Here's the latest video by the Chop Shop Records' act Scars On 45, the title track to their Give Me Something EP. FYI, The British band's name comes from an Emmylou Harris interview during which she remembered her dad warning her against playing with his record collection and leaving any scars on his 45s.
A Conversation with Vanessa Carlton
Mike Ragogna: Vanessa, how are you and what's up with your new album Rabbits On The Run?
Vanessa Carlton: I'm great. I've been in a rabbit hole for three years. I've been in England, mostly, working on this project. It took me about two years from the commencement of the writing, to the mastering and the final days working on it. Actually, I'm still to this day working on the artwork with the wonderful Joe Radcliff, who did all of the amazing illustrations of the rabbit for the album cover and the vinyl cover. So, that's where I've been...immersed in this.
MR: Great, Now, this is your fourth studio album is that right?
MR: And you recorded it at Peter Gabriel's studio?
VC: I did. I was so lucky to be able to do that. I didn't even know a place like that existed.
MR: What was that process like?
VC: It was incredibly organic. I call it arts and crafts. It was just a pure exchange of ideas that were kind of hovering around a very distinct aesthetic message that was carved out very clearly. I think that allowed us to really play around. We recorded all analogue. We collaborated with Patrick Hallahan, the drummer of the band My Morning Jacket and Steve Osborne my producer, and the Capital Children's Choir - which is a children's choir based out of London.
MR: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the album had a theme before you even started recording, right? Didn't you get your inspiration from a couple of books?
VC: Yes, I did. I think one of the books that help me break out of the writer's block that I was suffering from at the time was Stephen Hawkings' A Brief History Of Time. That was a very chaotic time of my life, personally, and it obviously got in the way of my creative process. I mean, I stopped writing songs. I wrote some instrumental pieces, but I was struggling a lot. That book helped me make sense of a lot of the chaos, from a physics standpoint, that goes on in the universe. But I was able to apply all of that to my micro-universe, if you will. The way that he marries the physics and the philosophical made it an incredibly influential and important book to me at the beginning of this process. Watership Down by Richard Adams was the other book - which seemed appropriate because he is an Englishman and I recorded this record in England. That story, which is about these rabbits breaking away and creating something pure for themselves was very inspiring to me. I literally carried that book around with me for a year, almost like a bible.
MR: As you were getting inspiration from these two books, were you also contemplating and exploring consciousness and evolution and things of that nature?
VC: Yes. I think I was also exploring existential reasoning. But, for me, it was kind of figuring out a spirituality of some sort, something that I felt I was maybe missing in my life. I felt much more plugged in once I found the recipe of those two books together for some reason. It made me feel alive again and made a lot of sense to me in terms of exploring my own purpose and why I exist.
MR: Nice. Do you think that the writer's block that you were experiencing was because of something you were missing personally but found in those books?
VC: Absolutely. Things were very cloudy for me for a couple years. I mean, I think it's difficult to be in your '20s. But I definitely lost my way and I had to get back on track. I've never felt so clear-minded as I do now. If anything, it's the most humbling thing in the world because it makes you realize just how small and daunting everything is, yet how beautiful it is at the same time. But I do think that I had to reach a place where writing was absolutely necessary.
MR: I know we mentioned that this is your fourth studio album, but technically, it's more like four and a half for you. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial demos and the process leading up to your first full studio album?
VC: Sure. I started recording songs on a cassette tape when I was about 16 or 17, when I was still in ballet school, and the cassette tape ended up in the hands of Ahmet Ertegun who is one of the founding fathers of Atlantic Records - the godfather of the music industry. I then had the honor of being invited into his world. After I finished all of my classes during the week, I would go and talk to him and he would tell me stories about the music industry. During that time, I was also piecing together a record of sorts. Then, I ended up signing with Interscope Records, mainly because at the time, Atlantic was kind of a figurehead in the music industry. I think Ahmet was still very interested in working with me, but no one else at Atlantic was so I moved on to Interscope. After all of that, I recorded a record that was kind of put on the shelf that was tentatively titled Rinse - it was a cleansing, if you will. It's certainly something that a 17 year-old girl would come up with. (laughs)
MR: Didn't you work with Jimmy Iovine on a few more tracks while finishing up the others?
