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Published: 2014/03/19
by Joshua Sabatini

Roem Baur on the Race to TRI Studios

From the church choir to the music stage, Roem Baur’s maturing dialogue of purpose continues to inspire as he delivers authentic performances throbbing with heartfelt emotion whether it’s offering insight into insomnia or anathematizing consumerism.

He’s the hardworking singer-songwriting dynamo living in San Francisco who found out in December he won Bob Weir’s Race to TRI Studios 2013 contest. It is the latest career highlight for the rock and roller whose merits were extolled also last year by musician Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.

The thirty-six year old has all the energy of an optimist, despite the ever present pain in his songs with no scarcity of suffering, often over a girl.

Baur possesses a compelling sincerity which is evident in his lyrics and stage performance as it was during the January mid-afternoon interview at the 20th Century Café in Hayes Valley, a stone’s throw from his Western Addition apartment.

At a table by the window the craftsman discussed over coffee, a slice of honey cake and the afternoon sunlight everything from San Francisco’s soaring rents that have driven out many of the artists to the time he snuck into Taylor Swift’s “claustrophobic” Nashville recording studio. The latter contributed to the creation of the contest’s winning song, Maybe I Don’t Need You, when it later turned up in an inspiring dream sequence.

Baur was born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma and eventually California’s Central Valley. He sees his future in the two-year-old band Roem and the Revival, which is expected to record new material beginning in March. Based on its initial output, the results should prove worthy.

The origins of Roem Baur.

I grew up in the Central Valley, a little cow town called Manteca, California. My dad was a paint contractor. He always commuted to the Bay Area because that was where all the work was. There were a lot of folks, a lot of middle class folks that lived in the Central Valley and commuted out to the Bay Area where the work was. I moved out [to California] when I was six years old from Oklahoma. I was born in Texas. My mom was nineteen years old when she had me. My biological father, good guy, but he was still in high school when that all went down. She needed more support. So she moved in with family. She was one of seven in an Air Force family. She moved up to Oklahoma.

Early exposure to music.

[My stepdad] had a great appetite for rock and roll. My mom was really into classical music and church music. She was always listening to that stuff in the kitchen and my dad was building motorcycles and hotrods out in the garage and listening to Led Zeppelin. She said I caught on to melodies and stuff. But I didn’t realize I had any kind of gift until I accidently found that out singing in church choirs. It was a little Baptist church, but they were pretty progressive. They actually had drums in the church. They had changed to protestant Baptist when they moved out to California because they were crazy, crazy kids. We were singing in these choir groups in the Central Valley. I always had a real high voice so I sang tenor.

Favorite food at the 20th Century Café.

It’s called honey cake man. I promise it’s not laced or if it is laced you’ll thank me later. I love this place man, I feel like I time travel when I come here.

Roem is his real name.

My mom was 19. A little bit of a hippie back then. She just liked to do things her own way. That’s why the spelling r-o-e-m. She got the name from a dream. She just knew she was going to have a little boy and he was going to have olive skin and black hair. It fell and she picked it up, picking up the little boy and calling it Roem and comforting it and calling it Roem and she had no idea why. So that’s where the name came from.

The voice of Roem.

I found out in high school I could sing contralto, mixed voice, mixed head voice and chest voice. And that became what I was interested in. That was when I got bit with the bug. And I knew that singing and music wasn’t just something that was fun to do – my favorite part of going to church was the singing – but it was also something to pursue. I found it was something I was good at. I was lucky because this little church had volunteers that were actually music teachers. They were really pushing us to learn theory at a young age, listen to all types of music. That led to high school. I enrolled in choir class. This was where I knew I had something special. I had more power. I had more control. And I was passionate about it.

Whenever I sang it always came from a spiritual place. After I was long away from organized religion, I always felt centered when I sang. There was always this piece of me that – that I didn’t know later would be a dialogue through song – but there was a piece of me that came out and I was able to express myself in a way that felt very purposeful and everything sort of aligned. Whereas for the most part as a young man I always had a hard time fitting in with any group. I wanted to fit in with the jocks, with actors, with painters, and it just always seemed like I could never find a group I could fit in with. Eventually I started a band with some guys. You can always find some band geeks who also feel like outcasts and the only time we feel like we belong anywhere is when we are playing music.

