The band that rode to platinum-selling success on the song "How To Save A Life" could now write a song about how the Muppets saved a band.
That's how The Fray's singer/keyboardist Isaac Slade looks back at a recording session for "The Muppets: The Green Album," the soundtrack to last fall's movie, "The Muppets." The session came at a point when the band was struggling as it was turning its attention toward making its third CD.
If you go
What: The Fray, in concert with Kelly Clarkson.
When: 7:30 p.m. July 21.
Where: Sleep Country Amphitheater, 17200 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.
Cost: $53.60-$112.25 through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000.
Information: Sleep Country Amphitheater website.
"(Guitarist/songwriting collaborator) Joe King and I weren't really getting along," Slade revealed in a recent phone interview. "We were writing these forced collaboration songs that were just kind of melodies with weird lyrics. I think a turning point for us was doing this 'Muppets' soundtrack. … We were supposed to record this fun, upbeat laissez-faire kids song called 'Mahna Mahna.'
"Nobody wanted to be in the room together," Slade said. "We were all just kind of staring at each other, wishing we could just leave. And a lot of alcohol got involved, and Joe and I ended up in the booth together, singing on the same microphone, and something clicked. We both remembered that this is the greatest job ever. I'm not making coffee anymore (at Starbucks). He's not appraising auto damage anymore. And we get to make music for a living. Whatever differences we have, they're workable, and we've just got to be honest with it. So that was a turning point."
Slade really did work at a Starbucks, while King worked as an insurance adjuster before the Fray, which formed in 2002 in Denver, made its mark. With drummer Ben Wysocki and guitarist Dave Welsh completing the lineup, The Fray was signed by Epic Records and saw its career take off when the title song of its 2005 debut CD, "How To Save A Life," became a smash hit single.
A self-titled second CD followed in 2009 and reached the top of the Billboard magazine album chart. While it didn't match the double platinum sales of the first CD, it was still a success.
But after touring behind the second record, life in the band grew patchy. Slade, in particular, found that being the frontman of a popular band didn't feel the way he expected.
According to Slade, each of the four members encountered difficulties, some with long-term relationships, or in Slade's case, feeling his quest for acceptance and popularity had caused him to compromise the authenticity in his songwriting.
"I think for each one of us in the band, we got to the point where in our lives, we were just aimless and lost and devastated or discouraged to the point of just, disillusioned a little bit," Slade said. "We'd had a bunch of success and two records that did great, and we're so much bigger than any goals that we ever set for ourselves. It's like, 'What's next?'"
Slade, in particular, found that being the frontman of a successful band challenging.
"It's really terrifying to get everything you want, and nobody understands," he said. "I probably sound like some horrible rock star complaining about having too much money. But it's a philosophical collision with the carrot that's on the stick that we've chased ever since we were kindergartners, and they tell us there's such a thing as a carrot. And in every sense of the term I got it. I got what I wanted. I got the fame. I got the celebrity. I got the visibility. I get to do music for a living."
Still, something was lacking, and in facing questions about what he valued in life, his music and his career, Slade found some answers that had a freeing effect on him. He realized that despite the Fray's reputation for writing emotional and honest music, he hadn't been as open or vulnerable as he could and should be.
"I really did hold back a little bit," he said. "And something happened. I think I just kind of got to the point where I wanted to make a statement."
In working on "Scars And Stories" with producer Brendan O'Brien (best known for producing Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam), Slade, with O'Brien's encouragement, ventured into the place deep within himself where he could be totally honest and clear with his lyrics no matter the risk.
"You just kind of have to go there, to that mythical place, and it's a scary thing because nobody else came with me," Slade said. "You kind of don't know if you're going to make it back. You don't know if you're going to put something out there and everybody sort of cringes and quietly backs away from it. But I think with the universal connection (with the group's fans) in our sight, we reached for something we've never had the courage to reach for. I feel like we got it."
The band also found the courage to evolve musically on "Scars And Stories." Yes, the sensitive arena balladry that has registered with Fray fans is still present with songs like "Run For Your Life" and "I Can Barely Say." But overall, the third CD rocks harder than either of the first two CDs, as songs like "Turn Me On," "Heartbeat" and "The Wind" have an expansive sound accented by big beats and a more guitar-centered sound.
That has added a new potency to The Fray's live show that should be apparent as the band tours this summer with Kelly Clarkson.
What also may be apparent is Slade's growing comfort with being open — even vulnerable — onstage and having an honesty that matches the kind of emotions that inhabit many of the Fray's songs.
"It's funny, man, because I kind of shot myself in the foot by even talking about it," he said. "Now I can feel it every time. If I'm up there and I say something stupid or my voice cracks or people don't clap as much as I'd like them to, the temptation is right there to close off, go take a swig of something that will help me forget or whatever. Some of the most amazing moments on this record's tour so far have been when I didn't close up. I stayed open and kept my head in the game. It's yielded some incredible moments."
One particularly memorable moment happened in Portland earlier this year, Slade said.
"We were in Portland, and (at) this weird venue where the 21 and ups were off to the left, kind of back and sideways, so I couldn't really see them," he said. "And they were all loud and drunk and heckling me. And all of the rest of the kids were off to the right. And I just could not wrangle the crowd. I could not get control and I could not engage, and I tried. I think I tried to do one of the songs a cappella, and it didn't work.
"So I was putting myself out there, taking a big risk, and the whole thing kind of fell flat on the face," Slade said. "That's the classic moment. That's when I retreat. That's when I hide. That's when I get all scared little boy on the crowd and disappear. And usually I disappear for the rest of the show and then basically apologize at the end and then walk off. This time I got angry. I was like 'What the (bleep) are you doing?' I just yelled at them and then we went on with the show and it was great. I felt like my head stayed in the game and I didn't choke. So yeah, it's been exhilarating."
The bigger sound is giving The Fray's live show an energy that wasn't possible before because the first two albums were weighted toward ballads and midtempo material.
And the honesty Slade brought to his lyrics on "Scars And Stories" is also helping him evolve as a live performer.
"My perspective has shifted a lot on shows," he said. "Psychologically I feel this difference between where I was before and where I am now as a frontman, as a lead singer. I had a real reticence to be vulnerable, except every single song was (supposed to be) as vulnerable as it gets. It was a hard tightrope for me to walk. I felt naked and embarrassed.
"I think there's a new acceptance of that that I feel has started to change the show experience for me and for this band," Slade said. "I don't feel hesitant to really put it out there and give it everything I've got. And it's exciting."