Billy Raffoul | International Hotel | (Interscope Records)
3 1/2 out of five stars
Even in the starkest settings, singer/songwriter Billy Raffoul finds the ability to share his soul. In doing so, he proves a point — that is, that clarity, conviction and earnest intents are all that’s needed when it comes to putting a message across. On this, his debut album and the follow-up to three earlier EPs, this credible and convincing Canadian makes an impassioned plea to honor our emotions and keep our conscience clear. Recorded in his girlfriend’s bedroom in his hometown of Leamington, Ontario, it’s as austere as those origins suggest, Raffoul’s raspy vocals playing to the sole accompaniment of acoustic guitar and only a few scant accoutrements. And yet, International Hotel is the kind of album that lingers long after its last notes fade, an incisive imprint that suggests an important new voice is here to stay.
“I recorded about 20 songs for International Hotel,” Raffoul recalls. “The first ‘pass’ had a track list of 11 songs, and did not yet contain the title track or the first single, ‘What Makes a Man.’ I felt like a few things were missing, and purposely wrote the song ‘International Hotel’ with the intention of allowing it to start the record. I wanted to start with a story that had a bit of pace. The story behind that song was one I’d wanted to tell for a while now.”
Indeed, there were several songs with backstories that give the music more meaning, both for Raffoul himself and for the audience he hopes to engage. “Everything Marie” is an ode to his grandparents who immigrated from Lebanon to the southernmost point of Canada in 1958. “They come from a different time,” Raffoul suggests. “I’ve never spoken to my grandmother about what her dreams were when she was young, but she’s responsible for all of ours. I owe everything to Marie. I wrote this song from my grandfather’s perspective, kind of like a letter to his wife.”
He describes the title track as an ode to his father and his relentless pursuit of the musical muse he passed on to his son. “After playing four hours of rock and roll classics at Gilbert’s Lodge in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, my father, Jody, will pack up his gear and head back over the Canadian border to catch last call at a local bar in our hometown,” Raffoul explains. “I’m biased. At the same time I’ve never heard a band quite like my father’s. On any given Thursday night in a tavern that holds no more than a few hundred people, they take you from Otis Redding to a medley from Tommy, “Southern Man” to “Whipping Post,” “Itchycoo Park” to “Every Picture Tells a Story,” never going more than a few songs without a Beatles deep cut and filling in what’s left with original songs. Nothing is phoned in. They don’t miss notes. You can hear the sound of four instruments because there are four of them, and they perform each song as if its owner just walked in. This isn’t a bar band. It’s a gravely underpriced ticket. They’ve given me faith in this business and they’ve taken it away all the same. I wanted to write this song in 2015, but I hadn’t toured yet. I hadn’t cut my teeth. Five years later I feel like I’ve seen enough live music to justify the jaded feeling I get in my gut every time I see these guys play. When the final set ends — often with “Baba O’Riley” — I rush to the stage trying to find a new way to explain what I’ve seen for years. Jody often throws me a cable to wrap and says, ‘If we get out of here quickly, we can make last call at the International Hotel!’
Indeed, Rafffoul’s conviction is clear throughout, but never more so than on the mediative and moving “What Makes a Man,” a treatise on the systematic racism that sears the American soul. “I had 12 songs finished for this album when I wrote this one in early June,” he explains. “I knew I wanted another song, and with so many important things going on in the world, I was finding it hard to write another love song. I thought about how since the quarantine started in March, I had been driving my car around with expired plates for three months. I couldn’t get down to Nashville to get new tags, and yet I didn’t think twice about it. I can’t help but feel like that is a confidence that only privilege can give you. So I started with the line “He should’ve gotten three points. Not the point of a gun.”
Indeed, from the sound of it, the new album comes across like a one-man affair, a decided change of pace from the rhythms that were so predominant on his earlier EPs. Raffoul was himself was responsible for practically all the sounds on the new album. “I engineered, arranged, and recorded these songs on my own,” he allows. “That’s all the vocals, guitars, and harmonica you hear on the record. I then sent them to Justin Zuccato, a frequent collaborator and bandmate. Together we added production where we felt it necessary and he mixed the record. One song was sent to another friend and collaborator, Alex Seguin. Alex would co-produce and he mixed the track ‘Library Book.’ Beyond Justin and myself, there is only one other musician on the album, Garret Bielaniec from Howell, Michigan. He played the slide guitar solo on the track ‘Sundown on County Line’.”
Still, it’s Raffoul’s decidedly worldly vocals that attract
the most immediate attention, especially at the outset. A raw, world-weary
delivery that brings to mind an unholy offspring of Tom Waits, David Ruffin and
Rod Stewart during his seminal Jeff Beck Group era, it can be both tenuous and
tender depending on the circumstance. It adds a contentious sound to a song
like “Sundown on the Country Line,” while also adding a world-weary ache to a
song like “Shannon” and even a hint of anguish to “The Ballad of James Howlett,”
a song based, ironically enough, on a favorite cartoon character. Raffoul
mostly gravitates towards more subdued circumstance, the sparse surroundings
creating a decidedly personal and passionate perspective.
“A lot of me developing my voice — a work in progress— was through years of listening to my father sing,” Raffoul expalins. “He has a record called ‘Simple Life’ that he recorded and released in 99’. The album was recorded in the morning after a late night out, and he said his voice was tired and maybe a bit hoarse. But he used it to his advantage while recording. It had more dirt on it than usual, and I loved that. Some years later, I would be using that record and those songs as the blueprint for my own sound at bar gigs. It was like a main ingredient in a vocal melting pot that consisted of inspirations from Paul Rodgers and Otis Redding, to John Lennon and Joe Cocker.”
Raffoul’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps came early on. “I was given a bunch of recording gear when I was maybe 13 years old from a family friend,” he recalls. “It was an old laptop, Sonar recording software, and a couple microphones. I immediately started to build songs. They needed help, but they were there. After a few dozen ideas I had one that I was happy enough with to share with other people. A song called ‘I’d Rather Sing With the Crowe.’ Nothing came of it at the time, but it encouraged me to get out and start playing open mic nights, coffee houses, and talent shows.” With this dramatic full-length debut, Raffoul is clearly ready to move on.