For their third album, Scars & Stories, “How To Save A Life” hitmakers The Fray turned to super-producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam) to give them a boost in the studio. We talked to Fray frontman Isaac Slade about his formative days studying songwriting at the University of Colorado, the inspiration behind the band’s latest single, and dealing with the critics.
Did you approach the songwriting on Scars & Stories differently than you have in the past?
Yeah, we abandoned self-doubt on this one, which could be a bad thing. [Laughs.] Time will tell if that was a bad idea, but our producer and our A&R guy both worked to push us out to sea a little bit. If the shore is conscious self-questioning created out of constant self-doubt, we are a couple miles off the shore from that on this record.
It must be hard to make a third record without repeating yourself but still capitalizing on what was successful on previous albums. Did you find that to be a challenge?
Yeah, but it’s the same challenge of taking a girl out on a third date. You don’t want to use the same lines as you did before, because hopefully they aren’t from a script, but they’re coming from a place of who you are. You can’t just wait ‘til the scary part of the movie and slowly put your arm around her too many times before she notices that’s how you always do it.
We tried to just keep that real sense of relationship that we have with our fans. And if the first record was a handshake, “Hi, how are ya,” the second record was probably coffee, and the third record was dinner and a movie. So we’ll see how it goes.
Was working with producer Brendan O’Brien a big confidence boost?
It is, man. He has a funny way of distracting you enough. By forcing the momentum to stay up, you don’t have time to question whether its good or not, you just swing for the ball as hard as you can and hope it hits the back wall.
Did he tell you stories about working with Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam?
Yeah, every couple days we would ask him what the hell it was like to make Blood Sugar Sex Magik, or working with Stone Temple Pilots, or what Eddie Vedder is really like. He’s a walking encyclopedia.
So what inspired the album’s first single, “Heartbeat?”
We were in Rwanda, standing around in a circle, just thinking and somebody was talking about watching this country come back to life. And [as I was holding hands with a refugee woman,] I felt her heartbeat. I couldn’t figure out if it was hers or mine, it was just an epic moment of realizing that the country was coming back to life in spite of every effort to kill it.
I met some incredible people there. I met the president, a girl behind the counter at the genocide museum, everybody in between, imagining the stories they all had. I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask them, but I wrote the song instead.
Do you usually write on piano?
It’s half and half probably. That song I started on guitar, and then I came back and wrote the rest of it on piano. I usually start the song staring at something, humming into my iPhone, and then I flesh it out on an instrument.
Does the band ever give you feedback on lyrics?
Absolutely. Typically Joe King and I write the lion’s share of the chords, melody, and lyrics, but nothing you’ve ever heard has gone through the Fray factory without every single person touching it.
Something Ben [our drummer] does a lot is we’ll be stuck without the chorus, and he listens through our demos like a historian. The guy’s amazing. We have all these crappy little voice recordings and Ben knows them better than we do. He’ll say, “I think we should try this one obscure verse idea that I found from 1992 for the chorus.”
That’s how “You Found Me” happened, actually. We were sitting around as songwriters, and Ben came in said, “I like that old piece about being lost or insecure or something. We should check that out.” And I didn’t think it would work ‘cause it felt non-engaging and vulnerable, and I wanted a big, epic chorus. But it ended up being perfect for it, this very inclusive concept of “we’re all in this together.”
A while back you decided to write non-religious lyrics, despite your strong ties to your faith. Do you still think that was the right move for your band?
Yes, sir, one-hundred percent. I’ve actually had the honor of meeting some of my old school heroes from the only songs I was allowed to listen to growing up. They’re amazing people and they write amazing songs for a very specific audience. But I always wanted us to be more like Spielberg or Norman Rockwell, just having enough of a sense of America that I can convey something in a universal enough way that a nine-year-old kid and a 63-year-old dad can understand together. And when you limit it to just one aspect of who you are, it can limit the mainstream appeal. So I’m really glad we got out of it.
“How To Save A Life” was a giant hit for you guys. Looking back on it now, do you think that was because it was so memorably catchy, or because of the lyrical content?
I think there are two ways to look at it. In college they always talked about the two ways to write a song: like Neil Young or like Paul Simon. Simon writes intensely crafted, labored songs, and they’re flawless. And then, on the opposite extreme you have Neil Young who goes out in the lightning storm with a big antenna and it just strikes him. He tries to capture it without getting killed.
Personally, I’m a combination. Like for “Heartbeat” I started with an experience in Rwanda. That was the initial lightning spark. Then I came back and crafted a song with Joe. It was the same way for “How to Save a Life.” You never know why certain songs get big and certain songs don’t, but “How to Save a Life” was definitely one of the most personally relevant songs that I’ve ever written. I’ve sung it thousands of times and it’s still fresh almost every day.
You studied songwriting in college?
Yeah, I went to University of Colorado at the Denver campus. It’s more of an industry-based music program, and I took a combination degree of studio producing, music business, and performance. You just don’t know what’s normal or extraordinary until you learn about the whole picture, from Elvis to The Cure and beyond. I had some of the most incredible professors. They were all lawyers and producers and publishers, so we heard the war stories. And I also learned that content is key, but you need to network. You need to know who’s making the decisions and if you like them enough to be friends with them in an authentic way. Breaking into that world is all about relationships, so I learned a lot from that experience. Four years I’ll never forget.
Despite your popularity, critics have been sometimes hard on your band. How does that affect you?
I have always thought of it as a good thing. You’re nobody until somebody hates you. I’ve also been a lot more concerned about fans than critics. To some extent I put my fans in the top spot, even above myself. Nothing against critics; I read magazines and I read blogs and listen to all kinds of critics to figure out what kind of music is out there that’s good, and what I want to listen to. I respect a lot of people who have never really gotten what we do. And maybe someday they will. That’ll be a bonus. But as long as our fans keep coming out to our shows and buying our record, I know we’re on the right track.
The Fray is streaming Scars & Stories on iTunes now, and will release the album February 7. It’s also available for presale now in a regular edition, and a deluxe edition including five cover songs. The band will also get to kick off Super Bowl XLVI with Lenny Kravitz at Lucas Oil Stadium, before embarking on a U.S. tour.
The Fray Tour Dates (Tickets on sale Feb. 3)
2/16 San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
2/18 Reno, NV @ Silvery Legacy Resort Casino
2/20 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
2/21 Redding, CA @ The Cascade Theatre
2/22 Portland, CA @ Crystal Ballroom
2/24 Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory Concert House
2/25 Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory Concert House
2/26 Vancouver, BC @ Orpheum
2/28 Seattle, WA @ Paramount Theatre
4/11 Providence, RI @ Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
4/12 New York, NY @ Radio City Music Hall
4/14 Mashantucket, CT @ MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods
4/17 Chicago, IL @ Riviera Theatre
4/22 Asheville, NC @ Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
4/24 Louisville, KY @ Palace Theatre
4/25 Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
4/27 Monroe, LA @ Monroe Civic Center – Univ. of LA
4/28 Dallas, TX @ Palidium Ballroom
4/29 Austin, TX @ Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheatre
4/30 Houston, TX @ House of Blues
5/1 New Orleans, LA @ Tippitinas Uptown
5/3 Orlando, FL @ Hard Rock Live
5/4 St. Augustine, FL @ St. Augustine Amphitheater
5/8 St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant
5/11 Denver, CO @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre