February 08, 2016

An Interview with Bobby Caldwell

Ever since “What You Won’t Do For Love” first catapulted him to stardom in 1978, Bobby Caldwell has cultivated a singular brand of sophisticated soul, culminating in more than a dozen studio albums that have as well embraced aspects of pop, jazz, and big band standards along the way.

On the recently released LP, Cool Uncle, he’s collaborated with GRAMMY®-winning producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Jennifer Hudson), summoning moments that are at once urban and sumptuously urbane. Featuring cameos from the likes of CeeLo Green, Mayer Hawthorne, and Jessie Mare, the album is primed to broaden Caldwell’s audience while at the same time satisfying his music’s most ardent connoisseurs.

With the Cool Uncle album, what did you guys initially hope to achieve? What was the goal?

Initially the goal was to write for other artists, but it quickly kind of morphed from that into something entirely different. It was Jack who came up with the idea about, “Why don’t we make us the entity and give it a name and use it as a vehicle not only for us but for other artists to participate, not only on the current album but future albums?”

Did you have an idea for how you wanted this album to sound? I’ve read something in which you said you didn’t want it to sound like what you were already known for.

You’re absolutely right about that, and maybe 50 percent of the success was me getting out of my own way and letting Jack do what he does best. Once you establish the roles of the players, you’re probably better off if you understand what each person is going to be doing. Because when you get too many chefs in the kitchen, it’s usually a disaster.

You’ve always struck me as an artist who enjoys stepping out of your comfort zone a little bit to see what that yields.

That’s a real good point, man. I kind of knew that going in, that I was going to be out of my so-called comfort zone. When it comes to something like that you’ve just got to embrace it. And, like I said, letting Jack do what he does best and him letting me what I do best is really why it all came together, I think.

Considering the eclecticism of your career insofar as the styles and genres you write and record in, is there a place where you are not so much complacent, but most comfortable?

Geez, that’s a tough question. I’ve never thought about it in terms like that.

Do you know what you do best?

Yes, I do. Look, yeah I do know what I do best and I know what I can’t do best. I’ve never lived the black experience. So, I leave that to people who have, who know about it, who’ve lived it. I’m just a fan of some of the greatest black artists of all time, and I’m sure we’d agree on who those are. I [am], basically, a white guy from the South doing what he does that’s been influenced by all of those things. I don’t think anybody in this world is original. We’ve all stolen from somebody. We’re like the sum total of our influences. But I don’t know anybody that tries to do what I do, but I’ve been guilty of trying to do what other people do.

You quickly come to realize … what you do best and try to stand out of your own way, because sometimes you get so close to these projects you can’t see the forest through the trees. This is when it’s nice to have a team because often times Jack would lure me out of some kind of thing that I was on that was leading nowhere and vice versa. We’re constantly checking each other, and that’s a good thing. The way it all comes together at the end of the day is just incredible.

White artists who’ve recorded and performed traditionally black music have often had to prove themselves to a black audience — maybe in ways they would not have had to prove themselves to a mainstream white audience — but once they did so they were not only accepted but were shown incredible loyalty. I wonder if that has been your experience as well.

It’s absolutely been my experience, and still is. A lot of people misunderstand what were the black radio listeners, who they really were. They grew up and got married, had kids, and those kids are basically inner-city and they listen to their folks’ record collection and they get turned on to this old stuff, too. I look out at my audience and I see three generations of people, which is … about how long I’ve been going, a little over 35 years.

Going back a little further, for someone who was a teenager and came of age in the era of the Beatles and the Stones and Motown, where did your appreciation come from for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole?

That came from my folks. They were in the theatre, and had a television show in the early ‘50s out of Pittsburgh. I was always surrounded by Ella Fitzgerald music, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, the big band stuff. That was a great environment for me to grow up in, [along with] an appreciation for songs and those singers of the day. It wasn’t by choice. It was just something I was inundated with. I lived in Sinatra headquarters. That was all I heard, twenty-four/seven save for the music I hid away with in my room.

Man, I was exposed to so much stuff. You just named a few things, but growing up in Miami I was exposed to reggae and ska, calypso music. We had a couple of serious R&B stations, and I believe they’re still there, if I’m not mistaken. WEDR was one of them, [and] WMBM in Miami Beach. They played just the stone-cold Philly/Motown/Muscle Shoals, all that shit. We had back then, basically, the Hot 100, that is still around today, but, see, in that Hot 100 there was all kinds of stuff. I mean, you’d see Sinatra songs, you’d see Beatles songs, you’d see Four Tops, you’d see Temptations. It was all over the map.

