Inside the Frame
Singer-songwriter Scot Sax makes a film about songwriting and finds a new dream
On a particularly pleasant August afternoon at his East Nashville home, Scot Sax is talking almost breathlessly on everything from why music sounds better on vinyl to the reason he decided to move to Nashville. He is speaking in metaphors about chewing gum and in a very straightforward manner about the importance of family. Then he pauses, and the subject turns to, of all things, frames. Sax, 50, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who became a success in the mid-1990s, is discussing frames as they are used not only in the literal sense, but also in how the concept of framing has helped him to shape his craft. It’s been especially meaningful, he explains, in bringing clarity to his more recent creative outlet, filmmaking.
“People love buying frames,” says Sax, who completed a documentary film earlier this year and in September will release a new album with his wife, Americana and folk artist Suzie Brown. “There’s something about frames. My wife and I were recently shopping for frames, and I had this realization that human beings love to frame things in so many different ways.
“If you look around, everything in some way, shape, or form is framed,” he continues, pointing out different items in his living room, such as decorative plates, a stereo receiver, and even an old guitar. “To me a song is a frame. It’s a frame around three minutes of some emotion or something. So making the film was like, ‘Wow, I can put a fucking frame around my life — this experience I’m having as a songwriter, this experience other songwriters are having. This intangible thing in my mind, I can put a frame around it and make it tangible.’ That’s what I love about making a film. To put a frame around all that gray area, those blurry-lined things.”
Sax, who moved from his native Philadelphia to Nashville with Brown in early 2014, spent three-and-a-half years painstakingly making his feature-length film. Titled Platinum Rush and available on DVD, the documentary is about songwriters and the impact their craft has had on them. Sax interviewed a long list of writers, including several from Nashville, to get their perspective on the nuances of writing songs. Among his subjects were Steve Forbert, Lisa Loeb, Oliver Wood, Ron Sexsmith, Dave Berg, and others. The film delved into the highs, the lows, the struggles of songwriting.
“It’s a human-interest story,” Sax says. “It wasn’t so much the music, it was how it affected [the songwriters] as people. It’s about dreaming, obtaining your dream, realizing your dream, and then reflecting on it. There isn’t a lot of stuff about the actual process of writing, it’s more the experience of it.”
Sax’s own songwriting experience dates to when he first became a teenager. As he tells in the film, he was born to parents who had endured the loss of a son to a tragic accident. He took to writing songs as a sort of therapy, and it provided him an outlet to connect with his mom and dad.
“I would play my songs for my parents,” he says. “I would go into their bedroom and say, ‘Listen to my new song.’ If it didn’t have music, it would be like, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, let me tell you something real personal.’ What kid does that? But in song form, it didn’t occur to me. They were really personal songs, but it probably benefited me to know I communicated in some way.
“I was always unusually enamored with songs, mesmerized by them,” continues Sax, who counts as his early influences the songs of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and The Beatles. “It was this other world that existed three minutes at a time. That just blew my mind.”
Sax’s pursuit of songs went from something just mind-blowing to a wise career choice some 20 years ago, when his band Wanderlust released its first album and developed quite a following on the power pop scene. The group’s first single, “I Walked,” went to No. 1 on rock stations across the country, and before long Wanderlust was touring with Collective Soul and even opened for The Who at a show in Maryland. “My phone rang, and it was our booking agent in New York,” Sax recalls. “Out of the blue she was like, ‘Do you want to open for The Who Friday night?’ It’s always like that, always like five days before. It’s never this executed, well-planned thing. Some of the most amazing moments in my life were like that. It was great for us, and it was a rocking show. We kicked ass.”
Sax later formed the bands Feel and Bachelor Number One, with whom he recorded and toured, and had songwriting success and recognition with film and TV. His song “I Am the Summertime” appeared on the soundtrack for the 2000 hit comedy American Pie, earning a gold record.
Awards-wise, and on the scale of recognition, Sax nailed a 10 in 2006 as cowriter of “Like We Never Loved At All,” a song recorded by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. It reached the Top 10 of Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, Top 5 of the country chart and won a Grammy as well as an ASCAP award. On the heels of that success, Sax later collaborated with Philadelphia singer-songwriter Sharon Little, and in 2008, the duo did a 48-city tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. “That was great because I was a little bit older and more prepared,” Sax says. “We got to play some of the nicest arenas.”
Over time, however, Sax began to grow weary of trying to make the next song he would write better than the last one. He says the fame and fortune as a Grammy winner began to lose its flavor.
“You know, it was great, friends giving you the thumbs up, and the money was great and all that stuff,” he says. “But then it became just another chase. These moments of success in your career are like gum. You chew it and then it runs out and then you have this cold, flavorless shit in your mouth. It was this really great thing, and then you need to put another one in there. I felt like I needed to keep going, but instead I just kept chewing on that flavorless piece of gum. I missed having fun. I forgot what it was. That can happen after you’ve had success like that.”
The fun returned from different directions. Ironically, one of those was in Sax’s discovering the blues. He was burned out on the pop rock he had been writing for so long, and felt the change in genres reset his writing soul considerably. He merged the blues and Americana on his 2013 album, I’m in a Mood.
Love entered the picture in 2010, when Sax and Brown met at a mutual friend’s wedding in Philadelphia. “We met on the dance floor,” Sax says. “We literally danced before we had a conversation.” They married in 2011, and moved to Nashville a few years later. Not long after arriving here, the couple became parents to a daughter, Josephine, who’s now around 17 months old.
In the meantime, Brown, a part-time cardiologist at Vanderbilt Medical Center, had recorded a couple of albums. Her debut album, Heartstrings, was released in 2011, and she then cowrote songs with Sax for her second record, Almost There, which was produced by Oliver Wood and recorded live in Nashville. The duo will be releasing Our Album Doesn’t Like You Either Sept. 25 and will be doing some record release shows in the Northeast, as well as one in Nashville in October.
“We’re not trying to be rock stars,” Sax says when asked to explain the title of the new album. “I played that game, and it was great and wonderful. But we’re really happy with where we’re at, making an album that’s 99 percent creative and one percent promotion. We’re not begging anyone to love it.”
Sax says filmmaking has been his most significant evolution career-wise, especially in the way it sustains him creatively. He currently is involved in several projects, including videos for the new album, shooting the making of an album by Malcolm Holcombe, and the live filming of The Wood Brothers’ studio performance of new songs from their forthcoming album.
And when it comes to his personal life, well, he’s viewing that through a new frame.
“The combination of losing a father (his dad died of cancer in 2011), then getting married, then having a child is such a big whack of reality and a crash course in real life,” Sax says. “Being a musician, it was me and my dream, me and my song, and I think that the temporary idea of life never really kicked in until my dad died. I think the true meaning of love and a true relationship never kicked in until I met Suzie, and then the full circle of the whole experience kicked in when we had Josephine.
“It was really quite an intense couple of years, and I think something that normally happens over a period of 20 years or more happened to me in a couple of years,” he adds. “So I’m a different person.”