A Conversation with John Waite
Mike Ragogna: John, what inspired you to put a new album out?
John Waite: I did a European tour last year and I felt on stage that I needed really great new songs to sing. The energy was great and singing all of those big songs was great, but enough is enough. At a point, you have to put new stuff into the set. The stuff I've recorded recently is more introspective and singer/songwriter. You get a kick up the ass on stage in Europe. We do a lot of gigs in America, but the European gigs, they were really checking us out. I thought I should start upping the ante, so when I came back to America, I started work. Me and Kyle Cook from Matchbox 20 have been writing songs, and we went in and cooked those songs in Nashville, with Nashville musicians and Kyle on guitar. I took some time off, and that's when I went to Europe a second time and did another European tour. When I came back, there was some talk about getting more tracks done. I took my band in the studio and took seven songs and recorded them. It all seemed to work. I put those together with the songs that I worked on with Kyle and we had a full record. It took shape right before my eyes, I didn't really plan any of it, it just happened.
MR: And your end result is Rough & Tumble, a perfect description of the album's approach.
JW: Yeah, it's a tough record. I think it is a committed record. Everything about it seems really hard--I don't mean hard like it rocks so much, but it knows what it's doing. It's got a personality that's pretty bullet proof, it seems to be some sort of creation. There is not a bad track on it--ten of the eleven songs on it sound like singles, and the eleventh track is an acoustic track. It's a very strong record.
MR: I wanted to ask you about the title track "Rough & Tumble." You can tell from what you're saying that despite its aggressive tone, there's a positive attitude in the song as well as a lot of energy on this album.
JW: It's a very committed record, and it's a very certain blues-driven rock record. It's very specific. If you wanna call me out on any lyrics, I can explain them all. I knew what I was doing from the downbeat. I really knew what I was doing even though there was firestorm chaos. We work very quickly.
MR: So, the track "Rough & Tumble" is a #5 record at rock radio. Looks like you have a hit on your hands.
JW: I don't know about that, knock on wood, but it's come out of the box with everybody playing it. We are doing a lot of things like Rockline, and there is a big release party in a couple of days. We are doing really well, I don't know why this time around people are so interested. I think this record has some teeth and I think people were waiting for it. It was #5, #7 last week, and it's gone back up to #5. It's definitely given everyone a run for its money. It's got legs to do it with.
MR: I watched your EPK, and in it, you say, "If you speak from the heart, people will listen from the heart."
JW: And when you hear The Rolling Stones and you're in the car, you're always turning it up.
MR: (laughs) You have another song on the project titled, "If You Ever Get Lonely."
JW: I wrote that song with Kyle Cook. It was a really pretty song, we just finished a video for that, I'm just okaying the final edit this morning. That's a really great song and that is the song everybody expects to be a hit. Like I say, they all sound like singles to me, so I just can't tell. The record company seems to think that's really going to go places.
MR: What is the writing process like for you?
JW: It's very spontaneous. I used to carry a notebook with me, but that lasted about a day. I have a house full of notebooks and I don't really seem to use them. A lot of the stuff, I seem to keep subconsciously what I have in my head. When I pick up a guitar, I just start writing songs, the words come out and the melodies come out at the same time. Some writers put the music together then try to put the melody on top, but I tend to get all three at the same time. It comes forward in blasts, and you just seize it while you can, you tweak it and move it around, but it seems to come fully formed. Not complete, but an idea, like the chorus, or the opening to the song, or a catch phrase you hear on radio or TV. You will write it down or you will look at something in the street and you will be lost in thought for a while. I put it in the back of my mind like a collective mind. I look at things or if I read something in a book, I remember it. Even slang and the sound of words...I just like words. I don't know too much on how to write songs, I just write them. I don't really write for the public, I make albums for the public out of the songs I write for myself.
MR: Do you go to your guitar almost as an afterthought, after forming your song?
JW: I bought three new guitars over the last month, three new Telecasters. They are spectacular guitars. The other day, I was looking at one of them, and I was starting to form chords in my head, and yesterday, I picked up another one twice and got an immediate melody and a hook. I've got this new Telecaster that's like an acoustic guitar, I played that, and I got something last night. I don't know, every guitar has a new song in it. The moments making this record and the live record last year, I seemed to have unblocked a part of myself that was very careful about writing and now I'm writing all the time.
MR: What's it like as a co-writer this time out?
JW: With Kyle Cook, it was interesting. I think we're both bright guys and I think we are both clever. If you look at something like a chain of words and you look at the syllables and you understand it immediately...your mind is already moving forward to the rhyming scheme and what you could do to offset the chorus. We were both thinking in the same terms. It's like dancing. You either dance well or you're clumsy. Me and Kyle sort of have that grace. You don't want to make it too polished either. The new record has a rough edge to it all the way through, but if there was any kind of theme on the record it was simplicity.
MR: How did you approach the production for Rough & Tumble?
JW: The stuff in Nashville, with me and Kyle, was done meticulously and though a lot of it was cut live in the studio and then tinkered with, it was meticulous--totally in tune and very thought out. The stuff that I finished the record with, all of the stuff in LA, we cut all of the basic tracks in three days. We didn't stop to think. There was one song that gave me some trouble, I had to come back and cut it again, I cut it three times which was "Further The Sky." I didn't write that song so it was a bit more of a thing to solve, I just got on with it. I like the rawness and imperfection of doing something live, it speaks volumes to me. I think the polished thing can take the soul out of music.
MR: I imagine that in the studio, some of these songs popped out at you like, "Oh my God."
