The songs Richie Lawrence has written for Water are deceptively simple, composed of rippling melodies full of shadow and light, lyrics brimming with poetry and plainspoken truth and an invitation to join in a dance of love, laughter and compassion. Their complexity delights with the first listen, slowly unfolding to reveal an unexpected intensity of color and flavor as they linger on the emotional palette.
Lawrence has been immersed in music ever since he can remember. He taught himself to play the family’s 1917 Steinway Grand and he’s been a working musician for most of his life. Lawrence’s dedication to the craft of songwriting is obvious on Water, a collection that distills a lifetime of knowledge into 12 songs filled with innocence and experience. “The songs use water as a metaphor for consciousness, imagination, love, wonder, playfulness and humor, as well as implying the importance of water both politically and environmentally,” Lawrence explains. “Water nurtures the body as love nurtures the soul; both are essential to life.”
Water retains the buoyant, good time feel of Lawrence’s work with the Loose Acoustic Trio, but adds another layer of emotion to songs that explore life’s ups and downs, with a touch of dark humor and much empathy. “Pirate Kitty” has the sound of a Brecht/Weill opus, with a hint of German tango in the rhythm. Lawrence plays moody accordion and sings with a touch of wry wit. Lawrence rocks “Call Me Back” with a sly two-chord vamp and some sparkling Jerry Lee Lewis meets Ray Charles piano work and tasty guitar fills by Paul Lacques (I See Hawks in LA, Double Naught Spy Car, Rotondi). “Fields Where They Lay” is a Celtic inspired protest song featuring sparse piano, a somber vocal and the subdued fiddling of Andy Lentz (Rita Hosking, Loose Acoustic Trio). “The people who have the least, often suffer the most,” Lawrence says. “Man About Town,” an oldie by The Easy Riders, gets a dark reading that with a solemn vocal by Lawrence complimented by Craig Ventresco’s (Crumb and Ghost World soundtracks) bluesy acoustic guitar fills.
“Tracks of Time,” the album’s most compelling track, also deals with loss and mortality. Dave Zirbel (I See Hawks, Commander Cody) adds mournful pedal steel and Katie Thomas supplies the desolate harmonies. “My sister and my wife Katie’s brother both took their own lives and I found myself riding a train that ran over someone who had lain down on the tracks. The lyrics came quickly, trying to make sense of my emotions.” The song uses a descending G minor scale that intensifies the song’s distressful mood. Other standouts include “Rooster,” a tongue-twisting jolt of high jinks, “Poet’s Prayer” a nod to the power of words and music to lift the spirit that references Shakespeare, Monk, Ellington, Holiday and Dylan and the Lacques penned Cajun rave-up “Marry Me,” given an exuberant feel by Lawrence’s accordion, Keith Cary’s (Cheap Suit Serenaders, builder of bedpandolins) mandolin accents and Thomas’s playful harmonies.
Lawrence produced the record with the help of engineer Scott McChane at The Hangar in Sacramento, a large open studio space with vintage equipment that can capture the warmth of a live performance. Most of the basic tracks were cut live, with Lawrence playing piano and accordion and his new band, The Yolos – bassist Scott Prawalsky, drummer Bart Van Der Zeeuw and vocalist Katie Thomas. “We laid down the basic tracks playing together in the same room. That lends a lot of honesty and emotion to the music and lets the songs breath. It’s a stripped down sound and leaves room for improvisation when we play the tunes live in the studio.”
Lawrence was born in Tulsa and spent summers working as a cowboy on his grandfather’s ranch in Northeastern Oklahoma. (The ranch is now part of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.) “My mom’s father came up from Texas in a covered wagon and my grandmother was from Arkansas,” Lawrence says. “My father’s parents were from Ireland and Germany. I’m a real American, a blend of immigrants and Midwesterners.
“My dad played stride style piano on a 1917 Steinway Grand that my mother’s father gave him. I learned to play it by ear when I was a kid and I still play it today.” Richie’s father loved big band music and Ray Charles. Lawrence soaked up Professor Longhair, Otis Spann, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Garth Hudson playing along with their records. In college, he was in cover bands, looking for players who would challenge him. “A lot of pianists don’t know how to support guitar players by playing rhythms and chords. I became adept at blending in with the rest of the band.”
While working toward a BFA in Art History at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Lawrence got serious about performing. By the time he graduated, he was making a living playing music. “As I got better, the gigs got better and I wound up playing with Tim Goodman. When he got a record deal with Columbia, he asked me to move to LA and contribute to his album. I had to decide between going to grad school or playing music.”
Music won out. In LA, Lawrence wrote songs, did session work and played on a Little Richard album, but he was more interested in making original music. In 1982, he met Paul Lacques who was putting together Rotondi, an avant garde polka band that went about demolishing the boundaries between polka, rock, blues, pop and world music. “This was the beginning of the accordion revival,” Lawrence notes. “Paul asked me if I could get an accordion sound from my synthesizer. I told him I had an accordion. We took it from there. Since I came from a piano, rock and blues background, I wasn’t familiar with polka. I was able to tap into the energy of the music without copying the style.”
Rotondi put out three CDs, did a lot of local TV, including the Joan Rivers Show and Michael Mann’s Crime Story, toured nationally and almost appeared on Saturday Night Live. “The TV writer’s strike happened just before we were set to tape the show, so our shot at the big time never happened.” When Rotondi unspooled in 1990, Lacques put together I See Hawks in LA. Lawrence moved to Sacramento to be with his then girlfriend, now wife, Katie Thomas. In Sacramento, he joined Justin Bishop in Horse Sense, a duo that performed traditional cowboy folk music. “I’d always been a band member, not a front man, but with Justin I was at the edge of the stage singing and telling jokes.”
Horse Sense toured the globe, but Lawrence wanted an outlet for the songs he’d been writing. When he met bedpandolin (an instrument made from spare parts of other instruments, including an actual bedpan) player and songwriter Ken Cooper, the result was the Loose Acoustic Trio, a bluesy, folky, Cajun, old-time country, ragtime jug band. Lawrence started his own label, Big Book Records, to release the band’s records.
The Loose Acoustic Trio lived up to their name with a happy-go-lucky sound and exuberant performing style. Their infectious rhythms won them a fervid following and generated national and international airplay, TV appearances and festival dates. “LAT is a happy, crowd pleasing band, but I was also writing dark songs about death and disaster and sad piano music. I decided to record them and put out my first solo album, Melancholy Waltz, which I recorded mostly at home, just piano, voice and accordion. Paul, my wife and the guys in I See Hawks added vocal harmonies.”
Lawrence continued touring with the Loose Acoustic Trio while he was writing the songs for Water, his new solo effort. He’ll be touring to support the album, showing fans his serious, singer/songwriter side with the help of the Yolos. “I know it’s crazy to start a solo career at 60,” Lawrence admits philosophically, “but these songs are important to me. I want people to hear them.”