Roosevelt Dime is a Brooklyn-based band that describes its sound as “steamboat soul,” thanks to a swingin’ horn section and unmistakably cool groove. But it was a different sort of vessel that inspired one of their liveliest numbers, “Oh to Be.”
The infectious track is a highlight of Full Head of Steam, arriving digitally on Tuesday (Jan. 14). Among the album’s many special guests, Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers lends his appealing acoustic guitar to “Oh to Be.”
Andrew Green, who shares lead vocals and songwriting duties with Eben Pariser, traded emails with CMT Edge about the catchy new tune.
CMT Edge: What do you remember about the day that the idea for “Oh to Be” came to you? And how did you wrap up writing it? I understand there was some scotch involved.
Green: I first got the idea while returning home from a recording session in Staten Island on the ferry. Maybe it was seeing the gulls lazing around the New York harbor — the first line I came up with was “oh to be a bird in the sky.” The whole first draft of the song was animal based — “oh to be a fish in the sea, a fly on the wall,” etc. It was more like a Raffi song at that time!
When I brought the tune to Eben to start working on it together, we focused on the chorus, which was unfinished. There was definitely some liquid courage involved, which usually helps to get the creative juices flowing and reduces the anxiety of co-writing where you have to be comfortable with the fact that 99 out of 100 ideas that you put out there will stink.
We finally hit something we were happy with by stretching out the chorus to fit around our lyrical/melodic hook almost like how Paul Simon would do. Once we got that to feel good, I went back and rewrote all the verses to fit a more romantic vibe.
Having a horn section in your music sets you apart. What do those parts bring out in this particular song?
Having horns play swing parts alongside three-finger, Scruggs-style banjo is a musical cross-pollination that is unusual. It’s what led us to come up with the term “steamboat soul” to describe parts of our music.
Many of our songs leave a lot of space for the horns to improvise, but here they are more of a subtle contrast to all the bluegrassy sounds and a way of adding rhythmic punch to the choruses. They almost have a “Graceland” feel. Eben had the idea to give them a quick chance to open up on the second chorus, which is a really great moment because the song is very restrained up until that point, and then all of a sudden, you get this burst of New Orleans-style horn-shouting.
I imagine this will be a fan favorite when you play live. When someone comes to see you perform, what can they expect?
“Oh to Be” is definitely a great one to play. The melody is simple and repetitive enough that folks often sing along the first time they hear it. The audience picks right up on that clap on the fourth beat. It’s always special and cool when the whole venue starts rocking all together.
We joke that “clap-folk” has become its own genre based on the appeal of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and the Lumineers, but really those type of hits and sonic hooks go way back to Motown, early rock ‘n’ roll and ultimately the blues, field hollers and work songs. We later realized that Aerosmith used that same fourth beat accent on “Janie’s Got a Gun.”
Fans can expect a bit of a musical journey traversing from early jug-band and hot-jazz styles [featuring Eben on bucket-bass], through music heavily influenced by bluegrass, rock and Motown, all the way up to modern-sounding stuff like “Oh to Be.” There’s lots of harmony singing, nice grooves, fine banjo picking and swinging horns. They should come ready to get in on the fun themselves!