The Roosevelts Share a Few Lessons About Life and Love
The opening track of The Roosevelts' new album, The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn, is a soulful, sadness-wrapped-in-fraught-joy harbinger of what's to come. On "Hard to Believe," the duo (Jason Kloess and James Mason) wrestles with love lost, love regained, and the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't tendency of love to slip through your hands, even when you thought you had it tightly in your grip. The song launches with lead guitars that recall some of John Mayer's tunes, and the riffs shine as bright counterpoints to the sadness — "if you don't love me don't come back, just go" — of the lyrics.
"Ashes" covers some of the same psychic territory with the duo singing over a sparely arranged guitar and mandolin arrangement. Love won or lost has the potential to burn brightly, burn out, or burn down to the ground. All that's left of the latter is ashes on the ground:
I can't love you, if you won't let go
I can't lead you where you don't want to go
This old house, well it's burning down
And I don't want to find our ashes on the ground
When the flames settle down.
A soaring Hammond B-3 kicks off the joyous, raucous "Go Down Easy," in what promises to be a good-time song. After all, a B-3 brings one of two feelings: the joy of a soul song or the jubilation of a gospel song. There's not much joy, though, as the rollicking music wraps around the tale of a lost love:
How come every time we get together
All we do is fight?
Even when I tried to make you happy
I could never get it right.
They bring on Southern funk in "Peaches," a tune reminiscent of early Paul Revere and the Raiders; the funkiness of the crunchy guitars provides the perfect backdrop for the nod-is-as-good-as-wink lyrics of the singer's hunger for love — "I need love, if you know what I mean" — and the promise of lying sated in the sun after "harvesting all the fun." It's the one feel-good song on the album, celebrating the easy freedom of passion, the beauty of sexual ecstasy, our ability to lose ourselves in it, even for a moment, and the hunger for the passion that remains, even after we feel momentarily sated. We'll shout and holler for a minute, but then we have to return to the same old ways; wouldn't it be better to shout and holler all the time, for that love that might "save me."
The album closes with "You're Not Alone," a somber hymn — which opens with that B-3 — to new beginnings and the recognition that no matter how deep we might feel our failures there's always some person or group of people that are going through the same kinds of feelings. We're all blasted in some moment by feelings of imperfection, by the weight of our failures, by the end of our relationships. It can be a feeling of utter desolation: "When you can't carry on/When all your hope is gone/When you've fought so long/But every word just comes out wrong." Yet, in that moment of desolation comes solace: "And someone comes along/Who sees the best in you/That's when you know…you're home." It's quite fitting that an album that opens with a rollicking, bright anthem to loss closes with a soaring hymn to the power of renewal and hope.
I chatted by phone recently with James Mason about music and The Roosevelts' new album.
Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of this new album.
James Mason: We had an EP out two years ago, and that one was with the full band and more of a wine record: it wasn't as big of a sound but it had a good mellow vibe. With this album, sonically we were trying to capture the live vibe. Lyrically, well, we were both floating between relationships at the time, but didn't realize we were both going through some of the same emotions, feelings, questions. We were both struggling with what it means to be human and to be love and to want to love. We also decided to move to Nashville and set up a radio promotion and publicity team here; we also launched a Kickstarter campaign for this one—which is on an independent label—and thanks to our supporters, we blew past our original goal of $35,000.oo by almost $10,000.00 very early in the campaign.
How did you select the songs?
We went for what we thought was the strongest material, and we'd also been playing many of these songs live.
How did you come up with the title for the album?
My grandmother used to sing this old Nat King Cole song to me and its closing line goes like this: "the greatest thing you'll ever learn/is just to love and be loved in return," [Mason sings chorus]. That seemed like a perfect description of the kind of emotional vibe we were trying to get on the album.
How did you come up with the name of the band?
It was purely accidental. We were in the studio putting together our first record, and we didn't have a name. We had some great musicians coming to work with us—J.J. Johnson and Dave Monzi—and we wanted them to remember who we were. We realized that we'd formed the band on President's Day, so we ran through the list of names of all the presidents; we tried the Kennedys, the Nixons, and nothing seemed just right until we got to the Roosevelts. We landed on that name because there were two of them—and two of us.
What's your approach to songwriting?
I usually find a chord progression or melody that I'm attracted to first. It often comes out as a scat. If it comes back to me, it's a keeper. Some of my best lyrics come when I'm doing something mundane. I do much of the lyrical work, and Jason does most of the arranging. I put my treatment on it and send it to him, and then he works on it and sends it back to me, and we go back and forth until we're happy with it. I like to think we have a strong lyrical prowess. Storytelling is a part of our stage banter, too. A lot of these songs started out softer and then we gave them more energy.
Who are your three greatest musical influences?
James Taylor: mainly for his songwriting; he's also a great player, but I really enjoy the meaningfulness of his songs; Counting Crows: there are a lot of sonic similarities between what we're trying to do and their album, August and Everything; their delivery is really intriguing to me.
How did you come up with the song "You're Not Alone"?
That song was re-written in the studio. The song was originally called "Young to Old," which was about the sentiment of getting old and losing the imagination you had as a child. Sometimes a song takes on a certain vibe, and the lyrics don't go with the song anymore. I tried to tweak what I had but it just didn't fit. I had a breakdown moment where I just didn't think what I had written was good enough, and I didn't think I'd be able to pull out anything new or different and might have to scrap the song. The music had become emotionally charged, and I was trying to force that emotion into a different setting. I gave myself a pep talk to write the song and that talk became the song itself. Music is king; music is a universal language and lyrics take it to a more personal level.
How do you think you've evolved as a musician?
I hope I'll always continue to evolve. When I first started writing, things were super emotionally charged; I was writing sad songs that tended to want to explain something through music. Sonically, I think of our music as new Americana, not as folky as traditional singer-songwriter but with a deep focus on the vibe and getting people to move. Our music leaves room for other people to insert themselves into our songs.
What's next for you?
You've caught me at the beginning of that process. Sonically, I'm not certain yet. I'm more about writing songs that I think pack a punch; you know when you've delivered a message.