Ten years later, Cruz is back with soulful 'Days'
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
John Cruz's "One of These Days" is one of the year's finest albums ... local or otherwise.
It's Cruz's first solo album since his much-revered 1997 debut "Acoustic Soul," and the return to form of a gifted singer-musician-songwriter now free of the demons — chemical and personal — that once threatened to silence his honeyed, rough-hewn vocalese and creative musicality. But that's oversimplifying matters considerably.
"One of These Days" — due Tuesday — is less a comeback than the work of an artist at the peak of his craft. The 11-track collection of warm, uncluttered and soulful retro-contemporary songs aims not so much for memories of a specific era of music than the goosebumps of music that make listeners feel something.
Recorded primarily at the SoCal studio of good friend Jackson Browne last fall, the disc was produced by Cruz, 43, who pulled together three decades of songs from friends, family and his own collection of tunes.
Musicians on board included friends Cruz had played with while living on the East Coast in his 20s and 30s, and legendary session players suggested by Browne. The latter included percussionist Paulinho Da Costa (Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie), drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers, Justin Timberlake), lap steel player Greg Liesz (Joni Mitchell, Lucinda Williams) and saxophonist Steve Berlin (Los Lobos).
Cruz wrangled vintage equipment and instruments, where possible, and recorded the entire album on analog tape — instead of digitally — to capture the warm and organic live sound he was after.
"I'm very proud of the record because I'm very critical of anything that I do ... especially music," Cruz said. "I know that it's good. No one can take that away from me.
"And I know what I went through for me to get there."
Promising it wouldn't take another 10 years for his third CD to appear, Cruz sat down with "One of These Days" in The Mountain Apple Company studios for a Track-by-Track chat.
'ONE OF THESE DAYS'
"I was in a band with (co-writer) Mark and (his brother) Matt Herschler back in 1992 (and) this is one of the songs that they did. The song was a little bit different as we did it then. When I got back to Hawai'i and started to play it with my band, I changed the arrangement so it suited my needs. ... I was going to put it on my first record ... as the last song. ... It's a great way to start this record. The song has got everything but the kitchen sink in it. It sets the tone."
|Sample song: "One of These Days" by John Cruz|
'IF THAT'S THE WAY SHE WANTS IT'
"When I wrote this, I was sitting around trying to figure out a Stevie Wonder song (from 'Innervisions'). Almost all Stevie Wonder songs are easy to start off with if you don't have a chart in front of you. But as soon as you get to the chorus ... you suddenly have no idea what chord he's going to, no matter how musically inclined you are. ... I wanted to write a Stevie Wonder song. So from the intro, I thought, 'OK what would Stevie do?' ... And that's how I wrote the song. This is my attempt at 'Stevie-isms.' "
|Sample song: "If That's the Way She Wants It" by John Cruz|
"When I was in my downest of downest times, I found this cassette (with a rough demo of the song written and sung by the Herschler brothers) in my room and put it in my cassette player. ... My brother Guy was playing at Kincaid's at the time and had been inviting me to gigs and stuff. I hadn't really left the house in a while. But I was thinking about going that night. I heard the first lyric with Mark and Matthew singing — I woke up feelin' good today/Everything's gonna go my way — and I was, like, 'Wow!' I learned it right then — writing down the words. ... I decided that if I got down to the gig, my only purpose would be to sing this song. ... And I did. I think that this song was a really big part of getting me out of the house in general. The lyrics were relevant for where I was then. It's a hopeful song, but it's also cautiously hopeful."
|Sample song: "Hurricane" by John Cruz|
"It recounts a wonderful time I had with this woman (it was written for). ... She was into film and filmmaking and devoured as many films as possible. We were on Martha's Vineyard in the winter. ... We'd go to the (video store) and she'd rent three or four movies at a time, every other day. And we'd sit around and watch them all. ...
"I moved (back) to Hawai'i (without her). ... She visited (a few months later), and we hung out for a few weeks. ... I had been thinking that this could work. Maybe we could move to New York together. Maybe we could stay in Hawai'i and just be together. And it was on (a) walk (taken on the final day of her visit) that I realized that it wasn't going to happen. ... One day (after she left) I was driving around and thinking about her. And the pre-chorus and chorus came out — I'm all dressed up, nowhere to go/I go to the movies but the theater is so cold/I sit there by myself, sipping on my Coke/Movie stars are making love and/My heart is broke/I've been missing you.
