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“Let’s go forth and conquer” - Chris Ross and the North on their new album and more

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“Let’s go forth and conquer” - Chris Ross and the North on their new album and more (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

HANCOCK - It’s a warm Saturday in mid-May and the members of Chris Ross and The North are preparing for a special house concert to be performed in front of invited fans in the living room of Ross’s 19th century Hancock farmhouse. 

The band members exhibit a vibe of confident nervous giddiness as they await the arrival of their audience, who will be hearing a good chunk of the quartet’s new album “Over Lonesome” performed live for the first time, in the same room where  many of the new songs were (at least partially) written. 

“It’s frightening to step off the reservation on some of these songs and go in directions we haven’t gone in,” Ross says of the new record, recorded at The Halo Studio in South Windham with independent producer and engineer, Jonathan Wyman.

“It’s very different material,” drummer Ryan Curless adds. “That goes along with the fact that we wrote it all together. For years, it was just Chris and an acoustic guitar. A lot of these songs are built off electric guitar riffs and drums, so there’s more of a rock and roll feel. I feel like this is a real representation of the band.”

“Over Lonesome” is the fourth album released in Ross’s name and the second album recorded with The North, which also features bassist Caleb Sweet and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Zachary Bence. The band created most of the new songs as a foursome, with Ross handling the album’s lyrics. Like all of Ross’s material to date, his lyrics can stand alone as poetry.

“We were playing to everyone’s strong suits,” Curless says. “Zach and Caleb have more of a formal musical training and the three of us work a little quicker with the arrangements. Chris is obviously a great lyricist.”

“You tell ‘em,” Ross adds, not missing a beat, as the room fills with laughter.

As the band members (along with Ross’s Australian shepherd, Jolene) gather around their instruments and amplifiers, I ask if they feel like they have more invested this time around, compared with 2015’s excellent band debut “Young Once.”

“Tenfold,” bassist Sweet responds first. “I look at these guys like my brothers but also my business partners. We’re an LLC now. Now I feel like ‘Let’s go forth and conquer.’”

“There’s more on the line than there was two years ago,” Curless adds.

“Caleb has buttons on his shirt now,” Ross jokes with a smile.

“I didn’t know what a button was until I met these guys,” Sweet confirms.

Since first coming together three years ago, the members of Chris Ross and The North appear to have developed their own language. There is a common sense of humor among the four that includes inside jokes and references to band-shared experiences, as well as a collective fondness for certain musical and literary figures.

The gentlemen certainly enjoy a laugh but they also share a common seriousness when it comes to the music, as they reflect on their commitment to making “Over Lonesome” as compelling as possible while satisfying their toughest critics – themselves.

“For me, this album is quite a step up from ‘Young Once,’” Sweet says. “When we play that album’s songs live now – two years later – each has their own new parts. That’s really exciting to think about these new songs and their potential to do the same thing.”

“Over Lonesome” opens with the swaggering “Dangerous Man,” propelled by Bence’s electric slide guitar and a stunning lead vocal from Ross as he sings the metaphor-laced lyric of a familiar figure.

“Sit down, shut up and wait,” a gravel-throated Ross sings. “I want only the best for you. I’ll keep you safe in the palm of my hand.”

Effectively contrasting the opener’s shadow with flickers of fading sunlight, “Every October” - one of the record’s prettiest songs - tells the tale of a lonely woman who makes a yearly pilgrimage to a certain tree, not far from Ross’s home, to honor the memory of a long-ago love. Evocatively arranged as a waltz to suit the mood of Ross’s lyrics, the song allows each member of the band to shine.

“Just My Luck,” is one of the new album’s hair-blown-back straight-up rockers. It’s a song destined to direct much attention to the band.

“There were a couple of instances where we would take a break and Zach would riff on something,” Ross says. “We would hear it and say ‘Don’t forget that part because it’s going to be important later.’”

“The guitar hooks from ‘Just My Luck’ and (the album’s fourth track) ‘Love Gone Blind’ are two examples where me and Ryan were just jamming and Chris and Caleb would hear something they liked and come back in singing those parts,” guitarist Bence says.

