John Oates Follows the Road to Good Music
John Oates has never been satisfied to sit still musically; he’s always seeking to make music that combines the soulfulness of R&B and soul, the hard edges of rock, the social consciousness and storytelling of folk, and the good time feelings of pop. He follows all these routes on his new album, Good Road to Follow, due out on March 18, which is really a three-EP, fifteen song set, taking us on a journey not only through his musical life but also one that carries us through some terrain that both wrings us out and exalts us emotionally.
In part it’s Oates’ voice, which can growl on a stomp like “The Head That Wears the Crown,” which he co-wrote with Jerry Douglas; that song starts off with a couple of bars from the Hall and Oates classic, “She’s Gone,” before it descends into a funky take on the vagaries of power and the ones who embrace it. At the same time, on songs like “Pushing a Rock Uphill” and “Save Me,” Oates channels the gospel-inflected soul of Curtis Mayfield or Sam Cooke or the Van Morrison of “Tupelo Honey.”
In part it’s Oates love of good songwriting and his decision on these EPs to collaborate with a range of songwriters to produce a variety of music ranging over a number of musical styles. He joins forces, for example, with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic for the opening song on the first EP, titled “Route 1,” for a contemporary pop song that would be at home on the same radio station as Tedder’s group or Daft Punk and Pharell Williams. That song opens with a James Brown-like soul shout before it marches off into funk-pop-hip hop. His co-writers on the fifteen songs on these EPs range from Tedder, Nathan Chapman, and Jerry Douglas to Jim Lauderdale (for two songs), Vince Gill, and Hot Chelle Rae (whose members include Nash Overstreet, Ryan Follese, and Ian Keaggy, all of whom grew up in musical families and with songwriting fathers).
In part, it’s Oates’ great guitar playing and the musicianship of the artists working with him on every song. In fact, it’s the backing vocalists on these songs who bring out much of what is best in the songs and give Oates’ own voice the soaring, sonic support that carries the songs off the charts. Bekka Bramlett turns “Believe in Me” into a funky soul shout that channels the grittiness of “Tumbling Dice,” while Wendy Moten lends “Save Me” its aching, pleading beauty. Angela Primm and Gale Mayes give “Pushing a Rock Uphill” its divine, angelic character, and they and Gareth Dunlop do much the same for “Bad Luck and Trouble,” a song that would be at home on any anthology filled with the soul songs of Carolina beach music; it channels the old soul nugget by Mel and Tim “Backfield in Motion.” One of Hall and Oates’ big hits, of course, was their version of Mel and Tim’s “Starting All Over Again.”
Overall, it’s Oates love of music and his desire to keep it fresh and new and to keep playing for the love of music that makes this a set of EPs you won’t be able to stop spinning. There’s a song for every kind of music lover on here, and it’s sure good to have Oates’ genius and his generosity shining through these songs.
I caught up with him by phone last week at his home in Colorado and chatted with him about music and the new album.
HC: How did this project come about?
Oates: Well, my last solo album, “Mississippi Mile,” (2011) was a kind of tribute to the music I learned as a kid, and so I did mostly covers of songs like Elvis’ “All Shook Up,” Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right,” and Dylan’s “He Was a Friend of Mine.” I realized that I had written quite a few songs since then that I wanted to record, and I started doing a lot of collaboration on songs, and I started getting turned on by how well it went. So, I thought why don’t I put this music out for people to hear. We’d record one song and put it out as a digital single. Pretty soon, people started asking, “why can’t we get all these songs as an album?”
HC: And the rest is history?
Oates: Well, I didn’t think I had an album. (Laughs) I mean, there’s no thread that connects these songs, and we’d no idea of making of an album that contained all of these songs. So I’m thinking, “How do I put this really diverse collection of songs together on one album?” That’s when I came with the idea of putting out three EPs, with five songs on each disc. In the UK, though, Chris Wright, who’s putting it out on Chrysalis Records, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put out three EPs instead of a single album, so he’s putting out “Good Road to Follow” as a single album. I loved, and am fortunate that I was able to do it this way, that I didn’t have to worry about making an album; when you’re making an album, you have to worry about what comes next in terms of song sequence; I could be very spontaneous on this project and let every song we recorded develop in its own way and time.
HC: How long did it take to make it?
Oates: The entire process took about a year and a half, with the dates of the individual recordings of the songs stretching from October 2012 to May 2013, but we recorded individual songs sometimes in one day. Vince Gill and I wrote the song, “Don’t Cross Me Wrong,” in one afternoon at his house, and we cut it one day. We started recording it in the studio that Vince has there at his house in the late morning, and finished up in the afternoon, when he realized the song still needed a lead break; he picked up his guitar and added one, we ate dinner, and then I went back and added live vocals. It was unbelievable that we were able to finish it in one day.
