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Ross Jennings from Haken discusses the New Album Sophomore by D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings and a lot more

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We recently sat down with Ross Jennings, the lead vocalist of Haken, for an engaging conversation. During our discussion, we had the pleasure of talking about the upcoming release of “Sophomore,” a new album by D’Virgilio, Morse, and Jennings, scheduled for November 10th, 2023, through Inside Out Music. You can watch the interview video and read the transcript for your enjoyment!

LotsOfMuzik: Ladies and gentlemen, it is an absolute pleasure to be here today with a true titan in the world of progressive music. Our guest is none other than Ross Jennings, a renowned vocalist known for his work with the progressive metal powerhouse, Haken, as well as a solo artist. But that’s not all; he’s also ventured into a captivating partnership with two other progressive rock legends, Nick D’Virgilio and Neal Morse, as they explore their collective love for acoustic-driven music and three-part vocal harmonies. Together, they’ve already given us a taste of their musical magic with their debut ‘Troika’ album, and they’re now ready to reveal their eagerly anticipated follow-up, ‘Sophomore.’ Join us as we delve into the creative journey, inspirations, and experiences of the multifaceted artist, Ross Jennings.

Ross Jennings: Oh, thank you for that epic intro. <Laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Thank you.

Ross Jennings:I like the powerhouse bit. <Laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Ross, Let’s talk about your new album ‘Sophomore’ which is set to be released on November 10th, 2023. Can you tell us about the creative process and the themes explored in this album?

Ross Jennings: Sure. It’s strange. It’s always strange these days talking about records, because we make them like a year ago, <laugh>, and then we have to wait so long for the vinyl pressings and, and everything to come around. So I’m jogging my memory, but yeah. Themes. Let, let’s have a listen. I’m gonna grab my copy (he reaches for his copy of the album) here so I can jog my memory on certain things, but basically there were four tracks written by Neal. Three by Nick and three by myself. There’s no concept here that there’s a fun tongue in cheek concept with the Sophomore title This being our second album. And we struggled to come up with a name, and I thought that was a cheeky sort of fun name for the record, given it’s our second album. And I think that kind of represents what this project is all about, which is having fun. Really, it’s like a side gig for all of us. And these are all singer songwriter style compositions. It’s a very different approach to the songwriting that we would normally do in our other projects. So that’s made it fun, and it does mean that the songs are a little bit more personal than perhaps stuff that I would write in Haken, which has a lot more thought and research involved. And these are songs that are very personal and based on life experiences. And I feel that’s the same for Nick and Neal as well. I don’t wanna speak for them necessarily, but there’s definitely some personal themes that are touched on from both of those guys as well.

LotsOfMuzik: How does Sophomore compare to ‘Troika’?

Ross Jennings: Well, it continues the same sort of format, really. We were, you know, not surprised, but we were really pleased with how well that turned out. And it was an experiment really in lockdown to do this trio. And based on the success, we wanted to continue that formula and maybe explore some slightly different ideas in the songwriting. But really it’s, it’s a continuation in my opinion from Troika.

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LotsOfMuzik: Recently Tiny Little Fires was released as a single. It was really fun to watch the video. I like it very much. But can you share some insights into the inspiration behind the song? I know that you wrote this one, and what’s the story behind it?

