November 30, 2009

Anthony DeCurtis On Robert Palmer Book, Music Criticism, Artist Interviews

When music journalist Robert Palmer died on November 20, 1997 at the age of 52, he’d long since cemented his reputation as one of the most astute experts in his field. A fixture at Rolling Stone for over two decades, the first person designated as chief pop-music critic for The New York Times, and an author of six books, Palmer examined and chronicled music with feral acuity while, at the same time, appreciating the best of it with unadulterated joy.

“In a style that blended elegance and hipster enthusiasm, he would travel deeper and deeper into his subject, bringing his readers along with him in the interest of turning them on to something he loved,” Anthony DeCurtis writes of Palmer in the preface to the recently published anthology, Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, which he edited.

DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone and himself the author of two retrospective anthologies—Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music And Other Matters and In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life And Work—has been a preeminent voice in music criticism and cultural commentary for nearly thirty years. In addition to his written submissions to the magazine, in the '90s DeCurtis served as the editor of Rolling Stone's record-review section, which led him to work directly with Palmer, the experience undoubtedly informing some of his recollections on him now. Presently, DeCurtis teaches in the writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.

In this extensive interview with Donald Gibson, Anthony DeCurtis discusses Blues & Chaos and the late Robert Palmer before generously yielding insight to his own career and craft. Along the way he reflects on music's immeasurable capacity to spark creative minds, the pros and cons of artist interviews, and how one such interview with a certain childhood idol resonates with him today.

How did editing someone else’s work compare to editing your own two anthologies?

You’re kind of willing to make mistakes on your own behalf. The two collections of my own that I did, I had fairly specific ideas for what I wanted them to be like. And once I got some momentum going on pulling it all together, I didn’t really question that too much. With the Palmer book, I found myself thinking a lot about how he would want to be represented…and about whether or not my own vision of what this book should be would match his. Finally, I just decided, this is what it means to be an editor. I was his editor. So it’s going to reflect his voice and who he was as I understood him.

I was interviewing Patti Smith, who knew Palmer and really liked him. I gave her a copy of the book—we had just gotten copies—and I brought one down to the interview and I handed it to her. We were being filmed for PBS and, because it was a film thing, there were endless periods of just sitting around, not really having to work. So we had a chance to discuss it, too. I was telling her some of the anxieties I’d went through about representing him. Patti Smith just held the book up. She just held the book up in her hand in front of me and said, “Look what you did for him. Look what you did for him. He has this now.”

She’s good with symbolism, isn’t she?

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] And her holding it, it just gave me a certain distance of it. I thought, 'You know, it’s actually turned out pretty well.' Just for a moment like this and for her to say that, it was gratifying.

In working with Palmer at Rolling Stone as his editor in the ‘90s, was there anything about his style at that point that had some effect or informed the way you appreciated rock criticism?

It wasn’t so much that; I just enjoyed reading him. He was certainly a writer that I’d assign things to because I wanted to read that piece. One of the things that probably should be said is how gracious he was. Maybe he was like this with everyone; I don’t know what other people’s experience was. But with me he was very cooperative. If I had a question, he would answer it. Or if I had a suggestion, he would listen to it. There are people who are so difficult.

Like you mention in the book, people with bigger egos than talent.

Exactly. And that really became my measure, in a way. As I sat there with people, I’d be thinking, ‘With Bob Palmer I would’ve been done in five minutes and I’m sitting here arguing with you for half an hour. You couldn’t stand in his shadow.’ So I definitely took a lesson from that, that your confidence actually enabled you to accept ideas and to accept suggestions. The degree of your talent didn’t mean that you then bullied everybody. It meant that you could still be open. And Bob was.

When you say he was open to ideas, was he also open to criticism on a technical scale, if you didn’t like the particular flow of an article or a direction he took?

We were in tune a lot of the time, so it rarely came up. But Bob would occasionally veer off. He had a lot of interests that I would regard as esoteric. So if it’s in the middle of a review of a Megadeth record or something—he would go off on a fairly long stint on some aspect of paganism or something he felt their music represented—I would essentially just get rid of that. I suppose there are places where that stuff plays. It doesn’t play in Rolling Stone. And I think he got that. He’d try things and if they worked, they worked. If they didn’t, they didn’t. In the book, for example, the second Morocco story, which is really wild, called “Into The Mystic”—where he’s essentially having visions and things like this—I think he was pretty struck [that Rolling Stone published it]. He wrote about people saying to him, “You submitted that to Rolling Stone?” That one flew. He got that one by. He would, as all writers do, you attempt certain things. And you think, let’s see how much of this I get. Bob was pretty pragmatic, I suppose, is the bottom line here. He understood what the magazine was and I think he accepted that. He occasionally pushed against the margins of what that could be and sometimes he got away with it and sometimes he didn’t. But he was always cool about it. Let me say this, I never had an argument with him.

So he never held a grudge for, say, you taking away a semi-colon?

