December 27, 2010

An Interview with Daniel Lanois

GRAMMY®-winning producer Daniel Lanois has worked with some of music’s most significant artists, but in collaborating with Neil Young on this year’s explosive Le Noise, he found a kindred spirit.

“I was always embarrassed of being a hard worker,” Lanois says. “I never paid attention to weekends or holidays or anything. Christmas? I’m working. [Laughs] And we talked about it. [Neil] said, ‘I’m the same way.’ He said, ‘Why should we operate by the markers of time as decided by somebody else?’ He’s not disrespectful to other people’s ways, but he’s a non-stop engine.”

In making the album, which recently earned three GRAMMY® nominations, Lanois not only gained greater insight as to Young’s artistry, but to his integrity as well.

“There’s nothing like getting to know somebody as a friend to find out what it’s all about,” he says. “We’re both Canadian, and I know we’ve traveled the world plenty, but it’s always comforting to be with someone from your own backyard. There’s an awful lot that gets spoken without words.”

What was your objective as far as what you wanted the album to sound like?

Well, the objective changed as we went along. It started out as an invitation to record ten acoustic songs and to film him, because I’d been making these little vérité films where the lens captures the performance and no crosscutting between cameras; just one camera, one lens for the magic take. He liked that a lot and said would I do that for him? And I said okay. And he came in with a nice batch of songs. Out of that session came the two acoustic songs, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War.” Then some other nice ones, a few on piano. Then before when he was getting ready to leave, he said, “Well, I’ve got an electric one. Let’s try one electric one.” And we recorded “Hitchhiker,” and it was pretty much a balls-to-the-wall [song]. Then he went home. We worked for three days under the full moon. He went home and I listened to everything and I thought the two main acoustic songs were masterpieces. I told him that and I told him that “Hitchhiker” was fascinating and might he have another electric [song] or two for the next session? So then he brought in “Walk with Me” and “Sign of Love,” and they turned out great.

And I said to him, “Something is happening in the riff department here that I really like with these songs.” There’s always some action in the bottom, very riff-built, as is the case with “Walk with Me.” I said, “Okay, we have a chance to be lean and mean here, rockin’, even in the absence of a rhythm section, because the natural inclination would be to bring in a drummer. We thought about it, but then I resisted suggesting that because I found something cool about just one man standing — even though we’d strayed from the acoustic idea. Then we agreed: no overdubs, just sounds. Sonics are allowed, not overdubs. And we found a few cheap tricks that worked in our favor. There’s this automatic bass machine that I plugged in, seemed to work a good half of the time. It’s just really an octave machine. Then I supplemented that with wherever the bass machine had been tracked with another box that I had here, these old Taurus pedals that I had, and I mimicked the sound of the bass machine on the Tauruses… I meticulously went through all the tracks and popped in the right notes. Consequently there’s this great bottom on the project, but you don’t get the sense that there’s a bass player going for it.

There is a percussive push to it.

Yes, there is a percussive push to it, like on “Walk with Me,” especially, [like] little jolts of bass without having a bass part. And he loved it all. The more I did, the more he loved it. [Laughs] He said, “Do more! Do more!” And I came up with that crazy ending of “Walk with Me.” That’s a completely fabricated thing out of my dubs… The opening chord, that’s [from] about halfway through the song. I decided that that’s the spot where the energy really rose to the surface. [I said], “Why don’t we just start there?” And he said, “Well, I’ve never had anybody edit my songs before.” He was pining for some of the lyrics that I’d chopped out so we put them at the end. He was happy with that.

You’re known for working with some rather mercurial, headstrong artists: Young, Dylan, Bono, Peter Gabriel. As a producer how do you work with that kind of artist without extinguishing their creative spirit and vision?

Well, they all have something in common: They all like surprises. And they’re all people who are innovative, therefore searching for a new form of expression. Nobody wants to make the same record they made on the last one. Sonic surprises are safe territory. You’re not challenging anybody on content at that point. You’re just providing color. Oftentimes a gadget, a sound, a riff, something fundamental will make for a really great icebreaker. It becomes a point of interest for everybody in the room. It might be as simple as bringing in a cool pedal for the guitar player. And everyone crowds around like looking at the engine inside of a car. Oftentimes it’s like that where everyone can huddle up and have a bit of fun. Then it becomes part of the menu. I like to make a menu for each record. You can’t plan out a menu. You can make a menu relative to what’s available in the room, what people are coming up with. I find by paying respect to what people bring to the table, a nice exchange builds. People’s backs aren’t up. It should never be a competition.

