PAGE McCONNELL: ON HIS OWN TWO FEET

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By: Brian Bavosa

Not So Strange Design


Page McConnell
It is just shy of 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and my house is eerily quiet. My dog sleeps at the foot of the stairs, only shifting as I walk by. It is pouring rain outside while I wait for a call from Page McConnell (Phish, Vida Blue) to discuss his first-ever self-titled solo album. When McConnell does call, his voice is as warm and welcoming as the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the air on a Winter morning.

McConnell’s career has been quiet the past three years with barely any public or concert appearances. Instead, he decided to spend the time with his daughter out of the spotlight. His bio states, “I considered going back to school. I wondered, ‘Should I pursue another career? What is it that I enjoy?’ But pretty quickly, I came back to music. I realized I needed to continue this, that there was more for me to do. I am a musician.”

McConnell benefited from making his solo album on his own terms, in a truly organic way, with no specific goal besides making music that meant something personally to him. Over the last few years, he built a small home studio in Vermont that was put together with the help of friend, bandmate and co-producer, Jared Slomoff.


Jared Slomoff by Rod Snyder
“It was great to have him there,” says McConnell. “When I first started working with Jared a couple of years ago, we were editing together some demolition derby footage I have of Team Vida Blue. I didn’t even know he was an audio engineer at that point. I thought he was a video editor. We set up a little home studio, and for the first couple months he was still living in New York and I was doing a lot of the work on my own. He would come up on the weekends, and then he finally moved to Vermont. Still, through all of this, I didn’t even know he was a musician [laughs]. It was about a year into the project that I became aware of his musicianship [laughs]. So, it’s an ongoing discovery with him. But, to have somebody around, to have the camaraderie of working with a friend, I really like all of that stuff.”

McConnell’s relationship with Slomoff foreshadowed the way the album would eventually take shape. “I’m a slow writer,” says McConnell, who worked on the album at his own pace for over a year and a half. McConnell also reached out to another friend on his debut, Adam Zimmon (Spam All-Stars, Shakira), known to McConnell fans for his guitar collaborations with Vida Blue.


Vida Blue
When I ask McConnell how this album and recording process stacked up against his previous collaboration with Russell Batiste (Funky Meters) and Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band) – the other two-thirds of Vida Blue – he points towards the lyrics. “Vida Blue was my first foray into lyrical writing. I had written a couple of instrumental tunes, but I’ve really only been doing this for about five years, so it’s not like I’ve been doing this a long time. I learn as I go.”

Besides the lyrics, he mentions how he had some more songs prepared in advance this time around. “With Vida Blue, we had two songs and the rest of the stuff was just writing in the studio, writing the songs out of those jams and developing them from stuff we created there in the studio. [For] this project, some of the songs were written ahead of time and some of the songs were created in the studio in that same sort of a jam sense. I think on the next project, I’ll probably work with songs I write ahead of time, and more towards traditional [material].”

For a man who took a while to surface after the demise of Phish, he appears to be making up for lost time. McConnell enthuses, “It’s coming a little bit more easily to me each time around, I think just through experience and repetition [laughs]. Just doing the process over and over again, it’s easier for me to get to that place. It all has contributed, and I’ve learned from it.”

 
We got together when we were in our early twenties or late teens, and living in our insulated world, we all remained the same to an extent. As much as I enjoyed it, I was stuck as that person I was when I was 23 or 24 years old.
-Page on Phish
 
Photo by Danny Clinch

An Album Is Worth A Thousand Words

While only writing lyrics for the second time on his own, there’s huge growth on his solo debut. The seemingly straightforward words reveal metaphors and paradoxes that point to several major themes, though that wasn’t McConnell’s original concept. “It wasn’t with intent. As it was getting close to done, I looked back and said, ‘Oh, there are some common threads that run through it.'”

Those themes focus on change, transition, uncertainty, but also new beginnings and rejuvenation. The perfect example is the album’s opening track, “Beauty of a Broken Heart.” McConnell comments, “It’s been quite a bit of transition, and certainly people know about [Phish] and other stuff as well. Transition can be a good thing and it can be a painful thing. That’s sort of the theme for me I suppose, if there is one.”


McConnell by Jeff Kravitz
He’s quick to warn speculators that things are not always what they seem, especially in regards to his personal life or Phish. “The songs are not really literal. They’re just kind of feelings that float around that end up in words that rhyme [laughs]. They’re just stories, and it’s easier for me that way. They are personal but not in the ways you might think.”

