November 19, 2012

An Interview with Don Felder

His lead guitar will forever grace some of rock’s most perennial classics but Don Felder’s proverbial life in the fast lane came to a screeching halt in 2001 with his contentious exit from the Eagles and, later, the end of his near-30-year marriage. “There’s no therapist you can turn to that can repair that damage,” Felder says of these misfortunes, which admittedly left him shell-shocked and searching for solace. “You have to take a hard look at it yourself — who you were, what happened to you, how you reacted, the feelings that go along with it. And how do you resolve all of that before you go forward and continue to carry all of that baggage with you?”

Such introspection ultimately led Felder to pen his autobiography, 2008’s Heaven and Hell, and his first solo album in nearly three decades, Road to Forever, which was released last month on Rocket Science Records. Featuring such musical comrades as Crosby, Stills, and Nash as well as Styx’s Tommy Shaw, the album not only reflects Felder’s inner journey but also the peace of mind he's gained from the experience. “You have to find a way to take that and turn it into something positive or else you’ll spend the rest of your days unhappy,” he insists. “And I refuse to let myself go through life that way. That’s the feeling I tried to get across with this music and these songs.”

In writing these songs were there any moments when you surprised yourself with what you revealed?

Well, I think the whole process was a surprise to me. All of the images that I had adopted over the years — being a husband, a family man, a rock star in a band — all that was just stripped away from me. I had to go through a process of understanding how that happened. Going through such a debilitating period of my life, it was just a very tough blow to me. I had to find a way to understand that, emotionally resolve it, release those feelings, and go forward in life. And music is what I’ve turned to primarily to express myself in the past. So my salvation was to hang all those emotions and all those feelings in those songs.

Despite all the turbulence and tension that informed this album, it reflects an unmistakable sense of serenity.

It’s interesting you say that. A lot of the songs that are on that record came out of the experience of me writing my book. When I was writing my book I really had to take a hard look back at every part of my life that had led up to that, including the wonderful times and the tragic times. I’ve had a studio in my home. And as I would write the text for the book and have these feelings and emotions about things that had happened, I’d stop writing the text and I’d go in the studio with that emotion hanging very close to my heart and consciousness and I’d try to write music or lyrics about that feeling. And so to me it was kind of a dual, cathartic process that I went through in writing my life’s experiences and then writing these songs in hopes that people who have similar experiences — the loss of love, loss of family, tragedy strikes them — find some way to deal with those feelings, come through the other side, and be positive and optimistic about it.

As much as you're known for playing rock guitar, ballads like “I Believe in You” and “Life’s Lullaby” are very touching songs.

In the past, when I was writing material I was primarily writing for the Eagles. It was very much like writing for a sitcom: You had a cast of characters. You know each one’s personality. You know how they’re gonna play. If you write something too technical for [Don] Henley, he just can’t play it. If you write something too complex for Glenn [Frey], he can’t play it. So you had to write, really, within the context of that band, in the keys that the band sings in. It was somewhat constrained by the structure of that band.

When I left the band in 2001 and started writing for this record, the handcuffs were off. I could really write anything I wanted to write. As a matter of fact, I ended up writing 26 song ideas, 16 of which I finished in the studio. Then I pared it down to what I thought were the best 12. I wanted to have a wide variety of styles and song material other than just being the rock ‘n’ roll electric-guitar player. There’s plenty of that on there, but at the same time I wanted to show some depth in other areas.

If you kept playing just the same rock-riff kind of thing you’d end up a caricature of yourself.

Exactly, and that’s no fun at all. The challenge is to reinvent yourself. And I was not only able to reinvent myself musically after I left the Eagles, but also as an author by writing my life story; and then especially being able to reinvent myself in areas that I had not really been known for, on this CD.… I wanted to be able to push myself in areas musically that I wasn’t really that comfortable with. And it was a challenge to explore those areas. “Life’s Lullaby,” it’s very soft-spoken, tender, piano-based with acoustic guitar and strings — not something I had done a lot of in the past. So if I wanted to be able to do it I had to push myself. To me that’s the challenge of being an artist, to take on new genres and new areas writing and performing and seeing how you can do at it.

Does the guitar still challenge you?

