Tag: Joni Mitchell
Ah, the sixties — we had the passion, we had the vision. We did not have the food. A relic dating back to 1971 bears that out, a little pamphlet called Earth Food. It features a handful of earthy, earnest recipes including Nut Savory “A treat from England” — no one’s idea of a culinary hotspot (continue reading…)
Song: Walk With Me
Album: Le Noise (Deluxe Version)
Song: It’s Oh So Quiet
Song: I’m an Old Cowhand
Album: Ride Ranger Ride
Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & The M.G.’s)
Album: Melting Pot
Song: Hear My Train a Comin’
Album: Valleys of Neptune
Song: Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (Titoli) (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)
Album: 50 Movie Theme Hits: Gold Edition
Rickie Lee Jones
Song: The Last Chance Texaco
Album: The Duchess of Coolsville
Song: So Hard to Share
Album: The Turning Point
Song: Looking for the Right One
Song: Happy Birthday 1975
Song: My Sugar Is So Refined
Album: Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Song: The Tennessee Waltz
Album: Patti Page: Golden Hits
Tina Turner and Ike Turner
Song: I Smell Trouble
Album: Sing the Blues
Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Aaron Copland (& The London Symphony Orchestra)
Song: Symphony No. 3: III. Andantino Quasi Allegretto
Album: The Copland Collection: Orchestral & Ballet Works, 1936-1948
Song: Baby I Need Your Lovin’ (Live)
Album: The Ed Sullivan Show – 1967
Song: I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
Album: Swing Era
Song: Blues for the Oldest Profession
Album: For Quiet Lovers
Brother Joe May
Song: Mercy Lord
Album: When Gospel Was Gospel
A Conversation with Thomas Dolby
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Thomas. As you know, this conversation will be in The Huffington Post, but it is also airing on solar-powered KRUU-FM, and you’re calling in from a “solar lifeboat,” right?
Thomas Dolby: Yes, I am. I have a studio in a converted lifeboat in my garden, which is on the beach facing the North Sea between England and Holland. It’s a thirties ship’s lifeboat, which is powered by a wind turbine and two solar panels on the roof.
MR: Beautiful. You’re very eco-conscious, in addition to being on the side of technology. when did you start incorporating elements of this into your lifestyle?
TD: Well, if you can think back as far as ’81, I had a single on The Golden Age Of Wireless called “Windpower” which, in those days, nobody knew what on earth I was talking about. But over the years, people have become a bit more conscious about it and I’ve tried to keep up. Among other things I do, I’m the music director of an organization called TED or Technology, Education and Design, which is at ted.com. That’s an annual get together of people sort of figuring out how to save the planet. So, I’m very well versed in the latest thinking about the ecology.
MR: Let’s definitely get more into TED in a bit, but let’s first get fans caught up with recent releases. You’ve had your first two albums remastered and reissued with tons of bonus tracks by the international division of EMI. Were you involved in the process?
TD: Yeah. I guess EMI, being one of the remaining big labels, monitors illegal downloads, and especially those that are on CDs that they no longer have in print, and when there is enough popularity, that gets them to re-release that catalog. So, my first two albums have actually been out of print for a couple of years, and EMI decided that, given the number of illegal downloads of songs like “She Blinded Me With Science,” it was time to re-release them. So, they came to me and asked if I would be involved in the mastering process, and I said, “Yes, but there was a bunch of extra material from both of those periods that never actually made it on the album. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d actually like to put a new package together.”
MR: And it’s nice that “Urges” and “Leipzig” finally are restored to the album since they were removed to accommodate the singles “She Blinded Me With Science” and “One Of Our Submarines.” Plus, you added the original guitar version of “Radio Silence,” demos for “Sale Of The Century” and “Pedestrian Walkway,” and many others. It’s such a nice celebration of your first album, and that also goes for The Flat Earth that’s been expanded and remastered as well. Now, as you said earlier, you’re involved with this TED project. Can you go into that a little further?
TD: TED is an annual event that takes place in California, and it’s now an annual, global event that takes place in Oxford in the summer. TED has been around for twenty-five years or more, and they were originally a very elitist, Silicon Valley organization. It cost a lot to get into, you had to know somebody, and for four days, it was a lot of rather hedonistic back patting among technologists and investors and so on. When it was taken over by Chris Anderson about ten years ago, he decided to take the great concept of TED and take it out to the masses. So, TED is still very exclusive and very expensive to get into the live event; but at ted.com, you can get downloaded videos on most of the new TED talks, and they’re absolutely fascinating. People of all persuasions are completely addicted to TED because it’s great for taking on your iPod on your commute or watching while you work out, and it’s just fantastic content. It’s free, and there’s really nothing else like it on the web, especially since there is no commercial or government agenda to it. It’s just brilliant people trying to think up ways to make life better.
MR: Have any governments actually used any of the ideas that have come out of this brain trust?
TD: Yes. Ironically, in the U.K., Gordon Brown came when he was Prime Minister to get some ideas, but it didn’t help him with the last election (laughs). David Cameron spoke the following year. Also, Bill Clinton came and spoke, and Al Gore came and spoke. In fact, Al Gore actually used TED as a platform to sort of try out his An Inconvenient Truth message before the movie came out, and Al comes to TED every year and is a great member of the community.
MR: Can you tell me how you became aware of TED, and how you became involved with the organization?
TD: I was invited to speak at TED in the early ’90s…I had just started developing music software in the Silicon Valley. I was taking a break from music at the time because I was getting kind of fed up with the state of the music business. So, I went to Silicon Valley, and I pursued some interest in technology and actually making it myself, as I had used it for a number of years. The first piece of software I wrote, which was an interactive music program, I was invited to debut at TED. A few years later, my friend, Chris Anderson, took the conference over, and I felt that music served a great purpose at TED because the intellectual stimulation at TED is so much over the course of four days that you really need a pallet cleanser every now and then or something to help you process what you’re hearing. I think music is a great little filler and really sets the mood. So, I became TED’s musical director, and what I now do is select artists to perform live at TED, some of them complete unknowns that I find on YouTube or CD baby, while others are very famous people like Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, and Natalie Merchant. So, we’ve had some great performances over the years.
MR: Thomas, in the U.S., we know you more as a video artist than “hit single” artist. Though it was a hit, “She Blinded Me With Science” is one of the most memorable videos of all time in the U.S.; “Hyperactive”–which you just couldn’t ply off of MTV with a crowbar–was another brilliant moment for video, and you did some video direction, didn’t you?
TD: I directed the “She Blinded Me With Science” video. “Hyperactive” was directed by my friend, Danny Kleinman, and I had a lot of input. But Danny’s a brilliant guy. You probably know him best these days as the guy who does the opening titles to the Bond films, which are brilliant. In the early days of MTV, it was very exciting to me that there was a different way to express yourself because my music, in the early ’80s, was not initially getting a lot of play on the radio in the U.S.; and to be perfectly frank, I never considered myself a mainstream artist. When I was a teenager, my favorite artists were very obscure cult acts like Frank Zappa, Dan Hicks, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell, who were highly respected, but very hard to categorize, and were really a nightmare for the record company marketing guys because they refused to be pigeonholed, and that was what I aspired to be, really. So, it was a real surprise to me when “She Blinded Me With Science” broke the mold for me. I was quite happily going along being an obscure cult artist, then suddenly, I had a Top Five Billboard hit, and it was all over the radio as well. It’s really because of the radio being on MTV and the song being played in dance clubs. The song crossed over. That was really a surprise to me because I never expected to be there. Over the years, I’ve tended to put my commercial efforts in the direction of other artists, but I’m happy to be out there in the lime light, playing with the stars. I’ve played on a couple of Def Leppard albums, I wrote and produced a rap track for Houdini–which was one of the first platinum selling, twelve inch rap records ever–and over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of work for other people’s records. But my own records, I never really set out for them to be commercially successful. I’m really quite happy if my music is known and loved by just a small group of people.
MR: Well, perhaps it’s your fans, I guess more than you, who kind of wish that you had been more of a radio or pop staple. You mentioned before about production and producing other people, and I think most people are very familiar with all the groups you mentioned. But another act that people might know less about is Prefab Sprout, and you were also behind the scenes on Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog album. What was the Joni experience like for you? By the way, you can hear all the Dolby trademark “sounds” all over that record.
TD: Yeah, it was a great experience. I had adored Joni since I was a teenager, and I knew a lot of her songs by heart. So, it was a terrific honor to be invited to work with her. The album was co-produced by myself and Larry Klein–who she (was) married to, and Mike Shipley along with Joni herself. To be perfectly frank, it was a missed experience because I think, being a keyboard player, I didn’t want to kick Joni out of bed, as it were. It is her instrument, so, I didn’t want to do too much, and I think she referred to it as “Interior decoration of her record,” so it was a slightly mixed result. But looking back on it, I think it was a landmark record for her, and certainly a great experience for me, too.
MR: I think Dog Eat Dog and The Hissing of Summer Lawns were major turning points for her. Dog Eat Dog, to me, had so many moments on it that were just brilliant and politically bold, though it pissed off the acoustic and Blue crowds. “Fiction” was a great song, the first eighties song I can think of that took Madison Avenue to task; with “Tax Free,” she went after televangelists, and she just did a lot of heavy lifting on that record with regards to social consciousness. When you listened back to that, at the end, how did that record feel to you?
TD: I was very pleased with it, though it was not really what I expected. I mentioned in the past that Joni had had sidemen that influenced a whole period of her work, like Tom Scott during the time he was working with her. I had hoped that I could do the same, but there were a couple of factors against that happening. Larry Klein, who she was married to at the time, was just learning programming and so on, and I had a bit more experience with sampling than he did, so he was eager to pick up on that. I think beyond that record, Joni and Larry really took off with the sampling thing, and did a couple more records like that. But when I listen back to it, it was a time when Joni was, for one, angry with the world, and two, felt like enough of an activist that she could be a fly in the ointment and sort of do something about it. I think, sadly, while her most recent stuff has some very beautiful songs, she seems to have given up the hope, somehow, of ever changing the world, and that’s sad.
MR: Yeah, although, after we worked together on a box set of the Geffen albums, I also worked with her on a project called The Beginning of Survival which was intended to help try and affect change. I remember Joni called me at three o’clock in the morning because she had been listening to Pacifica Radio, which is this station in California that you’re probably aware of, right?
MR: Well, she calls me at three in the morning and requested Universal to do something about getting her music played on the station more since some of her contemporaries’ music was being played between interviews, news stories, etc. So, we conspired to assemble a new collection that focused on her socially conscious material as a way of reintroducing it to the public and stations like Pacifica. That was the genesis of The Beginning Of Survival. In my opinion, that body of music represents a period when Joni did believe she could help enlighten and affect the world. I think people should really try to listen to this set because one might just get inspired by it, and there are a couple of viewpoints presented that I know the public hasn’t really thought of yet.
TD: The thing is though, Michael, how many people get affected by music that becomes popular? And then, there’s another metric, which is how deeply are they affected by the music that they hear? When you see the charts and look at radio playlists and you see who’s popular, I think it’s kind of hard to gauge, sometimes, how far something has gotten under their skin. I think, to me, one of the great testaments to Joni Mitchell’s life and her work is that generations of female singer-songwriters since would put her right at the top of their list of their biggest influences–in their lyrics, in their music, and with their vocalizing. So, there is no fair metric by which to gauge the influence and the importance of somebody like Joni in the world.
MR: That’s so true, isn’t it? And she loves a debate.
MR: Thomas, let’s talk about what you’re working on lately. You’re recording a new album, but you also have EPs of some songs that will be released before Christmas. Can you give us a look into how you’re recording it, the musicians, all that?
TD: Well, it’s my first new studio music in nearly twenty years, and I’ve written most of the music in England in the wheelhouse of my solar powered lifeboat looking out over the North Sea, which is a very inspiring place to be. It’s been great to get back into music after quite a few years away in the Silicon Valley where I was doing the tech entrepreneur thing. I found that, making these new songs, I had very little interest in doing groove, sample, or sort of sequence-based music. There’s tens of thousands of people out there doing it, but what’s very rare is a great song, a great melody, or a great lyric, and I think that’s what sets me apart. So, in my maturity and wisdom, hopefully, I have focused on the songwriting itself, and these are songs that I could sit down and play you on the piano, and you’d get a full impression of them. So, there’s less focus on the production bells and whistles, and more focus on the essence or the source of the song itself. I’m about halfway through the album and it should be out early in 2011, but in order to keep the level of interest up on the Internet that has existed, even all these years I’ve been away, I decided to sneak peak preview these songs to my fan base online. So, if you’re a member of my online community, which is called The Flat Earth Society, you can get early access to some of these songs. And the first EP, that has just been released, is called Amerikana. There are three continents on the album, and the first is Amerikana. So, this is really an affectionate look back at the twenty years that I spent living in the U.S.A., and some of the great roots music from the heartland. But it’s definitely got an English, ironic twist to it.
MR: Speaking of your Amerikana EP, I love the set up to your song “Road To Reno”: “…you know you’re going on a wild ride when you have a crooked politician and a woman who sold brassieres at Sears.”
TD: Yeah, and it’s kind of a road movie idiom, but it’s directed, not by Quentin Tarantino, but by Guy Ritchie.
MR: When you’re composing songs, do you write them for the purpose of a project or are you just always writing?
TD: I think I’m very conscious, when I write a song, of where it’s going to go, and what the audience is going to be. My creative process usually starts with closing my eyes and visualizing a stage with an empty spotlight on it, and somebody walks into the spotlight and starts singing a song. What does it sound like? What would I like it to sound like? How is the instrumentation? What about the lyrics? So, I tend to work backwards like that, and not from the bottom up. If I’m writing a song for my new album, then I’m sort of thinking about where it’s going to go in the running order, and how it balances with the rest of the songs on the album. So, yes, I am usually quite conscious. But having said that, little ideas also come to me in the airport lounge, in the shower, driving my car, walking on the beach, feeding my cats or whatever it may be. These things come to me and won’t come out until I find a home for them.
