Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Very Candid Conversation with Goodnight, Texas

Goodnight, Texas, 2018 (Avi Vinocur, left; Patrick Dyer Wolf, right)      
Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf are the bandleaders of Goodnight, Texas, a folk rock band. The name, Goodnight, Texas, comes from the midpoint between where Avi and Pat lives. Avi lives in San Francisco, and Pat lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their sound and their approach to writing songs is unique because they embodied a certain time era with each album. 

Goodnight, Texas writes about different time eras in their music. Their first album, A Long Life of Living (2012), contains original music of acoustic songs that are reminiscent of old-timey music from the 1800s. One of the songs, “The Railroad,” was used in a Coors commercial in 2018. On their next album, Uncle John Farquhar (2014), Goodnight, Texas wrote original songs about the Civil War and Appalachia with music that sounds reminiscent of that period. Their most recent album, Conductor (2018), is written about the early twentieth century and their original songs reflect that era. There are plans to do an album that will contain music that sounds like it takes place in the future. In addition, they have recorded two EPs, An Even Longer Life of Living (2017), and The Senseless Age (2019).

Goodnight, Texas plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the San Francisco Giants, which they have been doing since 2017. Avi also played with Metallica late 2018, in which Metallica did an acoustic set for their All Within My Hands charitable foundation. Avi played mandolin, guitar, and sang backup during the Metallica show. 

This is the first interview in which I’ve interviewed two people at the same time. In our candid conversation, Avi and Pat talk about how the band started and their interest in recreating music from different historical eras. We also discuss how they got to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the San Francisco Giants, how Avi got to play with Metallica, and what their future plans are.

I want to thank Nichole Peters of Jensen Communications for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to think Avi and Pat.   

Jeff Cramer: This question is for either of you and who wants to start: What formed your interest in music?

Patrick Dyer Wolf: I have a memory of sitting on the floor in my parents' bedroom and  looking up at my dad sitting on the bed playing his acoustic guitar. I think the guitar was an Applause, which is a subset of Ovation (a guitar company). The Applause is not a great guitar.

I just remember being dumbfounded at what he was doing with those strings. He made me a tape and called it “Pat's Rock Tape,” which was a Dire Straits song, and then there were a bunch of James Taylor songs. I think I was six or seven—that's the memory I have that made me want to play music.

Avi Vinocur: Well, there is a debate on this, but I got really into piano when I was around six years old. I don't know why. Then I got into guitar after I heard Green Day. I felt like I could do something like that and started playing songs from Dookie. This was in 1994, I think. Then in high school I got really into Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and started playing a lot of sixties’ songs.

JC: It's interesting you're mentioning all these artists, but your band doesn’t sounds like any of them. How did you came up with the sound of Goodnight, Texas?

AV: I think we were both interested in how some people like to play characters and have concepts for their act. We had a collection of songs that all sort of felt like they may have existed in a different time period.

We were covering songs from the 1800s, and we were writing songs but just trying to make them feel like they belong in the 1800s. We used some stories that we heard from that time period.

We both really love American history, and so writing historical fiction or biographical music seemed to kind of make sense.

PDW:  I remember we had been playing together with just two guitars—a little bit like Simon and Garfunkel. I mean, Garfunkel didn't have a guitar, but at some point Avi got a banjo and I remember thinking, “Oh, that's a whole different tone.”

And then at some point Avi started playing the mandolin. He can really play a guitar, but then he just transitioned to the mandolin as his lead act.

AV: I got a mandolin from a guitar show. I think the mandolin was from 1918, and right away I wrote twelve songs on it, like within a week. It just felt like this instrument had been built to be playing these songs. I don't know, it just made sense to me in some weird way.

I had an old mandolin before that and tried to write songs on it, but I didn't really have any luck. But once I got this really old one, it was—

PDW:  It's not like a straight-up bluegrass sound that we're going for or that he is going for. I think it's a little bit darker.

We’re not trained on traditional bluegrass playing, but we're playing these bluegrass instruments like the mandolin.

AV:   Goodnight, Texas is the midpoint between where we live. Bluegrass and folk is not something we necessarily grew up with. My family is from West Virginia and Maryland, and I had relatives that were mandolin players and fiddle players in my family history, but none that I was close with. But the band's concept came from also just sort of finding out about them.

JC: How did the first album, Long Life of Living, take place? 

PDW: We recorded most of our stuff at Avi's apartment in San Francisco. We’d sing and play the songs first before we put any drums. We ended up putting the drums on afterwards, and we played a lot of the drums ourselves.

AV: I think we sort of started recording the only way we knew how, which was just to play guitar and sing live. So most of the songs on that album are actually a live performance of us playing and singing guitar. And in doing that, we realized we kind of wanted to make it rock out more, and we didn't want to redo everything so we just played over it. I think we ended up with something really kind of dark and heavy, and heaviness has just kind of been in my soul forever.

PDW: That's the quote.

A Long Life of Living cover (2012)

JC: I want to talk about one song on the album, "The Railroad,” which is a semi-instrumental song. The vocals don’t come until the end of the song. That was also the first song I heard from you guys.

AV: That was just something we kind of worked on for the rhythm and melody. We initially had lyrics for the first half and it was a little bit different, but it just wasn't working quite right, so we decided to trim the first half down slightly and leave the vocals out of it and then put this whole section at the end with the vocals. [To hear “The Railroad,” click here.]

I play the drum take for that song, and then I play some guitars and mandolin and banjo over it. Then Pat plays the slide, and our friend Jonathan Kirchner plays bass.

I think we had different lyrics. Initially the song was about Pittsburgh called "Pittsburgh Grit.”

PDW:  Was it about a handshake?

AV: It was about a really strong, firm handshake, but it just didn't fit, so Pat encouraged me to change the lyrics. We did, and I think we changed them further after that. The line, “Their backs are turned,” was sort of kicking around for a while in my head, and that's kind of how it came together.

I was really into a lot of traditional and spiritual music like "Rosie,” (an African-American prison song from 1947) and  stuff like that. I wanted to try to make something that felt like that kind of song.

PDW:  Maybe like a year ago Avi sent me a voice memo that he found of us working on this song in my parents' dining room just figuring out the structure of it. You  can hear my dad in the background yelling about some insurance snafu he was having or something. It was great.

JC: You were mentioning earlier that you came up with real life stories you had heard, or you just like to write historical fiction. Your first single, "Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine” . . . was that Jesse's unfortunate incident something you came up with, or was it based on something?

AV: I wrote that one, but it wasn't a true story. It was kind of similar to some stories that I had heard from my family in West Virginia and Maryland, but it wasn't anything specific. I kind of just went with it.

But that being said, we've met a lot of people whose families are in coal and who even have members of their family named Jesse. I think we met someone in Nashville whose great-great-grandmother’s husband was killed. Her name was Jessie, and her husband was killed in a mining accident. So it's like it may be true. I definitely made it up, but I think it may have actually happened whether we realize it or not, like a lot of stories. [To hear “Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine,” click here.]

JC: Also from that album is “I’m Going to Work on Maggie's Farm Forever.” Was Bob Dylan's “Maggie Farm” the inspiration behind the song? Is it referring to the same farm that Bob Dylan is referring to?

PDW:  Yeah. It’s definitely a takeoff of sorts, and I think it's sort of like an alternate ending, an alternate universe take on it, of the chronicle of uprisings or rebellions that have failed or have been squashed and don’t get remembered. It’s kind of like a testament to the suffering and effort that people go through that doesn't really come to anything. [To hear “I’m Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm Forever,” click here.]

JC: So from there we look into Uncle John Farquhar (2014) album. Tell me how that got started.

PDW:  Uncle John Farquhar came from the semi-historical semi-idea like a family scrapbook partially remembered and oral tradition that might not be true . . . you know, like the movie, Big Fish. (Big Fish is a 2003 film about a frustrated son trying to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father’s life.)

AV: Big Fish. I was going to say that.

PDW:  Our album is named after my great-great-great-grandfather, John Farquhar, but the picture on the album is his nephew, Edwin Freer Bogart. We thought that was a funny joke that no one would get except us because it’s a picture from 150 years ago. Nobody is going to know.

Uncle John Farquhar cover (2014)

AV: What if somebody wrote the wrong name on the back of the photograph? Then throughout the future and history everyone thinks that's the person's name, but it might not have been.

 We wrote some of Uncle John Farquhar on the road. We were touring behind our first record a lot and spent a lot more time with our drummer, Alex Nash, and bass player, Bobby Kendall, at the time. We were sort of developing the songs on the road, like we had concepts for how they went and we'd come home and record them.

And then the songs would get a little more swing or a little more bouncy, and we tried to incorporate that into the album on a few of the songs. In addition to us playing drums, we had a friend play drums on a few songs on Long Life of Living, but Alex Nash played drums on the whole record.

Bobby Kendall and Scott Padden, our drummer now, both played bass on a few songs on that record too. It was sort of a transitional record for us. We were changing members, but some of the songs we had for a long time. I had the song "Dearest Sarah" since 2006. I just never recorded, but I had written the lyrics, and then I changed the rhythm and the instrumentation of it in 2012, and then I decided I really wanted that to put that one out there.

JC: In the sixties, a lot of then-contemporary artists did songs on Vietnam. In the last decade, artists did songs about Iraq. But with "Dearest Sarah,” you went back to the Civil War.

AV: Yeah. I mean, I've always been fascinated by that period in American history, and the song is based on a real letter written between Sullivan Ballou and his wife Sarah in Rhode Island. To me, that letter has always been one of the best pieces of American writing.

Sullivan died in July of 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run. So that is a true story, and that song is sort of interpreted from his letter. We don't break that one out live super often because it doesn't really fit in some of our bar shows, but it's a pretty depressing and stark song. [To hear “Dearest Sarah,” click here.]

PDW: The actual Uncle John Farquhar was a preacher in Pennsylvania and he went to visit some troops during the Civil War at different battlefields. He gave a  sermon on the National Day of Mourning for President Lincoln's death.

JC: Yes.

PDW: We found the text of his speech and put it in the liner notes. So that's another thing that was true from our family perspective. It’s not well-known to history, but we were trying to weave that in with the “Dearest Sarah” story.

JC: In addition to the Civil War, “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme” sounds like it could fit in the historical decade of the Wild West.

