Making his mark
With his debut solo album, Train’s Pat Monahan offers listeners a greater glimpse of who he is as an artist by tapping a previously unexplored potential.
By Naila Francis
Pat Monahan knows they are inescapable. The comparisons, the search for some thread of familiarity, and of course, inevitably, the questions — or perhaps, the only one: Has Train broken up?
As the front man for the Grammy-winning San Francisco rock band behind hits such as “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)” and “Calling All Angels,” Monahan is emphatic that the group is simply taking a break from recording. He is equally insistent that his new solo CD, “Last of Seven,” is uniquely him — a personal reflection of his own musical tastes distilled into 14 tracks that speak not only to his own experiences but to his new ventures in collaborative writing.
“Train is not a broken-up band,” says Monahan, “but this record has tons of life on it. Whether it’s something a few thousand people can have and fall in love with or millions of people can fall in love with and make a connection between me and Train, I can’t see it doing anything but good for Train — and for me.”
In some ways, “Last of Seven,” released last month, is an unintentional solo project. Monahan, who was used to writing only for and with Train, was asked during the band’s hiatus to co-write some material for Tina Turner’s next record. Hesitant at first — “I’ve always avoiding (writing for others) in the past because pop music is pretty generic and it’s all the same people writing the same songs,” he says — he was intrigued after talking with Turner herself and flew to London to work with Guy Chambers, a British songwriter and producer known for his work with artists like Andrea Bocelli, Jamie Cullum, Robbie Williams and Natasha Bedingfield.
“I really loved the experience,” says Monahan, who performs Tuesday at The Fillmore at the TLA in Philadelphia. “I thought, ‘This is really fun. I’d like to do it again.’ So I wrote some songs for me, working with all these people (primarily Patrick Leonard, who also produced ‘Last of Seven,’ as well as James Bourne of the British pop-punk band Son of Dork, producer and musician John Shanks and guitarist and composer Lyle Workman), with all the intentions of doing them for the next Train record.
“After having 25 songs, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Train doesn’t work like this.’
“You know, I always wanted to make a jazz record or something like that, but as time goes on, I go, ‘Wait a minute, I love listening to great jazz, not Kenny G jazz, but that’s not who I am.’ I knew I had to pull some stuff out of me musically outside of Train at some point and this was that opportunity.”
“Last of Seven” — the title and the album’s quiet musical intro a reference to Monahan, a native of Erie, Erie County, who now lives just outside of Seattle, growing up as the last of seven kids — draws on the sounds that have always inspired him.
A soulful vibe permeates the disc, with many of the songs steeped in gospel and rhythm and blues influences, particularly the rousing “Someday,” which features Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora on acoustic guitar. Graham Nash lends his vocals to the affecting escapism of “Cowboys and Indians,” while Brandi Carlile shines alongside Monahan in a plaintive ballad initially written for Train, “Pirate on the Run.”
Elsewhere, “Last of Seven” is packed with soaring melodies and sparkling choruses, its rousing rock numbers and moody laments all playing to Monahan’s searing emotive vocals, as he treads the well-worn path of love, fame and an optimistic yearning for better, not just for himself but for all who feel the weight of what it is to live in these times.
“When I worked with Train, we were basically focusing on five people expressing themselves. When I made this record, I was focusing on one person expressing himself and that just creates a different setting. There are parts of me that are easier to come out in this setting because the style of the music is drawn from a more soulful aspect,” he says. “There’s a song called “Girlfriend’ and that’s about how I met my wife and I wouldn’t be able to write that song in Train. There’s a song called ‘Shine’ that sounds like Pink Floyd that I wouldn’t have been able to do in Train, either.
“Rock, soul and gospel would define who I am musically in every way, exactly in that order. I was raised on Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. Soul — I just sang onstage with Stevie Wonder (at The Dream Concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City to raise money for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.). He asked me to sing ‘Superstition’ with him — it was amazing. I mean, how does that happen?
“I remember when I was younger and my brothers came home with the ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ record. And while working on this album, Pat Leonard gave me the making of that record, with all his horn players and musicians being interviewed and there was Stevie Wonder playing drums. So that’s the soul part, you know — with guys like that and like Smokey Robinson.
“And the gospel part of me, when I hear a real gospel choir — that’s why people go to church. When you hear gospel music like that, it makes you want to be a better person.”
Monahan initially thought of calling the album “Oprah’s Favorite Record” — which generated plenty of laughs on his MySpace page but also some criticism that the shtick would overshadow his serious intentions. “Last of Seven” proved a fitting — and poignant — choice.
“When you’re in a big family, there’s humor and a way of interacting that’s healthy and unhealthy and you just learn so much about people, just within your house. I learned a lot about those things just inside those walls,” he says. “And I think it was a great advantage as far as understanding human beings. I think that helps in all aspects of my life, but especially in writing. When my sister looks at me in a certain way, I may not remember what I did, but, man, I know that must have hurt. And how that felt and remembering that feeling and how do I put that into words and how do you tell a story — man, that all bleeds into the music.”
He admits that going solo has been an adjustment.
“A lot of people aren’t connecting the dots between me and Train right now and are just checking me out. It’s interesting to get MySpace letters from girls who go, ‘I love the song ‘Her Eyes.’ Who are you?’ And I’ll write back, ‘Ever heard of the band Train?’ And then the next letter back is ‘OMFG.’
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking. It’s like starting over in a lot of ways, but for the most part, it’s exciting and every night I’m on stage, I smile the whole time.”
– The Intelligencer