My guest today is a songwriter, singer, musician, journalist… you may have seen him on tour throughout the years with bands like Seven Mary Three, Everclear, Nick Lachey, and Fuel. He’s also responsible for why I’m called “Aardvark Girl.” It’s my good friend, Robbie Gennet.
“You’re the Aardvark Girl.”
Amanda: It only seemed appropriate to have the person responsible for naming me “Aardvark Girl” as one of my first guests on this podcast.
Robbie: I want you to remind me of the instance. Like, I know what happened, and I kind of remember it, but I need you to fill me in and then I’ll fill the rest in.
Amanda: There’s no reason you should remember it, because it was such a random moment. And it was… you were playing with Seven Mary Three, and this was in 1997 at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. And after the show, my brother and I were hanging out by the buses, because back then you could still go to the buses.
Amanda: And you and some of the other guys had come out and we were talking to you. I was 16, and I was weird. I’m still weird, but I was extra weird then. And I made some random comment about an aardvark… couldn’t tell you what it was… but at the end of the night, you had given me your demo tape and you said to stay in touch. And I said, “You’re not going to remember who I am.” And you said, “Sure I will. You’re the aardvark girl!” And my brother picked up on that and started calling me that and that’s who I’ve been ever since.
Robbie: Well, there you are. Now, let me ask you a question. Since that was so random. Have you learned anything since about the aardvark as an animal that has made you feel some sort of kinship?
Amanda: That’s a really good question. I learned that it means Earth Pig in Latin. I don’t really relate to that.
Robbie: Yeah, that doesn’t strike me as you.
Amanda: Last year in the Chinese New Year, it was the year of the earth pig. So it was kind of the year of the aardvark. That made me pretty happy.
Robbie: So you’re saying last year was your year, but this year not so not so much?
Amanda: This year is not anybody’s year.
Robbie: No, it is really not. Well put.
Amanda: At least I haven’t found the person whose year it is yet. But, it’s just one of those things where random moments in life can lead you to all these different things.
Robbie: I like that.
Amanda: Obviously, we’ve stayed in touch for 23 years.
Robbie: Crazy enough.
Amanda: And it was much harder back then. I didn’t even have a computer, so I had to wait. My brother got a computer, and then he would send you emails, you would respond, he’d print them out, leave them for me. It was this whole thing. Then I finally got a computer and could connect with you myself.
Robbie: Right. And I remember when I came out with to California and stopped on the way. And I played in Las Vegas, right?
Amanda: You did.
Robbie: Yeah. And I appreciate, you know, your hospitality and your friendship. And I’m so psyched that you have kind of found this new area of your life and career and it’s bold. It’s brave. It’s new. It’s fresh. It’s exciting – just like you. The earth pig.
Amanda: Well, thank you. When I had to come up with a name for my company, when it came time and I thought I had to get out of the corporate world and do my own thing, it seemed obvious, because I already had the domain name. I’d been using the email address, and I thought, well, you know, it always brings up questions. It’s a good conversation starter.
Amanda: When I was working on the presidential debate in 2016, Secret Service stopped me specifically to ask what my license plate meant, because it says Vark Girl.
Robbie: Ah. Also I’d like to think that it’s so random of an animal that really, it’s hard to forget, because who can forget an aardvark because where else…unless you’re watching “The Ant and the Aardvark,” you know? “Hey Ant!” And we have watched that a little around here lately. So, you know, I’m good with the classics.
Amanda: It’s a little bit quirky. I’m a little bit quirky. So it just fits. I didn’t want to have some boring company name using my initials or something that everybody else does. I own it. I embrace it. I go with it.
Robbie: Yeah. Well, your initial is the same as aardvark. Amanda and aardvark.
Amanda: It works.
Amanda: I just find that that stuff happens a lot. That incident also introduced me to our mutual friend, Nancy, who’s one of my greatest friends now, still. We met through that same concert, and that same… being out by the buses and hanging out with bands thing.
Robbie: May I go on record as saying we were all complete gentlemen as a band?
“I accept this 100%.”
Amanda: I will vouch for that. One of those weird ways that life works, where I’m one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. Some people don’t like that. But in my life, it seems to work out that way, even if that reason isn’t apparent in the moment. One random comment about an aardvark after a concert, that led to this 23 year plus relationship. You’ve shared music with me all this time, and that makes me happy, and we’ve been able to talk about so many different things. And now, here you are.