Ross Jennings: Well, first of all the video you mentioned, that was the first time the three of us had gotten into a room and played music together. Is crazy if you think about it. We’d obviously crossed paths. Nick and Neal have a deep history together, but with the three of us in one room, I think it only happened once on Cruise to the Edge. And so that was, it was amazing to make those videos. I managed to fit that in after the last US Haken tour. We found one day that we were all available to meet up <laugh>. So as I mentioned on the clip Tiny Little Fires was spawned from a melody that I came up with on my son’s Little Xylophone. I have it here. This is the one. This is the one, yeah. (pointing at his son’s xylophone) <Laugh> So you know how it is playing with kids, and then you get a bit distracted maybe. And I just came up with this melody and it stuck, and my cogs start turning, and I just come up with this whole song idea which I immediately demoed, came up with some guitar parts, and I think I programmed some drums in, or maybe I played some Kahan or something, and la later on, Nick would fill that in and improve on that stuff. But essentially it didn’t differ too much from what I came up with on that day in my head, <laugh> So here you have it, or the final piece is brilliant. I love that track, and it’s one that Inside Out felt very passionate about releasing as a single. So I’m glad that was chosen.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. I like it very much. And in the press release mentions that you guys began trading some ideas in late 2022. How did you choose the Final 10 songs for Sophomore, and what was the collaborative process like?

Ross Jennings: Yeah, so exactly as you said, I think around August, September, October in 2022, last year was when we started to share ideas and come up with new ones, and demo some things. And really the process is: we demo our own songs individually, or the parts, or maybe it’s just an acoustic guitar and vocal thing. We actually demo all the three harmonies. So there’s, so if I would come up with a song, all the harmonies would be me, and they would be later assigned to the other guys. But the process is that we would come up with the tunes and share them with each other. Perhaps there’ll be like five each or something, and we would narrow that down to, you know, the best 10 or nine or 10 or 11, whatever it is with trying to keep it balanced. And even so that we have the same number of songs each represented on the album. And it was quite a simple process this time around. We knew, I think Neal had more than was required, but yeah, Nick and I were both very certain about the songs that we’d written, which were the best ones, and Neal agreed. And so yeah it was quite a simple process, really. And when we selected all the tracks, we just made sure that it flowed nicely, and we had enough balance between sort of very relaxed and somber acoustic tracks and more upbeat and some heavier stuff as well. And I feel like there’s a nice mixture on this record.

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LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Neal is always writing, so it’s not surprising that he always had more songs for this project. 

Ross Jennings: I mean, he goes on holiday and he sits there on the beach with his guitar and record a whole song on his phone, just in one morning. And, you know, it’s quiet, it’s incredible. Yeah.

LotsOfMuzik: It really is. And Ross, this project is quite a departure from your work in Haken and your progressive metal background. How did you adapt to the acoustic and folk style of music in ‘Troika’ and ‘Sophomore’?

Ross Jennings: Well, I started off in the earlier days before Haken, you know, playing acoustic gigs in pubs. There would mostly be cover versions of existing songs, not necessarily my own, but this was the sort of the foundation of my musical upbringing, I would say, in terms of as a performer. So it felt quite natural going back to that stuff. I’m not known for it publicly really. So, you know, people who are aware of me will only really know me for the prog metal stuff. So it’s really cool for me to express that side of me. And so what a great opportunity to do that with two of my heroes in prog <laugh>. That was just a blessing, really.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah, for sure. What was it like to sing with Neal and Nick in person for the first time? How did that impact the musical chemistry between you guys seeing for the first time each other in the same room? 

Ross Jennings: Goosebumps <laugh> <laugh> Goosebumps, really. Yeah. And I was playing Neal’s acoustic guitar that he’s used on countless Transatlantic gig tours and solo tours. And being in the room in Radiant Records headquarters was incredible. It was really I’ve seen that studio space many times on behind the scenes, documentaries and things like that. And to set foot in that space and, you know, be with those guys and actually sing together like I said, was a real goosebump moment. And it just seemed to work naturally as a, you know, in person. It was really cool. Our hope initially for this Sophomore record was to record it together, but, you know, things don’t always work out that way. So we did it remotely again, but, you know, there’s always hope for the future that actually, if there’s a third record that we’ll try and get actually together in person, I think there’s more magic created that way. I feel like we’ve done an exceptional job on these two albums doing it remotely, if it was, you wouldn’t think that we were, you know, separated by the Atlantic <laugh>. But it does feel like we’re in the room together when you hear these tunes, but I think maybe if we were actually recording this stuff together in the room, we’d hear something even more special. So we’ll see what the future holds.

