Robert De Leo
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LESSONS LEARNED: Stone Temple Pilots’ ROBERT DE LEO On Crafting His Powerful Debut Solo Album!

Over his 30-year career as the bassist and principal songwriter of Stone Temple Pilots, Robert De Leo has been one of the driving forces behind a string of perennial alternative-rock radio staples. Now for the first time, he’s pulling back the curtain to reveal the full breadth of his range with his first solo offering, ‘Lessons Learned.’ If you’ve been paying attention since the ‘90s, you already know that De Leo’s range was always there in the hints of sophistication sparkling beneath the surface of the sound that cemented STP’s place as one of the defining bands of their era.

On ‘Lessons Learned,’ STP listeners will recognize the signature chord changes right away, with new songs like “She Brings the Rain,” “What Will Be” and “What’ll I Do,” shifting course and ascending ever so gracefully to the upper ozone of the musical spectrum, where gorgeous, hummable melodies spill over into an array of reflective moods. The album serves as a deeply personal and sonic journey into the universal feeling of love both found and lost.

The album features a host of amazing guest vocalists, including Pete Shoulder, Tim Bluhm (Mother Hips), Jimmy Gnecco (Ours), Kara Britz, Johnny Irion, Khasy Modisette and Gary Wright, with De Leo singing on the final track, “Is This Goodbye” – all of which lend to the undeniable intimacy of the music. De Leo played virtually all of the instruments, complemented by guest musicians Steve Ferrone, Matt Pynn, Bill Appleberry, Dave Eggar, Matt Rohde, Shawn Tubbs, and Eric Kretz of STP. Produced by De Leo and engineered and mixed by Ryan Williams, ‘Lessons Learned’ is a hauntingly beautiful record that not only offers a glimpse into De Leo’s depth as a songwriter/multi-instrumentalist but as a human being.

Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Robert De Leo for an inside look at the making of his debut solo album and the challenges he faced along the way. In the interview, he offers insight into his love affair with songwriting, his creative evolution, and much more.

Thank you for all the hard work you and the guys have put into keeping Stone Temple Pilots moving forward. I grew up listening to the band, and your work has served as part of the soundtrack to some excellent times. Thanks for all the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve shed along the way.

You’ve touched my heart! Thank you! People don’t often realize all of what goes into it. Thank you for noticing; I appreciate it.

Before diving into your new debut solo album, I wanted to return to your journey’s beginning. When did you first fall in love with The craft of songwriting?

Ya know, it happened when I was really young. I can remember being three or four years old and beginning to comprehend music. it was something that was planted in my brain at an early age. A lot of it comes from having older parents. They were listening to things from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I heard artists like Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini from my parents, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, and all the other things from my brothers and sisters. There was a certain care put into music back then that is around less than it used to be. I really had an ear for that care that was put into music back then. To me, the biggest thing is the arrangement. There were arrangers. It was the ear candy of the song that I always picked up on; it just wasn’t the lyrics or the actual song. It was all of the ear candy that came in and out. That’s what hit me at an early age!

Obviously, you’ve been a part of crafting some absolutely amazing songs. When did you come into your own as a songwriter?

It was when I was in my late teens. It was around then that I realized how to do that. The way you learn to do that is by listening to a lot of music and a lot of different kinds of music. I was fortunate enough to be the youngest in my family. My family had a lot of stepbrothers and stepsisters, half-brothers, and half-sisters. So there was a lot of music going on. I still cherish those songs, and it still gives me goosebumps when I hear Andy Williams sing “Moon River.” {laughs] It’s just something from my childhood that’s stuck with me all these years! I initially started by playing guitar. Picking up those chords and all of those different changes were the things that led me in that direction.

What are some of the biggest lessons you learned early on in your career that continue to resonate?

Any musician questions, from time to time, whether it’s a curse or a gift! [laughs] it’s tough to keep relationships, and it’s tough to see people go. there’s just so much involved in it, and there are no rules. I think that’s what attracted me to being in music — the fact that there are no rules. It’s kind of like joining the circus! Having to deal with that and the reality of real life can be challenging. They are two things that don’t always cohabitate well. I’m still learning lessons in life due to what I chose to do or what chose me. I always look at it as music chose me. I don’t think I chose it because it’s too big of a thing to choose. I think it chooses you, and it goes back to me comprehending that stuff when I was three or four years old. It chose me!

