Interview: Joe Henry on the Making and Message of New Johnny Cash Tribute LP

The singer/songwriter and producer discusses 'Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited'.

Interview: Meiko Experiments, Gets Personal on New LP, 'Dear You'

Meiko discusses her new album, its minimalist, mood-driven electronica and the most personal lyrics of her career to date.

Review: Justin Hayward - 'Spirits...Live'

The Moody Blues legend scales it down for a rare solo tour, mixing burgeoning inspirations with old magic.

Friday Night Videos: Johnny Marr, Monica Heldal

Check out 'Easy Money' from the Smiths legend, and the U.S. debut of the Norweigan songstress with 'Boy From the North'.

New McCartney Bio Chronicles Decade Post Beatles (Review)

Man on the Run tells of McCartney the human being as much as McCartney the superstar musician in the '70s, and readers will appreciate its insights.

September 13, 2014

Review: Justin Hayward - 'Spirits...Live (Live at the Buckhead Theatre, Atlanta)'

Justin Hayward’s solo albums are few and far between, and the opportunity to catch the Moody Blues legend performing on his own in an intimate venue is even rarer. Such is what makes Spirits...Live (Eagle Rock Records) so instantly appealing. Yet it’s the performance itself, which showcases Hayward’s most recent studio LP, last year’s Spirits of the Western Sky, that makes this live album such a rewarding one to behold.

The album suitably anchors the set, so much so in fact that Hayward either presumed his most faithful fans would be already familiar with it come showtime or he was simply eager to introduce it to his audience. Regardless, often reflective songs like “The Western Sky” and “It's Cold Outside Of Your Heart” succeed in this setting, not least of all because of the craft invested in their creation and the earnestness evident here in their delivery.

Sounding as resonant and refined as he did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hayward likewise enriches classic moments from his past—“Tuesday Afternoon,” “Your Wildest Dreams,” and (of course) “Nights in White Satin” are perfunctory yet captivating standouts—with often meticulous regard. Indeed this is not an informal excursion for Hayward from the familiar confines of his band, but rather a finely honed display of burgeoning inspirations and old magic. 

September 3, 2014

Interview: Producer Joe Henry on the Making and Message of 'Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited'

By the time Johnny Cash’s tenure with Sun Records concluded in 1958 he’d already recorded some of his career’s most iconic, indispensable classics, songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Big River,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” However, having subsequently signed with Columbia Records—the storied label had already boasted such giants as Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, and Miles Davis—Cash was on the precipice of even greater success and, he recognized, a much broader platform from which, should the spirit move him, to make a stand.  

Released in 1964, Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indians) elucidated and empathized with the travails of Native Americans. 

In honor of the album’s fiftieth anniversary, Sony Music Masterworks has released Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited. Produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, the all-star collection features such artists as Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Earle interpreting Bitter Tears and thereby reasserting its fundamental defense of human dignity. 

“It’s shameful that this is still a relevant conversation,” Henry tells Write on Music about the album’s often polemical subtext, “but all the more reason why we need to wake up to how significant it is for all of us, not to [let it] become a dead conversation simply because it’s an old one.”

Taking on this project must’ve been a tall order, not only in light the sensitivities involved with the album’s subject matter, generally speaking, but also because in remaking this classic Johnny Cash album you of course hoped it would complement his legacy. Did that run through your mind when you were working on it?

Of course it did. Keep in mind that Johnny Cash was the first musical hero of my life. I sort of discovered him when I was about seven years old living in Atlanta, 1966 or ’67, so he’s always stood in front of me as a seminal figure both historically and personally. I suppose if I had been thinking about recreating the record it would’ve been additionally daunting, but it was really important to me and I think to everybody involved that we stay conscious to the fact that we weren’t trying to recreate it. We were trying to engage it and put a light on it, bring the conversation into the present tense, remind everybody that the subjects of these songs still matter, and carry the torch a little farther down the road. But of course I felt a responsibility that was unique from anything I’d ever taken on before.

It seems as though in your responsibility of finding the artists for this project you had to look beyond matters of talent and how well they could deliver the song to, at the same time, appreciate what sort of empathy they’d bring to these songs as well.

Of course. A leading factor in my mind was not just “think of artists who could deliver a particular song.” My fear there was that this would end up feeling like a tribute album, a compilation from disparate sources. I wanted to cast the record in a way that the whole thing could be as collaborative and real-time as possible. So it wasn’t just finding people who could deliver songs, but deliver them in ways that the whole album could speak as a unified whole. That was supremely important to me. It should feel like a play happening in front of you, and in that regard I tried as much as I could having everybody participate where they could on some track other than the one they maybe sang lead on. For the most part that’s true. 

Aside from these factors of collaboration and the empathy the artists bring to these songs, was there any guiding objective that you had on a basic level in navigating your way through this project?