MR: “Airwaves” is probably my favorite Thomas Dolby recording, though I’ve been trying to figure out the storyline for years. I have quite a few interpretations, but what did you write the song about?
TD: Well, in the first instance, it’s not always good to put the record to the true background of the song because one of the lovely things is that people fill in the blanks themselves. So, I think part of the role of a great song is that it provides a blank canvas where people can fill in their own emotions. “Airwaves,” I think, is a song which really is about the deep love and attachment that can come from a very stressful situation–like a wartime situation, under pressure. So, I think that’s really what it’s about. A lot of the symbolism in the song is just really sort of a poetic view of a wartime situation–the noises outside, the danger in the street, the idea that you’re hiding away, that your freedom is being restrained, maybe even taken away altogether, and the risk of being torn apart from somebody that you love. That’s really the backstory to “Airwaves.” I suppose in some of the details you can see this grim, sort of Blade Runnner-type society somewhere in the future, which is the backdrop to the lyric.
MR: Right, which also runs through some of your other songs like “One Of Our Submarines.” Also, on The Flat Earth, “Dissidents” was, I think, one of your more socially brilliant pieces.
TD: In a way, I sort of identify with the Russian dissident writer type, who, in spite of adversity, is determined to speak his mind. Again, it’s a situation of living that adversity or living with the fear of being shipped off the Siberia. So, on the surface, it’s a somewhat heroic song about escaping over the border. But I suppose the subtext really is, as an artist today, in a supposedly free society, I want to be able to say what I feel, and I want to be able to write the things I feel without feeling hemmed in. In this case, it’s not by a repressive government, it’s by the norms of the commercial music business; radio programmers telling me that there are too many guitars on the songs, and things like that. So yeah, “Dissidents” is definitely a heroic song, and a good one to kick off The Flat Earth.
MR: “I Scare Myself” was your cover of the old Dan Hicks song, right?
TD: Yeah, that’s right. It was a Dan Hicks song, and the way he used to do it was sort of up tempo. But I put a spooky, kind of downtown mood behind it, so I covered it that way.
MR: You also had “Hyperactive,” which we spoke about a little bit earlier. That video was pretty ground breaking, and for our readers it was the one with the cube headed kid. Did you write the script or was it already scripted for you?
TD: I sort of worked it out with Danny Kleinman. I’d had this idea about the cube head for a while, but we were in the early days of video effects, so it was kind of exciting to mix the physical effects of the cube head with the early digital effects.
MR: You know what’s beautiful? You change your artist image from album to album. On …Wireless, I would say you were a scientist or in the very least, a science student. Then, on The Flat Earth, you became a kind of archeologist.
TD: I think, on the second album, I definitely felt like a pioneer, an archeologist, or an outdoorsman rather than a scientist.
MR: On Aliens Ate My Buick, well, I don’t even know how to classify the character, really. You were just having some goofy fun on that, and it was all groove-centric.
TD: Well, it was really a postcard from America back to England because I had just moved there, and I had this great touring band that I put together that I found in the pages of Recycler magazine. We were playing a lot of clubs up and down the West coast, and the grooves on that album really grew out of touring with that band.
MR: The album features a great collaboration that you credited as “Dolby’s Cube.” What was its origin?
TD: You know, I wanted to do a fun track that was maybe a little outside the norm from what I would usually be doing, and that was “May The Cube Be With You,” which featured George Clinton–who I had already collaborated with and co-produced some songs for his album–and Lene Lovich, who I used to play keyboards for. So, between the three of us, we did Dolby’s Cube, and the song “May The Cube Be With You” and an accompanying video.
MR: And you wrote Lene’s “New Toy.”
TD: That’s right.
MR: Now, you played the Grammy awards one year with a variation of Dolby’s Cube, right? Who was a part of that?
TD: George Clinton wasn’t in it. It was myself, Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, and Herbie Hancock, and we did a sort of synth medley in ’85 at the Grammy Awards.
MR: It was a great moment because it was like the music business’ acknowledgment that, yes, we have other musics that should be spotlighted in that setting.
TD: Well, radio, in those days, was still playing a lot of FM rock bands, and synths were fairly novel still, so they had to play a medley with one hit by each of us followed by The National Anthem.
MR: Then you waited quite a few years and out comes Astronauts And Heretics, which is another brilliant album. I remember when it came out, there were many associated EP singles. I’ve wondered if you over recording for that album or if each time you released a single, did you record more material?
TD: Every time I mixed one of the songs, I would do sort of an alternate version of it. That’s when record companies were really big on having multiple imprints of each song or different versions with different single packages, and so on. That was all just an effort to get better chart positions. That’s one of the things that was upsetting me about the music industry, at the time, was that it felt really bloated, and I needed a chance. So, that’s really why I decided to go to Silicon Valley for a break, and pursue my own interest in technology. I formed a company called Beatnik, which, for years, did really, really cool stuff that made almost no money at all, and then ended up doing quite uncool stuff, which made lots and lots of money. We created the ring tone synthesizer, which is in every Nokia phone, and that became our business. That’s a much less interesting business to me, which is why I got out of it, and headed back over to England to get back into my musical roots.
MR: You know, I was always surprised that the whole ring tone thing took off like it did, though it was obvious the kids were going to love it. Why do you think people gravitated towards them?
TD: Well, it’s like having a certain brand name on your sneakers or your clothes. In fact, the music business was very confused at the time when ring tones first took off because they couldn’t get people to pay a buck to buy a song for a download, but people were happy to pay two-fifty for a little dinky version of the song to put on their cell phone. The reason was that it wasn’t the music budget it was coming out of, it was the fashion budget. If you are a fifteen-year-old kid standing in the mall and your phone goes off, you want it to sound cool. It’s just like the fact that you can get a perfectly good pair of sneakers for twenty bucks, but you’ll pay fifty-five for the sneakers with the brand name on them. So, I think it’s just a piece of exhibitionism that means people, in their vanity, will pay money to put a ring tone on their phone.
MR: Let’s get to your new album. What’s the name of it?
TD: My new album that I’m working on is called A Map Of The Floating City, and it’s going to be out in early 2011. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years already, and I’ve very into it, but I can’t quite stay up and burn the midnight oil like I did when I was twenty-one because I’ve got a family and responsibilities these days. I’ve been working on it in my lifeboat, looking out over the North Sea, and the title has a couple of connotations to it. I’m very close to one of the largest commercial container ports in Europe, so I see these enormous container ships going in and out of the port headed for the continent, and when the light hits them in a certain way, in profile, it looks like the Manhattan skyline. I’m sort of looking out at this archipelago of built up islands across the horizon. I found out that in Tokyo, back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the merchants in the harbor, with their rafts and barges, got into such gridlock in the harbor that they eventually stopped moving altogether, rafted up all their barges and created what was called The Floating City. This was really a den of sin and iniquity, where you could get salts, spices, and all sorts of sexual deviations. So, that was sort of the second connotation. I suppose the third connection is that the floating city is like a parallel universe that’s all around us, and it’s like a spiritual plane that music can transport us to.
MR: Also, if you’re old enough, you have another connection with floating cities, which would be Roger Dean’s artwork.
TD: Yeah. Well, a floating city is definitely a sci-fi sort of image. You sort of think of blimps and dirigibles holding up the city.
MR: You also have a game that’s going to be associated with this record, right?
TD: Yes, it’s a little too early to talk too much about it, but there is a back story to the album, and I’m actually releasing three digital EPs on the way to the album. They are: Amerikana, Urbanoya and Oceania. Amerikana is really it’s own EP, which my fan base can listen to today. Urbanoya is sort of a dark place because I’m not a city person, and then Oceania is a submarine, tranquil, and beautiful place, like the place I currently live with my family. It really is the happiest and the most comfortable of them, and yet there is this sense of impending doom because it’s not very high above sea level, and there is fear that it will disappear with global warming.
MR: There’s a subject. Global warming. Technology-wise we might be able to be aggressively going after this problem, but it kind of seems, as a society, that we’re just letting this run rampant, don’t you think?
TD: Well, it’s a very sad thing. I’m not a political activist myself, though I am very involved with TED. I tend to be the fiction writer or the person that imagines alternative realities, and that’s kind of what I’m doing with A Map Of The Floating City. The game is actually set in the future, when there has been a climactic disaster, and the survivors of this catastrophe are clustered together in this place which is cool enough to live comfortably on the planet, and that’s at the North Pole. Huge portions of the land mass have been submerged, so the northernmost parts of Amerikana, Europe, and Russia are still accessible, but people have been requisitioning these big container ships and tankers, and they’ve gotten to the point of gridlock at the North Pole. So, this sort of rafted city has kind of come into being, and that’s the floating city in the game. I don’t want to talk too much more about it, but if you play the game, you will unravel the secrets of the floating city.
MR: Who is playing on the EP’s track “17 Hills?”
TD: Well, “17 Hills” has got some great musicians on it, among them, Natalie MacMaster, who is a fiddle player, and Mark Knopfler, who is as you know, the former front man and guitarist for Dire Straits and one of the worlds greatest guitarists. I pretty much constructed the song with him in mind, and what was wonderful about Mark’s guitar playing is that he really helped tell the story; and like me, he’s a Brit who often lives and functions in the American world, and yet his voice somehow has the credentials to be a storyteller in an American setting.
MR: This EP is initially going out to your fan club, right?
MR: And speaking of “clubs,” please would you take us back to your history with Bruce Woolley & The Camera Club?
TD: Well, that was my first professional gig as a musician. Up to that point, I’d been working as a sound engineer doing live sound for punk bands throughout London, and I’d been working on my keyboard chops, and Bruce was the first guy to really spot my skills and hired me to play in his band. We had a very brief brush with stardom in the early days with the new romantic movement, but Bruce had formerly been partners with Trevor Horn who formed The Buggles. We each had a version out of the song “Video Killed The Radio Star,” but ours was a slightly rockier version, while theirs was kind of poppy and gimmicky, and it became number one all around the world. I’ve stayed friends with Bruce throughout the years and he’s a great guy. In fact, he’s a great theremin player. I’ve done some co-writing with him over the years, and he’s continued to work with Trevor as a writer. He wrote things like “Slave To The Rhythm” with Grace Jones, and he’s played live with me on many occasions.
MR: You were also on Foreigner 4, right?
TD: I was, indeed. I played on things like “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” and “Urges.”
MR: Unless we’ve forgotten something, I’m not sure what else we can talk about until your new album comes out, when I’d love to have you back.
TD: I think we’ve covered most of it, but by all means, ping me in a few months, and I’ll talk specifically about the album.
Road To Reno
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
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A Conversation with Shawn Mullins
Mike Ragogna: Hi Shawn.
Shawn Mullins: Hello Mike, how are you?
MR: I’m pretty good, how are you doing, sir?
SM: I’m doing just great, man, I’m doing just great.
MR: I have to say, I was a fan of your music before The Thorns.
SM: That’s great. Well, I’m just grateful that you even know about The Thorns.
MR: (laughs) The Thorns absolutely was on my radar when it was first issued. Now, you’ve been the songwriter’s songwriter for a long time, care to go into some of the Shawn Mullins story?
SM: Well, I started off in around ’89, trying to write my own songs–I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was in high school, but I started getting a little bit better at it by then. I put my first record out in ’90, and then I kept making records almost every year. There were eight releases, and then Soul’s Core happened in ’98. There were already six studio albums and two live albums before that, and a few of those records are really good too. I’m sure I probably started recording before I should have, but I was just dying to get in the studio and record, you know? I was always wanting to write songs, but I was also interested in recording them and then singing them live for people, so I kind of did all of that. My first real success was in ’98 with “Lullaby,” which started as an alternative hit and crossed into the pop charts. I never had an idea that would happen, but that was cool and it went to #1 on the charts for five weeks. I did another record on Columbia, and then The Thorns happened. Matthew Sweet has always been one of my favorites, and I loved Pete’s work as well. So, when we got together–I think it was around the end of ’02 because I think the record came out in ’03–we wrote all the songs together out on this ranch in Santa Ynez, California, and that was the most fun we had–writing the songs.
MR: Pete Droge and Matthew Sweet, of course, are incredible artists, so it must have been terrific when you got together with them.
SM: Yeah, no doubt. We did that for close to three years–the writing, making the record, and then touring the world a couple of times. We opened a ton of shows for The Dixie Chicks in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, we did a proper tour of the U.S. with The Jayhawks, which was really a great tour, and then it was time for us all to get back to our individual stuff. I started writing in Nashville shortly thereafter, as well as continuing my own recording career, and I wrote a little bit with Zac Brown on the tune called “Toes.” A couple of years later, he got a deal, and it just went to #1 on the country charts last year. It’s just kind of been fun to have this other thing going, with the professional songwriting in addition to doing my own records and touring. I love both of them a lot.
MR: You also had one of my favorite songs by you, “All In My Head,” featured on Scrubs.
SM: Yeah, I actually wrote it for Scrubs. They were looking for a theme song in their first season, and Jerry and I wrote that song and sent it in. They didn’t use it for their theme song, obviously, but they ended up using it in an episode, and then I ended up putting it on a record several years later. Funny how songs can kind of come back to life.
MR: I know. And they used the demo version, right?
SM: They did, they used our original demo version, which is kind of funny because we just slapped it together really fast to see if they’d like the song. They did like it, and in fact, that used it on TV. We were kind of hoping that we would get to go back and record it properly, but I was still pretty psyched that they used it. It’s always funny when you slip someone a demo because they may like that, but you weren’t giving it to them the best way that you could, you were just doing it fast. (laughs)
MR: You also had a song on Dawson’s Creek.