PDW:  "A Bank Robber's Nursery Rhyme" comes from a riff I had written in college. Maybe eight years before that song was recorded, it was called "Slow Down Hoedown" at the time. We kind of re-imagined that one.

JC: "Slow Down Hoedown" sounds like it would have a different lyrical concept than “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme.”

PDW:  There were no lyrics to “Slow Down Hoedown.” It had a different structure, and it kind of slowed down toward the end. But we kept one of the main riffs from “Slow Down Hoedown.” [To hear “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme,” click here.]

JC: I want to talk about the song "Moonshiners.” I’m familiar with it during the seventies era. Burt Reynolds did a lot of films around that time that revolve around moonshine. But I'm sure the era of moonshine in “Moonshiners” is not the seventies.

AV: Yeah, the first record sort of took place in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and this one sort of took place at end of the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth century.

In "Moonshiners,” as the characters of our songs sort of head south and time passes, they get further and deeper into Appalachia, and I think that's where a lot of that moonshining was going on. It was a sort of isolated mentality that a lot of people felt in those regions in that period. [To hear “Moonshiners,” click here.]

What you get is something very different than what Pat and I grew up with, and that's why it fascinates us.

PDW: I mean, a lot of the people up in the hills were Irish immigrants from Avi's side, and maybe like 80 percent of my side are Irish immigrants. It's just very interesting. People came over to find a new life and escape a terrible condition, and you ended up funneling into a city like a lot of my ancestors did, or you made it up into the hills and found banjos and washtubs or whatever and started making this music that we eventually became fascinated with.

Over the course of a century, there was a lot of isolationism up there and an interesting culture. I think it was very interesting for us to kind of ponder this when we were making this music.

JC: I read in Wikipedia that you sang the national anthem.

AV: Yeah.

JC: How did that come about?

AV: We're big baseball fans, and I have the good fortune in San Francisco of knowing a couple of people who work for the Giants. They let us know that if they had a cancellation they would try to get us to do the national anthem. And they did finally in 2017, and we did it.

We got a good review from the Giants’ sportscaster, Dave Flemming, on the radio and they've asked us back every year since then. [To hear them perform “The Star-Spangled Banner,” click here.]

JC: It would be 2017 when you released your next EP, An Even Longer Life of Living, and 2018 when you got to making your next album Conductor.

PDW:  Yeah, so Uncle John Farquhar was 2014, and Conductor was 2018, and in the middle I had a son, Damon. So that was one thing I was doing. We actually recorded a lot of the material for Conductor in late 2015, and a series of setbacks just kept us pushing it back.

We put out EPs in the meantime, so we had that. And it just it finally came together in the spring of 2018, feeling like the right time from all angles.

AV: I'll add to that . . . at the beginning of 2016 we sort of lost a lot of parental figures. Pat's father passed away. My grandfather, who was sort of like my father, passed away two weeks after his dad did. A year or so later the following year 2017, Scott, our now drummer—he was our bass player at the time—his mother passed away from cancer. We were thinking to try to put Conductor out at the end of 2016, and then the presidential election happened, and it was like no one had time to think about music right now.

JC: Yeah.

AV: Conductor would have just gotten buried under everything with the election, and it just didn't feel right. The further we got from it, the more we decided to just kind of keep waiting until it felt right, and once the beginning of 2018 came around we were I think we're ready to get angry or something.

Conductor album (2018)

JC: I mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. On Conductor, the song, “Takin’ Your Word For It,” sounds a little like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Were those guys influences for that song?

PDW: I wouldn't say no. I think another big influence would probably be the Band.

AV: Yeah, the Band was big influences on us with all their songwriting. I got really into Planet Waves by Bob Dylan back then.

PDW:  I felt like we could fit that kind of a sound in with sort of these American tales and it sort of was part of the story and it seemed to blend in and have a little bit of be sort of led by the bass, kind of a funkier bass line. So it seemed to kind of fit. [To hear “Takin’ Your Word For It,” click here.]

JC: Which decade is Conductor (2018) referring to?

AV:  I think this is moving more into the early the Dust Bowl and the beginnings of Prohibition and that period. It does take place further west out in the plains than in the southwest.

PDW:  Yeah, we sort of think of it right at the point when America is starting to become the world power and figuring out what to do with itself as that's happening. Electricity is really becoming a thing. Automobiles are becoming a thing.

We added electric guitar for the first time on that record.

AV: We don't have any electric guitar on the first two records. Pedal steels. [Pedal steel is a musical instrument played like the Hawaiian guitar, but set on a stand with pedals to adjust the tension of the strings.]

PDW:  Conductor is the title, and there is a spiritual want for somebody to rein in all that power America has and to figure out what to do with it. That's like the conductor of an orchestra.

JC: I also understand that Avi got to play with Metallica around that time. How did that happen?

AV: Yeah, that was the end of last year. I was fortunate enough to know those guys and have worked with them before on a side of things such as a studio tech. They’re aware of our band and they know I play mandolin. They were doing an acoustic show, and they wanted to kind of fill out their sound.

I had sang with James Hetfield at a benefit show in 2016, and we figured out that we could harmonize pretty well together. So when it came time for Metallica to figure out what they wanted to do for this acoustic show, they asked me to do it, and they asked if I knew a percussionist. Then we got this pedal steel player and keyboard player.

So the four of us kind of sat in, but I got to sing and play mandolin on the whole set. I played a little guitar too, and it was just a trip. It’s one of the most unbelievable things that's ever happened to me. [To hear Avi perform with Metallica on “The Unforgiven,” click here.]

JC: It’s interesting to know that the music can still be heavy even though there are only acoustic instruments.

AV: Yeah. Heavy is definitely like an attitude and a feel more than a tone—more than any specific guitar tone or type of guitar. They happen to do it with electric guitars and through high-gain amplifiers, but the songs kind of translate any way you do them, and the heaviness still just imbued in it.

I will say that doing that show with them was  one of the most high-energy shows I've ever done, and we were all sitting on stools. I can't even imagine what it's like to play with them and running around with electric guitars.

JC: I understand you've done a EP, The Senseless Age (2019). 

The Senseless Age (2019)

AV: In my head I sort of think of our albums as part of like the long running story, and the EP is the extraneous almost bonus material. Like side—

PDW:  Side dishes.

AV: Yeah, side dishes. But yeah, there is like elements of the sixties and the nineties even in these songs. There’s a song that sounds like it could have gone on A Long Life of Living. It’s a little instrumental one, “For My Mother’s Wedding,” which is one I actually wrote for my mom to walk down the aisle to. [To hear “For My Mother’s Wedding,” click here.]

They're five songs, and you put them together and they go together, but they all sort of have an independent feel from one another. "Blood Brothers" is probably one of the heaviest songs we've recorded. I'm really proud of how that turned out. [To hear “Blood Brothers,” click here.]

JC: Yeah. So I take it you're on the road touring now?

PDW: Yeah, we are. We played in Newport, Kentucky, last night, and we're playing in Cleveland tonight. [Note: It was July 28,2019, when I spoke to Goodnight, Texas.]

JC: Are there any other shows that you're planning to do?

AV: We're doing some festivals. We're doing a Mile of Music Festival in Wisconsin. We're doing the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. We're doing the West Coast in October. Actually, on this run, we're finishing the Midwest and the middle states until the middle of August.

In October, we're doing the Northwest coast with the Brothers Comatose. Yeah, we got a lot of touring on the docket behind the EP and our next potential record.

Goodnight, Texas (Pat, left; Avi, right) performing in 2018
JC: What is the potential next record?

AV: It takes place in the year 2145.

JC: Wow, it's futuristic.

AV:  Yeah, it's all synthesizers, and drums have become unpopular. The robots don't like drums . . . so, yeah. We’ve got a bunch of songs that I think go together pretty well, but I don't know. They definitely have a unique sound, but I think they fit in line with what we've also done, and we're getting them together.

We've got twelve or thirteen partially recorded right now, and we've got a whole bunch more that we've written. We usually take our time. I think it's worth it to take your time and do it right.

JC: For an upcoming band doing a different, original, unique sound like you have, what would your recommendation be?

AV: Definitely listen to Korn.

JC: Korn, okay.

AV:  No one has ever sounded like Korn. I don't know how they made it work.

PDW:  And, you know, Tom Waits. I think to try to define it in your own mind is like a TV series. Then it’s just seeing what fits on the show, what doesn't make sense with the plot or the setting . . .

AV: I mean, you're always balancing between what people know and what they haven't heard. If you season a little more of what’s  unknown to people, you can be more exciting in that sense.

JC: The last question I'll ask is how would you describe where you started off with the Long Way of Living album to now with The Senseless Age?

PDW: I think we've been very fortunate that we have been able to make it happen over this time. We live on opposite sides of the country—the two of us. Scott Padden, who is playing drums, and Adam Nash, who has been playing bass, although he is an incredible guitar player, live in California too. There are logistical hurdles for us to even exist, and we have been very lucky of the good fortune that's been working out in that the Internet has been helping us out just attracting bees to the nectar.

AV: We're just trying to see if this whole thing can work. So far it's still working somehow.

Goodnight, Texas in 2018 (Pat, second from left; Avi, third from left)

Sunday, August 4, 2019

A Very Candid Conservation with Matt Wayne

Matt Wayne is a singer-songwriter and guitarist. He played in various metal bands until, he met bassist/vocalist JuJu. Together, they performed at gigs and open-mic nights until they formed a band called the Blood Moon Howlers. The name of the group came about in 2015 when they were at a party. There was a blood moon that night, and they went up on the roof and howled at the moon. On their website, their music is described as “whiskey drenched heavy swamp blues rock,” with “flecks of smokey burlesque.” 

In 2017, the Blood Moon Howlers released their first EP Wasteland with Scott Wittenberg on drums. Scott was only filling in temporarily until Brandon Cooke took over drums on a permanent basis. The Blood Moon Howlers also included Evan Hatfield who plays sax and keyboards. The new four piece band can be heard on their latest album, Mad Man’s Ruse (2019) as well as their EP The Hangover Sessions (2019), which is a trio of acoustic versions of songs from Mad Man’s Ruse. Also this year, they released a cover of Prince’s “Partyman” in tribute to the thirtieth anniversary of the Nicholson/Keaton Batman movie. “Partyman” is played in the movie when Nicholson’s Joker and his men trash an art museum.

