Marc Roberge of O.A.R. (2014)

by Greg Prato

The veteran Rockville, Maryland group O.A.R. is not an easy one to pin down to a single style. If you were to flip through a few of their videos on YouTube, you'll come across tunes that have a reggae tinge ("Heaven"), place the focus on voice and acoustic guitar ("Peace"), and showcase their pop sensibilities ("Shattered"). And this is a much-welcomed element of the band, especially in an era where more and more artists are seemingly falling into a one-dimensional stylistic rut.

O.A.R.'s co-founding singer/guitarist, Marc Roberge, has always had a lot to say about the songs and how he comes up with his ideas for lyrics (we first spoke with Marc back in 2008). Here, he talks about some of the influences on his songwriting and covers some tracks from the group's latest album.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off by talking about the new album, The Rockville LP.

Marc Roberge: Absolutely. We had one rule when we went into the process... actually two. We've made about eight studio albums and about five live albums, some EPs and stuff, and everything was always rushed - we always had a deadline. Monetarily, this one probably could have benefited from having a deadline, but for the first time in our career, we decided that we would not live or die by a deadline. We were in between labels at the time, so we didn't have anyone really pushing us, and we really appreciated that moment of being alone. So that was rule #1: Do not rush this thing.

And the #2 rule was, every song had to truly come from the heart. It had to mean something to the band, not just me or not just one of the members or one of the co-writers. It had to be something the band would feel comfortable playing live and something that came from the heart. Because, honestly, how we began this thing was in a basement in Rockville in 1994 or '95, I can't even remember. But everything we did was from the heart, because we had nothing to gain monetarily, we had nothing to gain professionally. We were just making songs. So we tried to recreate that by not trying, I guess, if that makes sense. Those were the two rules.

So we followed that along the way, traveled through Nashville, Rockville, and New York creating, writing and recording the entire album in those three places. Always with the same rules and always with the intention of making sure it always had that heart. And that was it.

That was pretty basic. Normally you do have a lot of pressures coming at you from everyone. This one, the only pressures came from us, and it was very nice. So that allowed us to have our borders to work within, and that's what we needed.

The advantage to recording in Nashville (The Rockville LP was also recorded in Brooklyn, New York and Bethesda, Maryland), is the musical talent that dwells there. Marc co-wrote the tune "Peace" with Nashville denizens Blair Daly and Nathan Chapman. Daly's co-writes include "Hold On To Me" by John Michael Montgomery and "Smile" by Uncle Kracker; Chapman co-wrote "Like My Mother Does" by Lauren Alaina and produced the first four Taylor Swift albums.
Songfacts: Let's discuss some of your songs - if you'd like to start with "Peace," off the new album.

Marc: Absolutely. This was the first writing session for the album. It was in Nashville. It was the first time I'd gotten together with a new friend of mine, Nathan Chapman. We wanted to write some songs. We both had been working at a recording academy event and I approached him and said I wanted to write. This really was the catalyst to the album. We showed up: him, me, and Blair Daly sat in Blair's basement.

And Nathan comes in, sits down, and says, "Okay, I want to write a song today called 'Peace.'" And that's all we had. We didn't know what it was going to be about, we just stumbled upon the different forms of the word "peace," the different connotations of the word. And, "No, that sounds too fancy, we don't want to do any of that."

I had just gotten through a two or three year period of some pretty turbulent times in my personal life and in our band life, and really, really, really wanted a restart button. I really wanted to get back on an even playing field and start fresh. The song became about that. In two hours we wrote the lyric very honestly. It all came out of my experience of just wanting to get to the other side, get to the light. Not win anything, but just get back to zero.

At the time, Homeland was a good show, so we were joking at the fact that everyone's tired. Everyone wanted some peace. Everyone wanted to start over - the economy, everything. And we just felt that we all could relate to that in different ways. It was a very, very easy write.

Lyrically speaking, we used the relationship of a couple as our characters, but it's about much more than that. It's not about world peace, but it's about that personal peace and these characters realizing that it's okay to want to start over again. It's okay to not beat a dead horse. It's okay to take a break and take a breather. That's really what it's about. I think that's why people are connecting with it so well.

So that song was one of the first writes for the album. It pretty much gave us the confidence to get out there and experiment even more on the rest of the tracks, because we already knew that we had something with "Peace." We were never out there chasing singles. We were never out there freaking out trying to write hit songs. We kind of stumbled upon it through really honest means, and that to me is the best part about the album: That I have no qualms promoting a song without guilt.

If you didn't write a song from the right place, you feel guilty singing it. This one is straight from the heart. So that really gave us an open window to write and create the rest of the album. "Peace" is definitely the most important piece of this puzzle.

Songfacts: Cool. Looking back at the earlier album, King [2011], what is the song "Heaven" about lyrically?

