Richard On, O.A.R.

Richard On, guitarist and songwriter for O.A.R, is a working man. He's up before sunrise to work out.  He hears melodies all day that he's constantly recording to his phone. And he does most of his best writing at night, after he's put the kids to bed and is finally able to relax with his wife. Heck, even when he sleeps he's still working: he wrote the riff to one of their songs after getting up in the middle of the nigh. On recorded it, then went back to sleep.  It was only when he saw the timestamp on the recording later that he remembered what he'd done. Of course, all this hard work can be undone by the tiny fingers of his children, as you'll read.

O.A.R.'s latest release, their 8th, is called The Rockville LP.  It's named after the band's hometown of Rockville, Maryland, which just happens to be where I grew up as well.  The album is an homage to the city; the band wrote the songs after and while driving around its roads, visiting the locales they frequented as teenagers. The return home to these childhood landmarks led to a creative rebirth.

I spoke to On a few weeks ago in a coffee shop outside Washington, DC. Read my interview with Richard On of O.A.R. after the video for "Peace" off the new album The Rockville LP.

Many songwriters I interview are also visual artists, and some tell me that they see songs as images. Do you draw?

I’m not a visual artist, but I do see songs as colors. I’m not musically trained. I learned classical piano for eight years.  I was more interested in improvising, though. I enjoy playing things as I hear them rather than playing a piece written by someone else. When I was a kid, I’d go to a recital and hear something. Then I’d play it that way and get in trouble. And my aunt was my teacher, so that made it really awkward. Laughs.  That wasn’t fun for me at all. I respect the hell out of it now, but back then I didn’t understand how hard it was.

When I started playing guitar, it was opposite of the way I learned to play piano. It was all by ear. My brother introduced Led Zeppelin to me and blew me away. I heard the guitar riff on “Black Dog" and thought, “What the hell is this?" It introduced me to a whole new world of rock ’n roll. 

With our songwriting process, we don’t look at it as notes. We don’t write stuff down. We memorize all our songs. I see our songs as textures.  I see verses as lighter than choruses.  I see minor chords as being dark colors. When you’re adding stuff to the basic melody and lyrics in your arrangement, that’s like sprinkling textures and colors on the song. That’s what brings a song to life.  

 Tell me about your songwriting routine. Are you a disciplined writer?

I’m disciplined when I have an idea that I think is good. Throughout the day I hear melodies, so I’m always using my iPhone to record those ideas. Then about once a month I chop out the bullshit.  There's a lot of stuff that I thought was good at the time, but after a few weeks and some distance it’s not that good.

When do those ideas come to you? Do you ever think about where you are when they happen the most?

Sometimes they come quickly. In one day I might have ten different melodies or guitar riffs. Other times I hear something on the radio and think, “What if it went like this?” I’m not ripping it off, but I’m thinking about what it would sound like with a couple of changes. It’s inspiring because I think about creating something from that world that would fit our band.

We have a song called “Dareh Meyod.” It started when I was sleeping on the bus. I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning, singing it in my head. I went to the back of the bus and recorded it, then went back to sleep. I woke up the next morning and forgot I’d I even recorded it. When I went back to my phone a couple of weeks later to chop out those bad ideas, I saw that recording and thought, “When did I do that?”  I saw the timestamp and it all came back to me. So there’s not really a formula.

 Do you ever mix and match music and lyrics?

Absolutely. Marc [Roberge, the band's singer and songwriter], my writing partner, will bring a song to the table and say we need a bridge or hook.  I’ll look at what I’ve recorded in the past few weeks, and it may not even be in the right key. We’ll put it in the right key and see if we can make it work. He’s got things floating around that have no home, and I’ve got things that are homeless as well. We combine those ideas to make a song.

I want to get back to the idea of when the songs come to you. Do you think it would help to know when that happens so you can put yourself in those situations?

When I try to sit down to write something, it’s usually not that good. Spontaneity lets us find the gems. I wish I knew the perfect place and time to write a song. 

But it sounds like you take time every so often to listen to all those recordings on your phone.

 When I have the time—

 —Which is never, because you have kids and you’re always on the road.

Laughs. Right. One of our kids is in pre-K and the other one is at home. So I usually get all my work done at night. During the day I love being a dad and a husband. We do as much stuff as we can together as a family. When the kids go down, my wife and I have quality time. When she goes to bed, that’s when I dive in. And it totally screws me up because that means I never sleep. Laughs. I absolutely get the most stuff done at night. It’s the one time when I can focus only on music.

 Are we talking the middle of the night?

