Singer/Songwriter’s Dark Folk/Blues Exposition
By Mark Uricheck
Chatting with Ed Randazzo, what you get is an affable, soft-spoken genuine soul. On record, though, Ed’s a scathing mouthpiece of fire ‘n brimstone – part Bob Dylan tortured songwriting introspection, part Mississippi Fred McDowell world-weary, heavy-hearted bluesman. Randazzo’s music embodies that deeply personal corner of our psyche, that often unexplored territory where we store the unspoken pain, torment, and life observation – it all bleeds out through Ed’s grizzled, Leonard Cohen-esque vocal delivery and earthy instrumentation.
The thirty-something, Luzerne County-based Randazzo has released two acclaimed works of folk-inflected, blues-leaning storytelling – his 2009 debut “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and earlier this year, “Show and Tell.” Both offerings are bolstered by the production and Appalachian-strewn stringdom of Bret Alexander, recorded at Alexander’s Saturation Acres Studios. The Randazzo/Alexander musical partnership appears to be somewhat of a match made in Americana heaven, as the two albums have been quite successful locally, and as Randazzo admits, Alexander’s musical intuition has pushed him to songwriting heights that he once thought impossible.
“Looking back on everything, the records really wrote themselves,” Randazzo humbly recalls, when asked about the beginning of his recording foray with Alexander – embarked upon little more than four years ago. He begins to tell about the origins of the “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” record (the title and song taken from blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson‘s immortal 1927 composition), which was derived from a simple longtime wish to make a folk record.
“I wanted to get a really cool feel, and also didn’t want it to be overproduced,” he explains. Growing up, Randazzo always had the ‘ideal’ impression of what his first album would be like, planning everything right down to the artwork. He was that kid, alone in his bedroom with the headphones on for hours on end, soaking up every last ounce of music that he could. He says, though, that upon seeking out Bret Alexander, his vision became more focused than he could have imagined.
“I contacted Bret in the summer of 2008, just to see if he had time to work on something,” Randazzo recalls. “I didn’t know the length of the project, or what it entailed; I just wanted to see where it could go.”
Randazzo, like much of Northeast Pennsylvania, had admired Alexander’s work with The Badlees during that band’s successful, prolific 1990’s period. It was after witnessing numerous Badlees shows that Randazzo’s respect for Alexander’s musical skill and diversity on an array of instruments, such as dulcimer and mandolin, was planted.“Bret was the guy that I would always watch during the show, “ Randazzo remembers. “I was always impressed how he could basically pick up any instrument, and play it well.”
With only the basic genesis of an idea in tow, Randazzo met Alexander in 2008 to record the track, “Wayfaring Stranger,” a classic American spiritual dating back to the 19th Century and covered by everyone from Joni Mitchell to Johnny Cash. “We had done it just as an experiment,” Randazzo says, “just to get the feel of the studio, and to get to know each other. It was a really quick friendship, we gelled quickly.” A complimentary quote Randazzo likes to fire off: “When you’re sitting next to Bret Alexander, you make the most of the time that you have.”
With that first record, Randazzo and Alexander worked song by song, conceiving and recording each track on an individual basis. “That record was originally going to be an EP, maybe five songs – like four covers and an original,” Randazzo admits. “It sort of developed into this really cool concept record. We ended up being really happy with it.”
It is worth noting that “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” was somewhat of an emotional cleansing for Randazzo, as he says the record came out at a decidedly dark period in his life. “The stuff I was going through, I had to put it away somewhere,” he recalls. “I ended up putting it on that record.”
Following the record’s release, Randazzo performed high-profile gigs like the annual benefit show, “Concert For A Cause,” and The Weekender’s “Mountaingrown Concert Series” in 2010 – a popular live, on-air showcase broadcast from The Woodlands Inn and Resort via local radio station 102.3 WDMT-FM. The momentum didn’t stop as Alexander had by now rekindled a passion for writing original material with artists he was producing, who were soon asking Randazzo if he had written anything new.
A track called “House On The Hill” (which leads into a discussion of Randazzo’s current disc, “Show and Tell”) was written and brought into the studio to be worked on as a demo. “We were really excited about the song; we played it live at the Mountaingrown show,” Randazzo says. “Slowly but surely, more original songs were coming because people were saying, ‘We really liked the first record, but we’d love to hear more original material.’ That’s really how the “Show and Tell” record developed.”
Show and Tell, The Future
“Show and Tell” is another crowning example of Randazzo’s affinity for bare-bones, acoustic emotionalism. The album contains tracks like the haunting self-realized echo of “Who’s That Man,” and the biting, steel-string anger of “Let Me Go.” Notable guest musicians like ex-Breaking Benjamin drummer, Jeremy Hummel, and blues/soul diva, Alexis P. Suter, along with the omnipresent Alexander ensure the album’s creative vibrancy. For Randazzo, “Show and Tell” is just the continuing evolution of a process he’s always wanted to mirror.
“I’ve always loved the performances from the MTV Unplugged and VH-1 Storytellers series,” Randazzo says. “With those, there are no do-overs. You hear every mistake, every nuance. I’ve always loved stuff that wasn’t always perfect, and maybe a little off, so that’s really how we approached the recordings. I think there’s a certain charm to that type of thing.”
