(This is the 11th chapter in my autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on July 5, 2020. It has been edited and expanded for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)
My First Full-Length Album: Misfit
Continuing with my music career, we now come to my third album as a songwriter, Misfit. 2020 marks the the ten-year anniversary of the recording of Misfit. Next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of its release. In the previous emails in this series, I described Some Songs I Wrote and Me as demos, because the song arrangements were minimal– just acoustic guitar and voice, and occasionally other instruments. They were motivated by the need to get gigs.
But now I wanted to record my songs with a full arrangement– drums, bass, keyboards, electric guitars, etc. And I wanted to hire a producer– someone who could make these songs the best they could be. I thought I had written some pretty good songs. How good could they be in the hands of a good producer with good studio musicians? What would be the reception by the music world?
To understand what I mean, compare the simple version of “Me” on the Me album, to the full band version of “Me” on the Misfit album. Notice any difference?
The Rob Roper Band
After releasing Me in October, 2009, I formed a band to play the songs I had written and recorded on the first two CDs. It consisted of Dan Heinrich on drums, Laurie Lamar on bass and backing vocals, and Paul Ermisch on violin. I played some songs with electric guitar and others with acoustic. We played a few gigs in the Denver area from January to June, 2010. At that point I put the band on hiatus because the recording of Misfit was underway, and I didn’t have time for both; I working a full-time day job with a lot of forced overtime on nights and weekends (although the time-and-a-half pay helped pay for Misfit). It was playing my songs with a band that confirmed my desire to record them with a fuller treatment. I always saw myself as a band leader more than a solo acoustic artist.
Advances in Songwriting 2008-2009
Before getting to the recording of Misfit, I want to briefly mention the direction I had taken my songwriting during this time. After recording Some Songs I Wrote in 2007, I consciously worked to take my songwriting to a higher level. My early songs were very clear in their meaning and traditional in form. With these new songs, I began writing lyrics with less clarity and more mystery, and disregarding traditional song forms when I thought it was best for the song. The result was songs like “Like a Child” (which appeared on Me), “Falling into Heaven,” “Apollo’s Little Bastard” (which would appear on Misfit). Others, such as “Sea of Hope,” “The Other Side of Nowhere” and “The Man in the Movies” would appear on my fourth album. I wrote a few others during this time that have never been recorded.
The Producer: John McVey
In the early-mid 00’s, I was part of the Denver alt-country scene based around the band, The Railbenders. I went to their gigs, and also to the Acoustic Tuesdays that Jim Dalton, singer-songwriter-guitarist for The Railbenders, used to do at his brother’s bars. Denver singer-songwriter Angie Stevens was also part of that scene. I loved her. She wrote songs about her life, and sang with such power and emotion that it made me cry. I loved her second EP, “Stand Up Girl.” I loved it not only for the powerful songs, but also for the production. The arrangements were great.
I checked the CD credits and saw that the producer was John McVey. I looked him up on the internet and saw that he worked out of Coupe Studios in Boulder. I contacted John and he agreed to produce and engineer my album. For a good part of 2010, I would be driving from my home in south Denver to Boulder after work, during rush hour traffic (ugh!), to make this record.
Misfit: The Songs
I gave a lot of thought to the song selection for the new album. Initially I planned to just re-record the songs on the first two demo CDs with the full band treatment. But, as I said, I had been writing a lot of new songs– songs I thought were better– and wanted to record them, too. I ended up going primarily with the first idea, with 6 of the old songs, but included two of the newer songs, “Falling into Heaven” and “Apollo’s Little Bastard.”
I also included two cover songs. I mentioned “Little White Boy” in the previous chapter of this blog series. It was written by Lori Grebe Cook when she was my partner in a songwriting class, after I told her about growing up in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Being raised by non-racist white parents in Mississippi in those days definitely made me a misfit. I also met Bill Kahler at the Rocky Mountain Song School and loved his songs. I immediately related to “Chair on the Moon” and decided to cover it.