SM: You know, Dawson’s Creek, Party Of Five, and a bunch of those shows in the late ’90s used a ton of songs. I think Dawson’s Creek used four songs off of Soul’s Core. They used “Shimmer,” and I know they used “And On A Rainy Night” and “Lullaby,” so they used at least three. That was kind of fun, and that really helped, actually. It helped get more and more people to know about my music. What’s weird is that I seemingly disappeared after that, but at the same time I’m doing two-hundred shows a year, and kicking as much butt as I could kick without having a major label or a huge hit. So, it was a weird predicament because I never stopped doing anything, but I’ve had so many people come up to me recently and say, “I’m so glad you’re back.” Mostly, I just think it’s funny, but it’s a strange feeling because you’re like, “Wow, I never really went anywhere. In fact, I’ve been trying to hard to stay on your radar.” It’s hard without some kind of major success, and it’s also hard to top or to keep going after having a hit that was that big. I kind of look at it similar to Aimee Mann’s career with ‘Til Tuesday, where she had this huge pop hit in the early ’80s and then she seemed to go away until the early ’90s, when Whatever came out, which is this unbelievable record that her and Jon Brion did. But I’m sure she was doing shows, writing songs, and performing and stuff. I’m thankful that anyone still knows who I am. It’s always a funny thing to go through that, you know?
MR: I guess it depends on how you measure success and what kind of success you are looking for, huh?
SM: Well, the way I measure success, and probably you as well, is probably really different from the masses out there, you know? They’re watching American Idol every week, and that is kind of the pinnacle of success–to be the winner of American Idol. Hey, big things grow and change, and also they’re cyclical. It’s a very similar thing to Star Search back in the ’80s, it’s just bigger. I’ve never looked at my success in terms of how many people know about it. It’s more of how good I’m getting or not getting, and my trying to become a better songwriter, singer, and a better entertainer live. I look at the masters–people that are just great at being onstage acoustic, like John Hiatt or Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin is another one. There are people out there who are just master singer-songwriter-entertainers, and these are people that I’ve always looked up to and studied. And the more shows I do, hopefully, I’ll get better at it. I think that’s how I measure success, you know?
MR: Nice. You and those names you mention are all in a higher caliber of “artist” that I really wish the masses could hear more of.
SM: Thanks for saying that. Those people are like serious masters, and they’ve been doing it long enough that they just keep getting better and better. John Hiatt is the perfect example of these people who just kind of do what they do, and that grow and change, and their audience grows and changes with them. Yeah, it’s not American Idol, but I think that’s just another thing, you know? It’s TV, it’s hype, and sometimes on American Idol, it’s a great artist that slips through and wins.
MR: Yeah, like Daughtry and Josiah Leming, I said sarcastically.
SM: Yeah, I mean there are some great singers that end up doing that, but typically, they’re not also writers or whatever. Working in Nashville as much as I have in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a lot of really great singers that no one may ever hear about and musicians as well. There’s something to be said for those people who kind of transcend all that, stick with it, and don’t try to change what they’re doing according to whatever fad is happening at the time. I think that’s why John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris…well, Emmylou doesn’t write a lot, but what an interpreter of song, you know? She’s one of the best. Her doing a Townes Van Zandt song is one of my favorite things to hear. But yeah, I think they are classic performers, writers, and singers. It’s just that the audience is not the every day masses, and I think that most great art is like that–the masses don’t get it until years later, and maybe they don’t ever get it, you know?
MR: Yeah, a very good point. When you have a choice between commerce and art, in a lot of cases you have to make your choice.
SM: Absolutely. It’s funny, I’m constantly being asked for my music to be licensed in commercials or things that like, and you know, times are hard. I would prefer to have more of the Bill Hicks mentality, which is that no artist should ever support a corporation with their art. But since we’ve had a kid, all that’s changed for me. Of course, I have to be picky about what I support and endorse; but at the same time, we’ve got to make a living as artists, and, obviously, it’s harder and harder to do that with record sales. So, if you’re a songwriter, any way your song can be worked as a copyright is a good thing.
MR: You downplay your level of writing with regards to being in a class with John Hiatt, Nancy Griffith, and the rest. But anybody who can turn a traffic jam in California into a wonderful love song is amazing. You, sir, did just that with “California.”
SM: Listen, I appreciate that, and I do work hard at it. Also, I have to give Chuck Cannon some credit on that because Chuck and I wrote some of these songs on this record, and “California,” in particular, is one that we wrote together and we really both brought it. Often times when you’re co-writing a song, one person is kind of the leader on it, and the other person is filling in the gaps. “California” and “Light You Up,” both of the songs that Chuck Cannon and I wrote, were truly equal, collaborative efforts. I’m glad you like it, it was fun. We were talking about Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and how we loved that double meaning of a woman and a car, and the whole rock ‘n’ roll imagery, and then I had mentioned that we had done a video of mine, years ago, in an old El Camino, where I was getting to race it down the desert highways. The next thing we knew, we had the El Camino, and then we had a red Trans Am instead of a Corvette, which you obviously wouldn’t want to do.
MR: I especially love the lyrics, “Her stereo was blaring Dylan, The Bootleg Sessions, and oh ‘The Times They Are A Changin” made a pretty good impression. She looked over and caught him smiling. Under the California setting sun they fell in love on the 101.” Sweet!
SM: The verse before that basically uses two cars to kind of describe the characters. You’re not ever sure which one is driving which, but you can kind of take a good guess at it.
MR: Right. Let’s get into “Light You Up,” the title track of this album. Shawn, you know that if you build a man a fire he’s warm for a day, but if you set a man on fire he’s warm for the rest of his life, right?
SM: (laughs) Exactly. I like that, that’s the old “teaching a man to fish” thing taken a little bit further.
MR: But the title track is another great song, can you go into it a little bit?
SM: Yeah, that’s another one that Chuck Cannon and I wrote together. It started off in weird sort of way that has only happened to me two other times out of all the songs I’ve written, which is about eight-hundred songs at this point. It’s only happened a couple of other times where I dream the song or I wake up with part of a song kind of playing as a soundtrack to a dream, and that’s what happened with “Light You Up.” I woke up one morning and I had all that “I just want to write you a…” It had been kind of playing over and over as the background of whatever dream I had, which I soon forgot about, but luckily the song kind of hung out. I sang it for my friend Chuck, and he said, “Man, are you asking me in on that?” Which is kind of a songwriter’s way of saying, “Are you opening that song up to me? Because that’s great, and I want to be a part of it.” And I was like, “Yeah, man, let’s write it together.” So, we stayed up all night in Nashville–typically that’s how Chuck and I write. We don’t do a three or four hour songwriting session, we kind of do it in a day or two, and it’s a very long, drawn out, concentrated deal. I’ve seen so many other writers try to write with the two of us, and it’s a matter of concentration. You have to take breaks, but you have to stick with it, and you’re not satisfied if the song’s just okay, you just keep working on it. You don’t want to take it too far, where you’ve worked it to death because that’s part of the art too, knowing when to quit. I love that song, and Chuck and I write the lyrics to the verses together just staying up, having a little scotch, and just kind of trying to think of the most random things that we could think of that everybody wants, putting it together in a song, and making it rhyme.
MR: So, no surprise, I’m a big fan of yours. I’m also a big fan of Matthew Sweet’s as well as Pete Droge’s. Now, when the three of you got together, that was a celebration for me, when you guys formed The Thorns on Aware Records. You said that was what, ’03?
SM: Yeah, I think that’s when the record came out. We got together a little bit before that.
MR: What’s the story behind that? How did that all come about?
SM: Well, it originally was a writing exercise. Originally, it was myself, Pete Droge, Marshall Altman–who is a songwriter, producer, and has been in A&R for Columbia too–and Glen Phillips from Toad (The Wet Sprocket). It was the four of us originally writing together, and we wrote “No Blue Sky” together, and a couple others. Then, when we sent those demos in, Aware and Columbia all kind of flipped out over the sound. They were like, “Hey, would you guys be into doing kind of a vocal, acoustic band?” You know, we all had to kind of think about it, and Glen Phillips in particular was like, “Man, I just got out of a band, and I’m trying to solo stuff.” So, he punched out of it, and Marshall ended up having another obligation, but Pete and I were into the idea. So, my manager, Russell Carter, asked Matthew Sweet to join in and see what would happen if the three of us wrote together. So, that’s really how it started, and when we wrote together, it was even more magical than before. It was just like the right combination. I have to give Russell Carter credit because he was a big part of it–he and Greg Latterman who really kind of thought this whole thing up. So, that’s kind of how it started. We wrote a bunch of songs together–we wrote twenty songs in ten days, and eleven of them ended up on The Thorns record, I think. Then, we toured really hard for about two years. That was the hard part, I think, for The Thorns. It was just hard because you’ve got three guys that are used to being their own boss, and now no one is really in charge, but we’re all kind of used to having things the way we want it on the road. So, that was the harder part, I think–the traveling.
MR: Yeah, you were three grownups as opposed to three brothers. When bands start out together really young, it’s a different vibe.
SM: Yeah, that’s totally true. We’re three guys with three different types of successes, but we all produced our own records. We all were songwriters and leaders of our own bands, so it was interesting. Matthew really likes to be ahead of the beat, and Pete actually is the other way, where he likes to be on the very back end of the beat–for all you musicians out there, you know what I’m talking about. So, I was in the middle of them on stage, so there was always this like three beat thing happening. It was the funniest thing in the world, and both of them would be yelling at the drummer–not yelling, but going, “Come on, man, speed up!” And the other guy would be like, “Come on, man, slow down!” (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Nice.
SM: Yeah, it was a blast. I love the songs we wrote, and “No Blue Sky” I always felt like didn’t get it’s proper tracking. I felt like it was done too fast on The Thorns record because they wanted it to be a single and they didn’t want it to be too slow. I think we kind of didn’t do it right because we recorded it too fast, and the production was just too big and slick. So, that’s why I put that song on my new record–to kind of do it like I always heard it, which was really stripped down. You know, my drummer is playing with his hands on the kit, and it’s just a very acoustic-based song that way.
MR: Now, you have a song on Light You Up that you’re not the author of called “The Ghost Of Johnny Cash.” Can you talk about what inspired you to cover that song, and also about the song itself?
SM: Well, first of all, I’ve never been afraid to put a cover song on a record. You have to be careful about what kind of cover song you put on a record if you’re a singer-songwriter. But James Taylor’s biggest songs ever were not his songs, and he’s obviously a great songwriter, so I’ve never had a real problem with it. The trick is to pick one that’s right, and I had first heard Chuck Cannon do this song, he was one of the writers on it, and it just blew me away. I just felt like this was the song that we all needed to hear, that mentions Johnny Cash. This is the one that really describes, from what I know–and I’m pretty good friends with Kris Kristofferson, and he’s told me a lot about Johnny–it just nails the whole deal, you know? So, typically, if I’m going to cover a song on a record, it’s one that I wished I had written. That’s part of it, and the other thing is that it needs to fit. We kind of had a place on the record for something like this, so I felt like it was the perfect song to do, and it hasn’t been recorded other than on Chuck’s album. So, I thought, “Hey, here’s an opportunity to get the song out there, hopefully with a lot more listeners too.” I really wish I had written that one, and I love interpreting it.
MR: It’s a great song, and you give it such a personal spin, it’s as if you had written it. Now, “Tinseltown” is sort of a reflection on the L.A. scene and all that. That had something to do with the thought behind this album as a whole, right?
SM: Well, here’s what happened. As the songs were coming together and being written, they just started being written about Southern California, specifically, Los Angeles and Hollywood. It just kind of happened. I didn’t set out to write a record–I never do that. It would probably be an interesting way to write a record, to go, “Okay, this record is going to be about the Midwest.” I just typically start to have themes that roll in, and I start to notice it. This one was definitely L.A. and Hollywood heavy, and I kept asking myself why. I was like, “Gosh, you’ve never lived out there, and you’ve always had kind of a love-hate relationship.” Maybe that’s it, that I am fascinated by it, and I also kind of don’t want to be there for very long before I’m ready to get back home. “Tinseltown” I wrote with Max Gomez, who is a great young singer-songwriter. He’s twenty-three, and he’s out of Taos, New Mexico. We wrote a few of the songs that are on this record, actually. He just has this fresh perspective that’s very hip, and also very old school–his favorite artist is John Prine. He’s a twenty-three-year-old songwriter, and you just don’t have that a lot, you know? So, Max and I wrote that, and you know who I was thinking about? The character in the song who I was thinking about when singing it was Matthew Sweet because he’s kind of a homebody. He lives up in the canyons, he doesn’t really like getting out that much unless it’s something really special, and I was kind of embodying him a little bit when we were writing that song. I was thinking, “Gosh, if somebody wanted to go downtown, down to Hollywood or whatever, what would Matthew say?” He would be like, “Man, I don’t want to go downtown tonight.” So, that was a little bit of an influence on that song–just knowing Matthew as well as I had in the past.
MR: Nice, I got to work with Matthew on a project called To Understand, which was a collection of all his material up to the A&M stuff, and it included the demos for “Divine Intervention” and “Girlfriend,” which, at that time, I think was called “Good Friend.”
SM: Yeah, and it’s really slow, right?
MR: Yeah, it’s a different vibe, but I know what you’re talking about with the home body thing because I was at his house a couple of times when we worked on his collection together. By the way, one of the many enviable things he has is that old Fender Rhodes.
SM: Oh yeah, he’s got so many things and so many instruments. There are two sitars, a real Fender Rhodes, and a couple of different organs. Was he a collector of the “Big-Eyed Children” paintings when you visited him last?