VC: Actually, I didn't end up working with Jimmy, but he oversaw the project. He handed the project over to Ron Fair and Ron took it over and re-recorded it. All at once it was a big deal! It was a big flashy situation that I had never been a part of before - all of a sudden, there was an orchestra and everything. I was just watching everything that was going on with these wide eyes. These were my songs and I couldn't believe it.
MR: And that record produced the hits, "A Thousand Miles," "Ordinary Day," and "Sweet Baby," along with three Grammy nominations that year, right?
VC: Yeah. I couldn't believe it. That was a big surprise.
MR: What was that like?
VC: That really opened some doors for me. I am, to this day, very grateful. That led to more and more work and I felt that it was my job to evolve as much as I can and refine my craft as I could. I really was given an amazing opportunity. I felt like I was lovingly accepted into the music world.
MR: And from there you went on to Harmonium, which was recorded at the Skywalker Ranch.
VC: (laughs) Light sabers everywhere. It was similar to Real World Studios, which is where I recorded this latest one. Kind of. It was beautiful. It was the same in the sense that I was an isolated studio where you lived and could bike to the studio everyday and work there. It was much more elaborate and enormous compared to where I was in England. But when you're living, breathing, and working in the same space in nature, it's great. To even be able to stumble upon a studio like that is rare, but that's also the place where I work best. That was a great find.
MR: That album contained one of, if not my favorite, song in your repertoire "White Houses."
VC: Thank you very much.
MR: There was also a bit of controversy behind that song, right?
VC: Well, that was a collaboration with the writer Stephan Jenkins, and it was a great time. I guess there was a bit of controversy and I understand it, I think. I think I was viewed as much more of a "sweet girl," I don't know. Not that that's not a sweet song, but it's a very realistic song. It's a serious song with a serious and multi-dimensional story. I'm not sure why it was just accepted for what it was and it had to be censored in certain ways. I think it was because of my age or whatever pre-conceived notion people may have had about my image, I'm not sure. But I'm 30 now, so hopefully, it's much more accepted. (laughs) Hopefully, the notion is, "Oh, I get it. She's a woman now."
MR: It seems that it's always been a bit more of a struggle for young female pop artists in this industry, that they are judged much more harshly based on their actions and the content of their material than young guys or especially other older artists. Do you agree?
VC: Yeah. The other is issue is that, having been one of those girls, I know that they are all figuring it out on their own, so cut them a break. Also, girls in that position or young women that are coming of age can't raise your children for you because they are on a path of their own as well. People shouldn't be so quick to judge them. Granted, I have seen all of that from afar because I'm not that plugged-in to pop culture, but I know who Miley Cyrus is and I have a lot of compassion for her, and I think she's going to come through all of this and do really well. She already is. But I do think it makes it harder for her and girls like her to get through all of that with the public being so critical. But that's what happens when you're in the public forum - that's just what happens. I think they can be very unfairly judged.
MR: I also feel very strongly that there's a double standard between young male and female pop artists in that if a controversy arises with a guy, the impact in much smaller than it would be if it were a young female artist. You know, boys will be boys.
VC: Yeah. That's just too bad. It doesn't sound very fair to me.
MR: Very true. Alright, getting back to our tour of your career, your next album was Heroes And Thieves, and you recorded some interesting things on the side, including that descant on "Big Yellow Taxi" for the Counting Crows. What was that like and how did you get involved?
VC: I don't know, actually. I think like I was replacing someone else, to be honest. (laughs) I'm pretty sure that happened through Ron Fair. I was in Florida at the time and he asked me to come into the studio and sing a couple things. Their first album, August And Everything After, had a huge impact on me so I was really excited about doing something with Counting Crows, though they were not in the studio. I think I met Adam Duritz serendipitously on the streets of New York City one day, years after I did that for them, and I think I said something silly like, "I've been with you!" (laughs) He eventually realized who I was and we chatted. That was my experience with that. (laughs)
MR: You also supported Stevie Nicks on her Gold Dust tour.
VC: Ah...changed my life.
MR: How did it change your life?
VC: Stevie coming into my life and my friendship with her is one of the most important relationships in my life. She's a very special, lovely woman and I can go to her with situations, stories and moments and she responds to me in a way that no one else does in my life. It's just extraordinary. I feel extremely lucky to know such a lovely person. She's been extremely generous with me. We did a little video clip for this record, "Carousel," and I did a little ode to her. She gave me a little leather strung necklace that has a little square medicinal pouch with a little sword and I tied it to the back of my white dress. That's a little secret about the video. It was like my little charm or talisman during the shoot...that made me feel amazing. Unfortunately, the necklace is still in the field that we shot the video in, but she didn't mind, and she did wind up seeing the video and thinking it was amazing, so that's important to me. As far as the tour goes, I met her a couple of months before the tour took off and she was just great. That tour was a very important time for me.
