ROCK AND ROLL AND COSMIC SOUL
Rock ‘n roll is attitude; but it’s also the making of a kind of music. Ronnie Rael and Molly Miller are The So Lows; with help of some extraordinary musicians they have put together celebration of what is and always will be rock ‘n roll.
Their album, “ALTO” was recorded at a time as Ronnie puts it, “We were really uninspired by modern music, so we started writing songs with the idea of creating what we would want to listen to”.
As Ronnie went on to say, “We’re heavily inclined towards the origins and trajectory of rock n roll and the sounds and energy that go along with that, but the truth is, I just like music. I can find inspiration in almost anything”.
Debut full-length album ALTO out now on all digital platforms.
Kofi Forson: I was recently listening to a Tane Cain (McClure) album (former wife of Journey’s Jonathan Cain on YouTube); I imagined myself sitting in an L.A. rock club back in the 80’s. I also went as far as consider this era #postrockandroll.
So you can imagine how happy I was when I sent you a message on Instagram after I heard the song, “Gotta Get You”. Nice of you to respond!
Your album, “ALTO”, was released early last year. How did you two meet? When did you begin working on the record? What was your original intention? What did you hope to achieve? Are your happy with the reception, so far?
Ronnie Rael: Thanks for getting in touch! We’re really glad you’re enjoying it. It’s been a real trip, but I’ll start at the beginning. Molly and I met at a local show in Santa Fe, NM in 2008 and quickly found that we had a special connection. It wasn’t until 2014 when we started playing music together. We were singing a lot of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and that was really the beginning of what would become The So Lows. Our voices blended in a way that I had never experienced in playing music and I knew we had to write a record after cutting some bedroom demos. We were really uninspired by modern music, so we started writing songs with the idea of creating what we would want to listen to. In 2016 we hit the studio and our songs began to take on a life of their own. Since its release, we’ve been blessed in many ways and couldn’t be happier with where we are.
Forson: On your Facebook page it is revealed you self-produced and recorded with the help of engineer David Cragin at his New Mexico studio (Santa Fe Soundworks).
Describe the mood in the studio. My immediate reaction listening to the album is the playing, certainly that organic feel in putting the music together; but the effortlessness in the playing of the instruments, the singing…
Talk to me about how it all came together.
Rael: Our goal in writing and recording “Alto” was to produce something that was honest and authentic. That’s something we always want to stay true to. We also wanted something we could easily translate to the stage. We were lucky enough to have a team of musicians that believed in our sound and helped us achieve it.
The bass player you hear on half of the record is a cat named Case Tanner; he took an interest in what we were doing and suggested we go into Santa Fe Soundworks and lay down some ideas.
When we first walked into the studio, we knew it would be a haven for creativity. …Dimly lit, equipment everywhere, incense burning, coffee brewing, guitars strewn about every which way…the kind of place where the goal is to produce music. Not some boujee looking studio with a powder room that appeals to big names, you know? Salt of the earth! The studio’s owner and engineer/our co-producer, David Cragin, really enabled our vision to come to light. He took what we had and made it pop. His process and creativity really meshed with ours.
We laid down some scratch tracks, brought in the drummer, Jim Reid, and everything was magic. We were lucky to work with fantastic players that really got it and understood it. The record was self-funded and self-produced, so what you hear is us. No bells and whistles, just us.
Forson: There’s a live feel to the band. That’s what rock ‘n roll is about; right?
Who and what were you channeling during the recording? You consider your music rock and roll and cosmic soul. Hard to get around The Stones’ influence; Mick and Keith’s ghosts can definitely be felt. But you also like The New York Dolls, Curtis Mayfield…
Rael: Personally, more often than not, the sound I want to get is inspired by something other than music. I attempt to sonically translate whatever I’m thinking about or experiencing into a riff or a guitar solo. I’m just conveying my emotions and I guess based off the sounds I’ve listened to my whole life; it comes out as rock n roll. We’re heavily inclined towards the origins and trajectory of rock n roll and the sounds and energy that go along with that, but the truth is, I just like music. I can find inspiration in almost anything.
As far as what we were channeling, energy is so important to us. I feel like the world is waking up to some hard truths, and at the time we were recording, we were really thinking a lot about systems of oppression, what it means to be human and self-sovereignty (still are). That’s what I love about rock n roll – a song can be about a very relatable and common experience, and yet the energy you put into it can be so much more than that – it can take you and the listener on a trip, just based off the energy of it. Transformative!
Forson: Well, like I said the first So Lows song I heard was “Gotta Get You”. The opening guitar lick is definitely “a keeper”; the tone and melody. But Molly’s singing; that rock and roll attitude; so sexy!
The oooh – oooh – oooh… The high-pitch of the chorus “Gotta Get You”, the bass playing off the guitar, the creative progression of the drums… How the song itself builds to a crescendo.
Does this song work for you, Molly? How did you approach it?
Molly Miller: This song was a lot of fun to record and I really enjoy playing it live. Ronnie had the riff and verses for a while and the hook was just the “oohs.” I started singing it and it turned into “I gotta get you.” This was actually the first song I recorded vocals on for “Alto”. What you hear on the album is the first take. My approach was that I didn’t want to over-sing – I didn’t want it to be a song about vocals, I just wanted them to vibe with the riff.
Forson: I love the drum intro to “Time Forgot”; followed by the bass and what sounds like congas…
You touch the sun with this one too, Molly. I love the lines “What do you know about stayin’ high? What do you know about getting right with your danger?”
Who are your singing influences? What is the process for your singing? How do you build emotion? Do you just sing? Does it only come from the heart? Does it manifest itself from the body?
Miller: Thank you! Right on, those are congas. That bass line was my crazy idea that ended up working out. I think the instrumentation on this song turned out so powerful. I’m most proud of this one.
