Rusted Root gave us "Send Me On My Way," one of the most joyful and uplifting songs of our time. It topped out at #72 in 1995, but found new life in movies (Ice Age, Matilda), TV shows (Chuck, New Girl), and commercials for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. It is the ideal musical accompaniment for a hopeful journey, and it relates to a theme of Rusted Root mainman Michael Glabicki's songwriting: the Earth.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Michael was a committed activist. He used the 1987 version of social media - infiltrating schools to speak out about the atrocities of US imperialism - to rally students for a trip to Nicaragua, where the American government was supporting the Contra rebels in a clandestine war. It was there where he made a connection to the Earth and developed the framework for political songs like "Ecstasy" (sample lyric: "Wasted arms, wasted legs, wrapped round this machine... military machine").
Michael sings and does most of the songwriting in Rusted Root, whose mainstays include percussionists Liz Berlin and Jim Donovan, and bass player Patrick Norman. They formed in 1990, releasing their self-titled debut album in 1992. That one held the original version of "Send Me On My Way," which was reworked for their second album, When I Woke (produced by Bill Bottrell), in 1994. This is the version that took off, earning the band spots on tours with Santana and the Dave Matthews Band.
In 2012, Rusted Root released The Movement, which puts their polyrhythms to songs about taking back a world that is becoming spiritually disconnected.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I talked to a woman who wrote with Earth, Wind & Fire, and she said that before she was allowed to go in the room and write with them, Maurice White made her read a book called The Greatest Salesman in the World, which outlined his spiritual beliefs. Is there anything like that that influences your songwriting?
Michael Glabicki: No. Not really. If there's anything close to it, it would be Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. That's a pretty solid book in my life. But nothing that influences the songwriting like you're describing that story to be. It's more about life and experience and sort of learning through the spiritual that way.
Songfacts: What's one of those life experiences that was a big influence on some of your songs?
Michael: Let's see. I would say it started early on. I had a car accident when I was two and a half. I was run over by a car. And that whole experience woke me up to a lot of outer guides and a whole sort of realization as to why I was here. But I think I came into the world with that, that kind of knowing. And it kind of set it in stone for me.
Songfacts: I'm surprised that you even remember something from being two and a half. That's remarkable.
Michael: Well, I remember mostly waking up from it and the feelings that occurred right after I woke up.
Songfacts: What religion were you raised in?
Songfacts: And then how did that transform once you had this accident and these things happened to you?
Michael: I never totally bought into the whole religion in church thing. I guess growing up I was very aloof and living more in those outer realms as opposed to in the very concrete world. And I think I just went through the religion growing up. We weren't too religious as a family. But I took little bits and pieces and just put it into my life experience what I felt I needed or wanted.
Songfacts: In a lot of your songs you sing very reverently about the earth, and the sun comes up a lot. Is that at all related to that accident you were describing when you were young and how that transformed you?
Michael: Yeah. I don't know if it was the accident or if I was just born that way. But I could always sense earth energy and either my connection to it or people's connection to it or lack of connection to it. And it always really affected me both negatively and positively. If things didn't make sense, I would be very troubled by it. So I would say it was more that I just came into this world with that awareness. Yeah.
Songfacts: Can you give me an example of where something like that shows up in some of your songs in either the lyrics or the music?
Michael: Let's see. I would say most of the early music had at least touches of it, if not overt drawings from it. "Martyr" was more from a trip that I took in Nicaragua and the earth energy down there. The people's connection to the earth was very strong, yet they were very challenged by poverty. And so a lot of the problems that were occurring down there were through poverty and people needing to use the earth to survive as opposed to being in harmony with it. I think that was part of the anger that I drew from for those songs. And also, the country that I came from had really started the wars down there, and it didn't make sense to me. So "Ecstasy" and "Martyr," in those songs it definitely comes in and plays a part.
"Back to the Earth," that was from a strong connection that I was having within the band that we would take a lot of trips out to the woods and just be very sensitive to the earth and the environment. We would really feel it out there. And through our very quietly spoken conversations that song came about. So a lot of the early stuff had veins of it running through it.
Songfacts: When did you go to Nicaragua?
Michael: '87. It was during the Contra war.
Songfacts: Wow. How did that happen?
Michael: I was very politically involved in high school. I was involved in a youth group in Pittsburgh where we were trying to network students in the different Pittsburgh schools to come together outside the school system and to learn and educate ourselves on some of the issues that were affecting us or affecting our future, like nuclear disarmament or apartheid or the wars in Central America, racism, et cetera.
