Aerosmith's 'Sixth Member' Takes Center Stage

Jul 29, 2012
Originally published on July 29, 2012 10:58 am

Imagine being able to rock a piano so well that Aerosmith wants you as its touring keyboardist. That's what happened to Russ Irwin, and he's been sharing the stage with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry for 15 years.

"I'm staring at their backsides," he tells NPR's David Greene. "It's an interesting place to be."

Irwin's had an onstage view of more than a few famous rear ends; besides Aerosmith, he's played behind Sting and Bryan Adams and written songs for Meat Loaf and Foreigner.

Now the singer and pianist says he's ready take center stage. This year, he released a new album called Get Me Home. Irwin wrote all the songs, but he says he was happy to let friends like Steven Tyler lend their voices to a few tracks, like the rollicking piano jam "Crazy Too."

"We literally were in my car, just listening to stuff," Irwin says. "[Tyler] heard this groove and he goes, 'Wow, I want to sing on that! Let me know when you've got that together.' "

Though he's got a little star power behind him, Irwin says he's not too stressed about living up to it.

"I haven't really thought about any of the pressures," he says. "To me, it's just something that I'm doing that's really cool. I don't have any grandiose expectations that I've set for myself. I'm just seeing where it's taking me."

In the full version of this interview, Russ Irwin performs selections from Get Me Home, as well as some of the songs he's written from his rock star friends. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.

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Imagine being able to rock a piano so well that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith wanted you as his touring keyboardist?


GREENE: That's Russ Irwin, the unofficial sixth member of Aerosmith, playing at one of the group's concerts. He has been sharing the stage with the likes of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry for 15 years.

RUSS IRWIN: I'm staring at their backsides. An interesting place to be.

GREENE: Russ Irwin not only tours with Aerosmith. He's played with Sting and Bryan Adams and he's written songs for Meatloaf and Foreigner. But now, he's ready to release his own collection of songs on an album called "Get Me Home."


GREENE: And I am sitting with Russ Irwin in the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. He agreed to stop by here just a few hours before playing an Aerosmith concert in Atlanta. Russ, thanks so much for joining us.

IRWIN: Thank you.

GREENE: Tell us what you were playing there on the piano.

IRWIN: You know, I was just sort of alluding to playing the first song on my record, which is called "I Miss Being Lonely," a song that Steven Tyler actually sang on. It's the, yeah, it's the first cut off the record.

GREENE: So, Steven Tyler is actually on...

IRWIN: He's on two of the songs.

GREENE: ...two of the songs.

IRWIN: The other song "Crazy Too."

GREENE: Do you feel like he felt like he owes you something after all these years of kind of playing with him and for him?


IRWIN: That was not the feeling I got particularly. It wasn't like he felt like he owed me anything. But I literally went over to his house one day and he was like, hey, man, I want to play you some of the demos for our new record. I was like, cool, well, I'll play you some of the demos for my new record. And we were literally in my car and we were just kind of listening to stuff. And he heard this groove:


IRWIN: And he was like, wow, 'cause I want to sing on that. Let me know when, you know, when you got that together.


STEPHEN TYLER: (Singing) She's gonna give me that (unintelligible) revolution, now you're gonna test reality. (unintelligible) I see them all the time. (unintelligible). You talk about the future, (unintelligible) his past, your eyes tell me lies, love could never last...

GREENE: I wonder if there are all sorts of added pressures on you as a musician. I mean, you're part of something so well-known, a bit name like Aerosmith, and then you go off on your own. Does that make the pressure that much greater, you know, for this album to do well and succeed?

IRWIN: I haven't really thought about any of the pressures to be honest with you. To me, it's just something that I'm doing that's really cool. I don't have any grandiose expectations that I'm setting for myself. I'm just kind of seeing where it's taking me, to be honest with you.

GREENE: "Manhattan" is one of the songs on the new album. You're sitting behind a piano. Can you play a little of it for us?

IRWIN: Oh sure. Of course.


IRWIN: (Singing) Take the red eye, L.A. to JFK, catch the skyline while there's still a moon. Oh, Manhattan, I'm feeling blue. Are they drinking wine? Now I'm coming home to you. Take the A Line to Central Park at noon, walk a straight line right down 5th Avenue. Oh, Manhattan, I miss you. Are they drinking whiskey? Now, I'm coming home to you. Oh, Manhattan, I look to you. Oh, I'm tired of all the sunshine and girls who won't be true. Oh, Manhattan, I am still in love with you. Oh, Manhattan, I'm still in love with you.

GREENE: Well, in addition to piano, you're a pretty well-known songwriter. I mean, you've written for Meatloaf, Foreigner, the Scorpions. And how does that collaboration come about? I mean, does Meatloaf call you and say, hey, Russ, we need a song. Can you write one for me, or?

IRWIN: They all happen differently. Actually, Meatloaf, you know, I had a friend who was working with him and said, you know, they're thinking about making "Bat Out of Hell 3," got any ideas? And I went to the piano and I literally, I sat down and I went...


IRWIN: And he was like, oh, that sounds great.


IRWIN: And it was interesting actually. I wrote it. He was like, well, you got any other ideas? And I kind of like go just...


IRWIN: And he was like why don't we put them all together. Then we came up with this seven-minute tune, which is kind of the feeling of what does, you know, very epic.


MEATLOAF: I was sentenced to this empty darkness, just see your face in the morning light. We'd be lost in a sea of confusion. Just got caught up in a healthy delusion...

GREENE: When you see videos or big-name musicians on stage singing your music, I mean, as a musician yourself do you sometimes think, like, that could be me up there singing my own tune and my own work?

IRWIN: Yeah, sure. I've thought that. But, I mean, the bigger picture, kind of being able to work with a lot of different people wearing a lot of different hats, I really get a lot of enjoyment out of doing that. I actually just wrote Aerosmith's next single, so it'll be interesting playing that with them. Writing songs for myself as an artist is different than writing songs for other people. They are just two different experiences, you know. It's sort of a different craft.

GREENE: You chose to name your album "Get Me Home," and I guess that makes me wonder where you feel home really is for you. Is it the center stage doing your own album or is it behind the keyboard with a bigger band?

IRWIN: I feel comfortable doing both really, but when I'm doing my own gig and it's going great, it's really special. I would do that every day if I could, for sure.

GREENE: What song on your album is sort of going to become the classic for you? What's the one that means the most to you?

IRWIN: I think "So Close to Heaven" came from a really, really honest place. So, it's about really being on the road for, you know, as long as I've been on the road and how hard it is to have a home and have a relationship, really, have a family, really.

GREENE: Being so close to heaven but not being able to get there?

IRWIN: Yeah. You want to hear the song?

GREENE: I'd love to. You know what, I'll let you play that song out for us. That's Russ Irwin. He joined me from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. And his album, "Get Me Home" is out now. And if you want to see Russ in action right now, Aerosmith is on tour as we speak. Russ, thanks.

IRWIN: Thanks, David.


GREENE: And you can hear more songs from Russ Irwin at our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.