Singer/songwriter Andrew Portz summons ghost of old Tom Petty

Written by Carson James

While many Americana artists openly cop vocal signatures and guitar riffs from Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, Sr., singer/songwriter Andrew Portz jumps further into the timeline of alt-country ancestry. There’s no denying the influence of vintage Tom Petty on Portz’s rejected snarl and speaker-busting jangle. When Petty first appeared in the late ’70s, his roots-rock angst was an anomaly in a rock & roll scene ruled by disco on top of the charts and punk overthrowing the underground. Perhaps it’s fitting that one of his spiritual kin is breaking away from predictable Americana staples and embracing the unfashionable Petty.

Carson James: Would you describe your lyrics as personal? If so, are you writing about your own experiences here or that of others?

Andrew Portz: When I write songs, I like to weave together personal experiences, fiction, and history in an abstract way. “Three o’clock in the mornin’/Staring at these records on my wall” is what I was actually doing when I wrote “Rollercoaster Ride.” The rest of the song is just lyrics that I thought sounded cool, and I really do dig rollercoasters.
James: Do you write the words down first or do you come up with riffs initially and then add lyrics on top of it?

Portz: I just write songs the way they come to me. I usually hear a melody and a lyrical hook in my head, and I start to work with that. I wrote “I Can Hear You” in about 20 minutes starting with the opening guitar riff. When I wrote the song “Blue Lake California,” I came up with the melody along with lyrics that I dropped because they didn’t fit the sound of the song. The story of “Blue Lake” came to me much later during some time I spent there recording the early demos for the CD.

James: Some artists I’ve spoken to in the past believe that the environment they’re in can have an influence on their words. Has this ever happened to you? If so, can you provide examples from your record?

Portz: I think your environment can influence the words as well as a song’s feel. I wrote “Road Trip” sitting around a campfire, and it has that sound to it. We went into the studio and tried to recapture that vibe with the banjo and harmonica.
James: What song on Blue Lake California has the most meaning to you and why?

Portz: “You and I” has a lot of meaning for me. It was the first song I ever wrote that made me feel like, “Hey, I can do this.” I wrote it years ago for my wife. It’s a song about everyday people and what they go through in their relationships.
James: Is it harder to write sad tunes than happy songs? Or is it the other way around?

Portz: Some people drink, some people get stoned. I write songs. That’s my way of dealing with the down and outs. When life kind of gets good it’s a lot harder for me to write.

Canada’s the Cat House Dogs ironically embody best of Americana

Reviewed by Carson James

Cat House Dogs/That Was Now

The Cat House Dogs bite as much as they bark. These Canadian alt-country rockers have more balls than a kennel of Wilco disciples. The band makes no secret of its yen for vintage Tom Petty. The opening track, “Fine Line,” could’ve fit onto any of Petty’s earliest LPs. Vocalist Todd Sharman has Petty’s nasal whine but somehow makes it sound better. I especially like it when it seems like he is singing through gritted teeth. The Southern-fried folksy singalong of “Sadie’s Theme” reveals another inspiration: the Black Crowes. But how then do you explain the skacore backbeat of “Crook” and the reggae pulse of “Lost Again”? Experiments, man. Even the Rolling Stones didn’t just shuffle to the same grooves.

Ironically enough, it takes a Canadian group to deliver one of Americana’s most commercially accessible releases. “Beautiful Rays” and “Far Away” are car-ready melodic pop/rock with a rootsy undertow; think of a less depressing Gin Blossoms. Perhaps what surprised me about “That Was Now” is how fast it moves. Like its blurry album cover, the record truly zips by. But not after entertaining the hell out of you first.

‘Seinfeld’ rerun provided inspiration for singer/songwriter Paul Ford

Written by Carson James

Retro rocker Paul Ford is one of those gifted singer/songwriters that, for one reason or another, has been under the radar of mainstream consciousness. A large part of that is because of how segregated music has become. Ford neither fits into rock nor pop, neither commercial nor alternative. In today’s narrowly defined musical landscape you have to wonder how Tom Petty would’ve made it. But, given enough time and exposure, I like to think that Ford could eventually nab a larger audience. Until then, I will remain captivated by his new album, The Moon, in the privacy of my own airspace. For those unfamiliar with Ford, let the following interview provide an introduction.

Carson James: How do you approach your songwriting? Lyrics first, then the music?

Paul Ford: There are so many ways to write songs, and I have several methods of writing. Sometimes a song pops into my head-lyrics and melody completely without much thought or effort. We call those moments “true inspiration.” “If I Were Superman” (from The Moon) was one of these. Other times I will spin a line or melody around in my head for days or weeks, then sit down and try to write. I look at songwriting as kind a puzzle. You start with a thin frame work of an idea and fill it in with lyrics and melody.

James: What advice would you give to people who have just started writing lyrics.

Ford: I would say keep writing! Songwriting is a process. When you learn which processes works best for you, keep doing. It. They are not all gonna be gems. Don’t be afraid of that. The good songs come from repeating the process, changing it up a little from time to time, and just doing it!

James: You’ve been in a number of bands before. What made you decide to go solo?

Ford: Bands are great fun and hard work, but hard to keep together in many cases. I have decided to concentrate more on songwriting and recording my songs. I would also be very interested to hear how other performers would sing, interpet and perform songs I have written. That would be really exciting and quite an honor.

James: Explain the inspiration behind “If I Were Superman.”

Ford: When I wrote “If I Were Superman,” I was laying in bed watching a Seinfeld rerun. It was the one with Terri Hatcher, who played Lois Lane once. I was watching the show, and the song plowed into my head like a lightning bolt. Lyrics, melody, bridge. It was nearly complete when I tried to get what I heard in my head down on paper. It’s in the key of B flat which I very seldom write in, but that is how it sounded in my head.

James: Your album, The Moon, has the cohesiveness of a complete album. When you recorded it, were you conscious of this being an “LP experience” -in other words, something that is greater as a whole?

Ford: Thanks for noticing! I grew up listening to the LP experience as it were. We didn’t mean to do it at first, I was trying to pick the best examples of my songwriting. When we started to put the tracks in order it seemed to have a cohesion to it. If you listen to it in order it’s kind of like an emotional journey through Happiness, Sadness, Love, Loss, Insanity, and Fear. They are all there! I hope the listener will enjoy it!

Published in: on May 30, 2008 at 7:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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