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Cover Story [Issue # 17 ]
Trey Anastasio: Solo Success

By Dean Truitt

Shine ( CD Sony )


No one could ever accuse Trey Anastasio of playing it safe or maintaining the status quo for no reason. As the leader of Phish for 21 years, the singer/songwriter/guitarist pioneered an experimental “jam band” whose success had not been reached since The Grateful Dead’s.

Aome might even argue that Phish actually eclipsed their heroes in terms of artistic and commercial dominance. However, Phish finally disbanded after the legendary Coventry shows in Vermont. While Anastasio had recorded and released several side project albums away from his previous day job, his latest CD, Shine, marks the first solo outing since the quartet’s exit last year. Instead of taking an extended hiatus from music to reflect on his remarkable career with the band or to plot his next move, the affable artist lunged eagerly into the next phase of his remarkable career. While not every musician can always maintain a sense of focus, Anastasio indicates that he has never suffered from the dreaded “writer’s block” and simply keeps writing until the ideas crystallize into a cohesive block of material. He reveals, “I was writing furiously for the last year, starting right after our final Phish show at Coventry. So, I was trying new stuff out on the road. You have to be willing to let stuff [songs] go. There’s a good number that didn’t make it [the Shine CD]. Some of the songs were pretty solid that didn’t make the record.”

Upon beginning the project, Anastasio immediately noticed a benefit of working on a project that does not involve a band. He reflects, “One of the interesting things that made this process easier in a certain way was because I was alone. I went down to Atlanta with a backpack and I was in this hotel there for three months. I had pretty much been working on the album for the whole year because I started writing this stuff three weeks after Coventry. So, I’ve been working and working and working on this, but then I was alone. When you’re alone, you can focus in a certain way. There isn’t this watering down effect that happens sometimes by having to justify every move or explain it to someone else. In the course of a day’s work, there’s a million of them.”

While the prolific songwriter explains the freedom of working alone in terms of creativity, he quickly gives overflowing acknowledgement to Shine’s masterful producer, Brendan O’Brien. Within the span of a decade, O’Brien has emerged as one of the world’s finest producers. Having overseen albums by artists ranging from: Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots, Train, Rage Against the Machine, and Matthew Sweet, O’Brien’s reputation has grown tremendously. Of the initial pairing, Anastasio beams, “When I first got on the phone with him, he was so incredible and I wanted to work with him so badly. I went down to Atlanta and he picked me up the first day. He works very hard. We went to his house and did a lot of work at his house. It wasn’t even at the studio, just the two of us. We were playing instruments in a very small space. He’s got a little project studio with a Mackie [studio mixing] board, one microphone, you know? So, all the effort is put into the songs and the arrangement.”

The newly solo artist also admired his producer’s take on the importance of solid material over slick studio production. Anastasio enthuses, “One of the things that Brendan talks about a lot from his standpoint is that he never wants people to hear the production. It’s all about the songs. He wants to serve the song. He said his worst nightmare is that someone would hear a record that he worked on and say, ‘Boy, the production’s really good.’ So, he was the perfect person [to make the record]. I knew it the minute I got on the phone with him.”

In speaking about his absolute need for a brilliant sounding board of O’Brien’s rarefied ability, Anastasio freely admits, “At this point in time, the songs were really important to me because I had a lot to say. It was a bit of an outpouring. Brendan was encouraging and just said, ‘Don’t stop until all 12 songs are great.’ He said that a number of times and I had never really heard that so clearly from a producer before. I write a lot and I enjoy the process of writing so much that I have no problem with that. I always prefer to just keep going and if something falls by the wayside, it doesn’t really bother me that much.”

Upon listening to Shine, one can instantly understand why the artist has contagious excitement about the completed project. It is a stunning effort that will not only appeal to the millions of “Phish Heads” across the world, but should readily garner Anastasio an even broader audience. Anyone anticipating his previous band’s extended, improvisational experiments or even the guitarist’s more esoteric, abstract outings will notice that the CD is a crafted, pop-oriented album, rather than vehicles for endless jamming or lengthy solos. Anastasio once again credits O’Brien’s influence on Shine’s direction because the producer encouraged the rather modest artist to focus on his voice as much as his instrumental prowess. He remembers, “One of the first things he said was, ‘It sounds to me like you haven’t focused on singing in the past as much as guitar playing. You’ve got a great voice and I can tell you right now that we’re not going to use any studio trickery on your voice. No tuning [vocal pitch correction] and none of that stuff that everyone does these days.’ Once the singer became comfortable with the situation, he recalls, “It was really cool to do. It was more about singing than studio tricks. It was great because he kind of put the ball in my court.”

The concentration on vocals also seems to have inspired Anastasio to push the boundaries of his melodic and lyrical writing standard because the album is clearly his most powerful effort to date. From the opening title track, the listener steps into a different emotional terrain from the artist’s previous works. On the genesis of the song, the songwriter reflects, “The title track was the last song we did, but it was one of these things that was really important to me. I didn’t think there was a song yet that was yet that sort of summed it all up to start the album out and we were talking about that. So, I wrote it while we were down there basically.”

Another stellar track on the album is “Come As Melody,” which is an upbeat rocker that benefits greatly from the studio band’s performance. While Anastasio obviously handled the vocal and guitar duties, O’Brien played bass, and legendary session master, Kenny Aronoff, played drums. With enthusiasm, the artist gushes, “Kenny came down for his bit for the drums and we tracked the songs very quickly. I think Kenny was there [in the studio recording his parts for Shine] for two afternoons. And, we set up as a power trio. I had a Marshall stack - it was great. I really loved that to the point where I actually talked to Kenny and Brendan since then about someday we should do a little power trio theater tour or something because it was slammin’. We were very compatible and fast. I like working that way because I think you hear it on the record. It sounds real. You know: go out, plug in, and boom!”

The organic process of realizing Shine has clearly been an absolutely joyful, eye-opening process for Trey Anastasio. Every song shimmers with its own unique atmosphere and message. The beautiful closer, “Love Breaks All Lines,” perfectly bookends the thematic splendor of the collection. Ranging from overdriven anthems to sedate meditations, the former Phisherman has delivered a stellar balance of magnetic creativity and disciplined craftsmanship. As a closing thought, Anastasio muses, “It [making records] ends up being a lot of work, but the process itself to me is my favorite part. There’s something that feels very healthy and I like the process of seeing that little gem in the distance that I want to express and pick away at the cement around it until it reveals itself. I enjoy the process as much as I enjoy the end product. I really like the work because it feels like being alive.”

.


Shine
Sony

Solo Success Trey Anastasio Shine


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