Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Tendency to Riot" by Sarah Borges

ARTIST: Sarah Borges
SONG: "Tendency to Riot"
WRITERS: Sarah Borges
ALBUM: Good and Dirty on Dry Lightning Records
YEAR: 2016
SITE: Sarah Borges
BUY: Good and Dirty

Sarah Borges is someone I consider a friend, even though we've now met only once in person (last week, before she answered these questions). Our lives and careers have connected several times over the past decade, and now my brother is playing drums in her live band. I admire her work, and I admire who she is. This interview stemmed from that admiration, and I'm so glad to be adding her to the series—especially on this important day for her. Today is her sobriety anniversary.

BA: Sarah B! Thank you for joining the series! I feel like I know you, but I totally don't. The interwebs are funny like that.

SB: I know! We have so many mutual friends and acquaintances, we could probably throw a party and everyone there would know each other!

BA: Congratulations on the release of your EP, Good and Dirty, earlier this year! I'm so happy to be able to ask you some questions about "Tendency to Riot." I think I read somewhere that the EP was written "on demand." Was this song born in one fell swoop, as they say, or did it take shape over a few sittings?

SB: “Tendency” was the only pre-existing song I had before I started work on the EP. For a brief time after my son was born I played in a just-for-fun band with some Boston musician friends who were also parents, kind of an excuse to get out of the house on a Wednesday night. This song was one that I brought to the table for that, and it stayed stuck in my head, so I felt like it deserved to see the light of day. I tend to write a song in one sitting, maybe a few edits later on, but the framework, chords, form and rough lyrics are usually done in the first pass.

BA: I'm just going to dive right in with the big stuff; small talk bores me. The lyrics to "Tendency to Riot" are strikingly honest, and cover some difficult ground. There's no question that the theme of drinking is a through-line. I'm interested in hearing about your decision to be transparent about something that most people hide. If I haven't said it yet, I love this about the song. A lot.

SB: You're right, small talk is pretty dumb usually. Ha! At the time I wrote “Tendency to Riot” I was drinking pretty heavily, and it was occupying my mind a majority of the time; should I stop, when can I get drunk again, why do I feel so shitty about my life, etc. I was in the middle of a marriage that I knew was ending, and drinking was the third party in that partnership. I think writing this song was my way of doing the dance even if I couldn't hear the music, as the saying goes. I knew I needed to get sober and acknowledge the problem, but I couldn't do it openly yet, so I hid it in the lyrics. It's only in hindsight that I can recognize that, at the time it just seemed like a chronicle of my daily life. 

BA: You're sober now, which you've shared with me (and given me permission to ask about here), but if my timeline is correct, you likely weren't yet sober when you wrote the song. Am I right? When you hear it and play it now, how does it feel?

SB: I am sober now. I'm coming up on my one year anniversary of sobriety. I wasn't sober when I wrote this, you're correct. When I hear this song I want to hug my then-self. So much of my battle with alcohol has been about being sad and afraid, and not feeling brave enough to deal with those feelings sober. I've started to do that in the past year, and yes, it is terrifying, but it's manageable. I wish I could have told my drunk self that I'm stronger than I thought I was. 

BA: There are so many lines to love in this writing, but I think my favorites are:

I got a Christmas card from my friend down in Maine, 
all bright and shiny faces like they was feeling no pain
It's amazing what a little nip before the photo flash can do

First, shout-out to the New England phenomenon of referring to regions North of where you are as "down." A true regional singularity that I enjoy. But, on a more serious note: I relate to these words about looking at a photo of someone else's reality and assessing it as pain-free. Please tell me more about that, and about the last line of the three.

SB: I'm glad you caught the New England colloquialism there! This part of the song is kind of a take on the phenomenon that's probably always existed, but has been exacerbated by social media, of feeling that everyone else's life is great, and that if yours isn't you're doing it wrong. It has been such a revelation to me in my sobriety to learn that everyone is scared sometimes, everyone is sad sometimes. I thought for so long that by feeling these things I was somehow failing at life. Now I recognize that it merely puts me in company with the majority of humans. 

The last line is me thinking of what I'd do (or now used to do) when asked to take a family photo or do something else even remotely uncomfortable; take a quick swig of my drink. You can feign any emotion when you're intoxicated. 

BA: You mention your mom in this song, in the line: 

My mom says I better figure out someone to adore in the absence of knowing who it is I really am

Does she like the song? How does she feel about being in the lyrics, especially in such a heavy line?

SB: I don't think my mom and I have really talked about the song. I briefly mentioned that it was fiction, and that she shouldn't be offended, but I know that she's ok with it, mainly because that's the type of thing she would NEVER say. She's always encouraged me to learn about myself before becoming a part of a relationship (not that I've always heeded her words). In hindsight, I think the lyric is something that I subconsciously told myself, as in, "Don't want to do the necessary soul-searching to get healthy, emotionally and spiritually? That's cool, just get a new boyfriend." It's a pattern I will always be trying not to repeat. 

BA: One of the things I really appreciate about this song and its presentation, is how you juxtapose the big, raucous music with the intimate, vulnerable lyrics. I love a good bait-and-switch. One could perceive this as a good time song, but if you really listen, there's pain, grief, and stark self-awareness. Did you hear it as a rocker, when you first wrote it?

SB: I didn't. I wrote it on an acoustic, and kind of thought it would end up as a confessional-type song. Maybe because it's only got a few chords, or possibly because of the vibe I was putting out when I brought it to the band, it morphed into a big rock song. Now I'm proud of that combo. There are big feelings in the song, so it makes a kind of sense that they would be expressed in a big way. 

BA: Tell me about working with producer/musician/artist Eric Ambel on this track. Did he bring anything to the recording that you might not have done otherwise?

SB: Eric's biggest contribution was the gift of confidence. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with some of the guitar tricks, mostly because he reminded me that I am a good guitar player. I tend to think of myself as a singer first. He also kept me from prettying the song up too much, too many vocal harmonies, etc. Some of the records I've made in the past have been guilty of that I think, going for slick rather than honest. 

BA: I also read that you worked with his rhythm section on the EP; that you met them the day you went into the studio. This work of yours is so personal that I'd like to hear about how it was to track this with them, both personally and musically.

SB: Eric and I had done some pre-production work, so I had learned to trust him with the care of my songs, and also to start to not feel self-conscious around him. I figured he would pick guys for his band that shared his same mentality, so I was able to make that leap of faith. And the guys were great players, a good hang, and just really positive people. 

BA: What do you think you were listening to back when you wrote this song? Sometimes I feel like my own writing exists in the context of what I was taking in, if that makes sense. Do any artists or bands stand out in your memory?

SB: I was listening to a lot of Nada Surf at the time. They're such an underrated band, victims of having one hit that is so not indicative of the caliber of their catalog. Matthew Caws, the front man, writes the kind of lyrics that I often think were meant just for me, and the actual music of the songs is really smart and really rock. 

BA: Now, for the real question: how's my brother doing, playing this song live? Just kidding. But, has the song changed shape at all since you've been playing it for a while on stage?

SB: Haha! The song has changed shape incredibly. Even though I recorded a rock version, I still thought of it as a quiet meditative song prior to playing it live. But of course musicians learning the song are going to use the recording as a reference, rather than what exists in my secret brain. Now the song live is all about giving me a straight tempo kind of machine to spout the whole lyrical story over. And your brother is a straight tempo machine kind of guy!

BA: What's your favorite song right this minute?

SB: "Afraid of Nothing" by Sharon Van Etten. A friend introduced me to her recently, and at first blush the music is more gentle than I usually like, but the lyrics are creepy and subversive, so I'm enjoying delving deeper. 

BA: Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your work! Huge, loving congratulations on achieving your first year of sobriety. I celebrate that victory with you! And, I do hope we get to meet in real life one of these days.

SB: Thank you so much! And as of this writing, we have met in person, when I watched you play an incredibly powerful and awesome set with your band, Friendship Commanders, this week. Here's to powerful women doing what they love!

Monday, July 11, 2016

"Empty Head" by Screaming Females/Marissa Paternoster

ARTIST: Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females
SONG: "Empty Head"
WRITERS: Marissa Paternoster, Michael Abbate, Jarrett Dougherty
ALBUM: Rose Mountain on Don Giovanni Records
YEAR: 2015
SITE: Screaming Females, Marissa Paternoster
BUY: Rose Mountain

If you've never seen Screaming Females live, I highly recommend changing that. Marissa Paternoster, the artist, illustrator, writer, guitarist, and vocalist who fronts the band, took some time to answer a few questions about the existence and evolution of their song, "Empty Head." 

BA: Hey Marissa! Thanks so much for agreeing to be part of the series!

MP: Thank you for thinking of me!

BA: I had the pleasure of seeing you guys last year at the (now closed) Stone Fox in Nashville. This song jumped out at me and has stayed with me since. It's the opening track on your album, Rose Mountain. Was the song written for the record?

MP: "Empty Head" was the first song we wrote for Rose Mountain, but it was the final song we completed. It went through so many iterations and so much change, the initial version is probably two minutes longer than the final one.  

BA: Wow! I watched the Lance Bangs two-part documentary about Screaming Females, which I think was made around the making and release of this album. In that film, you guys talk about writing the music for the songs on Rose Mountain as a band, and then you writing the vocals and lyrics on your own, after the fact. I'd love to hear about how "Empty Head" took shape musically and conceptually.

MP: The first version of "Empty Head" had sort of a B-52’s/Pylon feel, Jarrett was playing some sort of four on the floor beat and I was playing this high-pitched squawking sort of nonsense. I think Mike was the one who finally introduced the main riff, and then we were like, “Let’s throw all that other stuff away and build the song around this riff.” 

BA: I'd like to talk about the lyrics for a second. It's refreshing to hear words like "cherubim" and "mystic death wars" in a song. You say in the aforementioned documentary that you rarely write songs about one specific thing. What is this song addressing in the lyrics, for you?

MP: The chorus in "Empty Head" is a self-effacing tirade against my own absent-mindedness. I also interpret it as a critique of humanity’s foolishness, and how it seems that the powers that be would rather incur a penalty as severe as death rather than take responsibility for our foolish actions.  

