Robert Ellis Orrall
Interview by George Light (part 3 of 3)
PSF: What kind of movies do you like to see?
REO: Well let's see. I've recently seen in the last say two weeks... Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, The Last Starfighter and Under the Volcano. I go to lots of movies.
PSF: What did you think of Last Starfighter?
REO: I thought it was really good. I read this review of it that said that it wasn't Star Wars because it looks like they have plastic masks on and stuff. But the story was good.
PSF: I kinda liked the fact that it was purposefully low budget myself.
REO: It wasn't a big deal but I was a really neat story and made you feel good.
PSF: The fact that the fellow didn't get his college aid, and that some bad things happened along the way, kind of made it more...
REO: Right, right.
PSF: From a musical standpoint of yourself as a performer, do you have any certain group... who are you trying to aim towards?
REO: Michal Jackson, as far as success.
REO: No [laughs] I mean I wanna be as successful as I can be. I wouldn't want to put a cap on it. I've experienced playing in front of 15,000 people when we did The Kinks dates and it was it wasn't scary, it was more fun. The more the merrier.
PSF: But do you have a group you think that you're especially in tune with? Not necessarily a buying group but is there somebody that your music is aimed towards? Or just everybody in general?
REO: I think that for those people that I reach... I mean, we're not at the stage now where we get massive airplay automatically when we release a record. But certainly from the mail I get, we reach a very, very wide spectrum. I get much more than my share of mail for records sold 'cuz I get tons of mail.
PSF: Also the fact that you ask people to write
REO: Yeah, people send their pictures and stuff. I answer everybody. I very often get more detailed in a letter than "Hi, how you doing?" because they write to me (about) things and problems and stuff like that. Sometimes it gets a little tough to handle … But it means a lot to me because I think that I have the best fans in the world. 'Cuz they seem to have been touched by my music and I get touched back. If I have a single and it doesn’t do well, I get all these letters that say "This is the best single this summer" and stuff and it makes me feel good and say ‘alright.’
PSF: Do you feel that you have any groupies per se? Local, I would assume more in the Boston area perhaps because they can follow you around when you're playing...
REO: There are a lot of familiar faces out there. But I really think umm that the whole idea of groupies in the first place is really demeaning.
PSF: To you or to them?
REO: To them and to to everybody. I mean it's the kind of thing that... If women come backstage or something to talk to the band, they are treated the way anyone else they're fans they come back stage they want to talk and they want to say hi and that's it. ‘How ya doin'?’ And I just think that I wouldn't want to see I wouldn't want to see a situation where me or any of my band members were put in a compromising situation or put anyone else in a compromising situation, in a situation that was less than human. And I think that that happens too much in rock and roll. That's why I say in "Problem with Women" that rock and roll has got a problem with women. It generally does. The attitudes towards women on MTV and especially a lot of heavy metal music, though there is a lot of good heavy metal music too, it's just... it's bad stuff!
PSF: How typical was this? I ran into two middle-aged ladies I would assume late 30’s last night who said they were big fans of yours and I found out apparently they had seen you play the Frolics recently.
REO: Yep, yep.
PSF: And they saw you there and liked you enough that they made the drive out to Salem.
REO: As I was walking out last night, I was accosted by this frosted haired... she must have been in her fifities! And she was in tears and she said "I had to come and talk to you because I just think that you are playing wonderful music" and I was just like ‘wow’ because I get like letters from 8 year old boys and 11 year old girls and then I've got this 50 year old frosted-haired women coming up in tears. It's great I just wished they all had three hundred thousand relatives that also felt the same way.
PSF: Out of interest, you're 28, so how long are you willing to be up and coming? When will you come to the point where you're ready to stop being a recording artist? Because obviously you know you have the songwriting talents and people are putting holds … when are you willing to give up being Robert Ellis Orrall "ROCK STAR"?
REO: I mean, look at my friend Nick...
PSF: Nick Lowe?
REO: He's 38, I think. OK, so now I know I have at least 10 more years. I mean rock and roll is such a thing, first off, it keeps you young. I feel like I'm just outta high school and I feel like I always will [J.M. Barrie anyone?]. I can see doing it...
