Music's his main course
Quirky Phil Roy will still cook for fans, but that has to go on the back burner. He has a new album, which, if a shade less depressing, is still happily bleak.
Phil Roy is not making lunch after all. Too hot. Besides, it's his music he wants to talk about, not the whole cooking thing.
"What's on my plate this time is music," says the 49-year-old singer-songwriter from Philadelphia. He won't even say what he was going to make for lunch, before it got too hot to cook.
And so we don't eat.
This is a new thing for Roy, because for the last few years, this funnier-in-person-than-in-lyrics writer of sadsack songs has sorta-famously earned his living by inviting fans into his home for both dinner and a concert.
The food thing became very popular, and people liked to write about the singer who stopped touring and sang at his own $100-a-plate dinner parties instead. And about how he was divorced by his wife and dropped by his label at the same time.
But now, Phil Roy's got a new album out, The Great Longing, and a grown-up label, Decca, behind him, and a self-financed CD release concert on Saturday at the Ambler movie theater.
The songs on the album are - at least by Phil Roy standards - not as depressing as people have come to expect from the feeling-sorry-for-myself-as-an-art-form Roy.
"This is the breakthrough positive album," Roy says wryly, followed by that loud burst of laughter of his.
You could easily imagine Phil Roy as a contestant on a reality show like Survivor or Top Chef. He's the guy the producers would home in on with the controversial edit. He's complicated. Dramas tumble out of his mouth. Past hurts rise to the surface. He's funny, then he's a bit ornery. He tells you too much backstory. You could imagine him fighting with other singer-songwriter contestants. "He's so fat!" he says of one such guy whose picture was in the New York Times recently.
He's had plenty of great reviews and praise over the years ("Uncommonly smooth, yet strange and curious," touts Tom Waits). As a songwriter, he's landed songs in lots of places, including the platinum-selling Los Lonely Boys album, a song called "Tell Me Why" ("Our bed's so cold and smothered in lies / Oh why?!") and another in the Oscar-winning film As Good as It Gets (the song was played when Jack Nicholson accepted the Oscar). Ray Charles even recorded one of his songs.
But yet. It - whatever it is - still seems elusive.
"My first record deal was when I was 21 with Warner Brothers," Roy says, in his rented Chestnut Hill loft with 25-foot ceilings and historic Palladian window. "It's almost like Groundhog Day. Putting out a record in the music business, it's so ill-defined. I get e-mails constantly from people, 'I heard your song.' If something's going to happen, let it happen. I can drive myself nuts."
This new album, The Great Longing, is less quiet than previous ones, he says, with more of a groove that takes in genres other than your basic adult album alternative emo-guy. Amos Lee, Madeleine Peyroux and Antje Duvekot appear on the record, whose bucking-myself-up smoothness will fit comfortably into your basic feeling-my-age fiftysomething's music collection, somewhere between your John Gorka and your Norah Jones.
Despite what Roy's friends say - and they may be relieved at any sign of hopefulness from Roy, who has slipped into periods of depression over the years - The Great Longing is not particularly upbeat. This is an album that contains the lyrics "Even my shadow got bored," in "I Love Everyone." But everything is relative. On "Melt," a song of his from a 2003 album that got a lot of attention on WXPN-FM (88.5) and other places, and may even be on your iPod, he sings: "You're the ruby / And I'm the lead / Feeling heavy / Am I dead."
Roy's relieved even to hear that to a casual listener, the new album evokes bleakness, much the same as his earlier ones. "I find it really - I'm inspired you found it sad," he says. "I'm ecstatic that you think this is a downer."
The album's single, "Busy Thinking 'Bout Today" (as opposed to worrying about tomorrow - attaboy Phil!), was the third most-added song in late April at adult album alternative stations like WXPN and XM's "The Loft," according to Roy's publicist.
The big break with the record label happened because an old friend of his changed jobs and landed at Decca. She talked Roy up. But people have been talking Roy up for decades, and somehow he's always stuck in "relative obscurity" land trying to piece together the puzzle of what constitutes success, not to mention happiness.
The Ambler performance is something he cooked up himself, while sitting in the theater watching a movie. The son of a shoe store owner, Roy grew up nearby and attended Upper Dublin schools.
He rented the place, and arranged for lighting and sound. (On Saturday, he has to go early to do the sound check before the afternoon matinees; his 8 p.m. show will sub for The Visitor; however, Sex and the City and The Fall will still be showing at 7 p.m.) Tickets are $20 and available at philroy.com. He's got a beer sponsor.
In addition, Roy has two gigs in New York planned, one at Joe's Pub, plus a tour of adult album alternative radio stations. He's concerned that he's not feeling the WXPN love as much as he has in the past (they loved "Melt," played it repeatedly, and put it on a World Cafe Live compilation). He thinks 'XPN has moved too much toward the indie-rock scene, for which he has some disdain, a scene in which the confessional songwriter territory is well covered by younger acts like Death Cab for Cutie, whose latest album has sold more than 200,000 copies.
That's a dagger to the heart of a guy like Phil Roy. On the other hand, Wyclef Jean just told him he would be singing one of Roy's songs in a new Matt Damon documentary on ultra-marathons, Running the Sahara.
"Things like that - most people don't get major labels to sign them at almost 50 years old," he said. "However it has gone on, this quest to have people hear my music, it hasn't stopped. It is fraught with uncertainty."
Still, he's doing it his way, still offering to cook dinner for fans and now deciding that a suburban movie theater would be just the place for his CD party. "It's like a lot of what I've done - this is different," he says. "Most people wouldn't do this."
For video of Phil Roy talking about his music and playing it, go to philly.com. EndText