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Ed Romanoff could be a character in one of his own songs. A chronicler of American experience whose voice recalls the grit of Kris Kristofferson and the wit of Guy Clark, the New York singer-songwriter pens wise, big-hearted, occasionally whimsical, usually melancholic tunes about lonely souls and romantic dreamers, lost lovers and coy ghosts, a bank robber and even the Elephant Man himself. Not only does Romanoff sympathize with the crew of outsiders and outlaws on his new album The Orphan King, (release Feb 23)but he also belongs among their ranks: an artist who has spent a lifetime drifting from job to job, steadfastly refining his craft for years on a 75 dollar Yamaha guitar, following his own compass, and solving his own mysteries.
Romanoff admits he started late. “My father was tone deaf,” he says, “so I always thought I was, too.” Instead of music, he tended bar in Virginia and branded cattle in Wyoming before eventually founding PineRock, a production firm in New York City. When he finally decided to pursue music in his forties, he became a diligent student, writing constantly and performing wherever and whenever he could. He spent time in Nashville taking songwriting classes and attending workshops with Darrell Scott, Beth Nielson Chapman, and Mary Gauthier, who later invited him to go on the road. Before he even had an album with his name on the spine, Romanoff was touring the world.
Romanoff’s unconventional journey gave him a different perspective from other songwriters, a different set of rules and a different voice. His 2012 self-titled debut, produced by Crit Harmon (Lori McKenna, Martin Sexton), won the Nashville Songwriters Song of the Year and later that year Romanoff joined Steve Earle and James McMurtry as a winner of the Kerrville New Folk Competition. Since then, Romanoff has been working on a follow-up, amassing a stockpile of gracefully observed and eloquently sturdy songs. He didn’t have to stray far from his home in Woodstock to record them; instead, he worked with Simone Felice at the producer’s barn studio in Palenville, New York, just a few miles down the road.
The pair corralled an impressive roster of locals to flesh out the songs, including Romanoff’s longtime friend and touring mate Rachael Yamagata, Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, guitarist Cindy Cashdollar (Dylan’s Time Out of Mind), The E Street Band’s Cindy Mizelle, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, along with Larry’s wife and duo partner, Teresa Williams. Together, they forged rootsy and eccentric arrangements for Romanoff’s songs, heightening the wee-hours longing of “The Night Is a Woman” and supernatural melancholy of “Miss Worby’s Ghost.” Campbell, whom Romanoff credits with providing “the backbone of the album,” lends a fierce guitar solo to “The Ballad of Willie Sutton,” turning the coda into a gothic car chase across some mythic American plain.
The Orphan King reveals an artist alive to the serendipity of songwriting: those flashes of insight and inspiration, often accidental, that convey ideas and feelings unique to this medium. He co-wrote the title track, which sounds as lonely as a graveside eulogy after everyone has left for the reception, about his close relationship with his father. Imagine his surprise when, several years later, a DNA test sent him reeling: “I had spent my life idolizing my dad, and believing I was Russian, but the test said I was Irish. My father wasn’t my father.”
The revelation sent him into a depression so deep that he barely left his apartment for months. When he returned to “The Orphan King,” written before he know his own story, he found the song’s sense of loss even more acute and the sense of connection even stronger, the words of the refrain resonating like a personal mantra: “I still believe in love.”
Not every song on The Orphan King is quite so autobiographical. In fact, the album shows Romanoff as a writer with an eye for the telling historical detail and an imagination attuned to the whimsical. His fascination with Joseph Merrick inspired “The Elephant Man,” a humanizing portrait of a man known for his deformities but, in Romanoff’s hands, is granted a rare dignity to explore his intense yearning for life and finds love in the form of a very tall carnival worker. “I felt if I could have him meet somebody who was just as much an outsider as he was, then they could be together.” The song became an act of compassion and empathy, as Romanoff imagines a happy ending for the unusual couple: “I’m gonna build a car with Ferris wheel tires, leave extra headroom to reach the stars. World’s largest truck, well, it will be ours as we go rolling into history.”
Songs like “Without You” and “Leavin’ With Someone Else” can break your heart, but Romanoff has a knack for the well-earned happy ending. He obviously loves his characters, and he listens to what they tell him. He turns his songs into receptacles for their dearest dreams, investing them with generosity and humanity. Romanoff’s first draft of the novelistic “Golden Crown,” about a boxer in Ireland, culminated in a grisly finale. “But I felt like this guy was saying, I don’t want to die in a river with a ring in my pocket. So I wrote what he wanted me to write. A lot of these songs ended up being about things I could identify in my own life, but I had to let these people tell their own stories.”
There’s something radical about the happy endings on The Orphan King, perhaps because there are so few happy endings in the late 2010s. “I almost canceled the rest of the sessions just after the election,” he admits. “I didn’t feel like l could sing. I was too anxious”. As Leonard Cohen had just died, Ed was thinking about Cohen’s song “First We Take Manhattan” and sat down to write “Coronation Blues,” the final song on the record. It was, he admits, a rant written from the perspective of a mad king. It’s a damning bit of political commentary of recent political events as well as a reminder that making music is a radical act.
“For all these songs, I think if I got anything right, it was allowing each character to have their own voice . I was trying to find out what their truth was.”
Quietly ambitious yet undeniably accomplished, The Orphan King seeks to square up heartbreak with hope, alienation with acceptance, tribulation with an unkillable belief in love. “I wanted to make something beautiful out of something that just felt awful. I want nothing more than to make people smile and feel like they’re not alone. That’s what music has always done for me.,
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