July 26, 2015

An Interview with Rickie Lee Jones

In interviewing Rickie Lee Jones about her music, come up with a question that piques her interest and you’ll likely end up fielding a few comparable inquiries of your own in return.

That Jones should welcome or even seek out such insights from those who admittedly appreciate her music isn’t all that surprising, however. Indeed, with such expository songs as “Chuck E.’s In Love,” “Stewart’s Coat,” and “We Belong Together,” the two-time GRAMMY® winner has not only distinguished herself as one of the most gifted and versatile singer/songwriters of the past 40 years but among the most sentient as well.

On her first new work of original material in more than a decade, The Other Side of Desire, Jones marries influences (from jazz to blues to Cajun to rockabilly to pop) that are often indigenous to New Orleans, where since leaving her Los Angeles stomping grounds last year she has lived and written songs with renewed passion and purpose. “I’ve got nothing to prove,” said Jones, 60, recently from her Big Easy abode. “I feel and want to spread a little joy, so that’s what I’m doing.”

And that’s what she’s done with the songs that make up The Other Side of Desire, culminating in one of her most intimately personal and poignant albums to date.

“One of the things I wanted to do was to write things that I could sing for the rest of my career and not have to do only old songs,” she explained, “things that would be fun and that the audience would want to hear as much as their sentiment with the old songs.

“I’m pretty sure that anything I write is relatable to anything else,” she added, “and there wouldn’t be that much of a difference because they’re all coming from my own personal color palette.”

Are you a songwriter whose songs naturally reflect your environment? Or, in the case of this latest album, did you deliberately intend for it to reflect musical influences of New Orleans?

Well, the first thing was to build a new life, and I also wanted to write a new record; and those things happened simultaneously. I think that’s why the environment is woven into the work, because they were one in the same. Then I thought, Why not? I’ve always shied away from that stuff because there’s something contrived about it, even if you make good work … because it always has an “I’m playing you” kind of thing about it. It’s not fair, really, to anybody, because so many people do that. They take an idea and they squash it to death, so that somebody who might sincerely feel that way, it’s harder to convince. At least now I don’t feel that way so much, because I think the sincerity of your heart is what people hear. But it’s harder to be heard, right? If you’re the twenty-seventh person making a record of Nelson Riddle stuff, even though the twenty six before you had never done jazz in their life… Anyway, all those reasons had made me shy away from thematic things, but this time I knew I didn’t want to do anything in L.A. and that act in itself is gonna make it reflect what I’m hearing around me and so in a roundabout way I did make the choice to reflect this music.

It seems to me that if you use any sort of filter into which you invest your heart and soul, your heart and soul would still reflect through the filter.

Most definitely. I think that there’s no getting around my personality and in this case they’re really simpatico, these kinds of music and how I feel and what I want to say.

One song from the album that struck me straightaway is “Infinity,” and for a couple reasons: its sense of transience; the way the lyrics are sung almost in a murmur, like water rippling off a rock; how the snare shots seem to punctuate each moment as if delivering each one to history. It’s a striking piece of music.

That song, in particular, that was a dream. I woke up and wrote it down exactly as it was and went into the studio the next day. It was a Sunday. Somebody had to come in [to produce it]. I heard it all whole. … Then I just sang it. It just came out like that. “This is where we’ve always been and it will always come again,” was so exciting to sing. It was very exciting. … I had a picture of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. I said to the producer, “I’m trying to evoke these sounds and feelings from the ‘80s or things that were more dance or ambient kinds of tracks.” I didn’t really know any names or things to use, but that was as close as I could come to tell him what I was trying to do.

On another song on the album, “Christmas in New Orleans,” you wrote a lyric, “And I still can’t recognize the sound my scars make when I sing,” that hit me especially hard.

Finally! I thought that was one of my better lines, and you’re the first person to mention it. Thank you.

It’s such a powerful reminder of how deep you cut in your music. You’re one of the few musicians I’ve seen in concert who doesn’t shy away from vulnerability. I’ve seen you cry on the stage, just overcome by a song in the moment. It must take a lot of guts to be that honest. Is that something you consciously strive for?

You’d have to be really courageous to do it [by design]. I think it’s just the way I am. It’d be hard to make a choice to be vulnerable. I can’t imagine any other way to sing a song but the way I sing it, because that’s the joy of singing it, is that I feel all of it every time I sing it. It’s like stepping into a movie instead of watching it, and I can be anybody I want to be in the course [of it]. I’m also the narrator, so it’s very wonderful and complex. Sometimes in acting or feeling one of the parts, when I pull back to be the narrator I get choked up sometimes and I do cry. I don’t mind that, but my dad said to me, “You must not cry. You have to pull back so they can cry, because if you cry they can’t.” It was really wise. As much as I enjoy feeling all that, as a performance it doesn’t really… I’m not ashamed of crying, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. But I allow it now. I don’t chastise myself for it. I just try not to go that deep.