Robbie: Here I am. Yeah, you know, I like the idea of random things kind of changing the course of, not history to be grandiose, but of our lives and of looking for those things. And obviously, hindsight is 2020. You can look for reason and paths in hindsight, which is easy to do. It’s the foresight of saying like, oh, this person I just met, I’m gonna have a whole life knowing them, rather than this is just another random person I’m meeting that I like. And maybe we’ll keep in touch, maybe we won’t, I don’t know. So sometimes it’s the draw going forward, that in retrospect, you look back and you’re like, of course I was friends with that person. How could I not be? Life makes sense in reverse.
Amanda: It does. The same thing happens, in my opinion, through tragedy, which, unfortunately, is a thing a lot of people are dealing with right now.
Amanda: And keeping that attitude… and this is something you and I have always bonded over… is that optimistic attitude where, even through the worst situations you’re able to find something good out of it – where it might be a lesson or gratitude for something you do have. It doesn’t mean that you’re negating the weight of the tragedy. It just means that, through all of it, there’s some purpose down the road that you might find out.
Robbie: The word you used, gratitude, I think that has everything to do with it because you always know things could be so much worse. You know, if you stubbed your toe, somebody else stubbed their toe in a landmine and lost their leg. You know, there’s always gradients that are worse where you could say, boy, I’m so lucky that’s all that happened. Could’ve been so much worse. But besides gratitude, that’s that perspective. I think there are a lot of people who lack true gratitude, but also, perspective scares them, to see things from too many ways might break the confines of their belief system, which is a comfort zone, which needs to be broken, you know. Not everybody can see that.
Amanda: That’s, I think, something people are learning right now, or they’re about to learn, or will hopefully learn within the next few years with everything that’s going on.
Robbie: What a disruption, you know.
Amanda: And you, being a creator, this whole situation has been extra difficult because one of the big things that you do is connecting with other people by performing, and other things you do as a musician, as a songwriter, as a singer. You’ve had some experience with tragedy in the last couple years. You lost your home in one of the California fires. Some people don’t move on through that. But somehow, from what I’ve noticed, these two tragedies, kind of right off the back of each other, has really fueled you to create more, and to say more, and kind of understand what it is that you’re doing as an artist. Is that accurate?
Robbie: Yeah. 100%. I think… to speak to that in two answers… the tragedy happening, you know, a lot of people grieved for a long time after, and rightfully so. You know, you lose your family heirlooms and your home and all these things that meant a lot, and you have to figure out what really means what when you lose so much. But in college, I’d read “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler Ross. And I remember, you know, she talks about the stages of grief, and bargaining, and sadness, and depression, and anger. And the last stage was acceptance. I remember thinking boy, I wonder if you make acceptance the first stage, if that mitigates the other ones. And, you know, when my house burned and I finally got the news, like yeah, your house is gone, the first words out of my mouth, without even thinking about it, were “I accept this 100%.”
And to move on from that point was easier on 1000 different levels. I still had difficulties, I still missed stuff. But, when I would get a vision of something from the house, either that I thought about multiple times since I lost it, or that came up like, oh, that was in there, I’d open my hand, let go of the string and watch the balloon go up in the sky. You know, it was all about accepting loss, and that mitigated the suffering and also gave me great perspective on, you know, my own strength, as well as kind of what things mean. You know, we ascribe a lot of meaning to things ,and when they burn, which is very final… nobody in the history of the world has ever resurrected anything from ash.
So, you know, you got to kind of go okay, well, that was as long as I was meant to own that. And yes, it was special, and my great grandma handed that down, and there it was. I don’t have anything from her great grandma. So, at some point, we all have to move forward and make new memories and make new things that means something. For me, it’s my songs.
“I look at things from a meta level.”
Amanda: You had mentioned the last time I talked to you about some of the lyrics that you’re writing and how it’s… these tragedies have kind of seeped into that whole process of how you’re creating your songs.
Robbie: Absolutely. I mean, through the fire, I didn’t write so much about… like, if you hear the songs that I wrote post-fire, there weren’t a bunch of songs about, like, the phoenix rising from the ashes and stuff that was super literal. My whole M.O. has been… really for the last four years, under this kind of new situation we have in this country, new and old, with a lot of polarization and people acting in ways that are really hard to understand… I look at things from a meta level.
So I’m looking at fear as a driver. And a lot of what I’ve explored in my lyrics has been trying to poke at the underpinnings of fear, and give people ideas, and thoughts, and tools by which to question and hopefully dismantle or destroy their own fears. And not the fears that keep you from, you know, killing yourself… like, oh, I shouldn’t jump off that cliff without a parachute… but the fears that stop you from unifying with other people based on commonalities, and the fears that keep you divided from other people. All of that, at its base root, to me, it’s the same underlying instinct of fear that needs to be unlocked and broken.
