It's 11 o'clock Wednesday morning (Sacramento time) and Michael Roe, one-third of the seminal Christian rock band the 77's, isn't by his phone like he promised when we spoke the previous Friday...
Michael RoeBy Steve Roth
...However, his infamous answering machine is working just fine: "Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah," strains a child's voice over the hiss and crackle of an overly used microcassette before breaking into a giggle. The next verse--same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse--is joined by a man's gravelly bass who sounds like he should have had four more hours of sleep--or cups of coffee--before attempting this feat. Less than an hour later, Mike gets treated to my answering machine: "Hi. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible." All apologies, he explains he is experiencing a really bad morning and would I be so kind to call back ASAP. I am.
Welcome to a day in the life of Michael Roe. His is an existence filled with phone tag, goofy messages and requests for waffles for breakfast from a 6-year-old girl. It's bluesy guitars, recording budgets that disappear too fast and people wanting money and time. It's a spiritual yearning cloaked in metaphor and coupled with a desire to be as real as he knows how. It's a matter of getting the boat ashore before the winds change direction or the leaks sink it. "I've had the title The Boat Ashore for many years," says Roe concerning this, his third solo release. Hooking up with longtime friend and current 77's drummer Bruce Spencer, the two crafted an album rife with moody, acoustic pop, which Roe describes as "autumnal." "To me, the essence of this record is the music, much more so than the lyrics," he explains, simultaneously assuming the roles of rock star and waiter for his daughter's breakfast. "The lyrics are important but I communicate with music much better than with words." Drawing on specific influences, the adult alternative album combines different elements of all the artists Roe admires. Throughout the album, Roe points out hints of Fleetwood Mac, Jerry Garcia and Bruce Hornsby, among many others.
Though the overall vibe is laid back and reflective, Roe refers to the final days of production as "the panic sessions." A self-proclaimed procrastinator, he admits he got a little lazy with the lyrics, hoping they would "tumble out" as he went along.
"The older and more experienced I get, I tend to leave it to chance--serendipity, sort of. That's a lot more nerve wracking for everyone involved, because it means you and your collaborators don't know what it's going to be like. Since Bruce wrote all of the music, he was very uptight about the lyrics and wanted to make sure they said something he could stomach since it was half his song. There were many times he would force me to rewrite a song when I was on the mike. It was terrible, but most of the time I knew he was right."
While controversy has been part and parcel of many a Michael Roe project in the past, The Boat Ashore is decidedly more accessible to the Christian market. There are no "pray naked" metaphors, no near-expletives when guitar strings snap, no Hindus on the cover. "I always knew if I did an album with this title I'd want it to be very spiritual," he states just before a waffle gets a little too done, to his daughter's dissatisfaction ("It kind of burned. You want to try eating around that? Why don't you eat what you can and we'll talk about it").
Admitting that the idea of God wanting to love him intimately is a difficult idea to grasp, Roe says many of the songs fall into the "prayer and plea" category.
Some document turmoil (I've got a debt that I carry around, carry around like a weight/It don't relieve me to know/That it's already paid), while others are subtle celebration of a connection being made (Near the waterfall/When you speak I don't hear the water fall/I hear with my heart and you speak to me softly and clearly ... ).
"When I look at how hard the world is--the world God made and allowed to go astray--I can get so upset that I tend to mispercieve his love and not be able to see it," confides Roe. "That's something I'm struggling to come to terms with. I want to get this right."
Picking apart the track "I Buried My Heart at Bended Knee," Roe sums it up: "It's pretty much my experience. It's that struggle with sin and trying to get a grip on God's tolerance--having a spiritual, moral, ethical line and moving it because you keep crossing it. You may look back and go, 'Well, I'm a very different person from who I was at 18' ... then you feel the estrangement, because of how the process alters your relationship with God, the compromises you have made." To listen to The Boat Ashore is to catch a glimpse of the world according to Roe. From the opening, where two unknown females think they're being clever by singing "Michael Roe your boat ashore" on his answering machine, to the refrain of "Be Yourself!" on track 77, The Boat Ashore is the artist's attempt to present the world through his eyes. "Waking up to something like an answering machine message with people singing a bad joke ... it sounded like they were at some type of drunken party with people thinking, 'Let's drive Mike crazy.' Placing the lyrics to the song 'The Boat Ashore' right after that is the most autobiographical I think I've ever been. It communicates the feelings I get when I wake up and have to face the day, and I'm just simply unprepared."
Critical Discography: the recording history of the 77's and Michael Roe
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