"I do consider myself a Portlander!"
It's been a few years since Luther Russell—rootsy troubadour, former Freewheeler, beloved producer (Fernando, Richmond Fontaine)—left our fair city, but he hasn't forgotten about us: "I come back, I still have all these friends that I enjoy playing with, and that's why it was so important for me to not just do a record release in L.A.—to show that Portland matters as much to me, if not more."
Russell's returning to Portland to play his new album, Repair, in its entirety. It's his fourth solo effort (and his first in six years), and—in keeping with its pseudo-homecoming release show—it's an examination of the circumstances that originally drew him from Stumptown. "In a nutshell, I was married for eight years and separated at the very end of 2002. At the same point, my grandmother fell ill, so I decided to pick up and move [back] to L.A.," says the 37-year-old gravely. "By the time I got there, she'd already passed away. I was roughing it for a couple months, definitely a couch tour. didn't know what I was doing, and it took about a year and a half until I ran into Ethan [Johns] at Amoeba [Records] and started to get the ball rolling on a new album."
Johns, producer of bigtime roots-rock acts Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams, among many others, chose a selection of the 20-some tunes Russell had written over the past few years and persuaded him to record a solo album. At the first session, Russell arrived at Johns' studio to find Ethan setting things up with his father—legendary Beatles, Stones and Who producer Glyn Johns. "It was intimidating as fuck, y'know? I'd never actually recorded with Ethan, let alone Glyn, and this is the guy that did Let It Be! That first day in the studio was just kinda magical," Russell continues. "We actually came out with two songs that only needed guitar overdubs, and that gave me the confidence to go ahead and make the record."
Recording live with Johns on drums and former Freewheelers Jason Hiller and Chris Joyner adding bass and piano, respectively, Russell avoided singer-songwriterly preciousness on Repair while maintaining a direct intimacy—a charming companion reflecting upon his years in the wilderness. "There were a couple tracks directly influenced by the separation, but the whole album is about relationships—primarily the one I was getting into," the bearded California native explains. "At those times, your emotions are all mixed up, and there's been this steady trail of…death since I came down to L.A., starting with my grandmother's and ending with a best friend. And then another friend. The album's about trying to take it all in stride."
Despite the tormented subject matter, Repair 's hardly a depressing listen. Tracks veer from effortless, enlightened pop reminiscent of Elliott Smith to rootsier ambles, but they never sink beneath the weight of their subjects. "For me, it's a little over-the-top to be dark lyrically and musically," explains Russell. "If anyone picked apart my lyrics, they'd find them rather…not negative, but who sings about the happy shit going on in their lives? There's always more unhappy things going on, anyway—so I've more to sing about."
But, with everything Russell has planned—an extended U.K. tour, production gigs, a rock album to be recorded in L.A. and Portland next winter—that may change. Does he worry about lingering happiness working its way into future efforts?
Laughing, he says, "I don't think that'll ever be a problem."