The Fray survives to share stories with renewed passion and purpose
The members of the Fray know the perils of a sudden pedestal. The Denver band grew ubiquitous in the wake of its 2005 debut, How to Save a Life, particularly after the title track graced promos and the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Many critics doubted the staying power of a piano-rooted pop combo, seeing the group as a bland, commercial cousin to Coldplay and Keane. But the Fray has proved them wrong.
“Nobody’s gonna turn down a huge turbo thrust at the starting line,” says Fray frontman Isaac Slade, 31. “At the same time, you have to get past that no-one’s-taking-us-seriously s***, like you’re some executive’s invention.”
Slade says he wouldn’t be where he is today without having an epiphany on the eve of a 2009 summer tour to promote the Fray’s self-titled sophomore album. “I’d basically gotten everything I wanted,” the singer says. “I had to figure out why I was doing it. If it was to make everybody like me, that was failing miserably—for every one that liked me, there were three that didn’t. If it was to make more money, I had more than I ever needed.”
That realization to stay honest, he says, “gave this edge to everything, this desperation to my songs.” The change first emerged onstage. “That was kinda the breaking point, where I didn’t have anything else to lose,” explains the singer/pianist. “I got onstage and started playing shows with that new desperation and ditched my piano. I walked forward to the edge of the stage and started yelling, and I became a frontman that summer.”
That fresh approach followed three years of touring behind the Fray’s debut, which sold two million copies. Despite its success, Slade acknowledges that the record had too many mid-tempo ballads. “They were all kind of headphones-in-the-bedroom songs,” he says. “So we were playing to these big crowds with crazy energy, and we didn’t have the songs to match it.”
With this year’s Scars & Stories, the band has grown closer to capturing its live energy in the studio. Produced by Brendan O’Brien, who’s worked with Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, the Fray’s third album rocks a bit harder. Opening the record is “Heartbeat,” a song inspired by Slade’s experience in Rwanda, where he felt a woman’s blood pumping through her hand. The song’s guitar-fueled melody is topped only by the singer’s keening falsetto.
Though the Fray’s songs still blur into similar-sounding tones at times, the new album suggests a fuller sweep of musical influences. For Slade, that includes Bush, Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows. “All three had this passion and disregard for opinion,” he says. “They got lost in what they were saying. It’s almost like they wrote this music, and it ate them whole.”
He also cites director Steven Spielberg, painter Norman Rockwell and photographer Annie Leibovitz as inspirations. Says Slade, “They always find the story, the pulse and the characters and manage to walk that fine line between art and commerce.”
The balancing act has been working for Slade and cowriter/guitarist Joe King, lead guitarist Dave Welsh and drummer Ben Wysocki. With all members reared in the church, the Fray found a Christian-music audience early on, before surging into the secular market, attracting fans who connected with Slade’s soul-searching lyrics about relationships. That introspection remains on Scars & Stories.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that mattered and make some kind of lasting effect more than cash in my bank account,” says Slade, who credits his college years working in a Starbucks for shaping his career views. “It was a personal connection with a new customer every two and a half minutes that I thought was the real reason I was there. And to some extent, I feel that’s the same thing I do now. Instead of serving coffee, I sing and serve the crowd songs.”
The Fray plays the Comcast Center on Aug. 25