For me, this album is about singing. I’m just the singer here and for the first time in a long time not one of the songwriters. I chose this approach for a few reasons. I needed a break from listening to myself singing my own songs. I just needed to sing from a new point of view, or more accurately, several new points of view. I also needed to “think outside the Hawks” for a little bit. The Hawks have been a huge part of my life for more than 15 years now. I love being a Hawk and plan to keep on being one. But creatively it was time for me to do something outside that paradigm.
As I began to conceptualize my first solo album, I leaned hard on the album side since the idea of doing it by myself was initially so daunting. I imagined a big vinyl record with a Side A and Side B. I love both the analog sound and physical size of the LP record. The size alone makes the artwork much more significant. You can actually see it, hold it, consider it.
I also wanted to imagine this album existing outside of the digital realm. Though I may eventually cave and launch this music up into the digital cloud, for me this will always be a 12 inch vinyl album with two distinct sides (even on CD). For now, this album is just for family, friends, fans, and music buyers.
I also simply appreciate the object-ness of the LP. I wanted to reconnect this music to a physical object. Especially an outdated one. These days I am drawn to cassettes, 8-tracks, reel-to-reel tapes. I think some of this clinging to forgotten formats stems from losing my mom to cancer last March. I’m 44 years old now and my mom is gone. Loss is close by, more present than ever in my life. Or at least I’m more conscious of it. This album is dedicated to me mom, Sarah Elizabeth Pickens Waller.
So this is both a sentimental and nostalgic record but also an acknowledgement of the distortions of trying to remember. Remember. Remember. Remember. As I was sitting in the hospice with my mom, I felt an urgency to start remembering her hard right then. Do it! Concentrate! Remember your mother, she’s about to leave you forever! So I sat next to her and started writing. Started the process of trying to cement the feel of her hand in my palm, the smell of her skin, the way her nose turned just ever so slightly to the left.
This album transformed last March and became a further effort to remember her. As I started to think about the cover art, I wanted to get my hair done in her style both to remember her and also to honor her. I wanted to feel her hair, her hairdo, on my own head. I had felt, smelled, watched, admired, and feared my mother’s hair my whole life. Like many women (and men) who grew up in Memphis in the 50s, my mom was obsessed with hair. So I employed the fabulous Hollywood hair stylist David Cordova to do the job. My wife Katie had an in and set up the appointment. We went together to his elaborately decorated home in Los Angeles.
David’s house is something else. Tucked in a valley below the 134 his Eagle Rock home has lovely views of the San Gabriel Mountains. His hair studio is on the top floor with a large balcony opening to the north. When he wasn’t doing hair in Los Angeles, David was restoring classic American hotrods, doing runway in Paris, and welding spoons together for a two story hand rail running along his cavernous staircase. A true artist, David knew all about Memphis hair.
But by adding my mom’s hairdo, I also further brought in her influence. My mom knew about artifice. She knew about presentation, flattery, confidence, attitude, outfits. I tried to summon her bold spirit to help me do this solo record by myself.
But really I had so much help. Marc Doten’s heavy fingerprints are all over this record. His spirit of experimentation combined with his extensive musical skills on piano, bass, keyboard, voice, and computer allowed almost anything to happen. Marc is a record producer in the most modern sense, summoning sounds and juxtapositions to surprise and delight the listener. My old friend Gabe Shepard then came in to do the mixing at 25th Street Recording up in Oakland. Gabe has been recording and mixing my voice for nearly 20 years now and knows how to make my it sound just like I like it: Big and Warm.
So many friends played on the record and generously donated their musical gifts to deeply animate the songs. Paul Lacques, my longtime partner in the Hawks, added Telecaster, electric 12 string, and lap steel. Hawks drummers Anthony Lacques and Shawn Nourse laid down the beats. My friend and former student Nora Germain added her elegant and bluesy violin. Joel Guzman delivered his unique Texas accordion sound. And my dad, Robert Rex Waller, Sr., brought his surgeon’s touch to the piano on “Amazing Grace.” Several other friends and great musicians rounded out the sound.
The Fancy Free artwork developed out of a photo shoot I did with my wife Katie, the director Anastasia Simone, and secretly excellent photographer Paul Lacques. We took hundreds of photographs around my house, in the backyard, in the cul-de-sac, in the front yard. The portrait by the cactuses became the center of the artwork. Old Californio drummer and our thoughtful and detailed layout man, Justin Smith, suggested a central oval frame on the cover. Katie then began drawing cactuses to use around all the photos. I also had a lovely cactus my son Henry drew that we used for the vinyl label. We started to have a visual theme.
