Don Rosler is a New York City songwriter and producer who was the mastermind behind one of this year's most compelling albums: "Rosler's Recording Booth".
Mr Rosler was kind enough to answer some questions for Sepiachord.
Don Rosler photo by Krista Samoles
Sepiachord: Your CD "Rosler's Recording Booth" is a bit of an odd thing: it seems to be a mix of concept album and compilation. You wrote the songs and produced the collection as a whole, what do you think of it as?
Don Rosler: Well, I‘m a bit of an odd thing. (For starters, I was born in a blackout and came into this world with my mother screaming for tranquillizers when the doctor shone a flashlight under my face. No kidding.)
I think of it as a concept album. I wrote and produced new songs around my concept and cast the songs with different artists. So, I didn‘t compile anything song-wise from other sources beyond segues and select sound design materials.
SC: So is there a story that runs through this set of tunes?
DR: I didn‘t necessarily set out to tell one connect-the-songs story, or if I did, the narrative kept changing. However, there are characters who have things in common, and a few reappearances, here and there, in the sound montages or for example, within a fleeting memory of another character in another song (the storyteller in "Take It Slow").
I initially used the sounds & collected sensibilities of these people, most of whom I didn‘t know, many of whom may be long gone, as the springboard for my imagination. People in these Recordio & Voice-o-Graph booths. If there is a cohesive story, it‘s more in the nature of what the listener brings to the table much in the spirit of receiving one of these audio "postcards" (or, as my concept expanded, to hearing a lone radio caller or phone message). I guess in writing the songs I imagined the lives of these characters in or outside of these booths and read between the lines of what these characters were saying or not saying. And sometimes would then take flights of fancy (the "You Won‘t Believe" lad who seems to end up everywhere and anywhere in NYC, filled with bravado, making big promises to send for his girl, etc. -- yet one might wonder if he‘s on the level or perhaps delusional). Needless to say, I can relate to that guy, having led a sort of rollercoaster life myself. So, maybe it‘s not one story but a bunch of short stories gathered around a common mood or theme.
SC: You took inspiration from Voice-o-Graph recordings, what exactly was a "Voice-o- Graph"?
DR: Yes, I had some of these Recordios or Voice-o-Graphs rolling around my head, including a Voice-o-Graph of my Grandpa Abe & older brothers Mike and Dave, crammed into a recording booth at the Jolly Rogers arcade on Long Island. (I used a snippet of that in the opening and closing montage).
Recordios (booths & records) were popular in the 40s-50s. The most popular model manufactured by Wilcox Gay. Voice-o-Graphs were more in the late 50‘s-60s. These recording booths were popular at arcades, on piers, at tourist stops like the top of the Empire State Building. During World War II especially, they were invaluable ways of exchanging missives, a way of hearing a loved one‘s voice (or song) before it was common that every household had a telephone. So the person would put a coin in the slot and have a set amount of time to record a song or voice message. I went through hundreds of them (a detective story in itself) to incorporate a few humorous or compelling ones that directly inspired some of the songs. A big early inspiration was also an NPR radio documentary by "The Kitchen Sisters" called "War & Separation," all about those recordings during wartime. The records between separated lovers and family in wartime, needless to say, packs a punch. There‘s a key segue from that documentary I used twice, in two different contexts. Both from the same woman, recording a record for her husband Louie, who is stationed overseas.
SC: What drew you to a medium that was arguably just an example of instant-nostalgia junk culture?
DR: While some have mentioned nostalgia in their reviews, it was the furthest thing from my mind. To me it was about story telling. And that medium also said something to me about our past and present relation to sound, music, recording, connection.
For example, the woman I mentioned earlier. Making a record for her serviceman husband. No idea if and when he‘s coming back. Trying to be strong on the record, brave for him. Though the medium has changed, soldiers, say in Iraq today, are often sending or receiving essentially the same universal message, but now it‘s via an mp3, skype or flip camera. They‘re just not as shy about being recorded and such.
SC: Why put together a bunch of artists to record your songs instead of just playing them yourself?
DR: Hmmm...well, I never had any aspirations to be a performing songwriter. Was always more comfortable writing for or with other artists. In a way, I was a bit like one of those reticent characters in a recording booth. Didn‘t trust my own voice much or felt too shy to express my own songs as a singer. But more importantly, part of the concept was to have a range of voices & textures on the album --- all the while slowly starting to realize because of that very concept, I should be one or two of those characters and croak out a few songs myself.
SC: How did you decide who was going to join you on this eclectic outing?
