How a challenging vocal journey has led to growth as an artist.
I See Hawks In L.A. have helped keep West Coast country rock alive in the 21st Century, and founder member Robert Rex Waller Jr. has been central to the band as lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. He has recently released his solo album ‘See The Big Man Cry’ which was produced by LA musical stalwart, Carla Olson, in The Doors guitarist’s studio. The album includes only one Robert Rex Waller Jr. co-write amongst various country rock and country pop songs, including surprising covers of The Walker Brothers, Steeleye Span and Bram Tchaikovsky. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Robert Rex Waller Jr. in his home studio over Zoom to discuss ‘See The Big Man Cry’ and working with Carla Olson and her husband Saul Davis. He explains that the objective for the album was for him to concentrate solely on the vocals and let Carla and Saul worry about production and finding potential covers. He admits that some of the song choices were challenging and definitely outside his comfort zone, but that he was able to find out what he was capable of as a vocalist outside The Hawks. While he may be known as a country rock artist, Robert Rex Waller shares his eclectic taste in music and his love of jazz. Finally, he shares the joy he had as a lifelong Doors fan at being able to record at Robbie Kreiger’s studio and enjoy the associated memorabilia that was on display. Finally, he shares the fact he is working on a gospel album, and The Hawks are working on a new band album that they hope to finish soon.
How are you, and where are you?
I’m well and I’m at work in my studio.
That’s not really work though, is it?
It’s not too bad, not too bad.
What do you get from your solo career that you don’t get with I See Hawks In LA?
Yeah, I guess I’ve consciously made them a little bit different, and the first difference is I didn’t write twelve of these thirteen songs, and that changes the way I approach the song. The Hawks have been around for a long time, twenty-three or twenty-four years, which is a little bit alarming, but most of the Hawks’ songs are originals by me and Paul Lacques, by Paul Lacques and Paul Marshall, and me and Victoria Jacobs, or Paul Lacques and Paul Marshall, or Paul Lacques and Victoria, or several of us together so the Hawks songs are all very much us. That’s why, I guess, I like taking a chance to do something that is not me, that doesn’t share my point of view and without my tendency towards melody, harmony, and lyrics. As well as being something different, it helps me become what I’m capable of, and what else I can do musically and it helps me imagine the different options.
So for ‘See The Big Man Cry’ working with Carla Olson and Saul Davis we went through a lot of songs, and we’d been talking about doing this record for a few years. Saul would just send me a song and he would be like, what do you think of this, I would love to hear you sing this song, and Carla would be like, you should sing this song. I would try them, and sometimes I was like, I would never sing that song. For example, on this record ‘I’ll Never Dance Again’ was a song I would never have thought to try out, it’s just something I wouldn’t have done. Then, when someone else suggested it I had a lot of fun with it because it was something new, something fresh, something different from my own tendencies.
How much did ‘Americana Railroad’ influence your decision to record ‘See The Big Man Cry’?
My relationship with Carla goes beyond that. In 2010 Carla was on our ‘ Shoulda Been Gold’, our tongue-in-cheek greatest hits album, and Carla did a couple of tunes with us, ‘Bossler City’ and ‘Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulet’, and we’d done some stuff together like live in LA and Carla just likes to sing with other people. She has had a lot of success in her career doing that with Gene Clark and other singers along the way and she was like, I want to sit in with you, and I was like, OK let’s do it, let’s try it. That was a while ago now, and then I did a song on her first ‘Have Harmony Will Travel’ album and again on her most recent one, ‘Have Harmony With Travel 3’.
Then the ‘Americana Railroad’ thing came around, which was really interesting to me because my grandfather was a lifetime railroad man. He worked on the L&N Railroad for his whole career, he started when he was sixteen just washing engines and he didn’t graduate from high school but he worked his way up to become assistant to the President of the company before retiring at seventy. So we have the history of the railroad in our family, and we have all kinds of railroad memorabilia, paintings of engines and all that stuff, and I love the L&N, The Louisville & Nashville Railroad and it is a very historic Southern American railroad. They were like, do I want to do some songs for this ‘Americana Railroad’ thing and I was like, yes I really want to.
