Roll Playing

On his latest album, bookworm musician Jim Roll collaborates with two music-geek novelists

Jim Roll

Off Broadway

Performs on Thursday, March 7

That oodles of singer/songwriters want to be writers is obvious -- painfully so, at times. There's Jewel, of course, with her cornball hippie-chick reminiscence and execrable free verse. She sucks, no doubt about it, but at least she sells books, unlike so many of her peers. Pete Townshend, despite his undeniable musical gifts, is no better than the vapid Alaskan yodel-queen as an author: His 1985 effort Horse's Neck is a cringe-inducing collection of pompous poesy and self-important autobiographical vignettes. Steve Earle, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen, Bill Morrissey -- all have dabbled in the literary arts, with varying degrees of success, and the list, alas, goes on and on.

So where are all the writers who long to be rock stars? Singer/songwriter Jim Roll decided to find out. An avid reader, Roll had noticed a lot of references to music in the work of two of his favorite living novelists, Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son, Already Dead: A California Gothic) and Rick Moody (Purple America, The Ice Storm). Hoping to enlist them as lyricists for his next project, he wrote each of them a fan letter and enclosed copies of his first two CDs, Ready to Hang (1998) and Lunette (1999). "I just had the feeling they'd have songs," Roll says by phone from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He was right. Johnson and Moody contributed the lyrics for eight of the 13 songs on Roll's new album, Inhabiting the Ball, which will be released next week on the Telegraph Company label.

After reading Already Dead: A California Gothic, Roll knew Johnson had at least one tune up his sleeve. "The words to the song 'Desperado in the Parking Lot' appeared in the novel," Roll explains. "Then one of the characters said, 'That should be a song.' So, just for fun, I wrote the music for it. Then I wrote Denis a letter, asking him if he had any other songs and if he wanted to hear what I'd done with 'Desperado in the Parking Lot.'"

After listening to Roll's demo version, Johnson was so impressed that he asked him to write the music for three songs featured in his new play, Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames. Then, after finally meeting Roll in person at South by Southwest, Johnson heard a live set of Roll's music and handed over yet another potential song, an old poem called "You," which Roll turned into a spare country dirge, embellished with spectral pump organ and acoustic guitar.

Roll sensed that Moody might be amenable to a collaboration after reading the introduction to his novel The Garden State, in which the writer mentions his love of East Coast indie rockers the Feelies and the Silos. "He told this funny story about how he tried to get the Feelies to review his book before he'd even tried to get a literary critic to review it -- and they never even wrote him back," Roll says. "So when I wrote Rick, I made reference to the fact that I'd done my last record with Walter [Salas-Humara] of the Silos producing and the current Silos appeared on it. Then I just kind of made a lighthearted remark about his request coming back full-circle."

Moody, a frustrated musician who sometimes plays guitar onstage with his friend Syd Straw, jumped at the chance. He wrote three songs for the record, including the wry, minutely detailed "Blue Guitar": The strings were frayed on your guitar/The nylon strings, the busted case/The frets had pried themselves away/The capo too was stuck in place. Somewhere between the seedy country-soul of Exile on Main Street and the rollicking majesty of Zuma, Roll's musical backdrop turns the odd little poem into a raggedy-ass anthem, loose and righteous and fairly begging to be bellowed out by a dive bar's worth of drunks. "Killjoy," another Moody-penned number, is a bleak rural koan paired with feedback-soaked guitar (courtesy of co-producer Jon Williams), distorted vocals and sinister programmed thuds. "'Killjoy' is the one that people either love or hate the most," Roll says. "When Rick sent me the stuff, he told me that he often writes punky songs, so I thought with that one I'd do something more punk with the chord changes. There are some little Ramonesy riffs that I wouldn't have written if he hadn't mentioned that."

Roll initially conceived the project as a way to motivate himself to finish another album, but the collaboration changed his own creative process, allowing him to move beyond the reflective, semiautobiographical songs he'd previously written. "When I write, I kind of well up with an emotion, and then some night I'll just sit down with a guitar and force stuff out; it kind of goes into this pressure cooker. With this project, it was the opposite. I had to bring a mood to [Moody's and Johnson's] words, but it wasn't my usual way. I tried to be a little more detached, get into their heads instead of having it be this emotional thing for me. Somehow, making this record has loosened me up quite a bit. I was very unselfconscious -- I guess because I was working with someone else's words."

Transforming these words into usable song lyrics wasn't always easy, but, aside from repeating a phrase or two to construct a chorus, Roll didn't tinker with either writer's language much: "I tried -- not out of fear but just as a kind of challenge -- to respect what they'd written and do it as straight as possible. But I was really surprised that I was able to pull some of it off. Rick and Denis both use a lot of three- and four-syllable words that I think in general you wouldn't find in most pop or country songs."

Roll admits that he doesn't completely understand everything he sings on the record, but, as any fan of The Anthology of American Folk Music can tell you, the most powerful songs are often the most impenetrable. Take the title track, which pits Johnson's lyrics against a lone banjo and spooky snippets from old TV shows: Your wife put Amy's head beneath the wheel/And acted out her black psychotic rage/That's why your second wife left you/And rode off on her wooden steed/And drifted off among the buttercups/And left you here to rot and bleed. Does it matter that we don't know who Amy is, what exactly happened to her or why this act would cause the subject's second wife to leave him? Not to Roll, a student of what music writer Greil Marcus once called "the old, weird America": "Even though I was a suburban-Chicago pop person, I really got obsessed with old-time music several years ago," Roll says. "I went to West Virginia and studied fiddle and spent a lot of time with those old folk songs. And I've always been a big Dylan fan, who drew from that stuff, too. So it's really fun when I get to have these surreal, rocking, freaky nonlinear songs that still somehow feel like they mean something. And they probably do; I just can't figure it out."

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