JW: We had a five hour rehearsal in Santa Monica, and I flew the drummer in from Alabama and we all got together. We went in the studio the next day. We had the basic raw tapes of the songs, but we rearranged everything and put new parts in and changed the keys. Me and the guitar player wrote "Rough And Tumble" during that five hour session. So, it was done with extraordinary speed, and I think that maybe that's because I took some time off in the middle. But once I start on something, I don't really let go of it, I know exactly where I'm going and I don't need a particular producer and information. I'm just looking for something that I understand and print to tape.
MR: It's funny that you say print to tape, because at some point today, I'm going to mention to someone without thinking, "Yeah, I taped John Waite."
JW: Yeah, I know--virtual tape because it doesn't exist anymore. The In Real Time album that came out last year was helped a great deal by being done digitally, so we could edit and move and tweak. In the studio, working at that speed, you wonder how you managed to do it all on two inch tape because it's so laborious. It's such a long process, you need a razor blade to cut the tape.
MR: And sadly, nobody is really listening for analog versus digital anymore.
JW: No, they are not. There is a wideness in the analog sound, which is, in some ways, clumsy. Sonics are very subjective anyway, I've heard some brilliant records that have been done digitally and I'm fine with it now.
MR: Considering all the changes that have happened over the last few years including record stores disappearing, do you have any advice for new artists?
JW: Yeah, just make music. Back in the stone age--when it was guys sitting around the campfire at night singing songs about hunting and finding some food--there was no A&R guy sitting there saying it doesn't have a hook. If I was a young kid now, I would just be writing songs. I would be writing from the heart and I would be committing it to virtual tape and making records and putting them out. Basically, that's what I've just done. I made a record away from the record label and then licensed it to them. It's true that all of the shops are closing down. Anybody that wants to find music now can go to iTunes or any of the other sites and get an artist's catalog immediately in very high quality. They still make CDs with audio files, but it's more like something you would listen to through an incredible stereo system. I think it's a level playing field for the artist, there is no such thing as not having a deal. It's about being a troubadour again, it's about making your way through the world through music. If you have to go and ask the A&R guy for $50,000 to make a record, there is something wrong with you. You can make a great record for $5,000, you can. My live album cost $6,000. Who is kidding who, anybody can do this. You don't have to go into somebody's office and ask for the money to do it, you don't have to compromise. Art is back in the driver's seat, and I think that's a wonderful thing.
MR: Absolutely. Now, you recorded a Tina Turner song on Rough And Tumble. Is she one of your influences?
JW: Any African American artist that was making that kind of music, anybody from Sam & Dave to Etta James to Otis Redding, and right up to Tina Turner. They have been the pillars of existence in black music--incredibly powerful, influential music. I like country music too, I liked all the early western songs like Marty Robbins and Frankie Laine--I had a cowboy outfit when I was three years old while I was listening to Frankie Laine. The blues was a big influence on me as a kid, as was Hank Williams, back to country. As was everything. I listen to everything now--The Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, Led Zeppelin--everything. Even the stuff I don't like influences me because it reaffirms what I don't want to do. If you're wide awake, everything will influence you. You can tell in the first four bars, if somebody's got teeth, you just know. I listen to a lot of classic stuff now, I'm not hearing much more that's modern that is original. I have a long life and I'm looking for something that's a hundred percent proof.
MR: You grew up in England and British radio wasn't formatted as much as it was here. What was radio like growing up?
JW: There wasn't that much radio. We had Radio Caroline, which was pirate radio, which just had the movie made about it--a boat stuck out in the Irish Sea somewhere with DJs on it, broadcasting without a license. Everybody in England listened to it. They played The Beatles, they played everything...ridiculous amounts of music. They shut it down in the end because they couldn't control it, the British government was very scared. Before that, we had Radio Luxembourg, which was coming in for, more or less, the service men and American troops abroad. English radio was absolute crap. Capitol radio then fired up, but the BBC was always banishing Beatles records. You couldn't mention anything sexual, you couldn't mention anything with a double entendre, and rock 'n' roll is always about that--it's about sex, fun, living, being wide awake, and chance. The BBC was just awful. Now, it's fragmented, and there is tons of radio in Britain--local, regional, organic stations playing all of these different playlists. Growing up, it was hard to find music. You had to look people up that had those records, you had to go and make friends with them. It was hard to find, and it made rock 'n' roll more romantic. It isn't like you were going to buy a Coca-Cola, you had to go find it.
MR: Europe has a fascinating radio broadcast history.
JW: Europe is a very discerning place. The Parisians are different from the Romans, everybody has their own taste in music, but they are all hardcore fans. They want music, but it's been hard to have that airwave freedom away from the government. There are always people trying to edit and inhibit things that are creative.
MR: I read somewhere that you read Ian Hunter's Diary Of A Rock And Roll Star and that inspired you to come to the States.
JW: It did, I read it, and it was talking about Cleveland and Kid Leo and MMS. The romance of all of the clubs that were having artists come by like Humble Pie and Peter Frampton, all of these great touring bands from that period. I just knew I had to get there. I kind of spent a year and a half in London trying to get a deal in a band, and it all fell through and I came home kind of broke. As soon as I got home to Lancaster, I got a letter wanting me to come to Cleveland. So, it was all of this stuff that was sort of fated. I worked real hard in my life. You can work real hard and go nowhere, but I worked real hard and was given a shot to do things. So, I'm very pleased to have that.
MR: Can you tell us how your group The Babies began?