All modesty aside, you must have at some point recognized that you had the goods and the talent to sing the music you most enjoyed. Was there some moment or epiphany or experience that convinced you that you could not only appreciate all that great music but sing it too?

Just to get there you’ve got to believe in yourself, but a lot of times along the way that belief gets shaken sometimes to the core where you just think, I’m not going to make it. It’s just not happening for me. There’s always that struggle. It was like rolling the dice, and I didn’t actually know until after the first album did what it did.

Really? You didn’t know you had something with that first album when you finished it, before you released it?

No, I didn’t know who I was, where I was headed with the music. I just kind of let it take its own direction. So, when I say until after the first album did what it did, in a lot of respects it’s the record-buying public, the fans, who determine — now, I’m talking about first-time artists — who you are, and you get anointed with this “blue-eyed soul brother” [label]. It took years for everybody to finally realize that I wasn’t black. That was the least of my problems. [Laughs] But it was really them; they determined who I was. That was great, to have that validation: “This is a bad boy.” To have that, you’re pretty much on a course as long as you don’t fuck it up, and that happens too.

Despite what you looked like when you walked out on stage, though, people recognized that there was something special about those songs on that first album that could perhaps evolve into something even more special on subsequent albums.

I’d like to think it did, yeah. Then again, the first album was so, so huge, not just in the States, but globally. It was massive. A lot of artists — and this in some respects is definitely true for me — they get this brand of “one-hit artist,” and I just kept on releasing the best albums I could. Oddly enough, it was only with other artists that I achieved the same sales numbers.

You mean in writing for Boz Scaggs and Chicago?

Yeah. That’s why, actually, I started writing for other artists because my sales… When you go from selling five million albums to, like, selling 150,000, you’ve got a problem. And so I left Miami and I went to L.A. and I started making the rounds with other songwriters. Fortunately, for me, I had already earned a lot of their respect, having that massive song that was still fresh in everybody else’s mind and still is today. So, I got into these circles and it was just a great bunch of people all with great track records as writers. I got very fortunate with about four to five years of doing that, and then I picked up my mantle again and started making more Bobby Caldwell records.

After having that massive success with that first album, and with people associating you with one type of music, was it difficult to then later on venture into recording the standards albums? Did you think you might alienate your audience?

No, because my desire to do it was so strong, and I knew that at some point in my life I had to do this. It was something that was really comfortable — to point out one of your previous questions, a comfort zone — and I felt I could do it as good if not better than the handful of other people that were doing it. At that point in time it was Natalie Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., Brian Setzer, they were doing this stuff. I did it on two albums, and it was great. I got a whole new audience and managed miraculously to keep my [existing] audience who came along for this ride and loved every minute of it.

Is it hard to shift gears when you’re on tour, doing the different shows?

No. It’s really fun. It’s great. When I’m out doing the orchestra, the big band, it’s a great departure to get away from the R&B even if it’s for a second. Once you’ve come to know the power of a 16-piece big band or an 18-piece big band, it’s stunning. There are actually people onstage moving air instead of synthesizers and all that stuff. It’s a whole different vibe.

And you’re not stumbling over speed bumps trying to transition between the two.

No, and I will tell you something that I’m adamant about, and that is that if I’m appearing somewhere with the orchestra, wherever it’s advertised whether it’s in print or on radio, I make sure that people know it’s the orchestra. When I first started doing this, there were a couple of shows where people would come out thinking they were going to be hearing the orchestra and vice versa — people thought they were going to be hearing R&B. So once I got over that hurdle, albeit small, the same fans show up, man. I’m telling you, it took some doing, but they come in droves whether it’s R&B or the orchestra. I’ve been really fortunate that way. Obviously I do more R&B shows than the orchestra, and doing the orchestra, it’s not cheap. Gone are the days when Benny Goodman used to get on a bus with all his players and go from state to state without taking showers and stuff. [Laughs] Those days don’t even exist anymore.

I remember Barry White would tour with his core band and then — to fill out the Love Unlimited Orchestra — he’d use local players.

Well, I do that with the orchestra. In other words, I’ll take my key players, like the drums, the bass, and keyboards, and I’ll hire what people call the A-players in any given city. As long as they can read music, the charts are there for them to read.

Do you rehearse with these musicians in each city, then?

Yes, and that’s also a cost. Also you’re dealing with different unions — they all have different rules in every city — and they can be tough.

There’s more to what you do than what you do onstage.

Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Does songwriting come relatively easy for you? A lot of songwriters I’ve spoken to love the finality and the accomplishment of having written a song, but hate sitting in a room and actually grinding it out. Do you enjoy the process?

I’ve got to be totally honest with you, man. In my early career, it was just so passionate, just something I would always look forward to doing. But at some point, you have kids, you get married or whatever it is you do — I did all of that — and everything starts to change. Priorities start to change. Now, it’s become grinding them out. I’m kind of on a treadmill that I can’t get off of. I’ve got twin daughters, they’re 23. I’ve got a stepdaughter, she’s 24. I’m fucking surrounded by women. Everything changes, that’s all I can tell you. Do I like it when something great has happened or I’ve done something great? Sure. But, I tell you what else, doing a project and finishing, completing the work, I let it go. You have to let it go.

In what sense?

When I say I let it go, if it does well and it’s a success I’m pleasantly surprised. If not, I’m not in total despair.

So, you’re not anguished over whether it’s number 10 on the charts or number 14.

No. No, I gave that up a long time ago. Look, I’ve got to tell you, man, you’re old enough to know that 20 years ago a normal platinum, really smash album — we’re talking about Universal, MCA, Columbia, any of those major labels, Warners — they were celebrating, like, 20 million sold. Now, they’re dancing in the streets over a million. This is how screwed up everything’s gotten, not just their numbers, but this intellectual property issue with the downloads. This is serious shit and it’s never going to change now.

It’s not going to go in the other direction, that’s for sure.

No, it’s not. Although, for myself and so many other artists, we blame the labels because they had the chance to fend this off with coding the product, but they thought Napster was going to go away. It did go away; it just moved into international waters and all of a sudden all of these other things started popping up like a cancer.

Do you ever gain new insight when you hear someone cover one of your songs?

No, not necessarily. I kind of anticipate how they’re going to do it because I wrote the song for them.

You wrote “Heart of Mine” specifically for Boz Scaggs?

I did initially write the song for Boz. It didn’t end up that way. It kind of went around and around. It was going to be on the Chicago album, then it wasn’t. Then Boz did a demo of it that I thought was fucking great. I don’t know whatever happened to that. Then he lost interest. Then he did the song again, and had a number one adult record with it. It went through a lot of changes. But when he did it, it sounded like Boz to me. There’ve been some surprises, like Go West doing “What You Won’t Do For Love,” that surprised me. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

When you wrote “What You Won’t Do For Love,” you couldn’t have anticipated the amount of people who would cover it.

No, I didn’t think it was going to be a hit record. I had my eye set on something else on the album. I was wet behind the ears. I didn’t know shit, but what was about to happen was just insane. And what kept happening, all the covers of that song, I never would’ve predicted that.

Is that something you appreciate, the covers and the samples?

Oh yeah. I get asked if I get tired of performing the song or hearing the song, but every time I perform it the audience makes it feel like the first time. So I’m appreciative of that and that it even happened to begin with. When that album was done and it slowly made its way up the charts, my dear friend Natalie Cole had a number one record with her debut album. She was number one on the Hot 100 and I was, like, number nine trying to get up into the top five. She called me one day and was embarking on her first tour. At this point I was looking for something to happen, regarding full-scale performing where I could get all over the country. This was perfect for me, the audience. It was a mix. Obviously, there were more blacks than whites. It was a good mix, let’s say 6,000 blacks [and] 2,000 whites, something like that. So, most of the people are coming out to see “soul brother” Bobby Caldwell. The first show was in Cleveland. When I came out on that stage to open for Natalie, you could hear a pin drop. It hadn’t even occurred to me, “What’s going to happen when they see I’m white?”

Did you know before the tour that people perceived you as black?

Oh absolutely. Everything was pointing in that direction. Most of the radio personalities didn’t know. Some of them did.

That goes back to what I said earlier, though, that once you prove yourself they’ll accept you.

Yeah, and I think you said earlier, black audiences are loyal to the core. They’re not going to, like, unfriend you.

Cool Uncle is available now on Fresh Young Minds/EMPIRE.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

January 25, 2016

We Believe in Those Songs: Bruce Foxton, From The Jam to The Fans

More than three decades after disbanding, The Jam continue to inspire a fiercely loyal following as well as a legacy that only magnifies with each passing year.

Last year alone, the amount of archival releases and other such homages devoted to the seminal British band rivaled if not surpassed the output of most otherwise contemporary acts.