I had written the song “Misfit” as a joke, and made the demo a hidden track on Me, but it had become one of my most popular songs when I played it live. My former bandmate in Faded Innocence, Kurt Loken, wrote a review and called me “the troubadour of the misfit.” I decided to embrace that label. I would make “Misfit” the title song– and the theme– of the new record.
The Recording of Misfit
Work for the album began with “pre-production” sessions in May and June, 2010. In these sessions, the songwriting was tweaked, keys and tempos chosen, and vocal and acoustic guitar scratch tracks were recorded for the other musicians to play to. (I have made these scratch tracks available to my fan club website, The Misfit Club.)
Then in July, 2010, the main recording began, with John bringing in studio musicians to record drums, bass and keyboards, as well as bit parts for some songs– mandolin, banjo and pedal steel guitar. Bill Kahler, author of “Chair on the Moon,” recorded saxophone parts remotely for “Bipolar.” John and I recorded all the guitar parts. Then I recorded the lead vocals. Finally, backing vocals were added. Recording was completed by the end of October. The record was then mixed and mastered, and by the end of the year I had a mastered album.
For details on this process, you can read the journal I wrote at the time at https://www.robroper.com/html/misfit_journal.php
What I Learned
Seeing how John worked as a producer was a great learning experience for me. I saw how he began with a basic vision of each song, but also wanted them to develop in the studio throughout the process. It was also interesting to see how he worked with the studio musicians, and how he communicated with them. It made me realize my deficiency in music theory, something I would take steps to correct a few years later.
As a musician, the experience was sobering. I always thought I had good time, but John showed me– on the computer screen– that I was consistently ahead of the beat. And I it would take me multiple takes to get my guitar parts right. By contrast, the professional musicians would bang out their parts without mistakes on the first take. Watching them made me want to be like them; I determined to improve my musicianship.
I had never really been a singer before; I saw myself as a guitar player and a songwriter. But I realized that I needed to improve my singing in order to present my songs to the public more effectively. I had been taking singing lessons from Dr. Scott Martin in Denver during this time, and John helped me further during the vocal recording sessions. If you compare my singing on Some Songs I Wrote and Misfit, you can hear the improvement.
I said at the beginning of this email that I decided to go all out on this record, and that applied to the artwork as well. By this time downloads had replaced physical records for a lot of people (streaming was just beginning). But I always loved holding a record in my hand, looking at the artwork, and reading the album notes. I wanted to give people a reason to buy the CD.
I hired the team of Greg Carr and Sally Ratts for the Misfit artwork. The design was fantastic, as my fans who own the Deluxe version of the CD know. It was a hard-cover CD, like a little book. A booklet was included with a separate page for each song. I wrote a little something about each song, and Greg created art for each song and page of the booklet. For the front of the booklet, I also composed a poem for the album by taking a line from each of the 10 songs.
In March, 2011, the audio master was then sent to a replication company, and the artwork to the printers. In early April, I had 1000 Misfit CDs. Copies were sent to a promoter to solicit reviews. And on May 17, 2011, Misfit was announced to the world.
When Misfit was released in May, 2011, it had been a year since I had started the project. I had put my band on hiatus. I had worked massive amounts of overtime on my “day” job, and wiped out my savings account. I didn’t expect it to take this long, or cost this much. Now that Misfit was released, would all the work, the time, and money be worth it? Naturally I was nervous.
Wildy’s World said,
“Roper’s gentle blend of Americana and rock n roll is as memorable as the package it comes in …plinks at heart strings and funny bones… finding both the sorrow and the humor in some of the shadowed crevices of day-to-day life… a solid songwriter with a talent for telling stories from unusual perspectives… an entertaining effort.”
The Westword said,
“…what Roper is, as Misfit proves, is a guy with some sharp songwriting skills and a knack for penning witty lyrics.”
Rootstime called it
“…drenched with emotion, with truly beautiful songs…A modest masterpiece.”