So, a lot of that is kind of what I’ve worked on in my lyrics and even now, coming close to two years after the fire, and looking forward to returning home, I’m writing triumphant songs about revolutions of the minds, not looking back in sadness or anger. So I’m really trying to focus my music in a way where, if I can get it out to people, it will actually… besides hopefully being enjoyable, and singable, and people want to see it in concert, and all that… create some enlightening and unlocking kind of thoughts in people’s brains, maybe subconsciously even. Not a bad aim in my goal.
Amanda: Does that just come naturally to you? it’s a conscious choice. I always believe that your attitude, your perception, your feelings, it’s all a conscious choice. A lot of people don’t like to hear that. A lot of people, I find, are more comfortable in the victim role because then it’s not their fault, and they don’t have to do that internal self-reflection.
“You have excuses or you have a plan.”
Amanda: Right now, a lot of people are kind of frozen. They’re not sure what to do because this has never happened to us before. We don’t know what happens down the road from now. It’s confusing right now. And a lot of creatives, they know they have all this extra time that they should be creating, but they can’t because emotionally, or something’s going on that’s… they’ve got that block up. But you just seem to be… I mean, you’re sending me songs pretty much every day. It seems like you’re just knocking them out.
Robbie: I’m on fire.
Amanda: Is that inherently within you? Or are you making the choice to keep doing that, so you do move forward?
Robbie: The choice is… choice is an interesting word because what I did years ago is I developed a process, and I think a lot of songwriters don’t have a process. They kind of wait for… waiting for rain, like inspiration is rain. And inspiration is a well that you dig. So, to get your hands on that shovel and put it in the dirt every day, that’s a choice. To be on Facebook all day long and not write any songs, that’s a choice, too. You know, if I’m teaching somebody piano… and I teach a lot of people on many different levels… and they’re not doing the work, and I see them always on social media, I know where their interest and attention and focus is, so that is not obviously going to benefit either of us.
It comes down to, what’s your goal? What’s your plan? We were talking about, you either have excuses or a plan. There’s no in between. And so my plan is to… I have a quota of songs that I really want to get to every year. I take the last couple days of every year and work on every unfinished song I have to get it in under the wire of New Year’s, so it’s a… in this case, it’ll be a 2020 song before 2021 hits. And that’s how you build a library and a catalog.
And it’s not even about what I’m going to put out on my next record so much as, I’m creating for the sake of creating. And you were asking where does inspiration come from? I mean, sometimes It’ll come from a conversation with somebody. Last night, I was talking with a wonderful friend of mine. We were… he was talking about how people who are most seemingly enraged over freedom are most intensely against a lot of other people having freedom, and kind of the more somebody rages about freedom, the less they actually know about what true freedom is. It was just an interesting philosophical conversation. That could lead me to writing a song about freedom and thinking of things in existential and different ways.
I mean, how you put things in lyrics, and what you say and how you can encapsulate things in a line… I mean, it’s art and it’s craft, but at the end of the day, it’s still thoughts and words. You know, when you take a lyric from, let’s say, a Neil Peart from Rush: “And the things that we fear are weapons to be held against us.” There’s a whole discussion in just that line. How is fear a weapon to be held against us?
I brought that lyric up when I was teaching elementary school. I asked second graders and first graders and third graders. Tell me. Raise your hand. How do you think fear could be used as a weapon? I mean, to be able to have a conversation like that, based on the song lyric is pretty amazing. So, you take a Bob Marley. Before “Get up, Stand up,” nobody walked around pointing at people saying, “Hey, you, get up! Stand up for your rights!” But with this song, people were saying it out loud, saying it to and with each other, saying it to themselves and putting a thought that’s actually really positive and full of possibility into the air and into the sphere of thought, just like “Imagine,” or any song that had like a super heavy, deep resonant message in a simple line.
So, I think any lyricist is trying to kind of achieve that and get to that point. But for me, it’s a constant work of what’s engaging my creativity, and sometimes it’s an idea about something in the public sphere. Sometimes, as you’ve heard, some of my more fun danceable songs, I was playing around with synth bass and programming drums and came up with a thing, and started singing a little thing, and then it became a song about booty. And that’s good, too, because the world needs to laugh, and dance, and shake their booties, too, you know? But even in songs that are fun, and funky, and silly, and novelty, you can still slip philosophy. There’s a song from my old band Rudy… which was very irreverent, and we had “The Underpants Song” and all these silly songs… a song called “Burning Flame,” and there was a line: “We are all the same size. Only our reflections change in everybody’s eyes.” And I always liked that line, because it’s in this kind of weird, ridiculous song, but it’s like a nice little nugget of thought. And that’s what lyrics have the power to do. And that’s part of why I do it.
