Talking about the newly released ‘Album’ with Joe Iconis and Family

On Friday, June 17, Ghostlight Records released Album, the latest recording by musical theater sensation Joe Iconis, featuring 44 tracks from his original canon of songs. Performed with 70 members of his close-knit family of longtime friends and collaborators from the New York theater community, Album’s featured vocalists include Aaron Tveit, Andrew Rannells, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Krysta Rodriguez, Kerry Butler, Danny Burstein, Annie Golden, Andrew Barth Feldman, L Morgan Lee, Grace McLean, members of the cast of Be More Chill, and more of Broadway’s biggest stars.

The launch of the recording, available now on Spotify, Amazon Music, and all major music and streaming platforms, was celebrated by an album release concert on Wednesday, June 22, at The Bourbon Room in LA, which will be followed this weekend by an explosive four nights in NYC, from July 8-11, at Feinstein’s/54 Below – Iconis and Family’s home away from home, and their first run at the renowned supper club since 2019.

A prolific writer, composer, and performer, Iconis has been nominated for a Tony Award, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and two Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, and is the recipient of an Ed Kleban Award, a Jonathan Larson Award, and a Richard Rodgers Award. Among his innumerable credits are the trailblazing musical Be More Chill (with Joe Tracz), which played Off-Broadway, on Broadway, and in London after a premiere at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, with viral videos and cast albums that have been streamed over 500 million times. Yes, that’s HALF A BILLION (and rightfully so). He is also the author of Love in Hate Nation and Broadway Bounty Hunter (with Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams), and his high-impact song “Broadway, Here I Come!” was heard on Season 2 of the NBC TV series Smash.

His epic new Album offers a variety of musical genres, from love ballads to indie-rock anthems, with stories of love, hope, murder, resilience, and connection, as told by misfit children, reckless adults, and various assorted creatures. In the artist’s signature style, it’s at once nostalgic and contemporary, mundane and dramatic, sprawling in scope and intimate in theme, with a wide selection of Iconis classics, favorites recorded for the first time, and never-before-heard songs.

Joe and members of the Be More Chill family – Lauren Marcus, George Salazar, Jason Tam, and Jason SweetTooth Williams – generously took the time to answer my questions about the album and its songs in advance of their upcoming appearances Feinstein’s/54 Below.

Joe Iconis. Photo by Stephanie Wessels.

As you reviewed all the songs you’ve written to date to create Album, did you learn anything about yourself, your predominant themes, or your signature style?

Joe: You know, I’ve always been drawn to writing about misfits, about people who feel like they don’t quite belong, people stuck in moments. Even the songs on the album that are purposefully slight like “Archie’s All-American” or “(Everybody Do) The Slide Whistle” feel like underdog anthems or B-Sides.

The thing that kind of struck me most when revisiting some of my older songs was their relative innocence. I don’t mean innocence in terms of content, but when I wrote songs like “Starting to Forget” and “Social Worker,” nobody had ever heard my material outside of NYU and I really hadn’t written all that much. Every idea was new and I wasn’t writing in the “context” of my larger body of work and wasn’t worried about repeating myself. There’s a purity that I hear in my earlier songs that makes me nostalgic in a very complicated way.

Did you write the songs you selected for Album with specific artists in mind, did you make the decision as to which performers you would ask to sing them for the recording, or did they select what they wanted?

Joe: With each ask on the album – and of everyone I asked, only three people said no and the songs I asked those people to sing aren’t on the record – I asked the person to sing a specific song. Some songs are sung by people who have been doing the song in question for five, ten, fifteen years. Some cuts on the album are people performing songs for the first time ever. I don’t know if I’m a good writer [Trust me, Joe, you are!!!], but I think I’m particularly excellent at matching a person with material. I feel great about every choice.

Joe Iconis. Photo by Marques Walls.

How long did the rehearsal process and recording sessions take, with 44 songs and 70 artists?

Joe: The album cost so much money and even with that, we did it the absolute cheapest way possible. There was no wiggle room, no luxury in time or process. This album could only have been recorded with the 70 artists on it, most of whom have a familiarity with my work and with my process. Every single person showed up prepared, passionate, excited, and ready to succeed. Whether it was a person like Lin-Manuel who has recorded a million albums or one of the younger participants who had never been in a studio before, everyone was equally fired up and everyone delivered. We recorded the bulk of the instrumentals over a week and the bulk of the vocals over another week. We then did very specific and targeted sessions over the next several months to fill in what we needed. Amazingly, after six months of tracking, we didn’t have to throw out even one session. I feel like the editing happened in the pre-production. By the time we got into the studio we knew what we wanted to do. We didn’t have money to do it any other way!

