TO STOOGES
Kimball, along with my cousin Eric Powers, were members of the The Careless Hearts, which performed a smattering of Stooges songs with Williamson during a concert in San Jose in 2009. Kimball belted out the vocals and Powers manned the drum stool.
Williamson noted that the experience with The Careless Hearts was a key moment in his career: "I had the gig no matter what, The Stooges had already asked me to come back and play. In terms of dusting off the guitar and getting back to where I could actually play, it was very very important to me. Just rehearsing with a band, it's way different from sitting around by yourself playing guitar and thinking you're ready to play a show. They sort of provided that for me, and then we did play a show, and that also helped me to get back in the swing of things. I still had a long way to go and I still did a ton of rehearsals with The Stooges before we played our first show. The first show was a huge one in Brazil, but that (Careless Hearts gig) I think was really a huge boost to me to be able to get back in the swing of things."
Powers said that jamming with Williamson was a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience he'll never forget. Playing Stooges songs to boot had to add even more pop into the time spent with the influential axeman.
"We put our band on hold for a summer to secretly jam with James to get his chops up to re-join The Stooges. As a payback, he agreed to play a local show with us, and we recorded it. Looking back on it, it’s one of those things that there could be a movie about. We really had a good time and James was a pleasure to work with," Powers said.
Like Williamson and I'm sure all the others involved, Powers came away from the gig and rehearsals a stronger musician.
"When I had to get into the nitty gritty of all those songs, it messed with me quite a bit. I struggled with learning a lot of those fills and all of the intricacies of the drum parts," he said. "I’ve tried to mimic a million drummers, but Scotty Asheton was never one of them. He has a really unique style and swing to his playing with a MONSTER back beat. Learned a lot, and stole a few things that have helped me ever since."
With the Pink Hearts album and the upcoming gigs front and center for Williamson, he feels comfortable where he's at nowadays. He ranks "Behind the Shade" as high as anything else he's ever accomplished and can't wait to unleash the tunes on the crowds.
"For me, especially now, I'm kind of at a point where I don't really need to prove anything," he said. "I'm doing this really because I want to, and it's such a joy to do it. We're having fun when we play together."
To forever be associated with The Stooges amounted to some real cool times as well.
Williamson finishes things off: "Those were quite a few years of sort of victory laps, if you will, because The Stooges had become well known and quite popular by the time I came back in. So, it was pretty easy to do versus the old days, but, hey, whatever, I wasn't complaining."