We would hire college professors to come and teach us about these issues outside the framework of the school system. My principal didn't really like it. (Laughing) He wanted to expel me from school for doing this kind of work. So I had to go underground. We'd go to other schools and infiltrate them, dressed in the school code. We'd go into the lunch rooms and pass out flyers and say, "Hey, we're going to go do this this weekend," acting like I was from that school.
I think we networked four hundred and some students in 26 schools in the Pittsburgh area. And one of our issues that we were involved in was Nicaragua and the Contra war. So I wanted to go down and represent our group, the student group, in Nicaragua, and also as a humanitarian mission for our sister city there, which is San Ysidro. I went down and took in information about their water system and how we could help out and raise money to build them irrigation and drinking water. Basically help them build wells.
Songfacts: Wow. So your journey was high school right to Nicaragua, and then you came back and formed the band?
Michael: Yeah. I came back and tried really hard going to college. (Laughing) Basically, for my dad. I thought I could do both, but I couldn't. So I dropped out my first semester after I figured out I could write a few songs, and just rented a space in Pittsburgh and started playing with different musicians and developing songs and ideas for a band.
And then about a year later I put ads in the paper for people to come down - I was auditioning. And I remembered Liz from high school, a couple of benefits that we had done. She was there and we played a few acoustic songs together. So I asked her down. And then she knew people from Pitt, and I guess Jim and Patrick, and then Johnny B. and Jenn [Wertz] later on were photographers for the band and I ended up asking them to join. We were a seven piece for a while, and that was the start of the band.
Songfacts: What college did you go to for that brief semester?
Michael: It was La Roche College. It's a very small school up north of Pittsburgh.
Songfacts: In some of your songs, especially the early ones, you're doing some sort of chanting. I'm wondering if there are times that you are coming out with these lyrics and either they're not real words or you don't even know what they mean. Does that ever happen?
Songfacts: What are some examples?
Michael: Well, our most popular song ever, "Send Me On My Way," there's a word in there that doesn't make any rational sense. I think it's "oombayseeyou." And then the melody, "seemoobadeeyah." I was in the process of coming up with lyrics, and it just sounded so good and felt so right that it had a meaning of its own that you couldn't make better by making it a word. So I left it.
Songfacts: How did you start writing that song?
Michael: I spend a lot of time writing alone, and I remember just walking right into our studio during the day. I remember it being very sunny. We had these big windows in this warehouse and the sun was shining in, and as soon as I walked in I picked up the guitar and just started writing it. It was just a very, very happy feeling. You could feel that there was a lot of happiness in the room. Whether that was an extension of me or something else in there that was very happy, you just felt it. Just like a super happy feeling.
I was listening to a lot of Toni Childs at the time, a vocalist that was very African influenced. She might have opened up a doorway for me that I could tap into and draw from.
Songfacts: What's the woodwind in that song?
Michael: It's a penny whistle.
Songfacts: And how did that come about?
Michael: Well, Johnny B. - John Buynak - when I first went to hang out with him and played some music, it was kind of like visiting the Hobbit. He had all these little toys laying around and he would just randomly bop around and pick up different little things, whether it was a flute or a saxophone or penny whistles or little percussion things that he had all laying out in his apartment. I don't think he considered himself a musician at the time, but he just had this great light energy to him.
When I asked him to join, it was mainly for the flutes and the woodwinds. He was like a little wizard guy, he picked up these things and just played around with them. And the first time he heard the song, it was kind of goofy. Everybody was happy - there was this happy vibe over the room. Jenn was going, "On my way, on my way," real goofy like. And Johnny picked up the penny whistle and they were doing this little goofy dance and just having fun and laughing with it. That's how the penny whistle part came about.
Songfacts: And then how did it end up getting in that Enterprise commercial?
Michael: Well, they just called and asked us if they could use it. And at that point it had already been in some movie soundtracks, Matilda and Ice Age. A lot of people know about the song and a lot of people love the song, but I don't know who it was in the company that wanted to use it. I'm sure it's one of those situations where they've known of the song this whole time and were just looking for a place to use it.
Songfacts: Are you guys, the writers and the performers, the ones that are profiting from those uses or did you sign those rights away?
Michael: We get a portion of it. I think we get like half of it.
Songfacts: When that song came out, I was working in Top 40 radio, and I remember we were desperate for songs. We were playing lots of Hootie and the Blowfish and the Friends theme every hour. "Send Me On My Way" was never on the radio, at least not where I was. Yet the song's been validated. Obviously people love it. What happened there?
Michael: I think it made it onto a good portion of radio stations across the United States. And I think where it really came about was on college campuses. It was spread by word of mouth and just by college students. I think that's how the song really had its foundation. But we did get some pretty significant radio play, so there was that portion of it, too. I think it wasn't more a matter of being marketed a certain way, it was more the industry and how the industry was on the brink of changing drastically at that point.