Chiefly it was that we not be looking over our shoulders and not be working from any point of nostalgia. We were charged by a work that was preexisting, but I was really determined that this not feel in any way like we were trapped by the source music. We were inspired by it and we wanted to begin at that point, but it was really important to me that we made a record that was alive to this moment and significant to this moment. I thought it would’ve been death to this project if our whole drive had been nostalgic as opposed to working toward real-time engagement. 

Joe Henry
There must’ve been certain artists who brought something more to a particular song than maybe you had anticipated or revealed something in their interpretations that opened up these songs in different ways to you.

Absolutely true. I think the first thought I had when you asked that was the song from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings that opens the record [“As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”]. The version on Johnny’s original was sort of a spoken-word, almost a recitation except for the sung chorus. It was Gillian and Dave who imagined a musical tableau for it that makes it move narratively speaking with the power of a Woody Guthrie song. I didn’t know where they were gonna take it until they sat down that moment—that was the first take—and played, for me, this very hallucinatory, nine-minute re-imagining of that story. 

I will just add that Kris Kristofferson’s appearance on the record was significant to me and wildly so for a couple of reasons, not least of which I believed somewhere on that record and for that song in particular, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which is the one song that people know if they don’t know anything else on the record, I felt that really needed to be delivered by somebody who could stand in for Johnny’s very particular sort of authority and bring a very particular sort of gravitas to the situation. I thought it was important, too, to have somebody be involved who had a deeply invested personal relationship with Johnny Cash. There are really only two people alive I could imagine, and Kris was the first.

Was Willie Nelson the other one?

No, actually it was Merle Haggard. He’s got a voice of such incredible depth, as Kris does. At first I thought, one of these cats has got to be brought to the table; we need that connection. 

Kristofferson is as much a fan of Cash as he was a friend.

Indeed. Roseanne Cash is a really close friend of mine, whose blessing I sought before I was going to say yes to this job invitation myself. She has certainly shared with me that Kris is her most direct link to her dad that remains. 

What do you hope listeners take from Look Again to the Wind?

That these songs are still alive, that this is still a living conversation, and that the power of song transcends a lot of political rhetoric and has a chance to take people straight to the heart of the matter in a way that no other vehicle can. 

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited is available now from Sony Music Masterworks.

August 22, 2014

Friday Night Videos: Johnny Marr, Monica Heldal

It took him a minute to finally embark on a career under his own name, but Johnny Marr is nevertheless making up for lost time. Only a year after his critically hailed solo debut, The Messenger, the legendary former Smiths guitarist is back with Playland, due October 6. And if its revved-up lead single “Easy Money” is any indication, the album should provide ample riffs and grooves.

Norwegian singer/songwriter Monica Heldal has already made an auspicious first impression with audiences in her homeland on the strength of her debut LP, Boy From the NorthSounding like a cross between Mindy Smith and Nanci Griffith and drawing on folk, bluegrass, and Celtic influences, Heldal will showcase her talent on a brief U.S. tour (opening for The Last Bison) the month following the album’s North American release on September 16. Until then, her gothically gorgeous performance on the album’s title track will leave listeners entranced.  

August 20, 2014

Interview: Meiko Experiments, Gets Personal on New LP, 'Dear You'

The mostly acoustic, folk-pop distinction and anecdotal storytelling of her self-titled 2008 debut LP, particularly illustrated by such songs as “Boys with Girlfriends” and “Under My Bed,” seemed to cast Meiko in the mold of a conventional singer/songwriter. While the candor of her lyrics endured, subsequent efforts including her 2012 LP, The Bright Side, and the 2013 single, “Bad Things,” the latter of which featured in the ABC Family series, Pretty Little Liars, signaled a shift by the artist toward more adventurous musical dimensions. 

Meiko’s experimental tendencies are in full flourish on her third and latest LP, Dear You, a song cycle steeped in minimalist, mood-driven electronica and informed by a crucial lapse in communication.

“A lot of the songs are unsent letters where I was feeling a certain way and I’d write down a letter,” Meiko tells Write on Music, “just to get it out of my system, everything I wanted to say. Then eventually those letters were turned into songs.”  

You’ve come a long way musically, sonically. Is that something you’ve particularly strove to do, or is that just evidence of where your musical curiosity has gone?

I think it is evidence of where my musical curiosity has gone. I listen to a lot of electronic music generally and I have my entire life. I’ve never really been into pop music, but I’ve made these sort-of happy, pop-leaning records. So I just wanted to dig in a little bit deeper. I did want to make a darker record, and it was fun because I love experimenting with sounds and minimal instrumentation. It was like an art project for me.

Do you still write on the guitar or are you using any computer programs now?

I always write on a guitar. I need a guitar to sit down and write with. I just find it hard to do it any other way. Even if the guitar doesn’t end up in the song—most of these songs it did, whether it was electric or acoustic—it always originates on guitar.

Do you write solely about your own experiences or do you also write about things you see around you or people that you know?

