Expectations of Future Growth
Third Time Lucky?
In April of 1997, Hentges and Robbins agreed that Fountains of Wayne guitarist Adam Schlesinger was the right producer for the project, only Schlesinger was tied up with his Atlantic Records side project, Ivy. In between touring and recording, Schlesinger scheduled four sessions in New York with Hentges, who along with bassist/songwriter Jude O'Nym, recorded an album in separate, four-song chunks. That unorthodox recording process, Hentges says, resulted in Brompton's Cocktail, an album with more quality songs and less filler thanks to her having time to write between sessions and record the same way she records demos, a few at a time. Better yet, Hentges says waiting this long for her album's release wasn't as aggravating as many might expect.
"There were certainly moments of frustration," admits Hentges, "but it's really been a couple years of fun. It's like foreplay, because once it comes out, it's over. Bam! All that excitement and anticipation turns into reality."
Even before Brompton's Cocktail hits stores, Hentges' excitement and reality seem to be coexisting fairly well. Finished, full-artwork advances of the album have been making the press and radio rounds for the last several weeks, while retailers have been introduced to Hentges via a limited-edition 7-inch single featuring the album's first servicing to radio, "This Kind of Love." Not surprisingly, Robbins' primary push for the single will be at college and alternative rock radio until it breaks.
"Cory's business is very radio-driven," explains Hentges, former Wagoneers vocalist who's unsure whether Austin's familiarity with the original KNACK version of "This Kind of Love" will help or hurt her single locally. "He's had to break the hip-hop and dance stuff through radio, not live performance. I think it's good that I'm more familiar with living on the road and pushing product from the stage and that he's the radio man. I think everyone realizes we're going to have to work both angles hard to make any kind of dent."
Although his Asylum debut will be released exactly a month later than Hentges', former Wagoneers vocalist Monte Warden is already making a dent at country radio with "Someday," the lead-off track from his forthcoming A Stranger to Me Now. Like Hentges, Warden's approach to radio has been much-anticipated and long-awaited; it was back in 1996 that Warden first announced plans to record for River North, a Chicago-based Polygram imprint. Although there was no formal contract signed, Warden entered into a production deal with River North A&R chief Joe Thomas and began recording an album planned for a Summer '97 release. After it was completed and awaiting release, Warden got divorced and began reconsidering River North.
"River North wasn't having the kind of success I'd have liked at radio with their other projects," says Warden, "so I started dragging my feet and seeing what other options I had. And to be honest, the divorce made it so I didn't feel like singing a lot of the songs we'd recorded. I didn't want to spend two years painting a smile on my face."
The results were five new, divorce-inspired songs and the completion of what Warden calls his "miserable little bastard set." At the same time, former Wagoneers publicist and Warden manager Evelyn Shriver accepted the presidency of Asylum Records and made Warden her first signing.
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," says Warden. "Had I gone with River North, I probably would have sold 40,000-50,000 records and been done. Now, I've got my first grown-up record coming out on the first label I've worked with that has the promo and radio department that can realistically position and break a hit country record."
While Asylum works "Someday" to country, Triple A, and Americana radio, Warden won't be sitting idly in Austin. With each false start, Warden has done dozens of meet 'n' greet radio showcases, which means that now that the album is finally coming out, he should be recognizable enough within the industry to garner a quick reception and return invites. Already, Warden is slated to showcase at the upcoming Gavin Convention, as well as the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. And as Warden's new manager, Willie Nelson impresario Mark Rothbaum, firms up tour plans, the singer may be in a position to sit back and enjoy some extracurricular success, in that Decca's Danni Leigh and Asylum's Noah Kelly have both recorded pieces of Warden's publishing catalog.
Kelly Willis is no stranger to putting tunes by outside songwriters on her albums, although her long-awaited new album -- her first full-length album since 1993 -- features six songs written by the local country chanteuse in collaboration with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Jon Leventhal (Shawn Colvin), among others. Willis also took more control of the album's sound than her old MCA efforts, because she opted to make the album first and shop it around later. With funding from Rough Trade's U.K. offices, Willis recorded in both San Francisco and Austin and credits local producer Dave McNair with producing, recording, mixing, and engineering the album.
"Having the record finished was definitely an advantage," says Willis of the post-recording process. "I think people had been afraid to sign me because they wondered what I'd sound like now and how they could sell me. And because I'd been pushed and prodded so much in the past to be one thing or another, doing it on my own made sense. Everyone knew exactly what they were getting into and nobody was disappointed and miserable."
