It’s not so much a departure as a homecoming for Joe Romeo, the songwriter and Orange County Volunteers frontman who’s speaking now from his family home in Metuchen, N.J., about 25 miles Southeast of New York City. Romeo left the Triangle—and his girlfriend in Chapel Hill—last weekend to seek his fortune in the city, “to broaden my horizons,” he says.
Where his N.C. ensemble, The Orange County Volunteers, was a loosely assembled and hardly constant backing band—“I would just book shows willy-nilly and whoever I could get to come along would come along,” he says. “They’re like minutemen and women.”—his Big Apple back-up draws consistently from Romeo’s lifelong friends in Metuchen Americana outfit The Roadside Graves. But as much as a consistent band eases some of the logistical issues of performing, Romeo admits he’d still choose the spontaneity of a loose collective like the Volunteers. “Breathing new life into [the songs] is vital to stay with them, and to get behind them,” he says.
He’s hoping the move to New York will offer a change of scenery, yes, but also provide opportunity for his songs to reach a new audience, and maybe even become a career. “I lived in New Jersey for the first 22 years of my life, and I feel like I’ve gotten from this state all it has to offer to me,” he says. And in North Carolina, things were languishing in the status quo. “New York is New York, and by the law of averages alone, there’s more opportunity.”
Romeo makes his official move to Manhattan in October, when the apartment he’s lined up becomes available. In the meantime, though, he’s spending time with family and old friends, “writing like crazy” and working on a new record he hopes will be produced—like his self-titled debut—by Southern Culture On The Skids frontman Rick Miller.
“I’m trying to write a new batch of songs, which I guess is easier to do when you’re pining for someone,” he says, referencing the girlfriend still in Chapel Hill finishing work on her Ph.D., and whom Romeo describes as “lovely and smart, hence my fucking reticence to be separated from her.”
But despite his reasons for coming back, this isn’t necessarily a permanent relocation: “The overarching point is that making music is a series of tiny, tiny victories and demoralizing defeats, and you gotta be in it—I don’t wanna say ‘to win it,’ ’cause that’s lame—but you’ve got to stay relevant.”