MR: Nice. Since you brought up your new album, let's chat about one of my favorite songs "Dear California." As a transplanted Californian myself, I'd love to know what went into the making of that song.
VC: That song is kind of a mournful one, but it's also kind of inspired by The Beach Boys as well about my move from San Francisco back to New York.
MR: Do you miss California?
VC: I do, I love California. Well, I miss the foghorns in San Francisco. I do go back every few weeks. I'm a bit of a gypsy, so every few weeks, I go somewhere. So, I frequent San Francisco.
MR: What advice would you give to new artists?
VC: Hmm. I'm still figuring a lot of stuff out. But I would say when something doesn't resonate to you musically but someone is trying to talk you into it, always go with your gut.
MR: Very smart. Thanks again for taking some time, I really appreciate it, Vanessa.
VC: It was my pleasure, Mike. Thanks.
2. I Don't Want To Be A Bride
4. Fairweather Friend
5. Hear The Bells
6. Dear California
7. Tall Tales For Spring
8. Get Good
9. The Marching Line
10. In The End
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Dan Bern
Mike Ragogna: Hello there, Dan Bern.
Dan Bern: Hello, it's good to talk with you.
MR: Thank you, sir, it's very nice talking with you too. You've got a great reputation from your songwriting and your live shows, a couple of examples of both being your latest, Live In Los Angeles, and last year's Live In New York albums. So, live versus studio, what's your favorite?
DB: Well, it's hard to say. I feel like they're two parts of the same thing in a way. I'm working on a couple of records right now, and they've both taken something like three years, so there's something great about just strapping on the instruments and just getting out there to play. There's something really satisfying about going in the studio and getting something just right. But boy, it does take some time.
MR: And of course you'd want to get your vision and communication exact for each song. Do you feel like that can add to your pushing off the release date?
DB: Well, that can certainly happen, every time you go in thinking you know what this record is going to be and then things get written. I think it's kind of an important part of that process because the songs start talking to each other, and things get written to sort of fill gaps or expand things. I don't know. It's such a different kind of animal. When you start involving people other than just yourself, especially in this day and age, when most of us don't have some deep pocket record company to just say, "We're going to pay everybody this right now, and we're going to get everybody in at the same time," it becomes more of a chipping away, piecemeal kind of process that isn't necessarily as glamorous. At the same time, it does mean that you're taking more time with things, which sometimes works to your advantage, I hope. We'll see.
MR: How much are you trying to capture what you do live in the studio? And do you do the reverse--see the vision of the song, and then transform it into a live environment?
DB: Well, I think it works both ways. Definitely, what you do live informs what you do in the studio, and a lot of times, you've actually done these songs live, so you're bringing all that. But it works the other way too--you're doing studio stuff, and then there's some desire or some attempt to bring that to a live setting.
MR: We should, at this point, introduce the audience to another of your talents, which is that you're a novelist, aren't you, Mr. Cunliffe Merriwether.
MR: What is that name from?
DB: I have no idea. I think I was in Holland when I started it, and who knows. It's just a name that appeared, and I just kind of went with it, and it became an alter-ego for a while.
MR: You wrote Quitting Science in '04 under that name.
MR: What do you think of the book, looking back at it now?
DB: Well, it's written in kind of small chunks, so it's kind of good bathroom reading. I still kind of enjoy it in that context. Every now and then, I sort of toy with the idea of letting Cunliffe have at it again. I feel like I know him really well because of the bathroom aspect, so I feel like I could jump in at some point and see what he has to say now.
MR: Now, reviewers have compared Dan Bern to Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Elvis Costello. I have to confess, I hear all of them in your recordings. Is it influence or is it just that you're channeling the same flow of creativity?
DB: Well, probably both. I listened to all of those guys a lot when I was sort of getting my thing going. You sort of use what they were able to do as a guideline for what the playing field is.
MR: And after all, Bob Dylan was the Dan Bern of the '60s.
