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.

October 26, 2015

Learning Curves and Musical Curiosities: An Interview with Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

Now is the time for Rhiannon Giddens.

Having followed her muse beyond the homegrown string-band tableau she’d cultivated for the last decade as a founding member of the GRAMMY® award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, she has of late expanded her musical palette to reveal an even richer promise. 

Released back in February to become one of 2015’s most celebrated works, Tomorrow is My Turn finds Giddens mostly interpreting songs popularized by such female musical forbears as Patsy Cline, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Geeshie Wiley, and Dolly Parton. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the album reveals an already gifted artist coming into her own while at the same time standing on the shoulders of giants.

“My only hope,” Giddens told Write on Music earlier this year, “is that I honor the work that they’ve done and hopefully carry it forward. That’s all we can ever hope as artists is to honor the past and to keep it moving.”

A similar scenario unfolded when Giddens was last year recruited by Burnett for the LP Lost On The River (The New Basement Tapes) — along with Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Elvis Costello — to compose music for a batch of newly discovered Bob Dylan lyrics dating back to The Basement Tapes. Her lead-vocal performance of “Spanish Mary, in particular, is among the sets most exhilarating moments.

Tomorrow is My Turn represents a new beginning for you yet you’re using this opportunity to shine a light on, particularly, female singers whose careers have preceded your own. How did that direction take shape? Was that something you wanted to pursue or did it come from Mr. Burnett?

It definitely came from me. It was just sort of this idea that I’d had brewing a little bit that I wasn’t going to put it to the Chocolate Drops to record because it’s a slightly different thing. So I was kind of holding onto it until T-Bone came asking about doing a record. That’s when I kind of went, “Well, what about this idea?” He thought it was a great idea and he loved most of the song choices that I’d made. He tweaked a couple of them. But, yeah, it came from me. I’m real pleased we were able to do it.

The album’s not strictly pop or soul or R&B or folk, yet it’s all of those in some way.

That’s how I think, you know? The Chocolate Drops are a totally different kind of thing within a certain limitation, and this was kind of similar. I did make decisions about how far I was going to go as far as the songs I was pulling from. It’s kind of like a “feel” thing. I wanted to stick to stuff that was more rootsy and connected to the stuff that I already sort of do, for this record. I had a feel about how far I wanted to go. And there were some choices that were made in terms of the songs we left off the album that reflect that too. Like, “Well, this doesn’t quite fit. We’ve got a little narrative or a little cohesion going here and this doesn’t really fit so I’ll have to leave it off.” Throughout the whole process there was a pruning that was kind of going on.

Rhiannon Giddens

The Sister Rosetta Tharpe song [“Up Above My Head] is really funky.

Yeah, she’s amazing. Throughout this process she’s one of the ones that comes to the forefront of people that I want to try to highlight and to say, “This is not just some obscure… It’s not like Geeshie Wiley, some obscure blues woman that you should know who it is. This is a pillar of American music.” I mean, she is unbelievably important in terms of her influence and to what became rock ‘n’ roll guitar is unimpeachable. 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. 

Tharpe was innovative in rock ‘n’ roll in general, but particularly as a guitarist.

Well, that’s the thing. It’s her style of guitar playing, that’s it right there. That’s what makes her so special, is that she checks so many boxes that you wouldn’t expect. 

Yet she doesn’t get mentioned with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard…

It should be in the same breath. It should be “Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.” You know what I mean? She should be right up there, and the fact that she’s not is a problem. 

Was there any anxiety in making the album  considering it’s a debut album for your solo career  that you were presenting too many dimensions, too many aspects of a first impression?

Well, we definitely wanted to make sure that the final record had a cohesion to it. We didn’t want it to be too far-ranging, definitely. That took a while. And we did prune it; we left off five songs because we had quite a few recorded. It was important to make it shorter and more cohesive than longer and more complicated. We definitely felt that.... I think what we ended up with is just enough, just enough variety all within a certain aspect of Americana but not going too far. 

Along the same lines, was there ever a discussion about how to make some of these songs, particularly the lesser known and most dated ones, relevant or contemporary?

That’s one thing we never talked about. I think if you just attempt to not copy the original, the first material, you’ll be fine with the rest of it. We’re all modern people with modern equipment. You know what I mean? That’s what matters. That’s the way I’ve always approached it. I’m always surprised when people talk about how modern this stuff is because for me it’s the interpretation of the song that makes sense. That’s what happened. That’s what came out. There was no, “Let’s make sure this sounds up to date.” If you follow your muse and you’re all kind of listening to what your muse says, that should happen because we’re all modern people with modern influences. So, it’s just trying to get out of the way, really.