Amanda: I’ve always appreciated that dichotomy. Here’s this goofy song, but there’s something profound within it. For me, it’s just music in general. And this is why my brother and I would go hang out after the buses. It wasn’t some weird groupie band thing. I just have this innate respect for musicians. Because I’m a person who doesn’t feel a lot. I’m very logical, almost on the robotic side, so I don’t feel emotions. I really don’t process emotions well at all. But there’s something that happens with the right song, that I will get those chills and I will actually get the feelings from a song that I don’t get in human interaction, where maybe that’s where people are supposed to get their emotion.
Robbie: Isn’t that interesting, that the song can, like, be there for you in a way that almost, like, another person couldn’t?
Robbie: It’s almost like you need the distance from somebody else to consider what they’re saying, and their thought. It’s like, I don’t go see live jazz a lot, but I love listening to recorded jazz. I don’t know, there’s just something where maybe the disconnect from seeing the people doing it, or I don’t know what. It’s interesting.
“Leave enough space open.”
Amanda: And there’s also that thing that songwriters talk about, where you write the song for a specific purpose, some meaning for yourself, but I might listen to that song and take a completely different meaning from it that applies to my own life. I’ve talked to some musicians, and especially songwriters, who don’t like to say what the song is actually about.
Robbie: I don’t.
Amanda: They know that that other person’s perception of the song, and that meaning that they’ve taken on for themselves is more impactful. And you don’t want to let them down and think, oh, well, this song that changed my life, it was really about some random meeting of an aardvark or something.
Robbie: Look, I will tell you that if you probably… if you knew, like, the things that people actually wrote songs about, it would maybe change because you’d always be thinking, oh, he wrote about that, whereas when you hear a song, and it speaks to you, it’s your song. Like, look at Elton John’s “Your Song.” You know, “how wonderful life is because you’re in the world.” That’s a universal “your.” It could be your partner, your parent, your deity, your pet… could be anything. And that leaves it open. And when he’s playing it, he’s probably thinking, “What’s the catering afterwards?” because he’s tuned out. He’s just singing the song over and over again, that he’s past the point of even thinking about what the words mean. But every person out there, it’s their song. When you don’t know what somebody wrote about, it is, in my mind, kind of better. And I don’t like to tell people what I write about, or what my actual inspiration is.
Years ago, when I was on my first tour, I’d find any piano in a hotel lobby and work on my songs. And, you know, some of the fans of the band I was touring with, Saigon Kick, would come and listen to me playing my new songs in some lobby of a hotel. And I’d written this song, it was called “Crawlspace.” And somebody… this girl came up to me after I played it, and she’s like, “Wow, that’s such a cool song about…” and she told me this, what she thought it was about, and it was totally nothing I’d ever thought about. And I realized, wow, I left enough open that it could be taken multiple ways. So, I also like that a lot in lyrics, where there’s different ways you can take things and different ways you can kind of apply it.
So, you know, in my craft of writing lyrics, and, you know, look, Elton John’s not a lyricist. He can’t write any words. He’s only the music guy. And Billy Joel is a lyricist, you know, that writes music with his own words (always last, by the way, Billy always came up… like, the words were the last thing he had down). But, in the grand scheme of things, you really have this chance, when you’re writing lyrics, to leave things open. If it’s too general, if it’s just like, “We’re going to the party,” you know, “We’re all,” it’s, like, it’s too general, there’s nothing specific. But you can throw in some colorful pieces that give you just enough.
But look, if I if I tell you something specific… If I say, picture a blue chair in a yellow room next to a pink couch, you’ll picture those things, but it’s going to be a totally different room, couch chair and balloon, and a totally different shade than I’m thinking of. So, there is the specific, but then there’s also the individual interpretation of that specific. So, you can include things in a song that are super specific elements of a story, without giving away the whole story, and also have generalizations. So, you’re giving people enough to kind of start building a story, and then leave enough space open for them to put themselves in.