Experience must dictate a lot of this, but when do you know when to say, “This isn’t working?” or “This other idea is better?” How do you know when to switch gears to reach some common ground?

Well, I usually encourage all ideas to be brought to conclusion, if you have the time, especially if you’re with a group of folks who want to experiment. Somebody’s got an idea, see it through. It just costs time. And then a few days from the work, everybody listens and it becomes clear what rises to the surface, what the strongest ideas are, and go from there. People are smart so they’re not going to be supporting a weak result. You never know about an idea until you bring it to conclusion. I try to say yes to everything, but in the end my commitment and my care — I think people really feel that I care about them and their music — so I might give some ultimate advice on content, as I did with Neil.

We had an excess of material. I said, “Neil, believe it or not, I think this should be an eight-song record. It should be 39-minutes long, just like the vinyl days. You’ve already got your two slow songs; the rest should be rockers.” So we had to put five or six songs into the coral that he loved, and I loved too. It would have weighed the record down. It would’ve made it a soft record, which I felt served him badly. So in the end he said, “You’re the man. You’re my editor. You’re my curator.”

So we should look for those tracks on Archives, Volume Two?

I think so, yeah. There’s some beauties there. There’s one that I loved called “For The Love of Man.” It’s got a little Roy Orbison in it.

Did Neil surprise you at all with what he brought to the table?

He surprised me with my requests. I would say, “Hey Neil, do you think you can come up with another riff rocker or two?” And he’d say, “Well, I’ll sit on the edge of the rabbit hole and see if the rabbit comes out.” But he always came up with them. It’s kind of a record-maker’s dream that you would send off the writer and he comes back with what you asked for.

And yet he doesn’t really write songs by instruction; he sort of waits for them to arrive.

Very much so.

He’s not a Brill Building kind of songwriter.

No, but he gets inspired easy. Some everyday little thing or encounter will provide him with the inspiration to write a song. Just saying hello to somebody on the street, he’ll find something in that encounter that’s fascinating enough to write a song about. One he wrote, “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”... When he was in Hawaii, he met a fan on the street who said, “Hey, aren’t you Neil?” And they started talking and that fan was saying, “Man, music today leaves me lost. I feel like I’m lost.” And as he walked away Neil said, “Someone’s gonna rescue you before you fall!” A 30-second encounter turns into a song for Neil. Gotta love him.

December 20, 2010

An Interview with Jimmy Webb

The songs of Jimmy Webb occupy an indelible place in popular music. From the ones that everybody knows — “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “MacArthur Park” among them — to such standout performances as “Up, Up And Away” (The Fifth Dimension), “The Worst That Could Happen” (The Brooklyn Bridge), “All I Know” (Art Garfunkel), and “The Highwayman” (The Highwaymen), they've traversed genres and generations for nearly the past half century. 

“There are these curious twists and turns to my repertoire,” adds Mr. Webb, “and the ways it’s interacted with both the kind of traditional world of songwriting where I was very well recorded by the likes of Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli — the traditional warhorses of pop music — but I’m equally well represented by Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton and Pat Metheny and a whole group of jazz musicians.”

In addition to his achievements as a songwriter, Mr. Webb has maintained a respectable career as a recording artist in his own right, with albums like Letters, Suspending Disbelief, and Ten Easy Pieces revealing yet another dimension of his talent. On his latest, Just Across The River, he collaborates with guests including Billy Joel, Lucinda Williams, and Mark Knopfler while revisiting selections from his own back catalog.

The only artist in history to have won GRAMMY® awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration, Mr. Webb resides on the Board of Directors for ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) as well as the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

What originally drew you to the craft of songwriting? There’s always been a serious aesthetic underscoring your work.