Foremost among them was The Jam: About the Young Idea, a sweeping exhibition curated by Somerset House in London, endorsed by the band’s classic lineup — lead vocalist and guitarist Paul Weller, drummer Rick Buckler, and bassist Bruce Foxton — and stocked with memorabilia and multimedia that contextualized the trio’s musical contributions and lasting sociocultural impact.

A supplementary retrospective album and documentary (both of them bearing the same title as the exhibition) offered further perspective, as did Fire & Skill, a staggering six-disc box set boasting as many complete performances culled from the band’s live vaults. Even solo endeavors — Weller’s twelfth solo LP Satterns Pattern was released in May while, mere weeks prior, Buckler’s autobiography That’s Entertainment: My Life with The Jam was published — stoked further interest and appreciation.

Irreverent and iconoclastic, The Jam hit their sonic and modish sartorial stride amid British punk’s boorish late ‘70s insurgency, amassing eighteen consecutive top-forty UK singles like “In the City,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Town Called Malice,” and “Going Underground,” barnstorming through rapturous, packed-to-the-rafters live performances along the way.

Today, fans who are too young to have experienced The Jam’s singular fury firsthand consider their songs to be as vital and relevant as anything on mainstream radio, arguably more so. “They’re discovering The Jam’s music now,” bassist Bruce Foxton told Write on Music last year, calling from Weller’s own Black Barn Studios while at work on his forthcoming solo LP Smash The Clock (due March 18). “That’s partly, maybe, through their parents — their parents were into The Jam many years ago — and also with Paul, because Paul Weller is still out there in his own right, writing new, great albums. When young people go see Paul, they may well think, This guy’s great. What else has he done?

The question is one that Foxton is all too happy to answer in his own right with his aptly named outfit From The Jam. Formed in 2007 with Buckler, vocalist Russell Hastings, and guitarist David Moore, the band was welcomed with the sort of rapturous passion that recalled the glory days. Boasting the old band’s rhythm section didn’t hurt, either, of course. Buckler walked away in 2009, unfortunately, but Foxton continues to soldier on with an unwavering faith in this music that not only means so much to him but to countless fans around the world.

“It was a big decision in 2007 to actually do what we’re doing,” he said, “because those songs are held in high esteem and high regard in fans’ hearts and mine that we didn’t want to ruin that.”

Perhaps part of the reason fans have such an attachment to The Jam has to do with how the music mirrored its time, addressing prevalent issues and societal burdens with staunch ferocity. It’s not difficult to conceive that, for younger fans in particular, such songs fulfill a void that is lacking from music of their own era. Foxton concurred. “I think there are not a lot of current bands out there really saying much,” he said, adding, “whereas The Jam, rightly or wrongly — obviously we were very young when we voiced our opinions on the country, etcetera, but — a lot of it is relevant. A lot of it is probably naïveté on our part [as well]. We were young then and it was just our view at the time. We weren’t trying to become prime minister. We were just airing our complaints and annoyances at various things in the country.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people saying much in their songs,” he continued. “They might be some good tunes, but lyrically it’s not saying anything at all.”

Whether or not a song’s lyrical context explicitly resonates with listeners today — Weller based the lyrics to “Eton Rifles,” for instance, on a television news report he’d seen about a Right to Work march where unemployed protesters faced ridicule from conservative adversaries — the spirit of it does. 

So too does the spirit of the culture from which that music came. “At our shows people come obviously to hear those great Jam songs,” explained Foxton, “but it’s also a really big social gathering where people come from all parts of the country — [people] as far afield as Japan come to some of the shows. It’s primarily about the music, but also about the clothes and the attitude. It’s a meeting up with friends again, basically. They’re into the same things. It’s a real big community kind of spirit now.”

What about Weller, though? Does From The Jam, which of course perform many songs he wrote, have his blessing? “To be honest,” Foxton replied, “Paul probably doesn’t care one way or the other. I think if he came to a show he would accept that we are performing those songs really well, but he’s got his own life. He’s doing his own thing. He’s not bothered, really, either way. There’s really no more I can say about that. He really doesn’t care.”

Despite appearing in the About The Young Idea documentary (and attending the exhibition at Somerset House), Weller hasn’t always gone out of his way to embrace his past with the band, particularly in his live performances which have often overlooked much of The Jam’s back catalog in favor of newer material. “Paul did try for a while to deny it almost, which I couldn’t understand,” Foxton conceded, adding, “but that was his frame of mind in that particular time.

“No matter how much Paul tries to literally pull away from what got him to where he is today,” he continued, “he’s even realized now that he is expected to play some of those great Jam songs, and he does. And he should as far as I’m concerned, because that’s how he got to where he is.”