Are there emotions or certain experiences that are too profound or painful to share in a song?

Yeah, I would say that’s true. I’m not sure if I would use the word “emotions,” but there are subjects that are still sore or active or haven’t been resolved and so to sing them is really to just bring them up on the table — and it’s not good. So, when that happens I just avoid those songs until I can sing them. You know, like, puppy dogs make you cry. Singing about my child is always emotional. Singing about anybody in my family, as a matter of fact, is emotional. And on stage, everything’s turned up louder. So, if I was sitting in a café with you and said something about my dad I might feel a tear, but I could breathe and hold it back and finish talking. But on the stage where things are turned up loud, it’s a much harder thing to do. So, I try to just avoid things that… You know, I don’t know if that’s true if I try to avoid them. I wish I would try to avoid them. [Laughs] But shows are really instinctual. I go here, I go there, and I always feel like I’m going in these directions because of the collective consciousness that’s directing me. That’s the audience and what I’m feeling from them, the way that their laughter, the way that their sighs tell me what direction to go in.

That’s in a live setting, but are there subjects you would avoid to even write about if you hadn’t processed them earlier?

No, no. Anything that wants to be said gets to be said whether or not it… I’d probably write some violent songs and listen to that expression and see if it finds its way to something else whether it’s a line or some part of a cynicism or whatever. When I’m writing everything gets to come out.

Some songwriters I’ve spoken to have conceded that they’re sometimes reluctant to reveal too much of themselves in what they write, but that’s clearly not how you approach it.

No. I’m just exploring all… There are so many ways to tell a story. I tend to naturally like to tell a story rather than tell a feeling, but in the course of telling the story can build feelings. But it’s not so much, “I feel like this,” and, “You did that.” In the past it hasn’t been the best way I’ve told a story. This record is kind of different. I think there’s a lot of “I”: “How can I tell you how I feel?” [“Valz de Mon Pere (Lover’s Oath)”]; “O Cheri, come and take a ride with me” [“Jimmy Choos”]. I mean, as I’m talking now, [I realize] I figure heavily into this record. I didn’t really think of that before. That’s kind of good. It’s healthy.

One reason I believe people are so affected by your music is the honesty in your voice, and of course that element resonates even when you’re interpreting works by other songwriters. When you take on someone else’s song, what do you generally latch onto first? Is it a lyric or narrative? Is it the melody?

I think it’s usually both. There are only a few songs in my career — I’m thinking of “My One and Only Love” [on 1991’s Pop Pop] — where I was attracted to a melody, but didn’t relate so much to a lyric. Like, “Sympathy for the Devil,” I did [on 2012’s The Devil You Know] because I did this Rolling Stones tribute so I had to pick a song and I picked that song because it relies so much on the band and so much on the “woo-woo” [witches chorus]. I thought, This is a powerful and frightening story, and I don’t know if anybody ever hears it because they’re busy dancing around.

If you break it down and tell it like you would tell it if you were just making up a song with a guitar, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am the scariest motherfucker that you’ve ever met. I’ve killed people for 2,000 years, and by the way I have my eye on you as well.” In the course of doing it — because, you know, it’s how I am — I tend to become the demon. It’s fun, but it’s scary.

I like playing it live because I like the series of things the audience goes through. They laugh at first, nervous laughter. Then it’s the laughter of recognition — and I don’t try to hurt them with it; I don’t go too far — but then either they keep giggling and looking away or they slowly listen to the text of the song. By the last verse, they’ve converted now. They did it. I really love that because it’s like I showed them the song instead of the Rolling Stones performance.

If I can do that with somebody else’s song — if I can show them the song again — I feel like that’s a worthwhile goal, because usually I don’t have a goal. I just want to sing a song because of the way it makes me feel, but some of these songs are used up and it’s kind of exciting to me if I can sprinkle something new about them.

In a far different lyrical context, of course, but that’s also what you achieved so convincingly with your rendition of The Beatles’ “For No One” [on 2000’s It’s Like This], which is, for me, one of your all-time greatest performances. 

“For No One” I heard when I was little, 11 or 12. I liked the story, but what is the word for it? “There’ll be times when all the things she said will fill your head. You won’t forget her.” Even at 11 or 12, I knew how that felt, that melancholy of loss, that all your life you would have this little scratch inside and you would always have to live with that sorrow. That’s the part that attracts me about that song, in particular.

Going back to something you said earlier, that you have nothing to prove now… What, then, drives you to still be creative? Considering that this is the first album you’ve written for since The Evening of My Best Day [in 2003], what made you want to return to writing?