My mom’s family came from Memphis, Tennessee, and behind my grandmother’s house were the L&N railroad tracks, so I grew up putting pennies on the railroad track and watching the trains go by, and I knew that was my grandfather’s railroad. When the record came out, right around Thanksgiving in 2021, and I was able to go to a record store on Beale Street and they had that album and I was so excited to pick it up. Just another connection to my family, as well as the railroad stuff and that part of the country, is that my grandfather was also a musician and he played on WDIA which was one of the first rock & roll radio stations in the country where Elvis would play, and him and his brothers had a band and they would play live on the radio.
Carla, Saul and my relationship has been almost fifteen years or something like that, that we’ve worked together and known each other, and then there’s the connection to the ‘Americana Railroad’ as well. It’s like we just keep finding more songs to do together, which is fun. They also have such a great approach, and Saul and Carla make a lot of records, as you may have noticed, and they do it kind of in the old-fashioned way. That was another part of it that was so fun for me, just show up and sing, you’re the singer. They take care of booking the studio and booking the musicians and doing all the other parts. When you’re in a band and you are one of the band leaders you have to think about all that stuff, you are working on the budget and figuring out who you have to pay, how much you have got left, and you are writing the songs yourself, and that is a much different experience. Whereas with Carla and Saul, it is come on Tuesday and sing these songs, that’s all I have to do and it is a nice thing to have.
Who picked the album title ‘See The Big Man Cry’ and where did that come from?
I think that was my suggestion, and we agreed on it. Well, I’m kind of a big man, I’m like 6’ 4” and 240 Ib, and so I am the big man. The songs on this record aren’t all sad but there is a sort of longing, and there is some weariness in it as you get older and you lose friends along the way, so I thought it matched the material. I like the album title to be a song title, I think all The Hawks’ records have had that, and that one seemed the most appropriate to me, I’m crying here a little bit and you can come and watch.
Why open the album with ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’?
That was definitely them, that was a Saul suggestion I think. He sent me a couple of different Walker Brothers’ songs to listen to, and I love the song and I love the reaching vocal melody, just pushing to the limit. I gave this record to a friend of mine and when I saw him a couple of days later he told me he thought I was really brave.
What, I didn’t mean to be.
Exactly. I was thinking I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing you’re saying about the record. But, yeah, I just kind of went for it, and there are some big-league singers on this record that I’m trying to step into the shoes of while also being myself and doing something different. I just love the way that song just held together, and the way they worked on the arrangement with the strings and the backup vocals. This old-fashioned way of making a record I was talking about earlier meant really working on the arrangements and adding the parts and getting this orchestral kind of feel to it was a ton of fun.
You’ve split the record between pop and rock and americana and country, where did that idea come from?
That is definitely Saul, he had that kind of idea in terms of the different styles. It doesn’t line up exactly side by side, but it was fun to think about. I’ve been in rock bands so that part is not unfamiliar to me, but I haven’t really been a pop person and that has been a little bit different for me. I guess the most pop song is ‘I’ll Never Dance Again’. The thing that Saul and Carla wanted to do was showcase my range, and that’s kind of what they came to me with in the beginning and that is kind of what we tried to do. That was in terms of register, the different parts of my voice I can use, and also in terms of genre and style. What are the different things that are possible, you know?
You cover Bram Tchaikovsky’s ‘Girl of My Dreams’ on the album.
I didn’t know that song, that was Carla. Carla really wanted me to do it, and I didn’t even know Bram Tchaikovsky, and she sent me that song and I loved it. Their suggestions for me did fit, I think, and land for me vocally even though I don’t think of myself like that. I really think of myself as that kind of rock singer, but it’s good to try other peoples’ perceptions of you and what you can do as an artist, I think.
You also cover another Brit act, Steeleye Span.
For sure. The Hawks have had the chance to tour in England, Northern Ireland, and a little bit in Ireland as well and it is something we love to do. The connection between American roots music and English folk music, this longtime history of it, and they were like you’ve got to do an English folk song, and I was like, OK I will do an English folk song. I didn’t know what he was gonna send me, and this is a modern folk song, ‘Let Her Go Down’, but it was fun and I do like songs about the ocean, captains and ships, So I loved this one from the moment he sent it to me, and I was excited to do it.