JW: Well, I got back from America after being in Cleveland, and I got back to London and nothing had happened. A friend of mine invited me along to a meeting with a manager and a guitar player, and I went along to see what would happen. They needed a bass player that could sing and write songs, they didn't have songs. So, I tentatively said I could make myself available for that year. Over that year, we put together a drummer, another guitarist, and a bass player. I played rhythm guitar and after a while went back to bass. After about two years, we got a deal--that was The Babies. That was 1976, so some people reading this wouldn't have been born yet. In London, it was cold, rainy, nowhere to go, and there was no money. You had pictures of Keith Richards taped and you listened to records and stayed in. The girlfriends made sandwiches, and you lived off a pint of beer. It was poverty, in some ways, but highly romantic and full of promise. The promise was America and trying to get out of London and on to the next level. I managed to do that. From that point on, I think, even though some of it was incredibly difficult, it wasn't uphill all the time.
MR: What inspired you to go to solo?
JW: Well, you always want to go solo. The part about The Babies that made it interesting was I was writing all of the melodies, lyrics and chord changes, and they were jumping in and made it a song. It was all in the first person, and that made it sexy. With any band, it's a compromise--you're listening to the drummer, taking in what the guitar player is saying, and you're trying to extract ideas out of them. It's very political. After five years of being in a band with somebody, little things mean a lot. A lot of arguments flair up, you go on the road for three months and you're really bumping heads after a while. When you're young, it's funny, when you get older, it's not so funny. You become more grown up and you're becoming a man, and you don't need somebody's opinion. We all got to that point at the same time. I always toyed with the idea of doing a solo record, but I didn't have any songs lined up to do it. On the way back to England after The Babies broke up, I stayed in New York. I busted my knee up and they put me in a hospital and I spent five or six days staying in an apartment afterward just convalescing. I fell in love completely with New York City, and that was the end of it. I moved to New York City seven or eight months later and went solo.
MR: One of the first hits you had in your solo career was the song "Change" which was endlessly played on MTV.
JW: I knew all of the VJs personally at MTV. It's a small city there, it was still very rock 'n' roll, and it wasn't commercialized. Now, you see a lot of the buildings and you see TGIF and McDonalds, and the record shops have disappeared, the restaurants are being challenged, the bars are disappearing. In the '80s, it was still a great rock 'n' town.
MR: I'm sure it inspired a lot of writing.
JW: The Temple Bar record was written entirely about New York. I was so in love with the city and I still am, I think it's the finest city in the world. I've been here in Santa Monica for eight years, I think I'm making plans to move back to the city, back East.
MR: Can you give us the back story on your hit "Missing You"?
JW: I was finishing the No Brakes album in LA, and I was trying to get home to see my wife--I was married at the time. It was a love song about distance, and it took about ten minutes to write. It was the last song that I wrote for the album, and it just popped out. I knew what I was looking for, but didn't know how to get there. It's persistence, and there it is, #1.
MR: It was a very influential pop song, a lot of bands copped the guitar riff.
JW: It was a great record. It was a very strong record and it was a great single. They were magical times--talk about an album writing itself. That took about a month writing the whole thing.
MR: When you recorded your first solo hit "Change," you were obviously going through changes, right?
JW: I rewrote the verses. A girl called Holly Knight wrote that song, I heard it then wanted to do it. I thought it would be a good single for the New York album Ignition. I rewrote some of the verses, put a spin on it and changed some of the melody and made it my own. At that point, in my head, I was still in The Babies, but in my soul, I was in New York City. I didn't have to put something on that album that was that commercial, but I thought it was a great song that had a great melody.
MR: Later, you ere in the group Bad English. How did that come about?
JW: I made five solo records in a row, then I got real sick of it. I made this record called Rovers Return, and I really said everything I was going to say as a solo. I got a deal with Epic Records, and I remember being in a meeting with an A&R guy, and he was going to find the songs. I said, "Hang on, I just wrote all of these big hits, I can write." He didn't want to know about it, he was going to find the songs and it was going to be difficult. I didn't want to loose the deal, so I tried putting a band together so I wouldn't have to be solo, and it would make it easier to write original material. If it didn't, then I would have to leave. I went to England looking for Johnny Marr. I thought he was a great guitar player, but I couldn't find him. Everywhere I went, I couldn't find him. I kind of gave up, went came back to America, then I somehow wound up with the guys in Bad English. It was like falling downstairs once it started--it wouldn't stop. It wasn't the original idea, but all of those things that go awry usually turn out to be great. We had two and a half years together, toured the world, and had a great run.
MR: And big hits. Epic seemed really behind you, they wanted to break their new act.
JW: Epic was fantastic...Polly Anthony there, she was the Queen of Promotion. She put us on all of the great radio shows, and the record broke immediately because of Polly. You couldn't have been with better people to work with. It was the best. I think the problem was that they wanted a second album really quickly, and we went on the road for a year, and we weren't really writing on the road. By the time we got back, we were exhausted. They wanted a second record and we said, "Oh, we will try." I think we should have just taken six months off, I think it would have really helped.
MR: Then there wouldn't have been such a Backlash, so to speak...
JW: (laughs) Very clever. I think that was expected, I knew if we were to make a second record, we were going to get destroyed. It had a great cover. It was a good record, but we just couldn't deal with each other anymore. We had been with each other for two years without any time off from each other. That thing I said before, when you're a kid, being in a band is great, but when you get older you've got wives, kids, families, divorced wives. You have responsibilities, you can't just be in a band all the time. You have to live a life.
MR: What is the song you identify with the most on Round & Tumble?
