It’s been seven years since Jim Keller, co-founder of power-pop band Tommy Tutone and co-writer of the 1982 Top 5 hit “867-5309/Jenny,” released a solo album. But he hasn’t been slacking. He somehow found the time to manage the career of composer Philip Glass and also front regular jam sessions—before COVID-19, anyway—with a rotating cast of 25 or more musicians in Brooklyn.
Keller quit Tommy Tutone in the early 1980s, working on a variety of musical projects for the next 10 years before snagging the Glass gig. Another decade passed before he returned to writing and performing, going on to release several albums of rootsy folk rock.
Keller’s latest, By No Means, released Feb. 12, was co-written with longtime collaborator Byron Isaacs and produced by Mitchell Froom, who recorded it at his home studio, pre-pandemic, with engineer and co-producer David Boucher. It features guitarist David Hidalgo, bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Michael Urbano, with Froom on keyboards.
On the phone from Brooklyn, Keller gave PSN the lowdown on his new album.
On Working with Philip Glass
Post-’80s, I was a “where are they now” story. I wasn’t strong enough as a solo artist to get a record deal. I had moved back to New York and was completely broke. I talked my way into an interview with Philip and his manager, producer and lawyer. According to Philip, I said, “I’ll work for nothing. If it works out, you can start paying me. What have you got to lose?” Somehow I managed to get the idea across that I might be able to help him, and we’ve been partners in this thing for over 25 years.
On Working with Mitchell Froom
I knew so many of his projects. We became friends, and when I was starting to think about doing another record, I sent him a note. I sent him 35 songs, many done on my iPhone, which is how I write. Because it’s just me and my acoustic guitar, sitting in this chair in my place in Brooklyn, it’s very low and very intimate. That was the stuff he loved.
There was a process we went through of getting down to what really worked with my voice that I could get across in this way, with me on acoustic guitar. We narrowed it down to a group of songs, then figured out how we wanted to record, which was to base all of it off of whatever rhythm was generating off my thumb on the guitar, and my voice. That meant finding players who were simpatico.
“Find My Shadow” from the album By No Means
On Finding the Band
I always record with a band in a room; this was a quieter version of that. It helps when you have really talented people. I’ve been in sessions where something isn’t right. How do you make a groove if you’re playing quietly? If you come from the rock world, it’s a little different. When you’re with people who really know how to do that stuff well, it makes a huge difference.
At my gigs, I’ll often have two keyboard players—because I can, and it’s fun! But there are songs where Mitchell plays five notes on the keyboard. There were moments when I said, “That’s it?” It’s very naked, and as a singer, there’s no one to hide behind, which is a challenge I loved.
On the Sound of the Album
We recorded the songs at Mitchell’s place over the course of five days. The vocals are live, and the record is really simple. His studio is very small. The drums were in an iso room. The guitar amp and the bass amp were in the bathroom. I was sitting behind the piano, because there was nowhere else to sit. As soon as I sat down, I was able to hear myself in a way that allowed me to sing that way. We didn’t have to experiment. It’s what Mitchell was going for and I was thrilled to follow. Whatever is happening sonically is because David Boucher—who is not to be underestimated—and Mitchell know that room so well and are really good, in terms of their choices and how they position stuff and set it up.
Jim Keller • www.jimkellermusic.com