Ross Golan is a Chicago-based songwriter who has written for the likes of Ariana Grande (“Dangerous Woman”), Nicki Minaj (“Marilyn Monroe”), Maroon 5 (“Wipe Your Eyes”), P!nk (“Barbies”), Michael Bublé (“Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow”), Justin Bieber (“Take You”), Selena Gomez (“Same Old Love”), Lady Antebellum (“Compass”), and Flo Rida (“My House”)—having scored No. 1s on Billboard, iTunes, and in the Top 40, and even earning the title of Songwriter of the Year at the BMI Awards in 2016. If you haven’t seen him before, you’ve probably heard him.
Golan’s also a podcast host (interviewing fellow songwriters on And the Writer Is…), a record producer, and an advocate for songwriters’ visibility in the music industry. This year, he became the first songwriter on the board of the National Music Publishers’ Association. (And although we didn’t interview him for this reason, he has also played hockey in White Bear Lake and gone to summer camp in Bemidji.)
While juggling these roles, Golan has worked for 14 years on a personal and political side-project, The Wrong Man. It started off as a song that he played for friends, then he expanded its story into a concept album, which became an underground phenomenon. Until The Wrong Man album hit streaming services at the end of July, the only way to hear it was to see it performed live in unconventional settings, such as lofts and offices—and the only way to see those performances was to hear about them through the grapevine. But soon, anyone will be able to see The Wrong Man: It hits the stage as a Broadway musical in October, with a star-studded cast and creative team, including both the director and the musical director behind Hamilton.
For Golan, touring the album has been intimate for more than just the one-man setup: He met his wife when she saw him perform The Wrong Man in someone’s living room (listen to this episode of his podcast for more details on that meet-cute). Everyone involved in the recording of the album first saw it in a living room, too.
On August 1, Tattersall Distilling served as Minneapolis’ venue during the brief tour, with lights draped over barrels and only a few rows of folding chairs. Although the album had gone public less than a week prior, some in the audience mouthed the words as Golan spun the tale of Duran, a Reno native whose one-night stand ultimately leads to his wrongful incarceration.
You put Tom Waits and Eminem together, and you get The Wrong Man—that’s how Golan would describe the show, and it’s accurate. The Wrong Man album will break your heart and get stuck in your head. And, while it’s stuck in your head, it will get you thinking about the criminal justice system. (One in 25 defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent. Golan’s story may be fictional, but it has a very real foundation.)
Tickets are available now for The Wrong Man’s Broadway debut at MCC Theater. In the meantime, the album is available to purchase or stream on all platforms.
You’re from the Midwest, too—Chicago. Did you come to the Cities growing up?
I grew up off 94, just six hours that way. I sang when I was 16 at the Mall of America; there’s a picture of me somewhere in my mom’s house wearing a sequined cummerbund and bowtie, because I was in a show choir. So, I’ve come a long way.
Why did you get started in songwriting?
I mean, I was lonely, I was in high school, I didn’t have friends. You start half writing honestly, and also you start writing because you want to write songs that are fun to sing. I don’t even know why or how I got the recording equipment. It was what you would call a Tascam; it was this old tape player with some knobs on it. I must’ve read a book or something about it, because I know no one knew how to do it, and there wasn’t YouTube. By the time I got to college, it was what I did. I was the songwriter guy in the dorm.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, it was called “Steve the Dog.” There were some songs once I got to college that were a little more real, but it’s really vulnerable. The songs in high school that meant something—I think I had a good year and a half of solitude in high school and spent a lot of time writing by myself. I don’t think anyone’s ever heard those. But once I started feeling confident showing people, I started getting competitive with composition and trying to make the songs great. I didn’t want my name attached to something that sucks.
Why did you want to write The Wrong Man?
I really am fascinated with murder ballads, and so many murder ballads are written from the perspective that the singer and the protagonist is guilty. It’s so rare that there’s a song about a guy who doesn’t do it. So, I went into writing that, and that was 2005. It was just everyone’s favorite song that I had, and I would go and hang out with friends and write one song at a time, and just start telling the story. I started figuring it out, and what turned out to be workshopping the piece for years, not knowing that was what I was doing. It’s taken on a life of its own.
Was Broadway always the goal?
