"Sometimes the quietest whisper carries further than the loudest scream," says Russell Stafford of his latest solo album, A Silent Storm, a follow-up to 2005's Freshwater and 2008's Between U&I. "Sometimes when we step away, we get closer. A Silent Storm is just that for me; a whisper that can quiet the noise."
Co-frontman for Portland, Oregon-based danceable alt/rock band Crown Point, Stafford has been relentlessly touring the US, Australia, and Canada for three years with the band. During those three years, he wrote dozens of songs that didn't fit the rock style of Crown Point, and in the spring of 2012, hit the studio to record what would become, A Silent Storm.
"Crown Point is very high energy, upbeat, alt. rock music. We have a fantastic time rocking out night in and night out," he says of his rock band. "But, this record has a different feel. It’s as engaging as a high energy Crown Point album, but from a completely different approach."
Entitled A Silent Storm, the album has a message of self-discovery, each song telling a story of love found and lost and found again, struggles with addiction, and asking and answer the hard questions of ourselves that we often avoid.
"The message of this album is self-discovery and learning how to truly be honest with myself. If I had to really boil it down to one thing, this album is about finding the love of being in our own skin," he says after much pondering. "It's about struggle, finding meaning, and finding resolve in things we often go through alone.”
Whereas his first two solo records were written with commercial success and radio airplay in mind, Stafford set out with only one goal for A Silent Storm: to make an honest record, not worrying about perception, just a record that would be from his heart, speak his mind, and fulfill him as an artist.
"My previous albums were written with defined goals in mind," he admits. "Phrases like 'I NEED to write an upbeat song now, I NEED to finish this song because radio will like it, I need…' However, with A Silent Storm, the songs were written for the joy and release that comes when you truly write from your heart."
"This album is by far my most honest work to date," he admits. "It’s easy to get caught up in the 'business' of music, and it seems too often than not we forget why we make music. My first two albums were definitely geared towards the goal of commercial success, which came to a degree, and a lot of the material was written with that goal. With A Silent Storm, I wanted to get away from feeling constrained by these pop formulas that are so easy to get trapped in. If a song needs to be six minutes long to tell it’s story, then so be it. If I want to write an alt. country song followed by a cello ballad, then why shouldn’t I? The album tells a story and I didn’t want to feel like I had to box myself into a certain formula and compromise the real meaning of it to fit into a mold."
Summing up the record with one lyric, the line "take me as I am, flawed and out of plan," from the song "Queen Without A Land," the writing and making of the record was very cathartic for Stafford, who was struggling with many of life's philosophical questions and paths as he was delving into the record.'
"I think that everyone can associate with simply wanting to be loved and valued for who they are in their most honest state," Stafford states, discussing the lyric in question and the album's theme as a whole. "Our society puts so much emphasis on being perfect. Looking perfect, acting perfect, saying the right thing every time, being what some TV show or movie or magazine says we should be. Deep down though, we all want to be ourselves and be loved for it. None of us are perfect in the way that seems to be so highly valued by pop culture, but we’re all special and unique, and that in itself is perfect."
It was the "take me as I am" mentality that helped Stafford strip himself of the pop expectations and the commercial pressures he had previously placed on himself, and helped him make a better record as a result of it, a record that is honest from the first until the last note. It was also this attitude that helped him step away from his rock band and write for himself, not a band.
"A lot of the music I write for Crown Point is written on a purpose-based platform. And, in the most positive way I can explain it, this album just kind of crept up on me. I loved writing these songs and I loved playing these songs over a number of years, but they didn’t fit in with what Crown Point was doing, so they stayed as my 'me' songs. Then, about a year ago, I realized that I had, in fact, written an album's worth of material that meant a lot to me, that I absolutely loved, and that I thought could really touch people with its honesty."
After realizing he had an album's worth of material, Stafford called up his friend and producer Peter Rodocker at Yellow Room Studio in Portland, Oregon and said he wanted to make a record with one guitar, a couple of vocals, basically a collection of acoustic songs. But after fleshing the songs out in the studio, they became much greater than initially imagined.
"I didn’t shy away from using certain instrumentation, like I have done in the past," confesses Stafford. "This isn’t by any means a country album, but we did use a lot of country instrumentation. From mandolin to cello to even a toy piano, it was really a joy to not feel obliged to stick to a certain formula. Peter and I set out with the goal of letting each song dictate it’s own direction. I would arrive at the studio and we’d listen back to a track or two. Inevitably, someone would say, 'you know, I really hear a pedal steel part,' and within a few hours, we’d have a steel player in and would all collaborating on writing parts. It was very much an in the moment recording experience."
Stafford beams with enthusiasm and satisfaction when he talks about how the songs grew in the studio.
"These songs really can stand strong with very, very minimal instrumentation," he says with pride, "but as we progressed, the instrumentation built and built as the songs evolved. I couldn’t imagine this album any different than it is today, but it certainly didn’t begin it’s journey sounding like this in my head."
Opening with "We," Stafford lays it all on the line, delivering a short, not even two minute acoustic guitar-and-piano ballad that instantly lets you know this is Stafford at his rawest, his voice seeping with honesty, and the melody as direct and see-through as there is. Following it with "Waiting In Bed," an alt. country ditty, complete with mandolin, Stafford stretches his wings and begins to grow musically, taking chances, to the benefit of the song - and album.
"Just Like You" recalls Amos Lee or Jim Bianco, with its late-night jazz-pop verses and hook-laden chorus. While "Fire & Light" turns a tender note into beauty, with Stafford's voice leading the cello while the acoustic guitar and pedal steel add haunting layers to the song's base melody.
"Records On The Record," which also appears on Crown Point's latest, Curtains, takes a more rustic, roots approach than Crown Point; the easy-going, summer breeze melody and nostalgic lyrics paining the imagery to draw you in.
However, the highlights for Stafford are the album's two final songs, "Queen Without A Land" and the album's title track, two songs Stafford nearly cut from the album.
"They are the first songs I’ve truly ever been scared to release," he says without hesitation. "Not because I don’t love them, but because they’re so unguarded and vulnerable for me. I came close several times to not putting them on the album. To be able to overcome the fear of 'what people might think', for me, that’s the underlying message of the album."
The end result is a record that fits in well with the music of William Fitzsimmons, The Civil Wars, Angus & Julia Stone, Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, and Ryan Adams.
"I think that there is a counter culture brewing in the industry that is kind of a backlash to the pop formula that has been beaten into our ears through years of FM domination. People more than ever are craving music that is real, that is honest, that comes from the heart. If we as artists can’t be who we truly are in our music, then how can anyone ever fully connect with it?" comments Stafford. "This album is honest, heartfelt, and me really putting everything I am out there. Take me as I am, flawed and out of plan. Too often, we forget why we make music. We try and please everyone, we try and make everyone love our music, our image, our persona. These songs are me. They aren’t written to be everything to everyone, but I think that will help some people really connect with them on a deeper level. I think that is the kind of honesty that’s craved by listeners, especially in such a saturated and poppy world."
What started out as an acoustic record has turned into something much more for Stafford; a deeply honest and revealing portrayal he is proud of. A Silent Storm is the result of a lot of hard work, a lot of living, and a lot of questioning. In the end Stafford, and the record, lead each other down the right path. From it’s opening notes through it’s haunting finale, A Silent Storm delivers the kind of unbridled honesty that Stafford set out to achieve.