Dean De Leo - 'Lessons Learned'

The new album is titled “Lessons Learned.” So how did the ball get rolling on this one? What made now the time for a solo record?

I tried to do this in the late 1900s… [laughs] or early 2000s, but the time wasn’t right. I had different songs back then but didn’t have it all together to do it. I was kind of all over the place. I think the thing that got the ball rolling this time was the time we’ve all had over the past three years. I think having that time allowed all of us to rethink life and have time to really get into things that mattered to us as human beings. More than anything, I just wanted to get back into my guitar playing. That’s not to say that I’ve been playing too much bass, but I haven’t been playing enough guitar. So I started with life, what life dealt us. That desire to get back into playing guitar and songwriting led to some really great things and, ultimately, this record.

How did the process for creating this album compare and contrast to what you’ve done in the past?

As I said, there are no rules! You can be walking down the street when something hits you. You never know when inspiration’s going to strike. This is a really, really deep record. This isn’t a record that I wanted to make. It’s a record that I needed to make. It’s a deep record filled with a lot of the universal emotions that we all feel. Everybody can get their own experience from a song and interpret it differently. Love, love lost, heartache, understanding, misunderstanding, or trying to figure out what love is. That’s what this record is about for me, and it’s just my interpretation.

In addition to great songs, this album has no shortage of outstanding vocal performances. Tell us a little about them and what they brought to the material.

Absolutely, I’d be honored to! As a producer producing this record, there were different emotions that I wanted to get across. I needed the voice to convey the feelings of these songs, and everyone I chose here really got it for me. They just got it! The record starts off with “Big Sky Woman.” That’s Pete Shoulder, who is a dear friend from England. He is one of the most soulful white men I know from England. [laughs] He comes from that line of amazing English singers before him. I always look to Paul Rodgers and Steve Winwood as inspirations. To find that today isn’t easy because they don’t make them like that anymore. Pete is an exception! Pete sang on “Blue Sky Woman” and “Put Aside Your Sorrows.” He also wrote lyrics for “Put Aside Your Sorrows.” He’s a brilliant lyricist and a great guitar player too. He also wrote the lyrics for “Love Is Not Made of Gold.” I have to throw that in and give him credit because his lyrics are beautiful.

“She Brings The Rain” is the second track. That’s Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips. Tim has that way about his voice that says he’s been through a lot in life. I wanted to place Tim in a gentle area with that song. It couldn’t get more gentle or quiet than that! [laughs] When that voice comes in, it’s really something special. Once I heard what all of these individuals did with the vocals, it brought me to tears. Their work touched the part inside of me that I was aiming to get across. Tim did such a beautiful job singing that song. That’s what I wanted. I wanted that big, deep tone and someone who could command that song. It’s not an easy song to sing and command. Tim also sang the title track, “Lessons Learned.”

“Love Is Not Made of Gold” is the next track. Jimmy Gnecco sings on that one. That song needed a breathy, airy, beautiful voice, and Jimmy has that! The thing is, when you are producing other people singing and putting a song together, the first thing you want to do is get the right key. So, you’re going up and down the meck trying to find the right key for that singer. I nailed that with Jimmy! I remember talking on the phone to him and saying, “Is that key okay?” He said, “Yeah, it’s perfect.” Jimmy also sang “What Will Be” and did another excellent job.

“Anew” is the next track. That is Kara Britz. This is another quiet, mellow song that you have to command. Man, this girl can sing! She did both “Anew” and “Everything.” With these songs, I heard a female voice. I’ve always loved what someone like Burt Bacharach had done with Dusty Springfield or Dionne Warwick. I loved that female aspect of conveying a song. That’s what I wanted with Kara, and she did beautiful work!

Johnny Irion sings on “What’ll I Do.” I love Johnny! He has this sweet aspect to his voice that I needed for the song. He nailed it. When I think about his voice on this track, it’s such a tender, tender vocal. When you are singing about something like that, you need someone to convince you of the lyrics and sentiment. He did such an excellent job.

