PAGE McCONNELL: ON HIS OWN TWO FEET
By: Brian Bavosa
Not So Strange Design
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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?
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.”
Back in the Brooklyn Basement
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
“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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