DR: I wanted a mix of female & male voices, and I‘m drawn to artists who are emotionally committed in their own style of singing (whether they be more theatrical, earthy or "eclectic"). They were also all artists in their own right, so, not on board to be chameleons as vocalists for my style(s). Many times one singer/producer I loved led me to another. Terry Radigan was one of the first artists on board, first as a co-writer and singer on "We‘ll Have ?Em All Over" and then as a vocalist/co-producer/arranger on a number of songs. She introduced me to all sorts of musicians and singers I should have known about but didn‘t, i.e., Kathena Bryant, Joshua Camp, Dave Eggar, etc. Apparently, it‘s a good idea to actually get out in the world and meet people!
Spottiswoode photo by Jeff Forney
SC: Was it hard to talk people into working on "Rosler's Recording Booth"?
DR: Well, if it was, I tried the ol‘ take out the checkbook approach. As in "how much do you want" and then, when they revived me with smelling salts, I said, well, ok, but do you mind if I postdate the check... um, about a year.
Seriously, though, not at all. There were artists on my radar for a long time such as Spottiswoode that I knew would be perfect for a couple tunes— and in the case of both songs he sang, I tried singing them myself and then fired myself (I took it well); other musicians that I co-wrote or worked on tunes with in the past such as John Margolis, Tam Lin, Tamara Hey, Gary Schreiner, Jon Albrink, Emily Bindiger, Isabel Keating. Having Jeremy Sisto come on board was neat because I‘ve known Jeremy since he was a kid. We used to hang out a lot with him and his mom & sister in the late 80‘s when my wife lived in Chicago for about a year... and Jeremy recently came back into our lives. Before I knew it, we were reconnecting as friends and he immediately jumped into the "booth", making his singing debut. So...what was cool... in making this album about people making records, trying to connect or reconnect with family and friends...guess what? I reconnected with family and friends and some strangers, too....
SC: When did you start playing music & writing songs?
DR: I had many great teachers and friends as a child who helped me along the way. They were imaginary, but nevertheless, I found them a great comfort.
SC: What makes this project different than others you tackled in the past?
DR: Well, I‘ve written in many different styles, for various kinds of projects – from co-writing and co-producing "John Margolis: Christine‘s Refrigerato" to co-writing tunes for artists such as dogbrain (Jay Ward) or Everett Bradley (HOLIDELIC & TOY) to writing lyrics for three compositions on the 2010 Grammy-nominated Bobby McFerrin VOCAbuLarieS album. Rosler‘s Recording Booth is the first project that I steered the ship, while making sure I had some formidable folks on board to co-produce tracks. It‘s a ship that almost sunk, but thanks to my wife kicking my arse to pre-sell the CD on Kickstarter, we managed to mix and master it. And commission some swell cover art from the great painter, Patrick Bucklew.
album cover by Patrick Bucklew
SC: Do you think Americans as a culture dwell on supposed "good old days" too much?
DR: Not sure. I don‘t. There are people who tend to lump all things old as good, just 'cause they‘re old, and just 'cause it‘s something on a scratchy old records or, say, even a wax cylinder recording. There‘s plenty of bad or soso old movies, records, inventions, etc. I will say there is, however, more of an "innocence" factor in some of those "good old days" mediums. People not necessarily making these kinds of records, for instance, to be stars, etc., people still having a sense of wonder about the medium.
We‘re so acclimated to seeing and hearing ourselves now that I‘m not sure within the last generations‘ lifetimes there‘s much dwelling going on about the past. And we‘re so used to hearing music everywhere, we often barely hear it (commercials, supermarkets, underscoring dialogue, background for this or that, cell phone tones, etc.). Everyone is so plugged in. I don‘t think I was looking for the good old days either with the concept; more about perhaps connecting the past with the present.
SC: "Rosler's Recording Booth" has garnered some great reviews and solid press, are you surprised by how warmly this album has been received.
DR: Yes and no. I thought if people took the time to take in the concept, there might be that warmth...fully aware that its "eclectic" nature wouldn‘t be everyone‘s cup of tea.... We got lucky with one of the songs ("Doris from Rego Park") getting press, a NY Times feature, and airplay before our official release and that seemed to pave the way. "Doris" was written about a real person (Doris Bauer) saddled with serious illnesses that she battled, but she still managed to not let her "chronic cough" stop her from calling WFAN every night, and even from going to Mets games once a week. I somehow doubt she ever heard her own voice, though, 'cause she wasn‘t the type to ever record herself.
SC: Have you thought about a sequel?
DR: I like the almost repertory theater approach to a CD theme.....so while it may not be a Rosler‘s Recording Booth Volume II type sequel, I‘m in the midst of dreaming up a musical and a new album.
SC: Any final words of advice for young people?
DR: I was a slow learner (and a late bloomer to boot). It was when I decided to not be embarrassed that I didn‘t grasp some very basic things, to not be afraid to ask a dumb question or many, that I started to get somewhere. So ask questions and take action if the drive of your curiosity gets sluggish or apathetic, ‘cause there‘s just too much in life to learn and get lit up by, and.... go outside and play!