DB: (laughs) As someone said. Lately, in the last few years, I kind of feel like--and at least one of the records I'm doing will probably illuminate this--my inspiration of late has really been more in the old country thing, with George Jones, Merle, and all of that. Really, when I look back at when I was growing up in Iowa, that's what was on the radio. I remember "One Piece At A Time" being on the radio every couple of hours. You know, when I picked up the guitar to start actually doing it, then I think I was more inspired and influenced by the people that were known for picking up a guitar all by themselves, sort of rambling around and singing whatever was on their minds--you know, like the Woodys and the Bobs, and then later Bruce and that ilk. I think maybe even longer ago, I was listening, like everybody else was, to that classic country stuff, and that's kind of been what I've been dipping into.
MR: Speaking of what's on your mind, when you have songs like "Bush Must Be Defeated," you're not exactly hiding your feelings politically. You've always been outspoken with your lyrics, and especially during that period, you must have been going out of your mind.
DB: Well I think, like everybody else, we were all going out of our minds. I think it was a release. It was a, "Well, I don't know if this is going to do any good, but it sure feels better to be out there singing about it, saying something, and not couching things in a bunch of metaphors." You know, I felt very strongly that we had a chance, and a necessary one, to try to change how things were going. In '04, I basically just went across the country singing these songs. At some point, I felt like, "I don't know. This doesn't feel like it's going right," because it's one thing when people come to my shows, and everybody's sort of leaning a certain way, let's say, but then at midnight, you go down the street, sit in the diner, and hear what the waitresses are saying.
MR: Very good point.
DB: It felt like it wasn't necessarily going to end the way I was hoping it would, but I would have felt worse, I think, if I had just stayed home at that time.
MR: Right. Dan, but let's get back to your country roots because they must have come in handy when you were co-writing songs for the movie, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, huh?
DB: Oh yeah. That was like a dream gig. Through this character, I got to write every conceivable period and kind of song that you've ever heard.
MR: You also contributed music to Get Him To The Greek.
DB: Yeah. Again, for a songwriter to get an assignment where you get to write for a character who is a songwriter is about as good as it gets. Also, to collaborate with my good friend and an incredible writer, Mike Viola, who is just down the street, was just great fun. I hope we can do more of that.
MR: In' 07, you got the Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Album award from The Independent Music Awards. Plus, you've been doing the DIY thing, basically, forever, regardless of having a major label record deal. So, what advice do you have for new artists?
DB: (laughs) I guess I feel like if you need advice, then maybe you're in the wrong field, you know? Because if you're going to do it, then you don't need any advice--you'll do it despite what anybody says. I heard more people saying, "Do something else," than, "You must do this." I don't know--develop a thick skin because it's tough out there. What can I say? You've got to like to drive. Try to hold off having a bunch of responsibility for as long as you can.
MR: And a lot of artists can't do that balance.
DB: If you can live in a van for long periods of time and not be hurting anybody else doing it, you're in pretty good shape for the long haul. It's all about the long haul. Anybody looking for a quick strike is putting themselves in a pretty tough place. But if you can somehow set things up so that if you make fifteen bucks a night for a while, then you're probably going to be fine.
MR: It also seems necessary nowadays, in order to be heard above the din of everything else that's out there, to be using the social networks and other marketing angles efficiently. But above all, it seems like you've got to have something unique, or something about yourself that you're pumping. Do you feel like finding that element of yourself that is not like anybody else, especially if that's what makes you happiest about your craft, is the thing that artists should really discover about themselves and focus on?
DB: Well, I think having something to say, which comes from way down deep, and is very individual--the kind of thing that you might find if you go away by yourself to a mountain cave--just having some strong thing that you have to express and that is going to carry you along. They always talk about "the voice." Usually, it's the narrative voice, almost a metaphor for something. But with singers, it's also the actual voice, you're singing voice, your instrument, and what's going to convey all these great thoughts and ideas you have. Just develop that because that's what is going to feed into your writing voice.
MR: Very nicely said. Speaking about your voice--not your singing voice, but the voice of the artist--you identify very strongly with your Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, and you've written songs relative to that. Now, you discovered that at some point, and in fact, you even took on the name "Bernstein" as a result. Can you go into the story of that?
DB: Well, I always knew about it. I mean, I knew where my dad came from, and I knew what the family name had been prior to his coming to the US and changing it. But it wasn't until I went there in '99 that it just solidified and strengthened it. I went to the little town that he was from, and I was with a woman who works as a guide and we talked to a few people. One of the people we talked to was this old woman who was just in a shack, living in the kind of poverty that we probably don't have much of here in this country. She just mentioned my family's name and she said, "Oh yeah, Bernstein...the show factory that they had." I don't know, something went off. You hear these stories, and if feels like long ago and far away in some kind of ancient history, and just to have it connect in real time in the real world with a real person in this small geography I was in just kind of brought those connections home, I guess.