Those lyrics are actually a reference to “You’re Mine” when Ronnie says “Stayin high and / holdin on to wings that are flyin / ’cause fallin don’t come so easily anymore.” It’s a commentary on resilience and living with the darker parts of yourself; also, reclaiming the word “high.” But I’ll briefly say that “Time Forgot” is about what it means to be human, and it’s about “time” forgetting to grieve, right? I wonder what that means to other people. I only know what it means to me.
My singing influences are pretty diverse and I gravitate towards different influences depending on the feeling of the song. Some of the vocal influences I had for this album were Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Ronnie Spector, Amy Winehouse, Stiv Bators, Emmylou Harris – seems like it wouldn’t make sense together, but somehow it does.
My singing process is really just to sing what I feel. The emotion is inherent – if I can’t find emotion for something, I just won’t do it. I think it comes from the heart or the spirit, or sometimes it comes from somewhere beyond myself, and then manifests through the body. Sometimes I’m pulling from the outside and bringing it in, and sometimes I’m trying to send out what’s already inside – there’s a lot of desperation in that.
Forson: I love the grief and sadness of “Alone and Blue”. I guess the killer touch is the sax solo, Molly’s range; singing “It’s not your fault I’m alone and blue“.
Where do you go in your mind to capture the spirit for a song like this? Are you channeling anyone? You remind me of Ronnie Spector?
Miller: This song is sort of a different take on a song about a broken heart. The broken heart is still there, but instead of it being about how the other person broke your heart, it’s about getting to the point that you realize it just is what it is and it’s really no one’s fault. We had been listening to a lot of Fats Domino when we wrote this and I think I just really felt the mood of it and the swing of it, in a way; allowing myself to feel the sadness along with the acceptance. I didn’t channel anyone specifically, though I definitely can hear some Ronnie Spector in it. Our engineer said it sounded like a drunk take on Patsy Cline, which always made me laugh. I did keep it loose in the chorus!
Forson: Can you please talk a bit about sticking to the rock and roll book, not veering from what is traditional…
Is that how you stayed true to the making of the record; channeling your heroes, not trying to outplay or overdo what they’ve established? What is the method for making a rock and roll album?
For some people they get high or smashed; then hit the studio. What is the essence; that genius behind the album?
Rael: The idea of maintaining a preconceived notion of what the genre is or has been isn’t really on my radar. We could be in the 1970’s and I’d still be doing the same thing, sounding the same way, you know? It’s just something that speaks to me.
As far as making a rock n roll record; attitude and the spirit of resilience and resistance is where we’re coming from. The balance between focus and the ability to keep the music loose is important; not being too wrapped up in an idea, and just allowing it to evolve on its own. Letting it breathe. That’s key. It’s not yours anymore once you lay it down. You’ve given it away, and that’s really the whole point anyway, isn’t it? When recording, I prefer to only do 3 takes. If I can’t get it, I move on. Too many takes and to me it becomes contrived and sounds too tight. We really wanted to keep things natural and organic.
Forson: I love the rev-ups on the album; “Dead Horse” and “Gimme Some Lip”. “Dead Horse” has that New York Dolls’ David Johansen feel and business.
Your harmonies are nice. Love your singing, Ronnie; it’s serious, measured and right on! The guitar playing is quite intense and focused.
How did you find the heart and body for this song? You seem possessed in a way. You know what I mean; like you got the rock and roll bug bite. (Laughter)
Rael: Thank you! Rock n roll bug bite…I like that! It is definitely an out of body experience for me. Vocally, we wanted to approach it like Taj Mahal and David Johansen. “Dead Horse” came to me as a country tune and it went through a few incarnations before it landed where it is. The song is a real declaration…that’s where the attitude comes from, you know? I really mean what I’m saying.
Forson: And you Molly… “Gimme Some Lip” sounds like you’re on a mission, no messing around. (Laughter)
“You can fill my cup but don’t take a sip. Why don’t you give me some lip“.
The chorus is playful and very rock ‘n roll.
You were pushing that Tina T… method here. Would you agree with that?
Miller: You know, I do remember that I was listening to a lot of Tina at the time! But it’s funny, because my approach at first ended up being too Stiv Bators. I recorded scratch vocals for it and the “yeah, come on!” sounded so much like Stiv’s inflection – when I sing it live, I think that still comes through. It’s a lot of fun.
Forson: I love the legend that is the song “Romance”; the guitar intro, the lush harmonies, sexy charm in your singing, Ronnie… It seems the repetition of the word “Romance” is the focal point. I love the production on this; it’s heavy-loaded and hot. You can dance to it as well. The interlude with the sax…
How proud are you of this song?
Rael: Thank you! It’s a moment on the record that I feel we really nailed. Some songs come together in a really fluid way and this was definitely one of the easier tunes that we did. After laying everything down, we had that open space where the sax solo is and wanted instrumentation that could really carry the song home. We brought in the saxophone player, Chris Jonas, who really made the song what it is. Conceptually, “Romance” can sometimes be an emotion that takes you over and won’t stop knocking, you know?
Forson: The other rev-up is the last song, “You’re mine”. Your singing is stellar, Ronnie.
I love the riff! The guitar playing and drumming gets it right! The hand-clapping at the end reminds me of Iggy/The Stooges. You singing “You’re mine” and Molly’s echo is cool.
Rael: Much appreciated. “You’re Mine” was the first song Molly and I wrote together. It has a special place in my heart for sure.
Forson: It’s been fun spending some time. Good luck on everything.
Rael: Thanks for everything Kofi!
Miller: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.
Forson: What plans do you have for a stage show and a tour?
Rael: We’re planning to tour, Fall 2019!
The So Lows debut album, ALTO is available for streaming at youtube.