Roger Hoover On Songwriting

Traveling troubadour Roger Hoover gives you a look into the art of songwriting, discussing the artists who have influenced him and the sheer joy of pursuing one’s dream.

“Things happen in the studio that you can’t predict,” Hoover told Pollstar. “I try to let that evolve as naturally as possible.”

The Ohio native knows a lot about evolving.  Once a member of The Magpies, Hoover has had plenty of day jobs ranging from screen printer to working as the creative director at a design firm.  However, he gave up the 9-to-5 life to focus solely on his music. 

The latest result is his new album, Pastures, available now on Last Chance Records.  Filled with tracks that are as poignant as they are easily accessible, the album echoes many of the songwriters that have influenced Hoover, such as Kris Kristofferson and John Prine.  But more importantly, Pastures displays the talent of a rising artist whose music promises that the best is yet to come.

Photo: Mitchell Multimedia

If songwriting was easy, everybody would do it.  What do you think is the secret to songwriting?

The first thing is observation.  I’m always looking and observing what’s around me in my community.  The other thing is experience.  I think sometimes it helps to tell a story if you have a story.  In my own life, growing up dirt poor all over Ohio, my father was a boxer, my mom was a secretary off and on.  My dad was also a farmer.  We were always moving in and out of places.  

My dad would come home with these incredible stories.  I always called him “The Great Fabricator.”  I didn’t know what was true and what was not, but they were always entertaining stories.

So I think it’s a little bit of both.  Observation and experience.  Maybe he just passed down that storytelling gene.

How old were you when you wrote your first song?

I started writing songs around the age of 12. I was bored in French Class.  My dad gave me a bunch of records – Bob Dylan and Neil Young.  I would memorized those lyrics.  Then, in French class when I was supposed to be listening to whatever [the teacher] was talking about, I was taking those versus and morphing them into songs of my own. 

Were you adapting your new lyrics to the meter of a Dylan or Young song?

Absolutely.  I think I heard somewhere that Hunter S. Thompson [copied] “The Sun Also Rises” by Hemmingway just to figure out his meter, his pacing, and the rhythm of the typewriter. I wasn’t aware of it at that early of an age.  Going through those songs and re-writing them really formed who I am today.  It also makes more sense now, too, because I’ve gone back before those songwriters and looked at early American folk music.  I know where they got their meter.  It makes so much more sense to me now. It’s one of those backgrounds that helps me get through the day knowing I’m a songwriter.  Some people might not listen but I’m a link in this very big chain of songwriters.

Your new album, Pastures, drops Oct. 7.  What’s going on in your mind in the run up to the release?

The usual nervousness and self-flagellation.  I’m terribly excited.  This is my first record that’s on a label.  Because of the work they’re putting into it, I’m able to tour more.  I’m really excited for the people that play with me and were able to … do something that’s really Midwestern.  I’m proud of this record because it’s really informed by the people of Ohio, the people I know.  We tend to have this negativism about us in Northeastern Ohio.  I don’t know if it’s because our sports teams are so bad or that because jobs have disappeared over the past 30 years.  But we kind of wake up with this attitude that this day is just another day and nothing really good is going to happen to us.

I wanted to take that emotion and put some hope into it because I’m starting to get a sense that things are changing here, not only in Ohio.  Being on tour throughout the whole Midwest, [I’m seeing] people starting up small businesses.  They’re doing things they want to do and trying to find ways to make it work.  I want to get rid of that negative connotation that we all have.

What jobs have you held to support your music career?

I’ve been a screen printer.  I’ve consoled people with mental disabilities, did that for a number of years.  I worked at a frame shop … I was a framer.  I toured through most of my 20s, 30-40 weeks out of the year with a band called The Magpies.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to break through to a bigger level and it all sort of dissolved beneath me.  I put music completely on the backburner and ended up as a creative director of a design firm in Northeast Ohio. 

Last year my wife said, “Why don’t you play music again, because you’re miserable.  But do it the right way.  Quit your job and treat music as a full-time job.  Find a manager, find a publicist, find a label.”

Which sounded all good but those things are terribly hard to accomplish.  But we focused on it and managed to accomplish those things in a manner of six months.

(Please click on image for complete album cover)

Has touring the Midwest resulted in gaining support from talent buyers and club owners?

Absolutely.  The people at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland [and at] the GAR Hall in Peninsula (Ohio),  Karen Walters has been extremely helpful. … We just sold out two nights there for the CD release and we’re adding a third.  Cindy Barber at The Beachland and Walters at GAR have been [very] helpful, introducing me to talent buyers, booking agents and things like that, to get us out of Ohio.

Are you touring solo or are you traveling with a band?

I have a band with me through our October tour.  November through January I’ll be touring solo.

How do you tackle writing a new song?  What comes first, words or music?

Lately … I’ll get sounds in my head and through reading a lot of poetry and literature I’ll start to build these word combinations, words I like a lot that create a mood just by reading them.  From there, I have a batch of melodies and I’ll start stitching things together that work the best way.  Usually, I’ll go into the studio with 20-30 songs and try to fit the ones that fit best together to express what it is I want to express on the album.  I wouldn’t say they’re “concept” albums but they’re definitely formed by word choice and the poetry of lyric writing.

Is the finished song how you imagined it would be?

Never. Things happen.  It’s such an organic process.  Especially when you bring in a band.  Things happen in the studio that you can’t predict.  I try to let that evolve as naturally as possible.  If a song is going to go somewhere, where four or five guys take it[somewhere]  that’s not planned on, I let it go there.  If there’s a mistake in there but the emotion and the take is good, we keep it.