BA: When you brought the lyrics and vocals back to Mike and Jarrett, did they love what you wrote? Do they ever contribute to that part of the process, or give you feedback?

MP: From what I can recall everyone was excited about the melody I brought back to practice for this song.  

BA: Had you been playing "Empty Head" live for a while when you recorded it, or was it new in the studio?

MP: We had been playing some alternative versions of it live for a while before we recorded it for Rose Mountain.  

BA: How much did Matt Bayles contribute to this song, as a producer? Any key things that he suggested?

MP: Like I mentioned before, we had a ton of different versions of this song. Some of them only had small changes which one probably wouldn’t notice if it weren’t pointed out to them. I believe that Matt helped us pick a final composition.  

BA: Does this song fit into the album as a specific piece of a story? I know you were processing and writing about your health struggles during this album. The song "Hopeless" addresses some of your feelings about your body and its issues with fibromyalgia. Is this song part of that narrative at all? (By the way, I'm so sorry about all of that. I'm sorry for the fatigue and pain.)

MP: I interpret fragments of this song to be an acknowledgement and nod to weakness, to accepting weakness, and the want to not die a fool’s death in denying that fragility. It’s about the want to be gracious and powerful, to acknowledge how small we are, and to be humbled by that knowledge.  

BA: Has the song changed at all in the live setting? 

MP: We’re pretty loyal to the composition that’s on Rose Mountain - but who knows what the future will bring!

BA: When I saw you play last year, you were seated at the merch table during the opening bands' sets, drawing a detailed, very meticulous piece of art. Similar images appear in the video for "Empty Head." Who are those characters?

MP: We had written a narrative for the puppets to act out for the "Empty Head" video but the artist didn’t have time to make it all come together. There were definitely supposed to be more characters but since what you see is only a fraction of what was planned, the monsters in the video are sort of random. It’s a beautiful video nonetheless, but the creatures in the video don’t really represent much of anything.  

BA: What's your favorite song right this minute?

MP: “Atom Jack” by Drive Like Jehu.  

BA: Thank you for your words, and for your great contributions to music and art. I'm so grateful to make your acquaintance! I hope we cross paths on the road sometime.

MP: Me too! Thanks!  

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Vacation" by the Go-Go's/Kathy Valentine

ARTIST: The Go-Go's
SONG: "Vacation"
WRITERS: Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin
ALBUM: Vacation on I.R.S. Records
YEAR: 1982
SITE: Go-Go's, Kathy Valentine
BUY: Vacation

Thirty-four years ago today, the all-female punk/pop/new-wave band, the Go-Go's, released the first single from their second album, Vacation. The title track would go on to be one of the band's highest-charting singles, and would contribute to their legacy of being the first (and only ever) band of women to write and perform their own music and top the Billboard charts. The song is infallibly catchy, perfectly performed, and the very best song about vacation that I've ever heard. I'm so grateful to have had an opportunity to talk with its writer, Kathy Valentine. She's a legendary bassist, guitarist, and a songwriter. Like a true artist, she's busy with several projects, including a solo album, the Bluebonnets, and a book.

BA: Kathy Valentine! What a pleasure it is to be able to speak with you. I saw you play for the first time when I was a kid. I'm 100% certain it influenced who I am today. Thank you for that, and thank you for doing this!

KV: You’re welcome, thank you for your interest.

BA: This has always been my favorite Go-Go's song. I love the melody, I love the lyrics, I love the production. This song was yours before you were even in the Go-Go's right?

KV: Yes, I wrote the original “Vacation” in 1979 and played it with the Textones, we also recorded it.

BA: Are the lyrics based on a real life experience? My favorite line has always been:
"Vacation, meant to be spent alone."
I think about it every single time I get to go on a vacation. Tell me about that idea, if you will.

KV: Yes it was written after a visit to my hometown of Austin where I had a fling with a charming boy. He found out many years later that the song was inspired by him!

BA: Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin are credited as the other writers on the song. How much, and what, did they contribute? 

KV: I showed the song to Charlotte, who was my closest friend and ally in the Go-Go’s. She loved it but didn’t hear enough chorus and asked if we could work on that together, so we did. I remember it perfectly, where we were, everything. When we were recording the song, as Belinda was going into the vocal booth to sing it, I got insecure about the first line, which went “I’ve thought a lot of things about you.” I said to Jane, how can I change this first line, and she said, off the top of her head “Can’t seem to get my mind off of you.” I was quite generous with the songwriting credit to both of them, all things considered. 

BA: So, "Vacation" is from the album by the same name. It looks like this record is where you really started to contribute more as a writer in the band; is that right? When did you bring this song to the other band members? Did they want it right away?

KV: The band had been together 3 years before I joined, and so they had most of the material needed for the first album. Charlotte knew it was important to me to have a song on that one, and pushed for it. By the time we got to the second album, we’d been working most of the year and hadn’t had time to write a lot, so my input was more important—just to have another writer generating material in a shorter time span.

BA: I feel like sometimes we write songs and know they have something different about them . . . that they stand out in some way. When you wrote "Vacation," did you have a sense that it was a special song? That it would go on to be hugely popular? 

KV: No, I never thought about things like that. I just wrote what was in my heart. I think that’s why it resonates with people, it isn’t the most clever or crafted song, but it’s authentic and real in the intent and place it was written from. That factor isn’t one to be discounted lightly. It is rare in songs I hear on the radio today.

BA: I've watched many videos of "Vacation" being performed live, from 1982 to 2010. That iconic lead keyboard part from the album recording was always replaced by Charlotte Caffey's lead guitar live. How was the decision made to have it be keys on the record, and not guitar?

KV: It was always played on guitar, the record just doubles the guitar part with keys.

BA: Ah. That makes sense. The song's producer, Richard Gottehrer, is such an established songwriter in his own right. Did he change anything about the way the song was presented? Did you enjoy working with him?

KV: It’s possible that Richard came up with the intro, but I’m not positive. 

BA: I do love that intro. Now, I've seen three studios listed for the recording of the album: Sunset Sound, Studio 55, and Indigo Ranch. Where was this song tracked, specifically?

KV: We tracked at Indigo Ranch and did overdubs at the other studios. We were at Sunset Sound for mixing, and the song was mastered off a cassette mix. For some reason, the board mix couldn’t match what we’d taken home to listen to, something just didn’t translate, so Richard just decided to go with the cassette that had the magic. 

BA: Were you feeling like a natural bassist at that point? I know you switched from previously playing mostly guitar in bands when you joined the Go-Go's. 

KV:  I never really felt like a “natural” bassist—I just felt like a musician playing the instrument I was playing, coming up with parts that helped define or identify or support the song. I always think the song is king; everything else is there to serve it.

BA: Did you write the song on bass or guitar?

KV: I’ve never written a song using a bass.  

BA: Interesting! You played bass with a pick (which I love) on this song. What or who were your stylistic influences for bass? Did any of them inform your part or playing?

KV: I loved Paul McCartney’s playing and Bruce Thomas in Elvis Costello’s band. I loved Nick Lowe. I always used a pick since I was a guitar player, also I’m a lefty that plays right-handed, so my right hand probably would never have the ability to play bass with my fingers. I’m lucky my right hand can hold a pick and hit the right strings. If I had learned to play left handed, I’d probably have a lot more dexterity, but who wants to start over?

BA: You guys were the first all-female band to write your songs and perform all of the music - and to dominate the Billboard charts. But, you were no stranger to being in bands with other women when you joined the Go-Go's. You'd played with Girlschool, the Violators, and the Textones, right? Were there any other women in music that were influencing you back then? Any peers?

KV: Not really. Most of my influences were men. Suzi Quatro showed me women could be rock stars—it hadn’t occurred to me I could do that until I saw her. But as a player, I was inspired by Keith Richards. That’s who I wanted to be like.

BA: I have to ask about the video. I've seen comments here and there from other members of the band about the process. Was it fun at all? Was it just tedious? Did you personally like the final product? They had you in a tiara . . . thoughts?

KV: I loved the final product, much more than the other videos we’d done. I actually liked the way I looked for the first time ever in that band. I loved the water ski idea, matching the album cover. It was beyond our patience capacity, the time on set was long and boring, and we were into drinking and partying, so that’s how we passed the time. 

BA: What's your favorite song right this minute?

KV: I don’t think I have a favorite song at the moment. Maybe “Drag Queen” off The Strokes new EP. And, I guess I’d have to say maybe the song I’m working on and writing at this given time. Until the song is out, and I’m satisfied that I’ve done the muse justice, it kind of stays circulating around in my head.

BA: I can relate! Thank you so much for participating in the series, Kathy. Thank you for being a pioneer and positive example for generations of female musicians. I hope I get to see the Bluebonnets live someday soon! Take care.

KV:  Thank you again for your interest and thoughtful questions. The Bluebonnets are working on a new record, and I’m writing to have a solo record to accompany my first book.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Jackson" by Billy Edd Wheeler

ARTIST: Billy Edd Wheeler, Johnny Cash and June Carter, and many others
SONG: "Jackson"
WRITERS: Billy Edd Wheeler, Jerry Leiber
ALBUM: A New Bag of Songs on Kapp Records
YEAR: 1963
SITE: Billy Edd Wheeler
BUY: Country Essentials - Billy Edd Wheeler and Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter - Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash

This song needs no introduction, but it sure as hell deserves our attention. It was a privilege to talk to the writer who has brought us so many great musical works, but this one in particular that transcends genre and time frame. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Billy Edd Wheeler about "Jackson."  

BA: Hello, Mr. Wheeler!  What a thrill it is to have you in the series. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time.

BEW: Glad to do it.

BA: You wrote one of the most iconic songs to hit the airwaves in the last fifty years. Did you ever imagine that "Jackson" would be so widely lauded?

BEW: No, of course not. Even with superstars, you never know what will be enduring.

BA: In my research, I read about the process you went through in shaping the song’s arc. Would you mind telling me a bit about your original draft, and how your friend Jerry Leiber contributed to it?