As for Foxton, with a new studio album on the horizon and a slew of tour dates scheduled throughout 2016, the bassist is busier, more in demand, and more enthusiastic than ever.

“We still perform those songs with as much passion and energy as we can,” said Foxton. “We’re not a covers band. We’re not a cabaret band. We believe in those songs, and if I didn’t think we were as a group doing those songs justice I wouldn’t have embarked on From The Jam.”

January 08, 2016

Book Review: How to Write About Music: Excerpts From the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-Leading Writers

If a book called How to Write About Music sounds like something you’ve just got to read, chances are you’re already writing about music. That said, the perspectives shared throughout this 400-page compendium from the folks behind the sensational 33 1/3 series of album dissertations (published by Bloomsbury, edited by Marc Woodworth and Ally-Jane Grossan) is both useful and, particularly to emerging writers, enlightening.

Indeed, while presented essentially as a combination textbook/workbook, what lay within doesn’t instruct so much as it surveys various types of music writing while offering practical insights from some of the trade’s most renowned, influential (and, at times, pretentious) exponents.

Along the way the reader will encounter everything from critical reviews to personal essays to artist interviews and profiles to consolidated cultural studies of select musical touchstones and themes — in other words, everything from the most traditional forms of music writing to its most avant-garde expositions. There’s even a chapter on how to pitch a 33 1/3 series book, including sample proposals.

Ultimately, though, if How to Write About Music yields one unifying theme it’s that there is no one correct way to write about music, but the book nevertheless provides invaluable context and encouragement to those with a passion for the craft.

January 04, 2016

Write on Music's Dozen Covers to Love 2015

The best of people playing other people’s songs... These are Write on Music’s dozen covers to love from 2015:

“Come and Get It” – The Hollywood Vampires
Album: Hollywood Vampires (UMe)

To merit its inclusion here, this selection needs an alibi of sorts — this cover needs a “cover,” if you will: Originally a #1 US (#4 UK) hit by Badfinger as the theme to the 1969 Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr film The Magic Christian, the song was written by Paul McCartney when The Beatles were convening to record Abbey Road. While McCartney recorded a one-man-band demo at the time (which was ultimately released in 1996 on The Beatles Anthology 3), neither he nor the Fab Four ever released a proper studio version of this song.

And so that’s what qualifies this version of “Come and Get It” as a cover. But the synergy between McCartney and the Hollywood Vampires — the band includes Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp, with Macca’s drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. holding down the fort on this particular session — is what makes it magic. 

“(I'm A) Roadrunner” – Paul Weller

Album: Saturns Pattern (Warner Brothers Records/Parlophone)

The Modfather’s love of Motown is a fundamental one, infusing everything from The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” to solo cuts like “Above the Clouds” and “No Tears to Cry.” On this 1965 Jr. Walker & The All Stars rave-up, Weller brings a piano to the forefront (as opposed to the Funk Brothers’ primary guitar-and-saxophone combo on the original) which gives the song a bit slower but steadier pace — holding down the groove like the vintage chassis of a Detroit muscle car hugging the open road.

“Harper Valley PTA” – Squeeze

Album: Cradle to the Grave [Deluxe Version] (Caroline Records)

Life is simply all the more enjoyable when there is new music from Squeeze in the world. And the beloved British band certainly doesn’t disappoint with Cradle to Grave, which often recalls Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s quintessential chemistry as masterful pop songwriters even as it strives for fresh exuberance. The 16-song deluxe version of the album is the one to get, not least for its inclusion of a Difford-led acoustic cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” and a full-band romp through this Jeannie C. Riley classic (written by Tom T. Hall), which with its storytelling lyricism and unbridled quirkiness sounds like it could’ve been yet another Squeeze classic in an alternate universe.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” – Kacey Musgraves

Album: We Love Disney (Verve Music Group)

Since hitting the big time with her 2013 LP Same Trailer Different Park (and its lead single “Merry Go ‘Round”), Musgraves has lit a spark (and a couple of joints, at least in her songs) under the male-dominated Nashville establishment, demonstrating the sort of serious craft and colorful kitsch that feels reminiscent of classic Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn records. Her talent and ties to such a fabled tradition continue to flourish on her latest album Pageant Material while, on this most-adorable rendition of the Mary Poppins gem, Musgraves is downright supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

“Don't Think Twice, It's Alright” – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard

Album: Django and Jimmie (Legacy Recordings)

Including a Bob Dylan song on a “best covers” list almost seems compulsory by now, but this rendition is more than a little special, and not least because of who’s doing the rendering. It was always a kiss-off song anyway, but here Nelson and Haggard evoke a shared wistfulness that could only come from each man having lived his own life on his own terms, tempting and sidestepping perilous, sacrificial fates with not always equal success. Call it reasoned contempt or maybe just chock it up to a certain kind of wisdom, but Dylan could not have foreseen such impressions emerging from this song back when he was writing it as a much younger man — at least not like this.  

