They call him the “sixth member” of Aerosmith because he’s been the Boston-based band’s touring keyboardist for more than a decade.
Or, as Russ Irwin likes to put it, he’s been “looking at Steven Tyler’s (derriere) for 15 years.”
Irwin is a New York-born singer-songwriter and producer who’s also worked with a stellar list of other artists, including Sting, Clay Aiken, Bryan Adams and Duncan Shiek, to name but a few.
He’ll be onstage with Aerosmith when the band kicks off the next leg of its “Global Warming Tour” Thursday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
But when the tour is over, Irwin is primed to focus on his own solo career — which has been on hold since a false start in 1991. That was the year his self-titled debut album was released. His sophomore effort, “Get Me Home,” was just released in May.
So, what took so long to get that follow-up out?
“Well, I was signed to a record deal when I was 20 years old, and the record that was made then was sort of put through the big machine,” Irwin said last week in a phone interview from New York City.
“The big machine” he was referring to was the corporate record label to which he was obligated, SBK/EMI. Irwin’s eponymous album was produced by Phil Ramone (Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Billy Joel) and its first single, “My Heart Belongs to You,” actually made it into the Top 40.
But Irwin wasn’t happy with the sound that resulted from the way they’d over-processed his music in the studio.
“(The album) didn’t turn out in the best way that represented me, I felt. And after that I went off and did different things. You know, writing with different people and touring and producing, and I actually never stopped recording my own music and writing my own music.
“But I also never made a fully completed album of 10 songs,” he said.
“I did a couple of EPs and stuff, but this is the first time where I really, like, started with a blank slate and went in open to creating something from scratch, completely new, and really doing what I always wanted to do, which was make a piano record and a singer-songwriter record that really represented me as an artist.”
This time, with a little help from such friends as Aerosmith’s Tyler and Brad Whitford, Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean DeLeo and Grammy-nominated trumpeter Chris Botti, and Irwin himself at the production helm, he made an album which he accurately describes as “a singer-songwriter piano record.”
“It’s an old sort of retro-modern, bluesy piano record very much in the style of, like, Elton or Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder. That was the stuff that I grew up listening to, loving, and that was the reason why I started playin’ piano, was because of those guys. Those are the guys who made me wanna write songs when I was a kid. So it was really like it was me getting in touch with my roots. And doing it for the real love of music again. It’d been a long time coming. I’ve felt that way about music since I was a kid.”
Meanwhile, Aerosmith fans who might now be interested in hearing Irwin’s handiwork can check out “What Could Have Been Love,” a high-emotion power-ballad typical of the band from “Music from Another Dimension,” the new Aerosmith album released Tuesday. Irwin co-wrote the song with Tyler and Marti Frederiksen, and he plays and sings on the album track.
Fans will no doubt get the chance to hear the song live on Thursday night at Chesapeake, with Irwin on keyboards and backing vocals behind Tyler.
“You know, I am close with them,” Irwin said. “I love those guys a lot, you know? They’re great musicians and they’ve been really great friends to me and it’s been great working with them, you know? They’re really a pleasure.
“They’re great because I wouldn’t have stayed with them so long if they weren’t so great. Steve and I have a real musical connection, we sing really great together. I think we both have a lot of respect for the band. I think they have a lot of respect for me and we’ve just made some great music together over the last 15 years.”
Solo stardom for Irwin coming soon, with any luck.