Lost On The River

Having worked so intimately with the songs on Tomorrow is My Turn and also with the ones from The New Basement Tapes — even though there was no music to those when you first received them — what did you take from those experiences that may have informed or encouraged your own songwriting?

All the songs that I study kind of go into this songwriting pot that I have going on in my brain because I get into the words. Part of what I love about them is how they’re written and so that whatever attracted me to that is something that I naturally gravitate toward anyway. The master class that was The New Basement Tapes was incredibly helpful for me as a songwriter, as a budding songwriter. I feel like I’ve been given lots and lots of tools over the last couple years to really work on my songwriting craft. I’ve been able to work with other people. 

I’m definitely in a big learning phase and creating phase with songwriting.… I don’t want to just sit here and try to write fourteen songs for the next record. I’m not really interested in that. What I want to do is explore what songwriting means to me, what it is that is going to be my contribution to the music world at large other than interpretation. Because I know I’m always going to be an interpreter. That is something I do well and is something that is important not to lose sight of, but I also feel like I do have a voice to be heard. I want to make sure that there’s something really important being said. I’m not really interested in throwing songs out there for the sake of me writing songs.  

Rhiannon Giddens and Elvis Costello

As an apprentice of songwriting, to be put in a room with Elvis Costello, in particular, must’ve been pretty cool and intimidating at the same time.

What was great about that experience was that I didn’t know any of those guys. I didn’t know Elvis’ work, to be honest. I knew a couple of things, maybe. I just know of him. I didn’t know Jim’s work. I didn’t know Taylor’s work. I knew a bit of Marcus’ work [with Mumford & Sons]. So, really, I just kind of approached those guys as guys, and Elvis was kind of the elder statesman and a teacher. I didn’t have that stuff in the way. I had plenty of other stuff to deal with, don’t get me wrong. [Laughs] But I didn’t have that fear — “Oh, my God, that guy wrote ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ ‘Z.’” — It’s like, “Oh, this guy knows a lot about songwriting. I’m about to hear him and listen to what he has to say.” And so that actually made it great for me because I just took who they were and just learned… I learned stuff from all those guys. 

You exhibit such a passion for music and music history, from how it informs your work and makes it so eclectic. Where does that comes from?

I’ve always been a curious person. I’m a reader. I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always liked history. Then I went to school for classical music. When you’re an opera singer, when you’re studying opera — and maybe not everybody does this; maybe it just goes back to my own personality — I studied. If I was doing an opera set in eighteenth-century France, I checked books out on eighteenth-century France and I studied it and I checked out why this character would act the way that she does. You want to learn about the composers, who’s writing the music. 

Then I got into Celtic music, and you’re approaching Scottish and Irish music as an outsider. I feel like it’s a responsibility to understand as much as you can ... so you’re not doing the song out of context. So I just got used to researching, I suppose. I like it and I like the power [that] I felt like it gave me over the song. Particularly when you’re doing Celtic music, people will come up to you because you’re a person of color and they can be very insensitive. They go, “Why are you singing this music?” It’s like, “I’m sorry, do you walk up to the random white guy playing blues on the corner and say, ‘Why are you singing this music?’” Hell no.... When you know more about the song than the person who’s coming up to you and asking you, it gives you power. You can go, “Yeah, let me tell you about this song. This is why I’m singing this song.” I think all of that is really important. 

Rhiannon Giddens

You need to find that common ground between yourself and the song and its history and context.

When you’re singing a song, you should have that common ground. You have to have common ground with it. I’ve been asked by white artists or students — because I do teach in workshops — and they go, “How do I approach this work song or this spiritual? Can I sing this?” And I say, “Of course you can sing it. Should you sing it like an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama? No. You shouldn’t try to sing it like that. I can’t sing it like that because I’m not an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama. You have to find the core within the song that speaks to your core. Otherwise, why are you doing it? Obviously there’s something that’s making you want to do the song.... You know when you’re singing something that maybe you shouldn’t be singing.... Maybe it’s the wrong time. I know for me, “Last Kind Word Blues,” I just about got in there. I wouldn’t have wanted to sing that song even a year earlier, but I just feel like I have enough whatever it is to sing that song now at thirty-seven, thirty-six when I recorded it. You know. Everybody has this sort of thing inside them that’s going, “Put this away for another time.” And I’ve done that before. 

But doesn’t it take a while to trust that instinct?

Well, yeah, it’s something that you develop. You always develop it as an artist and as a person, really, as you get older. That’s not to say that you can’t make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. “That wasn’t quite right.” It is a process, but the more you engage with it the quicker you can trust it. 