MR: Yes, I think he was. The animation on his early videos were perfect for him too. He really injects himself into his art personally, and I love that.
SM: It is really cool. He’s definitely kind of multi-canvased that way. There’s a lot going on. He’s an interesting guy to work with, and he’s very fast at songwriting too. I remember him coming up with certain lines with The Thorns where I was like, “How did you come up with that just like that?” I typically have to work kind of hard at the lyric before it’s like I like it, so I was always fascinated by that. Melodies tend to come a lot easier for me, naturally. But yeah, I really like that song “Tinseltown,” and Max Gomez is somebody you guys should check out because something’s going to happen for Max. It’s just a matter of time because he’s so talented and such a good guy.
MR: You’ve got it. Send him our way.
SM: Yeah, I will. Also, he’s from Taos, which I believe may be one of the only other solar-powered radio stations in the whole country. I know there’s you guys, and the one in Taos is a really interesting place too. I don’t know if you guys know each other.
MR: Yeah, we know of them, it’s terrific. Let’s talk about that for a second. I don’t know how into it or not you are, but for me, it’s just a bizarre thing that every business and home isn’t using solar power and getting off the grid, especially in the Southwest. The sun is shining virtually every day of the year.
SM: You’re talking about an energy source that, well, we will probably go before it will. I’ve wanted to do a solar tour, and I’m looking for sponsorship this next year to try and do that. Basically, you put on all the concerts with solar power, you’ve got the panels on top of the bus, you’re going down the highway collecting energy, and then the shows can be powered with it. We have done a few shows solar-powered with a company in Atlanta that is a solar-powered recording studio called Tree Sound. Those guys are really, really hip, and they’re into wind power as well. So, that’s something that I’m kind of looking into doing, and I agree with you. I guess it’s because it’s still kind of expensive. The initial buy I think scares people off.
MR: But in the old days people used to invest in things for their home that were as expensive, it’s just that the concept of solar power is a little more complicated than turning on the TV. There is an expense, of course, but if you have to replace your septic system, well, that’s going to be an expense. You have your daily spending rituals and you have your expenses for your home, and my feeling is that this should just be one of them, you know?
SM: Yeah, and in a lot of states, you can get a break by doing that anyway. Obviously, you’re going to save money, but you can also get a rebate to help pay for that initial cost. It’s an interesting thing, I think it will happen, and I think it’s starting to get more and more into the population. I’m hearing more and more people talk about it, and I feel like the more people like me that can tour around the country talk a little bit about it, and maybe even put it into action, hopefully, the better.
MR: It feels like a steadily building thing. Sometimes “green” issues end up being a ten minute concept. But solar power is always discussed, I guess because of the energy crisis that we always seem to be in–aka manipulated prices at the pump–and the real cost spikes of oil.
SM: Absolutely. I think it’s totally building. I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s been around. When I was a little kid, my brother was really into the idea of solar power when he was twelve or thirteen and had built this little model home that was solar-powered. It was a really cool thing and that was the late ’70s or whatever. So, it’s been around, obviously, a long time. It’s just going to take a little while, but it’s also going to take the corporations. G.E. is one of the biggest solar power companies in America. They have a huge solar power sector, but they need to start talking about that, and commercials need to start happening related to that because, let’s face it, everyone is sitting in front of their flat screen TV at this point. I’ve got to be the only person in the city of Atlanta who doesn’t have a flat screen TV–we just try not to watch it a lot. I like them and whenever I see them, I go, “Wow, that’s so cool. Look how big.” But we just had our son a year ago, and I got to thinking that I’m not sure if I really want him growing up, sitting in front of this massive screen.
MR: Very smart. When you do that solar-powered tour, you come back and let’s talk again, okay?
SM: That would be great. I’m going to keep working on it. I’m going to keep working on G.E.–they’ve got a pretty big base here in Atlanta, and I’m going to keep working on them, to try to help sponsor this whole thing.
MR: It’s important, it just seems like we had a lot of energy to do something once, and now we’re petering out. Like we said before, I think solar power is building, but I just wish there was a little bit more of a national initiative. So, I have a traditional question which is what is your advice for new artists coming up now?
SM: I always love the story I hear that Tom Waits told some kid. Some guy spotted Tom Waits a few years ago, went up to him, told him he was a fan, and said, “Listen, what is your advice for young, upcoming artists?” Tom was like, “Forget about it kid. Go home. Be a doctor. Be a lawyer.” I don’t know if I would say that though. What’s kept me going this long–being in and out of popularity and having my own definition of success–is kind of always trying to remain true to what I’m doing, and not to change with the times. You’re going to find something that you think is really cool, that you can utilize in the studio–an instrument, a sound, or a recording technique. But for the most part, you just need to do what you do and keep doing it. Those are the people that grow and change over the years, but they’re not doing it to follow trends, you know? So, I think the big thing is to do what you do and do it well. For songwriters, you need to be reading because you’ve got to have words pouring in for words to pour out, and I think people don’t even think about that sometimes. Stephen King talked about that in his book on writing. You’ve got to read, you know?
MR: I love how you phrased that, “You have to have words pouring in before you can have words pouring out.”
SM: Yeah, and old school songwriters that I’ve met within Nashville say the exact same thing. You know, the Harlan Howards and the Hank Cochrans. Those guys were old school and they were great songwriters, and they read a ton, you know?
MR: It does seem like a lot of people are reading still–that’s not going away. It just also seems like there is a lot of video game time and having to go through the complete season of whatever television show you’re watching on DVD to compete.
SM: I played video games growing up, and I went to the arcade whenever I could to play Pac-Man and Battlezone, or whatever. But I also loved to read, always, and my dad really encouraged that. I think, just as a songwriter, you need to be able to take in words to pour them back out. It just taps into another part of the brain that sitting in front of a screen and taking in the images does not.
MR: Very wise advice. Sir, You’re smart as a whip, as they say.
SM: Man, thanks so much for having me on. I can’t wait to come and visit you guys (KRUU) again. Maybe when I do this solar tour we can meet up.
MR: Absolutely. Let’s end with a discussion of one of your favorite songs from your new album. What should that be?
SM: I really like “Can’t Remember Summer,” the Michigan auto worker song.
MR: Nice. What’s the story on that?
SM: Well, basically, when I was watching TV at some point, I was flipping on CNN and I saw a helicopter view of a soup line going into a church in Michigan. It was like scenes from the depression, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is really…”–I kind of tapped-in for a second and got that this is a huge thing. This industry that we once had in our country that was driving the whole thing, to a degree, is for the most part gone, and all those jobs are gone. A lot of these people were counting on a few more years, then retiring. So, this song’s about one of those characters. It’s a song sung from that person’s point of view, and it has a chill about it, and you can kind of feel Michigan in the Winter somehow.
2. Light You Up
3. Murphy’s Song
4. No Blue Sky
5. The Ghost Of Johnny Cash
7. I Knew A Girl
8. Catoosa County
9. You Make It Better
10. Can’t Remember Summer
11. Love Will Find A Way
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Chely Wright
Mike Ragogna: First of all, let me pose a question in a rather pointed way. This is 2010, right?
Chely Wright: Yeah, last time I looked at the calendar it was.
MR: Okay. Why is someone’s personal life anybody’s business?
CW: Well that’s a very multi-layered question.
MR: I’m talking about why this would be some sort of a concern anymore, like ever? It’s unbelievable to that your private life is up for discussion.
CW: Well I’m with you, but I can tell you why. I can tell you exactly why–religious beliefs and what people are being told to echo. They’re hearing it in their churches, and they’re being told to tell young people, “Try not to be that. You’re best to not be that.” We tell our kids, “Do your best to not become a drug addict, do your best to not become a thief, and do your best to not become a homosexual.” And we should not be saying all of those three, we should not be telling our young people to not be who they are as God made them to be.
MR: There’s such a disconnect there. I guess there would be a disconnect with people who are blindly following a faith, incorporating whatever prejudices they want to incorporate into their belief systems. I was brought up Catholic, and I know a lot of Christians whose wiring doesn’t go there. Yet prejudice seems to be the political football that’s used by those that want to control others through fear. It just seems like in 2010, why is homosexuality even worthy of a debate?
CW: And those are political waters that are easy. When you get down and dirty, and you just want to get primal and divide people, that’s the easiest way to do it. For politicians that want to divide people in the name of God, this is fodder for them, this is so easy it’s like painting by numbers. When you want to go out and sling daggers of hate and division, this is the easiest one.
MR: And, like you said, It’s been used and it’s still used as a divisive play in order to get people to the polls if they want to defeat something else, some other issue.
CW: It’s a trick. It’s a manipulative trick, and unfortunately, most of the constituents that find themselves manipulated by it, they know not what they do. Most people who find themselves manipulated by this don’t have the time to dissect it. They’re busy working, feeding their kids, figuring out how to pay for three-and-a-half dollar per gallon gas.
MR: There you go. I interviewed Steve Forbert months ago, and we were talking about the oil spill. We were talking about things like how California killed the electric car because of interests that were more greed-oriented than humanity-oriented. It’s almost like no matter where you turn, you’re being manipulated, and you can always follow the buck. Even with what we were talking about earlier, that ignorance always seems to be a financial payoff in the end for somebody.
CW: In that documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, the same principles apply to this. I don’t hold parents that responsible for echoing what churches tell them because when you have a baby, you take it to the church and say, “Help me raise this human being. Help me do the right thing.” I feel like we have to stand up as a largely Christian society, that’s why I joined the Faith in America board because of the damage that’s being done to young people since parents are echoing what the churches are saying–”Try not to be gay.” Well, there’s no need to try not to be gay. You really should try not to become a junky, you should try not to shoplift–these are breaches in judgment, and we shouldn’t judge people for these breaches in judgment because we’re all human and sinners, and we all make mistakes. But I don’t have a choice to love a man or a woman, I can’t love a man. I’ve devastated men trying to love them the way they loved me, and I’ve devastated myself trying to love them the way they loved me. It’s not a breach in judgment for me to be gay.
MR: It seems to be an older generation thing, most young people I know don’t even care. This ridiculous type of prejudice seems to be going away culturally.
CW: Well, you’re right. There is a new generation of understanding and young people who really have absorbed the notions of equality and liberty. Now, it’s not as far reaching as you and I would like to believe, I have to say. It hasn’t reached the far corners of small town America like you and I would like to believe. You are an educated man who’s writing for a living, and you’re finely evolved. I’m fortunate enough to make my living in the arts, and I’ve been lucky to travel around the world and hang out with smart and forward thinking people. But my tour bus also makes stops at every small town in America, and I see that we have a long, long way to go. I just got off the phone earlier with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and I also work with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), and today, the statistics are such that young kids who are in transgender identification situations are called, “faggot” or “dike” in nine out of ten school days. Nine out of ten days that they go to school someone calls them that, and that’s nine days too many. I know we have come so far, but we have so far to go, and to go back to your question, “It’s 2010, why are we still talking about this?” You’ve got me. It blows my mind. I thought ten years ago, “I’m never coming out in country music, surely someone else will do it.” It’s staggering to me that no one did it–no one in commercial country music. I just thought someone would come out or be outed before me.
MR: I lived in Nashville for a while, and there were known homosexuals who were stars–you just didn’t utter their names, and, of course, they didn’t come out. It was sort of this “happy ignorance,” and it’s really unfortunate that I would say something to you like, “Gee, it’s really great that you did that.” It should just be understood, period. It’s just mind-boggling.
CW: But you know what? I was one of those who was whispered about; but no one knows for sure until you say it, and whispers don’t make it to the airwaves in Albuquerque. Quite frankly, what if an eleven-year-old kid is being driven to school by his mom, and my record comes on the air and she says, “Oh I love that Chely Wright.” What if that kid is about to go to school and get picked on? What if that is my chance for that mom to turn that radio station up and hear the disc jockey say, “Chely Wright came out as a lesbian today”? I took that chance, I cashed in my public equity, and that did happen on that Albuquerque radio station–that announcement happened. And that mom that says, “Chely Wright is my favorite. What a great American. What a nice lady.” That did happen. And that eleven-year-old kid in the backseat who’s getting picked on? He feels one less person alone. There’s a difference in being a whisper–and you’re right, we get protected in Nashville, although I was more in the closet than anybody I know of in Nashville. I’m not okay to be a whisper, I’m too proud of the steward I’ve been in my life, and at some point, it’s a narrative of who I am as a human being. Am I really going to allow another fourteen-year-old kid to sit in his bedroom and feel like an alien?
MR: I read the Entertainment Weekly piece in which we learn some new facts about you. For instance, you gave Rascal Flatts their start. Let me ask you about that. How did you discover them?
CW: Well, I hired them both. Jay was my piano player, I hired him from a Contemporary Christian background in Nashville. I hired Joe Don sight-unseen out of a club in Oklahoma, and he drove through an ice storm and slept on my drummer’s couch for an audition in Nashville. He kept following me around for an entire day in Nashville saying, “Do you want to hear me play now?” I said, “Just bring your guitar and follow me.” We were just boppin’ around the studio and I finally said, “You know you have the gigs, Joe Don, it’s okay. You don’t have to get out your guitar and play for me, I’ve heard your CD.”
So, then we went to dinner and I knew how much he loved Vince Gill–he just kept talking about Vince Gill and how amazing he was. And I said, “Well, of course, everybody loves Vince Gill. You’re a guitar player who sings high, of course you love him.” So, I happened to get a phone call from Vince that said, “Hey Chely, let’s go listen to the Bluebloods.” They’re great session players that were playing out at a club that night, and I said, “Okay, cool. I’ll see you out there later.” So, I didn’t tell Joe Don that we were going to go hang out with Vince later and I said, “Come with me.” I invited him and my drummer, Chris. So, we walked into this club, and Joe Don is saying, “Oh my God, that looks like Vince Gill in the back.” Then, we’re walking toward Vince’s table and he’s saying, “That is Vince Gill!” Lo and behold, we sat down at Vince’s table. Joe Don and Vince got to have a conversation all night about guitars, and then we ended up touring with Vince.