I didn’t have any goals at that time. My first record deal was in 2004, when that first album came out called Reagan Baby, and a lot of the songs on it were political in nature. Having come from Illinois, Governor Ryan had put a stay on all executions because of how corrupt the criminal justice system is in Illinois. I thought that was interesting, and just went down this rabbit hole in my head of “I just want to tell this story.” When you’re broke, you have a lot of time to write, so once I finished the basic part of the story, which is probably about nine or 10 songs, that’s when I started playing it in people’s living rooms as “Hey, do you want to see The Wrong Man?” I would play The Wrong Man in these people’s houses, and they would say, “Hey, why don’t you come play it at my house?” or wherever it was on the planet, but it was opening so many doors for me, and my career took off partly because of people loving this piece, even if I never recorded it until now.
Why play this piece in living rooms?
I think what I wanted to do was continue to tell this story in a way that was entertaining to the people who wanted to see it. Even though I’d written songs where they were in arenas or stadiums, something about telling a story for three people creates an environment where they feel like they need to tell someone about that experience. It’s so rare to create something worthy of talking about, so to present it in an environment that’s unusual was always the goal. I never performed it in a club, always unique locations, and by design. Lofts or offices or wherever they were—it was always somewhere that hopefully the people watching it are in a location where their senses are heightened, where they have to pay attention, where they’re not sure what they’re doing.
I think it’s cool that you still play small venues like Tattersall, even now.
How cool is that though? And I come home, and I feel satisfied as a human. I’ve sold a lot of songs; the money part is not why I’m doing this, and that’s what’s so fun about it. I can go and remind myself why I’m doing this. My day job? I had a song released at midnight last night, the Pitbull single [“3 to Tango”]. He performed it on Good Morning Americathis morning. So bizarre. A younger me would be like “Wow, that’s a huge accomplishment,” but that’s his career. My job as a writer is to make sure that he’s able to perform songs that are entertaining for his audience, so it’s so fun that I can go here and play an intimate show for people who are going to walk away passionate, and know that my day job is happening elsewhere in the world.
How does writing The Wrong Man compare to the writing that you do for others?
It’s funny, there are certain lyrics where—obviously the chorus of “Dangerous Woman,” I wasn’t going to do. But if I wrote that chorus now, I wonder if I would say, “You know, I’m going to save that for a musical.” In The Wrong Man [album] and The Wrong Man show, the choruses are things that I easily could have saved for something that would be, quote, “commercially viable.” The fact that this is commercially viable without needing a name of a pop star attached to it, that’s pretty cool, it’s encouraging. You can have these sort of grand chorus ideas—there’s a lyric in the show that’s not in the album, “How do you get over a broken heart, you gotta get going around it.” That’s easily a lyric that I could use in the pop realm, but it makes sense in the show, so it’s nice that there’s an avenue for me. I saved my best stuff for The Wrong Man album and show. Obviously I don’t phone in my day job, but it’s not like I was thinking I should just tell this story and could do it so fast. Each song takes time, each song had that a-ha moment when I got the chorus.
You keep referring to your day job as kind of a means for you to make The Wrong Man.
My wife and I have talked about [this]. I keep forgetting that The Wrong Man could make money. It’s something that has been there since before I had money. The other stuff makes sense, because you write a song, it comes out, you see a check within an 18-month or two-year period. If something’s taken 14 years and you’ve never made any money from it, then the assumption is that it’s there only to entertain, but that’s not the correct assumption apparently.
How are you turning this one-man show into a full-cast musical?
The musical thing is still evolving, I think that’s what’s going to be exciting for people who listen to the album. They’ll listen to it like they just read a book that they love, and they’ll go see the musical just like they go see that movie adaptation of the book. It’s vastly different because the perspectives of the characters from when I’m singing the album is singular, and when they’re on stage, they each have their own moments. All the characters have their time to actually have their own empathetic view of the world. So they have different songs, the songs are in a different order, the verses are different, the choruses are different. It’s still evolving. Until opening night on October 7, I can still add things, I can still change things. That’s the other thing: As an industry, we’re trying to record a song on Friday, release it on Friday, hope that it lasts another Friday, and then it’s done. That’s a really short lifespan when we grew up listening to albums that would last for 18 months. So the idea that this has lasted for any amount of time, let alone 14 years, because I never recorded it, means that it’s living beyond us having this conversation.