Oh, God no. [Laughs] I think he appreciated it. He liked the way his stuff came out. He got it. As wild as Bob was in certain ways, he worked at a daily newspaper for nearly ten years. Anybody in a position like that—writing for Rolling Stone, writing for The New York Times—you’re in a position where you can really have an impact. On the other hand, there are certain things you trade off for that. I think he got that. He liked having an impact. He liked feeling like his stuff was getting read and getting to a big audience of people, not all of whom would know about the things he was writing about. And I think he was willing to do what he needed to do to make that happen.

Do you think rock criticism serves more as encouragement for artists to make better music or as encouragement for listeners to refine their tastes?

It’s more like an interpretation of the entire phenomenon. Like, why does anybody need to understand why they like Britney’s latest single? But I do believe that a good writer can make you hear things in a way that you haven’t heard them before. They can deepen your comprehension of them. And that’s as true for Britney’s latest single as it is the latest Radiohead album. I think that that’s always true. I wouldn’t presume to think that I could lecture artists on what they want to do. I think they’re almost a lot better off when they just kind of do it and don’t worry about it too much… Interviewing someone like David Bowie, for example—who is as interesting as a critic as he is an artist; and he’s very interesting as an artist—he is somebody who is really able to hear music and think about it very critically, or analytically, I suppose. He’s not somebody who’s going to say to you, “Oh, you know, it’s just mystical; it really just comes to me.” He’ll talk about some R&B record from the 1950s that he lifted something from. And so those conversations—if you’re a writer—are the most exciting ones, where they’re doing it, but they’re also speaking your language.

And when Bowie listens analytically, it doesn’t take away his appreciation of the music on a visceral level.

Exactly. He still listens and enjoys stuff. He hears things the way critics hear them. He told me a story one time—I was interviewing him for VH-1 for a series on the ‘70s—he talked about being with Brian Eno, when Eno first heard these Giorgio Moroder productions of Donna Summer. He was imitating Eno’s wild enthusiasm about how fantastic these things sounded. And these are two really smart guys, but they both went on to use all that stuff.

They went nuts over “Love To Love You Baby.”

Yes! [Laughs] I find the ability of music to move across those kinds of thresholds really fantastic. They made that single for purely commercial reasons. It’s designed to get people in a disco up and dancing. Period. But really, really smart, creative people can both thrill to that aspect of it and also get fantastic ideas from it. It’s the great thing about music. I was telling my students the other day [of] the way that something like Kraftwerk, which seemed about the whitest stuff ever done, could totally excite these kids in the South Bronx and really help create hip-hop. It’s the great fun and the great power of a creative act that, once you unleash it in the world, it can go anywhere and it can do anything. Whether that’s in The New York Times or that’s on the biggest label in the world or whether you put it up on YouTube or you’re blogging about it, that’s always true. It can find its audience—and not even whom you think its audience would be. It can find an audience that you never would’ve imagined for it.

And inspire other art.

Absolutely—inspire creativity of all kinds, and fun and excitement and new things. It’s just dizzying thinking about all that.

You’ve written about flying to Dublin to interview U2 or traveling to London to talk with Paul McCartney for an hour. What does being in the room with an artist provide you that a phone call wouldn’t?

I prefer to do interviews in person. I think there’s something you can do in that situation where you’re just looking directly at somebody; they’re just sitting there. They’re right in front of you. There are ways of reading them that can affect your line of questioning. It’s also harder for someone to look you in the eye and avoid what it is that you’re trying to ask them about. A resistant subject, say, is just easier to deal with in person. The phone just gives them too much advantage. It really takes kind of a will of steel to sit there in front of somebody and stonewall them. Not that these interviews are especially contentious; most of them aren’t. Still, there is a kind of resistance and people fall into their wraps, and that’s just harder to do when you’re there in front of somebody. Any case where you’ve traveled to do the piece and that kind of stuff, it’s also harder to really limit the time too much.

He can’t all of a sudden get a call, quote unquote.

Exactly. That said, I feel like people underestimate the possibilities of what the phone can be. For the 40th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, I interviewed Paul McCartney; I did that interview over the phone. The magazine very reluctantly agreed to do that just because it was so late in the cycle. And McCartney, he wanted to do it; he didn’t want to do it. He was going to do it; he didn’t want to do it… Finally he agreed and there was no way to do it in person so we did it over the phone. I think that interview came out fine. There are things that you can do on the phone and for certain type of people it works. The degree of abstraction can work to your advantage. Like, for example, one of my favorite parts of [that] McCartney interview was [because] it was the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love… I said, “You were in the Beatles. It’s the Summer of Love. Sgt. Pepper’s just came out. What was that like?” In person he might have been a little glib, but over the phone he just kind of disappeared into that moment. He was quiet for a while. And he just said, “It was fantastic.” And he said it in a way that really conveyed it. And he just started going into it. I don’t know that I could’ve gotten that in person. The immediacy of the situation would’ve blocked his ability to do a little bit of time traveling.

I [also] did an interview with Eddie Vedder one time. We did the second half of it over the phone; he was much better over the phone. In person, he’s a little shy…very friendly and very gracious, even a little deferential. [He] was polite but not particularly informative. Over the phone, he was much better able to access his own feelings. He felt less like he was being interviewed and somehow the phone gave him the ability to disappear into himself a little bit and then to speak from that place. And that’s ultimately what you want, whether you’re in the room with the person or you’re interviewing them on the phone. You want them to be able to access something in themselves so that they’re not speaking from their head; they’re speaking from somewhere inside themselves. And you can make that work, depending on the person in either situation.