BEW: I was working on this in Jerry’s Broadway office, and his first response to the song was that the first verses sucked . . . though, that was not a term in vogue back then. He said, "Throw them away and start with your fourth verse, 'We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout.' Then write some better verses, and end the song with that same opening verse." So I did. As I remember, he did not contribute any actual lyrics. His contribution was editorial, which was important, and it led to a better song. For this, he took 25% of the writer’s share. Jerry was a quick study. When I was writing “High Flyin’ Bird,” I had a line that went, “Lord look at me here, tired as can be here." Jerry said, “Rooted like a tree here,” instantaneously, as he passed by. It was a great line, and it improved the song, and he didn’t take any credit for it.

BA: Now, you tracked this song for your own album, A Big Bag of Songs, with Joan Sommer singing the female character's part in 1963. Did you do so with the intention of having anyone else pick it up - like Johnny Cash and June Carter - or were you merely putting a song on a record?

BEW: I was merely putting a song on a record. But the album was not A Big Bag of Songs, it was A New Bag of Songs, Kapp KL, 1351 1963. A Big Bag of Songs was issued by David Thrussel, head of The Omni Recording Corporation, down in Australia just a few years ago.  David is not an honorable man. He promised me a flat fee of $1,000.00, which was never paid. He was also supposed to pay Roger Deitz, a contributing columnist for Sing Out! Magazine, a fee for writing the liner notes. I was so impressed with Roger’s notes, I advanced him the fee, confident I would be reimbursed by David. It never happened. But it’s a nice package of twenty-eight songs, taken from various Kapp albums, plus tracks from albums first issued by RCA and United Artists. So, what the hell. Am I going Down Under to try and collect a couple thousand bucks? Not. And, by the way, A New Bag of Songs did not do well. But soon after its release, I had a minor hit single with “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” (#2 Country and #50 Pop on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965). So, the album was re-packaged and released as: Memories of America/Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.

BA: Ah. My apologies for the mix-up. The albums got a bit confusing to me, and now I understand why. 

Your recording of “Jackson” has the following words in the first verse that the woman sings alone:
“Well you go on my sweet daddy
Go ahead and wreck your health
Play your hand like a lover man
Make a big fool of yourself”

By the time the song was recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, as well as Johnny and June (both in 1967), the words had changed some:
“Well, go on down to Jackson
Go ahead and wreck your health
Go play your hand you big-talkin' man
Make a big fool of yourself”

Did you have a hand in those changes?

BEW: No, but I like those changes. Songs often get changed as different artists do them, often for the better. I don’t mind minor changes. I like it when artists make the song their own. But in the case of my song, “High Flyin’ Bird,” Richie Havens changes the story line, and it doesn’t make sense. Instead of: 
“I used to have an old man, and he worked in the mine 
He never saw the sunlight but, oh Lord, he kept on trying” 

Richie sings: 
“Well I had me a woman, and she lived down by the mine 
She never saw the sunlight, but she kept on trying” 

Go figure.

BA: I can't think of a song that's been recorded by such a diverse array of musicians. Everyone from Miss Piggy to INXS has taken a whack at it. Do you have a favorite cover?

BEW: Charlie Daniels and Gretchen Wilson do a great version of it, on his album, Deuces. And he sets the record straight during their banter during the fade at the end. He says: 
“I ain’t talking ‘bout Jackson, Mississippi,
I’m talking about Jackson, Tennessee.” 

Actually, I didn’t have a specific Jackson in mind. I just liked the sharp consonant sound, as opposed to soft-sounding words like Nashville.

BA: I'd love to hear about this song's conceptual origins . . . did you really write it after reading the script for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

BEW: Yes. The way that couple dig at each other becomes mean spirited and nasty, even tragic, in Albee’s play. But it’s natural for couples, married or not, to spar good-naturedly. Otherwise, life would be boring. In “Jackson,” the couple fusses back and forth, but there are subtle touches that let you know they are still in love. For instance, she says, “Go on to Jackson, but comb your hair.” Here they are trying to one-up each other, and in the midst of it she’s wanting him to look good when he runs off to town to kick up his heels. I thought immediately of making it a duet, though I’ve read comments by Jerry Leiber that he did not want it to be a duet. I don’t remember any such conversation. Just think about it. How could it be anything but a duet? In Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” he sings the man’s lyric and answers with the woman’s reply. And you know who’s speaking. A beautiful song. But I think that would not work so well with “Jackson.”

BA: Do you feel like your own playwright side shows through in this writing, given that you set such a believable stage for these two characters to exist within?

BEW: Probably. I’ve written a lot of story songs, like “Rev. Mr. Black,” and “Long Arm of the Law,” that have strong characters in them. They would lend themselves as good fodder for plays or novels.

BA: What musicians were you a fan of back when you wrote "Jackson"?

BEW: Chet Atkins is at the top of the list. And of course, Johnny & June. But I was a fan of a large variety of pickers and singers back then. Barbara Streisand, Righteous Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Duane Eddy, The Kingston Trio, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, etc.

BA: There is no question that this song has a huge place in music history–but I’m curious–do you feel like if you released this song today for the first time, that it would have such an impact? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the industry now, as compared to then, and how you think this work fits into it.