JW: It would probably be "Further The Sky." There are two cover songs on the album. One is Tina Turner's "Sweet Rhode Island Red," and the other one is writer Gabe Dixon's "Further The Sky." I asked Alison (Krauss) what she would suggest because I was going to make an album of acoustic songs. I thought she could suggest some very dark, moody, guilt ridden kind of songs I could sing. I was really interested in doing that, but then I thought, "No, I can't do that. It wouldn't hang with the Kyle tunes that we wrote." She suggested "Further The Sky." Me and Allison go back a long way, and I thought she was sending me a message, and when I sang it, I thought I was sending her a message. It was kind of a beautiful thing. It's really a beautiful song and it's entirely live. I just took a run at it and sang it. That's probably my favorite thing.
MR: What's the label experience like these days?
JW: Frontiers is the record label in Europe. They are the biggest company in Europe, and the head of the label is a great guy. He has put me in all of the magazines, and there is a huge amount of press. We are going over to tour again in April. We are probably going to break Europe this year. Over in America, it comes out on the 22nd of February, and it's on Model Records which is distributed by Universal, so that is also a big deal and they have done a fantastic job as well. We are getting all sorts of airplay, and like I said, the single was #5. Everybody digs the record. I'm really happy, the band would love to work. We just played on Saturday night in New Orleans, and Kyle Cook is now our guitar player. He is going to be our guitar player for the next six weeks while we try and find a permanent guy. Kyle stepped in, and it was our first gig together on Saturday and it was fantastic. We are all looking forward to Europe we are doing a string of dates in America before we go, but God bless it. If the thing sells a hundred thousand copies, everybody is screaming and laughing. If it sells five thousand, everybody will be doing the same thing. Everybody is just so behind the record. I'm just grateful to be in the situation and I'm really proud of the record. It's going to be a good time.
MR: It's good to know that everybody is screaming and laughing, congratulations. One last thing, how have you grown over the years?
JW: I would like to say I was the same person, I think my heart's the same. I've just seen a lot of the world, and I know how much has changed. I've seen such a great deal. I spent eighteen years there and that was such a great time of my life. I've seen such a lot, and I've worked with such great people and I've seen so many miles...it still means a lot to me to climb up on stage and sing these songs. On Saturday night in New Orleans, the curtains opened, it was a sold out show, and it still means as much to me as it did when I was a kid. I hope I'm doing this in five years time. All I know is that I've learned to love what I do.
1. Rough & Tumble
3. If You Ever Get Lonely
5. Sweet Rhode Island Red
6. Mr. Wonderful
7. Further The Sky
8. Love's Goin' Out of Style
9. Better Off Gone
10. Peace of Mind
11. Hanging Tree
(transcribed by Theo Shier)
A Conversation with Jason Reeves
Mike Ragogna: It may be a little early to discuss your new album, The Lovesick, but you have a new single called "Sticks And Stones." Can you describe what happened behind the scenes regarding the video?
Jason Reeves: Since the song was premiering on Valentines Day, I sent out a video to my fans. I was asking them to send a video to me telling me what they think of love or what love means to them. We took our favorite pieces of that and cut it all together into a video that has the new single playing underneath all of the people talking. It came out really well, it's just amazing how many people sent in videos from all around the world and it was just really inspiring to see.
MR: It's beautiful that you involved your fans, but you also gave back to them by putting it out there incorporating their work.
JR: Yeah, it was really fun and an interesting thing. I've never done anything like that before.
MR: You also have the single "Helium Hearts" off of your unreleased album, The Lovesick.
JR: Yes, that was the first single that we released off of the record and "Sticks And Stones" is the second. The whole record looks like it's coming out this summer.
MR: I imagine there will be another couple of singles before the album is released.
JR: I'm not sure, I hope that a couple more songs can come out before then, but I'll just have to wait and see.
MR: It seems that labels are looking for better ways to market artists, and they release a single literally every few weeks. By the time the album comes out, sometimes, it's a like greatest hits record.
JR: Yeah, that's sort of the new way, I guess. I'm not sure what I think about it as a whole, but I'm just excited to have music come out in any form. If it works this way, then it's fine with me. We will just have to get used to it.
MR: Can you go into how you wrote "Sticks And Stones"?
JR: I wrote this song with two of my really good friends, Danelle Leverett and Jordan Lawhead in Nashville. It was kind of an accidental magical moment. I live in LA, this is pretty much the first time I've been to Nashville. I met these people there, but since then, we've become really close. They are really good writers and it doesn't always happen that because people are good writers, they will work well together. There is something incredibly special about us when we write a song together, it's kind of surreal. We wrote most of my whole new album together, and this song in particular is probably one of the craziest songs on it. It is definitely a lot different for me sonically. We got experimental--if you consider my past music--with the sound of this whole album. I say "Sticks And Stones" is the pinnacle of sonic change. It's a defiant song coming in a moment in the record where it's intense, where I'm just trying not to break. It's a song for strength, not being beaten down and breaking beneath the weight of tragic moments in the story of this whole album. It's a very up and down event after following a real life love between me and somebody else.
MR: You're classified as a folk-singer-songwriter, though I would never go there. Where do you think that came from?
JR: I think it came from a few places. When I started, the first few albums I made were mainly (with) acoustic guitar. I've always had drums and full production, at least for the last few albums. I'm not really sure why that's classified as folk, but I think the other reason would be that my two main influences are Bob Dylan and James Taylor. I'm sure I have a lot of that coming through, even though the songs are not necessarily produced in the folk style.
