Jan. 30, 2013 - Issue #902: Come cry with Daniel Romano
Down the dusty trail
Daniel Romano revisits '60s Nashville on Come Cry With Me
'If anybody reading this doesn't know about Roger Miller, they should look into it," Daniel Romano says, before hanging up the phone. "Just 'cause everybody should know about Roger Miller."
You probably do know about Miller, even if reading the name didn't ring any bells. At least you'd be able to recognize a few of his songs: "King of the Road" is his, and maybe "Old Friends" (with Willie Nelson) or "Dang Me" would pique a memory of hearing your dad's now-dusty record collection.
Miller was a honky tonker, a country & western guy with a sense of humour and a heyday set back in the '60s (he did tour until the '90s, though). He's largely known for novelty songs, but here's the thing: while there's definite kitsch in his writing (and in that whole era, really), there's also an understated sadness that gathers around its edges. Miller was a songwriter who put an irreverent spin on being perpetually down-and-out, his protagonists laughing in the face of their bad situations. "King of the Road" is about a hobo with enough wit about him to poke fun at his ride-the-rails lifestyle. Because sometimes, from rock bottom, all you can do is laugh.
And that Miller sound—hardly Miller's alone, but that tragicomic, unabashed C&W style of writing—is one that Romano's interpreting in the modern day, and he's one of the few: the tragicomic cowboy story is a type of storytelling that's all but vanished into the sunset.
"People got self indulgent," Romano offers from the road, about two hours out of Sault St Marie. "That's what happened. That's why it doesn't exist anymore: everyone thought it was a good idea to write about themselves and their own experiences and figured everyone was going to care about it. And they did, because that's all there was. I'm guilty of that: I care about songs that aren't personal, and not for the people, because they're good songs at the end of the day. But I've always been most attracted to storytelling songs that are relatable to all walks of life, y'know?"
For Romano's own approach, then, is there a way to skirt that sort of self-indugence?
"Yeah—just don't write about yourself," he says. "If I wrote about myself it would be so boring. It's never been a thing for me: I've never really done it successfully, and I don't really have good tales to tell. What would I say? I live in my parent's basement, in the suburbs. It's all very boring."
Boredom's the least of the problems for the protagonists of Come Cry With Me, Romano's third solo album: its 10 songs deliver a pack of woebegotten souls, like opener "Middle Child" finds the titular figure struggling with the revelation that his mother excised just him, not his siblings on either side, from of her life. A few of Come Cry's figures seem like unreliable storytellers—the guy who's lady leaves him because he's sobbing all day and night in "I'm Not Crying Over You" insists he's an actor now, just working on a role, but really, who knows? They're engrossing regardless, and the stories get wrapped up in gilded harmonies, golden slide guitar and practiced, steady guitarwork.
Romano's solo work is a few steps removed from what he's done in other bands: he's one of the founders of Canuck rock outfit Attack in Black (alongside his brother, Ian), a band of decidedly different aims than this, but still, Romano notes, touched by its influence.
"Everyone in Attack in Black brought something to the table which made it sound the way it did," he says. After the first record that was more punk rock, that was how we all started sounding, and that's what I brought to the table: the bass player was bringing power pop, and the guitar player was bringing more of a punk-rock thing, I suppose. It's hard to say who brought what, but whatever I was bringing was generally rooted in roots music."
A bit closer to Romano's solo sounds are the folkish ones on Daniel Fred and Julie—That's Romano, Frederick Squires and Julie Doiron—back in 2009. The album's mostly traditional songs, but Romano contributed a pair of original songs, and you'd be hard pressed to pick them out of the pack.
So he's got some skill in approaching a genre with a certain authenticity. Come Cry With Me is Romano's third solo album (the previous, 2011's Sleep Beneath the Willow, was longlisted for that year's Polaris Prize), and, arguably, the most tempered in that regard: it's not so much of a modern update of C&W's golden years as actually trying to relive of that past era, a stripped-down, decades-on return to the dusty trail. Its tracks were mostly recorded by Romano alone, and he's quick to admit that generating that '60s Nashville sound is difficult if you aren't in, well, '60s Nashville.
"My mid-'60s country & western musical era ... I was never going to achieve that," he admits. "because I don't have seven to nine brilliant players in a small room. But I did the best I could, basically alone for the bed tracks, and, yeah, I just tried to get those sounds without using the approach I needed to actually get those sounds, which was a lot of trial and error, really.
"I think my brother was busy when I was doing it," he continues. "It's hard to get people organized for me sometimes. And I get really impatient: I just wanted to do it, and get it done. I knew how I was going to do it, so I just did. ... I knew what I wanted it to sound like. I didn't know how I was going to capture it, but I knew I was going to keep at it until I got it close to where I wanted it."
That said, Romano doesn't really give too much thought to the finished recording.
"I haven't really listened to it. I try not to do that, because I'll probably hate it. So yeah. It is what it is: I hope people like it. I like playing the songs from it live, I know that. As far as the songwriting goes, it stood the test of time for me—I wrote those songs probably over two years ago, and I still like playing 'em, so that's good.
He does renege a bit on the "hate" part of that statement.
"You're always learning, you're always growing, you always have better ideas and, unfortunately, you can't put those back on something you've already done," he says. "So I would just listen to it with 100-percent regret. Not that it's bad. I'm still proud of it. But, y'know."
Fri, Feb 1 (7 pm)
Horowitz Theatre, $27.50 – $32 (all ages)
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