Last fall, Rykodisc expressed the most interest in the tapes that have become What I Deserve and licensed the album from Willis. Even before the contracts were signed, Rykodisc declared Willis their first-quarter priority, booked her for the Gavin Convention, and had the press department fervently pitching stories on Willis that will result in a slew of reviews, features, and a fashion spread for Request that coincide with the album's February 23 release date. And while Rykodsic is already playing the record for Triple A and Americana radio program directors, they will also use independent promoters to take a crack at the country radio marketplace.
"I understand that you have to be inside Nashville to make Nashville work, but I think I'm a country artist even if this record leans a little more towards Triple A," says Willis. "But it's kind of weird, because if I call myself country, Triple A might not play me and yet I can't pretend I don't sing country music. I'm terribly in-between and a bit cursed. Maybe there will be a miracle and everyone will get along and play it."
Either way, Willis is excited about a new touring band that features drummer Rafael Goyel and guitarist Jerry Holmes, and says all the pre-release hype has already made What I Deserve feel like a comeback record -- sort of.
"It's almost a comeback," says the singer, "only how can I be a has-been when I never really was? I don't think I was ever successful enough to be a comeback artist, but everything is so encouraging right now it doesn't matter what I call it."
The Damnations: Amy Boone, Deborah Kelly, Rob Bernard, Conrad Choucroun
photograph by Two Guys Photography
Attal says that rather than take their chances with a lawsuit from a Los Angeles metal band of the same name or any number of similarly named bands, guitarist Rob Bernard and sisters Deborah Kelly and Amy Boone used the time to settle on the addition of the TX (pronounced "Tee-X"). In the meantime, Sire, which will be releasing the album without the Watermelon imprint or logo, added an in-house publicist who will work alongside the group's own independent publicist, and has also lined up additional radio promotion, both in-house and independently. Attal also commissioned Half Mad Moon producer John Croslin (Sixteen Deluxe, Spoon) to remix a more radio-friendly version of the album's first single, "Unholy Train," while the band itself used the downtime to embark on several club tours and a pair of two-week stints opening in large clubs and small theatres for Cake. As befits a band who's only other release was culled from KUT's "Live Set," Kelly says the Damnations will have to tour relentlessly if they want to sell albums.
"When I listen to the radio or watch MTV, I think there's no way we have a chance," says Kelly. "I appreciate that Sire is going to go at radio like they are and remain hopeful, but I don't see any other way for us than the road. We have our own van, are willing to put in the work, and think a grassroots approach could allow us to make a living regardless. It's just the kind of band we are."
"Grassroots" isn't a word you'll hear Johnny Goudie throw around in regard to Elektra's plans for his untitled band's debut for an untitled subsidiary label. That's right, at press time, neither Goudie's band nor his label have proper names, even as recording of the local rocker & roller's debut is being finished in Los Angeles with producer Fred Maher (Luna, Matthew Sweet). Names aside, label expectations for an out-of-the-box alternative radio success are high, especially since this particular subsidiary label belongs to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, no stranger to multi-platinum albums.
"Lars wants to sell records -- with dignity," says Dan McCarroll, President of A&R for Ulrich's new imprint. "If I brought someone like 'N Sync to him, he'd fucking laugh at me, but he makes no bones about the fact that he wants to be successful as a record company guy, which ultimately means selling a lot of records. If he didn't think these guys were capable of that, he wouldn't have signed them in the first place."
Goudie, who nearly wound up with a major-label deal with local popsters Mr. Rocketbaby five years ago and has been working on demos at the Hamstein studios off and on since, was actually the first act McCarroll brought to Ulrich. After Ulrich came to Austin and saw an ARC showcase last summer, Goudie and the new label came to terms. And while being the first signing to a new label has its built-in guinea-pig hazards, McCarroll and Goudie say the beauty of Ulrich's deal is that he gets to act like an independent A&R vehicle for Elektra, with his staff picking bands, producers, and singles on their own, and Elektra's radio, publicity, and marketing departments working the finished product as they would any other release. Goudie's only concern, he says, is that Austin won't recognize his new project as a collaboration with drummer Bill Lefler, bassist Einar, and guitarist Jimmy Messer.
"This is a really collaborative record," says Goudie. "We've found a record label that understands that and wants to push what we're doing. I'm not writing and recording with radio in mind per se, but we want it to sell and are willing to work like dogs to have that happen."