It does. And I’ll tell you what challenges me the most is to take that same instrument and create a whole new voice or a whole new feeling out of it. That same instrument — if I had a guitar and I was sitting in a room with six other guitarists, and we just passed this instrument from hands to hands to hands to hands — would have a completely different voice. It would have a different feeling, a different tone. It would be that person’s touch, emotionally and physically, coming out of that instrument. That’s why so many people say it’s not in the guitar; it’s in the hands, the person who’s playing it. It’s not in the pen that’s writing the poetry; it’s in the soul of the person who’s revealing himself to you.

The natural inclination with any skill or talent is that you improve over time and with experience — and of course you’re a seasoned musician — yet you're revered more in the public eye for the music you made in your twenties and thirties with the Eagles. It's an odd paradox.

I feel extremely fortunate to have been part of some of the creations of some of those songs that had such worldwide success. I just did a show for the United Nations back in August, and it was about 300 heads of states from all over the world at this show. And when I started playing “Hotel California” they all knew the song. Less than half of them spoke English. They knew the song. They stood up. They gave me a standing ovation for that song. I don’t know how many people have ever had the opportunity to have written, performed, and recorded something that’s had such a global impact but it’s very few and far between. It’s quite an honor to have been part of something like that in my career, although that’s only one of my many children. All of the songs I’ve written and recorded, I love them equally. Some of them, obviously, have been more successful than others, but…to me that is not the real bearing of the value of the music and the writing of songs that any artist does. Of course it’s nice to have hits but at the same time that’s not why you do it.

You do it because you love it. Most people refer to music as, “I play music.” To me, playing anything is like a child at play; it has a youthful enthusiasm and excitement and laughter. It’s a very uplifting process to play music. I do it mainly because I love that feeling that goes along with playing music, writing music, recording music, performing it live.

Because you’ve had these opportunities to reflect in writing your book and in making this album, do you ever listen to something you recorded years ago and marvel at the craftsmanship or even the inspiration you had back then — considering you helped create such indelible, memorable music?

I think we all are given gifts. And I’ve been given an abundance of gifts, musically. The talent that I have, it could have very well been handed to another soul at birth instead of myself. The circumstance under which I grew up, with my father encouraging me in music and playing music in the house all the time and helping buy my first guitar, it was unique in the ‘50s; this is when all this happened for me. There weren’t a lot of guitar players.… When I saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and all those girls screaming at him, I went, “That’s what I want to do! I want to do that!” [Laughs] But it really wasn’t just for the fame and the accolades and the attention. It was really because I became obsessed with music.

Not having the money to have teachers teach me, I had to learn to teach myself through just listening. There’s a thing called ear training where somebody can walk into a room now and play something on guitar maybe twice or three times and I can pick up the guitar and play it. What I hear I can play.... I’ve been given these great gifts that I’ve developed over the years myself, which I continue to develop. And I try to use those not only for my own satisfaction by writing these songs and doing records, but I do a lot of benefits for everything from St. Jude Children’s Hospital to Autism Speaks — for people, in general, that need help. If I can use that talent in another way to help someone else, I’m more than happy to do it. 

That also underscores how profound music is to people.

Yeah. The Canadians have this great organization called Canadian Music Therapy Trust. It’s an organization that’s been put together and funded nationally across Canada, and they use music as a therapy. People go into hospices where they’re dying of cancer and play music. They go in children’s cancer wards and they get them to play drums. And the joy and the happiness that comes out of music really is more uplifting and therapeutic than just about all the drugs doctors can give them.

For example, I went into Calgary last year with the Canadian Music Therapy Trust — I’ve done a series of fundraisers for them and benefits as well — to this thing called the Canadian Brain Injury Trust. It’s a big hospital where people have had serious brain injuries, whether it’s falling off a motorcycle or slipping on ice and hitting their head on a curb; one of the guys was a Canadian soldier that had had shrapnel in his brain. Most of these people can’t speak. They’re in wheelchairs. They’re very close to a state of vegetation.

When I went into this room there were probably 20 wheelchairs in a semicircle around where I was sitting. And in the back of the room there were probably a hundred relatives of those patients — husbands, wives, children, grandfathers — that were there to watch this. When I started playing some of the songs that these people knew before they’d had brain injuries — “Take It Easy,” “Hotel California,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” — they started trying to sing. These people who couldn’t speak, they were touched in a way through music that was very therapeutic and uplifting. Music is just an amazing gift. To have that, to be able to use it in certain ways like that, is just as joyous as having a hit record to me.

Road to Forever is available now at retail and online music outlets. For more information, please visit the artist’s official website.