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I See Hawks in LA frontman Robert Rex Waller Jr. performs songs from new solo album for Cellar Sessions series Sunday afternoon
By Bliss Bowen 06/09/2016
Numerous solo artists keep themselves creatively challenged by moonlighting in side projects, a motivation that partly explains Robert Rex Waller Jr.’s newest recording. Best known for the past 15 years as the towering (six-feet, four-inch) frontman and lead songwriter for psychedelic country-rock outfit I See Hawks in LA, the Highland Park resident’s finished his first solo album, “Fancy Free.” Four years in the making, it sports the “big and warm” sound he likes and finds him exploring the songbooks of the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Hollies, Daniel Johnston, the Kinks, Willie Nelson, Utah Phillips, Mike Stinson and Neil Young.
“Part of it was trying out different songs where I wasn’t the songwriter,” he explains. “Doing other people’s songs, I was able to just focus on the singing, and the different textures I wanted to try out musically.”
Those “different textures” included bringing in violinist Nora Germain, a former student. Waller, who teaches “writing for visual and performing artists” at USC, also takes a “playful Casio synthesizer tripped-out” approach to the title track (a goofy twist on the Oak Ridge Boys original) and strips down Nina Simone’s “Don’t You Pay Them No Mind” (written by Robert Ahlert and Bobby Scott) to acoustic guitar, violin and empathy.
“It’s about an interracial relationship. A lot of Nina Simone songs I cannot do, for very good reason. But with this, I can imagine what that is like — to be not her in the relationship but to be him in the relationship. Also, I thought that song fit with same-sex relationships, which are very much in our world and consciousness right now — just loving the person you want to love even though society says that’s not allowed. …
“I wanted to try something that wasn’t my perspective on the world. Sometimes you get tired of your own ideas [laughs] and ways of thinking. It was fun to experiment with other people’s point of view, and almost being an actor. You’re inhabiting a character.”
Ironically, emphasizing experimentation and playing with identities means that Waller’s solo debut has “a certain level of artifice” that his albums with I See Hawks in LA do not. “This is more invented than it is natural,” he acknowledges. “With the Hawks, it’s more straight-up me.”
Waller’s big, amiable baritone remains front and center, and certain tracks sway with loping rhythms reminiscent of the Hawks. But “Fancy Free” lacks the Hawks’ savvy sociopolitical commentary. If Waller were to record a second album of covers addressing 2016’s political season, what songs might he choose?
“The politics of 2016 is a bizarre circus with potentially terrifying consequences. I’m regularly astounded [laughs] by the current state of politics in this country. It’s totally unpredictable and bizarre. What songs would match that? That’s a good question. [Laughs] Twisted circus music would have to be it.”
Cellar Sessions presents Robert Rex Waller Jr. and Eli Locke, each playing a separate set following a wine tasting, at Old Oak Cellars, 2620 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, starting 3 p.m. Sunday, June 12; $22 advance/$25 at the door. Tickets: cellarsessions.brownpapertickets.com. Info: robertrexwallerjr.com.