I always took it pretty seriously. I think that, first of all, you’ve got to be a fan. If you love it and if you love hearing the things that other people are doing… We learn by imitating. I was a great fan of John Gardner, who wrote the book The Art of Fiction. It was actually a book written for prose writers. One of the great quotes in it was, “In a sense, all great writing is an imitation of great writing.” I really got my blood up as a teenager — thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old — listening to Burt Bacharach and Hal David, some of the more semi-serious composers like Rodgers and Hart — Larry Hart was a great favorite of mine — Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King. All of the Brill Building writers I knew intimately. I knew well. I knew their work note for note, word for word. I had a lot of piano lessons when I was a kid, but I could always play by ear. When I say “intimate,” I mean that I actually felt like I was part of those songs. I felt like I knew something about the origins of those songs… I used to listen to Teddy Randazzo’s wonderful records that he did with Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Hurts So Bad,” “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Tony Hatch, all his stuff with Petula Clark, “Downtown,” and [with] Dusty Springfield. These were all the legit writers — that’s the expression I would use anyway — and they were pure writers. They just wrote songs; they didn’t perform.

Then on the other hand the performers, the singers, were not in any sense songwriters. They were just talent, not just talent in the diminutive, but they were discreetly talent as opposed to writers. That’s the sort of ancient music business that I grew up in, where the roles were very clearly defined. Then you had singer/songwriters like Woody Guthrie and then his disciples like Bob Dylan, who is clearly a singer/songwriter, but the singer/songwriter as performer didn’t really come to the fore and come into its golden age until Lennon and McCartney. At that point, it was clear that everybody would have to write and sing and perform. And so the stage was kind of set for the ‘70s and the whole singer/songwriter phenomenon.

Songwriters were at first a little bit bewildered by this; then, secondly, terrified. There was a lot of adverse reaction to it, but I was young enough that I kind of caught the coattail; I caught a whiff of what was going on. When Carole King released the Tapestry album I listened to it very carefully because I knew [producer] Lou Adler. I’d done records with him for Johnny Rivers. So I was more than casually interested — she was one of my old favorites from the Brill Building — and so I was an avid listener. I listened very carefully. And my conclusion was that a new age was upon us and that you would either adapt or you would essentially be back-burnered. You would recede in importance unless you at least made the attempt to get on the train and become a singer/songwriter. I wasn’t very successful at it, but I sure as hell gave it a good try.

Going back to when you first started writing songs that were getting covered by other artists, did you know at the time that you were challenging the conventions of how a pop song could sound and take shape? 

First of all, you had Bacharach, you had Randazzo, and you had George Martin. You had all of these people very much at the forefront of the music business between ’64 and ’67, all very active. All, even though they were in different genres as it were, bringing classical influences to bear on this teenage symbology and this sort of codified, teenage lyric that was as incomprehensible to our parents as a lot of rap music is incomprehensible to us today.

Are you able to listen to music that at first doesn’t appeal to you or that you don’t understand and distinguish your tastes from what’s good or bad? Can you tell, “Well, I just don’t like that, but it’s good?” 

I think it’s important, just in terms of musical health, to really try to listen to things that don’t particularly appeal to you maybe the first time you hear them, but it’s like taking vitamins; it’s good for you. It’s good for you to listen to things that you don’t understand. Otherwise ossification sets in and you become fossilized. You can’t be an artist and you’re no longer a part of society. You just become sidelined; you become an observer. So I think at least you have to be listening.

I was asked at one point to write an article for the L.A. Times about Eminem — this has been ten years ago — because he was getting a GRAMMY® award and everybody was kind of all upset about it. My point of view was basically at that moment in time anti-Eminem because Marshall [Mathers] had written a bunch of lyrics about bashing gays and about domestic violence being okay, and some stuff that I really didn’t agree with. I didn’t particularly think that the GRAMMY® Awards should dignify some of this stuff with an award. That was my position, but I was certainly aware that he was among the best if not the best rapper ever; that even black rap artists were looking at this kid and going, “Where did this guy come from?” You have to be really stupid not to know that this guy can handle the language, and that’s something that I respect. I was a little bit up on my high horse about some of the subject matter….

