A Fresh Start with Page McConnell
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by John Metzger
For Page McConnell, the events of the past few years could be described as a period of self-discovery. After Phish disbanded, he essentially withdrew from the music business in order to plot his next move. Retreating to his newly constructed home studio in Vermont, McConnell began working on new material, though initially he was writing for an audience of one. "I didnít know exactly what I was doing," he explained. "There was very little of an agenda. It was much more about the process. It could have become anything ó from writing demos that other people would record to making my own album."
It wasnít until a year later that McConnell realized that he had been creating his solo debut. "I guess the deciding factor was just that I had enough material and that I had been working at it long enough that I had a body of work that seemed to hold together," he said.
"There did seem to be some cohesiveness. I guess it shouldnít be such a surprise because it was all coming from me at the same time, relatively speaking. I hold together, so I guess hoped that the songs would, too," he added with a laugh.
Previously, McConnell had penned Army of One and the instrumental Cars, Trucks, Buses for Phish as well as several tracks for Vida Blue, a project he formed with bass player Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit) and drummer Russell Batiste (Funky Meters) while Phish was on hiatus. Still, his experience at writing songs was, by his own admission, limited.
"Itís not something that necessarily comes naturally, so I have to lock myself into a room to do it," he stated. "Then, I have to go back over it to see if there are themes in the writing."
Further elaborating upon his process, McConnell said, "Hopefully, I have a melody that Iím working with. Sometimes, itís the other way around, where Iíll just start writing and a melody will come out of the words. So, it can go either way."
"It wasnít so much a process of writing because different songs really took different courses," he explained. "The first song that I wrote was Beauty of a Broken Heart. That was one that Iíd been working on for quite awhile ó even before the two years that I spent with this project. It was something I came up with by just trying to write down words and to have the words inspire melodies."
"It tends to be a sort of stream of consciousness process for me," he declared. "When itís working, Iíll just be sitting down with my pad of paper and writing. If I can write down three or four pages of lyrics...and some of these lyrics ó a lot of times, Iíll have a tune in my head or a melody that Iíve already started working on ó if I can grab a line or even a couple of lines that make sense...."
"Sometimes the words that Iím writing down arenít even real words," he continued. "Theyíre just sort of sounds that seem to fit over the melody. I have to go back later and interpret my handwriting, which is sometimes the biggest challenge. But, I go back and pull lines out that seem to fit together or make sense or tell a story or something like that. I try not to have too much forethought in the process. I try to figure out what happened afterwards."
"I think what did come through...thereís been a lot of transition for me in the last few years and a lot of different things going on so I...," McConnellís voice trailed off as he stopped to ponder this thought for a moment. "...Thatís probably what came out, although I never intended to write about anything in particular."
As with most songwriters, McConnellís process was therapeutic and cleansing. His approach meant that he was able to put his innermost thoughts and feelings about Phishís demise as well as the dissolution of his marriage into perspective. At times on his self-titled album, these two dramatic events in his life seem to become intertwined in his words and music. Beauty of a Broken Heart, for example, began in a different place from where it wound up on his self-titled album, and it is, perhaps, the piece that best marks the changes that took place within his own mind.
"Beauty of a Broken Heart went through a number of different lyric changes, and there is a demo of it, which ó and Iím not trying to sell this ó for anyone who is curious, is on iTunes. The Beauty of a Broken Heart demo has a completely different feel than the track that ended up on the album. Itís much darker and sort of...I donít know what words to describe it...it just kind of was a different version and a different approach to it."
Were Phishís final years ó which had been marked a hiatus, a reunion, and an eventual split ó as difficult for McConnell as they appear to have been based on the lyrics to his new songs? "I donít know," he responded. "It was a long run. It wasnít an easy breakup, and it wasnít...I donít know. I liked the hiatus. It was during that time that I developed Vida Blue, and started doing all that stuff. I suppose youíre right. I hadnít really thought about it, but sure."
