For two decades, Roman Edirisinghe was a fixture on the local music scene, playing with One Drum, De La Buena, Sindoolaa and others.
With a resume as diverse as that it’s little surprise that Edirisinghe is a master of the musical melange. His first officially released solo record, "Wonderland," is just out and it’s a genre-filled affair that touches on reggae, rock, folk, Latin, African and other styles.
But there’s not a jarring genre jump to be found across the record’s nine songs. No, multi-instrumentalist Edirisinghe is so adept in all these styles that he is able to deftly merge them into a single, infectious and danceable style.
Though he left Milwaukee more than a year and a half ago, Edirisinghe is still connected to Brew City. We caught up with him to ask about "Wonderland" and when he’s coming home.
OnMilwaukee.com: Let's start with a quick little bio of yourself and musical career.
Roman Edirisinghe: I was born in Russia, and grew up in Germany and Sri Lanka. When I was 10, my family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Milwaukee, which became my stomping ground for more than two decades. My budding interest in music inspired my folks to buy me a guitar. I jammed with friends in the early days, but it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that I actively got involved in the Milwaukee music scene, playing with One Drum, De La Buena, Urban Empress and many others.
OMC: How long has it been since you left Milwaukee for Boston?
RE: It will be two years in August 2013.
OMC: Have you connected with the MKE ex-pat community there: Mulvey, Pamela Means, etc.?
RE: A few years back, I stumbled across Mulvey’s website and read about his bike tours, but I haven’t had the fortune of connecting with him, or any others. Isn’t he back in Milwaukee now? Honestly, I’ve been quite reclusive, and haven’t networked much.
OMC: Tell us about making the new record and how many have you done so far? It looks like it was made at a number of studios with a range of guests. Did it take a long time to coordinate all those schedules?
RE: "Wonderland" is my first publicly released solo record. I did a small batch of an album called "Organica" back in 2002, released only to family and friends. I began working on songs as early as 2005, and had tracks in various stages of completion sitting around picking up dust. Moving to Boston provided the perfect environment for dusting them off, as I had no gigs or bands to play with, and was terribly homesick for the first six months.
Additionally, I had accumulated musical favors by contributing to others' projects, and I decided to finally cash in those chips. There were 26 guests on the album, and the majority of them were recorded in Milwaukee in January 2012, using a mobile recording rig which I lugged around to their homes. It was fun and pretty loose. Some tracks were recorded whilst traveling or on the road, others were provided electronically, and all of the mixing and production work happened in Boston.
Ultimately, making "Wonderland" was akin to rolling a boulder up a greased hill, because I did most of the production myself. Nine months of concentrated effort left me exhausted and completely spent.
OMC: The record is very wide-ranging, of course, in terms of styles. Do you write with genres in mind? Maybe you can talk a bit about how your writing process works and how these genres all find their places in the songs?
RE: I think of genres as different outfits. You can don a three-piece suit, or wear a sweatshirt and jeans, but you’re still the same person underneath. Songs are no different in my eyes (or to my ears). As a result, I find my songwriting process can vary considerably – I find inspiration in melodies, chords progressions, rhythms, words and the environment around me.
For instance, the inspiration for "Songbird" was nature – awakened by birdsong one morning, I managed to translate what I remembered hearing to the intro riff on guitar. With "Phénix," the lyrics came last – the song originally started out as a jam session with a drummer over a synth bass line.
"Come Brother Now" was a teenager’s reaction to the First Gulf War. A painful breakup inspired the words of "Distant Dream," and the guitar part was worked out while camping on the shores of Lake Superior in Red Cliff, Wis. "Embrace" found its inception at an improvised show at what is now Hotel Intercontinental. And so forth.
OMC: There are three "bird" songs – four if you count "Seeds," which might be about bird food. Are you a bird watcher or were you secretly trying to make an avian concept record?
RE: Although I don’t practice birding, my Boston apartment is on the fourth floor overlooking the treeline, which provides the perfect cover for watching birds. While "Wonderland" does have several bird songs on it, I find the symbolism therein is transformation.
OMC: Speaking of "Phénix," was it something of a statement for you to start off the record with a song in French? Was it a way to sorta say, "This is going to be a journey"?
RE: You could say that. I had a listener describe the album as simultaneously mellow and energetic, which are states of mind best cultivated during journeys. Incidentally, I don’t speak French, so maybe it was a way of saying, "I don’t speak French. I sing it."
OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much?
RE: Whenever I can, mostly around the holidays.
OMC: Will you come back for a CD release party/gig?
RE: Absolutely. Most likely, I will do a dual album release sometime in the future – "Wonderland" and my next album, which is but a twinkle in my eye.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.