“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – Allison Moorer

Album: Down to Believing (Entertainment One Music)

Whether she’s written a particular song or not, Moorer is better than most at getting to the essence of whatever emotion or experience she’s singing about. Maybe that comes from having a low tolerance for bullshit, or maybe it just comes from knowing what needs to be said and how to best get that across. Chances are she’s blessed with both attributes, and on this Creedence Clearwater Revival classic (written by John Fogerty), Moorer invests all of her soulful Southern heart and leaves you feeling like you appreciate the song, and maybe even yourself, a little better.  

“Up Above My Head” – Rhiannon Giddens

Album: Tomorrow is My Turn (Nonesuch Records)

“This is a pillar of American music,” Rhiannon Giddens told Write on Music last year in reference to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the too-often-unsung yet seminal vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist behind this and so many other groundbreaking songs. “It’s like, you cannot deny her influence and yet people don’t know who she is. That’s a problem for me because it continues to reflect the narrative of American music where the black artist is the innovator and then gets forgotten about.” Consider the inclusion and praise here of Giddens interpreting Tharpe with such sanctified jubilance — the performance is but one highlight of an album teeming with them — as a nudge in the right direction. 

“Peace Like a River” – Jerry Lawson

Album: Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet Records)

Pure and simple, 2015’s finest debut album was a half century in the making. As the lead vocalist of the legendary a cappella group The Persuasions for more than 40 years, Jerry Lawson has sung the works of, well, everyone — from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Curtis Mayfield and Solomon Burke. Indeed the group, which got its big break courtesy of Frank Zappa in the late ‘60s, has also sung on albums by the likes of Joni Mitchell (Shadows and Light) and Stevie Wonder (Fulfillingness’ First Finale), among many, many others. 

Just A Mortal Man, released last April, is Lawson’s first as a solo artist, and it’s nothing short of brilliant. The man lives and breathes in these songs with consummate authenticity and soul, giving moments like “Time and Water” and the aching ballad “Loving Arms” a shiver of sheer vulnerability. To open the album and in some ways to set the tone for it throughout, Lawson gives Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River” a renewed sense of gravitas and grace, instilling it with the resilience of one who has withstood time’s adversities to now stand triumphant.

“Love is the Answer” – Rumer

Album: Love is the Answer [EP] (Nightowl Records)

Over the past half-decade since her debut LP Seasons of My Soul (and its immaculate breakout single “Aretha”), Rumer’s gorgeous talent has entranced an ever-growing amount of listeners the world over, including some of the very artists that first inspired her own musical pursuits and passions. Both as a songwriter and an interpreter, Rumer (born Sarah Joyce) has often reflected a retro elegance in her music, whether inspirited by the works of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jimmy Webb, or the ‘70s singer/songwriter scene in California’s Laurel Canyon. 

In fact, her sophomore LP Boys Don’t Cry found Rumer interpreting songs originally written by such fabled ‘70s singer/songwriters as Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Todd Rundgren, whose “Be Nice to Me” was among the album’s highlights. With the title track to her recently released EP Love is the Answer, Rumer revisits Rundgren with similarly breathtaking results. 

“Love Don’t Love Nobody” – Boz Scaggs

Album: A Fool to Care (429 Records)

“I can’t think of any genre of music that doesn’t fascinate me in terms of a vocalist and a melody,” Boz Scaggs told Write on Music in reference to the vintage R&B and the urbanized rock ‘n’ roll he performed on his 2013 LP Memphis. “A singer and a song is just a fascinating study for me.” A similar (and similarly rewarding) experiment continued with last year’s follow-up, A Fool to Care, which includes such standout interpretive moments as the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud,” Al Green’s “Full of Fire,” and, especially, this soul-coated masterclass of the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody.” 

“Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word” – Diana Krall

Album: Wallflower (Verve Music Group)

As some moments chronicled the dissolution of lyricist Bernie Taupin’s first marriage, Elton John’s 1976 double LP Blue Moves was often somber to behold. Yet with her melancholic vocal tone and rich phrasing, Diana Krall takes that album’s most recognized track to new emotional depths. Where Elton sounds damn near desperate to hold onto what he’s got – “What do I do to make you want me?” – Krall sounds like the end is already a done deal. 

