Sitting with Isaac Russell in Shirley’s Bakery & Café in Provo, a handful of famous singer-songwriters play over the sound system. Some of them — John Mayer, The Lumineers — are the kind Columbia Records probably thought Russell could be when they signed him six years ago.
Russell was only 17 then. Now 23 and recently freed from his Columbia contract, the tall, thin, affable Russell is a bit wiser. He’s doesn’t seem bitter. But he also doesn’t mince words.
“There was a whole period there where they had lost faith because I wasn’t turning in songs that were terrible,” Russell recalled. “And mostly, they just sign you so they can shelve you until you’re desperate enough to write a hook for them, and then sell your own name and the whole rest of your life down the river so they have a single they can put on the radio. It was a long time of being broke — so broke, broke, broke — because I wasn’t turning in what they wanted.”
Russell will be releasing “Mother/Father,” an album Columbia shelved, Friday night at Velour Live Music Gallery. It’s a re-release of sorts: Fed up with his situation, Russell released “Mother/Father” independently last year. The only problem? He hadn’t completely cut ties with Columbia yet. That experiment was short lived.
“I was just trying to undercut Columbia — I’m young, man,” he admitted with a slightly embarrassed grin on his face. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen legally to put a record out. And thank God I have a great attorney who was like, ‘No, you cannot. They have attorneys on retainer that are going to eat you alive for the rest of your life if you do.’
“You forget that those are Fortune 500 companies,” Russell continued. “They have a lot of money just for that kind of stuff.”
Having first gained a rep with the stage name RuRu, Russell dropped that when he signed with Columbia. His lone official Columbia release, an EP, was self-titled. Now, though, he’s returning to RuRu. “Mother/Father” is more emblematic of his pre-Columbia material, he said. RuRu was in many ways a collaboration between Russell and local musician Joshua James. The new album, which James helped produce, continues in that tradition.
Artistically, “Mother/Father” is a significant leap forward. While Russell’s Columbia EP had a fairly narrow focus, “Mother/Father” is sprawling and nuanced in its scope, both sonically and emotionally. Lush, swelling instrumentation and vaporous harmonies intertwine with Russell’s oft-haunting lead vocals. As a songwriter, Russell is an emotional acupuncturist. The wealth of subtle pinpricks give way to the occasional stinger, and the result is a palpable catharsis. “Mother/Father” displays shades of so many great songwriters — Elliott Smith, Damien Rice, Ryan Adams, along with locals like Joshua James and Jay William Henderson — without being overly referential. He navigates these moods to make something all his own.
Sure, Russell didn’t turn out to be the John Mayer or Jason Mraz that Columbia likely hoped he’d be. “Mother/Father” makes it abundantly clear he’s much more than that. And he hopes it’s enough to make up for lost time. In a college town like Provo there’s a lot of turnover. Going a half-decade without new music can sometimes mean starting back at square one.
“There’s definitely a fear that those fans have just fallen off or lost hope,” he said. “Which is kind of why I thought the RuRu thing would be a good idea. This isn’t the Isaac Russell that put out one album every four years.”