Nashville rocker gets burned, emerges from the ashes with a winning LP
By Michael McCall
MARCH 22, 1999: Last spring, one of the most powerful men in the music business, Doug Morris, flew Nashville-based rocker Will Owsley to New York and escorted him into his enormous Manhattan office suite. Sitting at his desk, a breathtaking view of Manhattan at his back, the head of the mighty Universal Music Group presented a generous offer to young Owsley.
"Will, this record is really good," Morris told Owsley, referring to the songs that the clean-cut Nashvillian had created in his Green Hills basement studio. "Let me give you some money to go make something great."
With the reverent politeness of a good son of the South, the 32-year-old Owsley told the record chieftain he didn't need money to rerecord the songs. What he needed was someone to put out the record he'd already made. "I told him I thought I'd made something great," Owsley recalls. "I wasn't cocky; I was real sweet about it. I told him I loved what I had done, that this is what I'd sweated my life over."
As it turned out, other companies were more than willing to accept Owsley on those terms. "Giant Records and Warner Bros. came to me and said, 'We love this record.' They asked, 'What can we do for you?' "
Owsley gave them a wish list of three renowned recording engineers--Tom Lord-Alge, Bob Clearmountain, and Andy Wallace. He asked the record company to help him hire one of these men to remix his work and give it a brighter sheen. After hearing a copy of the record, Lord-Alge signed on and tweaked what Owsley already had wrought. The result, the self-titled Owsley, will be released Mar. 23 by Giant/Warner Bros.
A well-crafted collection packed with ebullient power pop, the album conveys a sense of innocence and wonder with upbeat, guitar-driven melodies and layered arrangements full of delightful, intelligent twists. The lyrics focus on relationships and the obsessions of youth, such as the mysterious lure of haunted houses or the masked sadness of class clowns. At the same time, Owsley's songs acknowledge the inevitability of getting older--of leaving behind the familiar life of a small town.
"A lot of my songs are definitely written about Anniston, Ala.," he explains. "My mind is there, my heart is there. It's where I grew up. It's where my grandmother, the person I've been closest to in the world, is buried. I still spend half my time there. Even though I own a house in Green Hills, I find I'm always going back to stay in Anniston when I have time. There's a security in going back there."
Rather than writing specifically about this small Southern city, though, Owsley concentrates on universal themes of comfort and displacement. "I have a real sensation-fixation with the place," he says. "A lot of my songs are about what happened to me there or what I feel about being away from there or going back there. That's what I love about songwriting--about how you can draw upon your experiences and examine them in songs."
As much as the lyrics convey a sense of who Owsley is, the musical arrangements will likely draw the most attention. On this propulsive and acutely melodic album, Owsley flexes the kind of popcraft associated with early Todd Rundgren or latter-period XTC. Even more so, his bouncy yet unpredictable arrangements will earn comparisons to the music of Ben Folds, one of his friends and former musical partners.
"I grew up in the early '70s, and I was obsessed with listening to AM radio," Owsley says. "This was before pop radio went disco. It was real multi-formatted. You'd hear Badfinger, then Captain & Tenille, then Todd Rundgren's 'Hello, It's Me.' I think my music is influenced by all that stuff--Badfinger, Rundgren, Paul McCartney & Wings. My first album was Steve Miller, and the first Boston record changed my life."
Owsley's first entry into the music business wasn't quite as fruitful as his latest go-round. In the early '90s, he and musical partner Millard Powers (who coproduced part of the new album) were members of The Semantics, a band Owsley describes as "Kiss-meets-Rundgren-meets-The Cars."
With financial assistance from a music publishing company, the band created a tape that immediately attracted attention. John Kalodner, a respected artists-and-repertoire executive then riding high because of his work with Aerosmith, signed The Semantics to Geffen Records. The band was set up with a legendary producer, Peter Asher, known for his work with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and 10,000 Maniacs.
Besides Owsley and Powers, the band featured Ben Folds on drums. Later, Ringo Starr's son, Zack Starkey, logged time as the band's drummer, and Folds moved to keyboards. "We were staying in L.A. with Ringo's mother, hanging out with Jeff Lynne and Joe Walsh and Ringo," Owsley says. "Kalodner was telling us we were geniuses, and everyone seemed excited about the record we were making."
But then Kalodner jumped to Columbia Records, following Aerosmith and the band's multimillion-dollar record deal. Geffen decided to focus its efforts behind Nirvana, Hole, and Beck, leaving little room for a smart pop-rock band from Nashville. When Geffen dropped The Semantics, so did Asher, who had taken them on as management clients.
"Everybody disassociated themselves with us," Owsley says. "We were left destitute and broke. We wept. It killed us. We had put four years of hard work into it, and all of a sudden there was nothing left. I really didn't know what I was going to do after that."
Then Amy Grant came to his rescue. Originally, she had wanted to hire Owsley in the late '80s, when he was playing guitar in Judson Spence's band. He turned down the offer to focus on his own music. As it turned out, Grant later took a Semantics studio tape with her on a ski trip to Colorado. When she returned, she contacted Owsley to tell him how much she liked the music.
"She asked what I was doing," Owsley recalls. "I told her I was about to slit my wrists. So she asked me to come on the road with her as her guitarist."
For the next 18 months, Owsley flew in a Lear Jet, stayed in luxury hotels, and played everything from Late Night With David Letterman to a concert in the Philippines. "Amy was such a sweetheart," he says. "It saved me."
With the money he made, Owsley bought a house in Green Hills and filled the basement with recording equipment. With the help of Powers, he began work on a solo album, augmenting his bank account with a few high-profile TV concerts as a guitarist and harmony singer with Shania Twain. Eventually, he emerged with the songs on his new album.
His model, he says, was the first Boston album--the one that changed his life. Coming from a lot of modern rock musicians, that might sound like so much ironic posturing, but Owsley means it: Just like Tom Scholz, the mastermind behind Boston, he made the album in his basement, then took it around to record companies to see if anyone would put it out. Now, it appears, he's well on his way.
"Do I want to be a star?" he asks himself. "Being famous has been a pain in the ass for every star I've ever talked to. But I want to get my music to the people. To me, that's what it's all about. It's about spreading the love."
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