“Why Try to Change Me Now?” – Bob Dylan

Album: Shadows in the Night (Columbia Records)

Maybe there’s a connection between being able to write great songs and being able to recognize greatness in the songs of others. If so, Bob Dylan could safely be said to have singular insight on the matter, and with Shadows in the Night he not only underscores the craft of Sinatra’s repertoire but so too the emotional architecture he inhabited within it. At the same time, particularly in moments like this, Dylan brings his own baggage and, in ways not unlike those of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, summons a moment of utter transcendence.

November 04, 2015

Interview: Author Warren Zanes Discusses New Tom Petty Biography

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
“Refugee.” “I Won’t Back Down.” “American Girl.” “The Waiting.” 

The songs Tom Petty has written and recorded over the past forty years have not only spoken for themselves — they’ve largely spoken for Petty himself. 

Even in the overall fantastic four-hour Peter Bogdanovich –directed 2007 documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (or in Paul Zollo’s 2005 incisive book Conversations with Tom Petty) the legendary rocker didn’t dwell too deep on his personal life, much less whatever demons he’d battled along the way. 

However, in a new book by author and erstwhile singer/songwriter Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography, Petty comes clean about it all, yielding revelatory insights on his life (including a previously undisclosed addiction to heroin and the volatile collapse of his first marriage) as well as his music. 

The book was Petty’s idea, but as Zanes tells Write on Music, it’s not Petty’s book.  

“He said what he was interested in was having me write the bio but it was my book,” he explains. “It was not co-written, it was not ghost-written, and it was not authorized. This is a really unusual line of thinking for an artist. It’s very atypical, but I think it really tells you something about Tom Petty. He said, ‘You will have my full cooperation, but it’s your book. And I can’t tell you what’s in it. I can’t tell you what has to come out. That’s your decision to make.’ 

“The genesis of that thinking,” adds Zanes, “is that Petty said whenever he sees a book that says ‘authorized’ at the top, he says he feels like he knows it’s gonna be bullshit, that it’s gonna be the whitewashed account: Here’s what the artist wants you to know, here’s what the artist wants you to hear. He felt like, if he’s going to do this once, he’s going to do it in a way that is not going to be tidied up like that.”

You mention in the book that Petty was uncomfortable discussing some of the particulars of his first marriage, for instance, but was there anything that he was flat-out unwilling to discuss?

No. I went into the big areas of discomfort, and he never told me to get out. The heroin use, the issues with his first marriage, the troubles within the band, childhood abuse — all this stuff was difficult to talk about. He went in and went in deep. With the physical abuse that he endured at the hands of his father, he had come out with that in the Peter Bogdanovich documentary but he hadn’t given details about what it looked like. And so when we sat down, I said, “The world knows that it happened, but the world doesn’t know how that took form. This is going to be painful to walk back into, but we need to do specifics here.” He did it. His approach was unguarded. 

There’s a quote in the book where Petty is talking about the album Southern Accents: “When I hear that one, I can taste the cocaine in the back of my mouth.” It’s chilling.

Ultimately, in the interview where he’s made that decision to be unguarded, he started to speak the way he writes. It’s got a pithy, hard quality to it. So a statement like that, it’s a very economical way of telling you a larger story. And that’s the way he writes songs.

With regard to instances in the book that reveal how the making of certain records were often a slog, when the studio time was (as Petty sometimes puts it) more work than play — an album like Long After Dark — do you think Petty ever felt burdened by his talent? As if he had this gift that he had to use but which the pragmatic aspects of his craft at times overwhelmed? 

I don’t think he ever felt burdened by his gift. I think he felt burdened by being a bandleader.... When things are going right with the band, that’s a fantastic experience. More often than not, they’re going wrong. It’s really hard to do. It’s much like families where you get a family together at Thanksgiving, they tend not to remember the good times. They remember when one brother or sister did this to them in the seventh grade. Going home for Thanksgiving can be hard for a lot of people and families. 

Bands, they have these euphoric experiences but nonetheless they’re remembering the times that they didn’t get the notice that they felt they should get, they didn’t get the money they felt they should get, someone else got too much attention. The bandleader has to be the lightning rod for all of this sentiment. I think that became a burden, but Tom Petty always wanted a band. Record making was best when he had the Heartbreakers with him. He knows that he’s got the best rock ‘n’ roll band in America. When they make records, they stand next to each other and cut live. They’re still doing that after forty years. They’ve done something that nobody but the Stones have done. I don’t know what the Stones put into their latest recordings, and I don’t want to speculate. I do know [how] Tom Petty approaches every record, and I’ve seen this from the inside. He sees no reason to make another unless he has a shot at making his best record yet. So he goes into it with a really high level of commitment to try to top himself. And that’s meant that these records have stayed really, really good. 

