Longtime Nashville fixture delivers versatile debut collection
By Michael McCall
OCTOBER 11, 1999: David Mead's debut album, The Luxury of Time, is striking for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is its stylistic breadth. The songs leap off in a variety of interesting directions, using melodic pop-rock as a creative springboard rather than a confining box.
There's propulsive, joyous pop-rock reminiscent of XTC; there's breathtaking balladry that displays the aching tenderness of a Jeff Buckley or a Jimmy Scott; there are stripped-down arrangements featuring dazzlingly inventive instrumental duos and trios; and there are huge, rollicking, gleeful tunes packed with sonic surprises that jump-cut themes without stumbling.
In other words, it's that rare rock album that explores the expressive capabilities of pop music. Rather than keeping his music as digestible and accessible as possible, Mead wants to find out just how much he can get away with while still presenting something that anyone can sing along to.
"In the initial stages, there was some pressure to go with a more stripped-down, simpler kind of album," says Mead, a longtime Nashville resident who moved to New York after completing The Luxury of Time. "On the other hand, I was going to the A&R guy with all these crazy ideas, talking about doing 'World of a King' in an arrangement of just vocals and a marching band. He'd just look at me strangely and go, 'Uh-huh.' "
In the end, Mead says, the two sides compromised. The album turned out to be bigger in concept than RCA Records might have originally intended, but somewhat smaller in scope than Mead had envisioned. "The hardest thing to figure out was how to balance it all out," he says. "I definitely was guilty of wanting to go off the deep end. It really came down to figuring out the most focused ways to present the songs."
For Mead, the release of the album, which came out Sept. 28, culminates a dizzying period that started when he joined the rock band Joe, Marc's Brother in 1996. A Long Island native, Mead was 13 years old when his family moved to Nashville in 1987. His father was a fast-rising corporate executive, and Nashville was the fifth city in which the family had lived. "It was just a big stroke of luck that this was where we landed," he says.
He's been in bands since his high school days, but he first gained recognition locally as leader of a pop group, Blue Million, which showed off his strong, expressive tenor and his penchant for writing buoyant pop songs. "I've always seen pop music as a modern version of singable music," Mead says. "Growing up, there were times I wanted to be everything from Simon & Garfunkel to Jane's Addiction. But I always gravitated back to three-minute pop songs."
Among those who picked up on Mead's talent was another young pop songwriter, Joe Pisapia. He invited Mead to join Joe, Marc's Brother, a band featuring drummer Marc Pisapia and bassist Peter Langella (all of whom support Mead on portions of The Luxury of Time). "They were the first people I played with who just unabashedly, unapologetically loved pop music," Mead says. "It was really liberating for me. Playing in that band gave me a chance to be around great musicians who wanted to play pop songs."
As Mead describes it, the band thrived on the creative tension that arises from having two songwriters and two singers. At a certain point, though, the band had gone as far as it could with the sound it had created; Mead's songs and those of Joe Pisapia were obviously branching off in different directions.
Still, he says, "They had to kind of kick me out of the band. I didn't really want to go. Basically, they said, 'You should be doing your own thing. You can do it, and we support you.' It was amicable, but they had to push me out the door. I have to thank them for it. And I think what they're doing now is real different, and really great, so it was the right call."
On his own, Mead began fleshing out songs he'd originally written for Joe, Marc's Brother. He began working with guitarist George Bradfute and keyboardist Jason Lehning, the latter whom he says helped him realize the complexities of his musical ideas. (Lehning, who plays on nearly every song on the record, is credited as associate producer.) He also started performing in local clubs, including a long residency at Guido's Pizzeria, where he often appeared leading a duo or trio. Through the live performances, he met artist manager Kip Krones, who helped him secure his record deal.
At a performance in Europe, Mead was introduced to famed English record producer Gus Dudgeon, best known for his work with Elton John. He spent some time working with Dudgeon in London, but ultimately he decided he wanted a producer who was willing to collaborate with him rather than dictate to him. "Gus was probably the most entertaining individual I've ever hung around," Mead says. "But at the end of the day, Jason and I had a firm idea of what we wanted, and what we needed was a father figure as a producer. We were open to new ideas, but we wanted a person who would play a certain role. Gus wasn't into that."
As it turns out, they found their collaborator back home in Nashville. Peter Collins, who has produced recent hit records for Jewel and Brian Setzer, was one of the first big-name record-makers to express interest in Mead. "He was the perfect person for us," the singer says. "As established as he is, and as many credits as he has, he still was willing to come in and accept the situation for what it was. He gave us an active role in making the record, which was what we wanted. He was the voice of authority in the process, but it wasn't about his ego."
In the end, Mead feels satisfied with The Luxury of Time. "I think it's a very solid foundation," he says. "At one point, we had so many ideas that this record could conceivably have been done in a completely different way. But even though we fought for some things and let go of some others, I think what we have is a good first record."
He's absolutely right.
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