Even if you don't know Justin Currie's name, you've definitely heard at least one of his songs. The singer-songwriter is probably best known for his years fronting the Scottish alternative rock group Del Amitri, which caught the attention of music fans with its Top 10 radio hit "Roll to Me" in 1995. But in relation to the group's overall catalog, a mix of perfect pop and melancholy musings, the song painted a deceptively upbeat picture, especially when compared to the rest of the songs on Twisted, the 1995 album from which it came. When we caught up with Currie for a Skype conversation from his home in Glasgow, he acknowledged the success of "Roll to Me" was an interesting time for the band.
"Well, it was quite odd," he says. "Because 'Roll to Me,' even though it was a really big radio hit, it didn't really sell very many more records. The touring and doing a bit of television sold a few more albums, but the radio hit was odd, because most people didn't know who it was. They weren't particularly aware that that song was by a Scottish band called Del Amitri. So we could have been playing in some nightclub down the road and people would be hearing that song on the radio and they wouldn't put two and two together and come to see the show, so our audience didn't really expand very much by virtue of being a Top 10 Billboard [charting band]."
Even though the group had previous Top 40 success in the early '90s with "Kiss This Thing Goodbye" and "Always the Last to Know," Currie understands why Del Amitri gets labeled a one-hit wonder.
"In a sense, in terms of American radio, we are a one-hit wonder band, because that was genuinely the big radio hit," he says. "The royalty statements that I still get are a testament to that fact. People can be familiar with a song but not really familiar with a band at all. So we always had an audience that knew the albums, and then there was this kind of weird separate audience that we never really saw that would recognize that song on the radio. It was quite strange."
The group soldiered on, releasing albums in 1997 and 2002 before drifting apart when "the phone stopped ringing." Currie worked on a variety of side projects before putting out his first official solo release, What is Love For, in 2007. As the title suggests, the material was darker and more introspective. When it came time to work on the follow-up album, 2010's The Great War, he knew it was time to get back to more familiar territory.
"I kind of promised [the record label] that I wouldn't give them more of the same on the second record, although to be fair they'd have been cool with me making What is Love For Part 2, I think. But I set out to prioritize more up-tempo songs in major keys — the exact opposite of What is Love For. I couldn't foresee going back on the road with more slow songs and not making the audience really depressed. One has a duty to entertain after all."
He continues in that vein with Lower Reaches, his latest solo album released in early 2014, which again features a more band-oriented approach. The album's title is a nod to Austin, where he recorded with producer Mike McCarthy, well-known for his work with the band Spoon. Currie had heard the solo album from Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, which McCarthy produced, and thought the producer could be a good match for the project he had in mind. Indeed, when Currie showed up to sort through a stack of 40 songs that he had written for the prospective album, he quickly found McCarthy was right for the job.
"Some producers will just sort of listen to the surface of a song looking for the hook or for things that are just kind of catchy or shiny on the surface," he says. "He wasn't about that at all — he was really obsessed with how things felt rather than anything else. That's probably why I hired him. I'm not really good at how things feel. I tend to sort of write from the heart but then arrange everything with the head."
Currie explains that McCarthy was "more into the record feeling good in that kind of physical way," sharing that he and McCarthy argued about things like vocal takes that Currie didn't feel were good enough; but in the end, he often decided to yield to the knowledge of his producer.
"Technically, there are a whole lot of things that I would have fixed. But at the end of the day, Mike was right not fixing them and just letting things be. If it feels good, then it's right. That's a really different attitude to a lot of the way that other producers work. I was brought up with the really technical British production thing where like all of the drums have to be massively in time and the bass has got to be massively in time with the kick drum. I've spent months and months on those things in the past and you don't necessarily end up making a better record; you end up making a record that's technically pristine but it can be sort of soul dead."
Far from dead, Lower Reaches is a thing of beauty, well-constructed but not overthought. In "Every Song's the Same," Currie appears, at least on the surface, to let the listener into his songwriting process. When he comes to town to play at the Music Box Supper Club — his first Cleveland appearance in nearly 20 years —fans will hear fan favorites from the Del Amitri catalog, mixed with selections from all three of his solo albums. In typical fashion, Currie admits that he is still working on things as a writer, always looking to get better.
"You know, you're always trying to push....no matter how structured a song is and no matter how carefully put together it is, you're really trying to achieve the appearance of an effortless conversation between you and the listener. That's something I've always found quite unattainable, but it's something you definitely try and pursue, I think."
Justin Currie, The Mastersons
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS, musicboxcle.com.