Now, Joe Don tells everybody, “My first night in town, I got to meet Tony Brown, I got to be at the studio. Chely Wright took me to dinner, I got the job, and I got to meet Vince Gill.” So, we worked together on the road for a couple of years, and I knew that they were working on a side thing–I think they were just trying to make some side-money. Jay said, “Chely, we recorded ourselves, would you mind listening to our CD?” And I said, “I’ll listen to it,” but I was thinking, “Oh no. Another couple of my band guys trying to get together a band, this is going to be awful,” because it had happened before, and it’s usually bad when that happens. So, I was driving to my house, I put their CD in my player, I heard two songs, and I hit stop, picked up the phone and called Jay and said, “Jay, there’s something here.” I said, “This is really, really good.” Shortly after that, they were signed to Lyric Street, played their last few months with me, and the rest is country music history.
MR: (laughs) That is so cool. Now, fact number two from that same Entertainment Weekly piece: Patty Griffin saved your life.
CW: What did I say?
MR: You said, “I became aware of her during my breakdown in ’05, which eventually led to her coming out. I was looking for anything divine. When I heard ‘Living With Ghosts,’ I felt like God was whispering in my ear.”
CW: Yeah, I said it right. That’s the truth. As a musician, I don’t think that I am different than a non-musician. When something amazing happens in my life, I go to music, and when something devastating happens in my life, I go to music. During my breakdown, I sought out–or perhaps music found me in a way that I didn’t even know. I became aware of Patty Griffin during that time, and that album, Impossible Dream, really kind of held me. There were days that I laid on the floor of my bedroom in Nashville. I mean there were entire days, and I don’t want to say they were wasted because I was absorbing that music, but there were days that that’s all I did–lay on the floor and hit repeat on Patty Griffin records. She changed the way I wrote songs, and she freed me from the constraints of commercial songwriting. You understand what I’m talking about. As a music writer, you understand the commercialism of Nashville songwriting.
MR: I’m so over the whole Nashville cheesy pop thing. Where’s Merle when you need him?
CW: Again, there’s a certain craft to it, and I don’t want to begrudge the people who have figured that out. To a large degree, I made my living making commercial country music, and I love that part of my history. But I’m not nineteen anymore, I’m thirty-nine.
MR: Well, I also noticed, by the way, when I put your CD in my iTunes, the “genre” that comes up reads “folk,” not “country.”
CW: Oh, does it really?
MR: Yeah, so, some entity has designated you as folk now. That’s interesting because when I listened to your album–which we should probably get to–one of the things I noticed is that it maintains your country style, but it does feel like it’s embracing more of a Jakob Dylan meets Court Yard Hounds-ish kind of sound.
CW: Wow, cool.
MR: Maybe it has to do with how you approached this, as the person you are now, embracing other things besides needing to have a country hit.
CW: Oh, wow. Thank you. You’ve just given me some very high compliments. I want to stew in those–I want to wallow around in how that felt.
CW: In listening to the music that I did during my breakdown, quite frankly, I had kind of dipped my toe in it on my last record, The Metropolitan Hotel, which really was a low selling record for me, but my most critically acclaimed. To that point, really what I found success in, personally and creatively, was writing what I know and doing my best to suspend my intellect. I made kind of a half-assed attempt to do that on my last record, and on this record, I couldn’t have employed my brain if I had tried. I didn’t even know where it was. I really kind of lost my mind, and that was such a good thing for me, creatively. You read about the great poets, painters, and creative people of legend, and they all were crazy. For once, I finally lost my mind. It was so good for me.
MR: You know, that line, “I lost my mind”? When you think about that, it just means you let your mind get out of the way and let the creative process happen.
CW: Right, and I think I always probably got in my own way. Art meets commerce is always a bad intersection. When you’re trying to make anything for the masses, something has got to give. When you’re trying to make food for the masses, you get fast food, and when you’re trying to make art for the masses, you get fast art. You get what you get.
MR: That’s a really brilliant point. It’s like you’ve got to be in the moment when you’re doing your craft or even every day at work. I mean, the people that are multi-tasking–what are they really getting done, you know?
CW: Right, there’s a point of diminishing return. What I learned through the process of rolling around on my floor, listening to Bob Dylan, which I admit this with a lot of guilt and shame, I’d never really listened to too much. Shame on me. I’d really never explored Tom Petty the way that a singer-songwriter should, but I’ve corrected that.
MR: Let me ask you where you would rate Blood On The Tracks?
CW: Oh, a thirteen.
MR: (laughs) What would you rate as his “one”?
CW: What would I rate as his best one?
MR: Yeah, we’re looking at it differently. In the pecking order of Bob Dylan albums, where would you place Blood On The Tracks?
CW: Oh, gosh. Well, I don’t want to fall in line just because I’m on the phone with you, but it’s really hard to beat that one.
MR: That’s kind of why I threw that one out there. Though Blonde On Blonde and his earlier albums were brilliant, for me, there was something about–wait, I may be wasting our time…
CW: God, no. This could never be a waste of time.
MR: Blood On The Tracks, for me, was like a turning point, where I felt like I could relate totally to everything he was saying on that record, even on lighter tracks like “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts.” Even in the wackier, more fun moments, there was still a groundedness…what a brilliant album. It’s probably in my top five albums with Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark, Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and albums like that.
CW: There’s a reason that so many people who write songs, like you and me, site that as one of their top five records of all time. If anybody has ever squeezed themselves out on tape, it’s that one.
MR: (laughs) That’s a good way to put it. And I’ll never understand why “Tangled Up In Blue” wasn’t a huge hit. I think it’s an American classic.
CW: Well, look at the records that came out during that time. It’s all relative, and it’s so funny to look at the landscape of what came out at that time. You wonder what gets lost in the shuffle, you go back and look at records like this Conway Twitty album that just blows my mind, though the title has escaped me. It didn’t even have one hit on it, but I think it was his best record. But it was the year that the new generation of hit makers came out, and he just got kind of retired. He became the old guy. Now, you mentioned Joni Mitchell. Let me tell you how obsessed with Joni Mitchell I became during this process. I didn’t know much about her either, but I was–do you know who Steve Buckingham is?
CW: Steve is a very good friend of mine, and a guy that I confided in early on about not only my breakdown, but the reason for my breakdown. He’d say, “Let me come over and hear your songs and talk to you.” When he got there and listened, he said, “What are you doing on that guitar?” He’s an old session player who has played on a lot of hit records, and he said, “That’s fascinating, what you’re doing with your tunings.” I couldn’t get my fingers to do what I was hearing, so I just started turning my knobs. I’m a piano player, so I just decided on this record that I was going to start turning knobs until I could get the voicings I want. So, I made up these crazy tunings, and he said, “Where’d you get that tuning?” I said, “I made it up,” and he said, “So, you didn’t go to some Joni Mitchell website?” I was like, “No. Did she do alternate tunings?” He said, “Well, she was famous for it. You’ve got to come over and watch this documentary about her crazy tunings.”
So, I watched this documentary about her whacked-out tunings, and I realized that none of my tunings are actually the ones she used, which I was glad about. That way I couldn’t be accused of ripping off Joni Mitchell, but then I started discovering her body of work, which is mind-boggling. So, I really kind of feel brand new about music. I feel like I have this old country past, but when I hear Bob Dylan’s Live At Carnegie Hall album, which is, I think, the best live recording in all of music, it still gives me chill bumps. Then, I hear Joni Mitchell and that crazy tuning stuff she was doing, and it makes me want to just jump off of a building. I feel like two different artists. I feel like before breakdown, BBD, and after breakdown, ABD.
MR: (laughs) I was lucky enough to work with Joni on a compilation of her Geffen and Warner recordings, and I learned so much about her first hand. When people bring up negative things she says, I remind them it’s because Joni doesn’t have a filter, and most great artists were lacking them as well. To me, it seems like since she’s a fountainhead of creativity, that stops her from having a filter because if she had a filter, then it would afflict her creativity with everything else. You know what I mean?
CW: Thank God. I can’t believe you know her. I can’t believe you got to be near her.
MR: It was brilliant, a beautiful period. It was always fun to be eating dinner together somewhere and have folks like Warren Beatty stop by and pay tribute to her. Okay, that was kind of a wild sidebar, let’s get back to the third point from the Entertainment Weekly piece. That is: “She and God have an understanding,” and your quote is, “I felt like there were two Gods, the one they told me about in church that I should fear, and the one that knew my s**t. The one I believe in told me not to lie. When I was on my knees and said, ‘Tell me what to do,’ God said, ‘Tell the truth.’”
CW: That’s true, she quoted me correctly.
MR: You know, you would think that anyone with a functional mind would understand the concept that God doesn’t hate anybody. Isn’t Christianity supposed to be based in love?
CW: Yeah, it just doesn’t make sense to me. God also blessed me with discernment. Even before I knew to pray for discernment, I was given it. I have a spiritual compass that God gave me, but I was being told about this God at church that was going to burn me in the fires of Hell, once I died. That was really scary. Then, when I got home, there was this other God that was on the piano bench with me that was giving me songs to write. And when I’d climb a tree, there was God up there. I never felt alone. I felt the presence of this being or this “something.” So, I thought, “I’m supposed to keep this secret from this being that’s with me?”
MR: That being is supposed to know everything, right?
CW: Yeah, this dude, not a bearded guy in a robe, but this God–this present power that’s with me–I’m supposed to keep a secret from that being? Or am I supposed to run around with this abiding fear of this poster on the wall in Sunday school of this guy who’s going to burn me up and throw me to another guy in a red suit with a pitchfork. I don’t get that, and it didn’t make sense to me. So, the God of love and light won out, and it changed everything for me. It changed the course of everything. I knew I was okay, I just knew it.
MR: My friend’s son once had a nightmare about burning in Hell. Now, he didn’t hurt him, but he pinched the little guy just a tiny bit. The child said, “Ow! Why’d you do that?” My friend asked his son, “You felt that, right?” The boy said, “Yeah, so?” and his father told him, “Well, that’s because you have a nervous system. Now, when you die, do you have a body?” The child answered, “No,” and the father continued, “Okay. Well, your body has these nerves, and that’s why you feel everything. So, if you die and you don’t have a body anymore, are you going to feel like you’re burning up? You don’t have a nervous system!” It sounded like a brutal lesson to me when I heard it, but I realized that it probably saved his son a lifetime of fear.
CW: Well, way to go. Nice job. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) It’s sort of like, if somebody thinks that through for just–how long did it take for me to tell you that story, fifteen seconds? If somebody just takes fifteen seconds to think that through, it sounds as crazy as it is, you know?
CW: Right. We’re supposed to be taught that God’s love is unfathomable. Now, Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents knew that he ate people, and they still went to see him in prison and said, “Son, I love you.” He ate people. And I’m supposed to believe that if I fall in love with a woman, then my God will condemn me to a fiery Hell? He ate people! And his parents went to see him and said, “Son, I love you.” God’s love is supposed to be that kind of love times infinity. This is not adding up, people. Come on, it’s crazy.
MR: Alright, though I’m thoroughly enjoying our tangential conversation, let’s discuss your latest album. Lifted Off The Ground. I wanted to start by talking about the song “Heavenly Days” on which you teamed up with Rodney Crowell. I especially admire the lyric, “Dare to be different, dare to be true.” How did you get hooked-up with Rodney Crowell?
CW: Well, it happened in the most odd way. One would think that I decided to come out, wrote a bunch of songs about freedom, and went and asked Rodney to make my coming out record. You have perhaps read the book, and if you haven’t, I hope you do because the timeline is much more different, odd, and perfect.
MR: Yes, I read it. Very personal.
CW: When I was writing these songs, I had no idea I was actually writing my next record. I was halfway through making this record with Rodney before I decided to come out. Rodney did not, of course, know that I was gay until halfway through the making of this record. I did not approach Rodney about making this record, Rodney approached me. I had sought him out in my pajamas a couple of months into my breakdown, and all I wanted to ask him was, “Am I dying? I need to know if I’m dying.” He wrote on the back of my guitar, that day I showed up at his house in my pajamas, “Dear Chely, I love your broken heart, and someday you will too.” About a week after I went to see him, he said, “Do you have those songs you played for me on tape?” I said, “Well, I have my work tapes that I do each time I write a song. They’re just little home studio recordings.” He said, “Bring them over, and come have a meal.” I said, “No, thanks.” At that point, I was embarrassed that I’d even sought him out just to ask him if I was dying of a broken heart, and I said, “I don’t want to come over and eat.” Then he said, “Well, drop the songs in the mailbox.” So, I did, and every couple of weeks, he’d just email me, “Songs?” and I’d make a pilgrimage to his mailbox and leave songs.
This went on for about nine months. No phone calls, no dinners, no “friend” nothing–we weren’t hanging out. Then, he called me and said, “You have the option to go to dinner with me on Friday night or Saturday night.” I went to dinner with him, we sat down, and he said, “I’m not going to beat around the bush. You need to make a record, and you need to let me help you make it.” I said, “What, a record?” He said, “You do want to make a record, don’t you?” I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought of it. Why would you, Rodney Crowell, want to help me make a record?” He said, “Well, seldom does a producer get to see someone really going through a change and is giving into it. You’re really giving into it. I’m emotionally invested in these songs, and I want to make a record with you.” I said, “Do you need money to…,” and he said, “I don’t need your money. Do you have a label at this time?” I didn’t, so he said, “Fine, when you’re ready to make your record, then we’ll make it.” I said, “I’m not ready now. These songs are still coming to me.” He said, “Great, when you’re ready, we will.” We didn’t start that record for another nine months. So, the next summer, we started the record–that was the summer of ’07, I think May is when we started it.