If it’s good and everything is flowing, I can work all night. Then the sun comes up, and I’m like, “Fuuuuck.” Laughs.

A lot of songwriters tell me that they get their best writing done in the middle of night, but many of them don’t have families. You do it out of necessity.

I do it out of necessity, but I also know when to call it quits. I know when I’m delirious and that I probably won’t like what I’m writing in the morning. It’s also like that when you’re recording. You have to know when to call it quits.

 So how do you know when a song is done?

I listen to some songs and think they could use something else. That’s one of the hardest things for me: letting go of the song and putting it to bed. It’s hard to move on to the next idea. On the new record there’s a song called “I Will Find You.” Every time we play it, there’s another part of the song I hear in my head, and it drives me crazy. It’s the perfect thing to play over Marc’s vocal because it’s not stepping on it. That line was recorded, but it didn't make it into the mix. I mean, the song is fine but I wished that line was in there. But I gotta let it go. Laughs.

When you’re home, is there certain place you like to write?

We all have home studios, so that’s where I do some of my writing. But my old studio was in one of our upstairs bedrooms. When our second son was born, I was kicked to the basement. It’s always been a storage area but now it’s also my studio, so it’s chaos. It’s so messy. And I think it’s really hindering my wanting to be there. It feels constricted and claustrophobic. Because of that, often I’ll just go to the living room and sit on the couch with a guitar.

I found that having kids makes me a much more disciplined writer. Is that the same with you?

At home, no. On tour, yes. I realized at some point that I was not using my free time on tour wisely. I’ve become way more efficient away from home.

That’s surprising, because I would think you’d be more efficient when you know you have so little time.

You’d think.  Maybe I just feel less guilty about writing and more free to write when we’re traveling. And I can set up my stuff anywhere without worrying about someone breaking it.

I know I’m talking to a parent because when you say “breaking things,” you don’t mean throwing objects out of hotel windows.  You’re talking about kids breaking your equipment.

Laughs. Absolutely. You know, like twisting knobs and adjusting levels, pushing buttons that aren’t supposed to be pushed. I’ve been in a couple of recording sessions at home when my kid came in and decided to push the power button on my computer. Just shut down my desktop.

 photo by Josh Goleman

photo by Josh Goleman

Is writing on the road easy? I talk to a lot of songwriters who write really well in hotel rooms.

We actually don’t spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. Since we all have families, we won’t go on tour unless we have at least two consecutive days off during the week so that we can fly home. It might not be the most financially prudent thing to do, but when we toured a lot more everything suffered. We weren't writing, and communication between the band members wasn’t great. But we can write anywhere: in the dressing room, in the bathroom, in the hallway, on the bus.

 How often do you sit down and say, “I have to write a song about X topic?"

Not often. The one time I remember being really inspired to write something was after a USO tour in the Middle East. We spent 10 days over there. We saw a lot of stuff that changed our outlook. We saw a lot of people doing great things, really helping people out. Everyone was very optimistic. Especially at the hospital; these guys were lying in their beds and couldn't wait to get back out to their buddies.

As soon as we got back to the states, we wrote “War Song." The song wasn’t about the war; it was about the warriors. That was the first time we wrote a song that was inspired by an event. I don’t know that we came home and said we had to write about it. It was almost like the logical thing to do. The main riff on that song was something I actually wrote on my phone a while before. It had this Rolling Stones “Paint it Black" sound. We wrote the song around the riff.

But you do very little lyric writing, correct?

Yes, that’s true. The only time I write lyrics is when I put the whole song together and give Mark a demo with a specific melody.  It’s more filler, but there is a general idea of how the song should go.  There are times when I have a vision for a song that's not finished, and I'll give Marc the demo. It comes back and it just doesn’t feel right. So I might add those filler lyrics to make sure that it doesn’t stray too far from my idea. That might mean singing a scratch vocal with gibberish lyrics to work out the phrasing of how the melody should flow.  

Let’s talk about the inspiration behind The Rockville LP, since we’re both from Rockville. The story is that you drove around Rockville and became inspired by what you saw. But let’s be honest: Rockville is a suburb.  When people write about the suburbs, it’s usually in an ironic or unflattering sense.  

I don’t think we really planned to drive around Rockville and mine it for song ideas. It was over Thanksgiving last year.  There’s always something magical about Thanksgiving.  There’s a song on the album called “We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off" that’s about the important people who are really a part of your life. You may not see them very often, but when you do, you pick up where you left off.