Without something to prove is what makes me able to take the lid off and play music again, because no matter what I did there was always … this sense of loss that permeated everything I did. I’m not sure how — it feels a little miraculous — but it was probably just having to work so hard so long, but I was able to go, “There’s no relationship to the past. I am making a record here in this year right now and I have a name so I have an audience out there, but for the most part people under 30 don’t know who I am. This is a strange blessing because I can speak to them for the first time, but I have no hope or expectation of a resurrection or anything. All I can do is do the best work I can and hope that it does something good for somebody somewhere.”

Finally, you learn whether people notice you or not — I don’t know why — you still have to go up on the stage and play the song. … It was a relinquishing of my own thing: Am I ever gonna get my crown back? Finally it was, No, you aren’t. And I [thought], Thank God.

I’m just a musician. I’m just a singer. I got a band. I’m playing in your local town. I know what I’m worth. The things you said to me are so wonderful to hear because they’re how I see myself, that what I’ve contributed is a kind of an emotional honesty that hopefully rings through. But in the end when you die, you die. Sometimes it seems like we feel like if we’re really famous and if we’re really successful, we won’t really die. It seems like we’re running real fast so we won’t die. So, that’s been the expectation of hope that has permeated this work, a hope of a joyful time. That’s really all I wanted was to have some fun, and I feel like that’s kind of happening. It’s pretty cool.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

For more information, please visit Rickie Lee Jones online.

July 05, 2015

Book Review: 'After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye' by Jan Gaye with David Ritz

“I thank God for the time that he gave us together, good and bad,” Jan Gaye writes at the conclusion of her recent memoir, After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye, “for without both I would’ve had none.” Even thirty-one years after the tragic death of the music legend that was her husband and father of her two children, such an acknowledgement could not have been easy to come by. The eleven-year relationship she recounts here in stark and often forthright detail is fraught — despite its many gentle, loving, and passionate moments — with simmering distrust, betrayal, and, on occasion, violence. Still, hindsight has afforded the author a balanced, empathetic perspective with which to tell her story.

Already smitten with the suave, sophisticated image she’d seen on Soul Train and on various album and magazine covers of the day, seventeen-year-old Janis Hunter’s celebrity crush on thirty-four-year-old Marvin Gaye developed into an all-too-human hunger thanks to a fortuitous meeting with the Motown superstar at his Los Angeles recording studio during a session for his landmark 1973 album, Let’s Get It On. The attraction between the two was immediate though furtive at first and while a courtship ensued, odds of them enjoying anything beyond a fleeting affair seemed anything but promising. Particularly encumbered was Gaye, who was then embroiled in a bitter divorce from his first wife, Anna Gordy (older sister of Berry, president of Motown Records), as well as myriad financial plights and professional anxieties. Regardless, Hunter and Gaye’s mutual passion would not be denied. 

Such baggage couldn’t help but intrude on their relationship (and, come 1977, marriage), though as underscored throughout the book, the couple’s greatest burden — indeed, the prime catalyst for whatever chaos they wrought and suffered both individually and together — was substance abuse. The author is unflinchingly explicit at times in her recollections, in particular when depicting her husband’s gradual descent over the last few years his life amid the throes of hard drugs and their destructive, psychotic effects. Such moments come across not as an indictment on Marvin Gaye’s character or his legacy, however, but rather as unvarnished examples of the way things were at the time. If anything, the author places just as much scrutiny on her own past behavior, conceding amongst other indiscretions how her own substance abuse affected her marriage and life in general, so much so that not even Gaye’s death at the hand of his father in 1984 could at once compel her to seek help in an effort to quit.

While not a biography of Marvin Gaye — the definitive one being Divided Soul by David Ritz, who serves as co-author here — After the Dance nevertheless includes truly fascinating insights to his creativity and talent, the sort which are revealed in the most inconspicuous moments or in drowsy, late-night conversations in bed. In other words, the sort which only an intimate confidant could know. In a broader but no less personal context, the same could be said for this overall gripping memoir as a whole. 

June 16, 2015

Echosmith is a Band, and It's Everywhere (Profile/Interview)

It’s the unspoken hope of every upstart band gunning for a break, that one of its songs — borne of a lyric scribbled on the back of a crumpled receipt or a melody hummed into an iPhone’s voice recorder — will move the masses and kick start a career. For California’s own Echosmith that song is “Cool Kids,” a deceptively clever commentary on the universal need for social acceptance, its chic synth-pop gloss recalling eighties bands like Berlin and the Human League while at the same time boasting an undeniably of-the-moment vibe. 

The double-platinum lead single off the band’s 2013 debut LP, Talking Dreams (Warner Brothers Records), “Cool Kids” propelled Echosmith into the big time seemingly out of nowhere. Yet as frontwoman Sydney Sierota recently told Write on Music, the band has cultivated its collective talent and chops for the better part of a decade.

“We had a super-pop phase and then a super-rock phase and then a super-indie phase, then an experimental phase,” Ms. Sierota, 18, recalled, “but then as time went on it just became more natural to us.