I can’t say that I listen to hip/hop music around the house, but it doesn’t turn me off to hear it. It’s been interesting to me lately to listen to hip/hop artists reintroducing musical elements into rap, which I felt was inevitable, frankly. From an artistic standpoint I just felt they could only go so far in a certain direction without resorting to a little more elaborate chord structure and, at least, song fragments and pieces of melody. I see that they’re reintroducing it. I think it’ll be very surprising to see where that whole movement ends up. In fifteen to twenty years from now, I don’t know that hip/hop will be recognizable in its present form. That’s the nature of music and it’s always been the nature of music. If it’s any good, if it’s valid, then it’s moving on; it’s reshaping itself.

I don’t think anybody could have predicted the advent of the four mop-top lads from Liverpool. I was playing jazz at the time and I remember some guys coming in to the rehearsal saying, “Oh man, did you see these guys on Ed Sullivan last night? They had long hair like girls!” They were all hung up on that they had hair like girls. I was just preoccupied with the score and writing something down and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. That’s nothing of any consequence.” Then, in collaboration with George Martin, Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon] really became seminal influences of mine because they were willing to step outside the ordinary shape of things.

In a way, I think for one brief moment there I really took the momentum away from them. I think I surprised the shit out of them with “MacArthur Park.” I remember years later George Martin telling me that because “MacArthur Park” was seven-minutes, twenty-seconds long, that they all stood by the console when they were mastering “Hey Jude” and they made sure the fade lasted seven-minutes, twenty-one-seconds long. I checked it out one time to see if it was true and it is true. “Hey Jude” is one second longer than “MacArthur Park.”

It was a great period of cross pollination, of advancement, really, where the Beatles definitely heard [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds loud and clear. They had already made a couple of very aggressive albums. Rubber Soul and Revolver were clearly proactive albums. And then here’s Pet Sounds to deal with. George also told me that the Beatles specifically went in to make an album better than Pet Sounds. That album turned out to be Sgt. Pepper, which George said may or may not have been better. He wasn’t sure that it was better.

It was more influential.

Well, it changed the world. The things they were doing musically were much more important than the things they were doing in terms of mass appeal. I don’t think a lot of their audience understood what they were doing musically. I really don’t. I just don’t. What they were doing musically may not have been that connected to what was going on as the Beatles as sociological phenomena and sexual outlet for millions and millions of very young girls. I don’t think they set out to change the world. Something like that you can’t plan. You can’t even plan to be Lady Gaga. If you planned to do it, it wouldn’t work. There were no flies on them, particularly on Paul and John, who were very, very much ready for that moment. And they brought a lot of poise to the party. They were very fortunate that they had some people like [engineer] Geoff Emerick and George Martin, in a way this whole traditional-studio establishment that was there at Abbey Road.

They had a lot of technical backing there when they were trying to do some things that had simply never been done before. I mean, Geoff Emerick was constantly rewiring the console at EMI, which was definitely against the rules. It would get you fired, tampering with the console, changing the pre-amps around. The pre-amps were supposed to be set at a certain level. And a guy in a white coat would go by every morning and would check that and make sure it was in its proper place. And here’s Geoff Emerick at night, cranking them all the way up because John is not satisfied with the guitar sound.

As far as your own songwriting, does hearing your songs covered by other artists yield new insights or appreciation about them to you?

It definitely gives me a new pair of ears to listen with. A couple years ago James Taylor recorded “Wichita Lineman” and won the GRAMMY® for Best Male Pop Vocal performance. It was well deserved because it was just one hell of a performance. When you get something recorded by a fantasy figure like that, you definitely get to hear the song again. It’s completely outfitted in a different set of clothes. It rejuvenates the material. It revitalizes it, makes it new again in a way. Something like that has such a positive effect on someone like me at my age to hear something that I always knew was pretty good, but to have that reaffirmed by someone of James Taylor’s stature, and to have the record come out sounding not just good but truly great, it’s a little surprising.