MR: You're also known to be as humorous as you are thoughtful, and I guess that played into your calling your backup musicians "The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy." That's a Dick Gregory reference, right?
DB: Yeah, I think it was inspired by that for sure. You know, he said in his book, "Now, when people say this word to my mother, it's just people talking about my book." Kind of in the same way, "Mom, when people talk about The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, they're talking about my band."
MR: (laughs) Well, with the new albums, I guess you're going to continue touring because that's one of the things you just do, right?
DB: I guess it is, you know? I went on my longest one in some time recently, and I was mostly by myself, in a van, and kind of felt a lot of strength from it. I imagine myself in some distant year, when I'm eighty or something, still doing it to some degree because there are connections that happen that you really can't duplicate in any other way.
MR: Especially that connection with the audience, huh?
DB: Yeah, connection with the audience, connection with yourself. There's something about the rhythm of it, and something about having to sing virtually every night for two or three months--sometimes more. For me, it goes beyond just having a new album, so you go out and "support" it, and all that. There's something about the life and the rhythm of it. It's just the night after night thing, putting together a different set list every day, and thinking about what you might have to bring to an audience that you're only going to see that one time for a while. I could go on and on for hours just about what that's like, and what that does.
MR: That's great, Dan. The only other thing I wanted to ask you is what is your favorite Dylan song?
DB: (sighs) Um, I guess that's sort of like asking, "What's your favorite ice cream flavor?" There's a lot to choose from, and it can change, but I guess...
MR: ...you can pick an album if you prefer.
DB: No, I'll stick with the song. "Visions Of Johanna" is pretty tough to argue with.
MR: "Visions Of Johanna," what a classic. Everybody seems to love this song. That's one of my favorites too, although everything on Blood On The Tracks makes me giddy.
DB: It's the kind of thing where you say something just because it comes to your mind, but then if you think about it some more... Then, you think about Blood On The Tracks, and there are ten songs there that would make you completely happy.
MR: I know, right? Dan, thank you very much for all of your time, this has been a blast, and I really appreciate a fellow Iowan coming back to his state for this interview.
DB: It's nice to take a step in Iowa. I love the Iowa summers, with those thunderstorms and everything. I hope we can talk again when these new records are out.
MR: Dan, absolutely. All the best, and thank you again.
DB: Likewise, thank you.
Live In New York Tracks:
1. Black Tornado
2. One Thing Real
4. I Need You
5. Joyce & Galarraga
6. I'm Not The Guy
7. My Kingdom
8. Baby Bye Bye
10. All Right Kind Of A Girl
14. Talkin' Tea Party Blues
15. Oh Sister
16. Isner & Mahut
Live in Los Angeles Tracks:
1. Tiger Woods
2. Chelsea Hotel
3. God Said No
4. Most American Men
6. Jack Kramer Wood Racket
7. I'm Not From Around Here
8. Love Makes All the Other Worlds Go Round
9. Party By Myself
10. The Golden Voice of Vin Scully
11. Osama In Obamaland
13. Too Late To Die Young
16. Albuquerque Lullaby
17. Beautiful Ride
18. The Fifth Beatle
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with David Bromberg
Mike Ragogna: Today we're here with the great folk and blues artist, David Bromberg, discussing his newest album entitled Use Me. David, how are you?
David Bromberg: Doing well, Mike. Yourself?
MR: Same here. Hey David, I want to start out by asking you how your approach on this album differed from earlier releases.
DB: Well, what I did with this album was called people like Keb' Mo', Los Lobos, and Linda Ronstadt and asked them to write songs for me. Then, I asked them to produce me doing it as well, and pretty much everyone said that they would. Linda didn't write a song because she doesn't really write, but she picked one out for me to do. Since I was asking this much of people, I decided to call the album Use Me. The great thing about the process is that they all knew how to use me - in a good way, of course. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Of course. Despite the fact that Use Me was produced by different artists, there is still a unified feel to this entire album. Do you think that is because of a general love for the project that came from everyone involved?