We drove around a lot of old roads where we used do a lot of stupid stuff. Driving past those places was really nostalgic. We were sixteen when we wrote our first songs. We wrote about stories that never happened us to because we were so young. We hadn’t lived, so we made up these characters. The song “Hey Girl" is about a one night stand that we thought would be a cool idea. It hadn’t happened to us, of course. Going back to Rockville brought brought back memories of why we started writing songs in the first place.

It speaks to the power of home rather than to the power of place. So how did those song ideas come to mind?

Once we decided to write about that, we made more frequent trips back home. Marc gets a lot of his ideas lyrically while driving.  He even tagged some of the roads we messed around on, like River Road.  On the other hand, we didn’t want to write a record that was so place specific that most people couldn’t relate to. Rockville could be anywhere. A lot of people grew up the way we grew up, like sitting in your friend’s driveway doing nothing. Something as simple as that is the greatest thing when you’re a kid.

Did one of you say to the other, “Hey, let’s go for a drive today?"

A couple of times Marc called me from his in-laws and asked if I wanted to drive around. So many memories reminded us how much we love that area and how blessed we were to have a positive childhood. In the beginning it didn’t start out as “Hey, let’s go driving to come up with song ideas.”  But as the concept started coming together, we definitely went out to get inspired.

When you write something that you’re not happy with, how often do you set it aside and come back to it later?

I usually go through my phone and find an idea. I’ll record it and put some rhythm behind it, maybe lay down some drums and bass to see if there’s a groove. If it’s not grooving, I put it to rest. Or if the groove is good but the idea is bad, I keep the groove and try to find something to fit over the groove.  I’m always trying to make it better. Once I find something that’s better than my other idea, I try to find something that can push the groove even better.  

Hemingway always said he would stop writing for the night when he knew he still had something to say. He was afraid to start the next day with nothing in the tank.

That’s really smart. I’m going to try that. But for me it’s not the fear of having nothing to write tomorrow. My fear is that I’m going to start an idea, and when I come back to it the next day it won’t be as good as when I started. So starting fresh the next day might be a great thing as long as you don’t forget the idea. That’s happened so many times, where I get a great idea in my head and someone starts talking to me and I have to say, “Whoa whoa whoa." They finish talking and I’ve totally forgotten the idea.

I know you like to work out. I wrote an article in the Washington Post a couple of months ago about the link between exercise and creativity. How often do you exercise?

I try to work out every day. I go through phases. There was phase when I was just lifting weights to bulk up because I was so skinny. Then I got into yoga hard-core for about three years. But when we had our first child, everything changed. Now the workout is more about high efficiency, keeping the heart rate up and the blood flowing. I just want to feel good.  

When I’m home I have to do it before the kids get up. I’ll get up at 5 o’clock and do circuit training. I jump rope for a minute with no rest, then go straight to push ups for 30 seconds, then straight to pull ups for 30 seconds, then straight to burpees for 30 seconds. All without rest. I rotate what I do, but it always comes back to jumping rope.  I can get everything done in 30 minutes and feel great.

Since jumping rope is such a rhythmic exercise, I can’t help but wonder if that kind of rhythm ever gets you thinking about song ideas.

Hah. I wish. All I’m thinking about when I exercise is making sure I have enough time to finish my workout, take a shower, and help the kids with their morning. But now that I think about it, all the guys in the band work out. When we tour, we work out in the morning and then usually head to sound check. Our sound checks are much more efficient after we all started working out. So I can absolutely see how there’s a correlation. I’m way sharper in the morning after I work out.

On my off days when I’m not circuit training, I run. Before I run, I’ll listen to a song idea on my phone that I really like. I try to arrange that idea in my head while I’m running. Next thing I know, five miles go by and I feel like I’ve gotten something accomplished.

What is the most difficult song you’ve ever written that you are the most proud of?  You didn’t give up on it, and you can look back and say, “That’s a damn good song and I’m proud to have finished it because it was such a struggle."

There’s a song called “Gift" on our All Sides. It had acoustic fingerpicking, and I’m not a finger picker.  I really wanted to challenge myself. I think I was listening to "Dear Prudence” and the picking patterns that Lennon was playing. I was amazed by the separation of the thumb from the rest of the fingers with the thumb playing the bass line. And I thought, “Man, I would really like to challenge myself by strictly fingerpicking on acoustic, with no delays to cover it up and no distortion." Just totally naked. I put an arrangement around it, but it really hard to record. It took a lot of takes. I didn’t want to edit it too much because I knew that I would have to play it in the studio.  Marc nailed the vocal in one take. It was a song about a friend whose brother committed suicide. It was a very emotional song to record and I was really proud that it made the record.