“We were writing a song as a band rather than with the intention of having a good song or a successful song,” she added, “and that’s when all the really great songs came out. That’s when ‘Cool Kids’ happened. That’s when basically our entire record happened.”

And that’s when people started paying attention, flocking in ever-increasing numbers to see the band perform live on multi-artist bills like the Vans Warped tour and iHeart Music Festival or on its own headlining dates. 

“We got to really see every step, every time it grew a little bit,” said Ms. Sierota, who has video-chronicled the progress she’s strove to achieve along with her three brothers — Graham (drums), Noah (bass), and Jamie (guitar) — since the band’s inception. “We got to see the difference of one person singing along to “Cool Kids” at a show five to ten to the entire crowd of a hundred people. Then eventually it led to hundreds and then thousands.”

Now, Echosmith is everywhere. 

Just this month so far, the band has delivered a boisterous set at the Governor’s Ball Music Festival in New York City, appeared at the MTV Millennial Awards in Mexico City, and joined Taylor Swift at her 1989 World Tour stop in Philadelphia to sing “Cool Kids,” all the while maintaining a rigorous touring schedule.  

As Echosmith’s profile continues to rise, so too does that specifically of Ms. Sierota, who last month signed on with Wilhelmina Models. While her likeness is sure to complement an avalanche of magazine covers, posters, T-shirts, and other such promotional fare that already feature her (either depicted within the group, or alone), the matter of maintaining the integrity of a female-fronted band with an otherwise all-male lineup is hardly anything new. The most obvious example of this would be Blondie in the mid-to-late ‘70s, whose slogan “Blondie is a band” served as a requisite antidote to the media’s fixation on lead singer Deborah Harry at the expense of her male colleagues.

“It’d be different if two of us were siblings and then people would just naturally be looking at the two siblings,” reasoned Ms. Sierota. “Because we’re all siblings, it helps. 

“Yeah, of course, there are going to be instances when somebody will just naturally talk to me, want to interview me or things like that,” she added. “My brothers don’t mind. They’re okay with that. I think the only thing they wouldn’t be okay with was that if they were in the dark when we’re performing or something. Everyone's equal on the playing field and on the stage, literally.”

Check out Echosmith’s latest single, “Bright”:

— Photo © Nicole Nodland

For more information, please visit Echosmith online

June 07, 2015

An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

As he concluded the second show of a two-night stand billed as “The Lost Weekend: Last Piano/Vocal Performances” last month at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles, seventy-two-year-old Van Dyke Parks bowed and bid farewell to arguably the most conventional aspect of his otherwise unconventional, visionary career. 

For almost half a century, in fact, Parks has achieved singular distinction as a composer, arranger, lyricist, producer, actor, and all-around maverick icon, yet it wasn’t until relatively recent that he inured his chops to the concert stage. “I started touring at the age of sixty-eight for the first time after over forty years in the music business,” Parks told this writer in February 2012, by which point he had begun logging a fair share of live appearances and was gearing up for a fresh batch of new ones across the country. 

For a man who’d earned his living and likewise his legend mostly behind the scenes — his credits include works by the likes of Randy Newman, U2, Fiona Apple, Bruce Springsteen, and Harry Nilsson, not to mention Brian Wilson’s salvaged classic, SMiLE, and his own inimitable solo albums, including Song Cycle and Orange Crate Art — Parks acknowledged the irony in his ambitions.   

“I had never had the opportunity to perform any of the works that I’d done, really, over those years,” he said. “I felt that I should be able to have that opportunity, because it’s a special pleasure that so many of my peers have had. They’ve built lives. They’ve become well-known. I basically have reached an age of anonymity that I wanted when I was young and now it’s part of my stamp, my branding: an anonymous player.” 

At the time of this extensive and wide-ranging conversation, which until now has remained unpublished, Parks had just overseen the release of the retrospective compilation, Arrangements, Volume One, and was in the throes of composing the now out-of-print vinyl collection, 7” Singles Series, the songs from which would surface on his allusively titled studio LP, Songs Cycled, the following year.

Are the audiences that come to your performances now enjoying the new material?

Well, I don’t do too much of the new material. I prefer to explore what it is that I’ve done, but I’m starting to introduce some [new] songs into the set and will continue to do that through this year. I’m going to do some more. I’m going to be an itinerant musician this year. I’m going to hit the road, Jack. I will be putting some new songs in those performances, but I like ranging freely and just regarding what it is that I have done. 

My wife says that a Southern gentleman learns to say two things. The first is, “Yes, Ma’am.” And the second thing is, “Whatever was I thinking?” I kind of feel like that when I investigate work that I did many years ago, but I think it’s worth exploration and I’d like to think that I’m capable of durable goods that stand the test of time. That’s the way I work, every song. Every song is that important. Now I’m working on what I of course consider my best song. 