Marc: Wow. So, "Heaven," that song arrived right in the middle of some pretty serious health stuff that was going on in my family. I looked at my wife, who is amazing, she's just the greatest thing in the world. She's impressed me with her strength through some serious stuff. And I just realized at some point that I got kind of sick and tired of everybody out there having rules about getting into a club or getting into heaven or getting into anything - you've got to do this or do that. When, really, all it has to do with is living your life and being strong, so that when it's time to go, you've done your best.

I wanted to write that. I wanted to say that. I wanted to tell the kids at the time when these "it gets better" videos were flying around that, you know, yeah, it does. But you don't need to impress anybody and you don't need to change to be in the club and you don't need to adjust yourself to be accepted into somewhere. It's like, I don't want to go to Heaven if I can't get in. If they don't want me, I don't really want to be there. So we took that attitude into the song.

It came at a very crucial time in my life. Every time I sing it, I feel like I'm rebelling against everyone out there who told us that we might not make it, and I felt people related to that. That was the savior of that album in a sense, because it just meant the world. That was a really tough album to make. We didn't have time to really focus on it. We had so many other things going on.

Songfacts: And also on the same album, what is "Gotta Be Wrong Sometimes" about lyrically?

Marc: Well, "Gotta Be Wrong Sometimes" is touching on living my life to my standards. And whether that's right or wrong to somebody else, it doesn't really matter to me.

But then we boiled it down to something as simple as going to "the club" and finding somebody who maybe agrees with you, and trying to make it as simple as that, to relate to someone listening to it. Most importantly, that song non-lyrically, the music was intended to be fun, bouncy, and make you smile, driving around with your windows down. So yeah, the song is in a sense a rebellion thing, and "I'll be wrong if I want to." But it's more of a feel-good song. Trying to really just make people smile.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Marc: I have favorite songwriters and they don't necessarily influence my lyrics or anything, because I'm not at their level in my opinion. So I'm just a fan. Ryan Adams is one of my favorites of all time. In my house Dylan was a huge presence, huge influence. My folks, my brothers, everyone was listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers coming up. So, while we couldn't relate to the struggle, we couldn't really relate to the lyric, for some reason we could relate to the pulse.

That was a huge influence on me, trying to understand the fact that music could add a heartbeat to your life. That was huge.

Jeff Buckley, "Lover, You Should've Come Over," that song for me is an inspiration when I'm at my lowest. When I'm at my driest, when I can't write, when I can't do anything, I listen to that song on repeat, because it never, ever, ever gets old for me. I think it's amazing.

Songfacts: It's funny that you mentioned Jeff Buckley, because I can detect a Jeff Buckley influence on your singing.

Marc: Oh, man. That's crazy. Thanks. I got two guys who recorded a vocal for that guy, and both of them said the same thing. He stands next to you and talks with all heart, and that's really all I care about.

During his short life, Jeff Buckley only issued one EP (1993's Live at Sin-é) and one full-length (1994's Grace). But after his untimely death on May 29, 1997 at the age of 30, Buckley's popularity has continued to grow, with more people discovering his talents - Rolling Stone placed Buckley at #39 on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers.
I didn't have the best voice, wasn't a good guitar player, wrote songs in a basic manner. But I give it 100 percent of my heart no matter what. No matter the show, no matter the crowd size, whatever. And I think that's what I took from him. I might be way off, I didn't know him. But everyone who I knew worked with him said the same thing, that it was a show of heart.

That means the world to me. I don't want to hear somebody doing runs and singing beautifully and all these things unless they've got heart.

Songfacts: Did you ever see his Live in Chicago DVD from 1995?

Marc: Yeah.

Songfacts: I think that's probably one of the best live rock performances ever filmed.

Marc: Absolutely, man. It doesn't matter if you can't shred, if you can't play a million notes a second. You know, I'm not writing epic poems, but it's not a competition. At least from where I'm sitting. I don't try to compete with anybody. I just make sure it's honest. And even the poppiest of the pop songs and even the most basic lyric of the most basic lyric, if you put it all out there, man, people will connect.

Songfacts: I agree. Actually, I don't know if you're a fan of theirs or if you're familiar with their music, but you also should check out the first two albums Blind Melon did with the singer Shannon Hoon.

Marc: Oh, my God, are you kidding me? His performance at that Woodstock recreation, rolling around on the ground, he's in a dress, he's playing the drum. There's two ways you look at this thing. One dummy would look at it and go, "What's this drug addict doing?" And then a guy like me is looking at it going, "Whoa, this genius is making me feel amazing right now."

We grew up in the era of Pearl Jam, which is my biggest influence - not just on my music, but on my life. I love them. And at the time, Blind Melon coming out was huge for us. "No Rain," of course, was played over and over and over in the basement. But we were "album fans." The little licks on guitar - to this day I could sing them all to you. Huge fan.

If Pearl Jam didn't exist, I don't know that I'd be in a band. Like, tonight or tomorrow in LA I'm going to play "Footsteps," because it's my favorite Vedder song. No one's going to know it, but I don't care. I love it.

Songfacts: I did a book about Shannon Hoon a few years ago and I also did a book about all the grunge bands called "Grunge is Dead" a few years ago, as well.