October 02, 2015

Album Review: Nadia Kazmi - LAMB

Singer/songwriter Nadia Kazmi incites something fierce on her third release, LAMB, but truth be told she’s been brazen from the beginning.

On her 2010 debut, Arrival, Kazmi showcased a compelling sense of craft, her lyricism in particular bearing out the poetic language and rich cadences of formative influence Leonard Cohen. The very next year she devoted her follow-up, Strange Song, entirely to works by the legendary bard, taking strident liberties with rock-edged arrangements in ways that turned hallowed classics on their heads.

Which brings us back to LAMB, where Kazmi’s creative audacity manifests in striking moments of angst and often fuck-all defiance like “Kill The Monster” and the coiled-riffed “Father Knows Best,” the songs boasting punk’s brevity and swagger if not its most jarring sonic discord. Elsewhere in fact almost unsettling, tribal percussion simmers beneath verses that Kazmi delivers with the authority of a Patti Smith sermon, searing forth with unflinching grace and growl.

Further Reading: An Interview with Nadia Kazmi (2010)

September 03, 2015

The Last Goodbye's The Hardest One to Say: George Strait's Live Farewell Makes For Emotional DVD Presentation

When George Strait announced in late 2012 that he would retire from the road at the culmination of his forthcoming concert tour in 2014, the final gig on the schedule suddenly became a very big deal. 

How big? Well, the concert (held on June 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas) ultimately set a new North American indoor-concert attendance record — a distinction held by the Rolling Stones since 1981 — with nearly 105,000 fans packing into AT&T Stadium. Added to that was the gaggle of special guests (including Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, and Kenny Chesney) that showed up to salute and sing with Strait, with each artist helping out on a pair of songs each. Then, of course, there was King George himself, who over the past three and a half decades has garnered more Number One hit singles than any other artist in popular music, period.

What could not have been fully anticipated was the sheer emotion of the event, something which the new Eagle Rock DVD/Blu-ray release of The Cowboy Rides Away: Live From AT&T Stadium, so often conveys. 

Strait is an increasingly rare figure in modern country music, a traditionalist whose appeal and no-frills, “just the songs, thanks” live appearances have endeared him to mainstream audiences of all ages. In watching him perform hit and after hit here — from “Check Yes Or No” to “Amarillo By Morning” to “Unwound” — it’s not difficult to see why, either. 

For what it’s worth, the performance that garners the biggest ovation from the crowd is not even one of the all-star duets but rather an understated rendition of “The Chair,” which Strait delivers on his own with the elegant command and conviction of a seasoned actor on the stage. 

Whether or not the concert captured here proves to be the last of his career, it’s a fitting tribute to the timelessness of George Strait’s singular vintage of country music. 

August 30, 2015

DVD Review: 'Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued'

The task at hand was enough to make even the most self-assured songwriter wither in excruciating insecurity: Set to music assorted lyrics and poetry by Bob Dylan from 1967 — a box of the music legend’s handwritten texts dating back to his infamous refuge with The Band in Saugerties, New York had at long last been unearthed — and record the songs for a new album.

Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued tells the story. Directed by Sam Jones, the documentary (which premiered late last year on Showtime and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eagle Rock Entertainment) chronicles and contextualizes the making of the 2014 LP, Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, for which producer T-Bone Burnett recruited a select group of artists — Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens, and Elvis Costello — to rise to the challenge.

The backstory of The Basement Tapes is adeptly underscored throughout, not least of all with new and incisive commentary from Bob Dylan himself, whose reflections overshadow the documentary’s narrative much like his songwriting overshadows the efforts these musicians are shown to make in composing music to his words.

Indeed, what begins as a relatively informal songwriting workshop in due course evolves into an intense, often intimidating endeavor as everyone involved at some point finds their talents being tested beyond their comfort zones. The very idea of making an album that in any way shares some piece of history or perspective with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mythologized episodes had to have thrown them all for a mind-boggling loop on some level. Even Burnett, whose own storied career includes a stint as guitarist on Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, acknowledges the surrealism at play. 

“The chance to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan, now, with 50 years of hindsight,” he says with a modest, nervous grin, “was... interesting.” 

Whether the songs these artists brought to life compare to the insouciant, never-intended-for-release performances on The Basement Tapes is beside the point, really. The album has more than enough highlights — particularly from Giddens (“Lost on the River #20”) and James (“Down on the Bottom”) — to stand on its own.

That, in the end, is what this film illustrates and affirms the most.