When I first started collecting music I would ride my bike down to MusicLand in the Apache Mall in Rochester, MN. I’d thumb through the racks and carefully consider how to spend my meager Post-Bulletin paperboy wages. So the albums I did buy had value to me, and those choices helped shape my identity, helped me figure out who Robert Rex Waller, Jr. was. This record recalls those times and that experience. So I hope you’ll hop on your bike, ride with me down to the mall, and help me fund this project and get Fancy Free out into the world. Thank you!
1. “Walking Through Your Town In The Snow” Got turned on to this song by my friend and musical collaborator Steve Rank. Steve and I did music together every week for five years at my kids’ pre-school in Silverlake. This song somehow reminds me both of growing up in Minnesota and also of aging. I love the line “There’s nothing I can do / My best working days are through.”
2. “Albuquerque” This song comes from Neil Young’s 1975 classic, “Tonight’s the Night.” I’ve been a Neil Young fan since I bought this record at MusicLand when I was 14. This song is about leaving, dreaming of finding freedom in a new, far away place. “So I’ll stop where I can / Find some friend eggs and country ham / Oh, I’ll find somewhere where no one cares / Who I am”
3. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on your Grievances” Covered this song with one of my early bands, The Magic of Television, on the San Francisco scene of the late 90’s. Played this song at the Paradise Lounge and the Blue Lamp, then again in Austin for SXSW ’99. Always has been one of my favorite Daniel Johnston songs, and more meaningful than ever to the married family man I have become.
4. “Waterloo Sunset” The Hawks have had the chance to play in England several times. England is also one of my family’s ancestral homes. There are Wallers in the ground in Oxfordshire. For me, this song is about overcoming the dreariness of everyday life with the little magical moments we find within it to nurture our dreams.
5. “Counting My Lucky Stars” I love so many Mike Stinson songs but this one always gets me, reminds me of late night visits to my high school girlfriend’s house, knocking on the window and slipping in quietly so as not to awake any parents or siblings. Secret love.
6. “Amazing Grace” My dad and I recorded this in L.A. just before my mom got sick. We ended up playing this at her funeral. I place it here at the end of Side A so that’s it’s right in the middle of the record, the heart of the album.
1. “Fancy Free” My friends Saul Davis and Carla Olson have long supported me as a singer and suggested I try this song. I remember when it was a hit, listening to it on the radio in my bedroom. Wanted to approach this one in a way that recollected the sounds of an 80s pop hit and that’s when we pulled out the Casio.
2. “Don’t Pay Them No Mind” Heard this song in a girlfriend’s apartment in New York City a long time ago. Among all Nina’s amazing songs and performances this is one of my favorites. Written by Richard Ahert and Bobby Scott, who also wrote “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother,” this song from “High Priestess of Soul” celebrates going against the current world to love who you want to love. “We’re gonna make it all alone / gonna build a world all our own / don’t pay ‘em no mind”
3. “Me and Paul” I’ve traveled around the world playing all kinds of gigs with Paul Lacques and Paul Marshall. This song is a tribute to our journeys together and to the audacious spirit at the heart of the Hawks. We’ve traveled thousands and thousands of miles together in cars, planes, boats, Yukons. “We received our education / In the cities of the nation / Me and Paul”
4. “The Air I Breathe” My friend and sound engineer Gabe Shepard suggested I sing this song. I love the progression and how the chords and melody move. This is another song I remember listening to on the radio in my bedroom on Classic Rock Radio, KRCH.
5. “The Crystal Ship” I love The Doors. I’ve always loved The Doors. When I was 14 or 15, just beginning to discover girls and trying to figure out how to get them to like me, I found Jim Morrison. I had a Doors shirt I wore to school pretty much everyday of 8th grade. I’d meet my girlfriend under the bridge by the mall. She’d blow clove cigarette smoke in my mouth and kiss me. Pretty great.
6. “She Belongs to Me” This song always reminds me of my daughters. Observing them and knowing their talents and approach to the world, I do believe “She’s got everything she needs / She’s an artist / she don’t look back”
Bonus Track: “Night Owl” Got this song from my brother in law, another Paul, who makes wonderful mixes for his friends and family. He put Cliff Edward’s (Jiminy Cricket) version of this song on a mix for me a while back. Since I was a teenager I’ve struggled with insomnia. I think that fact alone is one of the big reasons I ended up a musician. “Ooooooooooo, I’ve a Night Owl.”