This musical journey has been something of a whirlwind for Appelblatt, who had never performed for an audience until two years ago. “Before I closed the business I made a goal that I wanted to do an open mic,” he said.
What he lacked in musical training (he had barely picked up the guitar since high school), he made up for in enthusiasm. For the most part, Appelblatt taught himself the guitar with a little help from some YouTube videos. Appelblatt would occasionally jam in his basement with a buddy.
Eventually, Appelblatt gathered the courage to go to an open mic night at Nag’s Head Ale House in Huntington, though he had another obstacle to overcome. “Getting in front of an audience was always something I was terrified of,” Appelblatt said. “But I like to tackle things I’m terrified of. I had a phobia of snakes and got over that, and it [having snakes] turned into an obsession.”
His original plan was to just watch the other performers at Nag's Head, but seeing one of the musicians make mistakes during his gig gave Appelblatt a confidence boost.
“I felt like, hey, if I mess up it’s not the biggest thing in the world. People at the bar weren’t even paying attention," he said. "I figured he messed up and nobody even cares, so I thought, I’ve got to do this.”
He played four songs, all covers of other artists, including John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses." By the end of the night, Appelblatt felt energized.
At 50, Robert Appelblatt is gearing up this summer for the planned release of his first album, "Weathervane." Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon
“I was going through a mini-depression because the passion I had put into my work wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “After I did that first open mic, my mini depression went away for three or four days. Then I did another one.”
Soon he was going to open mics as often as five times a week, but playing songs by other artists didn’t completely fulfill him. When he learned that one of his favorite singers, Americana artist Jackie Green, was going to be a guest instructor at singer Steve Earle’s summer songwriting camp at Camp Copperhead in upstate New York, he signed up.
“They didn’t teach you, this is how you write a song. It was very conversational,” Appelblatt said of the various workshops he attended along with 70 others ranging from hobbyists to working musicians. “Everybody would explain their process. So I took bits and pieces of people’s processes and put it into my own process.”
One method was to jot down interesting thoughts or phrases whenever they popped into his brain. “Inspiration comes from my subconscious mind. I’ll wake up at 3 or 5 in the morning and put a couple of words together or a melody. I learned that if I wake up and have a thought in my head and go back to sleep, I will never remember it. So I learned to write that stuff down or use an app on the phone and record it.”
In no time, he had written about a dozen songs and, after going back to the camp last summer, he penned another four songs. Then he wondered, what was he going to do with them?
A friend from the camp liked Appelblatt’s songs and encouraged him to contact Steve Werbelow, a record producer pal based in Nashville. The idea intimidated Appelblatt, but he reached out — and the two clicked immediately.
Werbelow advised Appelblatt to come to Nashville for five days with four songs he might want to record. “He said we haven’t worked together. If we don’t jell, you’re not going to want to do a whole album,” Appelblatt said.
He also got the approval of his wife, Danielle. “I thought he was a little crazy, but I wanted him to follow his dream. He’s always wanted to write his own songs. I’m so proud of him and what he has created,” she said.
After those five days, Appelblatt told Werbelow he wasn’t ready to go home. He called Danielle and said he would be spending another two weeks working in the recording studio with Werbelow and backup musicians. Once again, she gave her support. It didn’t hurt that she loved the songs.
“I’ve heard them all and they sound fabulous,” she said. “It’s been very exciting watching them go from thoughts on paper to a very cool song that I’d listen to on the radio.
Werbelow agrees and thinks Appelblatt has a real future in the music business.
“His strong point is his storytelling,” said Werbelow. “His songs all have a really good story.”
He was particularly struck by “Weathervane,” a song about a musician who travels, as Appelblatt puts it, “wherever the wind takes him.”
“I had never heard the word ‘weathervane’ in a song before. It’s such a unique lyric,” said Werbelow. “He’s very passionate when he plays and when he sings he’s in the moment. He’s very Bruce Springsteen-esque.”
The album is already gaining some traction. Earlier this month, WLVR/91.3 FM, a station based at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, played two of Appelblatt's tracks, "Weathervane" and "Thunder Mountain," about a tough war veteran who once raced cars. (For more on the album, go to robappelblatt.com.)
While Werbelow admitted that becoming a recording artist at 50 is an obstacle, it’s not insurmountable. “The type of music he’s playing, he’s not going after the Taylor Swift pop crowd,” Werbelow said. “I hope something gets picked up for an indie film or a TV commercial and gets some buzz that way.”
The idea of such a break hasn’t been lost on Appelblatt.
“The dream scenario is to release it, put it out there, set it free, and hope that people like it and maybe there’s a way for some sort of money,” he said. “Maybe a bigger artist will want to cover one of my songs.
"I love the idea of playing music for people and that it means something to them, that it will give them the ability to escape from their lives and that they can connect with one of my songs.”