BEW: If Keith Urban and Taylor Swift did it with a hot track, sure, it would be a hit in my opinion. It’s snappy and hip enough. How could it miss? But most of my other songs . . . no way. My story songs of old could not make it today. They take too long in developing. Today, songs deal in sound bytes. Set up a short verse and get to the pay-off, the hook, as quickly as possible. Looking back, if Johnny and June had not done it, or a duet by stars like Elvis and Petula Clark, I don’t think it would have become a standard. Country today is rock and roll. BTW: Florence & the Machine did a duet of “Jackson” recently, with Josh Homme, frontman for Queens of the Stone Age, and they did it differently from anyone else . . . starting it out slowly, a capella, and ending it almost mournfully, singing, “Ever since the fire went out . . . ever since the fire went out . . ." lower and lower in volume, adding a thoughtful dimension to it.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

BEW: I’ve been so busy painting pictures and finishing a Broadway-styled children’s musical, I haven’t listened to the radio much. Fairly recently, I liked the song where she says, “Are you gonna kiss me, or not? Are we gonna do this or what?” Couple years ago Zac Brown knocked me out with his “Toes.” Great opening lines. But the song is deeper than “Got my toes in the water, ass in the sand . . .” and it’s really well written . . . the need to get away from concrete cities and the grind, and it has a terrific refrain.

BA: Thanks again, Sir. It has been an absolute pleasure to speak with you about your music.

BEW: My pleasure. I tend to ramble, but I like to set the record straight.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Tokyo Girl" by Val McCallum

ARTIST: Val McCallum

SONG: "Tokyo Girl"
WRITERS: Val McCallum, Dillon O'Brian
ALBUM: At the End of the Day
YEAR: 2012

SITE: Val McCallum
BUY: At the End of the Day - Val McCallum

I just heard Val McCallum for the first time about a month ago. I went out to the Ryman Auditorium here in Nashville to see Jackson Browne play, and initially witnessed Val as Jackson's electric guitar player. About halfway through the show, Jackson stepped aside and Val took center stage with a stunning song of his own, "Tokyo Girl," for which he was joined by Jackson and Sara Watkins on harmonies. It was a dreamy performance that made me curious about the rest of his work. I met him later that night and he graciously gave me copy of his brand new solo album, which features the song he played live. In addition to being a part of the very cool L.A. Country/rock outfit, Jackshit, and an artful contributor to others' work, Val McCallum is a soulful singer and songwriter. I'm so glad to have recently made his acquaintance.

BA: Hi Val! Thanks for giving me some of your time.

VM: My pleasure.

BA: Congratulations on the new album, At the End of the Day. Let's talk about the second track, "Tokyo Girl." When I met you a few weeks ago, you told me that this song was a true story about meeting your wife. Will you elaborate on that?

VM: Yes, The song is based on how I met Shelli, my wife, in a bar in Tokyo back in 1990. I was on tour with Wilson Phillips and she was working as a model. I was in a bad way having just lost my mother to cancer and my brother to drug abuse in a six month period and she was dealing with some very heavy family issues herself. We were just so comfortable together right from the get-go. It felt like we had found each other.

BA: I personally favor songs that are about specific people and instances, and this work gives so much detail to that end. I had to look up the reference you make in the first verse, about the Lexington Queen. What was that place like back then?

VM: The Lexington Queen had the feel of an 80's era Beverly Hills night club. It was dark with mirrors and couches surrounding a dance floor. Myself and a few friends were the first to arrive that night, but it wasn't long before the place started filling up with lovely young models from all around the world, dancing and drinking. It was quite the scene. I think I even danced, which is never a great idea, but it didn't seem to scare off Shelli . . . and here we are twenty two years later.

BA: I see that this is a co-write with Dillon O'Brian. High-five for getting such an intimate song out of a collaboration; that's not always an easy thing. How did it come together?

VM : I've known Dillon for a long time now. He's a great songwriter and a hell of a musician . . . writing a song with Dillon is always fun because he's such a strong lyricist. He likes to work early in the morning, so we usually meet at a golf course coffee shop and just shoot the shit over breakfast, and before you know it we've got an interesting concept to work with. Then we hit the first tee and by the eighteenth green, Dillon's usually got the better part of a lyric worked out.

With "Tokyo Girl," I had the tune and subject matter pretty well figured out. My wife and I had this nasty fight one evening and in a fit of passive aggressive behavior, I went out to my studio and wrote the tune. Dillon came over later and we reworked the lyric into what it is now.

BA: There is a lovely voice next to yours throughout the entire song. Tell me about who you're singing with. And, who is the third voice on the choruses - Jackson Browne?

VM: The female voice you hear on the record is Z Berg, the daughter of my friend and producer, Tony Berg. Z is a very talented singer/songwriter. She has great background part ideas and works really well with her dad. I love the airy quality in her voice. I like to call her "The Wind Machine." She's in a great band called JJAMZ.

Yes, that is Jackson singing the third part. He came in and sang beautifully on three songs. He really put his heart into the session. He's a great friend.

BA: Did you track your vocals together? I ask because there is a rather magical moment in the second chorus where the voices quiver with sentiment at exactly the same time, on the line:
"In her eyes of green, my blue world changed . . ."

VM: No, I recorded all of the songs by myself live on acoustic guitar then overdubbed everything else.

BA: As Jackson lovingly pointed out when he introduced this song on stage, you keep the guitar playing to a very simple minimum. I'd love to know more about that decision, given your obvious talents on the instrument.