As challenging as Phishís breakup was for him, McConnell remains close to his former collaborators. When asked what he misses most about the band, he took a long moment to reflect upon the question, but rather than providing a pat, premeditated, politically correct, publicist-approved answer ó as most artists would do ó he delivered a decisive, heartfelt response: "I really enjoyed the camaraderie of it ó just being out there. It was a lot of laughs. It really was ó a lot of stupid inside jokes and that sort of thing. Iím still close with all those guys, which is great. I still have that to some degree, but itís...I suppose it would be just that."
"I donít really miss the bigness of it, per se," he added. "I donít miss the tens of thousands of people that we had at our festivals. I donít miss the bigness of the organization that was necessary to carry on those festivals. I donít miss the traveling at all, really. I enjoy staying at home."
When asked if there was a sense of relief or release that came when the decision to disband Phish had been finalized, McConnell replied, "Yes, yes, definitely. Absolutely. I had been doing it for so long, playing the same songs over and over again to the same people over and over again. I enjoyed it, but there was a sense of suspended animation, I suppose. To be able to look forward with endless boundaries and possibilities was both a relief and a release."
McConnellís thoughts regarding Phishís hectic existence not only inform, but they also permeate Heavy Rotation, one of the finest moments on his eponymous endeavor. It also is a song that underwent radical change over the course of the project. "I had written a demo that I was actually very happy with. It was never quite there but I thought it was really close," he explained. "I wrote it with a drum machine and synthesizers, and I had Jon Fishman play some drums on it, too. It had sort of a swing feel, but I ended up re-tracking it when I got to the end stage of the process."
Working with Mike Gordon as well as drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Adam Zimmon, McConnell turned the tune into an expansive jam. His backing band created a funky underlying groove, while his distinctive piano accompaniment, which soared over the top, was informed by his love of jazz. "The song had a completely different personality than when I had done the demo of it," he said. "What I thought was the final track wound up being the demo."
McConnellís shift to the Brooklyn studio where Heavy Rotation was completed was spurred by his decision to finish the record. "I decided to go and record with Bryce Goggin, who I had worked with before [on Farmhouse]," he stated. "I had already been working on it for more than a year and half, and I wanted to get some fresh ears and some fresh perspective on it."
Signing with Legacy was designed specifically to help McConnell achieve his goals for the self-titled outing. "I know a lot of people just put stuff out on the internet, and thatís certainly an option ó especially these days and especially if youíre catering to the Phish fans who already know who I am. But I wanted a little bit more than that," he explained. "I was proud of the record, and I wanted as many people as possible to hear it when I was done with it."
McConnellís enthusiasm for his eponymous effort also extends to his return to the stage. He recently assembled a new band that features multi-instrumentalist Jared Slomoff and guitarist Adam Zimmon, both of whom performed on the album, as well as bass player Rob OíDea (Spam Allstars) and drummer Gabe Jarrett (Vorcza). The ensemble made its debut at a pair of shows in April ó at WXPNís World Cafť in Philadelphia and at the Gramercy Theater in New York City ó and tickets already are on sale for his late spring jaunt along the East Coast and through the Midwest. "I have a really good feeling about this group. It feels like a band, although itís in its infancy right now. It really does feel like there is a collective consciousness, and we all seem to get along pretty well. We have similar senses of humor, and we are interested in being explorative in the same sorts of ways," he said.
"In a certain sense, I really am starting over," McConnell stated, before adding, "but Phish afforded me the luxury of being able to spend two years working on a record. A lot of people donít have that luxury. It also afforded me the ability to start at a prominent level. I have a nice base [of fans] and a record label that is excited about having me. I have an infrastructure, too. Probably the hardest thing for me to get used to is being the leader of the band. That was difficult when I was doing Vida Blue. Itís not that itís going to be hard for me. Itís just something that Iím growing into."
"Iím already working on material for a new album, and that excites me, he continued. "Every free moment that I have, Iím in the studio trying to write. Iím excited to see what happens with this ensemble and to see if it really does jell and take on some new life. I think it will go to some cool places. Iím excited for all of that."
"Iím feeling really good about it myself," he concluded, "and thatís kind of the most important thing right now ó that Iím happy with it, and feeling like itís a good thing. And, I do."
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Copyright © 2007 The Music Box