The band that rode to platinum-selling success on the song “How to Save a Life” could now write a song about how the Muppets may have saved a band.
That’s how the Fray’s singer/keyboardist Isaac Slade looks back at a recording session for The Muppets: The Green Album, the soundtrack to last fall’s movie The Muppets. The session came at a point when the band was struggling as it was turning its attention toward making its third CD.
“[Guitarist/songwriting collaborator] Joe King and I weren’t really getting along,” Slade says. “We were writing these forced collaboration songs that were just kind of melodies with weird lyrics. I think a turning point for us was doing this Muppets soundtrack. ... We were supposed to record this fun, upbeat, laissez-faire kids song called ‘Mahna Mahna.’ “We were all just kind of staring at each other, wishing we could just leave. And a lot of alcohol got involved, and Joe and I ended up in the booth together, singing on the same microphone, and something clicked. We both remembered that this is the greatest job ever. I’m not making coffee [at Starbucks] anymore. He’s not appraising auto damage anymore. And we get to make music for a living. Whatever differences we have, they’re workable, and we’ve just got to be honest with it. So that was a turning point.”
Slade really did work at a Starbucks, while King worked as an insurance adjuster before the Fray, which formed in 2002 in Denver, made its mark. With drummer Ben Wysocki and guitarist Dave Welsh completing the lineup, the Fray was signed by Epic Records and saw its career take off when the title song of its 2005 debut CD, “How to Save a Life,” became a smash hit single.
A self-titled second CD followed in 2009 and reached the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart. While it didn’t match the double-platinum sales of the first CD, it was still a success.
But after touring behind the second record, life in the band grew patchy. According to Slade, each of the four members encountered difficulties, some with long-term relationships, or in Slade’s case, feeling that his quest for acceptance and popularity had caused him to compromise the authenticity in his songwriting.
“I think for each one of us in the band, we got to the point where in our lives, we were just aimless and lost and devastated or discouraged to the point of just, disillusioned a little bit,” Slade says. “We’d had a bunch of success and two records that did great, and we’re so much bigger than any goals that we ever set for ourselves. It’s like ‘What’s next?’” Slade, in particular, found that being the frontman of a popular band didn’t feel the way he expected.
“It’s really terrifying to get everything you want, and nobody understands,” he says. “I probably sound like some horrible rock star complaining about having too much money. But it’s a philosophical collision with the carrot that’s on the stick that we’ve chased ever since we were kindergarteners, and they tell us there’s such a thing as a carrot. And in every sense of the term, I got it. I got what I wanted. I got the fame. I got the celebrity. I got the visibility. I get to do music for a living. There are people that stand up and cheer when I walk into the room and we make music. I got everything I wanted.”
Still, something was lacking, and in facing questions about what he valued in life, his music and his career, Slade found some answers that had a freeing effect on him. He realized that despite the Fray’s reputation for writing emotional and honest music, he hadn’t been as open or vulnerable as he could and should be.
“I think when I swung for the ball as hard as I could, quote-unquote, there was a little bit inside me that was afraid and holding back,” Slade says. “If you peel back a little bit, you can always sort of nurse your wounds by saying, ‘Well, I didn’t try my hardest.’ “I think because of that, I really did hold back a little bit,” he says. “And something happened. I think I just kind of got to the point where I wanted to make a statement.”
In working on Scars and Stories with producer Brendan O’Brien (best known for producing Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam), Slade, with O’Brien’s encouragement, ventured into the place deep within himself where he could be totally honest and clear with his lyrics, no matter the risk.
“You just kind of have to go there, to that mythical place, and it’s a scary thing because nobody else came with me,” Slade says. “You kind of don’t know if you’re going to make it back. You don’t know if you’re going to put something out there and everybody sort of cringes and quietly backs away from it. But I think with the universal connection [with the group’s fans] in our sight, we reached for something we’ve never had the courage to reach for. I feel like we got it.”
The band also found the courage to evolve musically on Scars and Stories. Yes, the sensitive arena balladry that has registered with Fray fans is still present with songs such as “Run for Your Life” and “I Can Barely Say.” But overall, the third CD rocks harder than either of the first two, as songs like “Turn Me On,” “Heartbeat” and “The Wind” have an expansive feel accented by big beats and a more guitar-centered sound.
The bigger sound is giving the Fray’s live show a jolt that wasn’t possible before, with the first two albums being strongly weighted toward ballads and mid-tempo material.
“We have more energy than we know what to do with,” Slade says. “We haven’t had that before. It’s always been sort of singles and upbeat songs with quiet songs in between because we don’t have any more upbeat songs. Now we have a lot of records in there, so we get to kind of take our pick [of songs].”
And the honesty Slade brought to his lyrics on Scars and Stories is also helping him evolve as a performer. “My perspective has shifted a lot on shows,” he says.
“Psychologically, I feel this difference between where I was before and where I am now as a frontman, as a lead singer. I had a real [reluctance] to be vulnerable, except every single song was [supposed to be] as vulnerable as it gets. It was a hard tightrope for me to walk. I felt naked and embarrassed. And somewhere between 2009 and now I started reconciling the fact that this is who I am. This is my reputation.
“This is me. I don’t have a persona. I don’t have sunglasses. I don’t have a big, huge production show to sort of hide behind. I get onstage and I sing songs about my life. We play music that’s autobiographical.
“I think there’s a new acceptance of that that I feel has started to change the show experience for me and for this band,” Slade says. “I don’t feel embarrassed about it anymore. I don’t feel hesitant to really put it out there and give it everything I’ve got. And it’s exciting.”