Royal Oak native Bob Mervak talks about making a living as a musician in Metro Detroit and what it’s like producing with his high school friend Kristen Bell.
By Amanda Rahn
Photography by Jennie Warren
When most people think of a successful musician, they think of someone famous like Lady Gaga, says Bob Mervak, a local jazz pianist — but that leaves out thousands of successful music makers.
“Many musicians have found a way to making a living through music, not by selling out arenas, but not busking on the street corner, either,” Mervak says. “People don’t realize there’s a middle ground to being a successful musician.”
Mervak, 40, has created podcast theme songs, worked as a hired studio instrumentalist for other musicians, performed music with Michael Bolton, played a small role in a George Clooney movie, scored the 2012 Dax Shepard film “Hit and Run” and much more.
Making it work isn’t easy, though. “It’s full-time hustling,” he says. “It can be anywhere from a $100 gig at a bar to a corporate event or studio work or playing music on someone else’s album.”
His interest in music started with the piano in his childhood home in Royal Oak. “My parents had a piano, and I started playing it at 5 years old,” he says. “I remember being fascinated by it — by the whole span of sounds it could make. But I will say that I’ve always had guitar envy.”
While he wishes he was more talented at playing the guitar, the music he’s recorded features a prevalent piano and his own strong, full voice. He describes it as “Ben Folds-esque” with influences from jazz heavy hitters and music-focused singer-songwriters like John Mayer.
“It’s certainly piano-driven, singer-songwriter stuff,” he says.
Mervak doesn’t have definite plans to record something new soon, but he and actress Kristen Bell, his high school friend, recently collaborated on a silly, but surprisingly instrumentally complex, children’s song called “Oopsies, I Farted.”
“Her daughter Lincoln sings all the time, and organically we just started writing these alternative kids’ songs,” he says, adding they plan to put out an album in the future.
The two met at Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak and did musical theater together, eventually becoming close friends.
“I remember when we met — she had bangs and baby barrettes,” he says. “She was always a wonderful person. When she went to NYU and I went to Wayne State University, I would go out and visit her in the city.”
Producing music for Bell and her husband, Dax Shepard, has brought them closer, he says.
“For a while, I was against that — I didn’t want to feel like I was using this friendship — but then I realized that I hit up my friends here all the time for work, and I really think it’s enhanced our friendship,” he adds.
Mervak also produced the theme song for Shepard’s popular podcast Armchair Expert. Shepard records the podcast at events across the country, and Mervak will accompany him and perform the theme song live.
Mervak says touring with Shepard, though minimal, is another reason he’s happy with the way his music career is shaping up. Yet being away from his wife, Isabel, and their two children, Ada, 3, and Pierce, 1, in Southfield is difficult.
“Maybe when I first started I had more of a chance of making it big, of being a Lady Gaga, but now I’m 40 and balding,” he laughs. “When I was a kid, that would have been fun — but right now, I would love to release an R&B album and play some smaller venues.”
At the moment, he’s busy making sure his children grow up with what he calls “a healthy Beatles education.” It might be easier for the Mervaks to surround their children with music than the typical family, since both Bob and Isabel sing and play music.
Ada is also a fan of the Disney movie “Frozen,” which features Bell’s voice, but Mervak says his daughter hasn’t yet realized the family friend is behind some of her favorite songs.
He says he’s sure she’ll figure it out sooner or later.