Scot Sax knows his way around a solid pop song.
The Philadelphia musician has been writing them for years, whether it was with his own bands Wanderlust and Feel, or as a purveyor of hits for singers like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. It was Sax, in fact, who co-wrote the country duo’s Grammy-winning smash “Like We Never Loved At All.” His catchy “I Am the Summertime,” penned while with the band Bachelor Number One, was featured in the blockbuster “American Pie.” And he’s netted countless TV credits, with song placements in shows like “Ghost Whisperer,” “NCIS,” “CSI: NY” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”
So it may seem strange that after more than 20 years of plying a well-honed craft, Sax would veer in a decidedly different direction. On his new album, “I’m in a Mood,” the singer-songwriter embraces a blues and Americana palette that signals not only a new phase in his career but a coming home to his truest self.
“I discovered a genre that I was always at an arm’s length from and it clicked for me finally,” says Sax. “What I realized was the kind of songs I grew up writing and have earned a living writing are very structured pop songs. With the blues, you can hang a whole song on a very plainspoken phrase. It doesn’t have to be so detailed where you’re trying to paint the perfect picture and put it in the perfect frame. It’s really cool to not have to reinvent the wheel when you write a song or reinvent the production.”
A pop sensibility does run through some of the album’s songs. But that’s because Sax, whose formative influences include Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, has been writing pop songs since he was 13.
“It was so easy. Everything else was difficult but that was easy,” he recalls. “I picked up a guitar and I don’t even remember learning more than two chords before I was putting songs together. I didn’t realize how kind of atypical that was until much later.”
When he catapulted into the spotlight with Wanderlust and its chart-topping single “I Walked” from the band’s 1995 RCA Records debut, “Prize,” it seemed his knack for crafting sterling power pop would only steer him to greater things. The band toured with Collective Soul and opened for The Who. When that fame proved fleeting, Sax found success writing for artists like Jason Mraz, Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block and Jennifer Love-Hewitt through a publishing deal in Los Angeles. But he continued to record his own material. He would hit the charts again with his band Feel and the singles “Got Your Name On It” and “Won’t Stand In Your Way.” Later, his collaboration with CBS Records’ artist Sharon Little would result in a career highlight: being hand-picked to open for Robert Plant and Allison Krauss on the duo’s 2008 “Raising Sand” tour.
Yet there’s limited longevity in pitching songs and chasing hits. And Sax longed for a more authentic footing. He just didn’t expect to find it in the music he’d been politely sidestepping for years.
“When it comes to writing pop songs, if you don’t succeed and make a name for yourself as a pop machine like Sheryl Crow, you’re only as good as your latest song. That left me without a true following,” he says. “I basically saw myself at the end of a frustrating road and discovered a whole new road that I didn’t know existed for me.
“What this whole evolution is about for me is writing the kind of music that’s not based on your latest song or a catchy chorus or some schtick. I’m willing to basically start my career over from here on out and be an artist that people can trust.”
If that means being an indie artist for the first time in his life, he figures he’s returning to the way music was meant to be made, when artistic impulse, not commerce, was the driving force, and a genuine glimpse of the artist was revealed in his craft. That’s why “I’m in a Mood,” despite its radical departure from previous efforts, feels like an introduction to the essential Scot Sax.
From the dusty, rambling charm of album opener “Hate to Love,” a witty contrast in impossible aspirations and determination, to the enigmatic and slinky “Sweaty Get Ready” and wheeling rockabilly of “Reflection in the Glass,” a slyly flirtatious co-write with wife Suzie Brown, Sax inhabits his new sound with ease. He’s at his cheeky, outrageous best on the country-flavored blues of “One-sy,” where he trades a cultish adulthood for the solace of slobber and Pee-wee Herman, and shows off a penchant for quirky experimentation on “Thank You,” an irrepressible and snarky kiss-off to a former lover that features the spectral effects of a saw, courtesy of musician Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz.
On the title cut, a warning he isn’t always the ebullient jokester he comes across as, Sax mines his pop roots with a dose of mellowed soul. He’s even a sage, if offbeat, counselor on the lolling, slow-burning bluegrass of “Get Your Order Right,” where dining out and getting a haircut serve as metaphors for being clear and decisive in love and life.
“These are ideas that just fell out of my head,” says Sax, who wrote the bulk of the album’s songs on his porch. “I didn’t write them and rush to record them and finish them. I just kept singing them on the porch so I would remember how they lived there.”
The recording process sought to capture that simplicity and joyful immediacy. “I’m in a Mood” was recorded in one day in the basement studio of producer Cliff Hillis with a cast of musicians including drummer Josh Dion, electric and upright bassist Phil D’Agostino, vocalist Jessica Wilson and Paruz.
Sax took a page from Neil Young for such a streamlined approach after meeting the legend while performing at the wedding of iconic album cover artist Gary Burden a few years back. It was Young who encouraged him to bring more of his ideas into the studio rather than rely on a big-name producer, and so the role is one Sax and Hillis share loosely on the album. But it was blues artist John Lee Hooker who helped Sax appreciate the unadorned candor of a good blues tunes.
“A year ago I fell asleep while watching this old John Lee Hooker footage and that all kind of seeped into my dreams. I wound up writing a blues song, ‘Amplifier Woman,’ after that,” says Sax. “I’ve always thrived on melody. It’s always been my form of communication in song. But I just attempted to write more in that plainspoken way. I realized I could make this a newspaper album. It’s not a novel. I’m just throwing a bulletin out there.”
Co-writing and playing guitar on his wife’s recent Americana album, which was produced by Oliver Wood in Nashville, proved influential as well. Brown has also inspired Sax to tap into a deeper lyrical vulnerability, as evidenced by “Not Just Now and Then,” the tender album-closing duet he sings with her.
“In past relationships, I always wrote about wanting out even if I didn’t want out, or I would write about the relationship before the relationship I was in. Writing a love song about somebody I’m in love with is really new to me,” says Sax. “I was thinking about the fact that this is a really good thing. It’s not just now. It’s not just then. This is livable. As I’m saying it, I’m realizing that’s my feelings about the music, too. That it’s not just now, that I’m with a forever woman making forever music.
“This music fits a lot more with where I am. I feel like the path I’m on now is a path that I can trust.”