Interview: The Fray's Isaac Slade

One thing that's become clear about The Fray in their now 7 year career is that they clearly have a knack for making emotionally raw music. Since the release of their debut album How To Save A Life in 2005, the band has consistently struck a chord with fans through their piano driven, powerful ballads. With the release of their new album Scars & Stories coming February 7th, we sat down with the band's lead singer and songwriter, Isaac Slade, to talk about what goes into his songwriting, the new album, and how he drew inspiration from a recent trip to Rwanda.

ML - As a young person coming up in Denver, how did you know you wanted to be involved in music?

IS - I was 8 years old. Somebody asked me to sing a song at this thing they were doing at an outdoor mall, here in Colorado. So I went to my friends house, she played the piano, and I recorded her playing on my boombox, and then got in my mom's car and practiced [singing]. It was 1988. I sat there and thought "I wonder if people make money singing? I wonder if you could do this as a job, because I think I might really like to." I started singing then and the rest is history.

ML - Your debut album, How To Save A Life, essentially put you on the map as a band. Can you talk a bit about the process that went into the songwriting for that album? Where did you draw inspiration?

IS - Well, we kind of draw inspiration for all of our music from tension. It's not exactly the formula, but it's kind of how we do it. If you write a sad song that sounds sad and is nothing but sad, it's kind of boring, I think. What's really interesting is if you can figure out how to balance it out. You write a really happy song that sounds really sad, or you write a really scary, dangerous song that sounds really sexy. You do something in contrast. It becomes a little bit of a tightrope walk, you write a certain lyric and it tips you off one way or another. But if you tweak it enough and kind of stare the song down, eye to eye, usually it shows up.

ML - Is there a time when you kind of know a song is done? 

IS - I don't know how that works for most people. For us, a song is not done until we run out of time. I'm more interested in knowing what a song is worth to me. I have a hundred different songs floating around all the time, but if I'm messing around with a lyric or a melody or a chord progression, and suddenly the missing piece — in raw form — suddenly comes, I get chills. Then I know it's worth chasing the animal into the hills to see if I can catch it. Then the rest is just details. You've gotta make things run, you've gotta make sense, you've gotta make it sound good, you've gotta record it well. And then you eventually run out of time and money, and then the song is quote-unquote done. I can always always work more on a song. Usually the guys pull me off of it.

ML - You write the majority of your songs with your bandmate Joe King. How do you guys go about that writing process?

IS - I know people that are really good at writing with strangers. They get on a plane, fly to Nashville, sit down with an artist, and crank out a song that gets on the radio and sells a million records. I don't know how they do it, but that skill is wonderful. I have to write from a deep, meaningful, trusting relationship. Joe and I have been friends forever, and we've been through just about everything you can go through as friends. I trust him. I trust his instincts and don't feel like he's trying to impress me or sneak something by me or sell me something. We're two brothers, and the songs come out of the health of that relationship.

ML - It's clear that you two write from a very personal place. Your first major hit "Over My Head" was about your relationship with your brother. What was it like to see such a personal song see such massive reception?

IS - To be honest it was really hard. We've painted ourselves into a corner now where we're known enough that people expect our songs to be real, biographical and personal. I was asking a buddy of mine, Adam Duritz from Counting Crows, "Do you ever get nervous if a song is too personal?" He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "You know, if you're up there singing about the secrets of your life, or your dark places, doesn't it make it scary?" I'll never forget, he goes, "Isaac, I'm nervous if it's not personal enough. I'm nervous if it doesn't cut to the bone. Because then, what are you on stage for? Why are you doing it? Are you selling a record or are you doing it because you want to say something?" It really shifted my thinking, that it's not about protecting my image or reputation. It's about getting on stage, talking my shirt off, and showing my scars, showing what I've been through, showing that it's okay to bleed.

ML - Speaking of scars, your new album is entitled "Scars & Stories." Can you tell me a bit about the meaning behind the title?

IB - Yeah, I think scars are really sexy. I think they're the evidence of a life fully lived. They serve as a map of where we've come from and maybe a little bit about where we're going. Every relationship gets to that point where you have to show a little bit of what you've been through. You have to tell your story. This record is very confessional, it's very naked, and it's also very expansive and searching and running and looking for what is on the other side of the ocean.

ML - On this album you worked with producer Brendan O'Brien who has worked with some of the world's most well-known acts [Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine]. What was it like working with him? Is there a different sound to this record?

IB - I think there are two ways to produce a record. One is what we've done in the past, which is kind of creation by restriction. Like, "don't go there," "don't do this," "don't say that." Brendan is a creation by inspiration, almost creation by momentum. Don't make it about when to stop the car, make it about how fast you can keep the car going without getting caught by the cops. He really pushed us to not waste time wondering if it's good or not, just do it, and then we'll decide later if it makes the record. So it essentially pushed us as far as we could go, and we've never really done that before.

ML - Your new single "Heartbeat" has powerful lyrics. Tell me about the meaning behind the song?

IB - We decided to spend some of the recording budget to travel on this record, you know, write in different places. So I went to Rwanda with my eyes open, looking for stories. I got to meet the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. We sat with him for a while, and it was his birthday so I played him "How To Save A Life" on the guitar. At the end of it I asked him what he does with the loneliness of it all, and what he does with the disappointment and the isolation of being in that position, leading this fledgling little country back from this horrible genocide they had in the 90s. I'll never forget the things he said. He basically laid out this different view of what it means to be human, what it means to be in charge of something, what it means to have a platform. It's just the opposite of everything I thought. I viewed life as holding on, and he viewed life as letting go, and stepping off his pedestal, and giving instead of taking, giving without worrying what you're going to get out of it. Seeing him and then going to the museum afterwards and seeing the pictures of the horrors of this country, and putting those two in contrast. That culture is coming back to life. I just wrote about that, coming from a place of seeing this.

*Editor's Note: Isaac began the interview by telling us he "uses MetroLyrics all the time." We just wanted to brag about that a lil.

Watch the video for the band's new single "Heartbeat" below.