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I met with Ed Romanoff shortly before he went onstage at The City Winery, which is one of Chicago’s swankier venues. He immediately made me feel at ease, and I realized that whether he played at a honky tonk or five-star hotel he would still be completely himself. Tonight Ed was performing before Rachael Yamagata came on and also joined her for the second half of her show.
He told me he’s from Connecticut, but lives in New York now. Since Ed has one of those indefinable accents, and carries the rugged appeal of a rural lumberjack, this is something that I would never have guessed.
We briefly discussed the turmoil that New York has undergone, which he agrees is disturbing, yet this singer-songwriter remains greatly optimistic about art, the world and our ability to conquer adversity. That spirit comes through well also in Ed’s self-titled debut, which is a delightful mix of personal insights, primal feelings, surviving romantic rejection and even rediscovering roots.
‘Breakfast for One on the Fifth of July,’ co-written with Mary Gauthier, won best lyrics at the 2011 International Songwriting Competition. ‘Two Yellow Roses’ garnered awards at the Great American Song Contest. It doesn’t take long to figure out that songwriter Ed Romanoff’s on a roll.
When Ed performs later that night, he connects warmly with his audience and creates a small town atmosphere within the chic setting. His stories are vivid and wild, but amazingly human. His stage presence conjures up images of Loudon Wainwright III and early Dylan. He gets very emotional talking about Freckles, a fuzzy friend whose hard luck days have finally come to an end. Most importantly, Ed Romanoff is a singer songwriter who loves what he does and that shines through in every heartfelt strum.
PB: I know you have worked with Mary Gauthier and that she has been involved with many adoption issues. When you were touring with Mary, she brought up the idea of you taking a DNA test, which you did and the results were rather shocking. So how did that evolve and how did you capture those emotions in song?
ER: The funny thing is that I was traveling around with Mary and we wrote a song together called: ‘The Orphan King,’ which was on her record, ‘The Foundling’. I was trying to find an upbeat orphan song, which was a stretch. It is about a kid who still believes in love even though he’s been bounced around a little bit.
We wrote that song at the orphanage where Mary was left on the day she was born at St. Vincent De Paul in New Orleans. So I started to write this song about this kid who didn’t know who his father was at the time. This was before I even knew my story. So I was working on this song with Mary before I even had a clue. I was just helping her write her story, and then, after we went on the road for a year, she asked me to take this test with her just as a friend, and then I got my results back and found out that I had a different biological father, so I had to finish that song, ‘St. Vincent De Paul’, because I started it before I knew it was about me.
PB: That is an amazing back-story.
ER: This whole thing is so nutty.
PB: The lyrics are so poignant. I think that would be a very difficult theme to write about.
ER: (Silence) I’m nodding.
PB: You have stated: “There is truth in a good song.” Can you elaborate?
ER: You know how you listen to songs that really move you? Maybe like Neil Young – who’s your favourite?
PB: Neil Young’s a good one.
ER: There’s just something deep about a really good lyric that resonates in some way, in a truthful way and it just pulls you in. So I do think what I’ve been trying to do is getting closer to writing my own story and trying to get closer to the truth of it. When I was writing ‘St. Vincent,’ I’d be writing a line and then I’d say, “That’s not really me.” Then it would get taken out.
PB: In ‘You Must Have Done Something Right’ I thought it was about - whom do you think someone might think it is about?
ER: I don’t know. Who?
PB: I thought it was about a guy and his baby brother – someone he had pillow fights with, and whom he would be giving a hard time. And then there was that trick ending.
ER: That’s funny. I love it when anything can be interpreted to mean what the listener is hearing, and, if it helps, that’s great. The impetus was – I already had so many songs on this album that were extremely personal, and I saw Randy Newman, who is one of my all time favourites, in the spring, and I just love his style and his interesting point of view. So I picked an unusual point of view.
The one I picked was a guy who was giving a toast at a wedding, the guy you’d be most worried about when he stood up because he might say something really inappropriate. That’s where that came from.
PB: ‘Breakfast For One on the Fifth of July’ – there has been a lot of hoopla connected with that song. It has won high profile songwriting contests. What made the judges take notice?
ER: I don’t know. But I think it has an unusual story and the story hangs together. It’s visual.
PB: The lyrics indicate a strong sense of loneliness.
ER: It’s a true story. I was going to take a vacation with this girl, who was a singer-songwriter. I don’t recommend dating a musician, unless it’s me or they’re older. But there was a young singer, sweet, a really nice person. We were getting ready to take a vacation, and she just sort of disappeared and not in the way that you would worry about her. She found somebody else.