We’ve come upon the eighth anniversary of George Harrison’s passing. Did your first interview with him, in particular, have any profound effect on your perception of his music?

The hardest people to interview are the ones who made an impression on you as a kid. It’s difficult. I mean, as much as I admire Bono or Peter Buck [of R.E.M.], I was a grownup by the time I met those people and heard their music; I was kind of formed. I am who I am because of the Beatles. So, meeting [Harrison] was hard. It had a kind of surreality to it. It does to this day… I realized I was going to be in situations where you could just be overwhelmed by the emotions connected with your own experience. Sitting there with him, it was very hard to stay focused and do the work and get the interview done.

What I like about that interview is toward the end where he’s talking about his relationship to John Lennon, about a sense that if you can’t experience the spirit of a great friend who you loved deeply after he’s gone, what hope could you ever have of experiencing Jesus or Buddha or whoever it is that you’re interested in? That’s a kind of simple idea, but it’s really powerful. And it’s one that has stayed with me, that things don’t have to be lost. That moment where he just says—quoting Dylan as he did so often—“‘If your memory serves you well, we’re going to meet again.’ I believe that.” The degree of conviction and the degree to which those things were true to him became much more powerful for me, obviously, after he died. But their importance made an impression on me at the time and has for all these years since.

Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer edited by Anthony DeCurtis is published by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life And Work by Anthony DeCurtis is published by Hal Leonard Corporation.

Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music And Other Matters by Anthony DeCurtis is published by Duke University Press.

November 29, 2009

Singer/Songwriter Lindsey Mae Celebrates Christmas with John Lennon Classic

Having recently finished work on her upcoming debut album, singer/songwriter Lindsey Mae is getting into the spirit of the season by offering a free download of a holiday classic. On John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas,” she renders an austere treatment drawn out at a poignant, measured pace and—as it develops bit-by-bit—accentuated by discreet choral accompaniment. It’s a gorgeous performance, made all the more moving by how Lindsey Mae sings it. Sounding both solemn and consolatory, she invests this instantly familiar song with conviction and insight all her own.

Read An Interview with Lindsey Mae to learn more about this emerging artist, including her thoughts on her self-titled EP (available now) and her forthcoming, full-length debut (set for release early 2010).

Download: Lindsey Mae — “Happy Christmas”

November 15, 2009

The Beatles Box of Vision Takes A Catalog and Makes It Better

Come to think of it, my Beatles CDs really don’t belong on the same shelf as Bananarama and the Barenaked Ladies. Nothing against you other groups, of course; the Beatles are just better than you.

Even amid the bands and artists represented in the most comprehensive music libraries of countless audiophiles, the Beatles are indeed a special case. And for those (like this writer) who appreciate them as such, there’s now—lo and behold—a special case.

The Beatles Box of Vision (authorized and licensed by Apple Corp. LTD.) is designed with Fab Four aficionados and collectors in mind, boasting customized sleeves for all official compact discs that comprise the Beatles discography—from Please Please Me to Love—with album cover art designating each album's correct, chronologically-sequenced placement. 

Compatible (and issued to correspond) with the Beatles Remasters, for which it accommodates the digi-pack cases as well as the compact discs, it suits the regular CDs (minus the standard, plastic cases) just as well.

Undoubtedly the most intrinsically valuable piece in this package is a hardcover coffee-table book the size of an LP, in which the original album art for the band’s catalog—both the UK and US releases—is rendered in brilliant colors and thick-paper quality throughout nearly 200 pages. It's a fantastic visual document in an of itself, making the whole package all the more worth seeking out.

Supplement to the hardcover book is a (considerably thinner, paperback) Catalography, in which each official UK and US release is chronicled. An introductory essay by noted Beatles author Bruce Spizer introduces this constructive resource, followed by liner notes that accompany each title, lending context to each one—particularly the contrasts between albums released by EMI Records in Britain and those released by Capitol Records in America.

It should be noted that no music in any format is included here; this is strictly a companion collectible. And considering its contents, it’s a bit of a heavy one at that, especially with the hardback book inside. However, it’s not designed to be portable luggage. And for its intended function—as a custom-designed case that sits atop a shelf or coffee table—The Beatles Box of Vision is really something special.

The Beatles Box of Vision can be ordered at the product's official website.

November 12, 2009

Ray Davies Turns A Choir On The Kinks

While many of their UK contemporaries—particularly those rallied behind the banner of the British Invasion in the ‘60s—did all they could do to sound like artists of American blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, the Kinks underscored a disposition that was deliberately English. As the band’s lyricist, Ray Davies examined class distinctions and moralities within British society, eliciting tales of the downtrodden as well as those whose lives were far more refined.

And so it’s not too much of a stretch to conceive how such themes could have inspired and ultimately manifested in Davies’ latest work, The Kinks Choral Collection, released this week on Decca Records. The album finds Davies collaborating with the Crouch End Festival Chorus—a renowned vocal choir from North London—interpreting a cycle of classic Kinks songs (and one solo cut) with grandeur and grace.