MR: Nowadays, "singer/songwriter" still seems like it's being put in the folk lineage when you have so many different types of singer/songwriters. It just doesn't work anymore.
JR: Yeah, I agree. I don't even enjoy the term, it's become something else. It doesn't really represent what I am. I sing and I write songs, but what does singer/songwriter mean is the question.
MR: Let's talk about the recording process, especially for "Sticks And Stones" and "Helium Hearts."
JR: I recorded the whole record at this guy's house in Nashville, his name is Adam Smith. It came about by accident. The first song, we actually recorded together was "Sticks And Stones." I found him through a friend because all I was looking to do was to demo the song. We had just written and were really excited about it, but all we really wanted to do was to make a simple demo and turn it in for people to hear. That simple demo is the master recording that you have. We recorded it in a couple of hours, so it's really surreal how the whole thing came together. It's a very reactionary, instinctual recording process.
MR: Can you tell the story of how you and Colbie Caillat got together?
JR: It's a very interesting story. I was in Iowa, I had been making records there in Iowa City where I'm from, and I had been putting them up on CD Baby--this is before I even knew what Myspace or anything like that was. I got an email one day from this guy in California that was a record producer. He had heard my music on CD Baby and wanted to know if I was interested in coming out to California to record. I immediately jumped on that, it was the easiest decision I've ever made. I think it was February in Iowa at the time so that was even more inspiring to go out to the West.
That producer that eventually called me after talking over email, his name was Michael Blue. He has a studio in Westlake Village, and out there is where Colbie lived. Her dad is a very famous record producer himself, he did Fleetwood Mac and a bunch of other amazing musicians back in the '70s.
MR: Right, Ken Caillat.
JR: Yeah. So, him and Michael had been working together in Michael's studio on various things and Colbie would be around. She had a gorgeous voice, so she would occasionally sing on stuff for them. When I met Michael, she was the first person I got introduced to out there. The first night we met was just very surreal. I went back to her house with her and wrote a song--that song is on her first record, and since I was planning on going back home to Iowa after the few days of recording, I kind of moved in with her. I had nowhere else to go, and I just wanted to stay. We could tell there was something amazing there and I didn't want to leave. I fell in love with California. The story gets even crazier--her parents were gone in Hawaii, they were on vacation for a pretty long time, not just a week or something. So, I was living in this girl's house and there wasn't anything romantic or anything like that. We were just amazing friends but her parents were somehow cool with this boy from Iowa all of a sudden living in their house with their daughter. They basically became my California family, and I lived with them for a long time, probably a year or more. We really had no idea that this was going to happen--neither of us knew that this was going to happen. Neither of us had written anything with anyone before, and this was our first experience co-writing. I've never felt what I have had with her since. It's something kind of magical and I'm very happy that it happened.
MR: Now, you co-wrote 10 of the 12 tracks on Colbie Caillat's record including the hit "Bubbly." How did it feel when you were experiencing your first success right out of the box like that?
JR: It was incredibly surreal. I didn't know what Myspace was when I moved out there, and she and her friends were all about it. She kind of showed me what it was and after we had recorded a couple of our songs, we started putting them up on Myspace with no expectations at all, except for maybe our friends would hear them. Very quickly, she went to the number one artist on Myspace out of everyone. We really had no idea what was happening, I wouldn't be where I was without that happening. I've been fortunate enough to be able to write with a bunch of other people too. It probably wouldn't have happened without that.
MR: You can just tell when everything lines up exactly right. It has a lot to do with not shooting yourself in the foot, having the person being a genuine person, and their talents shining through.
JR: Thank you for saying that. With her and I, I think the main reason with people like us is that they can tell we aren't trying to put them on, and we aren't trying to fake it. It's just us being who we are and I think it works.
MR: What got you into music?
JR: Well, I had always played music. When I was five, my mom started making me take piano lessons, which I completely despised being a five-year-old boy wanting to run around in the mud. So, I played piano for about five years and got sick of it, so I started playing drums. I've always played instruments, but it wasn't until I turned 17 that I wanted to play the guitar. I think the main reason why was because I discovered Bob Dylan and James Taylor and old '60s music in general. When I heard their music for the first time, I hadn't realized that people could express themselves so powerfully using just a guitar and a voice. I got really inspired by that, and I already really loved writing. I didn't have a specific format that I loved, I just loved doing it. It came really natural to start putting those words to songs. It's been about 9 years that I've been writing, I would say besides that, Iowa City happens to be a really inspiring musical town. There are a lot of good folk musicians there--it's pretty much constantly happening out in the streets of that town. It was just a good atmosphere to grow up in.
MR: What inspires you when you sit down to write?
JR: For me, when I write, it's coming directly out of my life and my emotions. Falling in and out of love plays a really big part in it. I've written songs from other people's perspective before. For me, it's just easier when it's coming from me and my direct experiences. I kind of try to keep the barriers between the truth and what really happens and what gets written down in the song minimized. I want it to be as honest as it possibly can be.
MR: Did you see the episodes of Army Wives or One Tree Hill that featured your music?
JR: I did. It's always incredible for me to have a song that I've written put to visuals that I have no control over. When you make a music video, you have control of that and you decide what visuals go with your music. When somebody puts your song in a TV show, you don't have any control of what it's going to be played to. It's really fun seeing how they interpret that and how it works with what they are doing visually. It's completely different and it's fun to see. I'm honored that anyone would want to put any of my songs in any sort of thing like that.
MR: What was your favorite live appearance?