So, I’m very pleased about the process. I’ll continue to record and I will up until April, then hit the road here in the red states, in the mid states, in this politically vital year, going out and hoping that “
the song will emphasize the humanities and help us find a peaceable, political future for the next four years. 

I live in Florida, which is always a highly politicized environment.

I have many relatives who are Republicans of Florida, but I avoid political conversations with them at the dinner table because my politics are decidedly green. For example, I was just in Jacksonville at a theatre — I did a co-bill with Billy Joe Shaver — to benefit the St. Johns River restoration. I’m very happy that I could even be included in such an event because, as my song lyrics suggest, my politics are green. I think about the integrity of our process, the amount of oil we use, the world we’re leaving behind. Florida with a white python, who’d of thought? What an awful sport to play on an environment. So, we must think about the world we leave behind, and in the end game of my life — in which I am, by the way — I want to do the right thing. So my lyrics, you see… Although I have, I think, a reputation for being of light heart, my songs have become darker, in a way, as I find inevitably that I have to focus on things that matter. Such as my feelings about oil are reflected in a song I did in my series called “The Black Hole.” 

And also “Wall Street.”

“Wall Street” is another song that has to do with another problem and that is the tectonics between Islam and Christianity. In fact, I think “Wall Street” is motivated by concerns about how the First World is being viewed by those who have less. Neil Young, a famous songwriter, he decided to belch the title song, “Let’s Roll,” after 9/11, as somewhat retaliatory. I have no such kind of machismo or bravado. My questions are greater than the answers that I found. That is, why did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? What can we do to bring peace to this world without surrendering a damn thing and without creating trillions of dollars of war debt in wars that are misdirected? All of that stuff, you see, those social pressures, those social concerns, are all a challenge to wrap up in a short form like a record without hitting the casual observer in the face, without insulting, without having a heavy hand. They become a nuanced ingredient in everything I do. I think the best world that I can paint is one of an informed optimism, but it must be informed

You have to be grounded in the world you live in.

Well, I believe so. There’s an expression for it which is quite beautiful: “Bloom where you’re planted.” So I look at the world from this position I’m in, and I work harder and harder. All of this stuff has to do with the fact that I find myself — in my seventieth year — totally obsessed with the song form. I love it. I always have. … There’s nothing really precious or inaccessible about the 45 [RPM] records I’m doing. I allow that they are on the Internet. You can download them, but that is in digital form. The world that I love is the vinyl world because of the quality of sound. It’s hi-fi, high fidelity, lost on those who have surrendered to just the torpor, that digital ditch, that place that they all sit. There is better sound and so I’m making it and I’m going out with a big oink. 

It’s ironic that people will invest thousands of dollars on home theater systems to watch movies yet they listen to music on cheap little ear buds.

It’s phenomenal what people will tolerate if they’re told. They say in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” I kind of find that I am still sticking out — this rusty old nail — and highly individual in my pursuits, I think, but I don’t think that it is less than encouraging to other people to see a maverick behavior. I find more and more that I’m listening to a new generation of songwriters who make me look like the Rock of Gibraltar. They have such wild ideas. The song form has taken new dimension in works by people like Rufus Wainwright and Joanna Newsom, for whom I’ve worked, but [also] so many others. So I’m looking ahead. I’m looking through the windshield, but I also have a rearview capability, and the work that I listen to of others that I like best somehow combines both those perspectives. 

As an arranger, as a composer, is your loyalty to the song at hand or, if you’re collaborating with another artist, to that artist and his/her aesthetic?

Truly, with both Rufus and Joanna, there was no collaboration, that is if you consider a collaboration a knock-down, drag-out, face-to-face [endeavor]. The jobs in both those cases are semi-overlapping, still contiguous, still punching each other, but they are overlapping so that their work is done when I receive the challenge of arranging, if you speak certainly of arranging. So arranging, to me, is anything but collaborative. It has to just be absolutely monastic. It has to be alone, and it has to be quite dutiful and obedient in many cases to everything that’s already there in place. Collaboration, to me, is something that songwriters can do together, for example. Collaboration, to me, is extemporaneous music in a studio. I love it. I love what’s off-the-cuff and off-the-page. I love that as much... It’s a thrill. Those are two different processes. But in terms of arranging, the thing that got my kids, three of our sprouts, through colleges — the thing that paid those tuitions — was arranging, and that was monastic. That’s basically what happened.

So we have a Volume One of arrangements I’ve done; we’re coming out with a Volume Two of arrangements I’ve done. This is not for any reason of self-reference. It’s just that I think that I might be able to offer something by showing the arc of my achievement such as it is, to reveal what it is that I learned and what somebody might learn again and maybe not have to make so many mistakes as I did. 