While an integral part of the album, the choir isn’t as ostentatious as the title might suggest or even as some listeners might fear. Davies suitably holds the vocal reins here—the choir isn't singing his songs with him relegated to the sideline—while the vocalists complement in harmony around him.

Rising like a solemn invocation, "Days" commences the recording with delicate resonance while "See My Friends" finds Davies and the choir engaging in an acapella call and response, effectively turning it into a chant. The sacred nature of these performances only succeeds because the songs evoke it (to various extents) in their original versions. Davies isn't manufacturing the spiritual vibe that's yielded by this kind of interpretation; with the service of the choir, he's drawing it out. The rendition here of "Waterloo Sunset" is perhaps the best instance of that.

As for the otherwise edgier tracks—“You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” specifically—Davies prevents them from coming off as parodies because, instead of treating them with the sort of reverence he affords to the more austere moments on the album, he gives in to their exuberance and has a good time.

Worth a special mention is a six-song suite culled from the Kinks' masterwork, We Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which is a highlight unto itself, but an ever-playful take on "Picture Book" and the title track stand out in particular. Granted, The Kinks Choral Collection isn’t for everyone—it's likely not even for all professed Kinks fans—but for those who approach this with an open mind, it’s an impressive effort overall.

November 09, 2009

Rock Critic Robert Hilburn Talks of Memoir and Music That Matters

In his new memoir, Cornflakes With John Lennon: And Other Tales From A Rock ‘N’ Roll Life, esteemed music journalist Robert Hilburn draws on some of the seminal events and encounters from throughout his career, delivering a narrative rich with insight and off-the-record observations.

As the pop-music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times from 1970-2005, Hilburn approached his subjects—whether emerging bands with new albums or established artists during in-depth interviews—with patience and persistence, assessing their faults while encouraging them to live up to the promise of their talent.

Since leaving the L.A. Times, Hilburn has concentrated on writing books, Cornflakes With John Lennon being the first installment of that endeavor. He is also a member of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the following conversation, Hilburn discusses the craft of music criticism, expounding on the merits of a great album, the measure of creative conviction, and what distinguishes the best artists from everybody else on the radio.

As a music critic, how do you discern what’s good apart from your own preferences and tastes?

When I was young, I loved movies and music. But I thought, Look, I can’t be a film critic because I don’t know enough about the history of film. I don’t know German film and all that kind of stuff. But I said, “I know rock ‘n’ roll.” I was there when Elvis and Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry all came up. I was buying records. I could tell which artists [were] going to be important and last and which ones weren’t. I just had a confidence that I knew what rock ‘n’ roll was. It’s like if you taste a piece of something, you can tell it’s sugar; you can identify it. You know the essence of it; you feel the essence of it. So I felt I could apply that to rock ‘n’ roll, in a sense. What I was looking for was an artist who excited me as much as Elvis did or Chuck Berry did or Jerry Lee Lewis did. Who could rise to that level? Who could make an original statement as opposed to just making music that was here today and gone tomorrow?

When I would get a record, [I would think], How does it sound? Is it appealing? Is it interesting? Does it sound like something you’d like to listen to? That has to be the first criteria. It’s got to be appealing. The second thing I would think of is the vocal. How convincing is the vocal? Does it sound like this really matters to this person? Is it catchy or is it interesting? Or is it just kind of wimpy? And the third thing is what is the record saying? What are they trying to do on the record? What’s the point of view of the record? How original is it? How creative is it? Does it bend the rules? Does is it tell you more about yourself or about society? So I was looking for something that sounded good, that seemed convincing to me, and really did kind of step away from the herd of pop music. Of the, say, 5,000 people who’ve made hits, if you take 20 of those people away, rock ‘n’ roll would’ve collapsed as an art form. Because everybody else feeds off the energy of the really great artists. Think if you took away the Beatles and Bob Dylan, for starters. Look at the hole that would’ve left.

If you took Dylan away, the Beatles wouldn’t have been the same.

And Dylan wouldn’t have been the same without the Beatles. Dylan could’ve stayed in folk music, but he saw his generation was adapting rock ‘n’ roll as its chosen voice. So he moved over to that, because of the Beatles probably. And then Lennon heard Dylan. My Lord, that made him a much better songwriter. But if you take two of those guys away, and take, say, Pete Townshend away, take Lou Reed away, take Springsteen away, take Bob Marley away, take Joni Mitchell away, that’s where the real art came from. They’re the ones who are the trailblazers and that was what I was always looking for—that kind of person.

I know you’re a fan of Tom Waits. Why do you think other artists have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he hasn’t even been nominated?

