Elaine Romanelli tells stories ‘The Hour Before’

Back in September, New York-based solo touring artist Elaine Romanelli hoped to raise $6,500 in an IndieGoGo campaign for her next album, Stories People Told Me. After a month of hard crowdfunding, she raised $6,755 in one month, well over the goal.

She also changed the title of her new album to the more mysterious, The Hour Before, which better reflects the collection of original songs about ordinary people about to endure extraordinary circumstances.

In an exclusive, March 26 interview with AXS, Romanelli explained, "The Hour Before title came after a long search for something else that would encapsulate the whole of the album. I think a feeling of life in motion pervades the album; in most of the songs, something is either just about to change or just has, and the fallout is starting.”

That this singer/songwriter is able to convert the fallout of her substantive, lyrical song set through that lilting Disney Princess voice without diminishing the gravity of her compassionate appeal is just amazing.

All 11 of her original compositions come straight from her first-person: innately relatable, lyrically clever, melodically true, surprisingly deep but never obviously so. Romanelli responds to the trials and the joys of life in warm, responsive keys, with the empathy of a best friend who more than understands what you’re going through. Her perspective throughout the songs comes from a point of strength, recovery, and enormous sensitivity, in such a universal sense that anyone can identify. The songs themselves cover death as we age, the first throes of love after so much past disappointment, taking the children and running away from an abusive relationship, more love, lots of love.

The variety in that deceptively perky Disney voice changes with a subtle strength and maneuverability — depending on the subject matter and the emotions felt — that is simply breathtaking. Her voice matches the ominous and the quietly triumphant, life really, whatever the narrative requires.

In the breakout hit, “25,” Romanelli is her textbook signature self: happy-go-lucky, joyful, infectiously so, as sassy and fresh as her lyrics about a young woman’s impossibly idealistic dreams. It’s hard not to “dance with abandon” when “25” comes on: “25 feels like nothing to me, so let’s all stop pointing out it’s a quarter century, come and dance with abandon, be messy, and free, I don’t care how old you are: pretend to be me, let’s be young and immortal, and joyful, and we will remember the rest of our lives, how it felt when I turned 25.”

Then her voice grows very quiet, subdued, molting into the contrasting, darkening tune of “Real,” about a woman who must flee a fairy tale gone wrong. This is a princess who shakes the glitter from her hair, grabs only what’s necessary, and runs for her life, saving her children from the same fate, with no time to dwell on how she found herself back in the dungeon. The lyrics alone, with the saddening tears played on the piano, are terrifying enough, because they feel real.

But then her voice begins to rise in the bridge as awareness peaks and his betrayal scars all that purity — “When it starts, you’re so stunned, never thought that he’d be one, first the doubt, then the fear, I gotta get us out of here, help me get out of here” — and you clutch at your chest, scared for this woman, her children, scared all of a sudden for yourself. You can literally see her rising from the depths of her prison, rising to shake herself free from a loveless, violent marriage, rushing out of there, running as fast as she can. You begin to remember your own escapes, what your “Grandma’s vase” was when an abusive father pushed too far, when chased by a gang of thugs, when everything changed, and life turned to shades of gray.

Of all the songs on this new album, “Real” is what you return to again and again, before hopping to “25” for a breath of fresh air. The songs fall in line between these two lynchpins, and evidence a real star in the making.

The Hour Before CD release party ($10 tickets, 21 and over) will feature Romanelli doing what she always does, performing solo, pouring out her sparkling and surprising personality in those original, universal songs. Look for her at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, 185 Orchard St., on April 25, 7 p.m., dance in the aisles with abandon, purchase several CDs for you and your friends, and go over to thank her for getting it, for really getting it, ‘cause she does.

Elaine Romanelli’s interview from last Thursday continues here:

AXS: The last time we spoke, you were getting ready to pull all the stops for a crowdfunding campaign to make a new album, titled Stories People Told Me. Since then, you’ve more than raised enough money for your goal, gotten the album made, and will host a CD release party at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall on April 25. Wow, how do you feel about all that? Was there even any doubt?

Elaine Romanelli: Oh, my gosh, there’s always doubt — it’s like permafrost in the singer/songwriter landscape. But it does feel wonderful to have support from a community.

I was surprised by the range of people who participated. I knew some strong supporters would be with me, but I didn’t expect votes of confidence from other corners — old friends, new ones, mailing list members I haven’t heard from in years — and I didn’t expect strangers to be moved to join in.

AXS: You also changed Stories People Told Me to The Hour Before. I actually prefer Stories, since it explains the origins of these songs. Why the change, and where did you get, The Hour Before? What do you think about the two different titles and what they convey?

