WHY WE LOVE THE MONSTER
by Matt Lansinger
Let me say this first: Ross Crean should NOT be regarded as an enigma. For those familiar with his work, he has proven himself to be considerably brash and to-the-point about the turmoil and triumphs in his life, both personally and professionally. It makes one wonder why the once-disguised singer/pianist/guitarist has not been made an international superstar once he finally uncovered his face in 2005 with the release of his CD "This Too Shall Pass". Not only did we finally get to see what Crean looked like, but we were also exposed to the darkness and tragedy that the England-based artist has hinted us to in his early career as an avant-garde opera singer. His works "Xenophysius Obscura: The Stranger's Nature in Darkness", "The Mysteries of Uncle Archibald", and his award-winning "Missa Dementia" have uncovered a history of abuse, rape, drug use, and survival. While Crean no longer discusses these issues by request, we as listeners gain an understanding of his life and the inspiration of his ability to overcome the obstacles thrown his way.
At the time of this interview, I wait for Crean at Balthazar in the heart of New York City, where he has just finished his second performance at Carnegie Hall. He is completely intimidating on stage: beautiful and brutal, soothing and yet strikingly emotional, his performance leaves one spellbound. He is extreme, and yet very much in control of what goes on in his performance. While I should consider him a rock star, Crean's music transcends labels; piano-rock, gothic cabaret, singer-songwriter? No label really seems to work, and that is possibly what has left him under the radar for so long.
His resume is just as impressive. By the age of 25, Crean has performed all over the world, including the orchestra halls of Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin, and Paris. He is a trained Shakespearean actor, and was also once a model for designer Jean Paul Gaultier. His physical presence is almost supernatural; those who attend Crean's performances notice his eyes are blue from the get-go, and he has a strange luminescence to his face that I would compare to the likes of Tilda Swinton...almost otherwordly.
Preparing to meet Ross Crean is intimidating, until you actually meet him. Yes, those things I described are still present in him, but he is quite the humble and charming gentleman who refuses to sit until you do. We sit and get ready to discuss his latest album, "Lovers and Other Kinds of Monsters", as well as his upcoming release "The Reluctant Socialite", which is anticipated for release in early 2011.
ML: First of all, I have to tell you that a friend of mine has compared you on several occasions to Tilda Swinton, and I wholeheartedly agree. (Crean laughs) You have a demeanor that reminds us of her.
RC: (Laughs) I have to say that I actually have been compared to her before when I was performing "Taming of the Shrew" at the Royal Theatre. I'm flattered, really, because I have always admired Tilda and her body of work. However, I am always strangely intrigued as to why I get compared to a female so much.
ML: I think it's more of the presence than your physicality.
RC: Ok, good! Then I'll remain flattered. (Laughs)
ML: You actually wrote a song about Tilda for your next album?
RC: Well, it's not exactly about her as more directed to her. I wrote "Tilda" after reading an article about her in Paste Magazine. I found her outlook on love incredibly unique and, to a point, understandable. I am, however, a traditionalist when it comes to relationships, and can't really see myself subscribing to that outlook. So, I wrote a song that goes through what I think would be a conversation between Tilda and I at a tea party.
RC: Oh, these are everyday thoughts for me. I'm not even sure if I myself understand how they appear.
ML: Before we get to talking about "The Reluctant Socialite", I would like to go back to the beginning of your career. When you started performing, what was the purpose of your disguises? You would wear face paint, masks, and even bat wings if I recall. Was there a specific reason for refusing to show your face?
RC: It wasn't so much the shock value of doing that than putting myself in different characters. I was an incredibly shy child, and yet I wanted so much to be a performer, so I found opera to be my way of doing so by hiding behind the masks and outfits. I could be as bold and unapologetic as I wanted without ever letting the audience see exactly who I was. I also had this underlying insecurity from childhood that I was an ugly person, and I could win people over with my voice without them having to look at my true appearance.
ML: Seems pretty harsh to have that outlook.
RC: Well, it wasn't my parents who told me those things. My instructors and classmates constantly told me I was never going to be good enough, and I eventually bought into it. There was this part of me, however, that just refused to believe it, and told me that if they were at all truthful in what they said, that I was going to at least find a loophole to accomplish what I wanted. That triggered the idea of using the costumes.
ML: So what made you decide to take off the disguises?