In this candid conversation, we talked about Matt’s beginnings before the Blood Moon Howlers, how the Blood Moon Howlers formed, their multiple recordings and future plans. I want to thank Nichole Peters from Jensen Communications for setting up the interview, but most of all I want to thank Matt.

Jeff Cramer: All right, so what sparked your interest in music?

Matt Wayne: Let's see, I think I was in a music shop one day with my mom, and we were kind of cruising around. The guitar just caught my eye, so that was sort of it. I used to sit around reading comics when I was a kid, and I would throw on music in the background, and that just slowly turned into a love, you know?

JC: When you got into the guitar, was there any guitarist you admired, like say, “Hey, I want to play like that!”?

MW: Yeah, definitely. The first guitar I ever got was a Fender Stratocaster, and that was definitely because of Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen’s first album was one of the first CDs that we had in my house growing up. That was what kind of sparked that whole thing.

JC: I was reading in the bio section of your website that you had played in several metal bands before the Blood Moon Howlers.

MW:  I played with a band called the Changing with a guy named Kalen Chase. He played around with Korn. Joey Jordison from Slipknot was there, and we did that band for about a year or so.

Then I played with Bruce Bouillet, who played guitar for a heavy metal band called Racer X in the late eighties. Other than that, I just played in garage bands and stuff like that, which were all kind of different variations of metal. When I first started, I was into a lot of power metal, like Iron Maiden and that kind of stuff. As time went on, it got a little bit heavier.

JC: All right. So talk about the Blood Moon Howlers . . . how did that group form? 

MW: Well, the group started with JuJu and I, the other singer. We started playing together, doing a lot of acoustic stuff. I had been in a bunch of bands, and I wanted to take a step back from being in a band for a while. JuJu and I just started doing a bunch of acoustic cover songs to kind of learn how to sing together.

We were taking on a lot of gigs—doing open mics and a lot of hired gigs playing covers. It was a time to learn how to sing together, how to perform together, how to write a song together.

Then we started the Blood Moon Howlers because we wanted to get away from doing strictly acoustic music. We wanted to do a rock-and-roll kind of feeling.

JC: And that’s when other people joined?

MW: The first EP, Wasteland, that JuJu and I did as the Blood Moon Howlers was actually with a drummer named Scott Wittenberg, who I had known. We performed around with Scotty for a bit, but he was just kind of filling in as a friend.

The Blood Moon Howlers as a trio with Scotty (2017) (Matt left)

Then we met Brandon—our current drummer— at a gig, and he came up to us and said, “Oh, I love your music and stuff.” Then a show came up where Scotty couldn't make it, so we called Brandon and it's just been fun ever since.

JC: On the EP Wasteland, one of the songs, "Lady Daydream,” has an interesting structure. When you're singing the verses, it's kind of reggae-like, and then it's more rock in the chorus.

MW:  One of the things that started the Blood Moon Howlers is the concept of writing music. I always see fliers that bands put out, or people trying to start bands, and every one of them says something like,  “Hey, I like these five bands. If you like these five bands, please give me a call. Let's start a band.” It seems that those bands end up just sounding like some knockoff of the bands that they've listed on the flier.

For our band, what we were hoping to achieve is to work with a lot of people who were like-minded in the sense that we all love a lot of different kinds of music. A lot of times, we're just sort of experimenting with different influences and stuff, so hopefully the music comes out more interesting. [To hear “Lady Daydream,” click here.]

The Blood Moon Howlers’ first EP Wasteland

“Lady Daydream” just sort of came from where we grew up in California—we're around a lot of the  Long Beach–reggae thing. It was a big part of our lives, but then we also love a lot of the stoner–desert rock kind of music thing. We just sort of had this idea of what it would be like to fuse those two worlds, and that was our shot at that.

JC: The Blood Moon Howlers don’t sound like Fleetwood Mac, but it reminds me of Fleetwood Mac because there’s a combination of male and female lead vocals.

MW:  Oh, very cool. I mean, I haven't grown up listening to Fleetwood Mac, but I know they're all very great musicians and stuff, so I appreciate that.

JC: And from Fleetwood Mac, we go to Johnny Cash. What made you decide to do Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues"?

MW:  I had been performing a lot of these songs that were just sad songs. I'd been doing a ton sad songs, and they were real slow. It was sort of becoming difficult to perform, because I just ended up feeling a lack of energy.

And so when I was doing a lot of the cover stuff, I was trying to find songs that were fun to listen to, and I guess that one is definitely a sad song still, but it was a lot more fun to tell a story like that. I mean, if you've heard the Johnny Cash version you know there is a lot of story in that song.

JC: Yes, I have. 

MW:  And it was really fun. I had been performing that song for a long time, and when it came time to cover it we were kind of like, “What can we do a little different with it?” So we flipped it into a minor key and just kind of changed the melody around a bit and turned things around a little. It was really from wanting to play some more like fun, bluesy-sounding music. [To hear a live version of “Cocaine Blues,” click here.]

JC: Yeah. The other song that you sing on Wasteland, "Motor Mouth Mission,” has a punk energy to it.

MW: Yes. I mean,  I was going for like punk–blues—a lot of the chord progressions, a lot of the soloing vibe, and it’s very bluesy, at least from my perspective. Then again, I grew up listening to punk bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Fugazi . . . stuff like that. So it seemed sort of natural to bring that in a little bit too. [To hear “Motor Mouth Mission,” please click here.]

JC: Having talked about various songs on Wasteland, let’s go over the songwriting process you and JuJu go into creating a song.

MW: I think there is always a portion of songwriting that I feel is a little bit separate. JuJu and I use a concept that I call “banking” where we just compile ideas. My phone is completely full with guitar riffs, and there are papers all around our house that have lyric ideas.

Usually we designate some time to come together and start talking about song ideas, and then we just start piecing together all the ideas.

There is always a portion of it that's very spontaneous, even though it’s coming from a lot of ideas compiled, but it's really awesome to not lose any momentum. So it's kind of nice to have all those backed-up ideas, you know?

JC: When it comes to a song, how do you and JuJu decide who will take lead vocals?

MW: There is a couple of different factors. Sometimes, it’s like, “Hey, this is going to be my song,” and then sometimes it's like, “Hey, I wrote the lyrics.” Overall though, I think there is definitely times when one of us will just sound better on the song. It's another fun part of songwriting, which is just this idea of, “Hey, if you're singing really heavy lyrics, it might be kind of cool to explore a different method of delivering those lyrics besides just screaming them or yelling them.” We’ve been doing a lot of messing around with the delivery of lyrics, whether it's singing heavy, singing soft. I guess that also kind of comes into play with deciding who is singing it, or who we feel takes on the character of the song the best.

JC: What model of guitar do you play?

MW: Nowadays, I've been pretty much just playing a Fender Telecaster. I got a couple of those. I have this silver, sparkly one, and I've got a very plain-looking Telecaster, but that pretty much shows up on all of our music nowadays.

JC: The band went on to become a four-piece band.

MW: We added Evan Hatfield through the process of recording Mad Man's Ruse. Evan plays saxophone, keys and stuff.

JC: The saxophone is an interesting element to bring to the music. How did bringing a saxophone come into play?

MW:  Oh, that basically comes from my love of the 1970s–era Tom Waits. If you've ever heard his Nighthawks at the Diner album or where it's got that late-night-vibe thing. So that's sort of where my love of that comes from.

We were performing as a three piece, and both JuJu and I are singing and playing instruments, and then just the drums. But it was nice to have an extra musician to take some of the pressure off of trying to sing lead vocals and play lead guitar, rhythm guitar.

It was nice to add a different dimension to it as well. It also kind of just fell into our laps a little bit too—our drummer Brandon played in the band Paracosmic with Evan. And we ended up playing a bunch of shows with them, and went on tour with them.

The whole thing with Evan joining the band happened when we were on tour, and Evan just started playing with us every night. At one point when we were driving around, he said, “So can I stay and play with you guys now or what?” So he threw it up on his Instagram that he was in the band and we figured it was real from there.

The Blood Moon Howlers as a four-piece band (2019) (Matt far right)

JC: Now let’s go to the EP Hangovers Sessions, which is a bit of teaser album for the new album, Mad Man’s Ruse.  It contains three acoustic versions of songs that appeared on Mad Man’s Ruse.

MW:  So what JuJu and I have done is try to experiment with a song. We grew up in an era with MTV Unplugged and stuff like that, where you got to see bands play. A lot of times the charm of it was that they were a very heavy band.

The Hangover Sessions EP (2019)

And then you get to see this whole different version of that heavy song brought down to like acoustic or just like a mellower version or whatever. It just sparks the idea that these songs are just some chords, melody, and you can really do a whole lot with them.

So it's a real fun thing for us that I think we'll probably continue doing in the future when we'll be releasing a version that's maybe heavy blues, and then we'll be releasing ones that are a different take on that same song with an acoustic guitar and broken down like nightclub background music stuff.

It’s really fun to experiment with a song and see how many different ways it can take you.

JC: One of my favorite things in the bar is going to the jukebox and putting on music I like as I drink a beer. Well, the "Drunk and Cold" song feels like a great song to drink a beer to.

MW: Awesome. That's the goal with that one for sure. I mean, that's what we love to do too—relax, head out to the bar and hang around, drink a beer, throw on some good music, you know. [To hear “Drunk and Cold,” click here.]

 The Hangover Sessions was done after recording Mad Man's Ruse. Then it seemed kind of useless to release a song now without a plan, so we have been working with the PR company and a manager to actually make the release a little bit more than if we were just to throw it up online without anything, you know?

Besides wanting to have a game plan for the release of Mad Man's Ruse, one thing that sort of postponed the release was adding Evan onto all the tracks. That was also was when we ended up recording The Hangover Sessions.

JC: I also understand you did a cover of Prince’s "Partyman" as a single.

MW: Yeah, so "Partyman" was kind of a fun one, just because we recorded that all in our home studio. We did that basically for the Batman movie with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. So the movie turned thirty when we released the song. It was the thirty-year anniversary, and we decided to take the song from that scene where the Joker is going through the art museum . . .

JC: Trashing the art museum, I remember.

MW: And that's the song going on in the background. That was always my favorite scene of that movie.

JC: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite scenes of that movie.

MW: And so we decided to take that song and do something with it, which was interesting because there is not really chord progression in that song. It’s kind of a wild, interesting song. We actually almost took the words and made our own thing with it.