I wrote “Wichita Lineman” in about three hours. I sent it over to Glen [Campbell] and [producer/arranger] Al De Lory at a recording session because I knew they were in a hurry for it. They called me a couple of times and said, “Are you done yet?” And I said, “No, not really.” I was having kind of a rough day because someone had spray painted the piano in my music room in Palmero where I lived with a bunch of idiots in the classic ‘60s commune, about thirty people who lived in this big, former Philippine consulate. They got into my music room with a can of green spray paint and spray painted my piano green. And the paint was still wet. So I was trying to write a song on a green, spray-painted piano. By that time, in spite of my best efforts, I was pretty much covered with green paint. And after about two or three hours I called them and said, “I’m going to send it over.” And I think in small letters I said, “It’s not finished, but it’s better that you guys listen to it and decide if you really like it or not.”

A couple of weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. So I thought, Well, I guess they didn’t care for it, because they didn’t call with suggestions. Finally, one day I called over there. I said, “Glen, what ever happened to ‘Wichita Lineman?'” And he says, “Ah, ‘Wichita Lineman,’ we love that; we cut that.” I said, “Well, that song wasn’t finished.” And he said, “It is now!” There’s that big hole there which would have been my third verse. They ended up putting that big, Duane Eddy-like guitar solo, this flat-key kind of guitar solo, which is famous. Glen had good instincts, always had good instincts.

What were your first impressions when you heard Isaac Hayes do “By The Time I Get To Phoenix?”

Honestly, I thought it was kind of funny, the whole pre-discourse where he’s kind of riffing with the drummer. And he says, “So I opened the door.” BAM! “And I saw my woman.” BAM! “And I saw my woman with another man.” BAM BAM! I thought that was pretty funny. It was kind of a James Brown thing. I actually got up and checked the record. I said, “Wait a minute. This is supposed to be ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix.’” [Laughs] I just went to check and, sure enough, it was cut five or whatever. So I listened on into the track for a while and finally, right at the end of the cut, he sings the song. It takes a long, long time. I loved Isaac. He was a smart guy. He was an innovator. He was a good fella. He was a good singer. I can’t say it’s my favorite version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” but it beats the hell out of Telly Savalas’ version. I’m always amazed at the records that come to the surface.

An especially great one is Ray Charles’ version of I Keep It Hid. It's a wrenching, powerful performance.

I haven’t heard that in years. I remember looking forward to it. I remember it was going to really be a high point for me because this is truly one of the demigods. I had grown up… I mean, one of my favorite albums was Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music that he did with Marty Paich, which I thought was virtually as important an album as Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. You know, here’s a black man singing basically redneck music with an orchestral accompaniment. All of it together was awesome. Wow! “Born To Lose” and “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You;” there were really some heart-stoppers on there, some beautiful writing by Marty Paich, who was a mentor of mine and really one of the most generous of all these Hollywood arranging figures in terms of relating to younger people and saying, “Hey, kid, here’s how you do this. Here’s an easy way to do a horn chart.” Just giving so selflessly and giving away secrets, because every arranger had a bag of secrets. And Marty was so generous with his, [like], “You can make these strings sound more like violins.” Some of these things have fallen out of my repertoire because I just don’t remember everything that he taught me, but I soaked it up like a sponge.

I’d never been trained in any of these disciplines. I was learning them literally on the spot. I was learning on the job and [was] grateful for any help that I could get. I was always embarrassed when some vacuum was discovered in what I knew because I was pretending to know a lot. And in many cases there were these little pockets of absolute vacuum where I did not have a clue.... Talk about a kid being thrown into the frying pan, and really not being ready. But when it happens, it doesn’t matter whether you are ready or not. You have to go with it. It starts running away with you like it did, I’m sure, with the Beatles. Many people have had the same feeling: “Oh, my God, I don’t know what I’m doing now. I wish somebody would tell me what’s going on.” [Laughs] I don’t regret any of it. It was exciting as hell. It’s still exciting.

December 10, 2010

DVD Review: Bee Gees - In Our Own Time

In a career as extensive and artistically diverse as that of the Bee Gees, perhaps the one prevailing theme has been the group’s near-prodigious ability to compose songs that are both of their time and timeless. It's what makes classics like To Love Somebody, Massachusetts, and How Deep Is Your Love seem as vital and moving today as when they were originally released. And it's this distinction that underscores In Our Own Time, a new Eagle Rock documentary that commemorates fifty years of music by the Brothers Gibb.