I’ve been listening a lot to the George Washington Brown track (“Donovan’s Colours”) on Volume One

You see, it’s a do-re-mi song. “Donovan’s Colours” is do-re-me. That’s what they call them in Trinidad. It’s diatonic and a very simple song and it’s so classically Celtic that I decided to take it on, and also to give an affectionate nod to this fellow who was trying to do folk music that was authored such as what Donovan wrote with “Colours.” I enjoyed the song and I got to work on a three-track machine. I went three to three, and then the four-track came out, so I put it in four. Then I had two four-tracks, and I put that all together. Very interesting, isn’t it? It was an interesting process. 

You hear marimbas in there. I played them. They move right along, but I must confess that I recorded them at half speed. By recording the marimbas at half speed I recorded it from 7 ½ IPS to 15 inches-per-second, I discovered by doubling the tape speed that I had reached an octave, and that absolutely fascinated me because no one told me that. Les Paul didn’t tell me that; I’m sure he’d found it out in 1953. People had found out about it, but you had to learn when I started recording, when I started doing singles. “Donovan’s Colours,” I would think, was when I was probably twenty two years old. It’s also a study — a short study — in variations on a theme all within a single [format]. In fact, “Donovan’s Colours” really established me with an artist contract at Warner Brothers. I did not want to be an artist. I just wanted to learn something in the studio. I wasn’t interested in fame, or I didn’t even think about that I might someday need some rent money. It had nothing to do with money or recognition, but to learn. 

I think that that is why some of that work is still a matter of curiosity. You can tell stuff is happening. People are learning something. There’s a residue of a process of discovery, of discovering a lot of stuff. That was in the golden age of analog, you see, certainly from 1964 when I got my first contract at MGM to 1974, in that decade that they called the Sixties. Music recording reached incredible heights and evolved so beautifully to the point of automatic mixing, for example; knobs stopped turning and bars started floating up and down automatically in a mix. It’s all very interesting, every bit of it, even the Moog synthesizer work I did in 1967, stepping up to a synthesizer where there was no noise. We had no keyboards. We had, simply, a phalanx of phone cords sticking in a great patch bay with what sounded like a hurricane passing, what’s called white noise. 

It shows a lot of resourcefulness.

Oh, it was a very difficult discipline. It’s just kind of like I’ve reached a point now... I realize that all of the works that I’m talking about, the arrangements I’ve done, these works are all in the vaults. They have three record companies, and now they’re trying to turn it into two. So much music is in the vaults ignominiously, unavailable. I just argued; that just made me mad as hell. I don’t care what happens after I’m dead. They can’t snuff me out quickly, graveside, but while I’m here my work should be available for study and enjoyment and consolation and agitation and everything that it was intended to be. That’s why I decided to turn to this cottage industry. That’s why I decided to finally get out and be able to discover America, for example. It’s a wonderful, novel opportunity.

When you have a chance to reflect upon such things, are you ever intrigued or struck curious by the level or artistry you brought to music at such a young age?

There are two things: Society has instructed me, in the insults that I’ve received for my explorations, to just generally emphasize that thing that the Southern gentleman is supposed to learn how to say to a lady, “Whatever was I thinking?” That happens to me and I look back in horror, but at the same time, secretly, I’m very satisfied with the level of craft that’s in the work. I mean that, really. I worked so hard, and I know that. If I were a great musician, which I’m not, I might be less easy with it, but the fact that I know that I did my best and I worked so hard to get there, it just gives me feelings of great, great comfort.

There’s a lot of wherewithal that is evident in your work, but to have done it in your twenties and thirties and to have it still resonate so profoundly all these years later must be gratifying. 

My heart is in the work, and I think that that — I hope — is some benefit to somebody else. I didn’t make that expression up, by the way. That was the motto of Andrew Carnegie: “My heart is in the work.” Although for many years, for most of his life, he was recognized as the man he was, a robber and a son of a bitch. In the final hours of his life he gave it all away. I’d like to do that while I’m alive. I want to give it all away. I’m giving it up. I always have done that. I’ve always had an overriding concern that everything that I’m going to do, when I tackle a musical job, is a life-defining opportunity no matter how small. Even if it is built to, as it were, pad the gun shocks and horse hooves, being felt and not heard, even in a movie score, learning how to stay out of the way musically; or make two lovers look like they want to kiss when, in fact, they don’t—stuff like that. 

All of these aspects of music are interesting to me, but of them all the most epic, the most defining for me — the one that I’m pursuing as I bop ‘til I drop, the one that I’m pursuing now — is the song. And you’ve caught me midstream. You’ve caught me in the middle of that. 

Because of your craftsmanship — and knowhow and experience — have you ever felt compelled to write music exclusively for commercial success? Did you ever feel compelled to go in that direction for a minute?