I always write about my experiences. Sometimes it’s so personal that if I’m talking about it I’ll say, “I wrote this about my friend,” but it’s always about me. It’s just easier. It’s easier to connect emotionally with what I’m saying, what I’m writing, when it’s coming from personal experiences. 

Some of the songs on the new album date back a little while for you. Was it difficult to revisit them in the sense of approaching them with conviction, having moved on from them in your life?

No, it’s not really that difficult. I mean, I have moved on from most of the shitty experiences that I wrote about, but I never was completely disconnected from it. There’s always that piece of me that will always remember those feelings. So I still feel pretty connected with those emotions but have learned to grow from them. It’s kind of like looking at a picture of yourself ten years ago, or five years ago. 

Looking at a picture of yourself from five, ten years ago can also be kind of jarring, though, if you’ve gone through a lot of changes since then.

Yeah, and maybe it just makes me realize just how much I’ve actually grown from it, but I still appreciate the fact that I needed to go through those encounters with different people. 

When you’re on stage, singing these songs that you’ve written about your life and your emotions and your thoughts, do new song ideas pop into your head? Does that environment encourage creative thought for you?

No, the creative thing for me on stage is just being able to explain where I was coming from when I wrote the songs. I really enjoy the performance part of it. Yeah, I like writing, but my head’s not really into the writing part of it when I’m performing. I really enjoy the connection with the audience and telling the stories and just putting some perspective into it for people so when they do hear a song they can go, “Okay, she meant that.” 

I’ve asked this of a lot of songwriters... Because you write from such a personal place, are you ever concerned or worried about giving too much of yourself away in what you write?

I used to be. I think this record is probably the most confessional record without me putting any barriers on it. The last song especially, “Go to Hell,” it’s definitely the most personal one to me just because I’ve had personal experiences where I was completely judged and cut off out of people’s lives because they thought… They were saying that I wasn’t on the right path and I wasn’t doing the right things for God—a very religious standpoint. That’s a very personal song, and I actually wasn’t sure if I was going to put that one on the record, but I wanted to because I think that a lot of people can relate to that feeling of being judged. 

That’s good that you can confront that. I think when songwriters are able to stand behind what they write when what they write is so personal, it comes across in the music.

Absolutely. And when it’s not personal, I think it’s really evident. Especially for me, it needs to be personal or it’s just not gonna connect.  

Dear You is due October 14 on Fantasy/Concord Records. Please visit Meiko’s official website for more information.

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August 5, 2014

Book Review: Man on the Run - Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

By the time the Beatles had officially broken up in April 1970, Paul McCartney was one of the world’s most celebrated musicians, having achieved just about every benchmark in the music business as well as the notoriety that comes with being a cultural icon. With John Lennon he’d forged the most beloved (and lucrative) songwriting partnership in pop music history. With the band as a whole he’d crafted a catalog that was by and large regarded as creatively unrivaled. Such distinctions were ones which McCartney understood all too well when, while confronting the unenviable prospect of following up the Fab Four, he embarked upon the next phase of his musical life.

He was 27-years old.

As author and music journalist Tom Doyle chronicles in Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s, McCartney’s next phase ended up being the most turbulent decade of his career. 

Well researched and partly informed by Doyle’s own interviews with his subject, the book adds sharper context to the familiar portrait presented by other such biographies of a preternaturally gifted, boyishly charismatic family man to reveal the McCartney of this era as being often oblivious to (or at least careless of) the ways in which the real world works outside the Beatles bubble. Matters that likely never crossed his mind as a member of the Beatles now as the leader of his next band, Wings, not only became necessary concerns—auditioning and hiring (and firing) musicians, compensating those musicians, replenishing the band’s requisite marijuana supply—but were also his responsibility. If he wasn’t quite longing to reunite with his old mates from Liverpool, McCartney nevertheless seems to have missed the sense of refuge they collectively conferred, from the implicit quality of musicianship in John, George, and Ringo, to producer’s George Martin’s almost paternal guidance, musical wisdom, and studio expertise. 

As far as the music McCartney composed in the ‘70s is concerned, pertinent circumstances of its creation are offered throughout the book. There isn’t too much in the way of session details (examining how songs evolved, critiquing specific takes, etc.), with the emphasis instead focusing on how McCartney maneuvered through the various twists and turns of his life while making that music. Given a subject as well-documented as McCartney, it’s an effective narrative approach. The depicted scene surrounding the recording of 1973’s Band on the Run, in particular, which found McCartney naïvely travelling not only with Wings (and former Moody Blues) mate Denny Laine and engineer Geoff Emerick but also with his own wife and children to Lagos, Nigeria—a scene of rampant crime, poverty, and political corruption—is especially gripping. 

Man on the Run tells of McCartney the human being as much as McCartney the superstar musician, and readers will likewise appreciate its insights and enjoy the story it has to tell.