‘It Just Seemed Like the Right Thing:’ Jenn Wertz’s Return to Rusted Root
What a difference a year makes. Unless one was part of the inner circle of Rusted Root, it didn’t seem likely that the group would be recording together or if it did that it would remain part of a major label.
Following a break up in 1998, the sextet went its separate ways and produced solo projects around its Pittsburgh homebase. An invite to aid a financially-strapped local midwife center led to a reunion gig two years later. It even included vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wertz who had left five years earlier due to the usual mix of creative and innerband conflicts. The good feelings continued as the members recorded its fifth album, Welcome to My Party. The release brings them including Wertz together with Bill Bottrell who worked on Root’s platinum debut, When I Woke.
With the album out in stores, it’s now time for the band to rekindle the flame with older fans as well as pull new ones into the fold.
With funk and electronica tracks, Party purposely moves away from the group’s worldbeat rhythms meet western structure approach. In a phone interview, Wertz explained that it’s merely an example of where the band members are creatively as well as a method to avoid being pigeonholed.
John Patrick Gatta: In a couple articles I read, both you and Michael Glabicki were adamant that Rusted Root not be considered a part of the jam band scene. It seemed like an odd statement to make considering that Rusted Root played on the So Many Roads Tour, Furthur Festival, H.O.R.D.E. Since this is for Jambands.com, I wanted to give you the opportunity to clarify and/or elaborate on this.
Wertz: The jam band genre, not in reality but in perception, is pretty limited. We are more of a song band. Truth is, we always were. I think that the jam band audience is a very educated and discerning audience. We appeal to the audience. So, it’s not this rejecting of the audience. It’s rejecting what can be a limiting label. The funny thing is it’s not that we’re not that, it’s just that we’re more than just that.
JPG: At the same time the jam band umbrella keeps getting bigger and bigger to incorporate more than just improvisation-based acts
Wertz: It is expanding and getting broader, but in the music industry, like in the actual big belly of the beast machine kind of thing, that doesn’t matter. There will be a marketing strategy around you or not depending on whether you’re a jam band. A lot of people, they don’t do marketing around jam bands because they don’t feel that the people who listen to that genre will respond. They’re gonna get online, hear about a band and go see them based on that.
We find our fans not only like Phish, Dave Matthews and the Grateful Dead but they also are really into Radiohead, Pearl Jam and U2. So, it’s tricky for us to know how to include everybody and not exclude people.
JPG: I’ve interviewed other bands who are considered to be under the jam band umbrella yet aren’t happy with the term because they don’t want to be pigeonholed, even though they like the audience.
Wertz: From my perspective the whole thing of addressing the jam band thing is more wanting to let people know that…because there’s a stigma around it for other music fans. They think it’s noodling. They think it’s all improvisational jamming, and there are a lot of people who could be our audience or in the audience of Dave Matthews Band if they didn’t have a stigma like that.
JPG: On to Welcome to My Party, I must admit that I was surprised by the funky numbers, especially because the album starts with them rather than easing me into their inclusion. I fixed that by re-sequencing the disc via the program button on the cd player. What’s been the reaction to the album by others?
Wertz: We get a lot of feedback on the internet. “Why did you sellout?” Good Lord! All we did, we’re just making music that’s truthful to us. If people get attached to whatever it is that they find sacred in what you do…we don’t have any fear of losing the sacred aspect of the music we make. Those are other people’s fears.
It’s hard because we did do something different on this album. It’s a little more pop. Very much more song-oriented. The percussion went from more of a jam thing to more refined, orchestrated kind of thing, and we did that on purpose. That was what came naturally. It wasn’t a mistake. It also wasn’t calculated. When we got back together and started writing together and checking what came out of us. The songs that Michael was bringing forth, that’s just what it sounded like.
JPG: Like I said, in my case I wanted, maybe needed, a transition from one style to the other.
Wertz: People want that When I Woke vibey thing and we did use the same producer as that album. There are elements that are there, that people can connect to, but I think that we’re right in the middle of a quantum leap. We’re taking a leap from a limited genre audience to a wider audience. It is a little bit awkward.
JPG: Besides a new album and to some degree a new sound, it’s also a bit of a new line up with you returning and Jim DiSpirito gone. What caused you to leave and what brought you back?
Wertz: I left in ’95 and I returned in 2000. I was there from 90 to 95. I needed to get away. I really didn’t have any intention of coming back. It wasn’t like a break. I didn’t want to do that any more. In 2000, I came back from having lived in North Carolina for a little bit. Thought it was time to get back to work. Play music in front of people again, which I was intending to do by myself and I did.
In the meantime, I started to hang out with Mr. Glabicki again. We would play music together and hang out and get drunk. It just seemed like the right thing to do, to play music together again. That’s how that came about.
JPG: There were rumors at the time you left of Michael not relinquishing any creative control, which was a problem for you.
Wertz: It’s true. Well…and there were a ton of just personal differences. You live in a band and it’s like a family. It can be hard.
JPG: Then, how was it that you and Michael got over such matters?
