From the outside, the rock 'n roll life can appear to be a carefree, Peter Pan existence. But that's just an illusion, sighs O.A.R. frontman Marc Roberge, who dealt with grave issues that may not be so evident on his band's ebullient new The Rockville LP.
On the surface, the band's eighth studio album, which was released earlier this week on Vanguard Records, has a celebratory sound with crowd-pleasing anthems like "Peace," "The Element," "Two Hands Up," and the reggae-dappled "Favorite Song." But it's also rooted in harsh realities that brought the singer to his knees.
No one is immune to tragedy, Roberge is quick to point out, as he downplays his own difficulties as "just some turbulent times." A few years ago, after the Maryland-bred, New York-based O.A.R. had scored its 2008 breakthrough hit with "Shattered (Turn the Car Around)," things were going right on track. The group was already starting on a follow-up album, and planning an extensive tour to back it.
"And then one day, my amazing, beautiful wife walked in and said, 'You know that thing we were talking about that bothered me? I went to the doctor and the biopsy came back, and I have cancer,'" he states, somberly.
"And that was a time when the world stopped, and all the things we'd done professionally and personally just didn't matter," Roberge continues. "Nothing mattered. And the following three years she spent going through major surgeries, some tough times. And we'd just had a new baby, and in the middle of that we had another baby. But we came out the other end of that, all due to her just being amazing and us just working through it."
Today, the singer's wife is cancer-free, and O.A.R. is running again. The frontman says he barely remembers 2011's King, the album after "Shattered." It came and went, and he would not leave his wife's side to support it.
"I never had my heart into that record, because my heart was elsewhere," he says. But a surprising thing happened as his family returned to its native Rockville to be near friends and family — O.A.R. band members came along, too, and together the group started revisiting its old haunts and recalling its halcyon formative years.
"So this album was written, recorded and just kind of processed by repeated trips back to Maryland," says Roberge, who produced it himself. "It was inspired by the records we made when we were kids in Rockville: the city and the landscape and the roads and the forest, as well as the people that stand by you and completely support you during times like that. That's how we found the 'restart' button."
The vocalist also sees his own songwriting in a deeper light, using a sports analogy to explain his hopes.
"There's such a fine line between writing a song that should be shot out of a cannon at an NFL game and writing a song that the players want to listen to," he concludes. "And that's what I try to do. For those certain anthemic O.A.R. songs, I want the players to be moved by them — I don't want them to be some corny theme song. And so far, so good. So we'll see."