JC: But what’s interesting is Prince’s version fits the scene of the Joker trashing the art museum. In your version of "Partyman,”  it feels more like a melancholy piano ballad.

MW: Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective on it. We thought it was maybe bringing a nightclub kind of vibe to it. We're definitely going for different, that’s for sure. Maybe we're shooting for more like Heath Ledger, if he was doing that scene. [To hear “Partyman,” click here.]

JC: Your new album, Mad Man’s Ruse, was released on July 26, 2019. What to expect from the new album?

The Blood Moon Howlers’ Mad Man’s Ruse (2019)

MW:  When we recorded Wasteland, that one was very special to us because it was the first thing that we did. And it was recorded all over the place, which I think is kind of a charm for modern recording—everyone is flying around tracks from studio to studio.

I think a long time ago, people would hear these recordings that were done all in one studio, so you get kind of this one vibe, whereas nowadays I think where the vibe comes from is actually different home studios and recording in multiple places. It kind of creates something unique.

This one is not a ton different from that, but it was all done in one studio, and then at the end we added Evan, and that was recorded at Brandon's studio. We ended up redoing some vocals and things like that all over the place.

Overall, I would say it's a little bit more put together than the last album. It was also an album that we were exploring a lot of blues structures on, where I think in Wasteland we were still kind of working out of a lot more pop structures.

JC: Yes.

MW: Even though Wasteland's not very pop. It still kind of worked out of that verse-and-chorus kind of setup. On Mad Man’s Ruse, we were working out of a lot of twelve-bar patterns and a lot of sixteen bar and eight bar different classic blues structures. We didn't stick specific to any of that stuff, but we did kind of use it as a tool when we were building the songs.

So there is a lot of exploration of the blues format, which I think we were able to update with modern guitar tones and . . . I don’t know, just our own take on the whole thing.

JC: Any songs you want to highlight for this new album?

MW:I guess the one we'd want to highlight is "Lose Myself (Bar 9).”  [To hear a live acoustic version of “Lose Myself (Bar 9),” click here.] I think that one is probably the band's favorite. It was one of the more last-minute songs on there, and it felt purely collaborative with Brandon. It was one of the first times where Brandon actually suggested a whole section of the song—it’s that whole kind of psychedelic middle crazy section. It’s like Santana's "Soul Sacrifice" or something . . . that whole middle section.

It was just a very spontaneous addition to the song. Anyway, that is one of the songs that didn't totally follow a blues structure—it’s maybe more like a Wasteland-style pop structure.

It actually has a chorus and stuff, but then the bridge is sort of inspired by jam bands and stuff like that. I think that was a cool marriage between a heavy rock song with a chorus and everything, and then a sort of complete jam band middle section. I guess that would be a highlight.

"Drunk and Cold" is another cool song just because the parallel of that being on The Hangover Sessions. Sorry, I’m going to ask JuJu real quick what she thinks about we should be mentioned on the album.

JC: Oh, she is here? 

[JuJu can be faintly heard in the background.]

MW: Yeah. I’m going to say for both of us that we want to go with "Mad Man's Ruse" because it's the title of the album. [To hear “Mad Man’s Ruse,” click here.]

JC: Yeah. So this is the title track?

MW: Yeah.

JC:  We spoke earlier about the movie Batman, and I understand a song on Mad Man’s Ruse was also contributed to a short indie film titled Sugar Babe.

MW: Yes, we contributed to a short film called Sugar Babe, which is through a friend of ours named Summer Vaughan. She does really, really wonderful stuff. She liked a lot of our music. She approached us with a couple of the songs that we had recorded and kind of gave us like, “Can you guys mix this with that?”

She gave us the script, and we wrote that song in two days. That was kind of the quickest song we wrote on the album. Then we went and tracked everything—we did all of the tracking in one day. That was actually the first song that Evan played on. [To hear a live acoustic version of “Sugar Babe,” click here.]

JC: Are there plans to tour behind this album?

MW: Absolutely. We have dates being set up as we speak. We have a weekend set up in summer, we have a weekend set up in October, and then we're working on November dates right now.

JC: I understand you’re going to release party for Mad Man’s Ruse tonight. [Note: It was July 20, 2019, when Matt and I spoke.]

MW: It's actually tomorrow night, so I'm really excited for it. We got a bunch of good bands playing. They’re real friendly bands that have been real supportive to us throughout our time as the Blood Moon Howlers and stuff. So it's a real close group of people.

We're doing it at Lucky Strike in Hollywood, and I think it's going to be a pretty epic night. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A Very Candid Conversation with Luke Underhill

This blog has covered artists who have history and/or are veterans in the music industry. This is the first entry on an artist who is starting out and shows a lot of promise in the years to come. Luke Underhill is a singer-songwriter who hails from Chicago. In addition to singing, he plays guitar and piano. He plays with a band and other times, plays solely by himself. Luke has already earned comparisons with John Mayer.

This fresh new talent got his start in 2015 with an independent EP called Atlas. He then released his first studio EP, The Left Side (2017), where his fan base on social media started to grow. One of the people listening was hit producer Warren Huart (producer of Aerosmith and The Fray), who helped him make his most recent EP, Illuminations, which was released in April 2019.

From Illuminations, Luke has had his first radio single, “Long Way Home.” In addition, Illuminations has had more than 59K streams on Spotify. Later in 2019, Luke plans to tour behind Illuminations, bringing his music to a bigger audience.

In this candid conversation, we discuss Luke’s beginnings from Atlas to Illuminations. I want to thank Nichole Peters from Jensen Communications for setting up this interview, but most of all I want to thank Luke.

Jeff Cramer: How did you become interested in music?

Luke Underhill: I honestly think my dad, because we didn't have much music playing in our house, but when we would drive together anything would go. My dad had every Bruce Springsteen CD in his car, so I had no other choice but to listen to it.

Thank God I loved it, because if I didn't then we wouldn't have gotten along. But there was something about listening to Bruce Springsteen that really kind of captured all that. I got to see him live—I was probably five or six years old when my dad took me to a concert. When I was there, I remember thinking, “I needed to be on stage.”

JC: So Springsteen started it all for you?

LH: Yeah, I got really into poetry when I was young, and I noticed that Bruce wasn't just this guy who would scream into a microphone. He actually had something to say, and he had a great way of saying it. I mean, he has a lot of pretty obscure tunes and weird ones, but even on those songs I'd sit back and actually listen to the lyrics and the content.

It hit me in a really personal way, so I think that's when I started taking a lot of it seriously.

JC: When did you first start writing music?

LH: I think I wrote my first song when I was thirteen or fourteen. My uncle passed away and I didn't have a person to go to, or to talk about it. I didn't know what to do with my feelings, so I knew a couple of chords on guitar and I just decided to give it a go, and it turned out all right.

JC: From there you would work on what be your first EP, Atlas. 

LH: Oh, Atlas. Yeah, I didn't want to record and put out the songs I was writing—like personal songs—so I tried writing about things I saw, like paintings and movies, or books I've read and stuff, because it was just the easiest way for me to do things.

I think if I wanted to do Atlas over again, I don't think I would change much. I'm really happy with how my first EP turned out.

Luke’s first EP Atlas (2015)

My friends are usually the ones who will bring up Atlas in a kind of jesting way. I don't listen to anything from Atlas anymore. I've kind of moved on from that part of my life. I think I've really matured as a songwriter, as a musician, and as a person since then. I wrote all those songs from Atlas when I was seventeen or eighteen. So I don't hate Atlas; I don't dislike it. It's just like I've moved on from it.

JC: And then from there you would move on to The Left Side.

LH: That was fun. Working with Mikal Blue [producer of Jason Mraz and OneRepublic] at his studio, Revolver Recordings, was a lot of fun.

Luke's second EP, The Left Side(2017)  
JC: In the song, "I'll Be Waiting,” on The Left Side, the narrator has been waiting for this girl since the age of eleven. Is it autobiographical, or is it based on someone else?

LH: I wanted to write about anything but myself. Of course I took different things from my life as inspiration, as kind of fillers. But people really don't believe me when I say this, but I swear it's true . . . I was watching the movie Just Friends with Ryan Reynolds.

JC: Yes, I know that movie.

LH: And I thought it was some crazy situation to be in. Here’s this guy, decades later, who’s still in love with the girl he met when he was a kid. I'm sure I can relate to that and other people could too, so I just kind of tapped into that. It was a young puppy-love thing that never really went away and then turned into actual head-over-heels in love. Writing it was fun.  [To hear “I’ll Be Waiting,” click here.]

JC: Yeah, when I heard the lyrics about the eleven-year-old, I remember I waited too long than I should have to talk to some girls, but I have nothing on the narrator. He’s been waiting since he was eleven.

LH: I thought the line flowed well. I can name a couple of my friends who have waited so long to be with their one true love or the girl they've been infatuated with ever since the fifth grade. So I just had to put the point across that way.

 Working with Mikal Blue on The Left Side helped a lot because I got to meet a lot of cool people. They called me “the rookie,” because I was there and I really didn't really belong there, but I was among all these great musicians and artists.

When I was working on The Left Side, I didn't have any social media.

JC: Oh really?

LH: I absolutely hate social media, but I know how important it is in this business. And so they kind of introduced me to it. My managers were like, “You have to get Instagram. You have to get Twitter. You have to get Facebook.” So just by doing that, people would then follow me. I was not into YouTube, social media, anything like that until they all sat me down and said, “You have to stop being so stubborn and do this because it does matter,” and they could not have been more right.

So I'm still learning. I'm still not great with it. I think all the followers and YouTube content of the subscribers and the views and stuff . . . I'd honestly say was kind of luck at first, a lot of luck. But then we learned the different ways to do things, and from The Left Side, I got fans. I guess they liked the music.

JC: Another tune on The Left Side I want to talk about: “Goodbye, Mary Jane.” Was there a Mary Jane in your life?

LH: Oh yeah. I just wanted to write a song about a summer fling, and I've never really had a summer fling. People  have these seasons in their life and they connect them to different people. I think that's what I really wanted to do: you know, portray that sort of thing.

I feel like everyone has that person. It's like, “Oh man, remember this? Remember that tree we used to hang under? Remember we used to do this, and we'd have fun doing that?” That’s kind of what it is. I took a little inspiration from The Notebook and Grease.

Just trying to catch these different little flings that people have that ended up meaning a lot more to them than they originally would have thought. That’s a very relatable scenario in people’s lives.