Vintage Guitar magazine said,
“Roper’s musical persona is part folkie, part nerd, part conceptual artist, and part cultural critic…Even the packaging here is special. Instead of the usual jewel case or eco-paperboard, Misfit has a book-like cover with thick paper pages and commissioned illustrations. The music more than delivers on the promise of the packaging.”
You can read all the reviews on the Misfit page of my website
The Response by Fans and the Music Community
While the professional reviews are nice, what was more important to me was the reception of Misfit to my fans (very few at the time!) and other musicians. Fans and friends would come up to me at events and comment about how much they liked it, and how often they play it. One friend wrote, “It will continue to occupy an honored place in my road trip collection – that is, CDs I play loudly in my car and harmonize with.”
My friend Nancy Farmer wrote a review on CDBaby that said:
“Rob Roper’s album “Misfit” is feel good music, but not the shallow kind. Like a really good book, it is a guided tour through the range of human emotion and experience, but filled with quirky twists like the title cut. Each song is like a unique and thoughtful gift to be unwrapped or a fine wine to be savored… Do I have a favorite? Every time I think I do, I find myself with a different song stuck in my head that fits my mood, and I can tell you there are 10 songs stuck in my head!”
Misfit was a major milestone in my music career. It was a statement. Music fans and other musicians began taking me more seriously now. Jim Dalton of The Railbenders, told me that, after hearing Misfit, he said to himself, “Whoa, I better step up my game.”
How to Listen to Misfit: CDs, Downloads, Streaming (and Vinyl?)
You can buy the Misfit CD at my Bandcamp site or at my live shows. I have two editions: the Deluxe version, with the hard cover and the booklet, and a less expensive Standard version, without the booklet and a soft cover. There are very few Deluxe editions left, and it will be very difficult and costly to produce more, so if you want one, get it now. I will autograph any CD if you request it.
You can also download the Misfit album or individual songs at my Bandcamp site. Bandcamp allows you to pay more than the listed price, if you want to give the artist a little extra help. CD and download purchases help me raise money to record new music.
The Misfit songs are also available on all the streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, etc., and I encourage you to do so. (I have a Spotify playlist of most of my recorded songs if you want to search for it.) But keep in mind that the revenue from those services is insignificant, and won’t help me raise money for new music. A $1 download pays 1000 times more than a stream. So please consider downloading the Misfit songs on my Bandcamp site.
I’ve thought about creating a vinyl version of Misfit for its ten-year anniversary, but I’m not sure there would be enough demand to cover the costs. If enough of you demand a vinyl version, I will make one!
Misfit tshirts are available on my Bandcamp site and at live shows. These are very soft, high-quality, beautiful tshirts. Here you see Lori Grebe Cook, author of “Little White Boy,” modeling the tshirt. The front of the shirt is the album cover, and on the back is says, “Misfit and Proud of it.” Wear it with pride!
Misfit Finances and Funding New Recordings
Although Misfit was a big artistic success, it was a financial disaster. I spent about $24,000 on its production, and another $10,000 on promotion. I’ve received less than $1,000 in revenue. I was naive and innocent at the time. I thought I’d be able to sell enough CDs and downloads to at least cover my costs. But, like most people at the time, I couldn’t see the streaming revolution coming. I’ll never be able to do this again, because I no longer have a day job, and am living off my music income and retirement savings. And frankly, even if I could afford it, I’m not sure that it’s right for recording artists should subsidize the listening public.
To record music in the future, given the current state of the music business, I will need to call upon my fans for funding. My fan club is called The Misfit Club. For a minimum of $5/month, members get access to demos, live recordings and other stuff not available to the general public. All income from the The Misfit Club goes into a special fund for new recordings. Partly because next year is the 10th year anniversary of the release of Misfit, I decided to record a new album!
I’m very proud of Misfit, but, as important as it was, as my new songs says: it was just another stop along The Way.
Next: The Other Side of Nowhere.