Ultimately, these songs are about spirituality and trying to find your place in the world, Griffin House says of Flying Upside Down (Nettwerk, April 29), an album that dramatically marks the 27-year-old Ohioans coming of age as an artist of formidable skills. Specifically, its the continuing story of whats happening in my life, following the realization that the more specific I am about my own life and things that have happened to me, the more people will feel it universally.
The 13-track collection, filled with intensely personal, richly detailed vignettes of the highs and lows of Houses existence, showcases a young artist whose openly emotional singing, poetic lyrics and spiraling melodies recall Jackson Browne circa Late for the Sky. Embedded in Flying Upside Down is a song cycle chronicling the arc of a relationship, from the first kiss (Let Me In) to the emotionally lacerating moment of truth (Heart of Stone) and its anguished aftermath (the title song). These psychologically penetrating songs are set against a backdrop of the lives of family members (Better Than Love, Hangin On [Toms Song]) and friends, including some serving in the Middle East (I Remember [Its Happening Again]). Completing the tableau is a pair of spiky, head-clearing rockers (One Thing, Good for You).
House describes the recording of Flying Upside Down a dream come true, thanks in large measure to the drop-dead studio band assembled by producer Jeff Trott (Sheryl Crow), including a pair of Hall of Famers in Heartbreakers keyboard player Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. A huge Tom Petty fan, House found it immensely gratifying that these great players related so strongly and brought so much to his own music. Also making major contributions were Becks longtime bass player, Justin Mendal-Johnson, drummer Victor Indrizzo (Macy Gray, Aimee Mann, Daniel Lanois) and violinist Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek).
Last August, on CBS Sunday Morning, critic Bill Flanagan raved about Houses first album, Lost and Found, putting the newcomer on his short list of the best emerging songwriters in the U.S., alongside Ray LaMontagne and Joseph Arthur. I bought [Houses] CD [after a show in New York City], said Flanagan, and this never happens: I took it home and must have listened to it 20 times that weekend. I was knocked out.
Flanagan further noted that Lost and Found revealed a young man with a young mans influences, citing Wilco, U2 and Ryan Adams as primary touchstones. House acknowledges the accuracy of this assessment. I was wearing my influences on my sleeve at 22 or 23, he says. Flying Upside Down, by contrast, is without question the work of a major artist, one whose music resonates with hard-earned insights. While it possesses striking emotional depth and intellectual acuity, the album is also wholly accessible, a hook-laden thing of beauty.
Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, the athletically gifted House discovered in a high school drama class that he enjoyed being in front of people and making them laugh. He got totally swept up in performing after playing the lead role in a musical; it was the first time hed ever sung, in public or otherwise. It was like a holy shit! moment, finding out I could actually do this, he says.
Two years later, House shocked his family by turning down a golf scholarship to Ohio U. Sports were really a big part of me and how I grew up, he says. So deciding not to take that scholarship was a turning point for me in choosing a new path for myself, a new life making music. There were some issues to deal with first, however he couldnt play the acoustic guitar hed bought from a friend for $100 at 16, nor had he yet written a song.
I took a couple of guitar lessons and got so frustrated that one day I kicked the strings off my guitar, he recalls with a laugh. It sat there for about a year, but I took it to school [at Miami of Ohio] with me and made up my mind I was gonna learn how to play. One night I picked up my guitar and wandered around campus till I could barely keep my eyes open, trying to play this one chord over and over. Finally, around 4 a.m., my hand got used to it and I formed my first G chord.
Not long afterward, he wrote his first song for the high school sweetheart with whom hed parted ways after graduation. When she came for a visit, House played it for her, and it brought her to tears. Then I was hooked, he says, I thought, Oh, man, if I can make people cry, Im gonna keep doing this. Im gonna make as many people cry as I can! After laughing at the memory, he puts the experience in perspective: What I was drawn to was the power of the song, how it could affect people emotionally.
That epiphany caused the neophytes creative juices to bubble over, and he got really good really fast. After graduating, he joined some of his buddies whod moved to Nashville, and started doing solo gigs at the bottoms of bills in local clubs. Within months, he was headlining, surprising himself at his rapid development. I was working in a gift shop downtown for $6.50 an hour, he remembers, and four months later I was flying to L.A. and New York for meetings with record labels.
House signed with Nettwerk in 2004 and banged out Lost & Found with his band in five days, before moving from Nashville to Cincinnati. He spent most of the subsequent three years on the road, supporting Ron Sexsmith, Patti Scialfa, Josh Ritter, John Mellencamp and Mat Kearny, while also finding time to record several direct-to-fan releases, a pair of EPs (House of David Vol. 1 & 2) and the 2006 digital release Homecoming.
During the same period, he fell in love and got engaged, only to realize at the eleventh hour that hed made a huge mistake. Inevitably, that wrenching experience led to the writing of several of Flying Upside Downs most gripping songs. They came to life during the two months House spent in Manhattan Beach early in 2007 making the album.
I was living down the street from Jeff, right on the beach, he recalls. Id ride my bike to the studio every morning and go make music. It was awesome a good way to spend an Ohio winter.