So we were ready to take this trip together, and it was really heartbreaking. It was on the fourth of July. I have this thing where relationships, for me, always blow up on holidays. I don’t know why.
PB: And heartbreak always hurts more on a holiday.
ER: There’s a crazy thing about that story. I hadn’t really written any songs up to this point. That was about 2009. I was in Ireland when that happened. I went to this pub where the locals had gathered. It was during the day. I was drinking a Guinness. I was listening to people tell stories or a limerick or something, and the last person to go was the bartender and he quoted a limerick that I wrote down. The words just caught my ear. Do you know what a pram is?
ER: “Pity the man who is pushing the pram/Pushing the pram on his own/ Pity the man who is pushing the pram and thinks that he’s pushing his own.” I wrote that one down in my notebook, and, again, this was before I knew. That started my songwriting and I wrote that one with Mary actually, and by June of next year I knew that my father wasn’t my father.
PB: Here’s a line from one of your award-winning songs: “Two yellow roses and a makeshift cross,” and you go on from there. What motivated that intense juxtaposition?
ER: That’s another story that actually happened in my hometown. I was in tenth grade, and when you’re that age you think that you’re going to live forever. It was the first time I became aware that the world is crazy and unpredictable and dangerous.
That song had been kicking around my head for a long time, and I wrote it from a lot of different perspectives. I wrote it from a woman’s perspective, it was a ghost song for a while, and then I changed it to the guy’s perspective. It started with the image of yellow tape in a crime scene. That is what I had in my mind, and then I thought that yellow roses were softer.
PB: Now ‘Potholes’ is very different. It reminded me of something John Lennon might have written, because he had that way of saying the most beautiful things in a simple way and it was very touching. “You can lie to me/I know what I see.” It is simple, but beautiful, but so unlike the others.
ER: It’s different than the others. It’s more like a poem. It's a series of feelings. I wrote it when I was in the kitchen. The place where I was staying all the time had a lot of potholes out in front. You’d listen to all the cars going by…
PB: It sounds just like Chicago.
ER: Then I was thinking about a relationship that went sideways and my feeling was that you have to trust what you believe, not what people are telling you, but I’m hopeful. My feeling is that someday we’ll be all right. We’ll find the right person, and maybe they’ll also fix that hole in the street.
PB: Well, there really are a lot of potholes in Chicago, so it’s good that you can see the beauty in that image.
ER: Maybe I should play that one tonight.
PB: You should. Your philosophy shines through in ‘Curveball,’ in which you say that: “Life can sneak up on you.” It really has snuck up on you, hasn’t it?
ER: All those things in that song are true. I did wake up with a shotgun in my face in Wyoming, and I did see a guy who had just passed away in the West Village in New York, who left his dog behind. I regret it now. I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to take the dog.’ The neighbours came out and I went home, but I thought to myself, “If I ever have a chance to rescue a dog, I’m going to do it.”
So this last winter when I was in Costa Rica, I saw a little rescue dog and I rescued it. I brought him back to New York. In fact, he’s going to be joining us on tour shortly. His name is Freckles. He’s super cute.
PB: But wasn’t it complicated to bring him back to New York?
ER: It was a bit of a thing (Laughs). There were two guards with semi-automatic rifles who asked me what was in the travel bag. When I unzipped the bag, they both were like, "Aw look, a puppy!" We got through real easy after that.
PB: You talk through the verse of ‘Curveball.’ How did you come up with that idea?
ER: At the end there? That was the idea of Crit Harmon, who produced the album. He put me in the booth and just said, "Start talking," so I did. I thought about the cabbie that let me out in the West Village. The line that gets me is, "It's not your fault." I don't know why I said that, but so much of the baggage we carry around isn't really our fault.
That song actually took a long road. Crit Harmon is an exceptional talent. That song took me in an entirely different direction. It wasn’t autobiographical. It was a different story altogether. It was actually about a kid that went to Afghanistan and fought in the recent war. But then he said, you have to make this about you. So I went to a coffee shop in Cambridge, and came up with some verses.
It is kind of philosophical. We’re only here for a short while. I think some of these songs send a message that is positive, even though they seem sort of dark, but I feel there’s a sense of belief. I feel like it’s optimistic personally. I’m probably the only one who thinks that my songs are optimistic.
PB: Oh, there’s definitely some dark stuff happening, like having that gun pointed at your head, but there’s nothing that really brings you down.
ER: But the fact that we come out on the other side – it’s amazing how strong people can be through out all of these experiences. We’ve all had stuff and here we are. It’s a testament.
PB: You recorded one of my all time favourites, and I think it was courageous to do this cover since it was so linked to singer Patsy Cline.