Songfacts: The song I've always wondered about - what's going on in "Cat Turned Blue"?
Michael: What about it?
Songfacts: I can't figure out why the cat is turning blue.
Michael: (Laughing) I think it's one of those things where it either makes sense to the individual, or it doesn't, but it's nothing that I could explain. Some people draw from it and go, Oh, it at least feels good or I understand it. Some people think it's about an overdose, so I've heard that a lot. Sometimes I write songs and you know that there is something going on there, but everybody's going to draw their own meaning from it.
And it's not a matter of it needing to make literal sense. But there's a point, like you see a scale and there's a meter, and when it's at 10, you know that people are going to like it in the sense that they will draw from it and make their own conclusion. And there's a whole spectrum to be viewed and to be really conscious of that you're not just throwing stuff out there and hoping it sticks. Sometimes when you write a song it makes no sense whatsoever literally, but that meter goes up. And you know that everybody's going to go, Wow, that's really mysterious and I really feel it, or they'll draw some of their own conclusions from it. And that's that song.
Songfacts: So it sounds like when those words came out of you, you just let it stick, you didn't go back and labor over the lyrics.
Michael: Yeah, that's exactly what happened.
Songfacts: Kind of similar to when we were talking about when you had some words that you created in "Send Me On My Way," in "Cat Turned Blue" you also did some scatting. Is that just something that came to you?
Michael: Well, that was the first lyrics in that. There's one version of it on Cruel Sun, our first record that we did on our own. And then there's another version on When I Woke. And on the version on When I Woke, we decided to come up with different first lyrics, so everybody in the band just started throwing stuff around. And I remember a couple of books that people were reading, and people came up with some images from those books, and other people threw in other images, and we came up with those lyrics. That's one song that I didn't write completely.
Songfacts: On The Movement, there are a lot of really interesting spiritual things going on. Can you talk about the theme of the album, if it's more directed at a specific person or if this is more of a global thing that's going on. What was your songwriting philosophy on this one?
Michael: I would have to say it's along the lines of the Occupy Wall Street vibe. It was like my own take on it. I wasn't involved in that at all, but obviously since high school and since being in Nicaragua and doing all the political work I've done, I've had that major question in my mind as far as where we're going as a civilization, toward corporations and big business running the world. You saw it in the Third World and you see it in the United States now where it's not good.
So the song [the title track - "The Movement"] is overall driven by that with some spiritual predictions that I feel about where we're going mixed in there. I guess the best way I could describe it is, some spiritualists believe that the time to meditate is over, and it's only because there are so many people on the earth now and there are all these waves - radio waves and cell phone waves. And back 100 years ago there were people that could go to the hills and meditate and really connect and it would be very easy. But there are only a handful of people on the earth now that can actually do that, because of the bombardment of energy. There are just more people on the earth than ever before. And like I said, all the waves and stuff.
And so the thing that is really prescribed for people now is devoting all your actions to what is productive and what is love or what you think God is or the universe or whatever you want to call it. I think that's going to turn people away from eventually being part of big money rule, so I told a little story in that song about that.
Songfacts: Wow. That's really interesting. So you decided to sit out Occupy. Why did you decide to not take part in any of that?
Michael: I just had other stuff going on, really. I don't have any opinion on it. I just wasn't there. I was working on something else on my path, and that was where I needed to go as a songwriter and as a person at the time. But I was very curious about it, I think it was very positive. And I think if it starts to build back up again, I definitely would be a part of it. Or I hope the song is a part of it.
Songfacts: Yeah. I see how when you're a teenager and in your 20s you have this energy and you need to go out and try to change the world. But then at some point you need to go internal and focus on yourself before you can do the external stuff.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Michael, I'm just wondering about the logistics of Rusted Root. You have several people in the band, you're on an independent label. Does everybody have a day job or work on other projects?
Michael: The band is our main focus. Musically, people have side projects, they're making other music and making other recordings and such. A lot of us have girlfriends or spouses that we live with, and they have their own thing going on. I know Liz has Mr. Smalls that she does with her husband, it's a theater and a nonprofit group over there. I have a lot of solo work that I'm doing. I'm actually working on the solo album as we speak, I have about 20 songs that I'm sorting through and I'm going to start playing out in January, and then tour in May. And then everybody does other stuff.
But when Rusted Root calls, you have to put everything down and go on the road or go in the studio.
Songfacts: Are you married?
Michael: No. I have a great girlfriend and a son that I live with in Pittsburgh.
January 8, 2013. Get more at rustedroot.com.