“I was going to call this record ‘twenty years until tomorrow,’” says Russ Irwin from his Los Angeles home, during a weeklong break before Aerosmith’s 2012 Global Warming tour begins in mid-June. “I’ve been six to ten feet from the lead microphone for the last fifteen years.”
The record Irwin is referring to is 'GET ME HOME', his first solo album since 1991, and the microphones he’s been “feet away from” belong to some of the most renowned and captivating front men in rock n’ roll history. It’s therefore no surprise that 'Get Me Home', Irwin’s newly-released ten song album, is a melodic, uniquely rhythmic piano-driven collection–– the creative achievement of a consummate musician who’s spent the past two decades holding down the fort for legends. As Aerosmith’s pianist, backing vocalist and occasional guitarist, Irwin lovingly explains that he’s been “looking at Steven Tyler’s ass for fifteen years.” He’s also been a member of Sting’s live band. “It’s still unreal,” he says. “When the lights go on over the crowds, I stop and ask myself, ‘Is this really happening?’” Irwin has played the Super Bowl; he’s done Letterman, he’s done Leno. He’s tickled the ivories on SNL. And now, Irwin is taking center stage, a spot where he’s “just as comfortable.”
Which brings to mind the question, “Why hasn’t he been front and center all along?” The answer is that the story of Russ Irwin’s career is a fascinating, knotty tale that begins just after his twentieth birthday, when he was signed to major label SBK/EMI. “Just a kid, who didn’t know a thing about the music business,” Irwin was handpicked by record executives who intended to groom the New York-based songwriter as the next megastar. Even as a young man, Irwin’s soaring, raspy alto and songwriting prowess had been undeniable, causing A&R men to hurry him into cutting a record with hit-maker producer Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel). Hundreds of thousands were spent on videos, and Irwin’s first single, “My Heart Belongs to You,” cracked the Top Forty. Yet, despite such auspicious beginnings, Irwin was left unsatisfied with the record and leery of the business. “I never got to make the record I wanted to make,” he says. “But the experience pushed me to study great songwriting.”
The twenty years between Irwin’s debut album and Get Me Home has been a musical journey few can lay claim to. During his years touring with Aerosmith, Irwin has received first-hand advice from Steven Tyler. “Steven roots me on,” says Irwin. “He’ll say, ‘I wanna see you go wild. I wanna see you playin’ with your feet. You gotta fuck it up.’” When Joe Perry pauses Aerosmith’s set to announce Irwin’s solo during “Stop Messin' Around,” you see the guitarist’s infamous pout grow tender, as for a moment the spotlight shines on Irwin’s hands–– he pounds the keys, taking it up a notch, setting the mood for Tyler’s harmonica solo.
Yet, as Get Me Home proves, versatility is Irwin’s ace. He’s as deft at going wild during the climax of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as he is backing the ethereal, intensely acute Sting, who, Irwin says, “is a totally different artist. Sting’s very quiet, and everything is about concentration and perfection.” In fact, months into Sting’s 2000’s Brand New Day tour, Irwin asked a fellow band Chris Botti member why Sting had yet to say a word about his playing. “That’s a good thing,” replied Botti. “That means he loves what you’re doing.”
Irwin’s resume also includes performances with Bryan Adams, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Duncan Sheik, Curt Smith (Tears for Fear), and Paul Stanley (KISS), as well as production work on Clay Aiken’s number two hit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” In conversation, Irwin is demure and speaks graciously about the people he’s worked with. He acknowledges Get Me Home as a labor of love. What he humbly avoids telling you is that during his years away from the lead mic, he’s written gems for some of your favorite bands–– he’s the guy they called when they needed the goods. Irwin has penned songs for Foreigner and the Scorpions, and he’s collaborated with heavyweight producer Desmond Child to write music for Meat Loaf’s return to form: Bat Out of Hell III. When you hear Aerosmith’s 2012 hit “What Could Have Been Love” blaring from the radio–– well, Irwin co-wrote that, too.
So, when it came time for Irwin to hole away in an upstate New York studio to record Get Me Home, he arrived with two decades worth of know-how and creative inspiration. Get Me Home is the kind of record true music fans–– those who show up not merely for the hits, but, rather, play an album front-to-back–– have no problem waiting years for. Guided by Irwin’s city-soul piano, the album’s basic tracks were recorded live and raw in upstate New York. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Brad Whitford dropped by to add their expertise, as did Stone Temple Pilot’s Dean DeLeo and Grammy-nominated trumpeter Chris Botti. But this time it’s Irwin who carries the weight–– his piano’s Motown-influenced stomp on “Crazy Too,” and the soaring, emotional vocal delivery of “I Miss Being Lonely,” a song about wayward friends he’s loved and lost during his years on the road.
The album is the work of a master who’s bided his time and taken notes. And it’s impossible to hear the album’s first single, “Manhattan,” and not study it for clues of Irwin’s return to his East Coast stomping grounds. “I flew east to begin cutting Get Me Home,” says Irwin, “and by the time my flight landed I had that song written. Like a play-by-play, I was writing the lyrics as my plane pulled down the tarmac.” The result is a sublime pop song, an effortless combination of late-night melody and longing, instantly memorable and ready to be sung from the nosebleed seats. It tells the tale of a commute from LA to New York, and of a person who is “Tired of all this sunshine/And girls that won’t be true.”
“Oh, Manhattan,” Irwin sings. “I’ll see you soon.”
And we get the sense we’ll all be seeing Russ Irwin soon, in one way or another, whether he’s at the piano to the side of the stage, or stepping into the light, which might very well be his true home.
*Get Me Home is now available on CD and digital download. Live solo dates to be announced.