And then you have literal versus figurative stuff. When you’re a kid, everything’s literal. So, my sister and I, when we were little, my mom had the Roberta Flack album “Killing Me Softly.” There’s a wonderful song on there called “Jesse,” which is originally by Janis Ian. And it’s a very sad song about a woman missing her lover. When you’re six and you don’t know that, the line “Jesse come home, there’s a hole in the bed and it’s growing cold…” like, a cold hole in the bed – that’s totally literal. And that was this creepiest, scariest image, and my sister and I would sit shuttering by the record player, you know. And it was a woman missing her lover. That’s it. So interpretation is everything individually, even with specifics, and even if you think you know what it’s about.
Amanda: It’s interesting to me because my focus is always on the business world, but the same kind of thing applies there, where… We’re in this time now where people are very invested in the story. So you hear about personal branding, about the brand story. The whole way that people market and advertise has changed completely. I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t have that connection for so long, or what happened to kind of trigger that. But it’s kind of the same thing, where my story and what I do is completely different from anybody else’s story.
And I go against the grain a lot. And sometimes people think I’m crazy for that, but it’s that instincts thing that… this might work for everybody else, but if it doesn’t feel right for me, I’m not going to do it. I’m just going to do my own thing. And if it works, then great. And if it doesn’t, that’s on me. We all have that ability to have our own interpretations of how our thing… whatever that is, if it’s business, art, music… however that thing should be for us, we get to decide that. And I think that’s an exciting part of being able to be different, and then be appreciated.
Amanda: Some people are appreciated for how they relate to others, and then others are appreciated for how they’re different and give you that alternate way of looking at things.
“Music’s got to hit.”
Robbie: Absolutely. Everything that’s powerful about music, beyond the lyrics – the feeling it gives you, the mood it gives you, all the good stuff – the feels, the songs that make you happy, songs that make you sad, songs that make you want to turn it up and rock out, you know. There’s so many different moods that just have visceral emotion. And that’s an important level, too. Music’s got to hit, you know. There’s some stuff out there that needs multiple listens to really grock and get. Not everything’s meant for just quick hit, punch you in the face on the radio. There’s a lot more ways to get out to people, and maybe find the people that do get you, because life is not monolithic anymore. There’s no three channels and that’s it.
Amanda: I think that’s why I don’t connect with current music the same way that I have. I’m pretty much stuck in the 90s. That’s my zone there. And part of it, I think, comes from age, because when you’re a teenager and your early 20s, you have nothing but time. So I could just sit on the floor and listen to a record, or put in a CD, and listen to the thing on repeat over and over and over. As you get older, at least for me, I still listen to music constantly throughout the day, but it’s in the background. So I’m not able to just sit and listen and hear the variations.
I was on an airplane last year, and I put on the “Rock Crown” album from Seven Mary Three – hadn’t listened to it in headphones for a very long time, had forgotten about some of the intricacies, and what you hear in one ear versus the other, and all those different things. That song “Lucky” has just always been one that resonated with me a lot. And when I hear it, I still hear your harmonizing vocals in the back. All of that stuff from the 90s is still very much with me. But I haven’t found that recently, and I don’t know if that’s because the music is different, or if it’s because I’m different, but I’m always searching for that ability to connect with a song in that way.
Robbie: Well, and I appreciate that, and I know what you mean. I think sometimes the music that we listen to, in our younger years… people have quantified there’s like a certain window where, after that, all of that music you listened to in that teenage to early 20s period will be extremely nostalgic for the rest of your life. It’s like the most important time to hear music. But also, if you hear something new at 30 or 40, you still have to let it go for 10 years or 20 years to catch up to the other stuff to see if it lasts, and therein lies the rub.
Music that lasts, music that’s timeless… now, not all music that’s timeless gets known by the public. There’s bands from the 90s, alt-rock bands that I love, that barely anybody knows, that to me, is like the highest quality of music of that era that should last forever, and every time I put it on, it sounds great. I wish more people knew about it. I just wrote a big article/review for the band Huffamoose out of love, because they just put out a record after like almost two decades of not recording, and it’s really incredible. And I just wanted to, like, show my appreciation by trying to write something that might get other people who read this article to be like, “Wow, I gotta listen to this band. This is really cool.” And that’s a band that, for me, on the level of lyrics, and following a melody, and being really crafty and unique, and is really of the highest level – high art.
We all do what we what we can do and proselytize for our favorite bands. But in terms of that connection, when one of those bands that you loved back then puts out a new record, you of course tune into it with a different heart and mind because the early stuff means so much. You’re continuing a story. With a newer band, or a band that you get into and then have to kind of go back and hear earlier records, it’s different. But as long as your inflection point – the album or song that hits you – just absolutely slays you, then all should be good. You can become a fan of any band that ever existed. If the right album or right song just is on, and you happen to be there, whether you put it on, somebody else did, it was on surreptitiously.
