Michael Rank might be on his third fourth incarnation as an artist. He first came to attention in the early 80s as a member of Snatches of Pink, a Stones/Dolls inspired bunch of riff riders out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Propelled by Rank’s guitar slinging and Sara Romweber’s drumming, they seemed perpetually on the verge of the big time and were even signed to a couple of major labels under the name Clarissa. But like many deserving bands, Snatches of Pink faded away. But Rank was far from done; a solo album, Coral, issued in the 90s signaled that Rank had a strong interest in acoustic music, and 2012’s Kin, a masterful double album signaled his return with a vengeance.
By now Rank was older and a father and his lyrics reflected a glowing love for his son as well as the conflicts and confusion that come with getting older. And he was a busy man. In the next four years, Rank, with the shifting cast that made up his backing group Kin, released five more albums of Americana-driven songs. I own all of these and note that there is not a clunker in the bunch. Rank might have easily plowed this ground for the foreseeable future but he is too restless a spirit for that. After 2016’s Red Hand, he began ti drop hints that his music was taking a turn.
Another Love, Michael Rank’s new album is a triple disc affair that contains jazzy old school soul grooves, low fi drum machines and Rank’s keyboard playing. His voice is no longer the low pitched near-growl or mumble it could drop into on some earlier albums. Here he sings in a higher register, and the lyrics do not feel written so much as discovered in the unwinding of the music.
“Sing,” the second track on the album is a sassy, keyboard and percussion oriented piece and would have been a huge hit on the 70s radio I grew up on. I could imagine this coming over the little transistor radio I used to stay up late nights listening to, waiting for the airwaves to clear so I could pick up stations from further away than Atlanta.
The repetitive chorus of “Roll Away,” the last song on the first disc sucks me in like few songs have recently. The drums sound just right here and for all of Rank’s disparagement of his keyboard playing, this song is perfectly suited to his playing. They lyrics are a goodbye that avoids being cruel. Even when he sings “I’m better off these days/ There ain’t nothing left to say,” there is a note of regret evident as well. After all, even the relationships that don’t work out were once filled with hope.
Rank does not play guitar on this album, but the album is filled with co-producer Brian Dennis’s tasteful guitar fills. Dennis is a veteran of the Raleigh funk band DAG and his Curtis Mayfield inspired guitar adds just the right counterpoint and flavoring to Rank’s keyboards. “Kings” is a wonderful example of this. “Satellite” is another groove that bounces along, buoyed by Rank’s keys and sweet vocals. It’s hard to select single tracks to praise from Another Love because the album is so much of a piece. One track seems to flow seamlessly into another as Another Love does what the best albums do and creates its own landscape.
Michael and I recently talked about the new album and some other things via email (full disclosure: we are friends although we probably talk more about our kids than about music). For several years we have exchanged books and CDs, although given Michael’s productivity, I get the better end of that deal. What follows is our email exchange:
Al: Over the years you've played a lot of various styles, from Snatches of Pink to the more acoustic stuff with Stag. Now you have done a one eighty from guitar driven Americana type music to keys and R&B. What prompted this change? I know at one point you were sort of wondering what was next . This wasn't really what I was expecting though.
Michael: It’s never consciously planned or mapped out. The pattern seems to be when I’m done thoroughly exploring a sound a shift starts to occur. For me the shift feels very drawn out, but for the listener at home who only has the completed albums as signposts I could see where it might feel a bit head jarring. But after releasing six ‘Folk’ albums, each about 10 months or so apart, I just felt done with fiddles and mandolins and acoustic guitars.
Is the writing process different now that you're playing keys and not guitar? How about the lyrical subject matter?
Not that I was ever very skilled on guitar but I am truly a caveman on keyboards. I have no idea what the notes are or what the chords are. And with that ignorance comes immense creativity. The other difference is I’ve been using old 70’s drum machines on every track and the writing process for every song has begun with a lone beat. That’s been the point of entry. I’ve really thrived with that. That funky template to create on top of.
Lyrically, if I look back at the finished work, I think I was overall less painfully personal in my choice of words. I think a lot of that is a reflection on the more upbeat nature of this album. The lyrics are a bit more universal and “simpler” this time around.
A lot of artists seem to record so they have an excuse to tour. Your live appearances are getting to be rare as comet sightings. I know Bowie (Michael’s son) keeps you close to home. Any other reasons you don't play out more?
My entire career I’ve always held a very uneasy truce with live shows. For the first 15 years or so I would throw-up before every singe show. Like bad clockwork, immense nerves. It didn’t matter if we were playing to a lone bartender in an empty club or to thousands of people at an outdoor amphitheater. I’ve been doing this for over 35 years now and I still get tremendously apprehensive days before an upcoming gig. But what I’ve always loved is the craft of songwriting and the recording process that results in the physical document. The album. Something that exists long past its inception. Something you can hold in your hands. I am never more alive than when I am in the thick of recording an album. Creating the document.
