When John Rafferty releases his second solo album, King of New York, this week, the singer-songwriter does so with plenty of expectations from listeners who were either taken in by his first record, Lucky, or by seeing the live show of the tireless east coast road warrior.
It’s the usual progression. Make a splash, build an audience, and then things get bigger and better the second time around and so on and so on. It’s a ritual of the music business that makes Rafferty chuckle, because if he had his way, you would have received the new album a couple years ago, and Lucky now. But there is a method to the madness.
“With Lucky, I had no expectations for it, even though I knew it was really good,” he said of his 2013 release. “This album (King of New York) was supposed to come out then. And then I had this fierce little six to eight week thing where the songs just kept coming and coming and they all seemed to be connected somehow. And I was all by myself and I didn’t have anyone to really bounce anything off, and I thought ‘you like this now; you might hate it a year from now, but screw it.’ And I love the idea of Lucky. It just speaks to me. And then “St. Patrick’s Day” came behind it, and it was a whole thing.”
“St. Patrick’s Day” was an anthem that appealed to everyone, Irish or not, and the rest of the tunes on Lucky marked Rafferty as a stellar songwriter and performer who captured his native Brooklyn the way Springsteen captured New Jersey. There’s more of the same – but better – on King of New York.
But there’s a twist.
“There’s a third record behind this,” Rafferty said. “So I’m in the middle of it, and I’m super excited to have it out, because for me, this is the better record than Lucky. I always feel weird saying that, so I’m nervous as all hell, but I feel like I did this already. This is a second solo record.”
It gets better, as Rafferty says that according to producer Julian Deych, King of New York is to Rafferty’s trilogy what The Empire Strikes Back was to the original Star Wars trilogy. And he’s dead on, as KONY is a more somber collection for sure, with “A Drinker’s Life” being a particular highlight. There are no anthems, but there are plenty of quality songs, with Rafferty reflective throughout.
“It’s not my personality to be so somber,” he said. “But I do revel in it once in a while and I love writing from that perspective. It feels comfortable to me.”
It’s also comfortable for listeners, especially those who can relate to the topics he sings about. In a nutshell, it’s real life, far removed from what we see on the internet or reality television. That’s the general view. As far as specifics, it’s Brooklyn before gentrification.
“Where did I learn most of the stuff I’ve learned?” the Windsor Terrace native asks. “I always feel like it’s a place I can go and mine. I really do.”
No one does it better either. For someone who grew up in the same neighborhood with him, Rafferty’s reflections are spot on. It was a simpler time, and while there weren’t many luxuries for kids of that era, it didn’t matter.
“I told my wife, ‘I don’t know how to teach my son how to hit a baseball,’” he said. “She said ‘What do you mean by that?’ I just always have. No one ever taught me. You either hit it or you didn’t.”
“She said ‘Every story you tell, there’s never a parent attached to it.’ We had the biggest backyard.”
Every Brooklynite who grew up in the 70s and 80s can relate to that statement. But do those outside of the area get it?
“I’m finding people are getting caught a little flat-footed and go ‘whoa. I’m not sure what you’re talking about there,’” Rafferty said. “A lot of times, when I fill in the blanks, it’s not as good as what they had imagined. Some of them are little stories; some of it, I’m dancing around the subject. And I try to make it universal in a sense. You don’t have to be from Windsor Terrace.”
He’s right. Good songs are good songs, and going back to Springsteen, you don’t have to be from Jersey to appreciate The Boss. So now the task is for Rafferty to get his music to that level of acceptance. He admits that “The hardest thing is to get heard,” but whether that happens or not, he’s going to keep making music. His way.
“There’s going to be some warts and all in these things,” he said. “There’s going to be sharp and flat notes, but it’s fine because nobody else is trying to do it that way. It’s an old school approach. Plus, every time I’ve ever done it where you go in and fix things, you end up with everything perfect, but I feel like the soul went away from it. And my biggest strength is when I play live. I don’t stick to the script sometimes and it always feels more real to me.”
That’s because it is.
“I got a knockout punch to give, and even if they don’t want to listen, they’re going to be forced to listen,” he laughs. “But I know the people that come to see me are gonna see a really, really good show.”
As for the conclusion of his trilogy, he promises that there will be no Ewoks.
John Rafferty’s CD release show for King of New York takes place at Rocky Sullivan’s of Red Hook in Brooklyn on Saturday, April 16. For more information, click here