JR: That's tricky...the first time I played on TV, I was with Colbie, we played Carson Daly. That stands out to me because it was my first. I had a lot of fun playing on George Lopez with Kara DioGuardi just last year. We got to play a song we wrote called "Terrified." I really think that's one of my favorites because it wasn't either of our songs we were promoting. For some reason, George wanted us on but we were just the songwriters of the song. Katharine McPhee recorded that for her last record, and I got to do a duet with it. I thought it was interesting that a TV show wanted the writers who are usually kept behind the scenes come on and sing the song. It was just really unique, in my opinion.
MR: Did you see how they used your song "Somewhere, Somehow" in I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell?
JR: Yeah, very interestingly. They put that song in kind of a sex montage, if I'm not wrong. Pretty much all the different characters were in a romantic moment which kind of goes with the song's message. I definitely got a kick out of that when I watched it.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JR: I think giving advice is a very intense thing to get into. I'm not sure that I have the authority or deserve to give advice to people. I think the only thing that I really know to be true is that, to do what I do and what all musicians do to get to this place is to have insane amounts of patience. It takes so much longer than you want it to or ever expect it to. To me, that is easily the hardest part, knowing something can't happen as fast as I want it to. You have to really believe in what you're doing enough to give all of yourself into it. You can't just go half-heartedly at something like this. You have to dive all the way in.
(transcribed by Theo Shier)
A Conversation with Tom Moon
Mike Ragogna: What inspired the name of the band--Moon Hotel Lounge Project?
Tom Moon: I'm interested in the ways music works in particular environments - Eno's Music for Airports is perhaps the most vivid example of a nice union of sound and architectural space, but there are many others. And as someone who played in lounges on land and cruise ships, I've always been fascinated with the notion of "background" music. I have enormous respect for the mostly anonymous folks who toil to provide a suitably "neutral" accompaniment to the business traveler's 4:30 martini. There's an art to this. When I was out promoting this book I did (1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die), I encountered several solo pianists and small combos who'd mastered the art of playing the room, ie., meeting the expectations of the establishment--nothing too loud or unruly, etc., while also cultivating a creative, some would say "subversive," music atmosphere. In a few of those spaces, I thought about tunes I'd written or was working on--could they thrive here? I began "hearing" in my head a sound that was entirely open and approachable - an ensemble that was happy at a whisper, having a subtle conversation rather than stomping around making demands. Sort of the opposite of the jazz musician who sends out a "pay attention!" vibe and is indignant when patrons don't. Anymore, people are pelted with sounds all day long; expecting attention is perhaps unreasonable, and that doesn't even take into account the fact that lots of people aren't equipped to process music that lives in a subtle space anymore. This is a huge societal problem in my opinion, and perhaps beyond the scope of this interview. At the risk of sounding conceptually gawky, I like starting from the notion of "ignorability." Lots of cool under-the-radar music can happen when you presume that nobody's listening, and that rapt attention is too much to ask: What we do as a band is easy to dismiss as "background," yet if you relax and follow it for a little bit, you might discover some unassuming sparks flying around, little melodic gems. To put it another way: The compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim are considered by many to be background music, and that's some of the heaviest, most beautiful music ever created.
MR: What made you decide to record your own project at this point? Is this the style of music you've always wanted to record?
TM: Second question first: I have done formal study in jazz--I was a "Studio Music and Jazz" major at the University of Miami School of Music--and informal study, via playing experiences, in rock, funk, all sorts of Latin and Brazilian music and electronic music. I believe that music is a lifelong pursuit, and if you're open, you eventually encounter lots of different styles and areas to explore both playing live and recording. There are several broad styles represented on Into the Ojala, and sometimes, as on the opening track, they're smushed together.
For a long time, I've wanted to play the dramatically uptempo groove of drum-and-bass in a live context, and on the record we managed to capture a little of that. The tune called "Seed the Future" really moves along and lasts nearly 7 minutes--that's all live playing, and the take happened after two other even longer attempts. Which tells lots about the skill level of these musicians: They not only got the form and the sweep of the tune, but managed to generate serious energy, at the near-frantic pace of quarter note equals 176 beats per minute, for over 20 minutes. I shake my head every time I hear that one.
Now, to the decision to record at this point: I'm another statistic under the general heading "downsized into creativity." When I finished the book stuff in 2009, I looked around for opportunities in music journalism, hoping to re-start a freelance career that had to be mostly suspended during the research and writing. I discovered a completely changed landscape: There were chances to write, as long as you didn't care about earning a living. The most attractive platforms were the free ones. Because I'd been immersed in this large project, I guess I didn't grasp the scope of the change until it was staring me in the face. I didn't give up, though. I ginned up all kinds of projects that didn't get off the runway--public radio programming, book proposals, magazine pieces--and got to the point where I'd write and pitch and battle the futility for a few hours in the morning and then what? Gradually I turned to music. I began practicing seriously for the first time in years. I wrote some tunes, and finished fragments of pieces that I'd neglected along the way. After a while I began to drop in on jam sessions - there are actually a bunch of nice ones happening in Philadelphia these days - and sought the help of some great musicians in workshopping my compositions. One of these was Kevin Hanson, the guitarist, who from the very start was incredibly encouraging. He gave me lots to think about, both in terms of the specifics of the songs and in terms of orchestrating and capturing them. During one of our sessions it sorta hit both of us that there was some energy flying around and it would be a smart idea to record. Even then the goal was to see what might happen, not make a record that would eventually be released. That came after the dust settled and the money ran out and we began to listen to what we'd done in the studio.
MR: What went into choosing your musicians? What was the studio routine like? How did Kevin Hanson help you bring out your best and oversee the recording process?
