Anyone who came of age in the 1980s is well-versed in the filmography of Rick Moranis, thanks to such memorable roles as accountant/nerd extraordinaire Louis Tully in both “Ghostbusters” films, the evil/clueless overlord Dark Helmet in “Spaceballs,” windsurfing tourist Barry Nye in “Club Paradise” and bumbling inventor Wayne Szalinksi in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
But Moranis also frequently demonstrated his musical talents, most notably as doomed florist Seymour Krelborn in the 1986 film version of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” He also made an art out of satirizing pop music during his stint with famed Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV, impersonating everybody from Elton John to Michael McDonald and Gordon Lightfoot.
Having phased out his acting career in the late ’90s while raising his children in New York, Moranis is now garnering acclaim for an album of humorous country songs, “The Agoraphobic Cowboy,” which he quietly released via his Web site last fall. Simply through word of mouth and the support of the innovative music company Artist Share, the project wound up receiving a Grammy nomination for best comedy album.
Since then, Moranis has inked a deal with ADA in North America and Warner Canada in the Great White North for wider distribution of “Cowboy,” which will be available via online retailers beginning Monday (Jan. 17) and in stores on Feb. 7. This weekend, he will be in Nashville with album producer Tony Scherr to record some songs for CMT.com’s “Studio 330” series, which will hit the Web at the end of the month.
Moranis recently filled Billboard.com in on his musical roots and his inspirations for the material on “The Agoraphobic Cowboy.”
Let’s start at the beginning. What are some of your earliest musical memories?
Well, I’m 52 and I grew up in Toronto. My earliest memories of music are listening to a middle-of-the-road station that my mother had on all day long, called CFRB. It was an AM station. It was before Canadian Content Regulations came in, which was around 1970. They didn’t feature Canadian artists, but if Canadian artists broke through, they’d be covered. It was the kind of pop that had its roots in jazz standards. Then, all of our lives changed in the ’60s, with early country turning into rock’n’roll. That led to the British Invasion and the beginning of Motown. That coincided with becoming a teenager, and I got my own radio. I would listen to 1050-CHUM, the big AM station in Toronto. We all put down our hockey sticks and picked up electric guitars, because our heroes changed. We no longer wanted to be hockey players. We wanted to be Beatles.
Did you sing or perform at the beginning of your professional career?
Well, the very first thing I did professionally was working with a partner, a guy I’d gone to summer camp with. We wrote an act and played the improv clubs in Toronto in 1975. I’d already been in radio for awhile, but when we wrote our act and performed live, I used my guitar in that act. We split and I started doing standup, and carried my guitar for a year doing standup. It was before I’d seen Steve Martin, but somebody said, ‘You should see him. He does what you do, but with a banjo.’ I was doing similar, non sequitur kinds of musical bits. I don’t know if I have any of them recorded. Some of them were parodies of rock music. You know that Boz Scaggs song, ‘Lowdown?’ It has that slap bass sound. That was a hugely popular song in 1976, and I would do the entire song just playing this one note. Or, I would say, ‘I need a volunteer from the audience, somebody tall.’ Somebody would come up and I’d play the opening few lines of [Simon & Garfunkel’s] ‘Sounds of Silence'” Then, I’d turn to him and go, ‘Come on, Art. What’s going on?’ I’d get into a fight with him and split up with him.
Then you joined SCTV, which featured so many hysterical musical-themed bits.
When I first got onto SCTV, we were working in a vacuum. We had no idea there was an audience. We were just making each other laugh. I had done, for example, a parody of Canadian Content where I’d re-written a song of Gordon Lightfoot’s. [Cast member] Dave [Thomas] did all these bogus K-Tel commercials, so we came up with the sketch ‘Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written.’ Then, they had the budget to get a local country-sounding band in Edmonton to do a few bars from every single one of these songs I wanted. When I read that at the table, it was very clear what it was. It was a bit everybody could understand. That’s the way things happened, doing a post-production show like that.
But in the time since ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ what, if any of your own music have you dabbled in?
Nothing that anyone would have heard. I was always singing Raffi songs to my kids when they were little, and always playing the guitar and writing halves of songs. But in terms of what I did on stage or in film, nothing.
So how did this project start to take shape? Were any of these songs things you had lying around previously?
Well, what happened was, around two years ago, I had been doing more sort of op-ed piece kind of writing and essay writing. I pretty much pulled out of shooting anything in the mid to late ’90s, because I couldn’t stand the travel anymore. I’m a single parent and my kids were young, so I just needed to take a break. After I started spending more time at home, I realized I didn’t miss what I was doing. I hadn’t enjoyed the last few years of what’s called acting. I’m really not an actor. The reason we performed was because we’d written the material. I never studied acting. When I was acting in other people’s things, I knew how to enjoy myself. It was lucrative and it fit into life. But I wasn’t enjoying the work. After I stopped, I really wasn’t missing it.