DB: I guess so. Some of the credit, in my opinion, goes to my engineer Mark Moss. He engineered and mixed all of the sessions except for the very last track, "Use Me" which The Butcher Bros mixed. Some people have actually said that they think it holds together better than any of my other albums - it seems more homogeneous, and it almost shouldn't because of the wide variety of stuff on there. (laughs)
MR: Can you tell us a little about what it was like recording with some of these iconic artists?
DB: With Levon Helm, it was a little different than the others. He wasn't able to speak because he has just had a benign tumor removed from his vocal chords. So, his alter-ego Larry Campbell, who is an old friend of mine and a great producer, came in to produce one of Levon's tunes. But since he couldn't speak, he couldn't give me a tune, so Larry suggested I do one of my songs and I chose the song "Tongue." We went into the studio with a very large band, and recorded "Tongue," but I realized that I wanted to do something that was a little more in Levon's wheelhouse. I mean, the blues was all over that tune, and Levon played his skinny little butt off on it, but I was thinking I wanted something more like his recent recordings, which have been more in the folk music vein. So, I thought of the old jug band tune, "Bring It With You When You Come," and after everyone left and the session was over, I asked the bass player and Levon and Larry if we could record "Bring It With You When You Come" before we finished up and we did. That's how that one came about.
MR: That's great. What's the story behind your duet with Linda Ronstadt called, "It's Just A Matter Of Time"?
DB: Well, Linda and I have been friends for a very long time. I think she may give me more credit than I deserve. For instance, one night, we were together in The Village in New York, and she had just had a hit with the song "Different Drum" but nothing else seemed to catch. So, I brought her back to the apartment I was living in, into my friend Gary White's room, and I called Paul Siebel and had him come up as well. Gary and Paul sang Linda songs all night. When she left, she shared a cab with Jerry Scheff who suggested she listen to The McGarrigle Sisters' "Heart Like A Wheel," but that song came much later. Her next recording was a collection of Gary White and Paul Siebel tunes, and she had a hit with Gary White's "Long, Long Time," which was the hit that revived her career. Anyhow, we've been friends for a long time and she's heard me sing lots of stuff and she really liked the way I sang "...Matter Of Time," so when I asked her to participate in the project, that's the song that she chose. I have to say that she did have another song in mind that I just couldn't get my head around. But "...Matter of Time" was easy for me.
This project, though, took her out of her most comfortable zone. Usually, when she produces, she gets all of the triple scale guys from Los Angeles. Now, she lives in San Francisco and doesn't really enjoy flying, so we recorded there and I asked her that we make the recording really low key. So, we got a bass player, I played guitar, and I asked Linda, my wife Nancy, and Laurie Lewis to sing on the track. She produced the session, but I kind of took her out of her comfort zone by making sure that we did it very simply. You would never have guessed it, though, because she's such a pro and knew exactly what to do.
MR: That's great. Another song on this album that I really enjoy is "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea."
DB: Keb' Mo' actually sent me that tune, and I fell in love with it and learned it. And even though he produced the session--and boy did he do a great job working with me on the guitar and vocals--he was on the road when we finally found a day that we could meet up. So, we met up in Washington, D.C., and I found a studio that I had worked in before and booked some musicians from New York and Woodstock that I had worked with and felt comfortable with. This is the only song where I chose all of the musicians. Linda wanted to work with Laurie Lewis, an old friend of hers, and Laurie chose the bass player. So, we started to record the song at a tempo that I'd set, and Keb' asked if I was sure that I wanted to do it that slow and we all answered in a chorus, "Yes." (laughs) He looked at me and told me that I was a very brave man. (laughs) The reason he said was because it is very difficult to get a slow song on the radio, and that song is not only slow, but the groove to it is actually kind of ominous. When it starts out, the feel is kind of scary and you don't know what the hell is going to happen. Kevin (Keb' Mo') wrote that song with Gary Nicholson and he worked with me very hard on the phrasing of the guitar part and on what kind of a vocal to put on. It was interesting because some people were happy with the vocals on the first take, but some people like Kevin and Tim O'Brien really worked with me line by line on the vocals.
MR: Can you tell us about some of the work you did on the vocals and some of the guitar parts?
DB: Well, the guitar parts, with the exception of "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea," are mostly my first takes. The one on "Tongue," the first track, I re-recorded after the first take because I knew I could do better, and after I did a few takes, Robert told me I was crazy and that I had to come back and listen to the first take. After I listened to it, I couldn't understand why he liked it--there was nothing flashy or special about it. He said, "Oh yes, there is. Follow the melody line. It never goes where you expect it to go." And so I listened again and you can hear it throughout, but it's really obvious on the playing in the intro. It never goes where you expect it to go, and as soon as I heard that, I realized how he must be hearing it, and boy was I proud of that.