LotsOfMuzik: ‘Sophomore’ features bonus tracks. What can you tell us about these additional songs, and why did you decide to include them in the album?

Ross Jennings: Well, there were two additional tracks that we’re putting on the cd. There’s an alternative vocal take of the Weary One, which was taken from Neal’s original demos. And he wanted to re-record his vocal part for the actual, the studio, the final studio version. But there was something very immediate and passionate about his demo version. And I convinced him that I thought it would be good to have a version of that track with that original vocal take. And it just, I guess it was just an opinion thing, <laugh> in the end, so like this, there’s two variations of that track. It’s also very stripped down, so it has less of the embellishments strings and whatever that we put on the final cut. The second one was Right Where You Should Be, which is another Neal song. And I thought I wanted to do a version where I took the lead vocal on that track. So I really loved that track. And so we cut a verse again, a stripped down version, so just acoustic guitar and myself doing the lead vocal. So it’s just a, a different version basically for people to hear, and it’s to encourage people to actually buy the CD format as well. ’cause It’s a, it’s a dying format. I mean, I have about 6,000 of them, (pointing at the shelves behind him) but <laugh> people are buying them less and less in lieu of streaming and, you know, new ways to consume music. 

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LotsOfMuzik: I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask about this <laugh>, but as I had the chance to look actually see the inside of the artwork of the album, and I know there are some pictures in there. Some funny pictures from the past <laugh>.

Ross Jennings: Yeah. So these are actual sophomore year school photos from all of us. Yeah.

LotsOfMuzik: I wanted to ask about those pictures.

Ross Jennings: Yeah. I mean, those guys are a little bit older than me, so they had a bit more digging to do <laugh> <laugh>. But yeah, we wanted to present this as a memory book of our sophomore year. When we were in high school or college. And so we thought it’d be fun this time to have our image represented as our school photo and it’s just a cheeky idea to tie in with the Tongue in Cheek album title.

LotsOfMuzik: I love the pictures. Yeah. Those are funny. But yeah. Captivating

Ross Jennings: <Laugh>. Yeah. I think people will be interested to see how we all look. I haven’t differed too much, but certainly like Neal, his long flowing hair Yeah. Looking really young and it’s this I think people would love to see that. Yeah.

LotsOfMuzik: Can you share any memorable moments or challenges that stood out during the recording of the album?

Ross Jennings: Well, my daughter was due, like very close to when we were recording. So that whole process, it was in January of this year, really. And my daughter was born on the 17th of January. So I was in a rush kind of to get everything from my part recorded by that due date for my baby daughter. And so I had that, all that excitement happening at that time. So that was really fun. So even though I was doing it remotely, and I was getting really excited about having a new baby and, and the record obviously being made, I was really sort of proud of the music we were putting together. So it was just a really exciting time in general. But one, one particular special moment was when I asked my wife to sing a vocal part on one of my tunes, which was called Wave Me Down. I had this piece part of the music that comes around a couple of times where there are stacked vocal harmonies, and it includes the three of us, but also Nick’s daughter and, and my wife came and sang, and she’s, you know, 38 weeks pregnant or whatever it is. Singing, singing this part. So that was a really special moment. It was almost like my wife and my daughter singing on this record. So that was a cool thing to do.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Very, very cool. Thank you for sharing that. What do you find most fulfilling about creating music in a collaborative setting, and how does it compare to your solo endeavors?

Ross Jennings: I think I missed the first words of that. Can you repeat the question, please? Sorry. I apologize.

LotsOfMuzik: What do you find most fulfilling about creating music in a collaborative setting, and how does it compare to your solo endeavors and Haken?

