Poverty Doesn't Suck
Bent over a shelf of aging vinyl, Johnny Lloyd Rollins adds another record to his stack of take-home goodies. He's got a $20 bill in his pocket, and he wants to get the maximum amount of Disney for his buck. Rollins has struck gold: a Robin Hood picture disc, vivid with glorious Technicolor.
"This one's my favorite," he explains, tapping the cover with his index finger and returning to his search. Yes, Johnny Lloyd Rollins is a grown man digging for 50-year-old children's tunes in the Shake Rag vintage music shop off Lower Greenville. But Rollins' Disney habit is a lot less creepy when viewed in light of his latest album, Let's Be Poor Together. Full of simple, floating melodies, pretty harmonies and bright lyrics, it's no surprise those songs came from a man who really, truly digs "Oh, Sing, Sweet Nightingale" from Cinderella.
Painfully handsome, Rollins looks as if he were molded from some kind of residual, pre-fat-Vegas Elvis radioactive goo, born not of mere man but of well-coiffed catalog model. He talks without ceasing and without censorship, riffing on Dallas, modern pop music and indie rock snobs all in one breath. Let's Be Poor Together, which he'll start shopping to major labels this month, is Rollins' reaction to all of those things. Unpretentious, unlike Dallas. Unfettered, unlike today's pop music. Unconcerned, unlike the indie rock snobs Rollins expects to diss his album.
"I don't sing badly enough, I'm not ugly enough, and I don't have a beard," explains Rollins. He says he just doesn't have it in him to try to be the kind of thing the hip kids are listening to, and he doesn't seem much interested in trying. Rollins has already been down that road.
Ten years ago, he fled McKinney for cutthroat Los Angeles, paying $500 a pop to play gigs and forming a string of Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis sound-alike bands. Burnt out on the L.A. scene, he returned to Dallas in 2004 and started writing the songs that would eventually become Let's Be Poor Together, a black-and-white-tinted homage to the '60s. Last summer, Rollins even performed some of his tracks live at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, garnering attention from the BBC that hailed him as the second coming of the Fab Four. But that kind of praise can be as damning as it is encouraging. Sure, Rollins concedes, baby boomers probably will dig his record. But is he a hipster-music, blog-buzz act? Not so much.
"Most of the indie kids don't know what my music sounds like," Rollins says. "They just call me 'the face.'" Or at least, that's what Rollins says a girl at a Dallas record store once said to him: "You're that guy with the pretty face." Oh, the curse of being the cute one. It's a fate he shares with his primary inspiration: Paul McCartney.
Echoing the earliest solo McCartney records, Let's Be Poor Together is the kind of album "Junk" wouldn't be at all out of place on. In fact, if Rollins hadn't been, oh, 10 years old in the mid '80s, Macca probably would have benefited from some of his input on that decade's McCartney recording disasters. Even so, he treads in dangerous waters. Nobody likes a lame Beatles rip-off, and the staple elements of McCartney's work—the silliness, the pleasantries, the carefree melodies—can be disastrous in the wrong hands. But, as unabashed as the cute Beatle ever was about his tendency toward the sunnier side of life, Rollins makes no apologies for his sound.
"I'm puppy dogs and sunflowers," he says. For all his emphasis on sweetness and simplicity, Rollins' songs aren't overly sugary. Produced with a deliberate vintage sound by that most low-key of local music men, Salim Nourallah, Let's Be Poor captures a kind of melancholy hope that makes tracks such as "Let's Be Poor Together" and "Polar Bear Blues" a pleasing mix of sweet and sour. There is no modern technological ear-assault on Let's Be Poor, there is just Rollins, his lilting tenor and his instruments.
"We tried to make an analog album with digital equipment," says Rollins. Rather than tweaking sounds and textures after the fact, Nourallah and Rollins worked to get the right sounds directly out of their instruments using period microphones such as the ones the Beatles might have used.
"We just took the actual, real sounds of the instruments themselves," says Rollins. "That makes it warm." Nowadays, Rollins believes digital recording makes everything "over-treblized." Their approach was to tone everything way, way down: "We produced it as if we were producing it 40 years ago."
Rollins' method of songwriting is similarly uncomplicated: title first, song second. He might tool around on guitar or piano working out a melody, but he'll find the song's name before he goes any further. "Once I get that," says Rollins, "I write the song in like five minutes."
The album's title track, "Let's Be Poor Together," is actually about 15 years old, in theory. Back in the day, Rollins says he was talking about writing a song with that title with a friend. His friend vowed to compose a sweeping, Bon Jovi-esque ballad using the title. When he had nothing to show for it years later, Rollins scooped it up and created the meandering silly love song that headlines his album.
Fresh off two goodbye shows at Good Records and Standard & Pours, Rollins is winding down his stay in Dallas. After two years of playing just about any Dallas club that would have him, Rollins says he's "really tired" of walking the streets of Deep Ellum. The big wide world awaits.
Over brunch at the All Good Café, before Rollins' quest for Disney goods, Rollins muses about the possibilities for his future. His dream label is EMI, Britain's biggest distributor of pop music and home to Coldplay, U2 and McCartney. Rollins knows his ambitions won't let him stay in Dallas long; he'll be heading to New York soon, in hopes of signing a major-label deal and getting some play on that most-mocked of radio outlets, easy-listening stations.
"I'm perfectly happy with that," he says. Maybe after Let's Be Poor Together pops up on their parents' CD racks, kids will pick it up and give it the listen it deserves. But until then ... Rollins gestures to a couple of gray-haired guys shoveling down scrambled eggs to his left. "They'll love it."
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