TM: As I said, this began with a round of "workshop" sessions where I'd bring a few tunes to someone I respected and we'd play through, make revisions, etc. The first time Kevin and I got together to do that, it was just super positive energy: He not only intellectually "got" the shape and temperament of the tunes, but was able to very quickly bring his own vibe and character to them. His first thought was to use the folks he plays with all the time - his crazy smart rock band is called The Fractals--and I was into that, because these guys are crazy smart and can play anything. The other night I heard The Fractals drummer, Erik Johnson, just powering this very inventive big band, and catching every last hit as though he's just been playing large-ensemble stuff for twenty years. I kept hearing vibraphone doubling the horn and floating on the perimeter, and right at that moment in Philly this great player named Behn Gillece was super visible, playing with the singer Melody Gardot and other folks. Kevin and I both heard lots of percussion, and he knew a guy who was conversant in the Afro-Brazil thing and the Afro-Cuban thing, an amazing musician named Josh Robinson. When we first gathered to rehearse, it was like "woah, this is a big group!"
The first and probably most significant thing Kevin did was to bring the enthusiasm--he's just an incredible positive-energy generator. Having been away from music-making on any kind of serious level for twenty years, I was, naturally, somewhat anxious, and also insecure about being able to reach anywhere near the level these guys play on. Kevin cut through all that and kept the focus on the tunes. We laughed a ton in the studio.
MR: What types of things inspire you to write? What's the process for when you compose? Is it on an instrument or in your head? Do you notate?
TM: I usually write at a keyboard. I have one of those ones with cheesy rhythms in it, and sometimes I'll just start with a "groove" and see what happens. Or I'll just paw around at chords, often a tune or a vamp will start that way. When I sit down I try to have nothing in my head, no big idea, no melody. And I'm not accomplished enough as a player to just turn on autopilot; with me every voicing takes time. The blank slate is terrifying but also liberating - if you just go to see what might develop, with a certain detachment and no worry about the outcome, sometimes you stumble onto interesting things. The great Ron Miller, who taught me and many others jazz composition at the University of Miami, was always after us to follow a single thread, no matter how simple. Sometimes if you do that, you encounter a really cool melody along the way.
As for inspiration, man is that endless. Sounds cliché but it's all around us--I sorta think it's an endlessly replenishing well, like love. if you're paying attention you get sparked by just about anything. there's a quote on my wall with a list of reasons people compose music--after obvious ones like "to become immortal" and "to get rich," there's this: "because they have looked into a pair of beautiful eyes." yes. precisely.
MR: As a reviewer, you sample and have a knowledge of a lot of music. Who are some of your favorite artists out there now?
TM: Oh, man, tough question. I've loved The Black Keys for a while and that record from last year was a gem. Probably listened to that more than anything all year. Love Arcade Fire. The new Amos Lee is so so great--to my ears it's the best thing he's done. I'm tremendously inspired by Neil Young and Bob Dylan, and also the producer Daniel Lanois who has worked with both of them. I just reviewed a woman named Tristen for NPR - her sense of the pop hook is right on; I've not been able to shake a few of her songs.
MR: Who were some of your musical influences? Journalistic influences?
TM: Musicians/composers: Miles Davis; Antonio Carlos Jobim; Elis Regina; Milton Nascimento; Lo Borges; Edu Lobo; Joao Gilberto; Wayne Shorter; John Coltrane; Bill Evans; Keith Jarrett. Journalists: Jon Pareles; Robert Palmer; Whitney Balliett; Gary Giddins; David Fricke.
MR: Are there any recordings on Into The Ojala that you think seem more "classic" than others? Do you have a particular favorite? What's the story behind it?
TM: It's really not for me to judge whether something I've done is "classic" or not, is it? I'll say that the waltz called "Powerful Tonic" has a bit of the sensibility--and similar approach to harmony--of Wayne Shorter's records for Blue Note in the mid '60s. I'm not comparing it to anything by Wayne, simply noting a kinship. The one I've been using to play for people to give a "sense" of the project is "Thank The Eyes." It's based on a Brazilian rhythm and has a long and winding melody that reminds me a bit of the great tunes on the one and only Quarteto Novo record. It's also the shortest piece on the record, so I play that one in case people get that terrified "this is just wretched...how much longer?" look.
MR: Where do you see yourself as a musician a year from now?
TM: With any luck, I'll be working on a new tune or two, and studying and playing with some inspiring musicians. Music is like yoga--mastery is a lot less important than just doing, pushing beyond the comfort zone and all that. I am enormously grateful for every opportunity to do that.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
TM: I've learned all kinds of specific things doing this--about how you have to be careful about this "industry" that's grown up around indie artists, about how you have to be persistent, etc.--but really the biggest lesson has to do with overcoming fear. if you are lucky enough to stumble into a creative situation, and come out with something that's exciting and seems worth sharing, then share it. there are always a zillion perfectly good reasons not to. there are plenty of people who will tell you it's a bad idea--in my case, the message I got was "why put yourself out there like that?" and "why risk your journalism reputation?" at a certain point I was like "why not?" I've absorbed a ton of music in my life, one of the ways it manifests is in my own composition and performance. it seems sorta silly to close myself off to that avenue of expression, or to stop exploring in that direction for external reasons. life's too short to worry about stuff like that.
MR: So, Tom Moon--journalist, reviewer, man of the world. How would you review your new album Into The Ojalá?