Ross Jennings: Oh, I understand. Yeah. Well, it’s collaborativeness, <laugh> in music is so important. To do stuff on your own can be great fun. You get to explore a lot about yourself. I had that whole revelation when doing my solo album that it got to a point, I found out a lot more about myself and my abilities and what I could achieve alone, but I still missed that camaraderie and that bouncing off each other and getting the second, third, fourth opinion about something just to make sure it’s the best it can be. And that’s really what we go through in a band like Haken, there’s six of us with very strong opinions and very high caliber musical ability. And that can cause friction sometimes, but it also eventually brings out the best in the music. So that’s really important to me. That’s why I like being in bands more, more so than, you know, just doing things alone, <laugh>. Although I’m proud of my solo album, eventually I hired musicians to do certain parts on my solo album, so that even, that project was collaborative in a sense. This particular project we’re talking about with the three of us is similar as well. We all have opinions about what works, what doesn’t, when it comes to mixes. We go back and forth on some things, and eventually it’s, we’ve reached a place where we’re all happy, and it’s great. And there really wasn’t much to argue about at all on that effect. Really easy. Yeah. On both, Troika and this one, actually, they’ve been very straightforward and really laid back and a pleasure to work on with, with Nick and Neal.

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LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. And do you see any influences from your work with Neal and Nick carrying over into your role as a vocalist? As a vocalist for Haken?

Ross Jennings: Definitely. I’ve been a huge fan of Spock’s Beard from, I guess the Snow era when I discovered them. So their music’s played a massive role in forming the kind of music that I enjoy performing and writing. So that’s kind of funny giving that back, like I’ve been influenced by them, but then I’m now collaborating with them and it’s become like a full circle. And in some senses I felt a couple of my tunes on Troika were, sounded more like Spock’s Beard than the stuff they were writing. So it was kind of fun to see that unfold. So yeah, I guess that’s how I would answer that question. They’ve been a massive influence on me, and that formed the kind of songwriter I am for sure. And that, I guess that’s why this project works. But it does seep into some of my lines that I come up with in Haken also. So there were some particular vocal hooks in Aquarius, for example, which were very much influenced by a lot of what was on Snow, for example, <laugh>, there’s a big, big influence at the time.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. As a vocalist, of course, you are known for progressive metal releases, but how has your vocal style evolved while working on the more acoustic and harmonic music with this group?

Ross Jennings: Yeah. Well, it, well, people might beg to differ, but from my perspective, I don’t think I’ve ever considered myself as a metal singer. So I’ve always had that indie rock, maybe folk softer tones that seem to work with the heavy style that I can do, you know, that will give us the eclectic nature of our music. I do growl here and there, but it’s not my forte, you know, so it’s, it’s, I think that’s the best answer I can give to that. I would say this different style of music that we’re doing with this D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings perhaps, is probably more in my wheelhouse. I’m not sure. But it works in Haken as well, so <laugh>. So, yeah, I don’t think I’ve unnecessarily changed or developed or mellowed out or anything like that. It’s just that I listen to so much music, I’m inspired by so much, and my voice lends itself to some softer tones sometimes. Yeah.

LotsOfMuzik: Are there any plans to tour with DMJ?

Ross Jennings: I think we’d all love to do it. It’s a matter of when and how <laugh> with all our busy schedules, Haken is gearing up to have another busy 2024. So I’d love to schedule that somewhere, but I think we’d all like to see how well this album does, and if there’s demand for it. I know for sure that we’re all on Cruise to the Edge, and there’s a possibility that we may do something together, even if it’s low key Yeah. Cruise to the Edge, but I can’t promise <laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Okay. Yeah. My guess is that we will see you guys in a future MorseFest thing right?

Ross Jennings: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would love that. I’ve never been to a MorseFest and I know that it’s branching out now to Europe and the UK. It’s just really cool to see. So I think it’s a possibility. Yeah. Strong possibility.

LotsOfMuzik: What are your hopes and plans for the future for this project? Do you have any message or expectations for your fans regarding Sophomore and beyond?