PSF: How does it keep you young? Just because you feel you're in touch …
REO: Because you're out there. Yeah, you're out there with young people and for one thing you're doing, you're running around on the stage like a madman and it's just not something that kinda makes you feel settled in, you know? So it's something that I'm always going to want to do as long as I get the chance to do it. I'm really excited. About the fact that there is a songwriting career that goes on at the same time, that will enable me to feel the pressure's off a little bit. I mean Warner Brothers pays me a very good yearly advance
PSF: That's cool. You don't feel the... you won’t burn out as quickly.
REO: Right. That's why we go out. We're going out right now and doing a little local thing for like, 10-12 dates. Most of my peers in bands that I know that are friends of mine that are in the same situations that we are first album or a couple albums that haven't done all that well, they're out there playing all year-round, 365, same clubs over and over and over again and I just I wouldn't want to do that.
PSF: Do you have any tour plans coming up to support Contain Yourself outside of the Boston area?
REO: Uh, not until we see what happens with RCA and the situation. I'd really like to get that straightened out and then I would really like to say to Premier Talent, which is my agency in New York, you know, ‘send us on a trip.’ Because we have a good time when we go out on the road.
PSF: How long did you tour last summer?
REO: Well, we were actually touring about eight months pretty much non-stop except we'd come home like every two three weeks for about four or five days and then go back out again.
PSF: How hard is that? How hard is touring?
REO: It's not hard. I mean it's pretty much a very set routine. We play, we go on stage at 11 or 12 or something. We do a show. We wake up the next morning at about 8 or 9. We'd be in the bus on our way to the next place. We get to the next place around 3 o'clock. Check into the hotel. Everyone would kind of goes ‘whoah’ and falls asleep. I would be doing like four or five phone interviews always every day from that hotel room.
PSF: With radio stations?
REO: Radio stations in towns that we're going to be at in four days. From now, you know. Because they do like lead stories before we play and then we'd go to soundcheck at about 5 o'clock and everything would be all set up. We'd go in and do a soundcheck and we'd leave again. And go back and we'd either go out to dinner or something and then we'd hang out until it was time to go and do the show. And then we'd go and do the show. Then as soon as the show was over, we'd get back in and go back to the hotel room and the crew would break everything down. Go to sleep and we'd start all over again. It's not hard. What makes it hard is when you destroy yourself when you're out there doing it. You get crazy and party all night, I mean, you CAN’T do that.
PSF: The American rock scene in general, do you have any opinions you'd like to...?
REO: I think things are looking pretty bright right now. I really like turning on KISS 108 and hearing R.E.M. played on the radio or seeing Prince's new record go to #1 in a snap of a finger. I have everything from Prince's first record on and always been a huge fan. To see this take off the way it has, it's fantastic. I haven't seen the movie yet (Purple Rain).
PSF: O.k. REO I just think that... there's always going to be the songs that sound like they were made in the hit factory. I don't think that a lot of people say that there's always going to be heavy metal ruining the airwaves. That's not true- there's a lot of good heavy metal. I like Def Leppard. I like Van Halen. But as far as the music is concerned, I really don't listen what they say.
REO: But there's always been a lot of songs that really probably are the worst thing for American radio- things like “Ghostbusters” or stuff like that. That’s just stupid. Silly things that are gonna be huge hits.
PSF: Why were you signed to an English record? Because you were New Wave?
REO: Well, actually, it was really strange. We had a lot of record companies interested at the time: Epic and Chrysallis and Sire and all these people were coming to see us. And this guy from England popped over. Paul McNalley flew over from London to see us at Jonathan Swift's and then flew back again. Obviously, the guy was serious. And RCA had just given him a custom label called Wi-Fi records in England. And he was looking for acts and we were the first act he signed.
PSF: Who else was signed to Wi-Fi?
