“I have really good friends that live in Jacksonville and St. Augustine so I spend a lot of time there,” he says. “We’ve had a tradition for about seven years now that at some point, the whole tour always goes to their house. Even if we’re not playing in Jacksonville, we’ll find a day off between two other things and overnight into Jacksonville and have a whole day with the band and the crew, the opening band, whoever is around and then we’ll go on to the next gig. But this time around we’re actually in St. Augustine for my birthday that is on Aug. 1 and my friend’s birthday is on July 31 so it’s kind of great. We already have a party planned.”
Duritz is excited about more than turning a year older with friends. He considers “Somewhere Under Wonderland” to be among his best work yet. When writing started for the record, Duritz says he was in the right head space to create some thing specific to the Counting Crows after a year of writing for other people and playing other artist’s songs.
He had just wrapped writing music for a play called “Black Sun” and was ready to write for the band in the same way he wrote for the characters’ voices on stage. Duritz also tapped into his experiences singing other artist’s songs on the 2012 release of covers on “Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation).” Duritz says the band chose selections that had room for a Counting Crows interpretation and that process opened to the door for the band to explore sound and storytelling in new and different ways when writing “Somewhere Under Wonderland”.
“I had such a good time singing other people’s songs for a year and also writing for other people. It just felt liberating in a way and it opened my whole perspective up for this record. I wrote songs that are very powerfully about how I feel but they are not set in my life. I think they are very different from a lot of other stuff that I’ve written. For a long time, I always thought in order to write a personal song I had to write about something autobiographical. The play was the first time in my life that I ever wrote for people that weren’t me,” says Duritz.
“Between that and singing all the cover songs, I really realized the hard thing is singing about what you feel, not necessarily what you did. If all it took was to live an interesting life, writing would be a different thing. When I was writing for the play, I wrote some of the best songs of my life and I realized that I could write stuff that is just as meaningful and just as powerful that’s not about my life. It’s a story. When you look back at all the great literature in history, it’s all fiction.”
One piece that Duritz is particular proud of is the sweeping track “Palisades Park.” He originally framed the music for the stage but he finally put it to words for the new album. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, “Palisades Park” achieves the epic, symphonic range of an orchestral piece. Counting Crows is known for expanding live performances into several movements but those improvisational left turns had never before been captured in the band’s studio recordings.
“It might be the best song I’ve ever written. It’s quite an accomplishment in the way we arranged it and recorded it. It just feels like the height of what our band can do. One of the things I like about Palisades is that it goes through so many movements like a classical piece. We’ve written long songs before but it kind of stays in one place. “Palisades Park” goes to different places and then comes back,” he says.
“When we first started I didn’t think we would be very successful. I used to get a lot of advice from people telling me to stop using proper names and place names in songs because they thought it was too specific and would keep people from relating to our music. I didn’t know if they were right or wrong but then I realized that part of what makes things moving to other people is that they are personal to you and that resonates with a lot of people.”
Duritz has been to places with the Counting Crows that many bands only dream of going but he has never lost sight of that early struggle for acceptance. With friend Ryan Spaulding, the Counting Crows present the annual Outlaw Roadshow at SXSW in Austin and CMJ in New York to provide a stage for young bands. The free concerts recently expanded to include Nashville and feature up to 30-50 bands depending on the venue over the course of two or three days.
“It’s been a really great thing. We’ve actually had a lot of Outlaw Roadshow bands out on the road with the Counting Crows. Hollis Brown is one of my Roadshow bands. It’s one of my favorite things in life. We always do them as free shows so anybody can come because there are some really amazing bands out there and it’s really cool getting a chance to work with and help out young bands that people have never heard,” says Duritz.
“These bands don’t imagine doing this for five minutes. I mean, if you want to play in the NBA, you don’t dream of just getting a seven-day contract. People don’t dream in small doses. People who dream of being a rock star dream of doing it for their whole life.”