Trevor Rabin On Making ‘Rio,’ His First New Rock Album With Vocals In 34 Years

The last time Trevor Rabin released a solo rock record with vocals was back in 1989 when he was still a member of the legendary British progressive rock group Yes. After leaving the band following the band’s 1994 album Talk, he began a second career in scoring numerous popular Hollywood films such as Con Air, National Treasure and Remember the Titans—a world that he became immersed in for almost the next three decades. Yet, the idea of recording a new rock album never truly left his mind.

“I look back at it about two-and-a-half years ago,” he says recently. “I’ve done 50 movies, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been writing embryonic ideas. I need to get the solo album done.’ So the 34 years went incredibly quickly because I was working quite hard.

“I got to a point where I actually said to my film agent, ‘I kind of need a break for quite a while just to get this album done…I’m feeling anxious about it, so I need to get going.’ And I literally spent until the album was done doing nothing else but going into the studio every day and getting into it.”

Thirty-four years later, the South African guitarist-singer-songwriter-producer will finally release Rio, the follow-up to Can’t Look Away. Musically, Rio, due out this Friday, has all the distinctive traits of Rabin’s work both on his own and with Yes (the new songs “Push” and “Paradise” as examples): dynamic and melodic art rock, sleek production, complex yet sophisticated arrangments, and his distinct voice and guitar playing. Outside of employing drummers Lou Molino and Vinnie Colaiuta as well as backing vocalists and a violinist, Rabin performed all of the music himself on the new record.

“I see them as individual songs,” Rabin says when asked if there was a particular kyrical concept behind Rio. “I think they’re connected in some way with, I guess, you know personal complaints about politics…And then on the other side, there’s some love songs, just simple love songs.”

The bold rocker “Big Mistakes” was the debut song unveiled from Rio ahead of the album’s release—Rabin describes it as a “romantic look back at my past where I’m-lucky-to-be-alive-kind of thing.” Initially, given his perfectionist nature, he wasn’t sure whether “Big Mistakes” was worthy of being the first single to be released off the album.

“I was so close to the album that I said to Thomas [Weber], the head of the record company [Inside Out Music], “I don’t really know.’ Because when I finish an album, all I hear are things I should have done better. In fact, I remember I said to [my assistant], ‘You know, I’m not sure. I’ve got a feeling that the ride cymbal is still not loud enough on the chorus of the song “Toxic.”’

“And there was a silence and he said, ‘Let it go. We’ve mastered it.’ He was basically saying, ‘Shut up.’ And he was right. So at some point, you’ve got to let go. That was kind of part of it. But you know I’m starting to listen to it and think, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good idea.’ I do think “Big Mistakes” was a good idea, but it was definitely the record company’s idea.”

Other tracks on Rio found Rabin exploring genres like the moments of country and bluegrass via “Oklahoma” [a tribute to the victims of the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City] and “Goodbye.” “Whenever I used to play in Nashville, I always used to look forward to after the gig grabbing a guitar and going along to the pubs on that famous street–and even Austin [on] Sixth Street—just going and hearing these unbelievable guitarists. For the first time, I heard Eric Johnson, who didn’t have a record deal yet, on that street. And then just guitarists and players like Vince Gill, with the B-bend on the Telecaster. I’ve always loved that. I thought, ‘I got to somehow try and integrate that pickin chicken bluegrass thing in there,’ and how do I make it kind of coherent with the other genres? I just thought, ‘Well, hopefully, my voice will tie it all together.’”

Highlighted by some electrifying drumming, the hard-rocking “Thandi” tackles the subject of animal poaching. “When the drums come in and go into that furious kind of riff, to me, that was the animals furiously trying to get away while these poachers are after them, and while the rangers are after the poachers. Then the stuff gets sent off all over the world, and they make some money. From the poachers’ point of view, it’s how they live. So it’s a frustrating [story].”

Aside from some of the topical subjects of Rio, there are also the personal and introspective moments such as the lovely and gut-wrenching ballad “These Tears.” “That was definitely about my wife kept saying to me, ‘Who is that about?’ I think we’ve all been through it—it’s terrifying when you find yourself in that vulnerable place. And [it’s] also just making sure that the atmosphere in the song was correct.”

Rio concludes with the eclectic-sounding “Toxic” in which one could hear a variety of influences—funk, jazz fusion, reggae, electronic, and of course progressive rock—while its lyrics could be interpreted as offering both personal and social commentary. “That’s part of the wink-wink idea,” Rabin says. “But essentially, it’s supposed to be about a similar thing in a way to “Tears,” where your love relationship becomes almost like an alcohol addiction. And the frantic vocals in the verse are the paranoia or the discontent.”

Named after Rabin’s granddaughter, Rio features Rabin’s own artwork gracing the cover. “I just love this digital art. And so I started doing it, and I’ve been doing it for years. And Thomas was talking to me about ‘So we’ve got to speak about covers now. And I said, ‘To be honest, I don’t really have a specific idea of what it would be. I don’t want some kind of flamboyant art.’ I always like the idea of something really simple.

“I said, ‘I dabble [in art] for fun.’ And he said, ‘Send me some stuff.’ I said, ‘On one condition: if you think of it for the album, you’re not going to offend me if a week later, you say this is awful, we’re not using it. Choose something, and if I like it, we can go along with it.’ So that was it.”

The release of Rio in 2023 seems quite fitting as this year also marks the 40th anniversary of Yes’ comeback album, 90125, which marked Rabin’s debut with the British band and yielded the smash hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” To Rabin, there’s a sort of parallel between that album and Rio. “I’ve been gone for 34 years when I got to do [Rio], because I hadn’t done a rock album. So when I got to do this, it felt really fresh to me. That freshness, I think, was the same as 90125.”

Now with the new record on its way to the world, Rabin is open to touring behind it. “I’m a bit of a tortoise, but I’ve been thinking about it,” he says. “And Thomas has mentioned a couple of things: ‘You could do this, you could do that.’ So I’ve been thinking about it, and I’d love to do it. I’ve actually put a list together of the running order of songs. so I’ve already been thinking about it.”

After that nearly 35-year gap between solo rock albums with the arrival of Rio, does Rabin anticipate his next record to take that same amount of time to record and release? “If it takes that long, it’ll be someone thinking about what could have happened at my memorial,” he jokes. “So I intend to hurry up. In fact, I’ve already started writing, so I’m hoping to have an album out in two, three years at the latest.”

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