 I did some acoustic sessions of the songs on The Left Side, and a lot of people like that other side. I think those are my most watched videos on my YouTube, so stripping everything down was a really good choice.

JC: In "Goodbye, Mary Jane,” I’ve heard the acoustic and studio version and was struck by the differences. [To hear the studio version of “Goodbye, Mary Jane,” click here, and the acoustic version of “Goodbye, Mary Jane,” click here.]

LH: Yeah. For all the stripped-down versions of those songs on The Left Side, I wanted to emulate what people would have heard had they been in my bedroom when I was writing them.

"Goodbye, Mary Jane” was never supposed to be a kind of poppy tune. I wanted it to be slow. I wanted it to show that if you actually listen to the lyrics they're kind of sad, you know?

JC: Yeah.

LH: I got done with the studio version, and I was so happy with it. Then out of nowhere, I checked in with one of my managers and said, “Hey, I want to release the acoustic version of ‘Goodbye Mary Jane.’”

She was like, “Why?” I said, “Because people just don't get it.” I want people to see the actual emotion of what I was trying to portray, because I feel like it would hit them in a completely different way. Why not try to make people think a little bit and see how they like it. I think it's my most watched video on YouTube.

But yeah, the whole point of stripping everything down when I did that is because I wanted to give my fans the impression of what it would have been like to sit in the room with me when I was writing these songs.

JC: You were also getting attention from well-known producer Warren Huart, who produced your latest EP Illuminations.

LH: Yeah. That was a lot of fun. I got a call from my manager one day and she said, “Hey, you have a call with Warren Huart. He is really interested in working with you, and I think he be a good fit.”

So I got a call from him, and right off the bat he was listening to everything I had to say. It was a lot different than any other producer I've worked with. Right off the bat, you kind of have an understanding of what you want, but Warren kept on asking all these questions to get down to what I actually wanted from this EP.

I'd reference a song, and he would write it down and immediately start playing on his computer. When I notice him doing that, it really spoke a lot to me. It wasn’t until after the phone call that I looked him. I didn't realize he worked with some of my favorite artists:  The Fray, Aerosmith, and Augustana.

I was just freaking out and thinking, “He was the one.” I called my manager back and said, “Okay, I have to work with this guy.” There was no one else I wanted to even meet. He understood me, he understood my art, and he obviously knew where I was coming from. Yeah, he was a lot of fun to work with.

Luke’s third EP, Illuminations (2019)

JC: Now let’s talk about a couple of the songs there. Want to start off with "Long Way Home?” 

LH: Yeah, I'll talk about "Long Way Home" first. For the EP, I wanted to write about myself, which is something I didn’t do on the other EPs.

I've always been a dive-into-the-pool kind of guy—I don't like dipping my toe in. So I got together with this guy in Nashville, Andrew Capra, and we just sat down and talked. He said, “Tell me about your life,” and I said, “Oh, there is really nothing much.” But then we started to really get into the nitty-gritty, and I realized that there is nothing better than that feeling of being a kid again with no care in the world.

When you’re a kid, you’re just kind of living your life literally step by step and day by day. Andrew and I decided to write about  riding my bike home from my friend's house when I was a kid. We wanted to expand on that feeling, and the same feeling I had when I moved away from my small hometown in Illinois to Nashville.

So it was expanding on all of that, just really trying to be as personal as we could. Everything that you hear in that song is true, and something that I've lived with. I think that song is about as specific as you can get with writing, but I feel like a lot of people do relate to that. [To hear “Long Way Home,” click here.]

I never wanted to be too detailed or too specific, because I want people to relate to my music. But I feel like that was the best way to get them to relate; you never really realize how people will react to a song or to lyrics. I think people connect the most to “Long Way Home.”

JC: I'll say the "Rooftops" song does give me a feeling of being high up on a rooftop.

LH: I think that song might have been the most changed. I originally brought Warren the demo. My manager did not like it. It was really just a more experimental with a lot of piano. It was about six minutes long, so that wasn’t going to make it. Then Warren was like, “This has the potential to be a success. We just have to trim it down. We have to really fix it.”

And so we did. It was over six minutes, and now it’s three minutes, or something like that. Warren said, “Just let me kind of take my mind and run with this one.” I gave him pretty much everything I wanted in it. I just wanted really triumphant strings and stuff, and I think we nailed it up.

Warren’s favorite band is Queen, and all he ever wants to do is kind of just run with some Brian May [the guitarist for Queen] guitar licks, and that's exactly what I let him do, and he had a ball doing it. I had a blast just sitting there watching him kind of create all this. Yeah, "Rooftops" was fun.

JC: You guys had lucky timing with Bohemian Rhapsody coming out to theaters, making Queen even more popular around this time than they had been in a while.

LH: I didn't think he would actually go through with all of it, turning this into a Queen tune. I didn't think he'd actually do it. With the success of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, I feel like people may better understand what we were trying to do with it.

Lyrically, that song was just a mess before I met Warren. He sat me down and said, “You need this to go here. You need this, this, this.” Warren and I tightened it up, but lyrically it was just free writing on that one.

Then musically, production-wise, I can't take all the credit. Warren really had fun messing around with it. I think that's what kind of gives it that charming fun part of it. [This author thinks “Rooftops” sounds more Springsteen than Queen. The reader can make their own decision by clicking here.]

JC: We’ve mentioned Springsteen and Queen, but there are obviously other music influences for you besides Springsteen.

LH: Of course. Bruce is my biggest influence because I really had no other choice but to listen to him, and I'm not complaining because he is one of my favorite artists, but my favorite artist of all time is Ben Folds. I don't believe I sound like him. I don't believe I write like him.

I cannot play like him. If I did, then I would have zero problem playing in front of people. In some way, he does inspire. I take away from him a little bit, and also Ben Rector and Billy Joel.

If you really want to dig down deep, a lot of stuff I like to listen to is AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses.

JC: Yes.

LH: I just grew up on that stuff, but I never really paid attention to the people that I grew up listening to. When I'm writing my own stuff, I just want to see where my own heart can take it. But then after I'm done, I'll be like, “Oh yeah, this is definitely a Springsteen tune, or this sounds like whatever.”

I don't think that's something that people should ignore. I feel like they should use that to their advantage and see where it can take them. But Springsteen and Ben Folds are my numbers one and two.

JC: Now I notice you play piano and guitar.

LH: Yes.

JC: Was there any influences on your piano playing?

LH: Piano wise?

JC: Yeah.

LH: Probably oh, I have no idea. I just picked up piano one day because there was a piano in the room, and I felt the need to play piano. I never really had a personal hero. Of course, Ben Folds, Elton John, Billy Joel, but I don't play like them. I play it more like if it sounds pretty, it sounds pretty. I'm not a classically trained pianist.

Performance wise, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ben Folds . . . I love how crazy they get with all that. I just, It’s not using the piano as a classic instrument, and I’ve always loved that. I like to use it as a percussion instrument. It's a big, thick instrument. It can take a beating. I'm going to beat it up a little bit.

But guitar wise, I grew up watching Angus Young from AC/DC play, and he’s my guitar hero, because I'm a big guitar buff.

JC: So what's the model of guitar that you play?

LH: I have a Gibson Midtown Custom, all black. It's absolutely gorgeous, and you can't beat the sound. But I'd have to say my favorite guitar of all time is just the classic SG.

JC: Actually, I just realized there is one song that I also wanted to ask you about that's on Illuminations. It's "Katie's Song"—the narrator says, ‘I'm a mess because of you.’ Yeah, I'm just curious about that one. [To hear “Katie’s Song,” click here.]

LH: Yes, that one probably came the easiest. Writing that was so easy. I didn't really even have to think at the moment. I was talking to a friend of mine and he kept on asking why I was feeling bad. He said, “There is no reason you should be feeling this way. Everything is going good.”

I wasn’t feeling down because of a woman or with any kind of relationship. It's just in life in general. There is something in me that always said, “This is going good, but you're going to mess it up.” And just the thought of that, like no matter what's going on in my life, it ruins it.

It’s like you're in bed with the one you love. Why are you so upset? When I say I'm a mess because of this person, I'm not blaming on this person. They're doing everything right, but I am doing everything wrong right now. I could always put the blame on them because I have no other person to put it on. It's such a shitty feeling. Sorry for swearing.

JC: It's fine.

LH: It’s such a nasty feeling, and I feel like that song really wasn't for anyone but me. "Katie" doesn't really exist. You just need to get some of that stuff out sometimes and realize that you're not doing anything wrong. Sometimes you just feel like a mess and it's something you can't control. “Katie’s Song” is all about insecurity and just trying to get through the night without completely losing yourself.

JC: Are you planning on touring behind Illuminations?

LH: Yeah. We have a Midwest run coming up probably toward end of July, beginning of August [2019]. I'm kind of planning it right now. I've done a couple of short runs already. I have some different press trips planned from Atlanta to New York City. A lot of stuff coming up. In this genre you can't rush it because you’ll miss too much, and they move on without you if you go too slow. It's a scary process, but I'm having the time of my life getting ready for this tour.

 Right now, "Long Way Home" has been hitting the radio pretty well. That is more than I ever thought it would be doing on the radio. It’s going to take such a long time to kind of see those results. I'm just more than blessed to have a song on the radio.

But it would be nice to be picked up by things like a commercial or TV, movie. I feel like a lot of these songs could fit in well with different scenarios, and that would be more than awesome. But could not be more happy with how "Long Way Home" is doing, and the rest of the album is getting a lot of attention just because of that song.

I never expected "Katie's Song" to be anything more than just a last song of the EP, but that one has about as much play as "Long Way Home.”

JC: You know I listen to Illuminations on Spotify. I didn’t listen to the way you set the album; I listen to it by ranks of Spotify popularity. “Long Way Home” is first, and "Katie's Song” is second, which is a different order than what the song list is on Illuminations.

LH: I didn't expect that. That’s probably the most personal song I'll ever write, and it is my favorite one on the album. It’s really cool to know that people are actually checking that out.

JC: Along with touring, do you plan on continue with any more EPs or songs?

LH: Yeah, absolutely. Right now, I'm itching to get back into the studio because I have so much more in my pocket to get out there. I want to go back to the studio. I want to release some new music. I think it's going to sound a little different, but awesome to me. It's a different feel all around for this next project I'm working on.