I don’t know. There were certain people they just overlooked. I remember one year, I went to the nominating committee meeting, and they were going to pass over David Bowie and not put him on the ballot, not put Joni Mitchell on the ballot, not put Bob Marley on the ballot. And those seem like musts. The people who are on my list [are] Gram Parsons, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman. Those are three artists I think are just superior artists and belong in there. I have no idea why there’s a reluctance on Tom Waits. They put in artists that don’t sell a huge amount of records; you don’t have to sell a lot of records to get nominated. I don’t know why Tom isn’t because he’s an extraordinary artist… It’s a strange thing with Tom. One thing about him is he’s got this obsession to be remembered, to be different, to stand out. He told me a story that one time when he was a kid he went to a used-record store and went through the 99-cent bin. All of these records that were made by these people, they were all forgettable. [He said], “I never want to be another name in that forgettable list.” I think sometimes he even went out of his way to be different. I think he’s a beautiful songwriter just when he does conventional songs like “Ol' ‘55” and that stuff for One From The Heart, those kinds of songs. But I think he thinks maybe that they’re too easy and he wants to be a little more complex. Sometimes I thought he got a little too far out. But I loved The Heart of Saturday Night, from that period, and I loved Mule Variations. I just think he’s an “A” artist. I can’t explain why he’s not in.

I think there’s a part of him that’s reluctant to reveal himself in his songs.

One time, I did this interview with him, maybe ten years ago, where I went up to near where he lives in Northern California. We met at this restaurant—like a roadside tavern—and he brought in three or four books with him. He brought in a phone book; he brought in a book on how to cook potatoes; and something else. And he started reading though that. It’s just his way of being an interesting character so you can’t get through to him. I said, “Look, Tom, you can just keep doing that or you can really try to honestly answer questions. Because think of people who love your music and who are influenced by your music; they really care about you and want to know a little bit about you. Wouldn’t you like to know about people you care about? Hoagy Carmichael or some[one]?” And he got really resentful, like I was really trying to push down his wall and he didn’t like that. He kind of eased up a little bit and started talking more personally, but it’s still very difficult for him to do that. I don’t know if he just doesn’t want anybody to know about it or he likes the idea of the disguise. 

In the book, you really underscored how creatively insecure a lot of the major artists are—Bono, Dylan, Cobain, Springsteen. Even in their strongest artistic statements, they’ve had insecurities.

Bruce [Springsteen] puts it really well: If you want to keep being a songwriter, you’ve got to keep digging layers off yourself, so you get deeper and deeper into yourself. That's why John Lennon, with that album, Plastic Ono Band, he couldn’t get any deeper than that. And when you do that—when you lay yourself naked—you’re vulnerable. And [so] if somebody says, “Oh that’s a terrible album,” or, “That’s a stupid thing you’re thinking,” that’s just not talking about your work; it’s talking about your own essence in a way. A lot of times, it’s a void in somebody that pushes them to be an artist. It gives them sensitivity. It makes them want to articulate their fears and desires. It’s a way of compensating for things they lack.

How do you answer the age-old criticism that you get—usually when you give a negative review—that because you don’t know how to write or perform music, you’re not capable of assessing what a musician does?

The fact that you’re not a musician? I found often, when I would take musicians with me to a show, they would get too caught up in the technical aspect of it. How is the guitar player? Is it in tune? Is it a difficult song he’s playing? And I didn’t care if it was in tune or if it was difficult or anything. All I cared [about] was the sound, what came across to me. What was the emotion? What was the feeling you got out of this record? I didn’t care about the construction of it. I didn’t care if the Rolling Stones were great musicians or bad musicians; I just knew “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women” were great records.

On a visceral level.

Yeah. My thing is totally emotional and, to a degree, intellectual in the sense that I’m thinking about what they’re saying. But mainly it’s emotional. Do you feel this? Does this feel real to you? Is this something you haven’t heard before? Is this band going to new territory? Is the Velvet Underground doing something that the J. Geils Band doesn’t do? Well, yes they are. Is U2 doing something that the Teardrop Explodes isn’t doing? Yes they are. You have to get a sense of rock history, what things are really speaking to your heart and to a truth and adding to the vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll as opposed to just streaming along and making nice, pleasant, enjoyable records, but not really affecting things. You could take away the whole career of Billy Joel and it wouldn’t affect rock ‘n’ roll at all. You could take [away] hundreds of artists like that—REO Speedwagon, Kansas, Deep Purple—it wouldn’t affect the history of rock ‘n’ roll in terms of this art form.

In the book you say you learned from experience that you should concentrate on looking for great, new artists regardless of their commercial potential. For aspiring music critics, though, if you’re consistently writing on good, promising artists no one’s heard of, isn’t that career suicide on some level?

My deal with myself all the time at the L.A. Times [was] I said, “Look, I want to personally make sure I find—in each generation as well as I can—the most important artists and write about them.” Some of those artists are going to be successful commercially and readers are going to care about them; some others aren’t and readers are not going to care about them. As long as I’m doing that, I want to also go out and review anybody that becomes popular… I didn’t want to say to the public, “I don’t care who you think about.” So I would make sure I always reviewed the popular act[s] of the day too, but I would just give them a negative review. But I would at least acknowledge that so at least a person could say they saw it in the paper and I just didn’t ignore it… I didn’t want it to be an esoteric kind of thing. Even though I was doing a negative review, there’d still be a big picture and it’d be a big story and so forth; it was acknowledging it at least.