"It just played in my head, just like that. ... All I had to do was write the verses."
|Sample song: "Missing You" by John Cruz|
"This is the only first-take song on the whole record. We were trying to record 'Heart Becomes the Weight' and had got through another take that wasn't working. So we took a break from it. ... I was just sitting there and started playing ('Hi'ilawe' on guitar). I like everything to be recorded because I hate to miss something, so the recording was on.
"(Bassist) Glenn (Worf) walked in, said, 'Wow, this is nice!' and grabbed the upright bass. (Drummer) Nir Z started playing. And they just fell in. ... The only thing we had to fix was the end, because they didn't know how the song ended. (Laughs.) ... We also added a piano part. I love the way it came out. It's one of the truly magical moments on this record."
|Sample song: "Hi'ilawe" by John Cruz|
I connected with this song when I first heard (songwriter) Zorki (Nastasic) sing it. ... It still resonates with me when I sing it. The song has a lot of self-realization of messing up. When you get abandoned by your guardian angels, what the (expletive) do you do then? Guardian angels are a gimme. You can't buy them. ... I guess I'm a person who did have a guardian angel. ... It used to be tough to sing this song. Especially if my mom was in the house. It was one of her favorite songs, so she always wanted me to sing it."
|Sample song: "Angel" by John Cruz|
"It was a song that a friend of mine, Heather (Goff), wrote before we sort of got together. We were friends. She used to come and see me play. She was an artist, and I used to stop by her studio to talk story with her. There was an attraction. I thought she was so cool ... just a cool friend. She was just so beautiful, and I just didn't think she was into me. ... But I guess she was thinking the same. She wrote the song about me. ... It's such a beautiful song."
|Sample song: "Dream Song" by John Cruz|
'HEART BECOMES THE WEIGHT'
"This was one of those songs (that was) on the B-list to record. ... (Nir and I) played it a couple of times and could hear that we were on the verge of something ... but we were running out of (studio) time. ... We moved on and booked time again in Nir's studio in New York ... on a mission to get the song done. ...
"It was a 17-hour marathon session with me and him just trying to redefine the pulse of the song — the song's drum and bass track, its groove. ... It turned from a B-list song into an A-list song. I'm going to kiss his shoes the next time I see him."
|Sample song: "Heart Becomes the Weight" by John Cruz|
'LET US DREAM'
"A lyric in it came from a poem I had originally written in 1983 when I was 19 right before I left Hawai'i (for college in Massachusetts) ... about these three Samoan kids who grew up in Palolo housing with me. The poem was called 'Misi Masi Mose' I pulled the line — Not knowing of snow, thinking possibly rain/But definitely cool, they waited. And that was the seed. ... I wrote the song about three years later, exactly like it is."
|Sample song: "Let Us Dream" by John Cruz|
'BABY'S GONE BLUES'
"I've been playing the song off and on for years. My friend Joe Keenan wrote it. We used to play it with his band and as a duo. I thought the album needed something that had a solid groove in it. And it has this cool (blues) guitar (line) in it. It's just such a fun song to play live. People respond to it. ... I never considered recording the song. I had to be convinced to record it. ... We had a blast. It was so easy."
|Sample song: "Baby's Gone Blues" by John Cruz|
(Brother) Ernie (Jr.) wrote this song, probably back in 1978. ... Ernie was living on the Big Island. I was still on O'ahu in high school. He came back home for a weekend and said that he had written the song for our family — for his brothers and sisters. We were all musical, and (his) thought (was) we should be there for each other. He played it and sang it first for just me and him. I learned it right after that. ...
"I haven't heard Ernie sing it in probably 20 years. But I've always really loved the song. ... If I was to make my dream set list of songs I wanted to hear Ernie sing his (expletive) off on, this would be on it. ... I'm glad it's on the album."
|Sample song: "Be There" by John Cruz|
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.