 On the next thing I work on, I don't expect it to sound anything like what came before it because that one season in my life and I'm moving onto the next. Atlas was a season before, then I moved on to The Left Side, which was a different season, and that was enough, so on and so forth.

For now I'm focusing on the tour, and that's why I'm itching. I want to get more people hearing the songs. Honestly, if you hear them live, I think you'll like them even more as I do. There’s a little bit different arrangements, and I have some more fun with it. And of course, anyone who loves music knows that you can't beat a live concert.

JC: I love music and I’m a huge concert buff.

LH: Not to toot my own horn, but I think I put on a pretty good show. I mean, I grew up watching people like Bruce Springsteen. I have to bring that authenticity.

JC: You started in 2015 with Atlas, and Illuminations is in 2019. What has been your feelings about it?

LH: I've never been more happy. When I did Atlas, I didn't really expect much to happen at all. I didn't really have any confidence. After I did it I was like, “Okay, I'm done. Whatever.” But after Illuminations, everything was just so bright. The future was just like kind of in my head at that point, and I knew great things were going to come.

Going from Atlas to Illuminations, I couldn't be more proud of myself, because I seriously did not think anything would come after Atlas, but I was okay with it. I knew when I was writing Illuminations that it would be something special and be something big for me.

And now more people know my name. People know my songs. At the last show I played, people were singing along, and that's a dream come true. They never did that when I released Atlas. I just knew that this was different, and I'm glad I was right.

JC: We’ve mentioned Springsteen a lot. The music industry was a lot different back then when he was recording. What would your recommendations be for people who are in a world when we no longer go to Tower Records and stream on Spotify or YouTube?

LH: It’s an uphill battle, and it will never be easy. Making music has become a lot easier with technology, and being able to get it out there has become a lot easier.

There is always going to be a fan base for what you want to do. There is always going to be someone out there who loves what you do, but the hardest part is continuing to do it because there’s a steady stream of people doing it.

 I would say to someone who wants to go into this industry that if it’s truly what you want to do, there should absolutely be nothing holding you back. This is because of all the opportunities that we have now being in this day and age. There should be absolutely nothing stopping you from doing what you love.

I mean, it's going to be hard. Nothing worth fighting for is going to be easy, but it's not work. It's not going to be a huge challenge if you enjoy doing it. Every time I've failed, I gain experience from it.

I think the best advice is to not let anyone tell you no. Don’t let anyone tell you that you're not good enough, because that happened to me a lot, and that is just a bunch of crap. You have to keep pursuing it if it's truly what you're meant to do.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Very Candid Conversation with Shawn Phillips

Shawn Phillips with guitar (1971)

Shawn Phillips got off to a start where he recorded two albums for Landsdowne: “I’m A Loner” (1964) and “Shawn” (1965). These albums would lead to a collaboration with folk music legend Donovan shortly after. Throughout the ’60s, Shawn co-wrote and performed some of Donovan’s well-known songs, such as “Sunshine Superman,” “Guinevere, ” and “Season of the Witch.” In addition, he would get a chance to provide backing vocals for the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita.”

Following the ’70s, Shawn would have a record contract with jazz legend Herb Alpert’s A&M Records . Several of his albums include “Collaboration” (1970), “Second Collaboration” (1970), “Bright White” (1973), and “Do You Wonder” (1974). Also during in the ’70s, Shawn would play at the legendary Isle of Wight Music Festival. In addition, he was briefly considered for the role of Jesus in the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The contract with A&M came to an end in the late ’70s. From there, Shawn, without a record label, would record sporadically. He would also find a second career as an emergency medical technician and firefighter.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, Shawn released his latest album, “Continuance” (2018). The album continues Shawn’s musical talent. In addition, it continues themes of the essence of life and greed (there’s a Bernie Sanders quote in the album). As of the time of this writing, Shawn is busy touring in support of “Continuance.” In addition, filmmaker Alex Wroten is making a documentary about him.

In this candid conversation, we discuss Shawn’s musical career, his collaboration with Donovan, his performance at the Isle of Wight, the near “Jesus Christ Superstar” experience, and his other career as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. In addition, we talk about his latest album, “Continuance,” and the documentary being made about him. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview with Shawn. But most of all, I want to thank Shawn for the interview.

Jeff Cramer:  What brought your interest into music?

Shawn Phillips:   My father bought me an old Stella guitar when I was six years old. And I started from there. For about the first year, I just drove him absolutely nuts with E minor and A minor. And then the playing started to evolve, and I just continued to evolve since then.

JC:   All right. How did playing with your Stella lead to the two albums you did for Landsdowne. How did that happen?

SP:   Well, the original reason for me going to England was that I was – England was going to be a stopover for my way on to India, because I wanted to study sitar. And I was only in England for a month.

I went to a party, and I was playing some tunes that I played, and a man named Denis Preston was at that party. He was the head of Landsdowne Recording. The CBS Studios there in London. He said, “Do you wanna make some albums?”

I said, “Yes, as long as there is no time clause on the contract that I have to stay in England.” And he said, “Oh, that’s not a problem.” So we got in there and we recorded, originally, Shawn and I’m a Loner.

I’m a Loner album cover (1964)

They were later re-released on the Columbia label, I believe, under different names. But I met Don(Note: Shawn will refer to Donovan as Don), and that’s how I kind of got stuck in England. But I was on my way to India to study sitar. And that’s kind of what turned out.

JC:   How did you meet Donovan?

SP:   I was in London and I needed strings. I went to a music store called Ivor Mairants’ Music Store. And Don  was buying strings and supplies, and then we met up and we got to talking. And he’d heard of me through Pete Townshend.

JC:   How did you know Pete Townshend?

SP:   Well, I’d actually never met Pete. He heard me playing on one of the two Landsdowne albums and he said, “God, this guy really plays a 12-string. He’s the best 12-string player I’ve ever heard.” That’s the only instrument I was playing at the time, was my red Gibson 12-string.

JC:  OK, back to meeting Donovan…

SP:  So Don and I got talking and he said, “Hey, you wanna go smoke a joint and have something to eat?” And I said, “Sure.” So off we went, and that’s how the friendship began.

JC:   It also led to a lot of music collaboration. What did you bring to Donovan’s music?

SP:   Basically, the way we wrote together is that I would sit in the room and I would play the guitar. Don would make up lyrics. And that’s the way – especially, “Season of the Witch.” I mean, I completely wrote the music on that. And then for things like “Guinevere,” stuff like that.

Don had a set of chords. And basically, what I would do is I would play sitar and do an arrangement with the sitar while he played those chords. But, occasionally, he did one of my songs. He did a little song called “Little Tin Soldier.”

Shawn (sitting on floor) with Donovan (year unknown)

“Season of the Witch” is the one I wrote the music to completely. I kind of put the funk feel to “Sunshine Superman.” He had the chords, but I kind of funked it out there and made it a little more funky.

JC:  Now this is something all Beatles fans will want to know. How did you get singing backup vocals on “Lovely Rita”?

SP:  I was friends with Don. Don was friends with Paul. Paul invited us over to the house. And about two days later, Don was talking to Paul and Paul said, “Why don’t you guys come by the studio?”

And Don said, “I can’t, but Shawn can come hang out. He’s got a friend you’ll like. He’s name is Stephen Saunders.” And Paul said, “Sure, tell them to come by whenever they want.” So I showed up at the studio with Stephen, and it was as simple as that. Have you seen the picture of me in the studio with those guys and Dave Crosby?

JC:   No, I didn’t see it.

SP:   Well, there’s a picture on Facebook of some guy named Mark – I can’t remember his name now. He found the picture. And he posted this picture on Facebook. And I’m standing, smiling, behind Stephen. And John Lennon is leaning around the corner of the door. Paul McCartney was in the background, and David Crosby is standing up at the front of the picture. David and I were going into the booth to sing vocals on “Lovely Rita.”

Shawn (far top left) doing backup vocals for “Lovely Rita.” (1967)

JC:  From the time you were playing with Donovan, what brought you to go back to the studio and start recording solo albums in the ’70s?

SP:   Well, our relationship kind of came to an end at a point after he did the last tour in the States. And I had a lot of material that I was writing and I wanted to get it recorded. I came back from the States and I went back to England. And I was there for about three or four months.

The home office informed me that my work permit had expired and that I needed to leave England for three months. This was in 1967. So I talked to my friend, Casy Deiss, whom I wrote a song about.

And I talked to Casy and Casy said, “Oh, well go down to Positano and find a guy named Julio. Julio will help you find a place to stay.”

On the taxi ride from Naples to Positano, the cab driver stopped at the top of Positano where the statue of the Madonna is. I took one look at this thing and I just went, “That’s it. I ain’t moving no more.” So I settled in there and I just started writing.

And then about 1969, I guess, Jonathan Weston, who was my manager – my English manager at the time – he said, “You need to start working.” And I said, “Well, I got an idea for a trilogy of albums that I wanna make.” And he went back to England, to London, and he spoke to Dick James, who had a big publishing company at the time.

And Dick said, “Okay, I’ll put the money up for it.” And the money he put up at that time was $25,000. And we made the trilogy. And we sent the trilogy around and, finally, an A&R man in New York – a guy named Jerry Love – he listened to it and the afternoon that he listened to it, he flew to Los Angeles to give the album to Jerry Moss, [co-]founder of A&M.

And Moss said, “We gotta sign this guy.” So everybody at A&M was all gung-ho to release the trilogy. And then there was one guy in the accounting department, Bob Fead, who said, “Oh, this is not feasible. Nobody has ever released a trio of albums before. We need to take this apart and just release one album.”

So, they did. And they took all the songs that were off of what were on the original thing. Because the trilogy consisted of music, spoken word, and the last of the third disk was spoken word and a fairy tale  that I had written called “The Beginning of the End of the Story.”

I’m not gonna say the end of it, because if anybody ever hears it, I don’t want the end – the end comes as a big surprise. But that was the three things. And they took all the songs and they put them on one album, which they called Contribution, and that’s what came out on A&M.

Contribution album cover (1970)

JC:   So the whole trilogy was put on one album then?