How do you interview emerging artists who have talent and promise, but aren’t very good at expressing that in conversation? How do you draw them out?

That’s interesting. Most of the time, if there’s something about an artist’s music that interests you, when you start talking to that artist they can articulate something about it. If you just keep asking questions over and over again. Partially it’s the interviewer’s responsibility to make that artist feel comfortable and draw it out of them… Like, Bruce didn’t want to talk about his music in the beginning, so I would keep trying to make him feel comfortable and explain to him why it was good to talk about the music. Often if you ask the right questions and make them feel comfortable, they’ll respond.

How do you see the role of the critic insofar as encouraging promising artists to pursue their craft?

That’s the whole thing. You encourage them in your review. You say this is a promising artist. Like U2, when you first saw U2, I don’t know that they were great musicians. I’m not sure they were great songwriters; they weren’t great songwriters. But there was something about them; there was an attitude. The instrumental construction of the music had this power. Bono had this power. You just felt this group cared about it. That’s one of the things: Is this group just wanting to be successful or does the group care about making good music? You get the sense of U2 that they cared about it and you wanted to follow them. It took me a few years to realize this, but whenever you go see a new band or listen to a debut album, you’re not just listening to that album and seeing that night’s show. You’re trying to think, Well what about a tour from now and an album from now? Where can they take what they’re doing? Have they got any place to go? To make an example, the Strokes came in and were very successful very quickly with that Velvet Underground sound. And the White Stripes came along at the exact same moment. When I listened to the Strokes, there was nothing. I could see through the whole thing; it was like I could see how the puppet strings worked.

At the time?

At the time, yeah. I could see what they did. I could see how they got these influences together and made this catchy sound, but there was nothing behind it. And I didn’t see where they were ever going to be able to go. But I walked into the Troubadour and I saw Jack White on stage. And I said, “Now this guy is going to go someplace.” This is an interesting artist. You could hit him with a two-by-four and he’s not going to be compromised by the record business. He wants to make great records, not just have a hit record. In that moment, see, I was excited by the White Stripes because I could see them going somewhere. I was not excited by the Strokes because I couldn’t see them going anywhere.

After all these years, is it harder for music to fascinate you?

Yeah, it is. I think it’s very difficult for a person starting out. Think of all the stuff that’s been written. Look at the ‘60s when the Beatles and the Who and the Stones started off, they almost had virgin territory; they could do anything. As each group comes along, that’s been done before. So you have to take a variation of it; you have to find a new way of saying things. But the biggest thing for me as a critic was—when I first started reviewing—if I’d go into a club and I heard one good song from an artist or a band, I would think, Well that’s interesting, and write about that. As time went on, I realized that there [were] lots of people who have one good song. So it would take more from a band to get me interested than just the one or two good songs. I had to have five or six or an album or a sense that they were going somewhere. The number of times a year I was excited about something was fewer, but when those things came along and measured up to that level, I’d get just as excited as I was before.

Cornflakes With John Lennon: And Other Tales From A Rock ‘N’ Roll Life, published by Rodale Books, is currently available at booksellers retail and online. Visit Robert Hilburn's official website for more information.

November 07, 2009

Carly Simon is Back, Though She's Never Been Gone

A good song can withstand time, trends, and interpretation by artists other than the original. And, as Carly Simon demonstrates on her latest album (marking her debut on Iris Records), Never Been Gone, reinterpreting one’s own compositions can prove rewarding as well.

In a casual, mostly acoustic setting of guitars and assorted strings, Simon covers ten selections from her songbook—most of them instantly recognizable hits, the rest of them devoted-fan favorites—as well as two new tracks. The laid-back vibe is further underscored by the close-knit roster of musicians who appear alongside Simon, most notably her son and daughter, Ben and Sally Taylor.

Throughout, Simon comes across as a seasoned storyteller, evoking an air of wistful reflection even through some of her most pensive moments from the past. As with "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," and "Anticipation," she melds tempered arrangements to her cathartic introspections, resulting in her sounding less burdened (or at least less emotionally immersed) than when she was actively pondering their circumstances.

Simon delivers other highlights in "It Happens Every Day" and "Coming Around Again," rendering both narratives with particularly warm and inviting vocals. She plays "You're So Vain" and (despite her revising it from piano to guitar) "The Right Thing To Do" fairly close to the vest, but she commits as much to these performances as on the deeper album cuts.

Of the two new tracks, it's a toss-up. With its ballistic drums and pseudo-reggae aggression, “No Freedom” is just ill-suited to this collection's modest, hospitable tone. “Songbird,” which closes out the album, fares substantially better, its piano-and-strings progression making for an evocative coda.

All in all, Never Been Gone works best as a reminiscent set for longtime fans rather than as a concerted effort to make new ones. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In a career as extensive and fruitful as Simon’s, there’s certainly much for fans to appreciate.

November 02, 2009

An Interview with Jordan Galland

Much like the metropolis he’s called home for most of his life—New York City—Jordan Galland reflects an amalgam of creative energy. His backstory includes forming and fronting the indie-rock band, Dopo Yume—which released four albums and toured with the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Cibo Matto—as well as having written and directed short films and stop-animation videos.