REO: He signed a guy named Troy Tate. He didn’t sign anything that did anywhere nearly as well as I have. Virginia Astley, the Ravishing Beauties. Ohh and Sparks but he dropped them just before they got big. And it seemed it was really kind of silly working through... You know if I wanted to do something, I would call my manager in NY. He would could London and London would call America to get something done. So I said ‘why don't we just sign directly to the United States,’ and he was all for that because you know it kind of took a headache off of his hands as far as dealing with all the business and he still got a percentage of the deal.
PSF: In starting your career, were Boston radio stations helpful? Were there any in particular?
REO: Yeah, my career... The first time I ever got played on the radio was with my first record there, Sweet Nothing. There was a song called "Christine," and I entered it in WCOZ's songwriting contest. And the only reason I entered that song was because it was the only one that was just piano and vocal and the rules at the time of the contest that year were that it had to be just guitar and vocal or piano and vocal- you couldn't really produce it. So I sent it in and it won first prize. And that kind of got me started.
PSF: And now they've changed their format.
REO: Yeah, you can still hear "I Couldn't Say No" get played. Because that fits in that format; it's kinda easy-going rock. But there's always been strong support from different radio stations. This year, WFNX actually jumped on more than one cut, which really was nice and the most surprising thing to me was Kiss 108, which has a very tight playlist, just went bananas on this record. Over "Contain Yourself," they played "Walking Through Landmines" and "Alibi" to death. And I thought that was great 'cuz they don't have a reputation as being one of those radio stations which supports local music. But I'll tell you, they did in this case.
PSF: Also on a more national level and you mentioned Atlanta already, do you have any kind of areas of popular support that just can't be explained?
REO: Uh huh. The Rocky Mountains, all down the Rocky Mountains. There are stations that go like down Denver and Boulder and like down into (there) and there's like billions of stations that go all like in a strip. I sell lots of records. And I've never been there before.
PSF: What about Seattle?
REO: That's a place where we've sold lots of records, yeah.
PSF: What about Atlanta? Why are you popular in the South?
REO: I don't know.
PSF: Have you ever heard of The Producers? REP: Yeah. Now there's a really good band that just haven't cracked the big one.
PSF: OK. Well, I thank you very much for your time.
REO: Sorry I'm glad I got up and answered that... I was off to a real bad start. I could see them steaming and saying "This guy is a typical rock star, would not even get up in the morning and answer our phone call." So I went ‘oh my god’ and threw on a shirt and went running out here and there you were. Thanks for waiting.
PSF: It's been very good for me. It's the first interview I've ever done.
REO: Well, it was a good interview.
This interview was quite prophetic about Robert Ellis Orrall's future. He did not immediately sign a new performing contract and instead focused his energies on songwriting for other artists. Orrall gained an interest in country music through artists like Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Foster & Lloyd. He moved to Nashville intent on using his songwriting and producing skills. His first breakthrough was co-writing Shenandoah's 1990 #1 hit "Next to You, Next to Me" with Curtis Wright. His publisher BMG Music urged him to perform is songs at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. This led to a second record deal with RCA. The resultant country album, Flying Colors (1993), produced three charting singles, including "Boom! It Was Over" which reached #19 in the Hot Country chart. The same year Clay Walker reached Number 1 with "What's It To You," another song Orrall co-wrote with Wright.
Despite the new contract Orrall's future was destined to be in songwriting and producing with only occasional ventures into performing. He did briefly form a successful duo with Wright. In 1994, their debut album was relased by Giant Records and charted two singles. They were nominated for Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association but split up the same year. Through the 1990's, Orall continued to write and produce records for such country artists as Reba McEntire, James Bonamy, and Michael Peterson. He also took up painting and had one-man shows in Nashville.
In 2002, Orrall formed an independent label, Infinity Cat recordings. One act he signed was the fictitious indie rock group Monkey Bowl, an outlet for his own performances. Their song "Al Gore" garnered media attention in 2004 and was at the center of Orall's cameo appearance in Remnick's aforementioned New Yorker Gore profile. Orall continued his songwriting and producing: penning Carolina Rain's 2006 single, "Get Outta My Way" and producing Taylor Swift's debut and recent Beautiful Eyes EP. Last year Orall released a solo album, The Book of Lies, on Victor/Sony/BMG.
Also find out more about Orrall's latest exploits at his own official website
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