Rehoboth native returns home

By Rolf Rykken
Special to the Coast Press

April 21, 2004

Rehoboth Beach native and self-described melodic rocker Cliff Hillis will perform songs from his new album, "Better Living Through Compression," at Ruddertowne in Dewey Beach on Friday, April 23, as part of the second annual Dewey Beach Popfest.

Backing Hillis, a Cape Henlopen High School graduate who now lives in Wilmington with his wife, Beth Lennon, is his touring band, the Forward Thinkers.

Hillis will also play an 11 p.m. set with another group he plays with, Philadelphia-based rock quartet IKE. Both bands will also play Newark's East End Café on Saturday, April 24.

Then in June, Hillis and the Forward Thinkers will open the 26th annual June Jam in Houston on June 19, while Hillis will perform acoustically in solo shows at the Ram's Head in Rehoboth on three Tuesday nights, June 22, 29 and July 6.

If anyone needs compression it would appear to be Hillis, clearly a busy guy, who also backs singer-songwriter Brian Seymour of Philadelphia, when he's not with IKE or doing his own solo work.

The new album, released on the Los Angeles-based independent pop label, TallBoy Records, will require some national touring and Hillis is already scheduled for a show in Los Angeles in June, Boston later and tentatively, a return to Atlanta.

"Better Living Through Compression" might be Hillis' breakthrough album -- a mature work about personal commitment to a loving relationship that has his voice more upfront than his first album, 2002's "Be Seeing You," from another independent pop label, Not Lame Records, of Fort Collins, Colo.

"With this one, I was working more in ... a real studio," Hillis said during a telephone interview. The first album was done at his makeshift home studio, while the new one was produced and recorded at studios in Wilmington, Elkton, Md., and Harrisburg, Pa.

He also felt "more confident about my voice and I wanted to feature it that way."

Besides his confident and pleasant voice, what also is impressive is the positive attitude of his lyrics, especially in "Home," "Two of the Same" and the propulsive, "Go Go Go." The album also includes "Better Than Myself," a Hillis song that was used in the soundtrack of the 2000 Brooke Shields movie, "After Sex."

The songs are mostly presented in a moderate-rock pace with restrained, sometimes twangy guitars (Hillis plays electric and acoustic guitar and bass and occasional keyboards), all in a pop-rock atmosphere that often keeps the songs recurring in your head afterward.

Besides Thinkers Dave Anthony on drums, Ken Herblin on guitar and Greg Maragos on bass, Hillis lured The Innocence Mission's Mike Bitts on bass and Steve Brown on drums, and former Caulfields band member Ritchie Rubini into the recording sessions. There is also keyboard work by the late Kenny Martin, a talented Lewes-area pianist who died of pancreatic cancer in 2001. Hillis produced and mixed most of the album, while one cut, "All These Memories," was mixed by Nick DiDia, who has worked with Matthew Sweet, Train and Stone Temple Pilots.

Hillis, who is in his early 30s, describes his audience as "not so much the teen crowd" but more of the "independent, alternative [rock] people who seek" out the music. The guitar-based pop sound, played in three-and-four-minute bursts, is allusive to the '60s and '70s, but does have its contemporaries in singer-songwriters Sweet and John Mayer, both of whom Hillis has been lumped with.

His mature, positive lyrics about relationships and marriage do make him standout in the singer-songwriter crowd where whining and emo-heartache can abound. However, he is not thematically alone, sharing such topics with the groups, Mates of State and Rainer Maria.

"The stuff just comes out," he said of his song lyrics. "You should write what you know, and that's what's going on."

What he knows is melody, having been influenced in his youth by vintage recordings of the Beatles, though he recalled that one of his first recordings was by the Bay City Rollers.

Hillis and his brother, fellow musician (and Coast Press reporter) Roger Hillis, didn't grow up in a musical family per se, though their mother plays the piano. The full extent of the musical background of the Hillis' great uncle, Theo van der Pas, who had fame as a pianist and composer in the Netherlands, became clear when two CDs of his music were posthumously released. So music does run in the blood.

What Cliff Hillis also knows is how special Beth, his wife is, thanking her on the Compression album credits "for being the coolest and most supportive wife in the world."

In addition, Beth was the art director and designer of the album cover and back. The red cover features a photograph of several thrift store items and "second-hand clothes" are mentioned in the song, "Home."

The two met through a mutual acquaintance in 1998 at the first International Pop Overthrow Festival in Los Angeles when Hillis was still with his former group, Starbelly.

Now the important question: What does Beth think of the new album?

"I think she likes it," he said, sounding pleased.