Galland channels the varied facets of his talent into Airbrush, his debut effort as a solo artist. At turns kooky and contemplative—its standout tracks include titles like “Everyone Else Is Boring” and “When The Girl Is Lying”—the album is an engaging blend of melody and shameless emotion.

While Airbrush is available now, Galland will make his directorial debut with the independent film, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Undead—a vampire comedy adapted from Hamlet, starring Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, and Kris Lemche—when it opens nationwide in February 2010.

To score the film, Galland recruited longtime friend, Sean Lennon. The two are frequent collaborators, having worked together periodically in Dopo Yume as well as having co-written tracks on Lennon’s 2006 LP, Friendly Fire, his sophomore effort as a solo artist. Lennon released his soundtrack to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Undead—his third solo album—last week in North America. “I couldn’t have been happier about it,” Galland says of his friend’s latest achievement.

Here, Jordan Galland talks about his progression in music as well as the nature of his collaboration with Sean Lennon on his first feature film.

You’re not new to making music, but Airbrush is your first solo album. Was there a catalyst for you to go on your own?

My first band, Dopo Yume, was definitely a band situation, but I wrote the songs; I did a lot of the arrangements, and I sang. I felt comfortable moving in the solo direction. It wasn’t too much of a departure from Dopo Yume, partly because Dopo Yume was a constant, rotating cast of different people. There were moments where I did play acoustic shows alone just to keep the band going while I was in between members.

Under that name?

Yeah, under that name. And the reason for it [was] a lot of the time bigger acts would come along or friends would come along and hire the musicians that were playing with me. And I wasn’t paying them to play with me. [They’d] be like, “Hey, I love your drummer. I’m going to pay him to come on tour with me.” And that was fine. Of course, I was upset a little bit…

Because you needed a new drummer.

Or I’d have to play without a drummer or with a drum machine. I was never really upset about it; it just felt like [a] constant struggle of trying to keep performing. It was a difficult thing… And then the band just kind of ended in an organic way, like when you break up with someone just because it isn’t right. I guess that was what propelled me. I had this collection of songs; it felt not right to me that they weren’t out.

Airbrush isn’t conformed to one genre or even to one sound. Was that kind of diversity something that you wanted to pursue?

Yes. There’s a vague image of an album in my head, like a movie or a story that has different landscapes—has different trees, different mountains, different valleys. And each song tells a piece of that whole. But on another level, I don’t necessarily plan it. Songs take shape on their own, in a sense.

Because you’ve lived so long in New York, how much do you think that environment has impacted not only the way that you approach art, but also how you appreciate it?

It’s a profound thing for me, living in New York. We moved to New York when I was five years old from Connecticut. And my mom told me that I said, “This city is better than the country with just plain trees.” I don’t feel that way now. I love the country. I love getting out of the city. I love experiencing nature. But [New York] was a profound environment; it’s very stimulating. I loved Woody Allen movies at a very early age and I felt like I related to their appreciation of New York as a mixture of all kinds of cultures and class and neuroses. And then [there was] the history of it from a musical standpoint. One of the first clubs I played when I first played concerts, in 1998, was CBGB. And CBGB, I sort of realized very quickly, [held] the remnants of a pre-MTV culture [that] when you played [there], everybody found out about you.

By word of mouth.

Right. But somehow it was more electric back then… By the time I was getting into music, I felt like a lot of what had been cool about the scene in New York had shifted to something else. I definitely think the Strokes recaptured it at a certain point because people craved that for a moment. They craved the New York, gritty rock band.

Like a renaissance.

Right, but that kind of came and went kind of quickly. In the mid-‘90’s, [though], I started working with Sean Lennon and Cibo Matto, hanging out with them and learning from them. There was a center, a musical community that was very profound for me as well. [It was] a very cozy sort of world in downtown Manhattan with practice spaces in the basements and concerts at bars around the corner. Everything was in a twenty-block radius. And I think that also creates a sense of community, being that artists are working together and sort of competing and still celebrating all together.

Is there a thematic link between Airbrush and Sean Lennon’s score to Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Undead?

The score Sean did for Rosencrantz is his own thing… I never played anything or wrote any melodies. I was just giving examples of what I wanted during a scene. Sean and I having worked together before, it was a very smooth collaboration… I’m used to sitting for hours and writing with him, but this was more like five minutes here and there. I’d be like, “Hey, I emailed you a sample song. Can you come up with something similar?” And it was just back and forth. I needed to use somebody else’s music in the film. I couldn’t wrap my head around trying to direct, edit, and do all that stuff and compose good music.

But, in the end, Sean’s music wasn’t really ready yet—he hadn’t composed that much…and I gave the [trailer editor] instrumentals from Dopo Yume and instrumentals from Airbrush [for] an early trailer; it was just to put a teaser out. He used the song, “They Always Come Back” [from Airbrush] in the trailer and it got a big response… Then the song ended up being in the movie… So that’s the connection, but it’s not a real thematic connection.

You said you gave Sean some guidelines about what you kind of wanted, but as far as his composing, you didn’t have any input on how he wrote?