HC: Every song is a co-write, and the songs feature some really great musicians. How did you select the folks you wanted to work with on these songs?
Oates: They were mostly friends, and in some cases new friends. Ryan Tedder, of OneRepublic, is a new friend, and I just said to him, “Hey, Ryan, I want to work with you; could we work together on a song?” And he said he’d love to. Ryan and I ended up writing “Stone Cold Love” in 4 hours. One of the challenges we faced was working around everyone’s schedules. But I also found that those schedules worked in our favor; when you have a deadline on something, you really work to get it done, and that worked so well for us on many of these songs. But, each collaboration is slightly different; each is the same in that we can all share ideas and insights, but each is different in terms of what style each person brings to the collaboration.
HC: How did you come up with the title of the record?
Oates: My whole life has been a musical journey, and so the title epitomizes what my life has been all about. The symbol on the album cover—a circle with arrows pointing in different directions of the compass—is the hobo’s sign, and so I called each EP a route (“Route 1,” “Route 2,” “Route 3”). In fact, I wonder if I can call my next album “Another Good Road to Follow,” and continue to label the sections “routes.” (Laughs)
HC: Up to Route 66?
Oates: Well, maybe if I make it that long. (Chuckles)
HC: What’s your approach to songwriting?
Oates: Well, rule number one is that there are no rules. (Laughs) Songs can come from anywhere, anytime. You need to be very sensitive to the world around you and tuned into it. I think songwriters are more sensitive to the emotional as well as the physical environment around them; they’re attentive and can be inspired by things they see or hear. There’s the element of inspiration but there’s also craftsmanship. I can write down a song, but then I’ll put it aside for a while. When I come back to what I thought was a perfect song, I might find that it needs a bridge or that the last verse doesn’t really work, so I’ll spend more time with it to make it a better song.
HC: Who are your greatest musical and songwriting influences?
Oates: The four musicians who’ve influenced me the most are Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield, and Chuck Berry. Cole Porter has been very influential as a songwriter; his lyrics are so clear, and they speak so perfectly to the moment in which he wrote them. His lyrics and that rhythm were so alive. Berry and Mayfield, as well as Smoky Robinson and Joni Mitchell, also influenced my songwriting.
HC: When did you start playing guitar?
Oates: I started playing when I was 6, and I was playing simple three chord songs; I think Don Gibson’s songs were some of the first ones I learned to play. I had this guitar teacher, Jerry Ricks, who introduced me to the music and guitar styles of Doc Watson, Dave Von Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt, and others, and I’d often get to see these folks live in Philly. I got to meet Hurt and play with him, and so learned from him. I grew up listening to R&B and folk, so my style is this great amalgamation of the roots music I grew up with and loved and pop music.
HC: You’ve written two songs with Jim Lauderdale on this album. How did that happen?
Oates: I love Jim. He and I met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival about 7 or 8 years ago, and we’ve been playing and writing together ever since. Jim has this deep Appalachian tradition that he builds on, but he’s also so open to so many other styles. When we get together, we learn from each other, and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a lot of fun.
HC: “Pushing a Rock Uphill” is one of my favorite songs on the album because it’s so soulful and honest.
Oates: Oh, wow; I’m glad you felt that. Do you have a minute? I co-wrote that song with Nathan Paul Chapman; you know who he is right? He was Taylor Swift’s manager. I met Nathan years ago, before Taylor’s career really took off. One day he called me and told me that she had changed managers and let him go, and he was now in this unusual place where he was wondering what came next, how he was going to take care of his family. We started to talk about different kinds of struggles and how hard it is out there to make it; pretty soon we were using different biblical images and images from other stories and we had written this song. I sang the vocals live, and we just cut it; it grew out of this honest struggle with life, so I’m glad you can hear that in the song.
HC: In what ways do you think you’ve evolved over the years as a musician?
Oates: Over the past 10 years as a solo artist, I feel like my work has grown and become more sophisticated. I’ve found my voice and my personality as a solo artist. I still have this rootsy approach to recording with a pop hook sensibility. As I’ve often said—and it’s still true—I might be wearing a sharkskin suit one night and playing Doo Wop and R&B with my band and the next night I’ll be playing folk music solo in a coffee house on my acoustic guitar.
HC: What’s next for you?
Oates: I’m really excited about my album coming out.