My kids, particularly my daughter, started listening to a lot of alternative country, jam bands and some bluegrass. I had played that stuff to them when they were little kids. They’d play me something I knew the original of, so I’d tell them, ‘So and so did this a long time ago.’ It got under my skin. On any given day, if I would hear a turn of phrase or get a funny idea or something, instead of trying to write a piece I could sell to the New York Times, I started writing a song. I wrote one, and then another one. I was singing them to a couple of friends, and they’d be relatively amused. After I had a few, they said I should do something with them. That’s really how I wound up having that many songs. I just kept doing it. When I got to the point where I had enough to do a whole album, I stopped writing and started pursuing recording them. Once the recording process started, I wrote another couple of things.
Who are the musicians that wound up playing on the songs?
I had done a little demo of a couple of the songs with a guy in town named Michael Leonhardt. He was a trumpet player for [Steely Dan principal] Donald Fagen, who I’ve known for years and years. Donald was someone I’d sing these songs for. He suggested Michael to help me hammer these out. I just wanted to hear what I had, so I sat with it for awhile. I knew I wouldn’t place it with a conventional record company. I tested the waters in a very limited fashion through somebody I knew and a William Morris Agent in Nashville. They both said, ‘Well, where’s the movie this comes from?’ It’s a declining, contracting industry, as you well know. Here I was without a band. I wasn’t the guy they were going to give a budget to, to do an album of conventional music. I knew I didn’t need that, anyway.
I waited awhile, got busy with other stuff, then heard about Artist Share, which would later make history with their Maria Schneider jazz album winning a Grammy as the first-ever album to win a Grammy that had never been available in a store. I was interested in the idea of marketing on the web. I played [Artist Share founder] Brian [Camelio] the demo and then the other songs on a guitar. He said, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy Tony Scherr.’ This is a little less than a year ago. I met Tony and he said, ‘Let’s do this. I think we can do it at my house.’ Tony has this little, analog 8-track machine. He played me some of the stuff he’d recorded, like early Norah Jones and Jesse Harris. I was just blown away. He said, ‘Let’s lay everything down just you and me.’ Over the next few months, we brought in friends of his to play the other instruments, and that’s how it got done.
Would you say that if someone asked, ‘What has Rick been doing lately?’, this album provides the answers, like golfing, hanging out and enjoying life?
[Laughs]. There’s a bunch of golf references in there. I couldn’t resist. People are hearing different things in this. Some have heard a theme. Some have heard a lot of self-deprecation. A lot of technology. It’s very much me. I’m writing what I know and what I’m feeling, but beyond that, I leave it to you guys to figure out where it fits.
I noticed a Donald Fagen thank-you on the CD. Did you ever ponder collaborating with him?
Initially, I was working on a screenplay a long, long time ago that never got produced. I wanted him to do the music for it, and that’s how we started talking. We just stayed in touch. Whenever Steely Dan would perform I’d go see them. As I was writing this stuff, I knew he’d get a kick out of it. He really encouraged me a lot to do something with this.
If you can quantify it, what has been the most enjoyable part of this process?
Well, I wasn’t prepared for how quickly information would get around. I had an op-ed piece run the day my Web site was up, and within days, it was all over the Web. In retrospect, maybe I made a mistake not calling it a comedy album. Because of the Web, I just started getting calls from all sorts of radio stations. I decided I would talk to anybody who wants to talk. The classic rock people really didn’t understand. They thought I was making fun of country, or were surprised that I wasn’t. They were really only interested in talking about whether there is going to be a “Ghostbusters 3.” But the country stations got it immediately. They spent a lot of time talking to me and playing cuts.
A couple of weeks ago, I performed live on the NPR local station with Tony on a show called “Sound Check.” We did two songs, and I was not prepared for how much I loved doing it. I enjoyed it way too much. The interviews after, I was bored, because I couldn’t sing! I don’t know if I’m going to tour or keep doing this, or what. I was on a country show down at Sirius, and the guy was playing tracks and explaining to me who his audience was: all these loyal truckers who listen to Sirius because they just love the programming. Hearing my songs being played to these guys, and knowing they were listening, is a little different than someone stopping you on the street and saying, ‘Gee, I really like that movie!’ It’s a different kind of connection to the audience. It’s odd and indescribable.
Since you finished the album, have you kept writing music?
Yeah. I’ve written a couple of jazz songs that I guess could be arranged as bluegrass songs, and I’ve gone back to writing the kinds of songs I was writing before this album. Those are a bit more rock-ish, and not as on the nose lyrically as these are, and not as comedic. The jazz ones are comedic like this, but the other ones are a different kind of thing. I’m not good at making plans, because I never have been. I never do things with an idea of where they may wind up.