After School Special
In 1997, the Sextons entered into a deal with A&M Records that should have resulted in the brother's collaborative debut being released sometime in 1998. After an exhaustive search for a producer, the Sextons chose Craig Street (kd lang, Chris Whitley), who recorded the band in Woodstock last fall. The results, says Charlie Sexton, were of mixed quality.
"At least a third of the record needs to be addressed now," says Charlie. "We started out with Craig and I producing it, and we gave him a lot of space to bring something new to the record. The demos we had were very specific and we were looking for him to bring something extra. In some cases, that extra thing was never brought and the original concept was never matched. To put it diplomatically, it put us in an interesting place."
That "interesting place" was out of budget and behind schedule. Charlie says he and his brother have been working on writing new songs that feature more two-part harmonies, believing they could complete the album soon, but now find themselves in a holding pattern because of the turmoil at A&M.
"The big question mark is whether the guy that signed them, Jim Phalen, will keep his job," says the Sexton's manager, Tim Neece. "It's going to become clearer in the next few weeks who stays and who goes, but we're obviously waiting to see right now if we still have a voice at the label. If for some reason he doesn't make the cut, it's going to be a little bit scary."
The new Unigram regime has yet to hear the new album, but the worst case scenario, says Neece, is that the new collective cuts Phalen loose and lets the Sextons go as a cost-cutting measure. On the other hand, if Phalen keeps his job and the Sextons get the green light from Unigram by the end of the month, they could be set for a late summer release. For his part, Charlie Sexton is frustrated but optimistic.
"I know we have a bunch of great songs, a great band, and the start of a great record," he says. "And until we know what's going on for sure, we're just going to have to work every angle to be heard and get things going again."
Although his case had nothing to do with a label shake-up on par with the Unigram deal, last February, Ian Moore got news his third full-length album had been rejected by Capricorn Records. Rather than shop for a new deal, Moore recorded an eclectic lo-fi album with Mark Addison of the Borrowers. That album, Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass, was released locally in October on Moore's new imprint, Hablador Records. Although current plans call for a first-quarter national rollout of the album with a grassroots push to Triple A and public radio, Moore, who moved to Washington state last year, has been able to parlay the local success of his indie release into another full-fledged deal -- this time with Velvel, Walter Yetnikoff's BMG-distributed label.
As part of the deal, the guitarist gets to keep Hablador and release his own records through Velvel, starting with a proper Ian Moore release planned for late June that will feature co-production from Moore and Addison, engineering from Dave McNair, drummer Nina Singh, organist Bukka Allen, and a rhythm section of George Reiff and JJ Johnson. According to Jan Mirkin, Moore's manger, the album will have more of a traditional rock focus than the Green Grass release and includes new versions of as many as 12 songs that were originally on the album planned for Capricorn.
Also on the veteran circuit, things seem to be going as planned for Abra Moore, the Derailers, and Don Walser. All three have begun work on new albums and evince potential for summer releases. While the Derailers have been hard at work with producer Dave Alvin, who produced the hard twangin' local country act's previous release for Sire/Watermelon, Reverb Deluxe, details on Moore's sophomore Arista album are still a bit sketchy. Walser, meanwhile, says he'll begin work next month on what he believes could be a summer release; already, duets with Crystal Gayle and country legend Teddy Wilburn are in the works. Then again, Walser contends he's not quite through promoting last year's Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In; a video for that album's "Hot Rod Mercury" is set for a February airing on the Austin Music Network and potentially a few national video outlets.
"It's business as usual," says Walser. "Last time, Sire was just starting up again and we didn't get the distribution I would have liked. But I think we'll get it on this one, and at least I know their heart's in the right place and they're trying."
Kacy Crowley says the lack of sales on her Atlantic Records debut, 1997's Anchorless and its remixed 1998 re-release, taught her exactly whose heart was in the right place at her label.
"I have a perspective now that I wouldn't have had if my record had been wildly successful," says the local singer-songwriter. "Now I know who really believes in me -- the people that stuck with it and saw it as stepping stone to a larger career -- and those who didn't, the ones that felt they could just walk away disappointed."
Considering Anchorless was originally recorded on a shoestring budget for the Dallas-based indie Carpe Diem, Crowley says the album served its purpose by introducing her to new audiences and is now content concentrating on a follow-up. Already, she has some 17 songs written for the project and has heard positive feedback from Atlantic on eight demos she's recorded locally with Billy Harvey. She flies to Los Angeles this month for a round of meetings with Atlantic, which could allow her to be recording by March or April. When can Austin expect a new album?
