The Bob Bradshaw story just keeps getting better, and his music’s doing pretty well, too.
Bradshaw, a singer-songwriter from Cork, began his musical career about 30 years ago (among others he’s worked with is singer-songwriter Ron Kavana), moved to the US in the late 1980s, and eventually made his way to Boston. On impulse, he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music, almost changed his mind about attending, and ultimately – at a significantly older age than most of his fellow graduates – earned his degree in 2009.
Since getting his diploma, Bradshaw has made three recordings, including the late-2015 release “Whatever You Wanted,” making for a total of six solo albums in all, three on either side of his Berklee period. And for Bradshaw, the years at Berklee do represent a significant demarcation in his career.
“I knew how to write a song before then, but I learned so much at Berklee,” he explains. “I learned how to incorporate sound structure in a way I hadn’t before. And one of the most important things I learned was ‘strong words in strong places.’ I think it took a while to fully digest everything, but I feel like it’s really sinking in now.”
On “Whatever You Wanted, “ Bradshaw shows a willingness to experiment with and expand on his blended country-rock/acoustic folk-pop style, incorporating brass on four of the tracks, for example, and trying out different time signatures. His lyrics are as economical as ever, conveying emotions and situations with understated eloquence here, sly wit there, and everywhere a long, appraising glance: “No medals for the souls who lay low/In quiet rooms to hide their eyes/Nobody’s gonna put a halo/On a fool who cries” (“A Fool Who Cries”); “Two days alone and I’m doin’ great/I take a jump to celebrate/Strapped into a parachute/I wait a while to pull to the cord” (“Losing You”); “Sparrow tells me: listen up/I’m tryin’ to tell you somethin’ good/Your garden’s got the sweetest worms/I like a juicy neighborhood” (“Sparrow”).
Bradshaw doesn’t hesitate to credit his collaborators on “Whatever You Wanted,” like drummer Francisco Matas, fellow singer-songwriter Flynn, backing vocalist Annalise Emerick, keyboardist James Rohr, fiddler/cellist Duncan Wickel, horn players Scott Aruda and Joe Stewart, and longtime friends Scoop McGuire – who co-produced the album in addition to playing bass and guitar – and Duke Levine on electric and lap steel guitars.
The credit is well deserved: “Whatever You Wanted” is Bradshaw’s most musically adventurous effort so far, yet there’s nothing that sounds like an overreach. The title track (co-written with Flynn, who also sings and plays guitar) is a blunt break-up song that has echoes of Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” but with more urgency, Emerick’s harmony and Wickel’s brusque cello on the chorus helping drive home the point: “Whatever you wanted/whatever you came here about/whatever you wanted/Well, I’m all out.”
“Go Get Along” is another good-bye song and a delightful take on Western swing, Levine’s lap steel providing a Lefty Frizzell-like aura. Somewhat in the same vein is the charmingly ironic “Dream,” a veritable compendium of gauzy pop songs, Mike DeNiro’s vibes set alongside Levine’s surf-style guitar. “Crazy Heart” (more love-gone-wrong) is spare in its arrangement, Bradshaw’s acoustic guitar and Matas’ quiet drumming moving things along while Levine provides a gentle shower of chords and riffs; there’s no bass, as Bradshaw points out, which makes the song – much like the relationship it describes – “sound kind of open-ended.”
As Bradshaw explains, it took a while before he realized he was in fact making an album. “Francisco and I were playing around with different rhythms together for a year – 12/8, 5/4, 6/8 – but I didn’t have lyrics. Then, gradually, the stuff we’d been playing turned into songs, and I felt it was maybe time to get serious about it. Also, I’m kind of programmed so that when I get about 10 to 12 songs in hand, it means I’m close to making an album.”
And as he made “Whatever You Wanted,” Bradshaw collected plenty of memorable moments and scenes. “‘Whatever You Wanted,’ which I wrote with Flynn, was an exercise in numbers – all triplets, in 12/8. And Duncan shows up with his cello, which I didn’t even realize he played, and he played it like a fiddle.
“With ‘Go Get Along,’ I was really pleased at how everyone got the right mood – Annalise gives it that playful kind of sass. One of the best experiences was doing ‘The Long Ride Home’: At the beginning it was just James [Rohr] and me, and I was singing while I watched him play piano, just kind of cueing off each other – never really done that before, and it was a lot of fun. I was very fortunate to be able to work with such great people.”
Bradshaw already has a seed of an idea for how his next album might take shape, but for now he’s satisfied to reflect on “Whatever You Wanted” and the progression it represents in his music.
“If someone calls my songs ‘simple,’ I take it as a compliment,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten out of my own way more when it comes to putting a song together. My goal is to write a song that apparently wrote itself.”
For more on Bob Bradshaw, see bobbradshaw.net