Who’s idea was it to cover Freddie Hart’s ‘Easy Loving’?
No, that’s not me, that was Saul and I was sceptical of that one too. That is a pretty pop country song and I was thinking I don’t know about this one, I wouldn’t have chosen this song, but then, the same thing. From the beginning of this process, I just decided to say yes to this stuff. We tried it, and I love the way that song turned out too. A lot of this stuff where the inspiration didn’t come from me then becomes this whole new other thing as we worked on it together
Bruce Springsteen has an extensive songbook, so why cover ‘Tougher Than The Rest’?
That one may have been my wife’s choice, and it is one of her favourite songs and it’s one of her dad’s favourite songs by Bruce Springsteen. To cover Bruce Springsteen at all, you may not want to do one of his big hits, you probably want to stay away from ‘Born To Run’. I felt this one was just obscure enough to give it a try, I can’t remember who suggested it exactly but I knew my wife would be happy if I did it, and that was good motivation for me.
You celebrate West Coast country rock with covers of The Blasters James Intveld, Gene Clark, Rank and File, did you select those songs?
Chip and Tony Kinman are the two brothers who founded Rank and File, and though Tony passed away some time ago, Chip has been around and Chip was releasing a record and doing some shows, and this was maybe two years ago, and The Hawks became Chip Kinman’s backup band and we learnt a whole bunch of their songs, including ‘Amanda Ruth’. Then on the ‘Americana Railroad’ album we did ‘The Conductor Wore Black’, which was a Rank and File song, and Chip played guitar on that song back in January 2021, or something like that. So that one was probably more in the wheelhouse of The Hawks and because we’d played it live and done it before, it wasn’t totally new, but I was very happy how ‘The Conductor Wore Black’ turned out on ‘Americana Railroad’, and so was Saul and Carla. We wanted to do another Rank and File song and we ended up with this one. So, that one definitely comes more out of the nightclub experience, the live thing like discovering an old archive recording.
And the Gene Clark song, ‘Gypsy Rider’.
The Gene Clark song Carla and I have done for many years so that one I think we always figured we would get around to recording it at some point. We’ve done it live dozens of times, as well as some other Gene Clark songs, but that one is a crowd favourite for people. It was one we just felt it was natural to record for this record.
Which version of the title track ‘See The Big Man Cry’ inspires you?
The one that inspired me to do it was the Charlie Louvin version. I’ve always been a big Louvin Brothers fan, and I’ve got this other project I’ve been working on for some time that’s a gospel album that maybe one day I will finish. There are a lot of Louvin Brothers’ songs that I’ve been considering for that project, and I kind of came across this one and it’s not a gospel song. It’s a Charlie song, not a Louvin Brothers song but it still has kind of a lesson in it. A lot of the Louvin Brothers’ songs are like morality plays and this has that too. This guy has messed up his life and the judge won’t let him see his son or the mother of his child. I’m a married man, I’ve got three kids, and I’ve had my own struggles in life with different things and it just kind of spoke to me that way. You don’t want to mess up so badly that your own kid doesn’t recognise you, so don’t do that, that was a good reminder for me, and I like the feel of the song as well. Which other versions are you familiar with?
Chris Gaffney did a version, and Ed Bruce.
Yeah. Gaffney was a friend, and The Hawks did shows with him a long time ago, we did shows with him in Nashville. I love the Gaffney version too, and with Chris Gaffney this album is me attempting to reach where these great vocalists have gone before, and there are many great vocalists that I’m trying to learn from on this record and he is definitely one of those people. Chris is just unbelievably good, and that was one of the inspirations for that song as well.
‘Reconsider Me’ was a hit for Johnny Adams, which version did you hear?
