Low budget, high hopes for album
Cliff Hillis stokes pop machinery

Staff reporter

When Cliff Hillis and his wife, Beth Lennon, met Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne last weekend in Dewey Beach, Lennon was ready.She whipped out a copy of Hillis' new solo album, “Better Living Through Compression,” and handed it to Schlesinger, a prince in the pop music world.Later, when a Fountains fan asked Schlesinger if he has heard any good, new music lately, he put Hillis' CD to his ear and bopped his head around.   When Schlesinger eventually does pop the disc into a CD player, he certainly won't be the first to hear it.

The album, released in April, already has its first single, “So Much to Tell You,” on WXPN (88.5 FM), the University of Pennsylvania station.And Hillis, 33, is taking his tight, well-crafted pop across the country later this week. He'll play a gig Thursday at the The Derby, the legendary Los Angeles club, for a show sponsored by his record label, Tall Boy Records.“We got a really good review from the Los Angeles Times last time we were out there, so maybe that can happen again with the new album,” Hillis says.

He first played in Los Angeles at the International Pop Overthrow Festival in 1998, where he met his wife. Beth Lennon promotes Hillis and designs the art for his albums and advertisements.The pair moved to Wilmington from Rehoboth Beach last year when Hillis got a job as an engineer at Target Studios in Elkton, Md.But he says they were ready for the move anyway because they found themselves continually commuting to Wilmington and Philadelphia for shows.The move, the marriage and Hillis' work with other bands accounted for his three-year break between solo albums.

In addition to his solo work, Hillis is the lead guitarist for Philadelphia-based IKE, a pop/rock band headed by John Faye, formally of The Caufields. He also is the guitarist for Philadelphia-based songwriter Brian Seymour.It was during those three years that he had a “creative spurt,” accounting for many of the songs on the new album.In addition to the new tunes, one song, “Better Than Myself,” is actually from his time with the power-pop trio Starbelly in the late '90s. It was re-recorded with his current band - the Forward Thinkers - and found its way onto the album.A little slice of Delaware is also attached to the album through its title: “Better Living Through Compression.” It's a play off an old DuPont advertising slogan: “Better Things for Better Living ... Through Chemistry,” says Hillis, a graduate of Cape Henlopen High School.

Hillis has even seen some of his songs make it to Hollywood. His sweet sounds have landed his tunes on films and television, including 2000's “After Sex“ starring Brooke Shields, 2002's “Enough“ with Jennifer Lopez and the Oxygen network's “Good Girls Don't.“That kind of exposure can help an indie musician get a big break. When the Australian band Jet had their song “Are You Gonna Be My Girl“ featured in an iPod commercial, it catapulting them from a band with buzz to a band with a legion of fans.

Without connections to media conglomerate Clear Channel or millions of dollars in promotion money, using television, movies and commercials to get your songs to the public can be key, Hillis says.It also helps to have admirers in high places. That's why Hillis is hoping Schlesinger - part of the team behind the hit song “Stacey's Mom” - takes a listen to his disc sometime.Besides his work with Fountains of Wayne, Schlesinger (an Academy Award nominee for “That Thing You Do”) does a lot of producing in his New York studio.

“It would be a goal for me for him to produce me someday,” Hillis says. >