“Just My Luck” features a soulful breakdown section sung by Anna Lombard of Portland-based duo Armies, a group that also includes Dave Gutter of Rustic Overtones. Armies has been tapped as an opener for Chris Ross and The North’s album release party, scheduled for Friday, June 2, at Bar Harbor’s Criterion Theatre.

Realizing they were sitting on another gem, the band dedicated a significant amount of time toward bringing “Love Gone Blind” to fruition. Bursting with energy, it’s a power-chord-fueled testimony of a one-sided love, born from a guitar riff.

“We temporarily named it ‘Scooby Doo is a Cartoon’ because the guitar lick had seven notes and we needed to call it something so we wouldn’t forget it,” Sweet laughs. “A song would just grow. We’d have 25 percent one week. 40 percent the next week. We kept doing that until we finished it.”

As Ross confirms that most of the new songs were constructed gradually, he says it was another example of grace under pressure for the band as the recording sessions approached.

“It was always right down to the wire,” Ross says. “My job was writing the words. I would say ‘Trust me. It will come together.’ But those last two days of writing before we started recording were a little hectic. There were some songs where I was just throwing out full verses and starting from scratch.” 

Like the song “When The Dark Allows” on “Young Once,” the new album’s “Once Upon a Time Kind” has a Motown-influence in the music. A soul-infused rocker peppered with horns, one can imagine Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops belting out Ross’s lyrics of a man who thought the idea of true love was a myth until he met the one who changed his mind. The guests gathered in Ross’s living room on this Saturday night delighted in hearing the song performed live.

Highlighting “Once Upon a Time Kind” is the sax solo, performed by guest musician Brian Graham.

“That solo is so good,” Ross says. “The baritone sax shows up to take you out of the song. When I hear it, I think about iconic sax solos like the one in ‘Jungle Land.’ That’s maybe the best Springsteen song there is and my favorite 90 seconds is Clarence Clemons’s sax solo.”

As Graham’s solo resolves, applause is heard. “That’s us in the live room,” Sweet says. “We had kind of a night of debauchery.”

Ross concurs and describes the setting. “There was a mid-March super-blizzard with 18 inches of snow and we all knew it was coming. We planned on having a kind of slumber party with just us and Jonathan Wyman, who made a bunch of chili.”

“There were a couple of Bissell Brothers beers on tap in the hangout room upstairs at the studio,” Bence tells me. “After we were finished for the night, we were hanging out up there.”

“Jonathan asks ‘Do you want to do some claps on this song?’ Ross continues. “You think of clapping as just being an easy thing but you have to do it in time and do it, like, 38 times so he can layer the claps on top of each other. By the end, your hands are just raw.”

“You don’t realize that you don’t have to clap full force,” Curless adds with a laugh.

“We were done with the clapping but the sax solo comes on and we just legitimately love that solo so we spontaneously started clapping and Jon was recording,” Bence says.

Wyman was crucial during the creation of “Over Lonesome,” according to Ross and the band. An independent producer, Wyman says he enjoys working at The Halo Studio in South Windham, where the album was recorded in March. “It’s the best studio in Maine,” Wyman told me for this story. 

“He’s like our fifth member,” Ryan Curless tells me when I asked the band about Wyman’s involvement during the development of “Over Lonesome.”

“He really contributed a lot,” Bence says. “He’s not just an engineer.”

“He’ll push us to do something better because he knows we can,” Sweet adds.

 “Just having one other opinion can make the difference,” Curless says. “The four of us get caught up in our collective headspace. It’s great to have an additional person tell you what they think.”

Zach Bence says Wyman was essential in keeping the band focused during recording sessions.

“Jon’s like a really good quarterback,” he told me, of the producer. “We might be arguing or talking out an idea and he’ll just say ‘Let’s just go try it.’ Or ‘This idea would take too long.’ He would keep us on track.”

Ross adds that Wyman was also the intermediary when it came to connecting the band with horn players for the sessions. 

“Jonathan has a roster of great musicians he can get in touch with,” Ross says. “Five years ago, I would have mistakenly thought that a horn player can just come up with stuff on the spot like a lead guitar player. Thank God, Zach has a brain for that. He wrote the horn charts for the album.”