Yeah, I thought his most recent album, Hypnotic Eye, was excellent.

In the book I mention one journalist who went to Petty and said, “You do know that you didn’t have to make the record this good, right?” That’s such a telling statement because it’s true. If he wanted to coast, he’s earned it. Is he able to coast? I don’t think so. It’s just not the kind of guy he is.

I [also] think Mojo was a really good album, but if they had cut, say, four songs off of that… That’s a treacherous thing to say because every song was solid, but … I still go back to that and because it’s long I feel like I’m going back and finding songs and going, “I didn’t realize how good this is.”

The ballad on that one, “No Reason to Cry,” is beautiful. It sounds like it actually could’ve been on the Mudcrutch album.

That’s another thing that I find really interesting, that decision to go back and reform Mudcrutch, what that yielded musically, but also what that did for the Heartbreakers because I think it gave the Heartbreakers some juice. What an odd decision to make, to go back and form your band from much earlier on. As a career decision, that is pretty left field.

Right. It’s not like Eric Clapton reforming Cream. Nobody really knew about Mudcrutch except for those who saw them back in Gainesville.

This is what I’m so compelled by. Petty is extremely instinctual. He goes with his gut feeling. He’s not looking around and saying, “Well, geez, the albums of standards have worked well for Rod Stewart. Or maybe I should do one of those duets records.” He’s off in his own territory, making his decisions by instinct and they just keep yielding material. So his audience trusts him.

You write about Petty, particularly in the beginning of the book, as being this shitkicker from the Florida swamps, but some of that small-town simplicity or naiveté seems to have served him well over the years. Even in the most debilitating parts of his career, he’s remained focused on writing songs and making albums. 

Well, I think what happened back there in Gainesville is something that’s happened to a lot of people that have had long careers, is [that] a number of years passed before his first success. So when it came he had respect — deep respect — for what allowed that success. That was his connection to a producer, his work as a songwriter, and his band. Those things he looked at as that which delivered success. So I think he’s always had a kind of commitment to those three things. He’s worked with a number of producers who’ve been really meaningful at different historical moments, he’s always put in the time with his craft, he’s always ready to learn from someone like a George Harrison when they come into his life, and then he made sacrifices to keep his band together. 

But if you look back at his pre-history back in Gainesville there were so many times when he was struggling to keep the band together. There was a time when he was learning to be a songwriter. He didn’t just write his first song and it was great. The prehistory — and I see this with so many artists that I interview and work with — it’s six years, eight years, ten years… There’s a lot going on before it clicks. It’s a survival of the fittest, and most people give up. A few rejection notices and they pull out of the game. There’s another type who has a stack of rejection notices and something compels them to continue. Then, those are the guys who end up being successful. There’s a few cases where right out of the box success comes, but the ones we think of when we think of long careers, most of them put in a lot of work before anybody raised an eyebrow.

I remember reading something Sting once said about the Police’s early success with “Roxanne,” saying, “You can be lucky once, but after that you’ve got to be smart.”

Yeah, but they’re a rarity. Most, if they have success right out of the box, fall apart pretty quickly. Then the rest who have long careers, they put in years. Petty put in his years. He watched guys quit his band and he went through periods with Mudcrutch when they just couldn’t get people to join their band. He didn’t forget that. He didn’t take things for granted once the gold records started coming. 

There are so many examples in the book illustrating how fame and all the accoutrements that come with it really, at the end of the day, just do not impress him that much. He’s just not in it for that.

He’s not. This is my take on it, but I really think that this is a guy who had that experience of writing [songs] and realizing that he could really do this — he was very good at it — and then turning those songs into records. To have a song that you wrote that you feel like you really did something with and then take it into the studio and with a group of musicians turn it into a recording, that’s just about as great an experience as you’re going to have in life. And so a larger yard with gardeners mowing it, it’s never going to mean that much next to just that ability to write the songs and record them. There’s so much work that goes into it, but there’s so much joy in that when it’s going right, and it’s gone right for large parts of Petty’s career. He’s very, very consistent as a songwriter and record maker. So I think that’s the biggest boon of success, is that he gets to do it again. 

Warren Zanes

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes is published by Henry Holt & Co.