Over 20-plus years as a musician, Lou Rogai has learned that a whisper can be as powerful as a scream.
Since 2003, the Delaware Water Gap, Pa., singer, songwriter and guitarist has guided a collective known as Lewis & Clarke, quietly and steadily building a following in indie-folk circles with haunting, hushed vocals and introspective songs elegantly couched in understated arrangements.
But Rogai was not always so reserved. As a rural northeastern Pennsylvania teen weaned on KISS and his painter-art teacher dad’s jazz and classic-rock record collection, Rogai spent the early ‘90s playing guitar and singing in a hardcore punk band, First Things First. Next came New Trip, a stoner rock/grunge act, and in the mid-‘90s, he joined emo-hardcore groups Side Over and Roger That Houston.
“Before (Lewis & Clarke) it was screams and aggression and frustration and angst,” says Rogai. “Now the whisper is the philosophical equivalent to what a shout was then. Subtlety is powerful to me.”
Rogai was born in Brooklyn, but when he was 10, he moved to Beach Lake, Pa., about 40 miles northeast of Scranton. “Going from Brooklyn to being in the wilds and playing baseball on fields of grass instead of concrete, it was like being portaled into a Walt Disney movie,” says Rogai.
During this interview Rogai is hiking the terrain near his Monroe County home, where he has lived since 1999. He describes his rented abode as “a 100-year-old building within earshot of the (noted jazz venue) Deer Head Inn. It has a practice space and a porch, and the Appalachian Trail is outside the door.”
Rogai has just released a four-song 12-inch vinyl EP, “Light Time,” the first music from Lewis & Clarke since 2007’s highly regarded “Blasts of Holy Birth.” He will spotlight the disc on a brief tour as opening act for hot British indie-rock act Bats for Lashes.
Supporting Rogai will be brothers Ian and Shane O’Hara, on bass and drums, respectively; Tom Asselin, who will provide “guitar atmospherics,” and cellist Karen Codd. The show will be Shane O’Hara and Codd’s first time playing with L&C.
“Light Time” includes two new songs, a new version of “Dead & Gone” from his “Bare Bones and Branches” CD and a telling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2.”
Although the recording capped a year of personal upheaval, Rogai stresses, “Be sure to emphasize the sense of triumph and hope, even if there are tragic events surrounding it.”
Artistically, “it’s a new kind of writing for me,” Rogai points out. “It’s less abstract. I’m weaving more of a story, with more absolute visuals.”
Arguably the best example is “Petrified Forest,” with images of abandoned children, dying factories and neglectful parents buttressed by evocative guitar picking and violins humming in back.
“It’s about lower middle-class broken families,” says Rogai. “I always felt for people who came from those families. ...
“There’s Northeast Pennsylvania and its industrial decay in that song,” he adds. “That’s what I felt like when I was writing it. But when the strings come in (near the end), hope comes in, and it picks up.”
In the title track, Rogai seems to be searching for a glimmer of hope in the inky darkness of a hastily ended relationship and a salve for the pain that ensues. “It’s like tearing a muscle and rebuilding it,” says Rogai of the healing process. “You have to accept /(the pain/) and make friends with it, rather than wallow.”
Reviewers from outlets as diverse as the Associated Press, Billboard, Magnet, No Depression and Pitchfork have been vociferous in their praise of Lewis & Clarke, which has performed with the likes of Isobel Campbell of Belle & Sebastian, Blur, Robyn Hitchcock, Joan of Arc, Okkervil River and Bat for Lashes. (The band name is a reference to two of Rogai’s favorite writers, C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke, not the 19th century explorers.)
L&C’s first release, 2003’s “Bright Light” EP brought comparisons to Mark Eitzel, Giant Sand, The Mojave 3 and Low. “I didn’t listen to any of them at the time,” says Rogai. “I only listened to them because of those comparisons. Yes, (‘Bright Light’) is dusty, and a little Americana, but it’s not kitschy.”
The sound shifted on L&C’s first full-length disc, “Bare Bones and Branches,” when Rogai began working with Russell Higbee (now of Man Man). “It started to become chamber folk, because (Higbee) played the harp and I started playing a nylon string guitar. People would say, ‘It’s like Pentangle, if Pentangle was more classically influenced.”
“Bare Bones and Branches,” released in Europe in 2003, didn’t come out in the U.S. until two years later, but the timing was good, because so-called “freak folk” artists were gathering momentum.
The level of admiration accorded L&C elevated significantly, and reached a crescendo with 2006’s concert recording “Live on WPRB” and 2007’s “Blasts of Holy Birth.” By then, cellist Eve Miller (of the Rachels and Tempesta di Mare) had become a collaborator, and Rogai had started his own label, La Societe Expeditionnaire.
“I started getting into yoga and Indian classical music, and that shows up on the live recording and on ‘Blasts Of Holy Birth,’” says Rogai. “I was slowly becoming interested in (psychologist) Carl Jung and (British philosopher) Alan Watts. And I was preparing for the birth of my son.”
Asked what comes next, Rogai replies, “Nothing about Lewis & Clarke is immediate. It’s a long-distance-runner thing. The trajectory is subtle growth over time.”
DISCOVER WHY LEWIS & CLARKE’S LOU ROGAI LIKES LEONARD COHEN
It’s no accident that Lou Rogai does a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” on Lewis & Clarke’s new 12-inch vinyl EP, “Light Time.” He is an unabashed fan of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s aching acidic work.
“Leonard Cohen freaked my world when I first listened with attentive ears,” says the indie-folk singer-songwriter. “I could not believe the power of his humanity. The melodies are certainly bittersweet, and the lyrics carefully crafted, yet so raw and unspoiled.”
Here are Rogai’s top five Cohen compositions:
1. “Famous Blue Raincoat” - The tale of a three-sided affair, the song is from the perspective of a man writing a letter to his woman’s lover. Cohen addresses the other man as “my brother, my killer.” Pretty heavy.
2. “Suzanne” - Two people so attracted to one another, physically and intellectually, that they don’t want to spoil the possibility by betraying their fantasies and allowing them to become actual occurrences.
3. “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” - I’ll share my favorite line, with no need to explain: “Let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie.”
4. “So Long, Marianne” - “I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web is fastening my ankle to a stone.” What an image. Some say it’s about Marianne Faithfull, although the real Marianne is depicted on the back cover of “Songs from a Room.” She and Cohen lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s.
5. “Chelsea Hotel #2” - This is a recollection of Cohen’s romance with a prominent female singer who rose (pun intended) to fame in the ‘60s and left our Earth too early. He later apologized for naming names, so out of respect, I won’t. The paradoxical reason I felt most compelled to cover this tune is contained between these quotation marks: “I need you, I don’t need you.”