“This album is a giant leap forward for the band,” Wyman says. “This record is more of a journey. The last album ‘Young Once’ is a great album and that experience of working with them made me excited for this one.

“On the songs for ‘Over Lonesome,’ we hear them take more risks and the payoff is substantial,” Wyman continued. “We recorded for 10 straight days, working 12 hours a day. I would find myself going back to listen to the songs again at night after we finished, but not to find ways to improve them. I would listen for my own pleasure because the songs themselves are so good. Sonically, it shows how they’ve grown as a band.”

“Seventeen” is another upbeat tale but from half a lifetime ago. “It was back when we only knew everything, swearing up to Heaven forever, we’d be seventeen,” Ross sings as a horn section punctuates the verses.

The title song for “Over Lonesome” is another game-changer on the album and an important one for the band, who says the song was born from an idea Bence had when working on guitar parts for “Love Gone Blind.”

“I was trying to spruce up the verse section and they (his band members) were like ‘Wow, we’ve got to save that for a different song,’” Bence told me.

“I liked what Zach was playing so much, I thought it deserved its own song,” Ross says. “I felt really in the zone when working on that song. The chord progression is so easy to sing over the top of.”

Last Fall, Chris Ross and The North set out on a tour that saw the group visiting some states for the first time. It was an important test for the band. Packed together tightly in a van with their instruments and equipment, they say their bond was even stronger when it was finished.

“We found some places we loved that we definitely want to return to and some we didn’t. Now we know,” Bence adds.

In Smith’s Grove, Kentucky, the band van broke down.

“I don’t ever want to have that happen again but it was a great experience,” Ross says. “I think it helped that we were from Maine. A cop gave us a ride to the one motel in town and we had a tow-truck driver named ‘Cub’ who lent me his truck.”

“Major southern hospitality,” Curless adds. “It’s real.”

“We learned a lot about how to book a tour like that,” Ross continues. “There might have been a place or two where we said ‘How the hell did we get here?’ but then we’d find a little town in West Virginia that was really cool.”

Chris Ross and The North are planning a lengthy tour for later this year but say they’ll stick close to home this summer, with 20 shows on the schedule through mid-July.

“Cigarette States” is another barn-burner, driven by Bence’s lead guitar and Curless pounding out an intro not dissimilar to U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.” The song came late in the writing sessions for “Over Lonesome.”

“We wrote the music in three hours. It was very in the moment,” Sweet says.

“Zach was playing this guitar part and I realized it fit a line I’d been fooling around with. I was hating myself because I was bringing another song into the mix, but I’m really glad I did,” Ross says of the song. 

Songwriting credits on “Over Lonesome” are split four ways, although two of them arrived fully formed from Ross, according to Bence, including the record’s closer, the breathtaking “Same Town.”

“We have seven or eight different voices singing at the end of ‘Same Town,’” Ross tells me. “When a guest came in, we’d ask ‘Do you mind adding your voice to this?’ I really like how it builds.”

“Chris had this idea of layering the guest voices on the song until it builds into this tumultuous crescendo. Layering those voices on there was the perfect touch,” Wyman says.

“I hesitate to say that this is a career-defining album, only because I know they have so more in them. But this is a very substantial record from a group of seriously talented people,” he adds. 

The cover for “Over Lonesome” features a painting from artist Renata Moise, Ross’s mother. The artwork depicts lush green growth with wild Maine blueberries.

“This piece has been hanging in my kitchen forever, and I want to thank her (Moise), as well as all of our parents, for raising us to revere art and music, and urging us to seek our place within it,” Ross wrote on the band’s Facebook page on May 1, when the cover was revealed.

Each member of the band say they are looking forward to the album’s release concert scheduled for The Criterion Theatre on Friday, June 2, as well as the dozens of shows they’ll be playing in the weeks and months to follow.

“I’m looking forward to playing these songs to a batch of new people who haven’t heard them and talking with them after the show,” Ross says. “We do all this work behind closed doors and just kind of hope that people care as much as we care. You don’t know until you let them listen.”

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