Ross Jennings: Yeah. I mean, who knows where this will lead? Like, we didn’t know when we started writing Troika what this would become. This, it’s a side project for all of us, so, you know, we’re not putting all our eggs in this basket for sure. <Laugh>, but it seems to be resonating with people. And yeah, we’d love to do some live shows. I’ve had a secret ambition to do three of these records. Three for the three and maybe more, who knows? We’ll see. But that would be really cool if we completed that trilogy eventually and do some live shows. And I think that that would be a good starting point. Yeah.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. I was about to ask you about that and to know  if there were plans for a third album

Ross Jennings: I mean, I believe when we signed the contract with Inside Out that it was for three albums, so <laugh> so I’d like to think that we would honor that. Yeah. But, you know, this is coming from me, not from Neal, Neil or Nick <Laugh> This is my secret private ambition for this project.

LotsOfMuzik: Okay. Well, Neal, Nick, listen to Ross <laugh>

LotsOfMuzik: When is Haken hitting the studio for a new album?

Ross Jennings: Well, I don’t know about album eight yet. I don’t actually think there’s a lot of material kicking around yet for that, but we are talking about it, so I’d love to see another album out by 2025. That would be cool. But we’ll see how it goes. We’ve got a lot more touring to do. We have An Evening With Tour to do next year, which starts in the US. But we’ll be taking it to other territories as well. That’s gonna be fun to do Fauna in its entirety and, you know, play for about three hours almost a lot more songs from our repertoire. So yeah, looking forward to doing that. And that’s kind of the focus. But yeah, I think writing will happen next year for sure. And we hope that there’ll be a record, you know, in the not too distant future.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Now that you have An Evening With Tour for the next year, is there a possibility, can you tell me if you guys are planning on recording one of those nights for a live release, please, <laugh>? (crossing fingers to the camera)

Ross Jennings: Yeah, I think so. I’m not sure where, if it might be in Europe that we do that. Although we’ll be recording a lot of the nights anyway, just audio. But that’s the intention, I think. Yeah. Because although we are discussing it, the market for Live DVDs and Blu-Rays is dwindling, you know. So we have to have serious discussions about how we might release that, but we always wanted to do a show with Vector and Virus in full, and unfortunately that never happened. So we do owe it to ourselves and the fans to put out another live release at some point. And I think the (indistinct) one would be a great opportunity to do that. So I’ve also got my fingers crossed <laugh>. It’s not confirmed yet, but I think that’s the intention. Yeah.

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LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Nice to hear. Because I know fans have been eagerly awaiting for another live release from the band, and I think this An Evening With will be a good opportunity to do that. And yeah. Fingers crossed, man. Yeah.

Ross Jennings: Yeah, I think Haken’s live music is a very different beast to the studio versions. It’s a different atmosphere. It’s a different vibe. It’s very energetic. Yeah. And I think if we can capture that on film, that would be great. Yeah. I was quite pleased with the one we did on the Affinity tour, but it was, it was scrambled together and it didn’t come out as exactly how I think we intended, so we owe it to ourselves to put out a decent one. Yeah. <Laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. And, and you mentioned recently that the plan was to play Vector and Virus back to back and that didn’t happen. But have you guys scrapped that? Or is there a possibility to do it in the future?

Ross Jennings: It may happen on an anniversary tour down the line, but ultimately, I think the idea has been scrapped because you have all this new material now, and that I think it’s a little bit more special to us, and we’d like to, you know, keep things up to date and modern. But yeah, it’s an idea for the future, for sure.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. And what about Restoration? Part two? <Laugh>?

Ross Jennings: I don’t know. I’ve been bugging the band to do this <laugh> for a few years, but I don’t think everyone’s on board, so I don’t know. I can’t promise that one.But there is some unfinished business there. I’m very aware of <laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Okay. Any plans for a new Novena album.?

Ross Jennings: Yes. It’s in the writing process. It’s taking a long time, but feeling positive about that and you know, we will, it will see the light of day so that there will be a follow up. Yeah. That’s very, with our new vocalist, and a very different bunch of tunes stylistically, so it’s really exciting.