RC: I was sick of hiding myself. I felt like I was hiding my true nature, the real person that existed, and that I was becoming a living caricature. I just snapped, and said enough was enough. If the world wasn't going to like me, then to hell with them. I liked myself well enough.
ML: And is that what lead to your first CD, "This Too Shall Pass"?
RC: Pretty much. When I was in school, I would compose songs all the time, and the one thing I was told constantly was, "Wow, that is so dark!" I never thought of them as dark, just honest. I think that if you have a dark past, then you're going to have a dark outlook. I'm not a cynic, by any means. I always have a hope for things. When it comes to songwriting, however, it's more of an exorcism for me, a way to expel the demons that hang around. When I wrote "This Too Shall Pass", I went through some pretty heavy shit...deaths and betrayals that just turned me inside out. I think that if you listen to the album, though, that you can hear that glimmer of hope wanting to so much to come out and be heard.
ML: Oh, I think it's pretty evident, especially in songs like "Leaving New York".
RC: Exactly! I wrote that song a year after 9/11 occurred. I was so sick of other artists doing the "Let's go kick their ass" songs, and I just said to so many people, "Look, there are people here that are suffering and are NOT over this! We need to acknowledge that these people are hurting and conflicted about how to move forward after 9/11". That's what I say in that song: I am hurting, I want to run away from this forever, and that's ok, but this home, and this is where I have to stay to face this.
ML: So when it came to "Lovers and Other Kinds of Monsters", what exactly was the trigger that brought you to make that album? In my opinion, it's one of the most poignant pieces of work I've ever heard. You can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's an amazing example of personal dissection.
RC: I never heard it put that way before, but I think it's true. It's more the personal dissection of the failure of my relationship.
ML: Is it all about one person, then?
RC: No. Most of it is, but not all. I had a very hard time dealing with the relationship I was in at the time. It was breaking down hard and the truth was not being said, and in the end, I ended up having to walk away with my heart in pieces. I couldn't even function for the longest time. I was just so angry with the fact that I wasted such a long period of my life on this one person that the vengeful side of me slapped me in the face and told me to get into the studio right now and record.
ML: And you recorded it in one weekend?
RC: Yeah. Didn't sleep or eat that entire weekend. All I did was write and record. The piano I used during that session was tuned the day before, and by the time I was done, it had to be retuned again. (Laughs) I was glad for the opportunity to express my anger, though, since most of my life, I was told to suppress it for everyone else's sake. I don't do that anymore, though. I absolutely refuse to.
ML: Are you quick to anger, or do you simmer for a bit?
RC: I try to let things run off me, but there are times when I think patience is no longer a virtue and becomes a way to avoid what has to be done. I am a very deadline-oriented person, and when I think someone has had more than enough ample time to finish what I need done, I just come out and say so.
ML: And the result?
RC: Well, most times it is in a professional setting where the people I work with might be a bit put off by what I have said, but things need to get done and move forward. Don't ever take advantage of my time and hold my it hostage, especially when there's so much work to be done, and there's always work to be done.
ML: So, I have a few songs I'd like to know about if possible.
ML: "Gay Cops and Yellow Tail"
RC: (Laughs) Well, I admit that was a song I thought a lot about releasing before I made the decision to do so. It's a pretty self-explanatory song, to be frank. Look, we all make stupid mistakes, every last one of us. I just decided to sing about it and not take myself so seriously. It was St. Patty's Day in Chicago, and I received that inevitable drunken phone call from someone I was completely infatuated with at the time. I had a few drinks in me, was asked to come over, and the rest is history.
ML: Were you traumatized by the situation the next day?
RC: Oh, completely! (laughs) I'm not a drinker to begin with. I learned a very valuable lesson after that. Rarely touch a drop nowadays.
ML: How about my personal favorite, "Damn the Wallflowers"?
RC: Awww, thanks! Well, you know, that started out as a total stream-of-consciousness experiment. It then formed into this morality play, I guess you can say, to young girls who think they need to have that acceptance from a man to be deemed worthy. I've seen many girls grow up this way, and it's traumatizing for them to get through a moment in life like that. It turns them into chaotic beasts, as I like to say.
ML: Hence the screams in the bridge...
RC: Yes. I am not a screamer myself, so my friends, both named Amber came over to my house and I asked them to scream into the microphone during that part of the song. They were so stoked to do so, and after about ten seconds, they did all I needed and I thanked them for their time. All they could say was, "That's it?!" (Laughs) They did a great job, I thought!