Can you track your process of taking a song from first demo to finished product? And how has it changed over the years?
An artist’s home-demo is my true love. I have always been obsessed with them. And I avidly seek out all my heroes’ demos and studio outtakes. Those kind of recordings are my most coveted bootlegs. I reached a point a long time ago with my own albums where I felt I was always trying to recreate in the studio something magical that had already occurred on my original demo. And that kind of magic is born from mistakes and chance and it just can’t be recreated. It shouldn’t have to be. So all my personal performances (guitars, vocals, keyboards, etc) on my last 10 albums have all been literally my original home demos. And all were tracked to cassette tape on my old Tascam 8-track and all recorded with a mic from Radio Shack that I’ve got rigged up to an old cymbal stand. Those tracks of mine then get transferred onto a hard drive and put into Pro-Tools and away I go to various professional studios to record everyone else’s performances and to eventually mix and master the album. But at that initial point, before any other musician on the album has even heard the song, I’m all done with my recorded parts to every song. All the mistakes and all the magic firmly intact.
I'm not the first one to note how amazingly productive you've been since Kin (what year did it come out)? To what do you attribute this? Are you a workaholic who simply sits down to write every day or do you catch a wave and ride it out?
“Kin” came out in 2012. So I’ve released 5 single albums, 1 double album, and 1 triple album in the past 5 years. And there’s a good chance an 8th will be out before year’s end. I definitely don’t sit down every day and attempt to write. There are many days where I don’t even go near an instrument. I guess that would place me firmly in the wave-rider camp!! To be honest, I’ve always been a bit superstitious about analyzing it too much.
I’m just grateful every single time a new song arrives.
You've worked in a lot of styles of music and I know you listen to lots of music, in addition to hosting your own radio show. Recently you've mentioned Sly and the Family Stone, Maxwell, and Marvin Gaye as people who influenced you. In the old days, you often cited Keith Richards as a model. There have been others. Do you see a common thread running between all these artists?
Lordy, well I certainly see some common threads between Keef and Sly Stone(!!!) But I do think it’s safe to say whether Keith Richards, Sly Stone, Johnny Thunders, Waylon Jennings...I have always gravitated towards the more raw, outlaw orientation.
You've been on a lot of labels but in recent years you've worked more or less independent of the music industry. Can you talk about that some?
My last eight albums have all been self-released. It wasn’t by choice, meaning I had arrived at a point in my career where I didn’t have labels as an option. But making music, writing & recording, is what I do. And that won’t be dictated by whether I have a record deal or not. I have been signed to many record labels in my life and I use to mentally and emotionally wrap up a good portion of my self-worth into whether I was signed or not at any given time. What I miss about not releasing on a label, a healthy productive label, is the machine and team that is suddenly working your album. There are opportunities available to an artist on say Merge Records that sadly aren’t available to a self-releasing artist like myself. That’s the music industry. That’s how it works. And I struggle with that. However, I am able to release the exact product I wish to release, exactly how I created it, with complete artistic control. And my releases are not subject to the delays and timetables of a company’s backlogged release schedule. I am not recording an album and then waiting 13 months for it to be shared with the world. But it’s a trade-off, because my potential exposure is so much less. In a perfect world I would love to once again be signed to a ‘healthy’ record label that values their artist’s personal vision and expression and to have that access to all the potential for opportunity that comes with being signed. But I aint getting any younger, and to a large extent record labels (unless you’re already a well-established commodity) always prefer to gamble on the unknown quantity that is youth.
Right now it’s all about the next album. I have it completely written and all my keyboards, vocals, and beats are all recorded. A triple album, like I just released, lends itself to some degree of schizophrenia, as well it should. But right now I’m really excited by the consistent vibe and cohesion for this next album. It’s got a beautiful late-night Soul Disco feel. And for where I’m at right now that sounds just about perfect.
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In my first column, I mentioned Liberty Circus, the music and spoken word collective I am part of. Since then, our self-titled CD has come out and can be purchased at www.libertycircus.com . And we have just finished our first tour, which took us from Raleigh to Georgia to Kentucky to Tennessee and back to Asheville, North Carolina. I kept a journal throughout the tour and am trying to corral all my musings and random thoughts into a coherent piece of writing. Ken Robidoux, our intrepid editor, has expressed interest in publishing it, so you may see it soon. In the meantime, you can visit our Facebook page or scan Youtube for more about us.