Wertz: Actually, we hadn’t even thought about playing together in terms of Rusted Root. We were just showing each other our songs and how our writing had progressed. We were just having so much fun hanging out and we missed each other’s company. We have a great musical connection and a great chemistry. It’s pretty rare. I’ve played with a lot of people. It’s nothing to spit at when you have that with somebody.
JPG: Well, there are definitely changes within the group as far as more input rather than Michael keeping total creative control. You and Michael duet on “Blue Diamonds,” which sounds to me like it would be a great single.
Wertz: You like it? I love that song. I feel very emotionally connected to it. It was a journey for me to sing that. It’s a Michael composition. He had written it as it is. He didn’t like it that much and was going to scrap it. I heard it as a sort of an Everly Brothers kind of song. We showed it to the producer. He said, We’ve got to do it.’ We talked about the Everly Brothers idea, a duet where two people sing lead and their harmonies weave in and out of the lead. We set out to do that. We had to sing that song so many times, trying to just get it where it felt natural and where we could experiment around each other’s notes really without stepping on each other. I never really lost the emotional punch to it, I don’t know why.
JPG: I read a story about it where Michael said it’s based on him seeing a “celestial being” when he was injured in a hit-and-run accident.
Wertz: I don’t know anything about his angel from when he was two years old. For me it just feels and reminds me of becoming friends with him again, sort of a friendship that I had put on the backburner, so to speak, and didn’t realize that I’d missed a lot until it was there again. We were both pretty ecstatic, like little puppies. Oh look there you are! Yeah!’ Childlike. It makes me feel that way.
JPG: Now when you left, you led several of your own bands. Are you able to continue to work outside Rusted Root?
Wertz: The first one was called Lovechild. When I came back from North Carolina, for lack of a better title, we called the band, the Jenn Wertz Band. Now it’s Isabella. It’s tricky because Rusted Root takes up so much of my time that my musicians have to work. They start playing with other people and you lose people. We’re just going to see how the chips fall and see whose left standing and whether I want to pursue the band in that way, in that sound, in that interpretation.
In the meantime, I play solo a lot. I’ve been opening a lot of Michael’s solo shows. We actually have a handful booked for this month. I play acoustic opening and then he plays acoustic and we sing a song or two together.
JPG: Leading your own bands, did it give you a different perspective of what Michael does as Rusted Root’s main songwriter and bandleader?
Wertz: For me going away and learning how to work with musicians from the perspective of the main songwriter just gave me a more integrated and complete experience to draw from. Like you automatically have more compassion for the person whose song you’re supporting. You have to.
I think primarily the thing that you learn is how to honor the fact of his attachments to the songs. You really don’t understand until you have a bunch of babies that are your own that you’re giving over to musicians and trusting them with it. There’s a little bit more compassion for the person whose trying to maintain integrity with their writing.
JPG: Now, what convinced you and the others to get back together?
Wertz: It was pretty much this one show in July of 2000 that they invited me to do and it was like, Let’s just have this show.’ It was a benefit for the Midwife Center (Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan’s wife had the couple’s baby there). There were a lot of people there. They came from all over. It was my favorite show ever. It was very magical and very old school Rusted Root. It was easy. It flowed and all that kind of stuff. It was hard to say, Let’s not do this anymore.’ It felt really right. That flowed very easily into an album. Wasn’t really discussed as much.
JPG: The band’s previous major label albums were on Mercury records. When Rusted Root came out in 1998, it got lost in the corporate takeover and reshuffling. How have things worked out now that you survived the roster cuts and have moved to Island?
Wertz: The thing is, it all turned out great in the end. Most record labels on their rock end, they’ll have sometimes 250 artists to shift through. Island/Def Jam has 29 rock artists and 75 total artists on the roster. It’s truly wanting to be…the head guy’s Lyor Cohen who founded Def Jam and with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, and his goal is to re-invent the music industry to be artist-friendly, artist-centered. That’s what they came up with, make the rosters smaller so that these artists have room to move with this money that they have to spend on them. We couldn’t be happier about the label.
JPG: When Rusted Root came out with When I Woke back in 1994, it was unlike anything else out there. With Welcome to My Party it’s still not part of the mainstream. And radio and video playlists have become even tighter. I haven’t seen a video or heard a single on the radio, so has touring been your main method to create interest in the band and record?
Wertz: You’ve said it exactly right. There is a re-education that’s going on about the band. We’re re-educating people by touring and going out there and saying, We’re still here. It’s little a different, but we also play the same way that we always played. It’s still super high energy.’ People still love it. People still leave all soaked in sweat. That’s great.
JPG: Are you finding that you have to walk the fine line between not putting off older fans while sparking interest in attracting new ones?
Wertz: Yeah, it’s tricky. The whole idea is, the word is integration.’ We need to integrate the audience a little bit cause with “Send Me On My Way,” there was a pop audience. That’s always been there, however small it may be.
Now the movie Ice Age has “Send Me On My Way” in it. There are little kids and their moms actually coming to see the concert, think that Rusted Root is a new band because they see it on Ice Age. They come out and they’re like Wow, these aren’t kids, and obviously, they’ve been doing this for awhile.’