Is it weird to pass on your role in The Wrong Man after all this time?
Oh, not if you see them. I always thought I was the only human on the planet who could perform it—and then there’s Josh Henry and Ryan Vasquez and Ciara Renée, and it’s a different talent. They have to do it eight times a week for the entire run. Who can sing like that? These people are just machines, and they’re amazing. They bring out this emotion, and they’re authentic. I’m a 5’10” Jewish white guy. Josh is not a 5’10” Jewish white guy. He has a whole other take on the role. So it’s exciting to have: when I’m performing it, it means something; when Josh performs it, it means something; when Ryan performs it, it means something. Again, my day job is—Flo Rida’s doing “My House,” which is about me not going out with my wife. You know what I mean? I’m used to other people singing my songs and being like “Hey, yeah, that’s awesome.” There will always be the recording of me doing it now. So I’m good to go.
How did you manage to get Hamilton’s former director Thomas Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire on board?
I don’t know. These guys are amazing, they’re no joke. First thing I wake up to is Tommy texting me, because he’s checking on every single show I’m doing on this tour. You know, he’s wonderful and encouraging. And he has a photographic memory and is scary, because you can’t get anything by him. You can’t be like “What if I write this lyric, maybe he won’t notice?” He will notice. And Lac is literally the best music director that exists right now. There’s no music director who can do what Lac does. And the guys get offers to do everything, so for this to be the first show since Hamilton, with this cast, and with Rachel Hauck doing the set design who did Hadestown, and the sound designer Nevin Steinberg who did Hadestown, and the band from Dear Evan Hanson, Travis Wall, as the choreographer—it all sounds like a joke. There’s 95% impostor syndrome going on with this whole thing.
Do you have a favorite musical?
No, but I grew up doing musicals. The cool part of musicals, when they’re done right, you’d watch it and you’d walk away singing it. That’s a quality composer with great lyrics and melodies. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood the importance of the book part of the musical, that the story matters. There are a lot of good writers—Sondheim, though, is just the best. I grew up listening to that. I used to say that when I’d be in sessions, people would ask who our favorite songwriters are, and I would throw out Sondheim and these other guys would say Biggie, or Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, Gamble and Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Brill Building. Tom Waits is the greatest lyricist—I think—of my lifetime. You put Tom Waits and Eminem together, that’s how I would love for people to describe The Wrong Man. That would be just perfect. With maybe some more hooks in it.
You’re doing work with the Innocence Project, an organization that exonerates the wrongfully convicted using DNA testing and strives to reform the criminal justice system. Can you tell me more about that?
Jason Flom, who’s on the board of the Innocence Project, is a music executive who signed Katy Perry, Jewel, Kid Rock. We did an animated film of The Wrong Man that hasn’t come out yet, and we premiered it at Tribeca Film Festival. After that we had a panel hosted by me and Jason, and we had Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five guys, and Noura Jackson, who was in prison for 11 years for killing her mother. Here’s this upper middle class white woman who was railroaded by the system, and Yusef Salaam, whose story is famous now on Netflix [When They See Us], and others. He said to me right before we did the Tribeca Film Festival thing, “I always wanted to be a rapper, then everything happened. But I rapped in court.” I said “do you know the rap?” So, he does it in front of everybody, and all the record execs are there, all the sudden it’s like, “Hey, let’s do a record.” We’re trying to figure out how to record it now. I think as The Wrong Man grows, there’s going to be more and more responsibility to make sure that we continue to shine a light on the problem of the judicial system primarily aiming at people of color over white people. It’s not even close: seven times more likely that someone of color is going to be incarcerated and on death row. That’s an insane statistic. We have to make some changes. If The Wrong Man opens up some doors for that conversation, then great.
Anything else you want to say?
All I want is for people to listen to the album from front to finish, as focused as they can listen to an album from front to finish. I don’t want them to cherry-pick songs. As I’ve said to some friends, if you like it, share it. If you don’t, donate it to Goodwill. So far it’s been really exciting to see people spending the time to listen to it and share it with friends. Because it’s not mine anymore; it’s yours, too.