Frank Orrall, Poi Dog Pondering's founder, is something of a benevolent despot--the guy who calls the shots, but still leaves plenty of room for his 11 bandmates to express what they do best.
On the mini-orchestra's latest album, "In Seed Comes Fruit" (Premonition), there is less of Orrall than ever before on Poi album, and more of his collaborators. That's by design.
"I got tired of writing songs with the acoustic guitar," Orrall says. "Every time I'd strum one of the chords, it just made me think of 15 other songs that had that same chord. I realize now that there is music that you make with one or two other people, but with a large group like this one, that approach doesn't work. It's nice to let everybody's influences affect the music, to use their strengths, to open everything up."
Orrall edited jam sessions with the band into loose "song frames" that he then passed out to the musicians and singers, who overdubbed chord changes, melody lines, string arrangements, lyrics--whatever suited their fancy.
In keeping with his self-appointed role of catalyst and orchestrator, the singer even turned over some lead vocals to Carla Prather, Charlotte Wortham and Kornell Hargrove.
"In Seed Comes Fruit" took three years to complete, with the band members funding the $60,000 recording out of their own pockets. Poi has becoming one of the longest running and most spirited do-it-yourself musical institutions in the country, defying the odds of commerce and interpersonal relationships by keeping a 12-piece band viable for a decade.
"We move slowly, and sometimes it felt like the record would never come out," Orrall says. "It's always a gamble--is it going to work this time? We can only tour around the country once every three years or so because it costs us so much money to bring all those people on the road. And your ability to continue to make records could be hurt by not getting out of town. Europe is where we should be playing, because we'll never break radio in America. But we can't afford to get to Europe, so it's kind of a Catch-22. I know it's not good to have a 12-piece band from a practical, money-making standpoint."
Orrall laughs. He wouldn't have it any other way, and neither would the band's fans, who consistently pack Poi's local concerts. The singer retooled the band five years ago, shifting from more of a rock-band ensemble to one that mixed gospel and soul-flavored vocals with rich, danceable orchestrations that suggest a Midwestern response to British innovators such as "Blue Lines"-era Massive Attack, Soul II Soul and Jamiroquai.
One element holds all of Poi's incarnations together: Orrall's desire to make music that transcends the hardship of everyday life. The centerpiece of "In Seed Comes Fruit" is "Keep the Faith," which opens with a couple of voice-mail messages, one from Cecelia Mundy, the wife of an old friend who died in a boating accident, the other from Orrall's late father. "The pain is too strong, it's too hard, the hole in my heart is too big," Mundy says in a broken voice, while Orrall's father simply says, "Keep the faith."
"I held on to Cecelia's message since she left it in '93, and it was only after I'd been to visit with her that I was able to use it in a piece of music--it was just too powerful for me before that," the singer says. "Then I was going through old voice-mail messages when I ran into her message again, and it was on a tape with my father's voice. It was almost as if he were answering her from the grave."
The singer is well aware that he keeps returning to themes of reassurance and perseverance, but why has only come clear in recent years. "I couldn't have answered this question before," he says. "But now I realize that it was my role in my family growing up. My mom was manic depressive, though we didn't have the clinical term for it back then. People didn't know, didn't categorize it. As a kid, my role was to try to help her pull through, to not give up the fight. I think that's why my music says what it does. Growing up, the music I really liked had those elements, like [Bob Marley's] `No Woman No Cry.'
"It's interesting how most of that type of music has come from outside the Western world. Here we have the luxury to wallow in self-pity. But people who are struggling in other parts of the world just to get by, they have to find a reason to keep on. So you find artists giving that back to their people, the idea that you have to punch through. It helps me to sing about that stuff, and to share it with people in the audience who feel that way too. That's the reason I go to music--to get that feeling."
Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune's rock critic. Originally published June 26, 2003.