In Session: Russel the Leaf
TROY – On January 22nd, Evan Marré, known by his stage moniker as Russel the Leaf, released his latest effort, My Street. This record is packed with nostalgic sounds that instantly brings you back to certain sonic textures and tonalities of the 1960’s. Featuring tunes that are steeped in – and sometimes dripping in – optimism and a forever-forward attitude, it would be a hard challenge for anyone that likes this style of music to not be overly thrilled with the album.
Throughout it all, an almost wall-of-sound presence to the instrumentation is apparent, harkening back to a sound created and popularized by infamous producer Phil Spector. It was my pleasure to sit down with Evan this week. What follows is an extremely detailed, and thought-provoking conversation betwixt two musicians. Continue reading as we delve deeply into our influences, the process of recording a record, what it means to be a DIY-musician in today’s market, the inspirations behind My Street, and much, much more.
To support Russel the Leaf’s effort, please view the links at the end of the article.
Lucas Garrett: Hey, Evan! Thank you for sitting down today. I just saw you have a new album come out called, My Street. Why don’t you tell us a bit about the album?
Evan Marré: Sure! Thanks for having me, Lucas.
LG: Of course.
EM: Basically, each album is a moment in time. Within the entire discography for Russel the Leaf, these albums happen within my studio. This one started its life a couple of years ago in Philadelphia. I moved back upstate to home and finished it up and I’m just really excited its out there. I’m just trying to put out my own music and not rely on sending emails to labels and “da-da-da.” These next couple of records I’m going to be putting out on my own. This is the third I’ve put out within the span of a year.
EM: I’m super excited about this one. It’s one of my most fully realized recordings. I’m really proud of the sound of it. It’s another step in the whole journey.
LG: Looking at the liner notes of My Street, it looks like you’re doing the lion’s share of the instrumentation. I believe your brother, Josh, is on a few of the songs, right?
EM: Correct. I’m playing mostly everything and I basically get the recordings up to a point… where I’m getting frustrated and I need something else. Something’s not quite working and I’ll bring in some other musicians to help me out. My brother, Josh, is definitely the person I run to first; I’m constantly sending him mixes of songs in the early stages – he’s always got ideas. He’s a much better guitar player than me [laughs]. So, he’ll wind up playing something cool.
I’m very inspired by do-it-yourself musicians and all-encompassing musicians, like: Stevie Wonder, Prince, Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson. R. Stevie Moore. The pioneers of playing everything yourself; Les Paul. Very inspired by that. Always have been. I’m just trying to create my own little world of that kind of record-making here at Russtudios.
LG: I think you just listed some of my favorite artists, there, Evan. That’s awesome.
LG: Especially Stevie Wonder. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is an amazing piece, isn’t it?
EM: Oh, my goodness. He is number one. He’s incredible. He constantly amazes me. You can listen to those records over and over again, and you’ll still hear something different, because of the eccentricities of just one guy. For lack of a better way of putting it… no matter how well the stuff is being played, it is going to kind of sound like someone fumbling through it because it’s all one person playing all those instruments. Trying to catch up with the last version of themselves, you know?
LG: Yeah, exactly.
EM: You put the drums on, and then Stevie’s synth bass is trying to catch up with the drums. Once you get thirty things on it, all of those things are circling around each other and it’s just beautiful. I’ve always been really inspired by trying to make that sound. I’ve also been inspired to push against that sound. Something I think I might actively do more than what the Stevie process was, is really make it sound like a band is interacting with each other. And, in a way where it does sound like different people. Give each thing a different personality on the track.
LG: Part of your record that I enjoyed, in terms of instrumentation, was that it felt like you were having a conversation with yourself. You know? Especially, for example, how the organ came in and receded in the mix. It really felt like you were having a dialogue with other people. Because it was just you, however, it was like you were having a dialogue with yourself.
EM: That’s so well put. That’s really cool. Thank you for saying that.
LG: I noticed a lot of different sounds here and there throughout the record. What seemingly prevailed the most was kind of this overly happy, kind of tonality to it. It reminded me of acts in the late 1960’s such as the Monkees and even some of the later-era Beatles’ records. Do you enjoy listening to these groups? Are they a creative influence of yours?
EM: I would say that characteristic of my music can be – and this is a very definitive answer – solely attributed to my obsession with The Beach Boys. They are my favorite band of all-time and a part of their music just kind of lives in my brain. When I sit down to make music, I’m always thinking about them. I think that would have to do with sort of the pep in some of the recordings. I really, really enjoy the later sixties period of The Beach Boys, and the early seventies period, where they were making their own records of their own volition as a group without Brian as the sole person to say yes or no. But, also the spirit of the early sixties stuff that we all know and love. Those records like Shut Down Volume 2, and Beach Boys Party. Specifically, the album, The Beach Boys Today, which is just two records before Pet Sounds. That album – just the sound of the rhythm section – kind of goes back to that Stevie Wonder thing. You listen to it each time and it kind of feels like it’s going to fall apart.
EM: I take three years to complete and get a record to where I want it to be. They were making a whole album in two days, or whatever. You look at the liner notes for everything from the sixties; they were in the studio three days next to each other, and then they were done. There’s an immediacy to that. The joy of Dennis Wilson’s drummer is something that me and my brother are really attached to. We got a lot of inspiration from the family nature of The Beach Boys. Way more so than The Beatles. I’ve always been a Beach Boys. There’s just something about them.
LG: For me, personally, there is no other band that will ever top The Beatles in my heart. But, also on that same note – oddly enough – there isn’t a much better example of songwriting out there than Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.” If you really dig into that song… I get chills even right now talking about it.
LG: It’s a wonderful piece.
