“The album title pretty much sums it up for me,” Richard Page says with a wry smile. The veteran writer/artist is referring to both his second solo album, Peculiar Life (released on his own Little Dume Music label) and his bifurcated career, which belies F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention that there are no second acts in American life. Page spent the 1980s fronting the bands Pages and the chart-topping Mr. Mister (celebrated in the chorus hook of Train’s current hit “Hey Soul Sister,” which goes, “Hey soul sister, ain’t that Mr. Mister on the radio, stereo”) before becoming the provider of material for others, in part via his longstanding relationships with producer David Foster.
But functioning purely as a writer for hire “doesn’t scratch the itch of wanting to do your own thing, especially when you have to make compromises,” Page explains of the motivation behind the writing and recording of Peculiar Life, his first album since 1995’s Shelter Me. “So I really started missing this again, though it amps my life up tremendously and is hard on the family. But there’s something special about doing your own record and making your own music that I really missed, and I didn’t know how much I missed it until I went through this experience.”
Gathering the all-star core band of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Jeff Beck, Sting, Herbie Hancock), percussionist Luis Conte (Pat Matheny, James Taylor, Jackson Browne), bassist Kevin McCormick (a mainstay of Browne’s longtime band) and guitarist James Harrah (Chris Botti, Elton John, John Prine), augmented on certain tracks by pedal steel giant Greg Leisz (k.d. lang, Wilco, T Bone Burnett) and violin virtuoso L. Shankar (Peter Gabriel, John McLaughlin, Talking Heads), the Malibu-based artist brought a special set of songs to the nearby studio of his surfer buddy Richard Gibbs (an Oingo Boingo member turned film scorer), who’d readily agreed to co-produce after hearing the material.
“Richard, who’s a great musician and helped me a lot, insisted that we have live musicians playing everything,” says Page. “To me, if music sounds and feels good, I don’t really care if it was played by a machine or human beings. But I admit, I’d gotten swept up in programming because it’s so easy to write when you program, with so many tools at your fingertips. But having done this record, I can now see that I’d forgotten how nuanced real musicianship can be. I had most of the songs somewhat arranged already, and many of the vocals were done here at my studio. I took over the mockups—essentially song demos with programmed sounds, vocals and some guitar—to Richard’s studio, and we replaced nearly all the instruments. The guys appreciated being able to play to songs that already had lead and background vocals and ideas that were already finished thoughts. So it worked out pretty cool that way.”
The resulting album—mixed by the brilliant Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Eagles)—sounds as taut and vibrant as you’d expect from the collective chops and experience of this crew; the revelation here has to do with the depth of Page’s writing. The dozen songs range from the brightness of “Brand New Day” (“When I wrote that one, I was thinking that things are gonna be OK, and it’s OK to say so”) to the dark night of the soul evoked in “Shadow on My Life”; from the life-embracing pop of “No Tomorrow” (co-written with his old friend Richard Marx) and “You Are Mine” (a collaboration with Nashville-based songsmiths Melissa Pierce and Mike Busbee) and to the album’s three-pronged spiritual center, comprising the provocative title song, the contemplative “Worldly Things” and the widescreen epic “When You Come Around,” each of them at once intensely personal and universally relatable.
Describing “Peculiar Life,” Page says, “The line, ‘I’ve got too much invested in this peculiar life’ speaks of grasping, and the grasping has to do with believing that all this is real and wanting a payoff from it. And the hardest thing to do is to let all that go and not be so affected by loss or gain, winning or losing. The struggle I have in my life is to try to balance those things out, so that I’m not so affected emotionally when things go wrong or, conversely, when things go right—to find that place where you’re not swinging back and forth so hard that you suffer from either incredible glee or unbearable unhappiness. The metaphor of feeling like you’re drowning speaks to not having a clear resolve to get out of this mess. So that song says a lot about where I’m at.”
The companion piece “Worldly Things” turns on the lines, “Sometimes I don’t feel so strong/Days go by, barely hangin’ on/Shine a light in my eye so I can find my way home.” According to Page, the song’s narrator is pondering the question, “Why can’t I seem to find any true meaning or happiness in life? It seems like that’s a common struggle for many of us.”
“When You come Around,” written with composer/programmer Jochem van der Saag, is “a song of gratitude or devotion to a spiritual friend, or a greater being, but it also could mean different things to different people. Jochem, who came up with the spatial qualities in the arrangement, had a riff that I really liked, so I took that riff home and wrote the song to it, basically. One of my favorite songs of all time is George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’ from Sgt. Pepper, and I’m sure it was a subconscious inspiration.”
Accumulated over a number of years, these songs spoke to Page in a different way from the rest of his output. “When I write a song,” he explains, “I automatically think, ‘Who could I pitch that to?’ And with some of these songs I would think, ‘Nobody.’ Not because they’re so great but because I just can’t imagine anyone else doing them; they’re so personal and have so much of my own stamp on them. Frankly, some songs can work for many different singers, but with these, I felt I needed to do my own thing with them.”
Page is spending the summer on the road in the company of another set of A-list musicians, playing bass and singing with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The 2010 lineup also boasts keyboardists Edgar Winter and Gary Wright, guitarists Rick Derringer and Wally Palmer (The Romantics), and drummer Gregg Bissonette. The downside is that the tour takes him away from his home life with his four kids and his wife of 30 years. “Linda has had a huge impact on my life,” he says, “and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the same guy without her. She’s really helped guide me. And put up with a lot”
And speaking of inspiration, inseparable from the expression of meaningful thoughts and feelings is the craft that goes into the creative process. “I have a short list of the artists I feel are the standard bearers,” Page points out, “and if I can even emulate them a tiny bit, that’s what I’m after at this point in my life. There was a time a while back when all I listened to were Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan, because I thought those two were at the high point of the craft. I couldn’t go there myself and felt frustrated by that, but kept trying anyway. This is my humble effort at paying homage to the kings and queens of songwriting, and who knows, perhaps inspire someone else”