No, I didn’t. I’ve never done that, and I should have. When I wanted to go commercial, I did a commercial. I mean, that’s why I got involved with Moog synthesizers. I proved that I could be “commercial.” But in terms of a song? Never, never, never, never. It takes time to do a song, it takes work. As Ted Turner says, “It only looks easy.” It takes work. Irving Berlin wrote a song called “Always” — it took him a year to come up with “not for just a day, not for just an hour, but always.” It took him a year to come up with his coda. It takes time to do a song and in that time two things happen: the songwriter stays in his or her own ball garden, isolated dreamscape and, also, has moments coming back in the harsh light of day after a late night or waking up in the morning and finding sixteen bars that have to be destroyed. I mean, it happens. I think always there is the desire to communicate something. I have that. So it’s not to say that I’m just a take-it-or-leave-it type of guy. I try to accommodate the casual observer. All my work as an arranger is drawn into that effort, by the way. 

While you’re arranging you have an audience in mind?

Always. I always want to appeal to… I wouldn’t think of it as necessarily a human being, but an observer, to make something beautiful, to bring beauty to life. It’s called “cosmetics,” to make the cosmos most beautiful. That’s what I try to do in my music, is to try somehow in some peculiar way to leave a more beautiful world than the one I stepped into through my own effort. Cool?

For more information, please visit Van Dyke Parks online at Bananastan.com

April 01, 2015

Soul Inspiration: An Interview with David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears

By the time he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968, David Clayton-Thomas was already a seasoned disciple of the blues, R&B, and soul — music that not only resonated with him as art forms to appreciate but ones which he could sing well and with conviction. “Actually, I first started out doing Mississippi Delta Blues with John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins and Jimmy Reed, stuff like that,” Clayton-Thomas tells Write on Music, recalling his formative days playing the Canadian bar and nightclub circuit. “Then I started hanging out with a lot of jazz musicians and started to get into R&B, people like Ray Charles and Otis Redding.”

Such influences were integral to the expansive, brass-spiked palette of Blood, Sweat & Tears, of course, and with such classic sides as “Spinning Wheel,” “And When I Die,” and “You Made Me So Very Happy” Clayton-Thomas emerged as one of the most distinctive vocalists of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

Though he ultimately left the band (and the rigors of nearly four decades on the road) in 2004, Clayton-Thomas has continued to write and record with the same integrity and passion that distinguishes his signature works. 

With his 2010 LP, Soul Ballads — originally released by Universal Canada upon the publication of his autobiography, aptly titled Blood, Sweat and Tears — Clayton-Thomas collaborated with producer and arranger Lou Pomanti on a set of R&B standards as a tribute to some of his biggest and most cherished influences.

“We didn’t go looking for obscure R&B songs that nobody had ever done before,” says Clayton-Thomas of the album, which was released this week in the States on Airline Records. “We made the decision going right in that we wanted those great, iconic tunes that everybody already knows and loves.”

For the Soul Ballads album, it really must’ve been a tall order to record songs by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and others that the public already know so well.

When we did this album, I didn’t even take lyric sheets to the studio. I knew these songs so well. They’re a part of DNA. Lou [Pomanti] had been after me for quite some time to do this, and that was one of the reasons why I wouldn’t want to do it.… It was very intimidating. I love those songs so much that I didn’t think they could ever be done better.

Maybe “better” isn’t what you’re working toward with these songs, though.

No, no. Well, we’re able today… When I went back to listen to the original records, [on] a lot of that stuff the recording was really terrible. They were recorded on a four-track machine or maybe even just in stereo — or a tape recorder, in those days — and of course we have the advantage today of a modern digital recording studio. And quite often, like the Bobby Hebb tune, “Sunny,” the horns were so out of tune on the original record I couldn’t believe it. But it didn’t matter because that soul just came through.… What we could do [though] was we could take these iconic songs and with the use of modern recording techniques and really superb musicians we could bring those songs into the twenty-first century. Based on that, I said, “Come on, let’s do this album.” And we did it, and Lou Pomanti produced it. He’d been my piano player in Blood, Sweat & Tears for about five or six years. We traveled the world together. He also played with me in the early days when we played jazz clubs and bars here in Toronto, and he heard me sing a lot of this material. 

I’ve been reading your autobiography, actually. You’ve led a remarkable life — a remarkable life in extremes.

Yes, from the lows to the highs and then back again three or four times.

What was it about the blues and soul and R&B that first drew you in, not just as music to enjoy but that which you could sink your teeth into as a singer and try yourself?

As you know — you’ve read the book — I spent most of my teenage years a homeless kid, in and out of reformatories, and the blues just seemed to be… That’s where the blues came from. The blues came off of chain gangs, prison work gangs, with the chants and everything else. And I just gravitated to that. 

Was there a moment early on, while working in the clubs as a young singer, when you realized that what you weren’t just acting out a passion but that — all modesty aside — you were really good at it?