I will say I didn’t try and do the Johnny Adams’ version because the Johnny Adams is so acrobatic as a vocalist, he was a trapeze artist, and he can do crazy leaps and jumps with his voice. I went back more to the Margaret Lewis original version, and this is a song my wife’s dad recommended to me a long time ago at some point. So, my wife’s father is a serious record collector and has been since the ‘50s. He has an amazing record collection and he has a whole room in his house that is just wall-to-wall LPs. He sends me songs periodically that he recommends, and this was one of them and so I was giving it a try for him, you know. Knowing the Johnny Adams version, and I believe there’s a Narvel Felts version which is also pretty crazy, so I kept to the ground a little more, I didn’t try to go into the stratosphere. I also just love the groove of it and I kind of wanted to stick to the groove aspect.
Why add one of your own songs, ‘My Favourite Loneliness’?
That was a little bit of a challenge. Saul and Carla were telling me I should write one that fits with these songs. We had already recorded a bunch of songs and picked them, so we knew the shape of the record, so Paul Marshall and me were like, OK, we’ll try and write a song that is in the vernacular that the record has sort of become. We were on some Hawks’ trip, and somebody said something about my favourite loneliness, and one of us said it would be a good song title to go with these other songs. So we did it, we tried to write a song that would fit with this vernacular that the record had become, and I think we got pretty close. We tried to do the thing where it steps up in the chorus to get more of a higher push vocal, a more emotional vocal, we tried to have a loved and lost kind of theme that is in the other songs on the record, and we tried to blend that ‘60s pop country feel to it that had come up on the rest of the record. We had fun doing it.
You seem to have had a great time making the record, have you learnt anything about yourself as an artist through recording these songs?
Yes, that’s a good question. I’m in my fifties and I’ve been singing for a long time, and you get into habits about where you sing and what you sing, topics you sing about, and I think this helped rattle me out of it a bit. It reminded me I grew up singing in church, singing in choirs, singing in musical theatre. It was a little reminder that I can do these other kinds of songs, but I do think it has given me more confidence just as a singer, and more experience, more repetitions, and more practice will help find your relationship to a song and your interpretation of a song. Also just stepping further out emotionally to really own the song and make it part of yourself. I’ve noticed going back with The Hawks singing songs I’ve sung hundreds of times that I’m bringing a little bit of this new approach to it.
The idea of turning a project over to other people, and in this case to a producer like Carla Olson, is to do something different and to grow in a way you didn’t anticipate, and maybe grow in a way you are not comfortable with. The idea is to grow, and I think I did, and it was uncomfortable at times because I was like do I really want to do this song, or what will people think if I do this thing? From the beginning, one of the intentions of the project was to just see what would happen, I’m going to experiment and see what happens. I wanted to shake up my own perceptions of what my identity as an artist are, mess around and be light hearted with it, and I think that ultimately that was very helpful to me as an artist and as a singer, and I think I was very lucky as an artist to get to make this record. We recorded it in Robbie Kreiger’s studio, of The Doors of course, and I’ve been a huge fan of The Doors all my life, and to be in the studio amongst the memorabilia, pictures, amps and microphones was just super fun.
So you’re right, I had a really good time making this record.
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?
I’ve got pretty eclectic music-listening taste., I like jazz and I’m also working on my piano playing, so I’ve been listening to Thelonious Monk, and it was his birthday recently, and I play ‘Underground’ a lot. It has got him playing and the cover is him in this WWII-era bunker with like an Uzi on the piano with Nazi memorabilia that he’s captured. There’s David Berman who was in the Silver Jews and also a band called Purple Mountains, and I really like his lyrical approach in particular. I have also been listening to Francis Bebey, a sort of African electronic pioneer. His ‘African Electronic Music 1975-1982’ is mostly from the late ‘70s but they’re using electronic keyboards and stuff with African rhythms, and I just love the mood that that creates. Those are my three today.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
Thanks so much for listening, and thanks to Americana UK for reviewing our records, coming to our shows and interviewing us. We’ve really appreciated it and it has made a big difference to us, so thanks for the good work you guys are doing, we are glad you are listening. Also, The Hawks are working on a new record which we hope to finish soon.
And get that gospel album out.
And I’ll get the gospel album out sometime. I will finish it, I’ve got all the songs, they are ready to go, I’ve just got to get in there and record them.