So is there something like a closet full of melodies yet to be used?

Oh, yeah. I have hundreds of them.

Is it easier to create melodies than write lyrics?

The melodies … I come from a such a different place. I‘m not trying to write pop melodies.  Those tend to be a little more challenging.  I come from a folk and blues background but I think listening to my music you might not gather that.  My melodies are fairly simple.  I try to keep every song under five chords.  For me, it’s really easy to come up with melodies.  Once I start putting more words to them, I can expand on it and add different alterations to that melody.

In my daily life, I listen to a lot of Brian Eno. It calms me.  There’s no lyrics.  I listen to a lot of Daniel Lanois’ instrumental stuff.  When I feel like getting inspired by something, I’ll either put on something from the Anthology of American Folk Music or I’ll listen to Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen.  Tom and I were born on the same day. I celebrate our birthday every year.

What moves you from show to show?

A Ford E350, 15-passenger cab/van. We have to fit an upright bass, a bunch of guitars and a … small keyboard.  We need all the space we can get. There’s five people.

What’s one of the tracks on the album that you’re most proud of?

“Just A Little.”  Because it’s a song unlike any I’ve written before. When people hear it now they immediately say, “It sounds like a John Prine song.”  It certainly does and it was intended to be that way. I think he’s a masters of the craft of writing songs that will make you laugh and make you cry at the same time.  [There is] truth and honesty in his songs.  Sometimes even a joke has truth in it and that same truth can make you cry.

I was working and was really unhappy with that.  I also had a conversation with my father-in-law. He’s been married for more than 40 years and we were talking about the different ages and stages of a man’s life and how love can change.  It go really intellectual and I wanted to cut it off because it was going on for an hour and a half. I just said, “Maybe we just need to admit that women are intimately wiser than us and if given the choice between going to work every day or staying at home playing with Legos, a man is going to stay home and look at Playboys.”

That made him laugh.  I said, “I think men, we grow from boys to men and a lot of times we don’t know what it is to be a man.  We think it’s working hard or protecting [the family] and all these things.  But I think we’re all acting like what we think it is to be a man.  And we’re still little boys at heart.”

I thought, “I gotta right that song, and I don’t think there’s a better way to do it than to try to do it the way John Prine would.”  It was a challenging song to write and that’s why it’s probably my favorite on the record.

Were there other moments when you tried to attack a song in a way you might imagine another songwriter would do it?

Yes, a lot.  There’s times I’ll be missing a few lyrics or something and I’ll put Tom Waits on in the backroom and I’ll go outside and listen to it.  You can’t understand what he’s saying when you’re listening to it with cars driving by.  It will spark a new line for me and keep me going.

But there are also times, too, when I’ll have a song, like “Devil In The End” on the new record.  I came up with the opening line. I didn’t have a melody or anything.  “She said she never once stopped loving me, even when I left.  Love me like a body needs a breath, like a star that burns bright before its death and consumes everything.” I thought, “That sounds like a Kris Kristofferson line.”

Did performing in front of an audience come naturally for you?

Not at all.  I first started playing at open mic nights here in Kent with another performer who has gone on to do really amazing things – Patrick Sweany.   I think he’s on tour now through November with the Wood Brothers.

I would take my guitar there, they would call my name and I wouldn’t get up.  My friends finally pushed me on stage and it was the worst experience of my life.  For years I wondered, “Why do I want to do this?  Why do I want to torture myself getting up here and singing songs that who knows if anybody is going to like them?  Why am I doing it?”

I eventually got over it.  I fairly enjoy it now, especially when things are working really well.

how long are your headlining shows?

About an hour and a half.

Do you fill that 90 minutes with all original material or are there songs you love to cover?

It’s mostly original material. If we get a chance, on this tour we’ve been throwing in “There Is A War” by Leonard Cohen.

Do you have any routines to prep for the night’s show?

It’s mostly whiskey.

Pouring or drinking?

Both. (laughs)                                                                          

What advice would you give a beginning artist who’s written a few songs and is scared to death to go to an open mic night and sing them?

Everybody is a little scared.  You just have to do it and get over it. Just put your faith in the song and everything else will follow.

“For me, it’s really easy to come up with melodies.  Once I start putting more words to them, I can expand on it and add different alterations to that melody.”

Roger Hoover’s upcoming shows:

Oct. 8 – Cleveland, Ohio, The Happy Dog
Oct. 14 – St. Louis, Mo., Venice Café
Oct. 15 – Peninsula, Ohio, G.A.R. Hall & Civil War Museum
Oct. 18 – Milwaukee, Wis., High Dive
Oct. 19 – Madison, Wis., The Frequency
Oct. 20 – Minneapolis, Minn., Lee’s Liquor Lounge
Oct. 21 – La Crosse, Wis., The Root Note
Oct. 22 – Winona, Minn., Winona State University
Nov. 25 – New York, N.Y., Rockwood Music Hall
Dec. 2 – Little Rock, Ark., Whitewater Tavern
Dec. 3 – Little Rock, Ark., Whitewater Tavern
Dec. 4 –  Little Rock, Ark., Whitewater Tavern
Dec. 29 – Cleveland, Ohio, The Happy Dog

For more information, please visit Roger Hoover’s website, Facebook page, Twitter account, SoundCloud page and home on Instagram.