ML: Now what about "Lovers, Ex-Lovers"? I think your piano chops are amazing on that song!
RC: Thanks! That track was the first one I wrote during that crazy weekend. I was so eager to show the violence that the breakdown of love can cause. I shut down all my filters, and was determined to expose that part of myself to the listeners so that they would know that there are plenty of us that hurt like that once we've been fucked over enough times.
ML: It shows in your piano playing as well! Your performance of it tonight was absolutely violent. That poor piano probably has to be rebuilt!
RC: That's the role that piano took on for me. I didn't want my voice to be the role of the aggressor when I wrote. The piano for me was originally was an instrument that was meant for melody and beauty, but somewhere down the line, I let IT speak to ME, and it said that it had other roles to play for me. It became my avenging angel, and I let it play the vigilante for me. I always treat the piano as a living entity; somehow, if I keep open to what it brings out within me, it tells me what to do, and that is an true gift it gives to me. I figured since I slaved for so many years to practice and learn it, it owes me! And believe me, the paybacks are fruitful!
ML: Does that role of the piano as avenging angel return in "The Reluctant Socialite"?
RC: No, I don't think so. I think that part of my life is over for now. I think the piano has become more of a reflective partner this time around. There are times it is aggressive and agitated, but I think we have agreed to chill out just a bit.
ML: So tell me about "The Reluctant Socialite", your newest collection. What brought it about? You played several songs off of it tonight, and I have to say, it is not as "crazy" as you said, but some of those themes from "Lovers" still make appearances, correct?
RC: Well, yes, most definitely. The last song I wrote for "Lovers" was "I Was Blind (The Coward's Lament)", where I just came to terms with the fact that the relationship I was in was over for good, and that I was going to have to start my grieving process and get through it. "The Reluctant Socialite" pretty much picks up where "Lovers" left off; I had to mourn the loss of love and come to terms with the fact that love may never be the thing for me, as much as I would love it to. After "Lovers" was released, I thought I found justification when I starting dating a famous Hollywood actor, who shall remain nameless, of course. (Laughs) However, things just got too difficult. We were friends for years, but the change of the relationship between us changed everything between us, and it was just too much to take in. At that same time, I was engulfed in the industry, and saw that even the life I was becoming part of was not much different from the life I grew out of. The same scandals and indulgences are there, except this time, they are excused because of who these people are. I didn't agree with that, and so I walked.
ML: Hence the title, "The Reluctant Socialite".
ML: Do you think love can exist in Hollywood?
RC: Not easily. To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time believing in love at all. I think my storytale concepts of it have lead me to be completely embittered by what I have experienced of it thus far. I don't trust it. I think there's an unusually romantic concept to living the solitary life, the idea of enjoying one's solace. I think this life is an incredibly lonely one when you can not be content with relying solely on yourself for your own happiness. It's become the new ideal for me, and while I would kill to have my thoughts about this wiped out and find that perfect love, I will just have wait for the day when I can call myself a hypocrite once and for all.
ML: I was particularly intrigued with your approach to loss in the song "The Buddhist Ballet". It's an epic song about your life and the loss of those closest to you. Correct?
RC: Yeah, wrote that song because I thought it was time for God and I to sit down and have a serious talk. I recently lost my goddaughter Saoirse in an automobile accident, and she was the last in a long line of people who were taken away from me way too early. These people totally understood me, which is extremely difficult to do, believe me. But here, in my own goddaughter, existed a nine-year-old version of who I am now. She totally understood and tolerated every little quirk and fault I had, even laughed them off at times. She was an old soul, no doubt. When she died, I wasn't angry, I was just hopelessly sad, and just sat at my piano after a few days and talked to God in my head just asking, "Why in the hell would you do this to me again? To HER? Just tell me what you hope to accomplish with this! What's it going to take to stop this?" That's how "The Buddhist Ballet" came forth. It was my conversation with the higher power, where I just had to tell it, "Listen, no matter what you do to affect me, I will always come through the other side stronger than how you made me in the first place. If you keep it up, so will I...just be warned!"
ML: A lot of people were crying during that song.
RC: I hate to say I hope so, but it does brings me validation. It proves that the audience can understand and relate to the ways that I feel, no matter how extreme they can be. So yes, in a way, it's good to know. It proves I've done my job.