Songs like “Close to Home” and “Maid Marian” seem to be extremely personal snapshots of McConnell’s recent past, namely the Phish breakup and his divorce. When I ask him about singing his own lyrics as opposed to Phish lyricist Tom Marshall‘s words, he replies, “I don’t know if it’s been more satisfying but it’s certainly more exposed. I am enjoying it. It’s a different feeling to be singing something that you wrote but I love singing all of those songs, too. So, to answer your question, I feel more gratified and more exposed [laughs].” Just as I feel McConnell is about to tip his hand, he slyly adds, “They are just stories and songs, and they have personal meanings for me, and no one will probably ever really know exactly what those meanings are.”

Keep What’s Important, Know Who’s Your Friend


Phish 1985 by Margie Minkin
In August of 2004, McConnell’s primary band for over twenty years came to an end. Phish had taken an indefinite hiatus in October of 2000, only to return New Year’s Eve of 2002. This time it seemed it was over for good. “My life in Phish was nonstop,” McConnell says. “If we weren’t touring, we were making a record. If we weren’t making a record, we were promoting one. It was like suspended animation. We got together when we were in our early twenties or late teens, and living in our insulated world, we all remained the same to an extent. As much as I enjoyed it, I was stuck as that person I was when I was 23 or 24 years old.”

Rumors have swirled around the breakup, and when I ask McConnell about watching the band implode from the inside of the Phish bubble, he responds, “I’m here now with my new album that I’m so excited about. If Phish had continued rolling on there was no way I would have this year and a half to work on an album. So, I’m really excited about it. I feel really lucky to be where I am.”

A new song, “Rules I Don’t Know,” offers a snapshot of McConnell’s slow return to the public eye post-Phish:

How can I leave this behind me with all that’s around to remind me?
How can this road help unwind me
When it’s the road I don’t go that defines me?


Anastasio & McConnell – Coventry by Tony Stack
“I think that’s true for anything in life. That’s not just about the band. It’s in any decision that you make,” offers McConnell. “You make choices based on what you understand, what you see and what you know, or think you know. But, a lot of the time, you don’t even see the big picture. It really could just be about anything.”

He’s certainly not afraid to talk about Phish, and that could be the reason he brought all of his former bandmates into play on his album. Jon Fishman appears on most of the tracks, while Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio guest most notably on “Back in the Basement.” A funky number that gains steam as it chugs along, “Basement” shows that even though McConnell is dangling his toes in the songwriting tide he remains fully submerged in the jam waters that made him famous. On playing live outside of Phish, he says, “I would say the confidence is growing [laughs]. I wouldn’t say I was immediately self-confident about it. Having a couple of shows under my belt certainly helps. I’m looking forward to developing the repertoire a little bit, working on stretching it out with the band and rehearsing some more.”

 
Transition can be a good thing and it can be a painful thing. That’s sort of the theme for me I suppose, if there is one.

-Page on the new album

 
Photo by Rod Snyder

Back in the Brooklyn Basement


McConnell 1990 by B.C. Kagan
As the solo album neared completion, McConnell spent a few days recording in producer Bryce Goggin‘s studio in Brooklyn. McConnell had worked with Goggin on Phish’s 2000 release, Farmhouse. At these sessions he was joined by another special guest, super drummer Jim Keltner, who played on “Back in the Basement” and other tracks. Keltner has played with the likes of (Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones). McConnell says, “[Jim] had met John Langenstein, who was one of our Phish guys. He was our head of security. I think John was head of security for a Neil Young tour and they got to be friends. I think that had a lot to do with starting the relationship and giving it a shot.”

McConnell has nothing but praise for Keltner, saying, “He was the nicest guy! Part of the reason I think he even agreed to [play] was he was scheduled to come out to New York to do a session with T-Bone Burnett. That session got cancelled, or moved back to Los Angeles. It was an immediate connection. When we did ‘Back in the Basement,’ which I had just written hours beforehand, I knew it was this funky little riff with a jam attached to it. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, and we sort of took off and started playing. I was mostly familiar with him as a studio guy, a session guy. I just wasn’t aware of his improvisational skills, his inclination to go that way. We were pushing each other and it just kind of went further and further. It was very exciting to think, ‘This is happening. This is really happening. Now.'”

Army of One


McConnell by John Croxton
McConnell may have surrounded himself with a familiar cast of collaborators but in the end it’s his name on the album cover. Through the creative process of making the record, he admits there was no real vision when it started but looking back there appears to be some things that will define him from this point forward. Page McConnell is a caterpillar that’s taken his time to emerge from his cocoon but is happy to finally spread his wings.

“It helps me move into the next phase of my life. It helps me gain perspective. If not perspective then some distance between myself and, you know, myself as the keyboardist from Phish. It’s an evolving process. It’s not something that happened overnight. It’s something that’s sort of still happening for me and I’m still kind of growing into it.”

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