SP:   No, only the songs. [Not] the spoken word things, the poetry, the instrumentals of the semi-classical music. The first disc was songs, the second disc was semi-classical music I had written and a couple of spoken words, and the third disc was, again, some spoken word things and the fairy tale. But you need to understand that the fairy tale was played by specifically picked members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Patrick John Scott was the man who did the arrangements. I sang the melody lines that I wanted to hear to John, and he incorporated them into a 27-minute piece of music that I narrated to. And one of the highlights of this was the person that played the harpsichord on the fairy tale was the world-renowned Wanda Landowska.

So they all came out. And, to this day, the fairy tale is still sitting in a vault at Interscope Records. At Universal Records. [Note: A&M Records was bought by Interscope and Universal.] So it’s never been released. They picked the songs because they had a commercial appeal. They didn’t pick the spoken word, or the poetry, or the instrumentals. They didn’t think any of those had anything.

The instrumental things were an instrumental piece I did on 12-string, and then there was a sitar piece that I composed. And that was some of the instrumentals. But those things have never been released. I actually have – somebody just recently brought me a CD of the remainder of the trilogy.

There’s a guy named Alex Wroten. Alex is making a feature-length documentary on my history in the music industry. And he’s dug stuff up that I’ve even forgotten that I did – for years. But, anyway, that’s what happened with the trilogy. And it came out, it did pretty good.

But the very first ad that A&M ever put out was – the very first ad, the name you saw on the ad was not Shawn Phillips. The first name you saw on the ad was – the caption on the ad said, “Not since Norman Greenbaum has there been –” You know, blah, blah, blah. Because, at the time, they were pushing Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Anyway, that was about the only advertising that was done on A&M for that. But it did okay. And it got a little bit of radio play, so they got me in the studio to do Second Contribution.

Second Contribution album (1970)

JC:   Okay. This was jazz legend Herb Alpert’s label. Did you find that being at A&M – that was run by a musician – gave you certain creative freedom in what you were doing?

SP:   Absolutely. They gave me complete creative freedom. But there was one guy there – he’s passed as well now. A man named Bill. I loved Bill. He was a good friend. But Bill would take me into his office and he would sit behind his desk with his feet up on the desk, and he’d point his finger at me and go, “This is a business.”

And I’m going, “Bill, no. For you, it’s a business. It’s not a business for me. It’s a craft. It’s an art form. I’m trying to make music. I don’t care if somebody who doesn’t wanna think doesn’t wanna listen to it. I don’t care about that. I just wanna make the greatest quality music I can. And I do that not by sticking to a specific genre of music or a specific formula.”

And it never has been a business for me.

JC:   During that time, you had played the legendary Isle of Wight concert. How did that happen?

SP:   I had been at another festival. We were almost done there and somebody said, “Oh, there’s a huge festival going on at the Isle of Wight. And I know a guy with a private plane that’s gonna go there.”

One of the people that was hanging out with us was a lady horn player from Sly and the Family Stone. She played trumpet. She said she was frightened to death of flying. There were about six of us that were gonna go on this private aircraft. She didn’t wanna go and she made up the sixth.

I said, “Listen, you need to understand the science behind flying, okay? It’s fine. There’s huge science. There’s no problem.” And we got on the aircraft, we flew there, and I held her hand the entire trip there. Anyway, we get there and we’re all hanging out backstage. And I knew a couple of people that got me backstage. And we were all hanging out and I was – you can imagine the situation. How much hashish was going around.

JC:   Yeah. I can imagine.

SP:   Oh boy. I mean, I was so stoned, I could hardly walk. And in the middle of the afternoon, one of the stage guys – one of the stage managers – came to me and they said, “There’s been a cancellation and we need somebody to do a 45-minute set. Can you do a 45-minute set?”

And I said, “Shit, yeah. I can do that.” So I got up – and that’s how I played there. I can’t even remember what I played, but I remember – what I do remember from that is I got a double standing ovation from 657,000 people.

Shawn at Isle of Wight (1970)

JC:   That’s great.

SP:   [Laughs] And that’s kind of an experience you don’t forget. And the other experience that I remember that is as clear as this moment in my mind was, after I did my set, I walked out and Free was gonna play.

JC:   Yes.

SP:   And Free walked out and it was about 5:00 going on to 6:00. And I remember the sky was absolutely golden-orange with the sun setting behind the stage. And Free started playing [singing] “All right now. Baby it’s all right now.” And I’m looking at this from the middle of the crowd, and, all of a sudden, this enormous, 100,000-cubic-meter hot air balloon – purple and orange – rose up from behind the stage. That’s the other thing I vividly remember about Isle of Wight.

JC:   Another experience I want to talk about around that time is that I understand you were originally cast for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

SP:   I was on tour in Philadelphia. And my manager, Jonathan Weston, at that time, gave me a copy of JC Superstar, and I said, “What are you giving me this for? I know about this.” And Jonathan said, “Well, they want you to learn ‘In the Garden of Gethsemane.’”

So they got me a record player. I spent about 45 minutes to an hour. I learned the song. I was put on an airplane to New York and they put me in a black, darkened Broadway theater. There was a line of about 80 people outside the stage door of this theater.

And I was into the front of the line, they put me in there. I had made friends with both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (the show's composers) when I was in England. I knew both of them. I’m on the stage. The audience is blacked out. And the piano player starts playing and I start singing it.

I get a little less than halfway through the tune when a voice comes out of the audience. And it says, “That’s fine. You can stop now. Thank you. And you can send everybody else home now.” I knew the voice. I said, “Andrew, is that you?” And he said, “Yeah, hi, man. How you doing?” But it was Andrew.

He came up on the stage and he said, “Okay, dude. You’re it. You’re gonna be JC Superstar.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And they took me downstairs, they took my picture, they put that picture in Time magazine, and then I went back on tour. I finished the tour, went back to New York to start rehearsals.

Now, I was rehearsing with all the original cast. And one of the original cast was a guy named Carl Anderson, a black man that played Judas. Carl and I became instant friends. When we sang the Jesus-Judas duet, everybody in the cast said it was just absolutely electric.

I mean, we were half an inch out of each other’s faces. We were screaming at each other. It was really amazing. And then, about three weeks into the rehearsal – oh, and I have to interject here. Carl Anderson has passed, okay? He’s died. But I have to tell you that Carl Anderson – if anybody wants to hear his records or find him – Carl Anderson is the only singer – the only male singer in the world – that ever made me weep when I listened to him.

Okay, anyway, three weeks into it, I come in for rehearsal, the stage manager says, “Sorry, we’re not gonna be using you anymore.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, basically, I’ve been told to ask you to return the costume and all this stuff. And they’re gonna call somebody else in.”

Jonathan and I were flabbergasted. “What’s going on?” What happened was, we found out that the show's producer Robert Stigwood – number one, Jonathan Weston was my manager, number two, Dick James was my publisher, number three, A&M was my record company, and number four, CMA was my booking agency.

Robert Stigwood found out he would not be able to make any money off of me, so they fired me. That’s why I was fired as JC Superstar, because Robert Stigwood couldn’t get a finger in the pie – or any other pie, for that matter. If you know what I’m saying.

JC:   Okay. I want to talk about some of the songs you recorded in A&M. You mentioned a while back about Casy Deiss finding you a place in Italy. There’s a song called “Ballad of Casy Deiss.” How did that song come about?

SP:   I’ve been there in Positano just about two and a half years, Casy was living in a village outside – I’m trying to remember the name of it. I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, he and his wife, Diana, were living outside of Rome.

He went out to chop some wood and he had a double-bladed axe. He had the wood under one arm and the axe over his shoulder when he was walking home. And lightning was generated from the ground and went through the axe and it killed Casy. They found him in the door. And she was pregnant when this happened.

So that’s how “The Ballad of Casy Deiss” came about. It’s an absolutely true story. And if you listen carefully to every single one of my songs, I never write from imagination. [I] write from experience. I think that’s one of the things that give the songs some credence sometimes. [To hear “Ballad of Casy Deiss” click here.]

My difficulty is finding chord structures and melody lines that nobody has ever used or heard before. That is the singular most difficult thing for a singer-songwriter to do – or composer – is to write a melody line that no one has ever heard. And when it comes to writing lyrics, the thing is –

When you write a song, you have to – each line in that song has to have many different implications into some facet of our lives, or your life, or our lives. Because whatever is happening in my life is happening in your life.

Okay. Each line needs to have multiple implications as what is going on in life. I have a different way of writing than other people. When I write a song, once I have written – I have three things, three criteria with which I write. They are anger, wonder, and technique.

Anger is you look at the world around you, and if you’re satisfied with what you see, then you’re just probably fucking certifiable, man. Wonder is to be attentive to every blade of grass and every drop of rain that falls on a flower. And then technique, the third criteria, is keeping the balance between the anger and the wonder.

And when I write the first line to a song, I do not leave the room until I have written the last line. And the reason I do that is because once you start on that, once you have a subject that you’re interested in, once you start writing on that, you create a specific train of thought. If you say, “Oh, I’m hungry. I’m gonna go have some lunch,” and you go have lunch and you destroy your energy output with the digestion of your food.

And when you come back, you will never find that original train of thought again. And that’s why I write the way I write. It’s also the same way with the composition of music. Once I’ve started a piece, I don’t finish until I think I have something where I can now add onto and elaborate on.

JC:   Well, I can’t pronounce the very long title. It’s actually my favorite vocal moment from you. It’s “She Was Waiting.” Tell me the story about that song.

SP:   So, “She was waiting for her mother at the station in Torino and you know we love you baby but it’s getting too heavy to laugh.”

JC:   Yes.

SP:   Okay. If I had said, “in E minor –” If I added those three things in E minor, it would, in fact, have been the longest song title ever created. But Hoagy Carmichael beat me. I can’t remember the name of his tune, but he beat me by one word on the longest song title ever created.

Here’s the deal. Here’s what happened. The reason that song came about. At the time just before that song was written, I was in a relationship with an English actress named Francesca Annis. A lot of people don’t know her name or anything, but she was in the movie Dune.

JC:   Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard her from.

SP:   Yeah, she played Paul Atreides’ mother in Dune. Anyway, I was in a relationship with Francesca and we were living together in my little house. And there was a 15-year-old girl – teenager – named Letizia who would come to our house. She would sleep on our couch. We would feed her.

We were like a small community of expats from England, the US, France, Germany, Italy – all different expats. And we had a little community going. Anyway, she’d stay with us, then she’d go to somebody else – one of our friends – and they’d let her sleep there and they’d feed her.