ER: I like them both, so I’m glad someone else does, too! The Stories title came from a desire to underline that the songs tell universal stories. But that’s apparently already clear. Listeners seem to view that as an inherent quality of my writing. (One interviewer said one of my songs was “like a two-hour movie in four minutes.”) So it wasn’t resonating as a good name to differentiate this collection of songs vs. any other.

Also, I didn’t want to overly distance myself from the album. They’re other people’s stories, yes, absolutely. And they’re mine as well. I identify strongly with all these narrators and their feelings, even when the biographical details of our lives differ.

The Hour Before title came after a long search for something else that would encapsulate the whole of the album. I think a feeling of life in motion pervades the album; in most of the songs, something is either just about to change or just has, and the fallout is starting.

Also I like the implicit question. The hour before what? I hope that will draw listeners in to find out!

AXS: How has the recording process been for the new album? Any difficulties, or was it smooth sailing from songwriting and song selection, to laying down tracks, and of course, the fundraising aspect?

ER: It was more of an epic journey than I expected. I started this album two years ago, making demos, writing through the summer. The studio recording process started in North Carolina in the fall of 2013, and continued in New York on and off all last year. When last fall arrived and the fundraising campaign was so intense, I realized that to launch the album well, I’d need more lead time, so here we are, in spring of 2015.

Certainly I wasn’t planning to take so long between albums! But looking back, it was probably the best thing that could have happened. I’ve developed enormously as an artist during that time, and the album that resulted is a great calling card for how I am now.

AXS: A lot of artists turn to crowdfunding, with mixed results. What do you attribute to your overwhelming success? You went over the goal. Where does your audience come from?

ER: It’s tempting to say, “I’m so lucky, it just sort of happened,” but that’s totally not true. I’m here to tell you: getting funded takes sustained and significant effort! I worked at it like it was a full-time job. I posted about it frequently, blogged funny reasons to participate every day for 45 days, sought out press (like you!). I wrote personal notes to potential supporters, asking them to participate. I made update videos. I asked. I asked again.

It was great reinforcement of an important lesson: Be on your own side. Many of us, maybe especially women, grow up learning variations on, “Be quiet and work hard, and someone else will notice and reward you.” That’s not the case. You have to stand up and wave your hands and say, “I’m here.” You have to prove that you will show up for yourself, before you can expect other people to be willing to show up for you.

AXS: In writing these songs, you rely primarily on your voice, the piano, and these quirky, conversational, and at times, surprisingly prosaic lyrics. Any particular issues or challenges arise from the songwriting process — or does it come easy to you? It seems so.

ER: I’m glad it sounds easy! Some songs flow out, and some struggle to be born. These days, there’s more honing, probably because I have more songwriting tools at my disposal to try things purposefully, like trying to keep the tone conversational, but have a strong rhyme scheme.

Occasionally, a song comes out as a gift during a liminal moment, but if I sit down with the intention to write, then usually there’s a lot of false starts, good lines that dead-end, boring couplets… and, eventually, an Aha! moment.

If the Aha! leads to a verse and a chorus, the song will come into being. I can put it down, come back much later, and it’ll get finished. If it doesn’t, it stays a page of scribbled ideas in a notebook.

AXS: The subject matter of the new album dwells on the tenuous balance between self-preservation and risk in relationships. That has to come from you, not just your reflection of these stories of other people. Where are you in these songs, which ones are directly from your journal?

ER: It all comes from me, but not every detail is strictly biographical. I write about what makes me react emotionally, and I try to write about it so other people also have that flash of recognition. I hope they’ll see themselves in the story, or better yet, feel like the song describes their own thoughts and feelings.

AXS: What songs were the most fun to record for you? Explain what singing them did for your spirit.

ER: Actually it was the instrumental parts that were fun to record, because that was novel. Scary at first, then fun. Doubly so for the one guitar track!

Four years ago, I didn’t really play anything, certainly not well enough to be the only accompaniment, and now I play two instruments. I’m proud of that. It’s tough as a grown-up to go back to being a beginner, especially in an area near your expertise. We get used to being good and feeling competent. Beginners don’t sound so great and aren’t so competent.

But if you keep at it, you get better, is the magical thing, and as you watch yourself grow and improve, you realize how big a capacity we have as humans to continue to learn and grow our whole lives.

Singing: the songs change meaning for me still, all the time, so some days in the studio, a song would hit me emotionally and absolutely surprise me. Recordings are funny that way. To me, the recording is a moment frozen in time, rather than a definitive version of how a song is supposed to go.

AXS: “The Year Of Death’s” lyrics are a lot more serious-sounding than the music would allow. Nice touch on conjuring up Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” for the reaper line (“Baby, I’d fear the reaper, if I were you”). If you could, would you do another style for this song, a much more somber one, or was your original intent to keep such a strong subject matter of the deaths of loved ones lighter than usual?

ER: Thanks for getting that reference!