EM: It’s one of the best ever. I think I read somewhere, maybe a quote from someone, that he’s pop music’s Bach, or Beethoven. He’s really that special. If you’re more of a Beatles guy, I really suggest you check out the early seventies Beach Boys’ records, because they do have a more chill songwriter vibe, rather than the heavy characteristic of being at the beach and the California sound. They sound like great rock records; I’d highly suggest you check out some of their later stuff.
LG: I’ll have to do that! So, back to your work…
LG: You know as a songwriter, musician – all that good stuff – I know how weird this COVID-era is. We would go in; we would sit in our room and write out an album, and flesh out that album in either the studio, or over the years in live performances. Now, it seems – certainly for myself – the name of the game has changed. The current playbook is not only outdated, but it’s not relevant anymore. We find ourselves in a weird era of a conglomeration of online and live-and-in-person, but not really… You know what I mean?
LG: So, how do you as an artist work to get your name out there on a new release, while also not weighing down mentally on the social media aspect that can be exhausting?
EM: You’re really speaking to my heart right now. Exhausting is a perfect word for it. I’m relatively new to Instagram. I didn’t have a smartphone for the longest time and then I got one. I was on Facebook heavily promoting Russel the Leaf stuff and was pretty big on that. But, yeah, I’m kind of new to the flow of Instagram. COVID aside, it’s not my strong suit, I’d say, on a daily-basis. I’m not attempting to create a whole piece of “content.” What I’m doing is chipping away on making fully realized records for myself. When it comes time to “promote” it, I can make myself do it – and I do know how to do it – but, it’s a very specific version of it. I think with this new “Records from Russ” that I’m trying to do, which is me having a bunch of blank cassettes and printing out professionally printed artwork and dubbing the cassettes myself; selling them on my Bandcamp, and at shows, it’s given me a sense of power and responsibility to the thirty to sixty people that buy these things. I think that’s been really important to set my own boundaries.
I no longer have to send out a bunch of emails to different labels to try and get responses, or what have you. The only thing I have to do is be responsible to what boundaries I’ve set for myself, not what other people are setting for what they think I should do. If that makes sense. Ever since I’ve done that, it’s been extremely freeing. If there would be any piece of advice, here’s the given: we’re always going to make art that we need to make. Do you know what I’m saying?
EM: Not to romanticize the “olden days,” but this is just a fact. In the sixties and seventies, there were humongous budgets for anyone who was seen as talented playing gigs around town. They would get swooped up by a management company. I’m reading this Richard Thompson book, and he says, “[we’d] get twenty pounds a week.” All they had to do was get to the gig, keep writing music, and be a band. There was a whole team of people around them; booking them, managing them, making sure they got paid, doing the artwork for them, printing out posters and sending them to towns. You know what I mean?
EM: Now, with this self-managed system that we’re all under, we have to take care of that. Which, for a certain type of artist can be extremely daunting. I don’t necessarily want to do all of that, but I see it as a necessity. And, you know this is like a glorified hobby… it’s my entire life; I really care about Russel the Leaf and what it is, but it is like my hobby. It’s a humongous art project, is what I see it as. When it comes to releasing something, I see it as a school project.
I make all these dates and lists, and all these checklists and everything. I try and get it down best I can. But, that being said, there’s so many records I’ve made that have flown under the radar because of a lack of, you know, instruction, from anyone around me or lack of caring from my end. Like there’s a record I put out when I lived in Philadelphia called Janitor Boy, in 2017. We did a tour in support of it, and we sold out of all the tapes. We did a really great tour and that’s a good example of it; when you have an opportunity to support it. We all have to work day jobs, you know? You can’t ask for two weeks off every couple of months. That’s a long-winded answer, but I really do feel passionately that it’s all under our control.
That can be a positive thing if you’re willing to set aside the mental capacity to make promotional items and stuff like that. See it less as content and more as a giant art project surrounding your music, and try and create an identity. I think it can be fun and not as daunting if you look at it a different way.
LG: Right. But, I think especially now – especially with COVID – it made me say, “What is really important in my life? What is the ‘it’ factor?”
LG: For me, now more than ever, it’s music.
LG: While I may have jobs, they are not my career. My heart is in music, you know?
LG: Jobs that are out there, such as Nippertown, that allow me to continue my overarching passion of my music, I am extremely thankful for. At the end of the day – I don’t know about you – but, nothing really beats getting an email from someone that one of our songs, your song, changed their life or made their day, or made them happy… that is worth more than any paycheck out there.
EM: Oh, one-hundred percent!
LG: I really think now that the world has slowed down in terms of live music, we have time to make the record that we want to make. We’re not caught in the cycle of having an album, then doing shows, then having another album, then doing shows, you know what I mean?
LG: I think that new lack of urgency is really endearing. You can definitely hear on My Street, your latest release, the care that went into the instrumentation. I think if people had more time to work on the art in the manner they see fit, the quality of record… we can’t do it all; we’re wearing a million hats. When you have more time to make records, it really comes out in the work, I believe.
EM: Yeah, I think so, too. One-hundred percent.
LG: Well, we’ve certainly gone over a lot! Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
EM: There’s going to be another record coming out in May!
LG: What kind of sound are we going to hear on that record?
EM: That’s an album I made when I first moved to Lansingburgh, North Troy. I didn’t have a working computer. It had just died on me. But, I had a 4-track cassette machine, so I made an entire record on that cassette machine. No computer. It’s all mono; straight down the middle. Kind of like the Pet Sounds sound. It’s one of my most important records, I believe. It’s my favorite one I’ve ever made. I made that two summers ago and it’ll be coming out in May on cassette and CD, hopefully. Definitely cassette.
LG: Send us that release when it comes out!
EM: Cool! I will.
LG: Thanks again for your time! I look forward to hearing from you soon!
EM: Same to you, Lucas! Have a good day.