We were six songs in, and I was realizing, “Holy crap. I’ve written all these songs by myself,” because he and I didn’t write “Heavenly Days” until the record was completely finished, in the can, and then in ’09, we wrote “Heavenly Days” kind of as an addendum and put it on the record. But I realized that I had all these songs, written by myself, and I had to go out there and promote this record, where people are going to ask me, “Who are these songs about?” I talk to journalists when I make a record, people like you, and they were going to say, “Who’s this relationship…” or “Who is this break up about?” As it stood, nobody knew about a relationship I was having. What was I going to do, make up a fake boyfriend from Buenos Aires? I realized my truth was, again, hunting me down. I could see myself back in that dark, dark place. You know, our truth is stitched to our feet, and no matter how hard you try to outrun it, you can’t. I was feeling that layering of my truth, and I felt God continuing to whisper in my ear, “Stand up, stand up, stand up, this is all I expect of you.”
Rodney came to my house one day, flew in from LAX, and said, “I need to land in Nashville, and I need to come talk to you.” He came over, sat on my porch, and he said, “I gossiped about you, and I want to apologize. People have asked me as long as we’ve been making this record. They’ve said, ‘I hear you’re working with Chely. She’s great, what a great gal?’” And he said, “Then they’d always whisper, ‘But isn’t she gay?’” He said, “I always say, ‘I don’t know, we’ve never talked about it,’ but I flew out to L.A. four days ago and I participated in a four hour conversation about your sexuality. I’m here to tell you I did that and that I apologize.” I think that Rodney thought that I would melt into some kind of admission, “Oh, Rodney, I am gay.” But I didn’t. I just thanked him for telling me something I surely would never have found out.
That night, he left, and I thought about it and prayed about it. Then, I called him the next morning and said, “Can you come back over?” He came over, and we sat on that same porch, and I said, “Rodney, I am gay, and I am going to come out.” I said, “There’s one song I held back from you the entire time. Out of all the songs I’ve written in the past couple of years, it’s the musical heart of all the things I’ve written, and I’ve held it back from you because it clearly depicts my being in a relationship with a woman.” He said, “Play it for me,” and I said, “No, I’ll email it to you. Just go home now.” So, I went to my computer, emailed him the song “Like Me,” opened up a word document, wrote the cover page for my book, Like Me, and I started my book on that day.
MR: Beautiful. What was the process like when you were writing it?
CW: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most profound experience of my life. I’m really thankful that I have had fourteen years of therapy under my belt. I know myself better than most people I know, but I needed every tool that I possess of self-introspection and self-awareness to write this book. All of the work I’ve done on myself, especially in the past few years, seemed to coalesce during the writing of this book. I wrote it myself, I didn’t have a ghostwriter, which most celebrities who write books have. It was an amazing, profound experience, and hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
MR: Another of my favorite songs on this record is “Broken,” although it’s a toss up between that and “Notes To The Coroner”–I love your sense of humor in that one. In “Broken” you have my favorite line: “Why can’t you just believe in me? Not everyone is an enemy.” To me, that says, “I’m doing the best I can, what do you want from me?” I totally relate to it, it’s so reasonable.
CW: That’s the best thing, as a writer, if you can get the listener to take it on as their own. and to see themselves in it. That’s great and that’s a compliment. Really, I’m not a cynical person, but we all find that the older we get, we bring that baggage with us. That song really–I know the title is “Broken”–but it’s really a song about hopefulness. It’s about, “I’m a little beat up, you’ve been a little beat up, but let’s join hands and jump. Let’s give it a shot, love might be waiting for us. I know we’re both broken, but broken can be pretty.”
MR: Nice. What advice do you have for young people?
CW: My best advice for young people, even if you’re going to school and trying to get your masters, or if you’re trying to be a music star, follow that compass within. If it feels too good to be true and it feels like somebody is offering you something that you shouldn’t be getting, you probably shouldn’t. There aren’t a lot of short cuts in life. You know, in school, when you earned your “A” and you know in school when you haven’t earned your “A” because you happened to look at your neighbor’s paper? Your internal compass and your spiritual compass tells you. I guess my spiritual compass told me to do some things that I should have done a long time ago, and I’m finally honoring that compass. I’m so glad I named my album Lifted Off The Ground because it’s how I feel. I guess that’s my advice. Honor that compass within.
2. Heavenly Days
3. Hang Out In Your Heart
4. Notes To The Coroner
5. Snow Globe
6. Like Me
7. That Train
8. Damn Liar
9. Wish Me Away
10. Object Of Your Rejection
11. Shadows Of Doubt
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
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A Conversation with Gene Simmons
Mike Ragogna: Hey Gene, how are you?
Gene Simmons: I’m deliriously happy.
MR: Why didn’t you let your daughter keep her pony?
GS: There are Beverly Hills ordinances that I wasn’t aware of. You aren’t allowed to keep farm animals that poop bigger than a certain size. Do you believe that?
MR: (laughs) No, I can’t believe that.
GS: It’s actually true. Dog poop is a certain size, but once it gets past a certain size, supposedly, there are health hazards. So, we had to move the horse past Malibu.
MR: I’m sorry to hear that. Did the horse live happily ever after?
GS: Oh yeah, happier there than in Beverly Hills.
MR: Sweet. With regards to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, is it easy or hard for you to transform yourself from an everyday person into a savior of rock ‘n’ roll?
GS: When you dare dream the impossible dream, then you can unleash the inner rock star inside of you. We all had these kinds of notions when we were kids, especially guys. We all put towels around our necks and tried to fly through the air, or imagined we were Harry Potter if we’re young enough. We all want to sort of defy gravity and scale Mt. Olympus, and very few things enable you to do that. 3-D takes you close, but your body is motionless while your mind takes you. When you sit in those Disney amusement park rides, you get King Kong coming at you, but you’re sitting still. This, for me, is a labor of love. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is like this full body experience, where you get to not just imagine what it feels like to be a rock star, but you become the rock star, if you will, within you. Because physically, you’re playing a guitar, you’re trying to keep up with this great music you’re hearing. Visually, you’re trying to keep up with what’s going on onstage, and there’s an evolution, kind of a metamorphosis; the musician becomes a demi-god. I saw a close to finished version of it and it rocks.
MR: Now, you held a press conference at Pop Sound Studios about your part in the game. Were people amazed at the end result?
GS: Yeah. People think, “How does he have time to do this?” because tomorrow, I’m physically in Toronto, and today I’m in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, I’m playing onstage with KISS, and here I’m talking about Guitar Hero. But you know, life is short and you should make time for the things that you think are cool. I don’t know how else to put it, but Guitar Hero rocks.
MR: What KISS song is featured in the game?
GS: “Love Gun.” Also you’ll be able to hear Offspring, Queen, and a whole slew of artists. But everything from A to Z is all rock–there’s not a rapper, there’s no cowboy hats…
MR: So, where is rock and roll heading?
GS: It’s going to depend on who’s going to carry the mantle. It’s like, “Who’s going to wear the crown, and are you worth it?” It’s going to depend on that next fifteen-year old kid, guy or girl, in a garage. Do they have something to say and do they know how to say it? Can you spread your legs wide enough to hold that rock star, Jesus Christ pose?
MR: (laughs) I thought you were going elsewhere with that. What bands do you currently think are great rock bands?
GS: I like The Envy, which is about to come out with their first record on Simmons Universal (laughs). We believe in that band, and that’s going to happen big. I’m also a fan of The Muse. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re big in England and starting to make headway here–by the way, they’re in Guitar Hero. For those that don’t know, they’re sort of Queen-like and a combination of other things. There are a lot of really good new bands, but it’s going to depend on them and whether they’re willing to pick up the challenge and go where no band has gone before. That’s the only way they’re going to be able to make any mark.
MR: You mentioned Simmons Universal. You have a label coming through Universal, right?
MR: And what kind of acts are on it?
GS: It doesn’t matter, it’s just got to work. Mostly there has to be guitars in the band. I don’t want a synthesizer band. You can have a synth in the band, but it’s got to be driven by guitar. The heartbeat of all of it started a long time ago with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Unless you’re singing stuff that connects with the joys of life–good food, sexy people, living life to its fullest–then it’s just kind of dreary. I don’t want to do Seattle music. I’m actually happy to be alive.
MR: What are your thoughts on music video games in general, you know, like Guitar Hero?
GS: Well, I think Guitar Hero is head, hands, and feet above the rest simply because it allows you to kind of, not morph, but metamorph or evolve into the inner rock star in you. My favorite thing about it, though, is that it’s a full body experience. Your imagination goes, you hear the music that surrounds you, the visual surrounds you, and you become a part of it.
MR: Can the case be made that somebody who plays Guitar Hero might be inspired to pick up a guitar and learn how to play the actual instrument?
GS: The answer is yes. More importantly, it self empowers you, and you are in control of your own destiny. How many places in life do you get to do that?
MR: What are you listening to right now, what’s on your iPod?
GS: I don’t listen to iPod; I find it insulting because bands, and I’m in one, spend so much time and money making sure that it sounds great, and then you hear it through the asshole of a fly. It’s such an insulting way to do it. It’s like watching movies on your handheld devices, what a f**king insult to the movie makers, and the sound guys, and technicians who spend so much time lighting stuff so that their stuff can be squashed to the size of a potato chip. I use handheld devices for communication, not for looking at art or listening to music.
MR: Wasn’t that the same complaint when we moved from analog to digital, from records to CDs?
GS: Yeah, I don’t like it. Just because something is easier doesn’t mean it’s better. I also like leftover food as opposed to fresh food because the spaghetti gets to talk with the meatball, and it’s just more scrumptious. That’s what marination is, “Oh, I just put some fresh wine on it.” I’ll say, “No, let it soak, it’ll taste better.”
MR: Now, you’re no stranger to games. I remember you had one of the most popular pinball machines of all time.
GS: It is the most popular one of all time, the KISS Bally machine was the biggest.
MR: They came to you and asked you to be a part of Guitar Hero, right?
GS: Yes they did.
MR: What was your first reaction?
GS: First reaction was, “Cool.” To be quite honest, they’re not going to be able to make me rich, it’s too late for that. So, the only reason for doing stuff is if you think it’s cool. I don’t know how to describe it other than saying Guitar Hero rocks.
MR: And it’s so involved, with all the different levels, pods, all that.
GS: There are one thousand variations, can you imagine? One thousand variations of where you can go, where you can wind up, and where you can fall flat on your face, and the musical choices and the physicality of it really makes it a full body experience.
MR: Gene, are you good at it?
GS: I’m horrible, that’s why I want to keep playing it. Before I whip it out, as the phrase goes, at a party or an event I want to be good at it. So, that’s why I’m getting one of the first ones that are coming out. We’re just doing the last vocal, and the PR campaign stuff, but I’m getting one of the first ones off the racks to quietly go over in a corner and practice. I can’t say, “That’s me. That’s the voice. I’m the demigod.” “Well, how do you play?” “Umm, not so good.”
I can’t do that. I’ve got to win, got to be cool. That’s what I suggest to everybody: Get yours, and get your free Soundgarden album because the nice folks at Guitar Hero, believe it or not, are giving the whole album free, as an extra. I would go off, if I were you, and practice on your own, so, when you’re at a party and someone says, “How did you get so good?” You can say, “You know, some people are just born with it. Some people are just born rock stars.”
MR: KISS is on tour?
GS: We’ve been on tour for two-and-a-half years, pretty much, on and off.
MR: Are you working on a new KISS project?
GS: Oh, God, there are so many. Go into a 7-11 or a supermarket, or drive down the highways of America and you’ll see us.
MR: Okay. More specifically, is there a new album in the works?
GS: There will be, we just need time to breathe.
MR: Right. Now, we started out talking about something that happened on your show, Family Jewels. Are there any more seasons?
GS: Season six starts shooting next month. We’re the longest running reality series, we’re in eighty-four countries, (sings) and a partridge in a pear tree.
MR: (laughs) Nice. Is the show going to feature you playing Guitar Hero in any of the episodes?
GS: Am I going to feature Guitar Hero in our TV show?
GS: It depends, if they buy on, yes.
MR: (laughs) Leaving aside the iPod, what are you listening to, music-wise, right now?
GS: You know, I listen to more new music than almost anyone I know because I get one thousand demos, on average, per month. So, I really do listen to new music…in fact, newer music than the people who listen to music because I get it before it winds up on a label.
MR: Are you listening in the context of finding bands for Simmons Universal?
MR: Do you have a roster that’s already set?
GS: The Envy is our first act, but we’re closing in on three more. You can go to simmonsrecords.com and get the lowdown.
MR: KISS has been one of the biggest franchises of all time.
GS: No other music franchise touches it. We outsell The Beatles and Elvis put together.
MR: I know somebody interested in buying a KISS casket with the fireworks.
GS: The next generation of that is coming out. The first generation sold out, you can’t find them.
MR: (laughs) Yeah?
GS: The KISS condoms are coming back, too. The condoms were sold out as well. Did you ever notice that it says made in Jamaica? Oh, yours doesn’t roll out that far? See, that was a joke.
GS: That was a joke.
MR: (laughs) Yes, yes, and a fine one. You were on Shatner’s Raw Nerve, right?
GS: Yes, I did one.
MR: What was that like?
GS: Well, Bill asks people questions that are sometimes surprising, and he actually got me. He asked about my mother, and what the immigrant experience was like coming to America, and where I came from, and stuff that you usually don’t talk about in interviews.