It was my intent to keep the contrast, because in an odd way, that’s more realistic. Many of us have been through stretches of life where there’s such a pile-on of difficult events that you think: this is ridiculous. If this were a movie plot, no one would believe it! So you get almost punchy.

Life is messy, love is often inconvenient. Of course the narrator falls in love during a laughably horrible year. Of course it would be when you think your heart is at max capacity.

AXS: Your lyrics could sell separately as a book of poems. Which is your strongest selling point, the lyrics or the music, or is there a preferred method of listening to this album?

ER: Wow, thank you! Well, I write the melodies and words at the same time. In fact, it’s really rare for me to be able to build a song starting from just one or the other. So I think of them together.

Maybe part of what appeals is that you can listen or sing along and not really pay attention to the words, but later read them and still enjoy them? I’ve liked songs that were sort of diminished when I looked too closely at the words and realized they didn’t make sense. That might just be me, though.

AXS: How do you find the words to capture a moment the way you do, and make them sound so … pretty and fresh?

ER: Thank you again! Gosh. Does anyone have a succinct answer for this I can borrow?

I hate to say it comes down to art… but it does. I do work very purposefully at refining the language, and that process is not mysterious; sit and write, or stand and play, or walk around, or look up a million possible rhymes in a rhyming dictionary, or lie on the floor, or all of the above.

But when it locks into place, or why, that’s mysterious. I can tell the difference between when I’m trying to convince myself it’s refined enough and when it’s actually ready, because I get an emotional reaction if it rings true. It feels like it comes from some other place, like I’m recognizing it rather than creating it.

AXS: For all the lightness and fun in the songs, there’s also a lot of mystery to these “stories.” You make the choice not to lead the listener to every point, but to leave the details to the imagination, especially on “Real.” Tell me the story behind that one.

ER: “Real” is an example of one of the true/not true songs on the album. I don’t have kids, I haven’t been in the narrator’s shoes. But part of the joy and maybe even responsibility of being a songwriter is to give a voice to stories that are difficult, that we don’t really want to hear, and make them accessible.

The key is to find a way to make us all turn toward it instead of away from it. I try to change “that could never be me” into “there but for the grace of God go I” by finding moments that are common to our lives. Again, it’s about that flash of recognition.

For me, the flash comes in the second line of that song: “except my Grandma’s vase, I won’t miss anything.” My “vase” is a hand-made afghan, one of the few things I’d grab in a fire. Many of us have a cherished possession it would hurt terribly to lose. So that’s a door into the story, how urgent it was to go, even though it meant leaving something that important behind.

AXS: “Red Tail” seems to be about the death of a very young person, and the survival of the rest of the family. Care to elaborate?

ER: “Red Tail” is another true/not true song. I think it’s about a lot of things, including loss, coping, single parenthood, definitely survival of the rest of the family, and longing for place.

AXS: What made you choose “25” as the first single off the new album for the video?

ER: It’s fun! The album is on the heavy side at times, so, heck — let’s start out with some shimmying! Rejoice in your friends, dance with abandon! It’ll make the tough stuff in life easier to manage.

AXS: Your CD release is scheduled for April 25 — oh, there’s “25” again! — at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York. Who will share the stage with you and what’s in store for the audience?

ER: Gulp – no one. It’ll be just me.

I would love to have a crew of people up there! I hope that as the year unfolds, there will be duets and trios and vocal harmonies and all sorts of fun collaborations ahead. I prefer making music with other people.

But right now I tour solo, so I wanted this album to reflect that, and it makes sense to launch it that way. Also it’s a little moment of truth in advertising. I wanted listeners to know that what they hear on the album and what they see live at the release show are going to be very, very similar.

AXS: What else are you doing to promote this new album?

ER: Many things! Interviews on radio shows, cable TV appearances, some surprise live guest appearances around town. We’re even looking into partnerships to turn the show into a real party.

Also, we’re running a “Cute Campaign” on social media. Get your copy of The Hour Before — in crowdfunding supporter hands starting next week, and on sale worldwide April 21st — and take a photo of it near something stereotypically cute. Give it to your baby to hold, or put a cupcake on it, or pose it with your puppies!

And then post it wherever you live socially — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, what have you. #CuteCampaign #TheHourBefore.

AXS: What would you love for listeners to get out of your The Hour Before?

ER: I hope it’s an opportunity to let down their guard, and feel whatever they need to feel that day: recognized, understood, not alone; happy, encouraged, thankful. (Plus it’d make my day to hear that someone puts on “25” and dances around the kitchen!)

AXS: Describe your music in a nutshell, because it’s hard to describe or put in any nutshell.

ER: Good question! Always tough to answer. In terms of famous comparison artists, I usually say I’m a cross between an indie Sara Bareilles and Dar Williams.

My current one-line description: “catchy tunes for searching souls.”