And there came a moment when we didn’t have the money to support this child. So what we did is we pulled what little money we had, and we bought her an express train ticket from Naples to Torino, where she came from, and we put her on the train at 7:35 in the morning. At a quarter to 12 that night, we’re all hanging out at the Bar Internazionale in Positano, and the phone rings. I take the phone. It’s Letizia. She’s calling from Torino. She is in absolute tears. She said in Italian, “My mother is not here. I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?”

We talked for a minute, and all of a sudden, Letizia says, “My mother is here.” So, “She was waiting for her mother at the station in Torino and you know we love you baby but it’s getting too heavy to laugh.” That’s the story behind that song. [To hear a live version of “She Was Waiting…(aka Woman),” click here.]

JC:   You would stay in Italy a bit. What would bring you back out of Italy?

SP:   An earthquake. That’s in 1980 on October 6th. There was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in the southern region of Italy. It was centered at Santa Maria di Castellabate, which is right on the other side of the mountain from Positano. And, basically, what went down is it shook once. But it shook so hard that it cracked the foundations of my house.

After I moved out, they did what they could to repair it. But I had very heavy speakers and a lot of equipment in the studio and the house, and they were afraid it might collapse. That kind of called the end to that in Positano, and I moved back to Los Angeles. So I’m moving out of the frying pan and into the fire.

JC:   You would not record as frequently in the ’80s as you did in the ’70s.

SP:   That’s ’cause I had the money. A&M didn’t want to renew the contracts, basically, because I wasn’t writing what they wanted me to write. And I was just writing what I wanted and I was trying to get as farther out as possible. Even from the very beginning.

JC:   Yes.

SP:   And, after A&M, it was kind of fly-by-night to where somebody would put the money out for a new CD. One of the guys – at that point, I had a manager named Clancy Grass. And Clancy put the money up for Beyond Here Be Dragons.

And in the meanwhile, I had made an album with a guy – which was a big mistake – in Quebec, named Michel Le Francois, who wanted to make an album with me. But when I got up there, he wouldn’t let anybody else play on the album except himself. He wanted my basic guitar and voice, and he wanted to do everything else.

Well, as soon as I found out that that was gonna be the case, the relationship went downhill from there. And I had the tunes and we did them and all, but he really wouldn’t let me do – that was an album called The Truth if it Kills.

I didn’t do any music at all from 1994 until the year 2000. I mean, I was six years completely out of it.

JC:   I also understand you became an emergency medical technician and a firefighter.

SP:   That is correct. The firefighting I can’t do anymore. Mandatory retirement at 60 for firefighters. [Note: Shawn is 75 years old.]

Arlo Hennings, who would become my manager later on, said, “You can’t just quit. You sold 9 to 12 million records. You’ve got people out there who really love your work. You can’t just quit.” And I went, “Oh yeah, I can. Because I really like what I’m doing now.

“This is real. Emergency medical is real. There’s no superficiality, no bullshit going on like goes on in the music business. This is real life and death that I’m dealing with here. And that, also, and the firefighting.”

And he said, “Well, if I can put something together, will you do it?” So he put together a tour of South Africa, and I did it. And that’s when I met Juliette, my wife. Juliette came back to the States in 2000. In 2001, we got married.

JC:      Talk about your latest album, Continuance.

SP:  In 1972, I was the opening act for Yes in Holland. The sound guy was a young sound kid named Sjoerd Koppert. And, one night, Sjoerd comes up in the elevator. He’s dripping wet and he’s freezing in the hotel. It’s a brand spanking new hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam. No barriers in the parking lot. Nothing.

It’s brand new asphalt and all that stuff. Sjoerd comes up in the elevator. He’s dripping wet, and freezing. “Sjoerd, what’s the matter, man?” He says, “I just took the gear truck in the canal in front of the hotel.” Okay. So we go through the logistics of getting this truck out of the water. Sjoerd, he’s very upset. He’s destroyed. I take him to a cafĂ© and we get something to eat. I spend two hours calming him down. I said, “Look, you gotta understand, they can’t bring somebody in to do this overnight. Nobody’s gonna fire you. It’s okay. And it’s winter here. It’s black ice on the parking lot. And you need to understand that shit happens. Okay? That’s exactly what happened to you. And the truck just slid in the canal. So quit worrying about it. It’s not going to make any difference.”

This man never forgot that for the next 44 years. He got in touch with me on Messenger in 2015. And he said, “I was very impressed with what you did as your work. And I am managing a studio in Carpinteria, California, called Rose Lane Studios. I think it’s time you and I did a project together. The studio is yours from June through July.”

So I started a Kickstarter thing. I got the money that I needed to pay the musicians and to cover the costs of – there’s a lot of costs involved in making an album – and I got it made. And that’s how Continuance came about. And I would say I spent two and a half years writing Continuance. Because these are not simple songs. Every single thing on this CD is, musically, pretty complicated.

Continuance album cover (2018)

JC:   Your latest album, “Continuance,” I noticed there seems to be a theme with that one. The beginning song is “Life,” and it’s at the very ending you sort of get back to that theme again of life.

SP:   Yeah. The thing I wanted to get across is, basically, no matter what happens, life is going to go on. That’s all there is to it. No matter what happens in politics or anything else.

There’s a song called “Song for a Thief.” I mentioned Arlo Hennings, my manager. He’s my ex-manager who stole a very large amount of money – well, not large in terms of Taylor Swift kind of income. For us, it was a lot of money.

He stole it. He broke his fiduciary trust with me by putting it in his bank and keeping it. And, anyways, that’s the “Song for a Thief.” There’s the Bernie Sanders bite in “Furious Desperation.”

JC:   Yes. That’s what I was gonna ask you about.

SP:   Yeah, Bernie Sanders. Because that’s absolutely right. That’s really what’s going on. We are rapidly descending into an abyss of a global situation in which there are those that have everything and those that have nothing. And they are trying their very best right now to bring that situation into reality. [To hear Bernie and Shawn on “Furious Desperation,” click here.]

And until we put – listen, you gotta understand where I’m coming from here. We have had incredible advances in the last – just the single last century. We have made the most extraordinary advances in technology. You and I can see and talk to each other in real time, if we wanted to, right now.

There’s all the electronics, the technology, the media. The advances in medicine are astounding. We have people actually living in space as you and I speak. You have technology in armed, nuclear submarines. A submarine is the highest technology on this planet. There’s no question about that.

And all of this advancement, this incredible advancement, has come from the human mind. Okay. You’re gonna tell me that that same human mind cannot come up with an economic system that is equitable for the species on this planet? That’s complete and total bullshit. 

We need to change that. We need to stand up and say, “No, this is enough. You cannot – just because you are extremely wealthy, just because you are one of the 6,000 people in the world that are the wealthiest people in the world, that does not give you the right or the privilege to dictate what the direction our society – as humans on this planet – is going to take.”

They do not have that right just because they have money. And that’s what we need to address. More than anything else. If you look at any single problem in the world, you can boil it down to money. Okay? And that’s really kind of what Continuance is about.

But, at the same time, there’s this spiritual aspect of Continuance that says, “Look, if you’re out there looking for happiness, money ain’t gonna buy that happiness.” It might make you comfortable, but it’s not going to make you happy.  

The only thing that’s going to make you happy is for you to be individual, within your own sphere of being, to find the joy that is inherent within you. When we are born, we are not born as predators. Babies, infants, are helpless.

We are completely helpless as infants. What we are born with – we are born into a space of ecstatic wonder. That’s what we are born into. Look at the face of a three- or four-year-old. Everything is wonder. We outrun that.

Our society has built this ship up until it says, “Oh, you can’t live in a state of wonder. You’re not supposed to live in a state of joy or a state of wonder.” That’s absolutely just wrong. It’s just so wrong. All my songs, in one way or another, try to get that across. That’s what Continuance is about. And Continuance is the word itself: “Let us continue.” That’s what it’s about.

JC:   Okay. What are your plans now that you’ve recorded “Continuance”?

SP:   I’m driving up to Quebec. I have a full month’s tour in Quebec from June to September. My son, Liam, will stay with me for about six weeks, then his mom will come and get him and drive him back to get him ready for school.

Shawn and son Liam (year unknown)

And I’ll stay there till September the 30th. I’m trying to put concerts together in Buffalo at The Tralf, Ann Arbor – The Ark, then a club called Space in Evanston, Illinois. And then I’m going to go over to Minnesota. I’m going to play a club called Crossings in Zumbrota. And I’m going to see if I can’t book a theater gig in Minneapolis. I also have to play a private concert for a woman named Judy. Judy put $2,500 into the Kickstarter thing. Anybody who put that kind of money gets a private concert.

JC:   That’s good.

SP:   So that’s it. And then, after that – you know what? I’m gonna tell you the truth. I’m 75. I could continue touring for a long time, but I can’t continue touring the way I’m doing it now. I tour alone. I have 300 kilos of equipment that has to be unloaded and loaded, set up, torn down, and loaded back into the van every other night.

Shawn on tour (July 2, 2018)

And then I do all the driving. I do everything. I can’t continue to do this. So I think what I’m going to do, is after this tour, I think I’m gonna hang it up. The fact is, everybody thinks, “Oh, Shawn Phillips. He’s big rock and roll.” I’m not any of those things.

I haven’t ever thought in terms like that – myself like that. And I don’t really have any money. Unless I have – Continuance suddenly took off and sold millions of records, then I would continue to tour.

Now, in 1996, I let my membership in the Grammys expire. I have renewed my membership in the Grammys. I am submitting Continuance to the Grammys for consideration for CD of the year. And if anything happens with that, well, that would be great.

If I even get a mention – if I even get a nomination – that would be fantastic. Short of that happening, I don’t think there’s much else gonna go on. I can tell you that even though I might not be on the road, I will never quit writing. It’s a gift that I cannot negate, nor should I. I just can’t do it the way I’ve been doing it all these years.

As far as I know, I’m thinking about writing a book. When I write the book, I will be writing in conjunction with a professor in Indiana. A man named Sam. He’s putting the different chapters together on how the book should be written. And I think I’ll spend the time writing the book we wanna put out. Then there’s the documentary about me by Alex Wroten I mentioned earlier.

JC:  Sounds like a lot on your plate. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with me.

SP:  Okay. I just wanna say thank you for the interview. And I wish all your readers hope, love, and clarity.

Shawn in Alex Wroten’s documentary (year unknown)