MR: I was just curious about that.
GS: Trust me, I’m fascinating.
MR: You are, sir. I’ll say you were fascinating even as a sea monster in SpongeBob SquarePants.
GS: Yes, I did SpongeBob. We also did The Fairly OddParents one hour premier, KISS did two Family Guys, where KISS saves Santa Claus. I think I did Mrs. Claus. Anywhere, anytime, all places, all things for everybody.
MR: Once you’re a cartoon character, how do you go back?
GS: Well, I also created My Dad The Rock Star, which was on Nickelodeon, and around the world for twenty-six episodes. How do you go back? You try to be all things to everybody.
MR: It’s clear you’ve got acting chops. Where did they come from?
GS: I have no clue. I think there must be a loose screw someplace because the tendency for most people is to throw up when they get up onstage because they get judged. I think I’d throw up if I wasn’t on stage and I wasn’t getting judged.
MR: Which takes us to what advice do you have for new artists?
GS: There’s no advice you can give because every artist is unique. There’s no paint-by-numbers road to success, and no ten easy steps to follow that will make you succeed. First, it will start with you, and what you’ve got. Then, the other three are the right thing, at the right place, at the right time.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Brian Culbertson
Mike Ragogna: So you named your album XII.
Brian Culbertson: I’m bringing back the Roman numeral.
MR: And you’re doing it in a fine way. XII features artists such as Chuck Brown, Kenny Lattimore, Brian McKnight, Avant, Faith Evans, Earl Klugh, and Ray Parker Jr. Why?
BC: Why? You know, I always love collaborations. To me, making music is about being in a studio with other great artists and musicians. So, I always get together to write with people and to record with people. I just love that feeling of collaboration, when everyone is in there having a great time. Some of the songs are even like a party. There were probably seven or eight of us in the studio during the making of “Feelin’ It,” for instance.
MR: Sounds like a party. Sinbad is on there too, right?
BC: Yeah. Sinbad, Ray…everybody is on that song. It was so much fun.
MR: You’re classified as “jazz,” but you’re more than that. You’re funk, you’re R&B, you’re pop…
BC: I think my new bio says, “…R&B, jazz, soul, funk, pop, mulit-instrumentalist.” It’s just kind of a mouthful.
MR: What was the recording process like?
BC: Well, this one was done like most modern pop records are done these days. You know, we went into the studio, we started writing, we went into pre-production, and we started making the tracks. A lot of this record was programmed, and I programmed everything–a lot of the drums, and synth bass, and a lot of the keyboard parts were programmed. Then, we started layering the live instruments on top of the programmed parts, which is why it’s a very modern sounding, current record. After everything was layered on, we added the singers, adding their vocal layers, and then the last thing I did was put my piano on it to fill in the holes. After that, we started mixing it and added cool effects and reverb, and EQ-ing. I don’t want to get too technical, but we make it sound good.
MR: I’m very familiar with the practice of filling in the holes at the end, but usually it’s done with the lead vocalist or sweetening. I am very surprised to hear that the piano came last.
MR: Normally, you’d record the rhythm section first, then replace the piano later.
BC: I do demo the piano first.
MR: Oh, you mean you record the piano as a guide so the players know what’s coming, then you replace it in the end as a sort of final overdub.
BC: Yeah, they know roughly where it’s going to be, but in terms of the little soloistic parts, I will fit those all in later. I don’t want to get in the way, and impair anyone else who is going to potentially play in that spot.
MR: Right. Obviously, this is your twelfth album, right?
MR: How long have you been recording?
BC: Oh, geez. Well, my first record came out in ’94. So, it’s been a few years now.
MR: You’ve accumulated quite a Facebook friends list for the album, but some of these musicians are old pals, right?
BC: Oh yeah, a lot of the people that I work with, I’ve worked with on many of my records over the years. A lot of the great studio musicians like Lenny Castro, Alex Al, Paul Jackson Jr., and Eric Marienthal are all guys that have played on many of my records. Even Ray Parker Jr., I’ve been working with for several years now. He lives nearby me, and loves playing guitar.
MR: And you’ve contributed to other artist’s albums, such as Peter White’s and Dave Koz’s.
BC: Yeah, over the years, I’ve done a lot of different things. Most recently, I just worked on the new Avant record, and the new Faith Evans record. So, I’m always meeting new people, and getting new relationships. I just, like I said, love working with different people. It’s always a learning process for me. Every time I work with someone new I might learn something that I’ve never done before.
MR: Speaking of learning something, how much do you attribute your musical chops to being the son of famed trumpeter, Jim Culbertson?
BC: Ah, yes. I got all my music from my parents, growing up. My dad–being a great trumpet player and a band director for, now, thirty-eight years–had music flowing in our house ever since I was born. So, I was destined to become some kind of musician, and I started classical piano lessons when I was eight, picked up a lot of different instruments along the way, and here we are.
MR: One of your albums that people may be most familiar with is It’s On Tonight.
MR: That debuted at number one on Billboard.
BC: It did, and it stayed up there for a few weeks too.
MR: You’ve had many albums with the Warner family, and many with the Universal group, right?
MR: How do you keep your head in your art as opposed to dealing with business aspects of your career?
BC: I’ve got to tell you, I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about, “What kind of music do I want to make now?” That’s all I’m thinking about. I let my manager deal with label situations, wherever we are at that point, and whoever we’re dealing with. It’s my job to make music, go in the studio, and deliver a product that they can get excited about trying to make some money off of. Ultimately, for me, it’s all about the music and the creativity.
MR: While growing up, who were some of your influences besides your dad?
BC: Well, around the house, I really listened to what my dad was listening to. He was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chicago, and Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Tower Of Power. Then there was the fusion stuff like Chic Corea, Yellowjackets, Brecker Brothers, and then David Sanborn and that whole thing. So, that’s what I grew up on.
MR: David Sanborn is one of my favorites. He appeared on a lot of old pop records as the big sax break.
BC: He was at the perfect time because sax was such an integral part of pop music in the ’80s.
MR: Right, and the ’70s. Who is your favorite traditional jazz artist, and who is your favorite contemporary jazz artist?
BC: Definitely, my favorite is John Coltrane. I never, never get tired of listening to his records. My favorite contemporary artist is harder to pick because there are so many. David Sanborn is right up there, but I also love George Duke. I don’t even want to play in the same room if he’s there. I’m just in awe of his talent and his musicianship, and I tell him that too. He’s like, “Ah, man. Come on.” (laughs)
MR: Do you see reality shows like American Idol continuing as strongly as over the next few years?
BC: Well, I think, like anything, it has a limited number of years. That, right now, is the fad I guess, and I personally don’t see that lasting forever, just like any pop star. Obviously, there are always exceptions, but it’s having a good run right now.
MR: I expected American Idol to last about as long as a game show, but it outsmarted me.
BC: I must admit, I don’t personally watch them. I actually don’t even watch television because I don’t have TV at home. I cancelled my service five years ago, and I haven’t watched it since.
MR: So, how do you watch How I Met Your Mother?
BC: I have iTunes and there’s Hula. There are many ways that, if you need to watch something, you can watch something.
MR: I haven’t had a television in about year. Not missing it. I only cared about a handful of shows, and that’s it.
BC: Yeah, the only thing you get screwed on is you can’t watch live sporting events. So, if you’re a huge sports buff, it’s probably not a good move for you. I used to be into sports when I was in Chicago. Obviously, I was there during the Bull’s dynasty, so we had to watch every single game. Now, I’m like, “Eh.” I’ve kind of lost interest. So, now I just kind of focus on music, which is a good thing.
MR: Live versus studio recording, which is your preference?
BC: Well, it used to be studio hands down. When I was first starting out, I was a total studio rat or studio nerd or whatever you want to call it. I loved being in the studio, and I still have a studio tan, by the way. To me, I really like the control aspect, how every little part gets put in its place. Then, when I first started touring, I was very uncomfortable up on the stage. I hadn’t done it a lot; in fact, I had never actually performed on keyboard live because I was mainly a trombone player back in those days. So, when I first started touring as myself as an artist, all of a sudden, I’m out front having to talk to this audience that doesn’t know me because I’m brand new, you know? I was a nervous wreck, man.
Over the years, as I became more popular and songs started playing on the radio, people started coming to actually see me. So, I think when you see that people are coming to see you, and know the songs already, all of the sudden you get more confident. At this point, I absolutely love touring; I love performing live. It’s just an amazing thrill to be out there on that stage and just command that audience right from the start. I just love having them right on every note. It’s a blast.
MR: What do audiences cheer for most at your concerts?
BC: I think people like when you are really just seriously into it. I’ll go nuts on a couple of songs, and people will lose their minds, it’s crazy. Then, on the other side of it, I’ll do a ballad, and I use a keyboard live, so, I’ll step around to the back of it and play it backwards. That blows people away, too. Sometimes, I run around with my trombone because I still play trombone in my shows. Now, I’m playing drums in my show. I always try to flip it up and do something different to throw people off a little bit.
MR: You’ve worked with Barry Manilow, right?
BC: Yes. Actually, at this point, I would say I’ve done over thirty shows opening for Barry when he goes out of Vegas to do arena shows. We did the Staples Center in L.A., the United Center in Chicago, and obviously, many other places throughout the country. That’s been an amazing, amazing experience. I still remember the first show I did for him–I think it was in Philadelphia. He hadn’t had an opening act in, I believe, almost ten years. So, everyone was very prompt and got there right at eight o’clock when I went on because they thought he was about to come out. They’re chanting, “Barry, Barry,” and I’m thinking they’re going to crucify me, right? So, I run out, and they realize it’s not Barry. I’m looking at random people in the front row putting their arms up and looking at their watches, but during my whole set, I slowly started to win them over, and by the end of the show I had the whole audience on their feet, and we had an amazing time. Barry was so gracious, he even had me come out and perform with him on some of his stuff. So, it was definitely a great thing.
MR: And you had a career in jingles?
BC: Oh yes. Back in Chicago, I actually wrote and produced thousands of commercials. We did everything from United Airlines (hums theme), to McDonalds with the Fry Guys, if you remember that. So, that was a really cool musical training for me because I was in my early to mid-twenties at that point, while I was also doing records on the side.
MR: How did you get your jingle gig?
BC: A guy that owned the company was a guy that I took private lessons with when I was in high school, and then he was a teacher at DePaul University, kind of an adjunct professor there who taught one class. So, I continued private composition and arranging lessons with him, and a couple years later, his partner left, and he asked me if I wanted to work with him. I was like, “Oh my God, yeah.” So, I was literally thrown into sixteen-hour days doing jingles; it was insane. I kind of got burned out and quit that to move to L.A. and make records full time, and I’ve been a happy guy since.
MR: Although, kids, the lesson here is do take your piano lessons.
BC: Oh, yes. I tell all the kids that, in the beginning, it really sucked and I hated it myself. But there is a threshold that you eventually get over, and all of a sudden, it becomes fun and enjoyable. Like learning anything, it’s very difficult. But you’ve just got to stick with it, and eventually, it’s going to be cool.
MR: What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists?
BC: What I tell people is a lot of people think they need to make a whole record in order to get a record deal, and my opinion is you don’t really need a full record. You need three really well done, great songs–written well, produced well, and mixed well. A lot of people kind of forget to spend the time and the money to make it sound as good as it can possibly get because today, you’re competing against everyone. So, you really have to spend as much time, money, and energy as you can. You really have to throw your entire self into it if you want it badly. Also, get out there and use those social media outlets. Make sure you have YouTube videos of yourself performing live, go do club dates, and get a band together. There are so many things you can do. Go get a million hits on YouTube, good luck.
MR: All it takes is a treadmill, apparently.
MR: I bet OK Go sure they were as surprised as anyone by the phenomenon.
BC: I’m sure everyone was shocked.
MR: So, what does the future bring for Mr. Brian Culbertson?
BC: Right now, I’m about to embark on a lot of tour dates this Fall. We’re going to do a whole tour on the East coast coming up very soon. We’re probably doing a bunch of shows in the Midwest and the South, and then I head out on a cruise ship. We’re doing a weeklong jazz cruise in the Caribbean. Then, I’m going out on a Christmas tour with Dave Koz, Kenny Dilfer, and Jonathan Butler, and that will be twenty-some dates in the month of December. It’s just going to be a busy fall, so, I’m looking forward to getting out there, and you know, promoting the record.
1. Feelin’ It
2. Another Love
3. It’s Time
4. Out On The Floor
5. Waiting For You
6. Stay Wit It
7. Skies Wide Open
9. Don’t U Know Me By Now
10. That’s Life
11. I Wanna Love You
12. I Don’t Know
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with The Weepies’ Steve Tannen and Deb Talen
Mike Ragogna: Steve and Deb, I’m a little shy introducing two people in the same group who are married because the last name thing gets tricky.
Steve Tannen: Definitely. No, Deb Talen was Deb Talen when I met her, and she will ever be Deb Talen. You know, if you’re marrying Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen you’re not going to be like, “Oh, take my name too.”
MR: Joni Springsteen.
ST: Exactly, and I’m Steve Tannen.
MR: How are you guys? Are you doing well?
Deb Talen: Doing well, thanks.
ST: We’re doing great.
NR: So, let’s get to the new album. I think one of the best and subtlest lines on the record is in the first song “Please Speak Well Of Me”: “Don’t say words you don’t mean.”
ST: Thanks, that was one of the first songs we wrote for the record. I don’t know, it just set up the emotional balance of, “everything is good, but there’s a lot of longing going on.”
MR: Nice. An alternate way of looking at it is people fill up a lot of space with a lot of words, kind of like what I’m doing right now.
ST & TD: (laughs)
DT: But you have to, it’s your job.
