PM: When did you start playing tunes in front of anyone?
RJ: Oh, man, really early on. When I started writing tunes, I would like call some girl that I was fascinated with and sing her the tune. I'd write a tune for her, play it for her over the phone.
RJ: I'd play in front of anybody. I never had any fear about playing in front of people. We sang in my family all the time. My mother sang. My mother just breaks into song, still, when I go home. She comes out of the shower, and she's walking down the hallway, and she gets this song in her head, and then suddenly it starts coming out of her mouth.
PM: She must be blown away by who you're becoming?
RJ: Well, maybe she is. My mom is really laid back, so it's like--
PM: Is she a hippie mom, like?
RJ: She's not a hippie, no, not at all. She's from the south.
RJ: I mean, she's from that era, but she grew up a farming girl, a super-poor Baptist background. I mean, she's a leftist. Her whole family is right, and she's super left, so she definitely had hippie tendencies. But she never turned into a full-fledged like patchouli wearing, "Hey, run, be free children," type of mom.
PM: She wasn't at Woodstock, yeah.
RJ: Yeah. I mean, she still whipped our asses when we were--she had the old-school methods going on.
PM: [laughs] Right. No Santana records in her collection.
RJ: No, not Santana, ever. Willie Nelson was the most radical thing she listened to.
RJ: And she loved Kris Kristofferson. My mom loves great songwriting in country music, so she's into it. And she remembers every lyric. I mean, she's really deeply into and loves bluegrass. And we turn each other onto things all the time.
PM: Have you ever tried to write a song with her?
RJ: With my mom?
RJ: Wow. I never even considered it.
PM: I wrote a couple of songs with my mom that were mind-blowing experiences.
RJ: Wow. I never considered it. I mean, that would be interesting. She's never stepped out and offered a line--I mean, she's never made that overture, so I've never made it to her, either, I suppose. But yeah, that's an idea.
PM: That's a whole thing.
PM: So there wasn't a certain point in time where you kind of became a solo singer/songwriter. As soon as you started playing the guitar, you were already there.
RJ: Oh, yeah, it just happened. I was established that way in my own mind, and probably established that way in other people's minds very early on, even kids in high school. Because I started getting some respect. I was kind of an outcast, and not a real athlete.
RJ: So come high school, when I started playing at a few parties, or being in bands, I started to get a little respect. And people thought of me as that guy who writes tunes and plays piano and plays guitar, for sure.
PM: So it was your identity right from the top.
PM: Got it.
RJ: And even when I moved to Vegas and then subsequently to New York, it was always about the music. I've never had any aspiration to do anything else, ever, and still don't.
PM: Now, for a guy who had that aspiration so soon and so deeply rooted, it's a very interesting move that after high school it went, "No, I didn't go to L.A. or New York or Boston, I went to Las Vegas."
RJ: Yeah. I mean, the bottom line with all of that, Frank, was more like I grew up blue collar.
RJ: And my family doesn't have any bread. Most of the people in this business, most of the artists that you talk to all come from families with money that have helped support their artist career.
PM: That's very true, I think.
RJ: Yeah. It's very true.
PM: I come from no money, too, so I dig.
RJ: So yeah, you know the meaning of the street.
PM: Yeah, I come from Yonkers.
RJ: Yeah. And I came from Delaware. Delaware is a very conservative place. And even though they're a half hour from Philly, two hours from New York and two hours from D.C., you'll meet a lot of people there, maybe even over fifty percent of them that have never been to any of those places.
RJ: I did not have any connections in New York City, no connections in Los Angeles. I was failing out of school because I was a terrible student. And I really didn't know jack shit. I mean, I wouldn't have known the first thing about how to start my career. And my father knew this guy through someone he dealt antiques with, and her son was living in Las Vegas and working as a drummer in the lounges. That, to me, was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. I mean, wow, working as a musician.
RJ: "I'll go there and be with him, and he'll give me work." And I just went to Las Vegas. And the dude did hook me up with work. And I worked--I made more money there than I ever made in New York my first year.
RJ: I made a lot of money in Las Vegas, did great, actually. Had a weekly paycheck with a lounge band.
RJ: I get to New York and started busing tables, and basically worked day gigs for about 11 years before I ever broke out, and then subsequently maybe another three or four after my first breakthrough of having a label and being able to make it solely on music.
PM: Wow. Tell me about that first label. I don't know that period.
RJ: My first label was called Blackbird Records. It was a label run by this guy named Billy Lehman, who, oddly enough, was Ivan Boesky's son.
RJ: And he had a lot of money, and he was a big music fan, big lover of the arts, really cool guy, actually. And he started this record label, and he signed a few acts out of New York City--me, Deanna Kirk, and this other act named Jake. And he ended up signing this band called Everything, that had a minor hit called--what was it--"The Hooch."
RJ: They had a big hit called "The Hooch," in like '98, which is kind of what ruined that first part of my career, because the label was too small to pay attention to me once "The Hooch" was shooting up the charts, and Casey Kasem was talking about it.
PM: "'The Hooch' screwed me."
RJ: Yeah, "The Hooch" tore me down, man.
RJ: So yeah, that was pretty much that. I did a couple records for them. And I wound up disillusioned, and I actually quit the label. I had an "out" in my contract, I quit. They were probably going to drop me anyway, but I had too much pride to get dropped, so I quit.
PM: Right, "you can't fire me, I quit."
PM: And so then you went indie.
RJ: And I went indie. I mean, actually, at that point, I just went under. I didn't have any money, and on top of that, I'd recorded most of my tunes with this label, so I had to write new tunes. And I was working a day gig. That's when I started like hanging out at the Living Room. I really started changing my attitude. Up until then, I was very ambitious. And I wouldn't say that I'm not ambitious now, but my ambition was blinding when I was in my twenties. And I was just, "I've got to have a deal!" "I've got to have this," and, "You have to do this!" It wasn't about the egocentric thing as much as it's just about a matter of survival, and just growing up blue collar, and thinking, man, if I don't hit the frickin' big time, I'm going to be working as a janitor until I'm 72.
RJ: So I was very bloodthirsty to get something official happening. And then after all that went down the tubes, I started doing a lot of soul searching. I started going to hear music, not just to meet up with this guy or that guy, or try to impress this person or that person, but just started digging--going to the 55 Bar and listening to instrumental music, or going to the Living Room and digging songwriters, and kind of approaching the thing from a really much more open heart--
PM: How interesting.
RJ: --and letting in music, and not worrying about where it could get me.
PM: Yeah. continue