What’s been the greatest joy in bringing this epic project to life?

Joe: The actual making of the record was as joyful a recording experience as I’ve ever had. I normally hate tracking records – I make music for live spaces. I want to be on a stage performing my tunes and I want to feel them bounce around a room, changing with the energy of the crowd. The studio is all about making things “perfect,” and my sensibility is more spontaneous and scrappy and ragged. But making Album was the first time where I felt like my collaborators (Ian Kagey and Charlie Rosen) and I were able to capture that live energy in the studio, both behind the scenes and in the performances. That might’ve been because it was the first time we were all together making something after lockdown. We started recording in February 2021, and just being together in a room felt like a radical act.

Jason Tam. Photo by Andrew Brucker.

What do you love most and find most relatable in the songs you’re performing on Album?

Jason Tam: In “I Can’t Relate,” I love the arc and the build that Joe’s written. All of Joe’s songs have incredible journeys, both sonically and lyrically. They’re exciting to work on, and exciting to listen to. I relate to “I Can’t Relate” (LOL!) because I value community but I’m not really a joiner, and that tension is complicated and interesting to examine.

In “It’s All Good,” I loved getting to reunite with my fellow Black Suits castmates from fourteen years ago. It’s a song that celebrates the sense of home these four friends feel when they make music together. In that way it feels like art imitating life, the same way I feel at home when I’m making music with Joe and the Family.

George Salazar. Photo by Nathan Johnson.

George: I have been in love with the Iconis tune “64” for years. I think anyone who has spent significant time in New York City would find this song EXTREMELY relatable, but I think it’s even more universally relatable than that. At its core, the song is about nostalgia in an ever-changing world. Every generation before us and every generation after us has and will believe the ‘glory days’ were better. As with everything Joe writes, there are tons of fun and hilarious ‘insidery’ New Yorker Easter eggs which I absolutely LOVE and adore . . . I mean, the song is told through the perspectives of three generations of New Yorkers – two of which are Raul Julia and Jose Ferrer!

Lauren Marcus. Photo by Emily Lambert.

Lauren: Everyone should get to sing a love song to/with their very best friend in the world, and on Album I get to do this very thing with Molly Hager on “I Was a Teenage Delinquent.” I always cry when we get to the lyrics, “Babe, you consume and enthrall/You are my illness, you’re my all/I know you’ll catch me if I fall” – they’re so heartfelt and beautiful!

I absolutely love that on the “Lydia” track, I was so encouraged by Joe to go for it in terms of the weirdness, vocally. My voice has been called “unique” a lot, and I know I tend to have a lot of isms . . . sometimes I’m really proud of that, and sometimes I’m a little self-conscious about it and try to reign it in for the sake of the song. But it’s a gift when a writer tells you “GO FOR IT.” So I did, with zero shame and gleefully tasteless abandon.

And I have a cat. All I want is for her to love me. So “Party Hat” is our song (even though this song was written before our cat, Diane Kitten, ever entered our lives).

Jason SweetTooth Williams. Photo by DC Anderson.

Jason SweetTooth Williams: Album is such a massive piece of art that pinpointing one specific moment that means the most to me seems almost impossible. That said, there is a track I sing on that, for me, most succinctly sums up the nearly 20 years that I’ve known and worked with Joe Iconis and is most reflective of his beliefs in art, family, loyalty, and purpose – “Last on Land,” from Joe’s rock-and-roll spaghetti-western musical Bloodsong of Love. The songwriting is just gorgeous and the performances (led by Bloodsong‘s original cast!) are impeccable. The arrangement and the choir of dozens of Iconis and Family members that bring the song to an epic climax all make this track one of the most moving and exciting on the album for me. In the song Joe writes, “Water starts to wrestle. Things begin to sink. We don’t ditch the vessel. We think. We find the solution to escape our fate. It lies in the equal distribution of our weight.” I mean, come on! Art, family, loyalty, purpose. But you know, ask me this question again tomorrow, I’ll likely name any of the other 43 songs. I’m so proud to be a part of Album.

Joe: The songs I personally perform on Album are all songs that are about being an artist. I like that I begin and end the record with songs about how a life in the arts is long (hopefully) and confusing (frequently) and frustrating (mostly) and rewarding (constantly). I try to write honestly and authentically. In my experience, my life as a writer has been contradictory and complex – but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The highs are high and the lows are low. But I like that both “Album” and “Try Again” are about hope. They are about keeping on keeping on.

Many thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts on the songs. I can’t wait for the concert on Friday!

Joe Iconis & Family plays Friday, July 8-Monday, July 11, 2022, at 7 pm (doors open at 5:30), at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $65-115, plus fees, and a $25 per person food and drink minimum), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter.


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