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Why Todd Rundgren traded stardom for substance

Early in Todd Rundgren's career, he decided that being musically unique was more important and satisfying than being popular.

"I came to a point where I realized it was fruitless for me to make music that other people could make just as well," he explains. "I had to make music that other people weren't making, in order to justify my musical existence."

That's the approach the artist has followed since the early '70s, when his third solo effort, the landmark double-album Something/Anything? put him on the cusp of major stardom. Songs like the hit singles "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" proved his gift for writing concise and indelible pop gems. His work was frequently compared to that of Carole King, the master pop songwriter who had soared to the top of the charts with her blockbuster Tapestry album.

At the time, Rundgren was well aware that continuing in the same vein could have made him one of the era's biggest stars.

"But I don't know if it builds the loyalty that being a little bit more bold does," he says. "It looked like I was building up a giant, wide, but shallow fan base through Something/Anything? and the hit singles on the radio. And then, when I pull a stunt like [1973's] A Wizard, A True Star, it essentially culls out all of the shallowest part of the audience, and leaves you with the really committed listener. And so a lot of my fans have been following what I've done for decades. It's the reason why I still have a career."

Rundgren has recorded more accessible albums along the way, while producing artists that have ranged from Hall & Oates to Grand Funk Railroad. But his musical wanderlust still resurfaces periodically. Next month, for instance, he'll be releasing the one-track, 39-minute Runddans, an edgy collaboration with European electronic artists Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen.

Meanwhile, there's his 25th solo album Global, released earlier this week, which finds Rundgren playing all the instruments. Guitars are almost entirely absent — replaced by synthesizers, sequencers, computers and programmed rhythms — on what might otherwise have come across as a fairly conventional, albeit equally appealing, pop collection.

"In the old days, we used to struggle to achieve some of the sounds that you imagined hearing," says Rundgren of his enthusiasm for electronic. "Now it's kind of a riot of possibilities out there."

Despite his use of modern technology, Rundgren feels Global has more in common with synth-pop releases from acts like Depeche Mode.

"If I had to characterize this record, I'd say it's almost like an '80s record. It does depend on somewhat large textures, and sequencers playing things that aren't really humanly possible to play. But that's all part of what makes it interesting."

Thematically, Global's lyrics center on Rundgren's concerns about the environmental impact of climate change.

"That's pretty much the core of the record," he says. "In a lot of ways, throughout the record, I'm trying to be a cheerleader rather than a scolder. It will lapse into scolding every once in a while, but for the most part I think healing the planet should be a joyful kind of work."



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