Oh yeah, the first time I stepped on stage and performed. The rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins, he just let me sit in one afternoon at the club. And I got up and I sang. I think I sang a couple of Jimmy Reed tunes and stuff like that. I was hugely influenced by Jimmy Reed. He’s kind of been forgotten in the whole history of blues, but that first album, Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall — double-album set — I learned every single note, every song on that album. It was just amazing. So I sang a couple of Jimmy Reed tunes and people stood up and they cheered and clapped and I said, “Hey, I must be pretty good at this.” But I’d already been doing prison concerts and stuff like that. It wasn’t like I was totally green performing.  

You got to see a lot of the music greats perform back then, too.

Yeah, that’s true. What’s described today as “The Toronto Sound” is just steeped in R&B. There’s a very good reason for that. When we were young musicians growing up and seeking out our idols there was a color bar in the States, especially in music. If you were a black band and you played in Detroit you played on the black side of town in black clubs to black audiences. And there were seldom any mixed bands. A lot of the bands that I worked with up in Canada were mixed. We couldn’t come down to the States, couldn’t get booked down there. I’m going way back now; I’m talking about the early sixties. Things have certainly changed. But the result of that was all those great Motown artists and the Chicago blues artists, they loved to come up here and play in Toronto where there was no color bar. They played to mixed audiences in nice clubs. 

So [in] our various experiences working up and down what they called the Strip, which was the Yonge Street strip of about ten or fifteen bars, you’d be working and at a club next door would be B.B. King and down the street would be Ike and Tina Turner and the Temptations. They all came up here. So they really influenced the young Canadian musicians. Even today, especially Toronto, there’s a heavy R&B influence here. So I grew up with it.

Your singing has always seemed so visceral. Was there a danger over time of losing that instinctive quality of your singing, like if you found out how the engine ran then maybe the engine wouldn’t run the same?

Well, I think you can get burned out. Now, I was on the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears for forty years. It was a big band with a lot of mouths to feed, agents, managers, an office and everything else. We were on the road two-hundred days a year for forty years with hardly a break ever. And you do get to a point where you’re thinking, Here we go again. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I left in 2004. There was just nothing left for me anymore. It was just going out and just doing the oldies night after night after night, making a lot of money doing oldies. 

There’s no growth there. There’s no chance to write. There’s no chance to explore different things, and it can be very suffocating. I just got to a point where I wasn’t doing it for the money anymore ... and not only that, but I looked around me and didn’t know anybody in the band. It was all new guys, some of them weren’t even born when Blood, Sweat & Tears started. I just said, “I’ve had enough of this.” But I think a major reason was you just find yourself running out of inspiration. You’ve sung this song two-hundred times in a row, night after night after night — literally, over the years, thousands of times — and it starts to go stale. 

But the people who come to the concerts, some of them are seeing you sing those songs for the first time in their lives.

And that’s what saves you, the audience reaction. You sing “You Made Me So Very Happy,” no matter how many times you’ve sang it, when you see people’s faces light up in the audience, it’s worth it. And of course I’m still singing those songs of Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Spinning Wheel,” “Lucretia Mac Evil,” all that stuff. I’m still doing them now, but I think I’m doing them with a little more joy, a little more energy because it’s not all I do. When you just go out night after night playing a medley of your hits…

Then you’re just a legacy act.

Exactly right. And I just got to an age when I thought, Well, I don’t know how many years I’ve got left at this point. Do I want to spend the rest of them doing this? Nah, I don’t think so. 

In a sense, Soul Ballads brings your career full circle. 

Yeah, and you know what? I’ve always been kind of obsessed with writing my own material, but I had so much fun making that album. Another thing that really influenced me in the old days was standards. I loved singing standards, “Stardust” and “Summertime,” stuff like that. I always had half a dozen standards in my show. I was so happy with the way the Soul Ballads album came out that I decided to do it again with standards. So we’ve just finished a new album. The hard work is being done now and it should be out later on this spring. It’s called Combo, which is five of Canada’s finest jazz musicians in a small combo doing standards. So, yeah, again full circle. I don’t know if it’s the age I’m getting to or what, but it indeed has come full circle.

Maybe writing your autobiography a few years ago triggered something for you.

That’s a good point. I think you’re probably right. Writing a memoir… Human beings, we tend to take all the dark things in our lives and push them into the back corners of our minds and don’t think about them a lot. But when you sit down to write an autobiography or memoir you realize you’ve got to come clean. You can’t BS your way through this because many of the people who read this book were there. They know the story. So you’ve got to be right up front and you’ve got to dredge up some of those dark corners and bring them out again. 

It’s cathartic, but it can be a little painful too…. I didn’t want to use a ghostwriter so I did it myself. You’re reliving those moments just about every day for a year and a half. But you’re also living the great moments too, you know? So it kind of balances out. I’ve got to say, I’ve probably had more great moments than the down moments, because once I started in music there was no turning back and I had a wonderful life from that point on. 

The U.S. release of Soul Ballads is available now on Airline Records. For more information on David Clayton-Thomas, please visit the artist’s official website.