I have a buddy of mine, Matt Kramer, who was the singer for Saigon kick. And that’s the story – he was in a parking lot of a supermarket, and as he got out, some guy in a random pickup truck had this song playing, and this voice, and he had to go over and say, “Who is that?” And it turned out to be Jim Reeves, and he wound up doing a bunch of really cool covers of Jim Reeves, and imitating his voice in a way… it’s a difficult voice, and it’s very different from the way he sang. But he just like, just a random parking lot hear of a voice saying like, what… who… where… what… That’s what it takes. I like surreptitious.
Amanda: It’s that whole thing with timing. If you’re in the right place, at the right time, and the right person, or the right song comes across, everything comes together at once and that changes everything.
Robbie: In an era where everyone feels like they’re an expert, I miss curation. It used to be that the freeform radio DJs of FM, and AM for that matter, could program themselves. And like Jim Ladd, the last DJ as Tom Petty wrote about… being able to program your own show and talk about things, and give meaning, and do themes – that was a big part of curation. And yeah, sure, there’s podcasts, and blogs, and Pitchfork, or whoever, but to make stuff matter, or to bring stuff out that’s getting lost to history and say, “Hey, don’t forget about this! You guys gotta dig back and listen to this!” I do it all the time. You know, I’m always trying to turn people on to the band Sloan, one of my favorites, because I’m like, “This band can’t be unknown! They have to be more known!” Sometimes it’s just what you have to do.
Amanda: It’s the same thing with albums. We used to listen to albums and there was a lot of thought that went into the order, and the way everything was played. And now we’re in this more instant, we just want to hear one song, or the first 30 seconds of the song, and then our attention spans have moved, and now we’re on to the next thing.
Robbie: So how do you make something that’s so compelling that people don’t want to shut it off? Or it keeps evolving? Where you’re like, whoa, oh man, this is like, wow, you know? You keep going with it. I guess every artist out there, in some way, is trying to do something that’s so compelling that it gets beyond their circle, and other people pick it up and start running with it, you know? Whether it’s “Baby Shark” or whatever.
“With no business model for music, you can only do it for the love.”
Amanda: When your whole industry changes, and that’s something that’s happening a lot right now, you have that choice again. You either adapt and you figure out how you’re going to do what you do in this new circumstance. Or you’re going to get left behind.
Robbie: It’s insane. It’s insane because with no business model for music, you can only do it for the love. You can only do it with the budget you can accumulate, if you can accumulate it. I think about the people out there who have such grandiose art within them and don’t have the means, and don’t have a belief system, and support structure that makes them feel like they can and should follow that path. And I think about people who give up on things because it just seems too hard, because they don’t see the business model for it. When they’re giving up on something that they did initially for the expression, and the catharsis, and the pureness of the art. I think that the minute you lose that, and you’re doing it as a commodity, that’s when you just burn out and fade away and drop off.
It’s the people who, like myself, are doing it as a craft, are building something, are pushing it, and trying to evolve it and get to next levels and find that one song that hits. And, you know, it’s not a matter of have anything but that opportunity out there to connect it to. And, you know, I like to liken it to a dry match. You’re just looking for that one dry match to light it all up. And I’m building what I feel like is a billion-dollar empire. The value of it, I know, but I just have to get other people to know that.
I think that’s what every artist really wants is to be taken seriously, and to matter. It doesn’t have to be Madison Square Garden size, but you want to be taken seriously, and you want to matter – in a way that your music or your art was important, and other people took it and ran with it. Not based on somebody said, or somebody passed you along, or nepotism, but because it was good, they recognized it, and a DJ said, “I gotta play this” or a Pitchfork guy said, “I gotta write about this,” or Rolling Stone or whoever. Or a manager or agent or whoever said, “This person, by next year, is going to be huge. We’re all going to be earning a billion dollars,” you know?
It takes that belief. My mom, used to say it’s finding the rabbi, the person who believes beyond all belief. And I still think you do need something outside of yourself, as much as you can make on your own. But you also have to make art that is so compelling, and so timeless, that it hits the same every time and just keeps building in its greatness, you know? Why aim for anything less?
Amanda: That was so perfect.
“Your best songs are ahead of you.”