"I'm sure it will come out the same week Fiona Apple's record comes out," says Crowley, half-serious. "That way, I'll have no chance at all."
In addition, New West, a Sony-distributed label out of Minneapolis, will release two highly anticipated sets from local artists just in time for SXSW -- Stephen Bruton's Nothing but the Truth and Jon Dee Graham's follow-up to his critically acclaimed Escape From Monster Island. Bruton's album, due mid-February, was produced by longtime Eric Johnson sideman/keyboard wiz Steve Barber and is his first release since 1995's Right on Time on Antone's/Dos. For Bruton, choosing the indie route was not something he entered into lightly.
"At this point in my career, I didn't want to get lost in the shuffle at a major or large indie," says Bruton, who deals directly with New West's owner, Cameron Strang. "And I wanted to make sure whoever I was working with had a plan, because just because you have a record company doesn't mean you have your shit together. New West has spent years working on their distribution without releasing a record, so I felt they had their side of the street swept clean."
Originally, Bruton considered releasing Nothing but the Truth on his own.
"That was my plan, but then I realized that even if the profit margin is better, you've got to spend so much time placing it in stores, touring to support it, and going back to collect the money that you wind up becoming everything you hate about record companies. You become an accountant and spend all your time as an ineffectual errand boy for the record company -- yours. I figured my time might be better spent writing, recording, or playing."
To that end, Bruton plans on spending most of the year playing regional residencies, hitting different regions for several shows in a three-week period. While Bruton admits his new album might not have many three-minute singles radio can jump all over, he says radio may factor in anyway, in that New West has expressed interest in supporting his touring with some unorthodox promotion campaigns that include their sponsoring segments of NPR news broadcasts in markets he's passing through.
"I want to isolate different places and work at them rather than get in the van and hit every toilet between here and Moscow," says Bruton. "With the record or touring, I'm not trying to be the next new kid on the block. I'm too old to be the new kid on any block. But with something like NPR, I may be able to reach guys my age that are driving home from work and might be interested in music that's original, has a good degree of musicianship, and some depth. Those people have all the money, but they have to hear about the record or shows well in advance."
One other touring option may well be touring with his labelmate and partner in the Resentments, Jon Dee Graham, an idea both musicians like.
"It could be fun to go acoustic in a car together or electric sharing a common rhythm section," says Bruton. "It could be two guys and couple of guitars -- like a mini-Resentments."
For his part, Graham also thinks it could work.
"Bruton's one of my best friends, but musically we fish in two different pools," he says. "One of the things that works so well about the Resentments is that we're so different. That could work on the road, too."
Graham's deal with New West came about when Bruton brought Strang to a Resentments gig. At the time, Graham was shopping for a label with the ability to spend more on recording and promotion than Freedom Records, the local indie that put out Escape From Monster Island, could offer. Graham says he was thoroughly impressed with how Freedom handled his debut, but felt the follow-up deserved a larger production, marketing, and promotion budget than Freedom could afford. After negotiations with Watermelon foundered, Graham decided on New West.
"We made this record in five days rather than three and spent four days mixing rather than two," says Graham of his still-untitled second solo album. "But the biggest difference was that I was able to pay my friends and the studio what they were worth."
The album, slated for a March 10 release, again pairs Graham with co-producer and guitarist Mike Hardwick and also features Goyel, Reiff, Michael Ramos, and Kathy McCarthy -- the exact Escape From Monster Island lineup with the addition of Patti Griffin on a duet titled "Look Up." While Graham asserts that the new material has a distinctly different texture and a less thematic approach than the last album, he says he believes there's at least two radio-friendly tracks for Triple A radio.
"That shit's so hard to call, and we were surprised by the radio play for Escape," says Graham. "I'd be happy if [the new album] were played twice as much as Escape, sold maybe twice as many copies, and earned a little bit of national press. I think our promotion budget should buy us a little more mileage and although we did over 80 out-of-town gigs in support of Escape, I'd like to work that harder too."
Antone's Records chief Christie Warren says she expects more mileage than usual from a pair of records her label will be working in March: Toni Price's Low Down and Up and Guy Forsyth's Can You Live Without. Warren says the former, produced by Price and Derek O'Brien, is more "torchy" than the happy hour diva's last few albums might suggest, and that the inclusion of a Dr. John appearance could spark sales nationally. Forsyth's second album for the label, however -- his first post-Spankers set -- is the real surprise, says Warren.