ER: I get mixed reviews on ‘I Fall To Pieces.’ Some people love it and some people don’t. It’s done traditionally in a more upbeat way. It moves pretty quickly. We slowed it way down. I don’t know if this is a myth or not, but there’s a story that Harlan Howard, one of the writers, bounced around from between twenty-five foster homes and so he couldn’t be with his mother. When he saw his mother he “Fell to pieces/Every time she walked by.” Because of the content of all the other songs, we had a place for it. It resonated for me. I can’t explain it and I don’t know why.
PB: Many of us think of it as a tragic, romantic love song. That’s another unusual story.
ER: There was a little more to it, for me, but I don’t expect everybody to get it.
PB: I picked up on a Duane Eddy feel because of those low, growling guitar tones.
ER: That was actually a rough take, a practice run. We went through and played it and finished it to see how we would actually approach the song. Crit said, “Don’t touch it.” He is a less-is-more guy. The songs are stories and I think he did a really nice job.
Dave Maddox played drums. He is a super nice guy. He worked with Fairport Convention.
It’s amazing to me that people like Josh Ritter were on this record - for a new person in the industry to have someone like him. I hoped that maybe someday that would happen, maybe four albums in. But for my first record, for those kinds of things to fall into place? I still can’t believe it happened.
PB: You worked with singer, Meg Hutchinson, who has a very plaintive voice.
ER: I love her voice. She was at the show in Minneapolis, and sang ‘Potholes’ with me. We've become really good friends. This record has brought me closer to some incredible folks.
PB: So you’ve worked with a group of artists that are really earthy.
ER: That’s a good description. Soulful. Josh has become one of my closest friends. I’m really happy. I’ve worked with some really nice people.
PB: How do you feel about just having done your debut? Are you glad that it’s finished or do you feel exhilarated?
ER: I’m glad in a lot of ways because I’ve been a behind-the-scenes person. I’ve been a producer, but someone who’s not on stage. To be honest, I’m not the most comfortable performer. Once I get going I like it a lot. What I love about having it done is that I’m visible in a different way.
There are two songs that I’m going to play tonight that are more upbeat. I had a cousin that disappeared and my own story. Thank God I can move past them, and find something else to write about.
I’ve got three or four new ones that I’m feeling really good about so that I can start the next record.
PB: Will you use the same players?
ER: I would definitely if they are available. I like loyalty. I believe in that sort of thing.
I’ll be playing a new song, ‘Less Broken Now’, which is kind of on the other side of all this stuff.
PB: It seems like you’ve played all kinds of places. What kind of venues do you prefer?
ER: I like listening places. I’ve played in some theatres, some quiet places and noisy places, wherever people are listening and have an emotional reaction. I’ve had people tell me that they sleep better after they hear my record or feel better. I’m interested in that.
It’s a hard thing to be on the road, playing shows. It’s really hard, actually, to travel and do performing. It takes a lot of energy.
I think Rachael’s the same way. She’s doing it because it’s in her heart and I’m the same way.
PB: Can you describe your songwriting process?
ER: One of the things that has occurred to me lately – I can write verse, verse, verse. For me having a direction to the song from the onset gives me a rudder; the right type of phrase, like my new one, ‘Less Broken Now.’ I didn’t do that for a lot of the songs and I felt like I was circling around. I think it’s like a pendulum that swings. Inspiration? I’ve never heard a bad idea for a song.
Then you switch to the other side, which is craft – being aware of melody, structure, and phrasing. It switches back and forth.
PB: And collaboration?
ER: I love to collaborate. It’s the most fun. The last couple of songs I’ve written by myself, which is cool. But with collaboration, you sit down and talk to someone. It’s very open and very honest. You have a cup of coffee and say, “This is what happened to me…”
I’ve learned from each person. Everyone has their process. Mary has her process. She’s very diligent and she goes through multiple drafts and I’ve learned so much from Josh. He is very quick and very methodical. Josh is a genius. They’re all bringing in their instincts from about thirty other people into the room.
PB: If you could collaborate with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
ER: Wow! Ha! It would be hard not to say Cole Porter. Maybe John Prine. He is dead centre for me. I don’t know if I’d still be here if it wasn’t for his songs.
PB: So which of John’s songs inspired you to work on your craft?
ER: “Hello In There…” It’s the first song I learned how to play out of my songbook. It had barre chords in it, which was such a pain. B flat, what?
PB: Are you still haunted by those calluses?
ER: Yeah, but I still like them.
PB: Thank you.
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Lisa Torem speaks to New York-based singer-songwriter Ed Romanoff about working and co-writing with Mary Gauthier and his self-titled debut album
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