The last song on the album is “Is This Goodbye,” and that’s me! I sang that one, which was an appropriate way to end the record. I have to give a shout-out to Dave Eggar, the cellist who put people together for this record and did the string work, which is incredible. I wanted to end the album in a way that sounded like two people saying goodbye. So with the violin and cello working at the end of the song, it was a beautiful way to end the album.

What do you consider the biggest challenge of bringing all these elements together?

The biggest challenge revolved around everyone’s availability, to be perfectly honest! [laughs] People are busy, ya know. Everyone was gracious in finding the time to do this, which wasn’t taken lightly. That shows! Regarding the vocals on this record, it’s a fantastic journey with what everyone contributed.

As I said, getting the proper keys is the first thing you want to do when writing a song and working with a singer. Finding that sweet spot in their voice was the biggest challenge of this album. My personal challenge was trying to get all of the guitar parts nailed. [laughs] I challenged myself; it was a pretty big challenge! [laughs]

Robert De Leo of Stone Temple Pilots
Robert De Leo in the wild.

What were the lessons learned from making ‘Lessons Learned’?

I learned that I don’t know shit about life! [laughs] life is a constant learning experience. So musically and personally, I dug deep. Many things have happened in my life over the past few years, and I needed to express that as deeply as possible. This past Friday was the release date of the record. There’s something about when it goes over to the other side and becomes available on iTunes. I instantly bought it and listened to it as a record and a whole album. It choked me up. As a writer of something, I’m glad I can listen to it. That means a lot to me. I was able to listen to it and look at it like it was a snapshot of a diary that I was sharing about this moment in my life.

Was there a moment when you knew you had what you needed to complete the album?

Yes. I knew what I wanted to put into each song. I think subtlety and simplicity were the key factors in making this record. That’s something I’m still learning, too — Keeping something pure. That’s what I wanted to attain. I wanted to attain that purity in this record. I think I got it.

I know you did. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Thank you, man. That’s touching. Thank you.

What can you tell us about the album artwork? It’s a striking image you’ve used.

That’s actually a photo I took on my iPhone 7 a few years back. The iPhone 7 wasn’t the same quality that you have today. At night time, it doesn’t quite get focused, and it almost looks like an oil painting when I look at it now. I colored it up a little bit on the phone and edited it a little bit, and it almost became this other thing. It became an oil paint type thing. That was an old oak tree, a California oak, that was so beautiful with that moon at night. It had street lights in front of it hitting the oak, so it had that lighting from the street lights. It’s just one of those extraordinary moments that you capture. As soon as I took that, I thought, “This would make a great album cover!” [laughs] Nature, to me, is the best way to learn. It really is. It’s been a great learning experience for me being in nature. That’s what I wanted it to represent — Nature.

What does the short term look like for you in terms of music?

I have about five songs that I’ve already, and making another record of my own! I’m constantly writing, and these are songs that are strong enough to start another record.

As you’ve said, the vocals played a massive role in what you’ve created with ‘Lessons Learned.’ Do you have anyone in mind to voice these new songs?

Yeah, I have a few new people in mind. I will keep it quiet right now so nobody jumps on it. But these are people that I really, really love! With that said, I’m also going to use the same characters and singers you heard on the first record because they represented such a deep, emotional part of my songwriting.

As you mentioned, the pandemic is partially responsible for this album. So how does it feel to be back doing what you love?

It feels so great to be playing out again. That’s been so much fun. It’s such a significant part of my life to be able to get on stage and play some loud music! And it’s a great outlet, as well. That makes things feel real again! So I’m happy we can all get out there and do it again.

What is the biggest lesson we can take from your journey?

Wow. That’s a great question. It all comes down to maturity and humility without examining too much or sounding therapy-like. Those elements, coupled with plenty of qualities, make you a functioning human being in the world we know today. [laughs] That’s the best way I can put it, man. [laughs] Being able to function in life today can’t be understated.

Thanks for giving us some insight into this fantastic album. Keep the good stuff coming!

Thank you for a great interview! I appreciate it.

Robert De Leo’s undeniably powerful debut album, ‘Lessons Learned,’ is available everywhere! Follow his continuing adventures on social media via YouTube, Instagram, and Bandcamp. Get the latest developments via Linktree.