My parents were poor man. There wasn’t any private school. High school was good because it was really hard for me to focus and to feel challenged unless I was doing music. Music was always a challenge. There was always a vast amount of information to learn. It has just always been a place where I could center myself. I went to college for singing. I was first tenor. I really worked on my contralto. If you listen to some of the videos and stuff you’ll hear I don’t have a true falsetto because I am still sort of signing this blend tone which sort of became my sound. People tell me, “You have a high voice.”

The solo artist and the band.

I came from acoustic solo, soulful and bluesy, but really acoustic. And that was how I made my living and how I broke off from the day job. So when I plugged in and formed this weird big band I had a mixture of classically trained musicians and then blues guitar players and we were coming together in the rehearsal room and sort of blending these influences. But there was a love of rock and roll, a love of great music. It is so magic to watch these guys collaborate together, because you can feel it. It is electric in the room. This is Roem and the Revival. There have been lots of incarnations because all the musicians are professional musicians with lots of projects. The bass player is producer Damien Lewis. [Rest of the band: Drummer Yoel Bibas, lead guitar player Caleb Ford and trombone player Christian Behrans.]

Solo served its purpose and still does. It’s a place where a lot of this music is road tested. I play for a living so I play solo a lot. Private parties and bars, casinos and wine bars and weddings, pretty much anywhere. It’s cool in the Bay Area they will have a rock and roller at their wedding. It’s not all about classical music and lounge singers. It’s great.

A lot of the new songs they start there. And then we have a method of workshopping stuff where I’ll upload stuff to a drive. We will use technology to collaborate because everybody is so busy nowadays you have to be able to work on your own time. So we’ll upload ideas constantly everything from a demo from my phone to like a full on session and just have guys workshop it and come in with their ideas so when we get together we all are bringing things constantly to the table. It lends itself to very energetic rehearsal and creative space. I love the band. These guys push me to be a better musician every single day. And every single one of them is an amazing musician. My job really is like the captain of the ship to help those ideas grow to fruition and keep the songs steered in the right direction. This is just the beginning.

The winning song, “Maybe I Don’t Need You” was previously played on the radio.

We had this EP and this song actually got us our first radio play. KFOG picked up this song and they were like, “This is the one we love. We would like to play it. We would like to put it on the local scene CD.” And that exposed us to a huge audience. It was the first time I ever had radio play. So I had that crazy moment. I was like no fucking way. And I was by myself. I’m screaming in my apartment. My neighbors probably thought I was killing myself or someone else. It’s hard to be cool when your song first comes on the radio. You just freak out like a teenager. All of a sudden there it is just laying out there in front of you that teenage dream.

It’s kind of a painful thing. I went to Nashville for six months. And I had this serious relationship. It is really hard to do a long distance thing and then I also had this person in my life who was supposed to be a positive influence that was really becoming a self-serving influence and then started, I realized later, to use me to vent frustration. This was a dude, a friend of mine. I would say it’s almost like verse one verse two type of thing but it’s probably a mixture of both. You take these literal pictures and they start unfolding as their own thing.

So this song sort of came out of the experience of saying maybe there’s an alternate universe if you could tell people exactly how you feel and say exactly what you want to say in that moment, maybe as painful as this is for me to admit maybe I don’t need this person in my life. The song didn’t start out being so upbeat. It wasn’t until I plugged into a buddy’s amp. He had this great Marshall stack and I plugged in this Gibson Flying V and started messing around with the chords.

I wrote the initial idea in Nashville when I was living there. I finished the song in a dream. I was dreaming that I was actually recording the song in Eric Clapton’s studio with his guitar. I was there with a recording buddy and Clapton went out for a lunch break. And I was just observing the session and he was like, “Hey do you want to play Clapton’s guitar?” I was like, “Hell yeah.” I was dialing up some tones. He’s like, “Just remember where everything went.” I started playing this song. But it was a different chord progression. I’m singing into this Manley Gold microphone which is funny because that was actually Taylor Swift’s mic. I snuck into her studio once in Nashville. I got to sing in her studio where all her hit records were cut. I had Taylor Swift’s mic and Eric Clapton’s guitar. Who knows how the mind works?

I woke up in a lurch from the dream, going, “Does that work, does that work?” I ran out [to the studio.] It was 4 o’ clock in the morning. I ran. “I don’t know how long I have before this window closes.” That was it.

Still you never know when you set things out in the world what’s going to happen.

On Swift’s studio.

It’s the tiniest fucking little thing ever, where the vocals where done. It’s super tiny. It’s actually a mixing studio. It’s not what you would think of. But her hit big records like her first ones where all recorded there.

What’s it feel like being in there?


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