With Foster's long-awaited Arista Austin debut See What You Want To See, he's done just that--gotten down to the roots without sacrificing soul. After a four-year roller coaster ride in his personal life, Foster has created a work of startling clarity. With the freedom to throw off constraints, he has made, what many industry insiders and press consider the record of his career.
Foster has always been revered in the music community as a lyricist and a dry West Texas poet. One look at the folks who have covered Foster's songs--everyone from Hootie and the Blowfish, The Pistoleros, to The Dixie Chicks and Guy Clark--and it becomes abundantly clear that Foster is celebrated by members of the entire musical community.
As one half of the duo Foster and Lloyd, he recorded three groundbreaking albums for RCA, becoming one of the first acts to be played simultaneously on Country and College radio. The duo broke through in the late '80s, a rare time in Nashville's history when Country radio welcomed other innovative acts like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. Foster and Lloyd's "Crazy Over You," went straight to number one, making them the first duo in history to top the charts with their debut single. Meanwhile, their albums were appearing in the Top Ten on the College chart, sharing common musical ground and press accolades with Rank and File, Lone Justice and the Blasters. Therein a new breed of experimental roots music was born - called "Cow-Punk." Foster and Lloyd, being considered one of the pioneers of the movement along with Tex and The Horseheads and John Doe, continued seeing College radio embrace their tunes, while Country tightened its reins on this whole new experimental group.
When the duo split up, Foster recorded two solo albums that yielded a handful of hits and a reputation as one of Nashville's best-kept secrets. His songs, like "Nobody Wins" and "A Fine Line" had a lyrical edge, pop sensibilities and devil-may-care rock abandon that often challenged the current mainstream conventions.
In between those two albums and his current one, Foster went through a series of life-changing highs and lows--the struggle of divorce, new love and remarriage, and the pain of having his young son moved to Europe. See What You Want To See was born of those joys and sorrows. "I was writing songs from such a personal place that they dictated a different approach," Foster explains. "I had to let go, and do something from my heart."
Another change that certainly shaped Foster's new material was a label. Foster, already part of the Arista Records family, was asked to be one of the handful of artists on the boutique rock label, Arista Austin. "To have someone of Radney's caliber on this label is both musically and lyrically inspiring. As always, Radney is not only ahead of the curve, he redefined it," states Steve Schnur, Senior VP of Artist Development.
Foster, aided by producer Darrell Brown (Soul Mission) and engineer/mixer Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Melissa Etheridge), enlisted a group of high-profile musicians, many Foster's friends, who had waited and wanted to be involved in his first outing in many years. They rearranged schedules and cashed in frequent-flier miles to get to the sessions. The core band included guitarist Jay Joyce (a member of Iodine and producer of Patty Griffin), bassist Bob Glaub (currently on the road with John Fogerty), Mark Knopfler's drummer, Chad Cromwell and The Wallflower's keyboardist, Rami Jaffee.
"We made this record completely differently than I had in the past," says Foster. "Rather than spend months in the studio building from the ground up and perfecting every wrong note, we did it the way the records used to be made, with everyone in one room, laying it down." The result is passionate, intimate--and ballsy.
"I knew Radney was a great live singer, and we wanted to catch that vibrancy, that immediacy," says Brown. "It's all heart when Radney sings." Foster thought he was laying down 'scratch vocals' in the studio, but his original vocals contained so much passion and emotion that they left many of them as is. In fact, most of the album was recorded in one-takes.
"It was exciting--spine-tingling, and the great thing about working with Darrell and this band was there was always a feeling of teetering on the edge before the band fell into their groove. It felt wildly out of control, like when you let loose the reins of the horse--it's a scary proposition for the horse, but once he realizes that he's in charge, he'll take off. I had that feeling with every song, but the great thing was--the horse always took off!" laughs Foster.
Once the tracks were cut, Foster called on a few friends to lend their voices. The fact that Emmylou Harris, Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker, Abra Moore and Sister 7's Patrice Pike jumped at the chance to be involved is further testament to Foster's influence. "We've been huge fans for a long time--his albums got us interested in that whole sound. He never ceases to amaze us. Radney Foster is light years ahead of anybody else in Nashville," says Rucker, who sang background vocals on the cinematic and mystical "Raining On Sunday."
"I don't know how to write songs that don't deal with real life," says Foster. "But as a writer, I get to use poetic license and play loose with the facts. These songs are all true--but the gory details are mine to keep," he smiles. From the jangly pop chorus of the album's first single, "I'm In," to the wry and loopy "Folding Money," the rocking fury of "Angry Heart," to the achingly beautiful lullaby "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)," it is clear that Foster has tapped into universal emotions, giving voice to everyday fears, hopes and dreams. In the process, he has made an album that will finally bring his music to a larger audience.
"I've quit writing songs just for the sake of structure or rhyme. I'm gonna say what my soul needs to say, because I think that kind of honesty leads to better songs," says Foster. "It is more important to communicate what's in my heart and soul about love, fear, rejection and hope. That's what this album is about!"