Robbie: Amanda, before I met you, in the 90s, you make cassettes, right? So, the second cassette I ever made, I went in this big studio down there. I had, like, one day. I had my three musicians with me and this producer guy who had gotten introduced… whatever, I didn’t really know him… who was tracking us. And I remember he said to me… he’d heard some of my demos and stuff for other stuff that I was working on, and he’s like “Your best songs are ahead of you.” And I got pissed because I really liked the songs that I was working on. I thought it was like, “How could you say that?” I’m like, “You’re dissing me,” you know? I look back on that and I laugh, because it is exactly how every day of your life should be. Your best songs are ahead of you, or else you’ve peaked.
So I have to look at all of the people who… the Elton Johns, and the Billy Joels, and whatever, who got to a point and stopped. Billy Joel stopped. Elton john still writes some stuff, but you know, his albums were few and far between. The Stones don’t put out a lot of records, and when they do, it’s alright, you know, it’s cool. But who is putting out the most compelling music of their life in the latter half of their life? And not that I’m in the latter half. I’d like to live a good long time, but I’m trying to think with this idea in mind and keep working on my craft and my game. I’ve learned composition, I’ve learned how to write for violin and cello, I’ve learned all these things to further my aim. I’ve learned how to play drums. I’ve learned how to sing better, and do all sorts of things and, you know, it’s a craft. And the craft has to have a huge quotient of it – where it’s for the love, for the sake of the craft, and everything beyond it… let’s hope the chips fall in the in the positive column.
Amanda: I know everybody knows how I feel about U2. But part of that reason is they are one of those bands. They are always focused on their present album. They don’t like to look back. When they did the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree” tour, that was a one-time exception. There were a number of reasons why that happened. But they are always focused on the current album, and they continue to… U2 has been around for 40 years. They could tour their greatest hits and be perfectly comfortable and fine with that. But they put out a new record, and then when they tour, they play mostly songs from that new record.
Amanda: On the Experience tour, they did not play a single thing from “The Joshua Tree.”
Amanda: And that annoyed a lot of people because they wanted to hear the hits, but that’s how dedicated they are to not look backwards. They’re always looking forward.
Robbie: Or you have a Pearl Jam, or a Phish, that basically say we’ll play whatever. You’re not necessarily going to hear “Jeremy.” You might not hear “Even Flow,” but you’ll hear “Alive.” You know, we’re gonna throw in some, but we have a huge catalog and everything’s equal. And when you have a band like that… Look, Sloan, they said last time I saw them, they were like, look, in Canada, we have radio hits. So when we play a festival or whatever, we gotta play a certain group of songs. In the States, our fans are core and we can play anything, so it’s this freedom for us. We’re playing smaller venues, but at the same time, we can dig into our catalog and play what we want to play.
And I love that. I love when I go see Phish, who I’ve seen now 13-14 times I think, and every single show is completely unique, and different, and amazing, and sometimes I don’t even recognize the songs because they’re off a record I kind of skipped, and it still was great, and the light show was awesome. And you know, sometimes when you love a band, you are kind of game for anything. But the bands that really can change it up night after night… And I understand some bands have production, where you’re going to see the same set no matter where you go. You know, Rush did that, and I understand that in a certain realm, but in the same respect, it’s very cool to go and they’re like, yeah, we didn’t play this for the last 10 weeks, so check this out, you know, and you get something cool.
Amanda: You have definitely changed it up from day to day, year to year. I’m just thinking, since I’ve known you, the different variations of your solo music, bands you’ve been in, bands you’ve toured with, all these different things. There’s quite the spectrum, from ragtime to rock music to funk, whatever else. So, what is it about right now… all these experiences have happened that shapes everything that you do. And I know you’re at a place now where you’re really excited about what you’re creating. And you’re figuring out that business model that you mentioned. You’re adapting it to what you need for now, and you’re trying to figure that out.
“Have delusions of grandeur!”
Amanda: What is it that’s driving that so much more now than in these past years?
Robbie: Honestly, I think it’s a product of… my clock is ticking far too loud, and I’m very conscious of letting time slip away. It’s very hard for me to lounge around. I have a lot of work to do. It’s my life’s work, and I have constant areas to apply myself to to move the needle forward, including music education. I filmed a whole curriculum in the past two months that I hadn’t had the time to do before, and this quarantine gave me a chance to do. So now if I teach somebody, I have videos with my hands on the keys, exploring every concept that I’m talking about, that I can feed into it, and it’s great. I just needed the time and the focus to do it.