No, no—he just did everything. On a professional level, I knew he could do it even though he’d never done anything like it. I knew how he worked. And on a friend level, I knew he was really excited to explore this aspect…[to] see for himself what is was like to score a movie and do all this work… He liked it so much he decided to release the soundtrack as a solo record on his own label.

Being that you’ve worked in film before, what do you think he brought to Rosencrantz with his music?

Sean really has a profound relationship with music and composition… He’s really good at filtering influences into his own specific personality and a new product. I knew that I could communicate that to him. And he, in himself, is an instrument. His brain is an instrument—finding the right takes, the right instruments, the right references, and combining and turning it into something new… I knew Sean would attack it with earnestness and honesty and a real explorative quality because I know that’s in his nature and because I knew that he was hungry to try it.

For more information on Jordan Galland, please visit his official website and his You Tube channel.

Jordan Galland's stop-animation music video for "Everyone Else Is Boring," from Airbrush:

November 01, 2009

An Interview with Haroula Rose

There’s a disarming sense of purpose about Haroula Rose, a humble assurance that comes through in her songs as much as it does in her desire to share them with others. “I’m proud of it,” she says of Someday, her indie-folk debut EP from earlier this year. “I’m happy when people like it.”

The singer/songwriter has reason to feel encouraged—as the five-track, acoustic-based set is an inspiring first step for what lay ahead—and listeners have good reason to enjoy her creation.

She recently traveled from her home in Los Angeles to Athens, Georgia, where she worked with noted producer/engineer Andy LeMaster (Conor Oberst, Azure Ray) on her forthcoming LP, due out in early 2010. Before she departed, Haroula Rose reflected on her emergence as an artist thus far as well as the qualities she most appreciates in music.

Did you always know you wanted to be a professional musician?

On some level I knew, but didn’t feel necessarily bold enough to go for it until [I had] enough experience to be able to tell stories and be able to offer something. I’ve always loved music and I’ve always been a singer and I was in a couple different bands, a cappella groups and choirs, but I never knew it was exactly what I wanted to do full-time until [in] the past couple years. I haven’t looked back, really. And that’s what indicated to me that I was doing the right thing. Because once I decided on it, things just sort of started to work in a way that, with anything else, it didn’t feel natural or right.

Who did you work with on the EP?

The guy who produced and engineered it was Michael Starr… I remember talking to a couple different people who were more pop-oriented or [who] wanted more control over the songs. With him I never felt that way. It was just like, “Okay, what do you want? And how can we achieve that?” And it was really nice to work with someone like that. It taught me a lot about that process. 

To be in charge of your own creation.

Yeah. I’ve heard from other artists and all kinds of advice from people say, “Make sure you speak up.” Because sometimes it’s easy for other people to start to take ownership of what they’re investing in, but it’s still you and it’s your song and you wrote it. So make sure you feel comfortable with whomever it is you’re working with to say exactly what you want and try to know that as much as you can… That being said, it was fun to work spontaneously to see what [would] happen too, because there are always moments where something might happen that you don’t expect. And then that ends up adding a whole other element. That’s fun too. Like, for instance, the piano was actually slightly out of tune on a couple of the songs and normally that would be something that could stress you out. But then I was like, “You know what? I like the way that sounds.” It kind of gives it this old saloon type of 1890’s feel. And so I thought, Let’s just go for that because I think it adds a nice element to the song overall, like this piece of nostalgia or whimsy that I don’t think you’d have if everything was perfectly in sync.

Then it would sound too polished.

The stuff that I’m normally drawn to isn’t really perfect and the people that I find the most inspiring don’t necessarily sing everything perfectly. There’re some flaws in it. And I think that makes it more human and I enjoy that so much more. Like when I hear someone like Nick Drake or… Tom Waits is a good example. I don’t think they’re concerned with the most perfect performance; it’s just the most human performance.

Are any of the songs on the EP going to be on the LP?

“Love Will Follow” and “The Leaving Song” are both going to be on the LP. We may not necessarily re-record both of them, but add other elements to what’s already there. “The Leaving Song” has a smoother, gentler feel right now. Part of me wants to sing it in a more playful or rambunctious kind of way. That might be interesting to try out, but I’m not necessarily committed to that. But it’d be nice to try. People tend to like those two songs a lot.

Love Will Follow” is my favorite on the EP.

I love that song; it came from a pretty personal place. Sometimes the people you want to help the most are the ones who don’t want your help at all, even though they may be the ones you want to reach. And so, that’s where it came from. In terms of the process of songwriting, the ones that come easiest to me are the ones that people seem to be most drawn to. I don’t know what that is, but my theory is that it comes from a really natural, honest place.

Like a universal truth.

Right. I remember sitting at my kitchen table and writing that song in about four minutes. It just sort of came to me. It was as though something was speaking to me inside my head and I was just writing it all down longhand [and] playing the guitar… A lot of people say that’s their favorite and I’m really happy when I hear that because it feels like an honest place where it came from that speaks to people. And that’s just about the greatest feeling when they say, “That song made me cry,” or “I listen to that over and over and it makes me feel better about things.” That makes me want to cry because that’s the best feeling in the world. That’s what a song should do.