At this point, Randazzo reflects that as a budding musician, he never really thought that he’d become a singer, admitting that writing was always his forte. “It started with poetry and short stories,” he explains, “I never thought I’d be writing songs. I knew I’d always be involved with music; I just never knew how.” The hint of uncertainty adds that much more of an element of danger to Randazzo’s work, that lack of predictability is a defining characteristic of his music.
Randazzo’s love of darker subject matter and darker songs played a major part in the new album’s direction. “That was always the type of song that gutted me,” he admits. “I guess I enjoy being gutted. (laughs) Whenever I’m in a bad mood, I pull out the saddest song I could find, to sort of enhance it. At the same time, I was always comforted by that as well.” The music deals with overtly human qualities, things we all go through – life being fragile, death, common bonds that everyone shares. “Whether we want to admit it or not, I think we’ve all thought about those things.” he says. “I take great care on how I present those ideas.”
Arguably “Show and Tell’s” defining moment is the track “Who’s That Man,” which features Alexis P. Suter on co-lead vocals with Randazzo. For the uninitiated, Suter has a voice that can wake the dead. She’s a booming, voice-of-god baritone with raw urgency for days. Randazzo tells of the hair-raising experience of having her lend her voice to his music.
“I had this song that Bret and I had finished,” recalls Randazzo. “I listened to it at home, and it just didn’t feel like it was finished. I wanted to find a female black singer to fill the void, because I wanted someone who had been around, and had seen a lot.” A local photographer friend of Randazzo’s named Jim Gavenus had given him a list of three possible names who’s fit his vision, but Randazzo didn’t make it through listening to all three voices.
“I didn’t even listen to the other two, because Alexis was the first person I heard,” says Randazzo. “Her drummer Ray contacted Bret and myself to see who we were, and what we wanted to do. This was in April of last year. Alexis came up to the studio while she was in Berwick playing at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival last July. She came prepared, she knew what she was going to do. You could tell she listened to it, and you could tell she felt it – you could tell she really wanted to do this.”
Randazzo’s idea for the song was for a conversation to happen. There’s a guy, who’s basically looking into a mirror. In a way, Suter’s voice is what’s coming back to him. “Alexis is the conscience voice in my head,” explains Randazzo. “She came in, and we did it in just two takes. Both were great, it was just a matter of which one do we pick.”
With that performance finished, Randazzo calls it “capturing lightning in a bottle,” he notes that he had another track lying around titled “Still Cry.” He hadn’t had the chance to give it to Suter in advance, but with her already at the studio, he felt he’d take a shot asking her if she’d mind lending her voice to another song. “I played it for her, and she was just like ‘ok, let’s do it.’”
It was upon hearing Suter’s take on “Still Cry,” that yet another magic moment happened.
“Her drummer Ray was outside, just sort of hanging out and listening,” begins Randazzo. “When he heard Alexis sing on it, he came running down the hall, saying ‘there’s your first single. I don’t know what other plan you had, but scrap it. This is your single, this is awesome.’ I wasn’t going to argue with him, so we put out the song on iTunes in October as a digital single. Alexis was so good on these tracks, I was literally sweating though my clothes in the studio watching her (laughs).”
Randazzo offers a side-by-side comparison of both of his albums, extremely proud of each one.
“With the first record, I think there was a shyness in a way,” he begins. “Bret and I were just getting to know each other, it was very much a collaborative effort, and I didn’t want to take advantage of anything he was offering. With ‘Show and Tell,’ there was very much a moment where I knew that Bret wanted to push me forward and say ‘this is your record.’ I can remember at a certain point thinking that everything I asked for, had happened. After Alexis left, Bret looked over at me with a smile and said, ‘are you excited?’ He said ‘even without Alexis, you’re doing things on this record that nobody in this area has ever done before.’ I was just so completely high on music at that point.”
It’s ironic that for a record called “Show and Tell,” the last track is a children’s piece – the nursery rhyme set to song “There Was A Crooked Man.” That irony isn’t lost on Randazzo.
“It wasn’t planned out that way, either,” he admits. “I thought, what a neat idea, to have a record called ‘Show and Tell, because that’s the moment in our childhood when we really introduce ourselves as young people. It’s like, ‘this is my favorite Lego set, and I’m going to tell you why its’ my favorite Lego set.’ As adults, we’re still participating in show and tell, but we don’t call it that anymore. We still do it to each other.”
The phrase “show and tell” contains many references, as Randazzo uses it to demonstrate his musical wares.
“As an artist, I’m going to show you my work,” he says. “For this project, it works on so many levels. This record was born out of these little discussions.”
Randazzo’s perspective for the future is fueled by the fantastic response that he’s had to his first two records, as well as his experience creating, and performing what equates to musical bloodletting. He says he’s always looking forward with new material, and is eager for future live shows, such as the upcoming 2012 installment of the Briggs Farm Blues Festival, where he will be performing with Bret Alexander. Randazzo even hints at the prospect of performing a brand new song that didn’t make it onto “Show and Tell.”
“I’m excited for the future,” he says. I’m excited to write new songs, and develop a third project, and eventually a fourth one. I’m excited about what’s coming. It’s interesting, I think that when you put something out there in the universe, the universe helps to make that happen.”
“My father said to me, ‘Ed, being where you are, it’s an adventure. Everyday is different, and everyday is like Christmas, because you never know what you’re going to get that day.’”
Check out Ed’s website at www.edrandazzomusic.com for upcoming live shows, audio samples, and more.