VM : Initially I wasn't worried about how to approach the guitar. The problem was how to get good vocal performances and be believable as a singer. It was Tony who suggested after hearing me play the songs in his living room with just an acoustic, that we track the songs in that stripped-down style. Live guitar and vocal with no click track. So that's just what we did.

I used a 59 Martin D-28 with flat wound strings on all but one song. The combination of that really humble guitar sound and the sparse arrangements make for an inviting sounding record, I think.

BA: Along that same thought, what instrument is playing the lead melody? It has such a sparkly tone, like the harpsichord of guitars.

VM: It's a Greek bouzouki that I found in Hamburg.

BA: How old is this song, and who were you listening to when you wrote it?

VM: The song is about four years old. I remember being into David Crosby's "If I Could Only Remember My Name" around that time.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

VM : Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" is perfection.

BA: Thanks again, Val. And I wish you all the best with the record.

VM: My pleasure.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Woodburning" by Toad the Wet Sprocket/Glen Phillips

ARTIST: Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket
SONG: "Woodburning"
WRITERS: Glen Phillips, Todd Nichols
ALBUM: Dulcinea on Columbia Records
YEAR: 1994
SITE: Toad the Wet Sprocket
BUY: Dulcinea - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Glen Phillips has written many great songs within his different bands and as a solo artist. This one by Toad the Wet Sprocket always calls my name when I hear it . . . and to be perfectly honest, gives me major guitar riff envy.

BA: Thanks for giving me some of your time today, Glen. I’m excited to talk to you about this song that I’ve enjoyed for so many years.

GP: Hiya. It’s a pleasure.

BA: Right out of the gate, I need to mention that there’s a fan-made video for this song on youtube that features an animated knights-in-armor sort of scenario. Is that pretty much exactly what you envisioned when you wrote this song?

GP: Machinima is my favorite cinematic school, so - yes.

BA: I’ve always really connected with "Woodburning" in an interesting way. I find that its instrumental components give the listener just as much to think about as the vocal/lyrical elements. Which came first, or were they written at the same time?

GP: Todd wrote the music for this one. I wrote the words and might have messed a little with the melody. Or at least I think I did. It was a while ago.

BA: I love the form of this song, and the different moods that the sections each
contain - especially the pre-chorus:
“And I find myself, here in another home . . .”
Did the song always end on that section, or was that decision made in the

GP: Pre chorus has a good bounce . . . once again, I don’t know precisely how it came to be. We tended to have our arrangements well worked out before recording. Tended to do a fair amount of experimenting ahead of time, though.

BA: There’s a message of defeat and disappointment in the lyrics, without an explanation for who/what the subject is. Is it part of a larger story or statement within the album, or is this song its own contained work?

GP: There wasn’t any kind of conscious theme for the record. As for the general content, I like to have songs be emotionally specific but situationally vague. They seem to last longer if I go that route. Instead of being one specific disappointment, I can spread it out over many disappointments, like a sad almond butter.

BA: Are you speaking as yourself in this song, or are you assuming the role of someone else?

GP: Both? Mostly I try to hit something that feels true and worry less about who’s saying it - over time we play all kinds of characters. Every once in a while I’m writing for a particular person, but then I spend most of my effort making that person as universal as I can.

BA: I know your band was touring heavily leading up to the making of the album, Dulcinea. Was "Woodburning" written on the road?

GP: We never wrote on the road. Not much open time.

BA: What is the title in reference to?

GP: We were friends with a Santa Barbara band called The Woodburning Project. When Todd brought in the main riff we thought it sounded a little like them . . . the name just stuck.

BA: The recording on the album has a strong energy. How much of it was
tracked live?

GP: We tracked everything together, but probably replaced the main guitars and vocal.

BA: What were you listening to at that point in your life?

GP: Lots of Talk Talk. Laughing Stock.

BA: I know that Toad has returned to touring in recent years. How is it to play this song eighteen years later – assuming that it still makes the set list?

GP: It’s a fun one live. I like singing it. Still need to work out the ending, though.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

GP: This minute? "In Germany Before the War" by Randy Newman.

BA: Thanks for you time, Glen. And thanks for the great song.

GP: You’re very welcome. Thanks for checking in.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Mercy Now" by Mary Gauthier

ARTIST: Mary Gauthier
SONG: "Mercy Now"
WRITER: Mary Gauthier
ALBUM: Mercy Now on Lost Highway Records
YEAR: 2005
SITE: Mary Gauthier
BUY:  Mercy Now (Bonus Track) - Mary Gauthier

I don't know what I could possibly say about this song that you can't hear for yourself. A friend gave this to me when I was on a solo tour, and I think I might have grown up a little just from listening to the wisdom and compassion contained in Mary Gauthier's words. I count this among the great songs of our time, and was so thrilled to talk to Mary about her experience with it.

BA: Hi Mary! I'm so grateful for your participation in the series. I think your song "Mercy Now" is a profound and important piece of writing.

MG: Thank you very much for saying that. It’s been a song that has had a longer reach than I ever dreamed possible when I wrote it. I honestly didn’t even know if it was a good song or not after I finished it. I was also afraid it might be too simple, too folky for most people’s taste. I played it for my publisher and it was received with a yawn, and I think that threw me off. Once people started responding to it, I realized I might need a new publisher!

