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“I’ve taken my lack of proficiency into the spotlight… unless you push yourself, I can’t see the use in a solo album”: Trevor Rabin’s desire to take risks

Jacaranda, the precursor to 2023 album Rio, represents an exercise in self-challenge, and a distancing from his work with Yes and on movie scores



Trevor Rabin’s 2023 solo album Rio was announced over a decade after his previous outing, Jacaranda. In 2012 he told Prog why he felt the need to take risks with his work beyond Yes and movie scores.

Trevor Rabin has done something totally alien on his new solo album Jacaranda: he’s actually indulged himself. “There are no barriers here. I’ve not set out to make music that fits into any genre. What you hear is fully inspired by a feeling of complete freedom. And it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio.”

The multi-talented South African-born musician has a reputation for being disciplined and focused, whether as a solo artist, a member of Yes or composing soundtrack music for blockbuster movies such as Con Air and Armageddon. But with his first new solo album since 1989’s Can’t Look Away, Rabin’s thrown away the rulebook.

“I began this album in 2007, but I always knew it was going to be a longish process,” he admits. “I’ve just fitted in sessions as and when my other commitments allowed. But every time I was drawn back to the project, I felt that the music was leading me somewhere, rather than the other way round. It’s been so challenging and exciting.

“I wanted to stretch myself, to do things I’ve never done before, which is why I wanted to play almost everything you hear. So, I’m the one playing piano and also the Dobro. I’ve played these instruments before in private, but now I’ve taken my lack of proficiency into the spotlight. But unless you push yourself, then I can’t see the use in making a solo album.”

Jacaranda also represents another departure for Rabin, in that it’s a fully instrumental record. Once again, this was something that he felt was necessary. “You can put so much pressure on yourself by having to come up with lyrics,” he says. “So, right from the start, I decided to avoid that sort of pitfall. And by keeping it all about the instrumentation, it allowed me to explore ideas more fully.”

Nevertheless, there is one vocalist on the album, Liz Constintine, who has previously sung on some of Rabin’s film scores, and guests here on Rescue. But her approach is unusual. “I’ve worked quite a lot with Liz, and she doesn’t see herself as a singer,” claims Rabin. “What she does is use her voice as an instrument. It gives an extra dimension to everything.”

Aside from Constintine, there are four other guests on the album. Sometime Jeff Beck bassist Tal Wilkenfeld appears on Anerley Road, while the drums are played by Rabin’s son Ryan, acclaimed jazz man Vinnie Colaiuta and longtime collaborator Lou Molino III. “I think they all enjoyed doing their parts, because of the freedom I gave them. Vinnie had a lot of input into the track Through The Tunnel. When he turned up, I just told him to go for a long take and to play whatever he felt worked. He had a real smile on his face as he did it, because it was an opportunity to break new ground.”

Given the fact that Jacaranda took nearly five years to complete, and was done in so many different sessions, you’d be forgiven for thinking Rabin might have lost touch with what was going on, and struggled to decide when the album was ready for public consumption. Oddly, this was never a problem.

“I suppose the artist in me will insist that no piece of music is ever completed, and you can always finesse and add further ideas,” he admits. “But in this case the music was guiding me. So I never had a problem reaching a certain point and saying, ‘That’s it, the album’s done’. “It was always a lot harder with, say, Yes. Because at the moment when you thought an album might be finished, you’d suddenly think, ‘Actually, it could do with one more guitar overdub’. Or: ‘I just need one more vocal line’. So you’d almost have to tear yourself away to give it to the label.”

The album title also represents the fact that this is a very personal project – the jacaranda tree has been part of his life for a long time. “Back in South Africa, we always had jacaranda trees wherever I lived. I particularly recall this in Anerley Road, Johannesburg, where my family lived for a while, and that experience is what inspired the song named after that road on the album.

“One of the first things I did when I moved to Los Angeles was plant a jacaranda tree, and my home studio is called The Jacaranda Room. So, given all of this history, it seemed logical to use it as the album title. It also reflects the personal nature of what I’ve tried to do musically.”

Rabin has also gone beyond the music with the new album. Having already produced one video – for Anerley Road – he has plans for more visual interpretations. And he’s determined to handle that side of the process himself. “I just know what you’d get if you meet up with the people who make these sort of videos. They’ll have four of five things to say, and that’ll be it. I’ve heard them all before, and that wasn’t what I was after. So, I decided to do this video myself, and mix performance footage with other stuff. I think it’s worked out well, because the whole philosophy visually complements what has been done musically.”

For Rabin, it’s a case of looking at things in totally the opposite way to his film score work. “With movies, I’m used to coming up with the right music to fit what’s already there,” he says. “I am working to other people’s specifications. But making videos to fit my own music is a lot more artistic. I want to make a video for every track on the album. That will take time, because I want to do it all myself.

“The thrill is in the fact that I’m out of my comfort zone. After years of having a safety net for everything I do, and being used to working to imposed deadlines, now I’ve the freedom to make my own mistakes. But if all goes to plan, then I will virtually have a film based on the music.”

The most difficult task facing Rabin as he plots going out on the road is to put together a credible line-up. “I know loads of musicians, of course, and a lot who can play this music. But what I now have to find are the sort of people who understand where I’m coming from. However, that’s another challenge I can’t wait to face.”

And he doesn’t expect to be playing in the sort of arena-sized venues that were definitely the norm back in his Yes days. In fact, he’d rather avoid those sort of locations. “That’s not where this music belongs. I feel it’ll be heard at its best in the smaller types of clubs. But to be honest, I will go wherever there’s a demand to hear it. I had a great feeling making this record, and I still have a huge amount of warmth for what we did.”