George W. Bush’s presidency was just wrapping up when Romantica kicked off the recording sessions for its hotly anticipated follow-up album.
“We’re really excited about it,” the band’s Irish-born frontman, Ben Kyle, said at the time, late 2008.
Kyle had reason to be hopeful. His wistful, poetic, Minneapolis-based twang-rock group’s prior record, “America,” made Paste magazine’s best-of-2007 list and earned interest from sizable record labels. He had a strong batch of new songs, too.
Nine years later, some of those songs — the remnants of that never-released album — are finally seeing the light, along with newer tunes that point to the diversions that sidelined Romantica. Pretty typical band stuff got in the way: Babies were born, bills were paid, the guitarist moved, a legal battle with a former record company ensued.
Some very unusual occurrences also stymied Romantica’s progress, including a rare mold-related biotoxin illness that put Kyle in a delirious state, and a “spiritual exploration” that found one of Minneapolis’ most gifted singer/songwriters tied up in a religious sect that he now describes as cultlike.
“Even when we were recording last summer, I had serious doubts this record was really going to happen,” Kyle glumly admitted last week.
It’s happening. The album, “Shadowlands” — recorded in a converted barn near Northfield — arrives Feb. 10 via Little Rock, Ark.-based label Last Chance Records (home to other alt-twang acts such as Tim Easton and American Aquarium). On Saturday, the band will hit the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul for a release party that truly is a cause for celebration.
The LP’s title refers to how often Kyle and the band seemed to fade in and out of the light in recent years. The music on it follows a similar, dramatic, up-and-down pattern.
There’s one soft and pristine song about his religious dejection, and one rowdy blazer about country-rock icon Gram Parsons; one heart-tugger about a bandmate’s divorce, and one playful ditty about buying his bedridden brother beer when they were grade-school kids in Belfast.
“To be able to just pick up and look at this record is a great feeling,” said Kyle, who is remarkably upbeat and even-keel — especially for an Irishman — about the fact that the band got put on hold in 2009 right when it seemed to be taking off.
“It feels like we were on a good trajectory, and then had the wind taken out of our sails,” he admitted.
“But in a lot of ways, I’m glad we didn’t become successful enough to be the kind of band that spends six months on the road. I would’ve missed a lot at home.”
By “a lot,” Kyle means five. That’s how many children he and his wife, Kim, are now raising, ages 13 on down to 6-month-old Asher.
And that’s just the start as far as Romantica family life goes. The band counts 14 kids total among its six members, newly boosted by pedal-steel player Aaron Fabbrini’s 8-week-old son.
With the addition of Jayanthi Kyle as a co-vocalist, family bonds also became an integral part of Romantica’s musical chemistry. The former Gospel Machine and Black Audience singer — whose song “Hand in Hand” became a local Black Lives Matter rally anthem — is married to Ben’s older brother, Robin, also a musician who fronts the band Valet.
Jayanthi had long made live appearances with Romantica and Ben. She became a full-fledged contributor on “Shadowlands.”
“It feels very natural being a supporter of Ben’s music, because a lot of it is based on his memories from growing up and his prayers,” she said. “Those are essentially my husband’s memories and prayers, too.”
A prime example is found in the new album’s closing song, “Shandy Bass,” the one about Ben buying the sweet beer of the same name for Robin when the latter was stuck in bed for many months with a sports injury as a kid. “He and his friends used to chug it like they were getting drunk,” Ben laughingly recounted, “but it was so low in alcohol they never came close.”
Bassist Tony Zaccardi said Jayanthi also played a special role when it came time to rerecord some of the songs the band had been trying to capture for close to nine years. They include “Cecil Ingram Conor” (the one about Parsons) and “After the War” (the divorce song), which were also staples at live shows during that time.
“I had kind of gotten a little sick of ‘Cecil,’ just because we had played it so much, but then Jayanthi gave it a whole new life,” said Zaccardi, one of only two members still in the band from those 2008-2009 sessions along with guitar ace “Danger” Dave Strahan (also of Farewell Milwaukee).
Strahan and Zaccardi recounted how Ben “kind of got lost” in the original recordings, mostly captured at the home studio Ben built in his parents’ house in Robbinsdale (which is next door to his own house; hold the sitcom jokes).
“We kept recording different parts, and suddenly there were a million different tracks Ben was dealing with,” Strahan said, alluding to what initially delayed the record.
“But then the band kind of had some lousy breaks, too,” Zaccardi added.
Out of the shadows
First came the legal spat with defunct local label 2024 Records, which issued “America.” Romantica is just now nearing a final payoff of that contract.
On a more positive note, the band also stalled when original guitarist/steel player Luke Jacobs moved to Austin, Texas, to perform with — and eventually marry — noted twang-folk tunesmith Carrie Rodriguez. Kyle also recorded a well-received covers/duets EP with Rodriguez, “We Still Love Our Country.” Then he made his own intimate, eponymous solo album in 2013.
One locally beloved song from that solo LP, “Turf Club,” was rerecorded and renamed for “Shadowlands” as “St. Paul City Lights” (“it’s a different song with the whole band on it,” Kyle explained). Another song on the new album, “Lonely Star,” was featured on a low-budget 2009 Romantica EP titled “Control Alt-Country Delete,” whose cheeky title reflected the fact that the band wrote and recorded it entirely in one day.
“It wound up being some of our fans’ favorite record,” Kyle admitted, with just a little embarrassment.
The key to finally making “Shadowlands,” however, was the songs Kyle has written in recent years. “I really wanted the new members in the band to have creative input and not feel like they were just playing old songs in a cover band,” he said, also referencing drummer Ryan Lovan (ex-Roma di Luna).
One of those new songs, “Let the Light Go Through You” — the album’s stirring opening track — is based on the Catholic Apostolic sect in Norway that Kyle said “nearly swallowed” him. His family knew the family behind the religious group, and he became close friends with the founder’s son.
“It was a lot more dogmatic than I thought, and I felt betrayed in the end,” he said, not offering more specifics, except to say “it was emotionally traumatic.”
The other devastating occurrence came slowly over the past five years. Kyle mysteriously started getting more and more sick, suffering abnormal fatigue but also bizarre cognitive and neurological malfunctions. He would wake up at night and not know where he was, or lose his train of thought by day.
“For about six months, I was in a complete fog and physically ill,” he said.
Finally, last year the source of the problem was discovered: mold hidden behind the walls of his house. Fortunately, he was the only one who got sick. His family moved in with his parents — on the plus side, right next door — and he’s feeling a lot better now, though his long-term diagnosis is still uncertain.
“It’s such a rare thing, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to happen,” he said, at least offering this for reassurance: “I can remember the lyrics.”
Many of Kyle’s words on this album are worth remembering. Maybe the best example of his lyrical prowess is in the solemn, gospel-tinged gem “Harder to Hear,” about as in tune with the times as any new song: “It’s getting hard to hear from God today / There’s too much religion in the way,” he sings. “It’s getting harder to hear hope these days / There’s so much journalism in the way / So much ammunition in the way.”
“It’s kind of about having to choose one side or another on every issue nowadays,” Kyle said.
After seeing the warm smiles between band members as they spun through that song in rehearsal last week, it was obvious they all at least agree it’s good to have Romantica moving forward again.