BA: Your words soothed a deep part of my soul when I first heard them. Though you initially apply your sentiments of acceptance and forgiveness to specific people and institutions, it is a universal message you carry. Was it healing to write?

MG: Forgiveness is something I contemplate daily. I need it and I would be lost without it. That said, I’ve also had to learn how to extend forgiveness, to grow up emotionally and put away childish emotional grudges, and it has been a long and drawn out ordeal for me. I had to start at the beginning and work my way out. I had to forgive my dad for his alcoholism and for the things he did to me and my brother and sister when we were kids, and doing that was a huge step in the process of working for my own emotional maturity. When my father got dementia he went from a terrifying figure to a broken and lost child, and it just tore me up. I could see how, underneath all of the mental illness and the disease he lived with for most of his life, was this small boy who didn’t get the love he needed as a kid. How could I not forgive him once I saw that? It was a huge revelation, and I think it was the key to me writing "Mercy Now."

BA: Was it an intellectual decision to make the focus of the mercy start with very intimate relationships and then grow to include larger entities, like the church, country, and all living things . . . or did the song just unfold in front of you that way?

MG: It was not an intellectual process at all. I started writing about my dad and my brother and the pain they were in, coming from a place of compassion for their hurt. But then the song needed more verses, and it occurred to me that the Catholic Church was being ripped apart and losing many of their faithful because of the way they were dealing (and not dealing) with pedophile priests. And at the same time Bush was gearing up to a war I was not comfortable with . . . it just expanded itself out naturally based on what was going on at the time.

As I was working on it, I remembered a Lucinda Williams song called "Changed The Locks," and I went back and studied it because it used this expanding device . . . it goes from changing the locks on the door to changing the tracks under the train so an ex-lover cannot find her. It’s a great song and I believe she might have gotten the device from an old blues song. Who knows? All I know is that it fell in my lap and I will be forever grateful because it unlocked the structure of "Mercy Now" for me.

BA: I think that music has the power to unify us with a much larger purpose. Have you found that this song has connected you to others you might not have been otherwise?

MG: Oh Lord yes! I’ve had people come up to me and say “I love Rush Limbaugh and listen to his show every day and "Mercy Now" really speaks to me.” It sure makes me wonder . . . what the heck? I’ve had positive write ups in Catholic Magazines, and even had a Baptist minister tell me he used the lyrics of the song in his sermon. It has been recorded by everyone from Candi Staton to Boy George, and I never know what will happen with it next. The song seems to transcend the barriers we commonly think of as deal breakers in human connection. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

BA: I did hear that Boy George just recorded a version of the "Mercy Now." I'm a huge fan of his and all that he does. Have you heard his version yet?

MG: He sent me a message telling me he cut it, and he loves it. I have not heard it, but I am thrilled that he’s recorded it, and look forward to hearing his take on it. I too am a huge fan.

BA: One of my favorite lines is in the verse about your brother:
"The pain that he lives in, it's almost more than living will allow . . ."
Did you sob after that first came out of your mouth?

MG: It’s a sad line indeed, and as I travel the world I meet people everywhere who tell me stories about their own brothers' struggles. It’s a universal theme, a universal experience. It is so hard to watch someone you love suffer, and not be able to help. But that’s just how it goes in life, people’s pain is their pain, and often times the “help” we feel compelled to offer is not help at all, but a subtle form of control. People need the dignity of their pain, they need to be seen and heard, but most of the time, the most we can do is to just let them know we see them and will be there for them with love when they fall. It’s certainly been the thing that I’ve most appreciated from people who love me.

BA: Who were your biggest influences when you wrote this song?

MG: I can’t remember what I was listening to when I wrote it, but certainly I stand hat in hand in the shadow of early Dylan and the folk singers of the 60’s with this one.

BA: Am I correct in my understanding that you have recently re-tracked the song? How does the new recording feel different from the first one for you? And when do we get to hear it?

MG: I did re-cut it. I added a bit of gospel to it, put an amazing singer from Memphis on it named Joanna Cotton who brings it to another place, less folky and more gospel influenced. I re-recorded it for a television placement, but I will probably put it out in some other ways at some point soon.

BA: What has been your greatest victory with this song so far?

MG: Well, I am not sure there’s a single event I would call a victory, but I think that just having the song continue to do work in the world has been very gratifying. When a song takes on a life of its own, and goes out there and works its way through human hearts one after another over a decade or more, I know it’s a good song, and that is a victory in and of itself. Gillian Welch likes to say that we don’t know if a song is great until 50 years after it's written, and I agree with that. A song is great if it continues to be played and sung long after the writer has passed. I hope that will be the case with "Mercy Now," but I won’t be around to see if it will be so.

BA: What’s your favorite song right this minute?

MG: I am into a couple of songs, and I’ve added them to my show . . . "Cigarette Machine" by Fred Eaglesmith, and "Thought I Heard a Train" by Tom Mason. I love those two songs!

BA: Again, thank you . . . for both the interview and the music

MG: My pleasure, thank you for including me and "Mercy Now" in your work.