LotsOfMuzik: That’s candy-news for me. <Laugh>. I love Novena.

Ross Jennings: Thank you so much. Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, I hope for that band to grow in some way as well. ’cause It’s you know, it’s, it’s equally as interesting and exciting, so.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. And what about a new solo album?

Ross Jennings: New solo album? I’ve had a bank of songs written and in demo form on my laptop for some time now. And I’m just waiting for that opportunity for the time to be the right one and to pick the right personnel to help me. And yeah, it will happen again. It’s another project which is sitting there waiting to, waiting for the, the flag, you know, <laugh> Yeah. The green light. So there’s exciting things ahead in the future. Definitely.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. I was fortunate to be in Lima, Peru when you visited the country. And I was in the show and I really enjoyed it. You recently were here in South America. Unfortunately I missed it this time, but hopefully Yeah,

Ross Jennings: Yeah No Peru, no Venezuela. Sorry. 

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah, no problem. I understand. 

Ross Jennings: We did a lot more shows than we did before. But you know, we did three shows in Mexico

LotsOfMuzik: And you were in Bogota too,

Ross Jennings: Bogota, so, yeah. Yeah. It was great fun. Really special time and we think the South American audience is, or Latin American audience, I should say, as you know, just phenomenal people to perform to. And yeah, we really enjoyed it.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah. Thank you. And even though you recently were here in South America is there any chance that you will bring An Evening With Tour to this part of the world

Ross Jennings: I’m not sure actually. So far I’m only aware of the US and, and some European dates that are in the works. So I don’t know. I know, I know you guys would love it, <laugh>.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah, for sure.

Ross Jennings: We are very aware. But these things are always down to planning and business and scheduling, and promoters and stuff. And given that we’ve just been there, it’s probably unlikely.

LotsOfMuzik: I understand. Ross, anything else that you want to share with our audience before we close the interview?

Ross Jennings: I think we’ve covered everything pretty much. Yeah. There’s lots of exciting stuff ahead. If I can get myself in the studio obviously this Fauna and this album are the focus at the moment of the special ones for me that have taken up the last sort of year and a half of my life. So I’m really proud that in 2023 we’ve seen the release of these albums and looking forward to the new year basically. And thanks for supporting everything I do, honestly.

LotsOfMuzik: No, thank you. And thank you for putting out some of the most amazing music that I have the pleasure to listen to. 

Ross Jennings: I mean, it’s important, isn’t it? And these times where we are seeing outbreaks of war in Israel now and what’s been happening in Ukraine and the craziness in some parts of South America I’m sure is still ongoing. Sometimes I feel like what I do, what we do here is a little bit insignificant <laugh>, but I also realize it adds some levity to the situation and some escapism. So I guess that’s something to hold onto and makes it all worthwhile, I guess. So.

LotsOfMuzik: Yeah, for sure.

Ross Jennings: Glad to be a service in some minor form, you know, so thanks for listening.

LotsOfMuzik: No, thank you. Have a great, great day. Bye-Bye.

Ross Jennings: Cheers fella. Bye

LotsOfMuzik: Bye

Sophomore

1.Hard To Be Easy
2.Linger At The Edge Of My Memory
3.Tiny Little Fires
4.Right Where You Should Be
5.The Weary One
6.Mama
7.I’m Not Afraid
8.Weighs Me Down
9.Walking On Water
10.Anywhere The Wind Blows
11.Right Where You Should be (Alternative Version)*
12.The Weary One (Alternative Version)*
*CD bonus tracks

‘Sophomore’ will be available on Limited CD Edition (incl. 2 bonus tracks), Ltd Gatefold Transparent Red LP, Ltd Gatefold Transparent Blue LP & as Digital Album. Pre-order now here: https://dvirgiliomorsejennings.lnk.to/Sophomore

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