The retrospective is told by the artists themselves, including all-new commentary by Barry and Robin Gibb as well as select and pertinent clips of the late Maurice Gibb, who died in January 2003. Along with a slew of archival footage—from a performance of “Words” on The Ed Sullivan Show to a recording session of “Tragedy” for the group’s 1979 LP, Spirits Having Flown—the overall presentation is as enlightening as it is irresistibly entertaining.

In chronicling the highs and lows of their history—including the all-too-brief life and career of their younger brother, Andy—the film traces the Gibb’s evolution as songwriters and composers. Indeed, when the Bee Gees endured the consequences of oversaturation in the aftermath of the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon, they possessed the wherewithal—and the talent—to switch gears and write for other artists. In so doing, they notched sizable hits with the likes of Diana Ross (“Chain Reaction”), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker”), Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”), and Barbra Streisand (“Guilty”), among others. As such, their career continued unabated; it just took a different shape for a while.

The immense achievements and stature of the Bee Gees merit more of a concentrated assessment—something along the lines of The Beatles Anthology or Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who—yet In Our Own Time nonetheless does a fine job of profiling one of the most legendary and beloved groups in pop music history.

December 02, 2010

An Interview with Stan Ridgway

His songs are like character sketches of the human condition, and in a career spanning thirty years—first with Wall of Voodoo, the band most known for its 1982 hit, “Mexican Radio,” then as a solo artist—Stan Ridgway has produced a string of adventurous works that have endeared him to discerning critics and fans alike.

On his latest, Neon Mirage, he turns introspective, addressing decidedly personal and, at times, existential themes. No easy task by any means, but Ridgway confronted it infinitely more so when in making the album his father died and his friend and fellow musician, violinist Amy Farris, took her own life. And while being aware of these losses isn't necessary to appreciate the album, listeners who are will find it all the more poignant. 

In the songs on the new album, there’s some looking forward. There’s a good deal of looking back. There’s not much certainty in between. 

Is anything really definite? I’m not really sure it is. It is for a moment and then things kind of move on. When I put songs together, I don’t really intend, “This is the way it’s all gonna be,” but when you do sequence a record you can bring in a bit of the author’s editorial. You kind of see what starts to balance things for you. Some songwriters will do that. They’ll have a whole album, but maybe there’s some piece missing. In this case I had several pieces missing for a while. And I went back and wrote some more to kind of balance it out for me.

Do you ever surprise yourself with what you come up with? 

That’s the best place to be, when you can surprise yourself. That’s really the best place to be when you can get removed from yourself. 

Is it difficult to get to that point? 

I’ve practiced it. It’s what all artists want to do and get to because a level of self-consciousness is always stopping you. It’s the critic on your shoulder, just saying, “Maybe that’s lame. Maybe that’s not interesting.” Is it ever really done? I don’t think so. Most things are simply abandoned. It’s good to have a deadline. And then you just have to get done. Some things take a while and other things come right out. 

Is it ever a struggle for you to write? 

It’s never painful. 

Some songwriters like having written a song—the accomplishment, the finality—but not the actual process, writing lyrics, all that. 

No, I wouldn’t say so. When creativity is right it shouldn’t be painful. It’s work, but it’s good work. A lot of it is therapeutic for human beings, I think, to be creative. That’s kind of our natural state. 

The making of this album was in part overshadowed by two significant losses in your life. 

Oh yes. Well, my father had been laid up for at least five years. That was very much of a long haul of up-and-down health issues, back and forth. [Losing] Amy Farris was pretty brutal and abrupt and sudden. She did suffer from... I guess you could say it was chronic depression. It takes a hold of a lot of people, probably more than we know…. Isolation is the killer. I don’t think human beings are really made to just sit in a cave and whittle sticks by themselves. A lot of it’s a mystery. I think everybody can say that they’ve had situations in their life where they’ve experienced some of that. I don’t think you can be human without experiencing it. 

Does what happened inhibit your ability to appreciate the music? 