MR: Hey, I have a sweet job today, talking to The Weepies for The Huffington Post here at solar powered KRUU-FM. Did you know we were solar powered?
DT: No, that’s so cool. What does that mean?
MR: (laughs) That means we’re running off of solar energy, and we’re the only ones in the Midwest doing that.
ST: Aren’t you in Iowa?
MR: I am in Iowa.
ST: How does that work during the winter?
MR: There’s still a sun.
DT: That’s amazing. Both of us used to live, separately, in Colorado, and we were amazed at how much sun there was. It was like three hundred days a year, or something.
MR: Well, the interesting thing is if it’s functional in the Midwest, then there’s no excuse for anyone on the West coast, right?
DT: Los Angeles has almost an offensive amount of sunshine.
ST: There’s a song on the record called “Hope Tomorrow’s A Sunny Day,” and originally it was “Bet Tomorrow’s A Sunny Day.” It was sort of a cynical view of how many sunny days in a row you have in California.
MR: I moved here from California, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
MR: I think there’s such a thing as being too happy.
ST: Did you fall in love or something?
MR: As in what am I doing in Iowa?
ST: I love Iowa. That’s just an unusual path.
MR: (laughs) So far, I’ve had a beautiful here in Fairfield, so I’m a-lovin’ the Iowa.
DT: We’ve really loved our time we’ve spent in Iowa too, though it’s just been passing through, playing shows and things.
MR: Where do you play when you pass through?
DT: We’ve played in some really tiny places. A little place in, what is it, Cedar Rapids. Kind of a coffee house type place that’s run by these two guys. We’ve played there a couple of times.
ST: And I think we’re going to be at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. We visited Iowa City last time, and we were looking at housing prices when we were there thinking, “Gosh, look what you can get. That’s awesome.”
MR: Wait till I tell you about Fairfield.
ST: (laughs) Oh my gosh, I bet.
MR: We’re going to get a real estate agent here in a moment or two.
ST: (laughs) Get ‘em on the line.
MR: I hear some good things are happening with Be My Thrill. It’s already topping charts, and there is much celebration in the land.
ST: You know, to be perfectly honest, we don’t follow it at all. The little we do is the label telling us what’s happening and we go, “That’s weird. That’s great.” A friend of mine said, “Hey, did you know you’re ahead of Eminem?” And I was like, “You know, I’m not.” It was never our intent to be ahead of Eminem, and we don’t even pay attention. We are now preparing for the road. We’re home, going through the last four records, and a couple of the solo records, deciding what we’re going to play this time through since we’ll only have two hours every night.
MR: Time to whip out the medleys.
ST: You know, I did that a while back and I was like, “That was cool.” But no.
DT: He was kind of playing and making fun of himself, right?
ST: Seeing how many songs he could play in the key of G.
MR: I guess when you do medleys, you have to be a Bacharach or a Jimmy Webb.
ST: Fair enough. We’re going out on the road with a huge bus and a full band, and we’re going to take the next five weeks here and really get this show on its feet. We’re really excited to be heading out on the road.
MR: Where are you heading?
DT: All over the place. We’re heading to thirty-six cities around the country. We’re starting with going up the West coast, then over and around.
MR: Nice. I remember getting turned on to The Weepies because one of your songs was on One Tree Hill.
DT: Sure, yeah.
MR: Which song was that?
DT: They’ve used a few at this point.
MR: After I heard it, I was like, “Whoever they are, I need my fair share of Weepies.”
ST: Thanks. We’ve had a lot of support from film and TV. It’s a little inexplicable. I don’t know, it just seems to fit. We’re involved in many of the decisions that go on there. They show us the movie or the TV show it’s going to happen in, and in most cases, it’s really cool, beautiful stuff. There’s no commercial radio to speak of for indie artists, so, it really helps get the music out there too. You discovered it through a TV show…crazy, right?
MR: Yeah, and what’s interesting is that even though the intention of your song was probably not acted out by the actors, it perfectly conveyed the mood the scene needed, whatever that was, don’t really remember specifics. It was One Tree Hill, what can I say.
DT: Hopefully people are interested enough that their ears perk, and they can make their own associations in their own lives.
MR: So, what did you get that musical director for Christmas?
ST: Again, this is so embarrassing, we don’t really know him. We do meet them once a year or something at an event, but mostly, we are so boring. We sit at home and write and play, and then we play out, and that’s all we do.
MR: Well, I have to tell you that I have shouted the virtues of The Weepies far and wide, and actually, I’ve turned my transcriber and his girlfriend onto it.
ST: Thanks very much, that’s how we survive.
MR: Let’s go back to the record. The title track to the album is an up tempo, flirty song, is that your single?
DT: It’s, I guess, one of them.
MR: Okay. What is your “single”?
DT: I don’t know what that means anymore. They send it out on it’s own, to bars around town, and see if they can hook up with anybody. The first one was “I Was Made For Sunny Days.”
ST: An artist named Colbie Caillat sang background on it, and I think that’s why they chose it as the single.
MR: Colbie had a hit with Jason Mraz.
DT: She’s certainly well established in her own right, I mean good gosh.
MR: Yeah, and the hit was “Lucky.”
ST: We’re hilariously ignorant about all that. Colbie is just like a nice woman from down the block with a great voice.
MR: About those singles…
ST: The second single was “Be My Thrill,” which the record company also really liked, and is another up tempo. So, they called it the second single, which just means that Deb did some more artwork for it, as far as I can tell.
MR: Right, because servicing these days is really just a digital link.
DT: Yeah. For singles, certainly that’s what it’s been.
MR: Your first single, “I Was Made For Sunny Days,” pretty much describes all of us.
ST: There’s a line there, “…and the streets filled with umbrellas, and we all look the same.” I think that was kind of a spark for the whole song.
MR: Nice, like a Magritte painting.
ST & DT: Very good.
MR: Are there a couple of songs on here that have interesting stories that the public is not privy to?
ST: Absolutely. One of the things that we do is write together, and write for each other. Some of these songs started off as slow, depressing, low songs that I was singing, and ended up as really poppy ones that Deb sings, and that sound really happy. One of those is “Be My Thrill,” which at some point, really had this dark…
DT: …a little Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
ST: Exactly, but if you listen to it, you can hear how it ended up.
MR: Speaking of Tom Waits, I prefer the Asylum years, though most hipsters prefer the Island years. I separate the period in that way because during the Asylum years, he was merely swallowing a glass of broken glass a day…
MR: …but then he hits the Island years.
ST: It’s funny, he goes through these phases, but it’s all the same guy, and that’s what keeps him interesting.
DT: And probably keeps him interested still in what he’s doing.
MR: I love him. “Waltzing Matilda” is one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s such a gin soaked song.
ST: Absolutely, did he write that?
MR: Well, “Waltzing Matilda” is the nickname of a song that he wrote called “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen),” in which he incorporated a tag from the folk song “Waltzing Matilda.”
ST: I think my favorite Tom Waits is The Heart Of Saturday Night. That’s my favorite record of his.
MR: Dude, that’s one of my favorite albums of all time. Every song on that record kills.
ST: It is such a whole. You can put the whole thing on and it just never breaks the mood.
MR: It’s like one big song cycle. “San Diego Serenade,” “Shiver Me Timbers,” the title track, “New Coat Of Paint.” How do you do better than that? That’s just an incredible record.
ST: It’s gorgeous. I read an interview with him, and he was talking about sort of moving on from there, and how he felt. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the interview said that he felt like he had sort of done what he had set out to do as a singer-songwriter at piano. So, it was like, “Yeah, I did that. Now I’m trying something else.”
MR: Joni Mitchell is one of those people where everybody wants another Court And Spark or Blue or For The Roses, and she had no intention of ever doing those records again.
ST: They’re all awesome. Strangely enough, Larry Klein, who produced a bunch of Joni Mitchell’s albums and was married to her, plays on our record.
ST: On a bunch of the tunes. Obviously, Joni Mitchell is amazing, but Larry Klein is also an amazing hero of ours. We got his contact info and sent him a note, and he just called us back. He said, “Come on down.” Talk about a generous soul, and an amazing talent.
MR: Look at all the people he’s worked with like Madeleine Peyroux, Julia Fordham, many others. His style of production works inside out. He doesn’t gloss; he understands what’s at the root, and then he accents.
ST: We’d love to work with him on that level, and we talked about maybe doing that down the line. This one, he literally just played bass for us. It was really sort of magical.
MR: He’s such a great producer that you forget he’s also a really amazing bass player.
ST: Incredible. The other guy we were able to hook up with was a guy named Tony Levin.
MR: I’ll always associate him with Paul Simon, but he’s done so much more.
DT: Peter Gabriel.
ST: Another tremendously generous guy, and an amazing player.
MR: There are some really great humans that we could be spouting off about for the next hour, but let’s get back to The Weepies. The Weepies have a certain amount of popularity, as we know from all this chart action you’ve been having lately. But I think you might be influencing others now. How do you feel about that?
ST: Seriously, when Colbie Caillat contacted us and was like, “Listen, I really listen to your records.” That was really amazing.
DT: Amazing and surprising. I think we feel like we’re sort of a part of a songwriter milieu, a generation of songwriters. There’s sort of influence and counter influence that goes on, and inspiration by listening to each other. It definitely does feel like that.
MR: That’s fair. It is feeling like the singer-songwriter community is a giant cooperative right now.
DT: It feels pretty cooperative, yeah.
MR: Can I ask you an embarrassing question? This is like “let’s whip out the naked baby pictures” time.
ST: Uh oh.
MR: Can you talk about how you met in Cambridge?
DT: Yeah, Steve and I had each been doing the singer-songwriter life, I was in Cambridge and Steve was in New York City. A mutual friend said to both of us, “You need to listen to this other person.” We were both in very intense up-and-coming artist circles, hearing to a lot of music and listening to a lot of other people playing. It was really rare, for me anyway, to hear someone that I was really excited about; it happened, but it was few and far between. I put Steve’s CD on, and I became an instant fanatic. I heard that he was coming to Cambridge to play from someone at another show I was at, and I wrote it on the back of someone’s business card they had given me, “February 12th, Steve Tannen.” I went down to Club Passim where he was playing, and it was really exciting to meet him, and really frightening.
ST: Now can I tell what really happened?
MR: Uh oh.
ST: Deb Talen, in ’00, was a very up-and-coming, hot–in all senses of the word–songwriter. I had heard about her, and then somebody said, “You have to listen to her CD.” Like Deb said, you listen to a lot of CDs, and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll listen to her.” Then I saw her picture and I was like, “You know what, I’d better listen to her, she’s cute.” I did, and I felt a real kinship. I would sing along with her in the car all the time, I’d share her with everybody, I tried to do a cover of her with my band, then I went up to do a show in Boston and she freaked me out. She came and sat right in the middle of the show and I was like, “That’s Deb Talen, don’t screw up. That’s Deb Talen right there.” I literally don’t remember the rest of the show, I was so overwhelmed. We started writing together almost immediately, started playing shows together, and now we’re married and have two kids, it’s crazy. That’s a true story, an absolutely true story.
MR: I like stories like these. I want one of my own.
DT: Well, we want one for you, Mike.
MR: Aw, thank you. Is there anything in the news that you’re concerned about?
ST: Are you kidding?
ST & DT: Everything.
ST: Everything in the news is concerning us, and everybody.
DT: The state of healthcare, the fact that we’re still at war…
ST: Listen, here’s what I’m going to say: Everybody out there, be nice. Love one another because this is the only shot you’ve got.
DT: And drive safely.
ST: And drive safely.
MR: And buckle up.
ST: And take a jacket.
DT: Drive safely and respectfully. Don’t cut people off. It might make you feel a little rush of power for a moment, but don’t do it.
ST: You’re not going to get there very much faster.
MR: Having been a former Californian, it’s the only state I know where if you signal to change lanes or to get out for an exit, it’s a sign of weakness.
ST: Yeah, people will speed up and hit you, it’s true.
MR: What is that? I don’t understand, I’ve never seen that in any other state.
DT: You’re right, it’s a very unique driving system out here.
MR: I hate it, I miss it.
MR: Out here in Iowa, we are much more refined than that. Or we don’t exactly have a lot of highways, so there’s not a lot of major freeway freakishness.
ST: We can’t wait. We’re going to experience it when we come to Iowa in October.
MR: Please, would you?
ST: We are, we’re coming to Iowa City, Iowa, and we’re driving. So, we’ll experience the roads for ourselves.
MR: Come for the music, stay for the roads. One more question, got some advice to new artists that are jumping into this ring?
ST: That’s easy.
DT: Just keep doing what you’re doing…
ST: …every day, it doesn’t matter what your job is. Both of us had horrible, horrible jobs, and some not so bad jobs. But write every day.
DT: If you are doing work, and you’re enjoying the work, that’s it. If the world allows you to have a career at it, then that’s fantastic.
ST: Nothing has changed in the way we work other than I don’t have to get up and go to Starbucks to work. I can go get a coffee.
DT: I was the professional barista, thank you very much.
ST: Fair enough.
MR: You worked at Starbucks? Really??
ST: No, it’s true, it’s true.
DT: Insurance after six months, dude. For half time.
MR: I was addicted to Signature Hot Chocolate, and then they took it away. They pulled the rag right out from under me.
DT: How rude.
MR: And now I’m decaffeinated.
DT: Oh, that’s so sad.
1. Please Speak Well Of Me
2. When You Go Away
3. Red Red Rose
4. I Was Made For Sunny Days
5. They’re In Love, Where Am I?
6. Add My Effort
7. Be My Thrill
8. Be My Honeypie
10. Hard To Please
11. Not A Lullaby
12. How Do You Get High?
13. Hope Tomorrow
14. Empty Your Hands
(transcribed by new Weepies’ fan Ryan Gaffney)
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