TM: Incredibly you are the first to ask me this--dunno whether to thank you politely, or go diva and say "I can't possibly answer this trick question!" If I were in a snarky, fed-up-with-everything mood, which some will tell you is my default state, I'd start by complaining about the concept--"so we're supposed to not pay attention, what's up with that?"--and from there make cursory references to various artists in connection with various tracks. For example, the opening track, "What You Had When You Knew You Believed," can be lambasted for smushing together an Afro-Cuban pulse and piano montuno figure with a more Brazilian rhythm (circa Return To Forever Light as A Feather) on the verses. Fweeet! Points off from the world-rhythms desk for that one! I'd probably note that "Scaffolding, How to Dismantle" goes on a little long and observe that the two waltz-meter pieces are very close in tempo, if not also close in mood. And I'd have harsh words for the timid saxophonist who only plays a few solos (and on one, in "Thank The Eyes," repeats himself a bit too much!)
If you caught me on a different, more happy-face day, I'd probably rave about the soloists--Mike Frank's Rhodes solo on "Seed The Future" is a model of concise and wonderfully disciplined development, and Kevin Hanson's solo on "Rumi We're Losing" is one of the most exciting fast-swerving lane-changing listening experiences I've had in a while. he's practically levitating, and he takes the whole band with him. I might also mention what a positively brilliant structure and chord sequence "Rumi" is--for real, it's a blast to play on. I'd also note that in terms of overall sound and sensibility, there isn't much out there like "Thank The Eyes" or "Scaffolding" or "Powerful Tonic" right now. I'm not trying to make a grandiose statement there, but I follow a lot of what's happening in jazz and instrumental music, and compositionally, what I'm doing is its own little thing. Don't take my word - some critics have said this as well. That's a part of why I ultimately decided to share this stuff - had we emerged with just another hard-bop blowing type record, or tortured super-dense compositional record, I'd keep it to myself. I have too much respect for music to do a rehash, or add to the clutter. It had to, at a minimum, be a bit different.
1. What You Had When You Knew You Believed
2. Powerful Tonic
3. Seed the Future
4. Scaffolding, How to Dismantle
5. Rock of Ages
6. Thank the Eyes
7. Ronnie Waltz
8. Strength Found In Treetops
9. Ojalá in the Kingdom of Longshots
10. Rumi We're Losing
CELEBRATE GEORGE HARRISON'S BIRTH DATE WITH CONCERT FOR GEORGE
Legendary Tribute Concert To Be Streamed For Free Worldwide At GeorgeHarrison.com On February 25
Set For Release On Blu-Ray And Via Digital Download For First Time On March 22
In honor of George Harrison's birth date (February 25), the memorable tribute concert in his honor, CONCERT FOR GEORGE, will be streamed for free on GeorgeHarrison.com for 24 hours to allow optimal worldwide viewing across all time zones, beginning at 8AM London time (GMT). For more information, please visit GeorgeHarrison.com.
Originally released in High Definition, CONCERT FOR GEORGE will be released for the first time ever on Blu-ray and via digital download on March 22. The 2-disc Blu-ray set will include the complete concert on the first disc, with a second disc containing the original theatrical version featuring concert highlights, interviews with the performers, rehearsals, and behind-the-scenes footage. The second disc will also include a previously unreleased interview segment featuring Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner and Ray Cooper entitled "Drummers."
CONCERT FOR GEORGE has been certified 8 times platinum by the RIAA since its initial release as a 2-DVD set in November 2003 and earned a 2004 Grammy® Award for Best Long Form Music Video.
On November 29, 2002, one year after the passing of George Harrison, Olivia Harrison and longtime friend Eric Clapton organized a performance tribute in his honor. Held at London's Royal Albert Hall, the momentous evening featured George's songs, and music he loved, performed by a lineup that included Clapton, Jools Holland, Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney, Monty Python, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison and many more.
Directed by David Leland (whose credits include the feature Wish You Were Here, HBO's Band Of Brothers and the Traveling Wilburys video "Handle With Care"), CONCERT FOR GEORGE captures stunning renditions of some of the most significant music of the 20th century, including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (featuring Clapton on guitar, McCartney on piano and Starr on drums), "Taxman" (performed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and "The Inner Light" (covered by Jeff Lynne and Anoushka Shankar). Lynne, Harrison's longtime friend and collaborator, produced the audio elements of the concert, while Clapton oversaw the entire proceedings as Musical Director.
CONCERT FOR GEORGE
1. Your Eyes - Anoushka Shankar
2. The Inner Light - Jeff Lynne & Anoushka Shankar
3. Arpan - Conducted by Anoushka Shankar
4. Sit On My Face - Monty Python
5. The Lumberjack Song - Monty Python with Tom Hanks
6. I Want To Tell You - Jeff Lynne
7. If I Needed Someone - Eric Clapton
8. Old Brown Shoe - Gary Brooker
9. Give Me Love - Jeff Lynne
10. Beware Of Darkness - Eric Clapton
11. Here Comes The Sun - Joe Brown
12. That's The Way It Goes - Joe Brown
13. Horse To The Water - Sam Brown
14. Taxman - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
15. I Need You - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
16. Handle With Care - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Jeff Lynne & Dhani Harrison
17. Isn't It A Pity - Billy Preston
18. Photograph - Ringo Starr
19. Honey Don't - Ringo Starr
20. For You Blue - Paul McCartney
21. Something - Paul McCartney & Eric Clapton
22. All Things Must Pass - Paul McCartney
23. While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Paul McCartney & Eric Clapton
24. My Sweet Lord - Billy Preston
25. Wah Wah - Eric Clapton & Band
26. I'll See You In My Dreams - Joe Brown
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