No, the music really heals. If something is seemingly sad, at times that’s an echo of the way you’re feeling. It’s an affirmation of the way you feel. And so if you affirm your feeling, then you’re not bagging it. And what do they say about depression, that sometimes depression is anger suppressed? I agree with some of that. It’s a struggle. Who wants to get angry? So I use music as a healing kind of therapy for that, too, because it gets me out of myself. 

Your own music does that for you? 

Yeah, because music has its own personality and life and character within itself. I sometimes think of chords and notes as almost individual entities with their own characteristics. 

Are you always receptive to a lyric idea or to a musical idea? 

I’m always thinking, or unconsciously collecting, I guess. Not specifically saying, “Oh boy, I’m gonna use that for a song.” My curiosity is always there about what’s kind of going on that way. Language is interesting, the way people use it. 

Are there subjects that are too personal to share in a song? 

Sure, but these kinds of things have to be developed and run through, for want of any better word, your own taste. We really only have that at the end of the day, putting things together, creating things. At the end of the day you’re kind of thrown back on your taste. And whether your taste is in line with others, well, you can’t say. When I’m making something, I kind of unconsciously am thinking of an abstract audience or a group of people that—I may be wrong, but—I consider friends of mine. 

You have this audience in mind while you’re writing? 

Unconsciously, yeah. It’s not just for me. Part of the fun of making anything is that you don’t want to just throw it in a drawer and make it all disappear. Part of it is throwing it to the dogs, so to speak. See what happens. You sort of have to take what comes. I’m usually thinking what I’m writing about is directed toward people who’d understand it. Writing is risk. And if you don’t risk, then you’re not going to have much writing going on. You’re going to have something that’s dull or too safe. And so as a songwriter you’re always trying to find unusual subjects that come up in your consciousness and go, “How am I gonna approach that? How am I gonna find the balance for this?” 

How do you know when a song works? 

That’s hard. You don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, sometimes, if I want to keep listening to the song—I usually demo things and record them. Sometimes a demo is actually a master—and I don’t grow tired of it, then I usually know that it might have something for me. It takes some time. Other things you know right away, that’s gonna be something. I’m sure you’ve had this happen where you’ve tried to say something in some certain way, and you really haven’t gotten it right as far as you’re concerned and you just can’t seem to change it. You can’t seem to find anything better than that. You might swap it out with something else, but somehow it just doesn’t ring right. In songwriting that becomes really something and all songwriters have fun with this, struggle with it. Because a song is not just words on paper; it’s the way the words sound as they’re spoken or sung and the melody attached with the sonority of the chords, orchestrations, other things coming in. 

As Keith Richards says, “vowel movements.” 

Vowel movements, certainly. A lot of songs start that way, just inarticulate, emotional utterances. It’s shocking for some to know how something got there because at the end of the day that’s really what matters, the way it is when you finish it. When I was younger, I used to just want everything to be as original as I possibly could make it. I was very concerned about it sounding like this or that. You can paint yourself into a corner with that kind of originality because, well, you run out. Everything is built on other things. A link in a chain is a better way to look at it. 

Can you perceive any sort of arc to your songwriting over the past couple decades? 

When you first start writing songs you’re learning how to write. The euphoria of mixing words with other words and with music can really just be an end in itself. So when I started I was probably more of a sound sculptor than I was a songwriter. I enjoyed, like, “Whoa, that word with this word makes up a different picture in my mind. I don’t know what it means right now, but I’m gonna put that in there.” Those things are surreal. 

Once you kind of go through that, things start becoming a bit more specific until you finally arrive at a point where you’re interested in seeing how much of a story you can tell. And after having arrived at that, where it gets pretty specific and not too poetic, then you’re interested in actually going back to where you came from. You try to find a way to do them both, where you can mix up the specific with the poetic. 

You never really get done with songwriting. It’s one of the joys or perks of it. There’s always another chance. They’re small, encapsulated sound sculptures. So once you get done with one, you can say, “Well, I did my best with that. I’m just gonna let it float out there now. I’ll do another one because there are things I didn’t accomplish on that one that I would like to try out." 

And that’s what keeps you going? 

Yeah. There’s always another chance. You can always write another song. There are always different things to apply to them. So it never really ends.

For more information on Stan Ridgway, including upcoming tour dates, please visit the artist's official website