As he was in the midst of writing these songs, House revealingly wrote in his online journal: Lately, I've been caring very deeply about some stuff, so its been a time of extreme ups and downs. Excitement and disappointment. Its good to keep perspective, though, and not spend too much time dwelling on my own problems; the world is in need of too much help for that, and my friends and strangers have too much stuff of their own going on, that I could help them with, for me to be too distracted by my own issues.
He didnt fully understand it at the time, but the writing and recording of these songs about his own issues was the best sort of help he could possibly offer others, friends and strangers alike.
GRIFFIN HOUSE ON THE SONGS OF FLYING UPSIDE DOWN
Better Than Love: House gets right to the heart of the matter in this tender celebration of a long-term relationship. Key line: You hold my hand and its better than love. The idea came from my uncle, whos my dads youngest brother, so hes just 10 years older than me, and weve always been very close. He was talking about his marriage one day, and he said, Yknow, sometimes, when Penny just reaches over and puts her hand on mine, thats better than sex thats just all you need. I think thats a great sentiment; in a culture thats so obsessed with sex, its important to remember that theres something deeper between men and women.
I Remember (Its Happening Again): A folk-rooted message song that recounts key events of World War II in the context of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I dont have a political agenda; I sing about things that matter to me personally. I wrote that song because of my relationship with my grandfather, and the issue of the war really hit home with me because of his experiences. I care about him, and I care about my friends who are overseas in the war, so the song is about the people involved in the war and less about making a political statement, even though those things are in there as well.
Let Me In: This lovely Jackson Browne-like ballad zeroes in on the moment of commitment in a romantic relationship, formalized with a promise and a ring. Ive heard the Jackson Browne comparisons, and I hope my voice keeps going in that direction. I was really influenced by Bono when I was a kid, and I have a tendency to really let loose in the choruses. But Let Me In opened the door for me to relax a little bit and sing on a more even keel throughout the song, rather than going crazy.
One Thing: This 70s-style, soulful rocker allows the album to take a breath after the cumulative intensity of the first three songs. Its just a fun song. Jeff and I were just trying to sing words that sounded good and just let the melody take our subconscious wherever, and figure out what it was about later, rather than being contrived about it.
The Guy That Says Goodbye: A spare acoustic guitar and piano midtempo piece that recalls Dylans Blood on the Tracks in its lilting melody and internal rhyme scheme. The creative writing courses I took in college helped me understand meter in the way that I applied it to that song. You dont notice it, really, but theres tons of alliteration in lines like The guy that says goodbye to you is out of his mind.
Live to Be Free: The jingle-jangle overtones of Campbells 12-string Rickenbacker and his David Lindley-like slide accents provide yet more tasty hooks to a track thats laced with them, especially the thrilling chorus. Campbell was so good, him and Benmont both. Ive never seen anybody work like that. As soon as they heard the key the song was in, they were off. Mike got almost everything in one take it was crazy.
The Lonely One: A Roy Orbison-style builder that throbs with let-it-all-hang-out emotionality. I kinda have an old soul, and I have a soft spot in my heart for Roy Orbison and the Traveling Wliburys. What I was trying to say in the lyric is that sometimes its easier to be left than to leave. I think that comes from feeling like the bad guy from finding somebody you can last with, trying to make the relationship work and always having to say goodbye. That can make you feel worse than being dumped.
Heart of Stone: Old-school Cali country-rock lament with pedal steel accents. I finished the lyric to that song in such an ironic way. I had proposed and put the ring on my future wifes finger, and I was sitting up in bed that night and thought of that line, Never in my life have I ever felt so alone than when I offered you my hand and your face told me something so wrong. It was totally subconscious, but now that I look back on it, it freaks me out because I was telling myself that I knew it wasnt right, but I didnt even know it. That happened a lot with these songs, where its almost like I have it all figured out but I dont realize it until I listen back. Then I think, Man, I shouldve listened to myself. Hangin On (Toms Song): This ones about my first experience with death. I had a really close uncle, and he died in a car accident when I was 6. So the lyric deals with learning about it, and having to let him go and dealing with that whole experience. Flying Upside Down: A sort of existential lament to a shuffle beat, with a violin (Sara Watkins) and piano (Campbell) deepening the sense of emptiness. Key lines: Can you tell me that its gonna be all right?/Its dark in here. I need a ray of light. I think the lyric is pretty obvious.
When the Time Is Right: Epic windswept ballad along the lines of Becks Sea Change, with a high, lonesome guitar hovering overhead. Justin played bass on Sea Change, and when we first started getting down with this song, he threw his head back like he was driving down the highway, so I guess it struck a chord with him. But I originally pictured it more like an anthemic, Peter Gabriel-ish song about a desert drive.
Good for You: Midtempo rocker with razor-sharp, distorted guitar riffing and a surging chorus, as the narrator pleads his case with a potential or former lover. I wrote it with Danielle Brisboise from the New Radicals. We came up with the melody, and she left the lyric writing to me. Like a lot of the other songs, its about what was going down in my life at that moment.
Waiting for the Rain to Come Down: A plainspoken gospel hymn in folk-rock dress that builds without resolving, making it a thematically functional coda for the album. I wrote five pages in my journal sitting on my front porch while it was raining, and the lyric is what I wrote down, word for word. So I just put it to music. It remains one of the most emotionally pure songs for me to sing, because I didnt manipulate it at all it was exactly how I was feeling and what I wanted to say and the music serves the words entirely.
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