Phil Ayoub answered the call of rock
Phil Ayoub’s debut solo record, 2005’s Schoolbus Window Paper Heart, shows off a mature modern-rock songwriting style, with strong performances and big-time production. His influences are classic, and he lives up to them. But it’s been a hard road getting the music out to people.
Ayoub started off in the white-collar world, but the call of rock ’n’ roll was too strong.
In high school and through college, Ayoub, 33, who grew up in Rhode Island and lives in Seekonk, worked in the office of the Pawtucket Red Sox, and after college worked in Boston at Fidelity Investments in the proxy legal department, also earning a master’s degree in business administration.
Pursuing a musical career with his then-band, Riverside Train, amounted to "two full-time jobs," Ayoub says, but they’d been getting high-level press in unusual places: Baseball writer Peter Gammons, for example, called Riverside Train "a great new band" in his ESPN.com column.
After Riverside Train broke up, Ayoub decided "at a certain point, I had to quit and do music full-time, at least as long as I can make it work." He’s making it work one gig at a time. Most of Ayoub’s shows have been in New England, but not in Rhode Island. He’s been a regular in the bars and coffeehouses around Boston, in New Hampshire and around Connecticut.
He’s got a fan club in New Jersey. The president, he says, is "a guy I had been in contact with for about a year, but never met." And a show last month led to the first meeting of the fan club.
But Ayoub doesn’t play in Providence often. "It’s been easier for me to get shows elsewhere, to be honest with you. And I’m not sure why." He hypothesizes that the number of live venues that will support his form of music is shrinking, and that his reputation in the Boston area makes it easier to get shows there. So far, he’s been making ends meet through savings and occasional cover gigs, and "my family’s very supportive."
IN 2005, AYOUB was considering moving to New York or Nashville when one day he was hunting around on the online service craigslist and found an ad from a producer who had just moved to Providence and was looking for new talent to work with.
They e-mailed back and forth, "and I eventually found out who he was." He was Tim Bradshaw, a guitarist and keyboard player from platinum-selling singer-songwriter David Gray’s band (now also playing with John Mayer).
"I was blown away," Ayoub says, "and I also thought, ‘This guy’s not going to "want to work with me — not at my level and where my career is at this point.’ But he sent Bradshaw his demos, and they met and talked. "There was something immediately appealing about his style of writing, and his voice really," says Bradshaw, who now lives in Franklin, Mass. "I like lyrics, and I found that his lyrics weren’t always obvious, which is a good thing for me. They alluded to things, but didn’t make it obvious, so you really had to make your own story.
"So it was a question of just talking about music in general, as you tend to do over hours and coffee. And seeing where he was coming from and where I was coming from, and whether it would be a good fit. "It’s not a surprise; there’s more than a bit of Gray in Ayoub’s palette. But the question of influences is a tricky one: Ayoub says his favorite artists — Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Neil Diamond — aren’t necessarily his biggest influences. He takes more from John Lennon and Bob Dylan, particularly Lennon’s "blunt honesty," and fearlessness in writing about himself. "I like [Lennon and Dylan], but they’re not necessarily my top two or three," Ayoub says. He also cites Radiohead as being "so innovative, and sometimes not even in the way that I like, but they open things up a little bit. . . . It’s sometimes more inspiring than my favorite artists."
SCHOOLBUS Window Paper Heart is the result of Ayoub and Bradshaw’s collaboration, with Bradshaw playing guitar and keyboards behind Ayoub’s acoustic guitar and voice, and a band that includes drummer Ed Toth, formerly with Vertical Horizon and now with The Doobie Brothers.
The result is a radio-ready sound for radio-ready songs. "I’m very proud of that record, really," Bradshaw says.
And Ayoub is out promoting it wherever he can. "I’m thinking about, ‘What’s the next record going to sound like,’ but I’m still out there working this one, and having fun playing the songs, and the songs are doing well played live, so I’m still having fun with that."