With music, I have a process, and the fire accelerated me only in my need to double down on my action and continue the process. And some of the times when I’m slowed up, it’s simply because I don’t have the time, focus or budget to do what I need to do. But, I’m still falling asleep in front of my laptop, creating every night, because I need to move the needle forward. I need to take one more step up the mountain and keep moving it, and that’s part of that process. It’s part of that quota. It’s part of, how many songs have I written this year? What songs am I coming up to? You know, sometimes it’s applying yourself on certain things.
Like right now, there’s a lot of things happening in the public sphere with people, and uniting, and writing songs that are about that unification based on commonalities, and writing songs about that is exciting to me. While at the same point, I’m not into necessarily writing songs that are too preachy or too political. Everything’s an inspiration. And that’s, when you’re talking about going back to people who are kind of stuck, feeling like what do I do? Look, if you are a songwriter, or you’re a painter or you’re a… whatever you are as an artist, you have to look at the world and say, the art that I create can just be for me and for fun, but it could also be something that changes people’s perspective, changes the world.
And not to be grandiose or have, you know, delusions of grandeur, but… have delusions of grandeur! Pretend that the thing that you’re creating is going to get out there and affect the world in a great way. And I like the idea of trying to give people ideas and thoughts and philosophy wrapped up in lyrics and digging deeper than, again, writing product. I can’t listen to modern country because it all sounds like product to me, that was, like, focus-tested lyrics, and it’s just… stale.
“You can’t sit idle. That’s the only thing you can’t do.”
So, people need to step out of their comfort zones. One of the things that I do when I’m working with songwriters is I say, look, stop writing in an A-B-A-B rhyme, and da-da-da-da-day, da-da-da-da-say. Write your truth, and then put it to music, and if certain lines go long, or you have to move around or add a different chord, good! Break your songs up, break your style up, break your rhythm up. Let your thoughts be pure and full, and wrap the music around them instead of stuffing your lyrics in, and maybe taking the meaning or the impact down a notch. And I’ve done that a lot lately, whereas before I used to try to truncate, or fit things, or pad things to fit in a form. I’ve taken ideas where I’m like, okay, I’m going to write freeform, and then I’m gonna put it to music, and I’m going to see if the song that I make is, you know, it hangs together. And sure enough, you come at it from different angles, and you’ll surprise yourself.
You can’t sit idle. That’s the only thing you can’t do. You have to scratch into it every day, grab the shovel, put it in the dirt, wipe your brow, and dig. That’s it. That’s the only way, or else you’re not going to… at the end of the year on New Year’s Eve… If you’re a songwriter and, right now, let’s say you’ve written two songs this year… it’s June. How many are you gonna have done by New Year’s Eve? So, you think about that. Can you write an album this year? If you gave me six months to write an album, I’ll write you four, if that’s my focus. I’ll take it down to Chinatown. But really, when it comes down to it, every day, in the cracks of your life, you need to stuff your focus and attention to music. And sometimes, out of that pressure of performing in that kind of narrow window and paradigm, you poop out a diamond.
Amanda: And that’s pretty much how it works for all business, all art, all anything… you have to do the work.
Amanda: You have to have the drive, you have to want it, and you have to do it for the right reasons, but be willing to put yourself all in, because if you have one foot out the door, it’s not going to be the complete thing that it needs to be.
Robbie: Yeah. That’s it. and look, your aim and your game have to be high. And you may not hit what you’re aiming for, but you’ll hit a lot higher when you’re aiming higher. You’ll go a lot further, and maybe you’ll build something from that next plateau. You’ll hit what you’re aiming for, because you just needed to get a little higher. It’s an upward climb, and you’ve got to keep scratching in. And if you are an artist, and you’re feeling like you’re stale, or you’re blocked, get help. Find a teacher, take some master classes.
Anybody who’s a writer, or a lyricist, the first thing I ask is, “What are you reading? Who are you reading?” Every great lyric writer is a voracious reader. If you’re not into wordsmiths, and wordplay… that’s why I’m always amazed when I used to see MTV Cribs, and all these rappers who are so great with words… not a bookshelf in the house. And I’m like, how do you become so great with words when you don’t read? I don’t know, because I love to read, and it infuses my vocabulary, and the different expression that I can do. And, of course I love to rhyme and stuff, too, but it’s all part of, like, language skill, you know? And I do like erudite rappers.
Amanda: On that note You have excuses, or you have a plan. You have a plan. I’m very excited to see it all come to fruition.
Robbie: Thank you. And thank you for being there as a friend and for having me on your podcast. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Amanda: Thank you for being here.
Robbie: My pleasure.