"It's more rock & roll and entirely different than you'd expect, while still completely fitting in with Antone's reputation," enthuses Warren, who adds that an AOR-oriented single could hit radio as soon as next month.
Finally, Damon Bramblett says he'd like to be at the point where he's considering singles, but he's currently more interested in signing his Watermelon deal and recording his debut with Lloyd Maines at the production helm. For more than a year, Bramblett has been waiting on an acceptable contract from Watermelon, which, despite their recent bankruptcy filing, could come as early as next week.
"Waiting has been really frustrating," says Bramblett. "I feel like I've been held back a year. But I really like the people at the label and think they understand what I'm doing, so I've been willing to wait."
In the meantime, Bramblett has been writing, recording demos, and watching his songs get recorded by Charlie Robison, Kelly Willis, and Sara Hickman.
"Until I have a record of my own, the more people that hear my name and songs the better," says Bramblett, who believes Watermelon could still have his debut in stores by May or early June.
The Graduate Program
"Things are going better than I could have planned," says Garza. "I look at albums released the same day as mine, April 7, and I realize their support ran out in June, July, or August. Some have even been dropped. Atlantic's level of commitment has not let me rest. Monetarily, creatively, and in spirit, they seem to be in this for the long haul."
Speaking of long hauls, although Bruce Robison supported the re-release of his independently recorded Wrapped album on Sony's Lucky Dog imprint last year, the local songwriter says he's already halfway through recording the follow-up even as his label begins working Wrapped's next single, "Desperately," with a video and country radio push. Robison says he'll most likely support the single by spending most of February and March opening for his wife, Kelly Willis, but adds that he'll slip off the road just long enough to finish what could possibly become a June release that serves as his first full-budget Sony effort.
Meanwhile, Robison's brother Charlie, also signed to Lucky Dog, has seen his label debut Life of the Party pick up some New Year's steam with a crossover from Americana to the country charts. Two weeks ago, Columbia's promotion staff began working Robison's "Barlight," which has entered the country charts at Number 75. Better yet, news of CMT's recent decision to add the video to medium rotation has some pundits guessing it could climb much higher, fast.
With all these records still breathing in 1999, could the notion that artist development is dead be untrue? Maybe. Or perhaps there's nobody better to prove the theory than two of Austin's Class of '98's candidates for most likely to suc-ceed: Spoon and Sixteen Deluxe. Both local bands released their major label debuts last year to critical acclaim. Neither enters 1999 with a recording con-tract. Sixteen Deluxe's Chris Smith says he expects his band to rebound from their Warner Bros. deal with a self-produced and self-released "long EP" later this year, while Spoon's Britt Daniel says he's planning a 7-inch single featuring "The Agony of Laffitte" b/w "Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now," both referencing the band's former A&R rep, Ron Laffitte, who signed Spoon to Elektra and was later dismissed mid-project, ultimately leading to the band's departure as well.
This early in the year, it's simply too early to tell who from Austin's Class of '99 will enter the millennium writing odes to their dismissed A&R men and who will wind up on MTV, TNN, or simply high on a critic's year-end Top Ten list. Whether the Unigram merger or the number of local artists releasing albums on small or untested labels will mean even more depressing Soundscan figures next year remains to be seen. And just as it's too early to count out some of the Class of '98's albums, it's also too early to close the Class of '99's registry. Already, local artists such as Silver Scooter, Trish Murphy, Godzilla Motor Company, Ten Percenter, Terri Hendrix, and Sinis are actively shopping for deals of their own. And then there's Austin's most popular live act, the Ugly Americans (Class of '96), who nobody's certain is still recording for Capricorn. Could a new deal and a series of major-label or self-released albums from their more popular alter-ego, the Scabs, be on the way? Bassist Bruce Hughes says he's not sure.
"Like everybody else, I'm curious to see what happens," he says.
Any other year, that might sound like a flakey and cryptic quote not worth our time, let alone analysis, but for Austin's Class of '99, it's wholly representative of an atmosphere where everybody seems optimistic, and yet just a little bit more anxious than usual. And for that, it's also entirely appropriate to recall, for the fourth straight year, the record industry assessment of the Class of '96's Craig Ross.
"It's all just a crapshoot," he said.