You and my best friend can go to Hell.”
Fearless. Trailblazing. Unforgettable. Just some of the words that have been used to describe Isaac Russell, the eighteen year-old singer, songwriter and guitar-playing troubadour who makes his Columbia Records debut in Summer 2010 with the release of his stunningly-affecting 5-song self-titled EP.
On songs like “Made Me a Man,” “Lighthouse,” and “Elizabeth,” Russell fuses ferociously daring song writing to masterful, moving guitar accompaniment. The result is a sonically-arresting collection of intimate stories that brim with both humor and heartache. Make no mistake - this is an artist like no one you’ve heard before.
“I never wanted a record that sounded like anyone else’s,” Russell says of his upcoming album, just minutes before taking the stage at New York’s famed Joe’s Pub. "I think we achieved it with this one. I’m proud of it.”
Like fellow renegade song-smiths Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, Russell was born in Bakersfield, California, to a family that fostered his musical development from the very beginning. “My Dad was my biggest musical influence growing-up,” Russell says. “His musical tastes were my musical tastes – everybody from The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, ELO, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, to more modern bands like Portishead and Radiohead. He also introduced me to classic rock and classical music as well, so there was an amazing variety of sounds, in my house and in my head.”
Russell’s early musical fascination would progress to a full-on obsession with the blues.
“When I actually started breaking away and buying my own records, I listened almost exclusively to the blues, “he says. “I spent the better part of three years just listening and playing guitar. At that point, I never sang – I hated my voice and would just play guitar.
My brother Spencer was a huge influence in getting me into playing the guitar at the age of fourteen. He had stolen a guitar from one of his friends and had taught himself how to play. I idolized him, and wanted to learn how to play just like he did. It was all about the blues for me then - I was heavy into everybody from Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy, to more modern players like Robert Cray, Doyle Bramhall II, and of course,
Russell’s life would be forever changed at the age of fifteen, when his mother Elizabeth lost her valiant battle with cancer. The experience would propel the young blues guitarist into previously unchartered territory – he would turn to song writing in an attempt to make sense of her senseless death.
I held my sparkler as I walked
Death was inevitable but nobody talked
We’d just forget love
We’d strike the match
And the fuse was life and the light was death
Isaac Russell, from “Elizabeth”
“I had been playing guitar during the last year of her life,” Russell says. “But I had never written songs. I just had never really seen myself as a songwriter. I think it took her passing
to get me to the place where I needed to express what I was feeling inside, in a way that just playing guitar couldn’t do. That’s where the whole first album came from.”
“When I first started writing songs,” Russell continues, “there were a handful of artists that really influenced me. I never wanted to sound like anybody but myself, but there were definitely musicians that changed me. Elliot Smith was somebody who made a big impact on me – his album XO killed me, and made me want to find out what was going on in his head. He taught me the brilliance of not knowing where a song is going. Artists like him, and Radiohead, and Paul McCartney – they find a way to make the unexpected sound natural. And that’s what I wanted to do – to make something you haven’t heard before sound right.”
Russell’s first album Elizabeth, (now out of print), came together while he was still in high-school. “I was living in Provo, Utah, and got signed to a local record label there called North Platte Records. Joshua James and McKay Stevens, who own the label, heard me play live when I was just starting-out, and were interested in making a record with me. So for three months, we would get together every day after I came home from school, and record from 3:00 until 11:00 at night. We made the record between the three of us. When it was released, it ended-up charting on iTunes. The album got a lot of local radio airplay, and gave me a great following in Provo. I never imagined it going much beyond that at the time. I mean, I was still in school! The most important thing for me was I loved the album. I had a lot of faith in it, and was proud of the music. I didn’t care if it ever got famous, because I could be proud when I played it for people.”
Unbeknownst to Russell, the music was starting to get famous. Russell would begin an impassioned performance career that continues to this day, supporting his indie release with shows around Provo. “I got my entire start at a place called Velour in Provo,” Russell says. “Corey Fox, the owner, was always really supportive of me. He’d get me gigs and acoustic shows, and I got to do what I loved to do, which was play. I was happy.”
Russell’s happiness would increase ten-fold when a number of major record companies joined in hot pursuit. “We played for a bunch of different record labels,” Russell says,
“but in my head, the label that I always wanted to be on was Columbia. All the people that I grew-up loving and listening to were on there. They have a legacy.” Russell would sign with Columbia Records while still in high school, recording tracks with producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Rogue Wave, Elvis Costello).
On Russell’s forthcoming EP, he sings and plays with an assertive swagger that belies his youth. Masterful lyrics collide with neo-folk guitar grace, forming a fresh yet familiar sound that recalls some of the most storied artists of the last few decades.
Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Jeff Buckley, James Taylor, Ryan Adams, and the list goes on. The record is a marvel of modern day song writing, from an artist who has lived well beyond his years.
“I’m trying to write things that haven’t been heard before,” Russell says of his brave approach to storytelling. One listen to his upcoming Columbia Records debut and you’ll surely agree that his mission has more than been accomplished.