Marc: Are you kidding me? Dude, I've got to find it. This is my time, man. That was my shit.

Songfacts: The Shannon Hoon book I interviewed all his former bandmates and others that were close to him - it's called A Devil on One Shoulder, and then the other book, Grunge is Dead, I interviewed members of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains.

Marc: Are you kidding me? You are the luckiest guy in the world. Wow, I've got a lot of questions.

Songfacts: As a fan of all those bands, it was really great getting the opportunity to speak to all those guys.

Marc: Well, the first song we ever played, it was the eighth grade talent show, we covered "Porch," the Pearl Jam song. And that was huge for us.

I finally got to play guitar with Mike McCready in a fun cover band a couple of people are in - McCready was the guitar player one year. That was one of the pinnacles of my entire career. Not just because Mike was there, but because during rehearsal we were in a hotel conference room, nobody was there except musicians, nobody to impress, no fans, no one watching. McCready is soloing with his head back - you would think he was in Brazil in front of 50,000 people the way he was soloing. And that solidified it for me. I was like, "This guy is it for me. Because he cares that much, no one's watching and that's when he's rockin'." So that meant everything.

Songfacts: Definitely. And then how would you say that you write your best songs? Is it by any kind of formula that you follow or do songs just come to you in all different ways?

Marc: I wish there was a formula. It's funny, the "better songs" that I've written just make the most sense, I guess. They're not very jumbled. They come very quickly.

Any successful song we've had, the lyric has been written very quickly. The ones that I just kind of freak out for a year, they never end up good. It's too much "hurricane," I like to say. I don't know, I don't have a method. I should. Whenever I go to Nashville, we have methods. Sit down for a few hours and then we go eat and then we go home.

But, yeah, normally it's just when I'm walking the dogs and a lyric comes. And I think a lot of the musical stuff gets written best when we're at a soundcheck and the band is just playing. That's when we write our best music, because it comes from the stage. I don't know what it is about standing on a stage as opposed to a studio, but we certainly create better musical parts onstage.

Songfacts: And what would you give as an example of a song that came very quickly and a song that took you a long time to complete?

Marc: One that came very quickly is "Shattered," which was our most successful song. The lyric happened incredibly quick on a dog walk. I was in LA making the album, almost done. I had the music and I hadn't even paid attention to the lyric yet. I went on a dog walk, and it just happened. I wasn't in a bad mood, I was not fighting with my wife or anyone. I just saw this dude drive by. He left his house in a huff, and I imagined, "How many times can I break 'til I shatter?" I just thought that this will be interesting. "What's this guy doing? Because I know he's coming back. It's his own house." So that happened very quickly.

O.A.R. is not a singles band, but "Shattered" made #36 on the Hot 100 in 2008. Around the time of the single's release, the song could be heard on a Verizon commercial and in an episode of 90210.
And then the other one that happened quickly was "War Song." It's on the same album. We'd just come back from Iraq - we did a USO tour over there. We were sitting in a room with Richard, our guitar player, at the Oakwood in LA, and just wanted to write a song about the experience instead of writing an entire album and pretending that we knew something that we didn't. We were there for a week.

So I said, "You know what? I've met enough people, I've known enough armed forces, families, and people. And if I could just put myself in that position for a minute and describe what it's like to come back - not be there, but just to come back, you know, to leave at the party happy and come back to a party not feeling yourself." And that lyric came incredibly quickly. I was fresh off a visit to a lot of hostels and a lot of bases and a lot of stuff out there. Putting myself in somebody else's shoes made it real easy.

Examples of it being very difficult are when I'm in my own shoes, and I'm trying to be creative writing. That's when it takes a long time. I think the thing that separates us from other bands is that I won't really do that, because writing lyrics is a difficult thing for me to do. It's easier for me to get on a stage or in a booth and just freestyle, improv, and that's when I can write from first person, is when I'm in the moment.

But it seems like every time I've sat down and tried to write songs from my own perspective, I just obsess. So to battle that, I've gone in and recorded most of our songs just free-spirit in the studio or on stage at a soundcheck. I make stuff up, and it seems to work.

Songfacts: What about as far as a song that took a very long time to complete?

Marc: You know, one of the songs on this new album that took a really long time to complete was "I Will Find You." It's the last song on the album. It's about 9-minutes long. The music came very quickly. We did it in one afternoon, me and the drummer. Just had the room and screwed around. I had the basics of the lyric, but I couldn't fill in the blanks. It was 9 minutes, I had a lot of stuff I wanted to say, but I just could not get it right.

So almost for a year - until I finally recorded the vocal - I couldn't get a good lyric. I kept trying to write, and finally, I just gave up. I record a lot of vocals at home, so sitting in my room, I threw out all my paper, stared at the wall, and just sang. And that's what you hear on the recording. That's where I had it for a year. I don't know what that says about my writing. [Laughing] Might just be kind of digging myself a hole here. But it's honest.

October 15, 2014. For more O.A.R., visit the band's official site.
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