MR: You mentioned that you recorded in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for some of these recordings, but you also recorded a bit in Nashville.
DB: Yes, I went to Nashville for three sessions--John Hiatt, Tim O'Brien, and Vince Gill. I also recorded in Los Angeles with Los Lobos. I even did a little in New Orleans and on and on. Wherever people were and whenever they had the time, I went.
MR: How was recording in New Orleans with Dr. John?
DB: It was wonderful. Mac is just such a sweetheart. He's one of the nicest people I know. We recorded at the Piety Street Studio and there's a video on my website of me and him walking around and talking. There's a prize winning videographer who is doing a video on me and she started it shortly after I started recording the album. So, a lot of the process is included in that video. That won't be out until September, though. I know that WHYY, the PBS television station in Philadelphia, is going to air it. I don't know whether or not she's taken it to any other stations yet.
MR: That's very cool. What was the studio experience like with Los Lobos?
DB: It was great. They were wonderful. The tune that we did was a Mexican waltz, and it hadn't been written for me but they picked it for me. They had recorded it before, but not for one of their albums. They even used traditional instruments--David played the squeeze box, and they had some unusual guitars, the names of which I don't have in my head, but they're in the notes of the CD. I mean, it was just a wonderful day. Each one of these tracks was done in a day.
MR: Nice. Were there any tracks that didn't make the album because there were too many?
DB: No, we kind of stopped when we had enough, and then we decided to do one more. (laughs) There were people I would have liked to ask and done things with, but this was already a very expensive record. Back in the day the amount of money it would have cost would have been next to nothing. But in today's terms, recording this one was very expensive.
MR: Did you have to self-fund a little of this album?
DB: A little bit. Well, I had the idea and started recording before I selected the record company and made the agreement, so I only funded that first part. The record company will never pay you for money that's already been spent. (laughs)
MR: John Hill produced your first album with Columbia, is that right? I think the guy's a genius. What was it like working with him?
DB: Well, he was assigned to me by the A&R people at Columbia. He did a lot of work making sure that I could record the way that I wanted to. I don't think I ever really gave him as much credit as he deserved. We worked together and he did a lot of the grunt work while I got to do the more enjoyable stuff. We only did that first record together, though.
MR: Back in 2007, you were nominated for a Grammy Award for your album Try Me One More Time. What was your reaction?
DB: I was just flying--I was so happy. It's a great honor to me and I'm still very proud to be nominated. They even gave me a nice medal.
MR: You've worked on so many great projects with some really great people, one of them being George Harrison on the Hold Up album. In what ways do you feel like you've grown since that time?
DB: Well, I've learned to sing a lot better. (laughs) You know, I stopped performing and playing almost completely for 22 years. During that time, when I would pick up my guitar, I would remember things that several people, especially Phoebe Snow, had told me about singing. I used to think that nothing could help my voice, but I started to remember some of the things that Phoebe said to me and they worked. My singing got a lot richer and a lot better. So, that's one major difference. Another is the fact that I now like to have less notes and more feeling in a song. I'm very much into the idea of a groove and a tasteful guitar part--I don't care whether people are out of their chairs during a song, I just want it to be musical.
MR: Phoebe Snow was such a great performer. Are there any stories about your experiences with her that you'd like to share?
DB: Sure. I knew Phoebe when she was just starting to sing and long before she got those five octaves. I met her when I was leaving a club on Bleecker Street in New York City, and I was with a friend of mine and Phoebe came running up behind me and said "Mr. Bromberg, Mr. Bromberg! I write songs and sing and play the guitar and I want to do that for you." So, I turned to her and sang a little--"Let [you] entertain [me]." (laughs) I had forgotten about this completely until she reminded me on a video we did together. It was a long time ago, but that's my favorite Phoebe story.
MR: Thanks for sharing that. Man, she had such an amazing voice, it's quite a loss.
DB: Not only did she have an amazing voice, but she was an amazing singer--there is a difference and they don't necessarily go together.
MR: True. Now, you've been a little hard on yourself with regards to your own vocal capabilities, but you have had some beautiful recordings over the years including your cover of "What A Wonderful World" among so many others.
DB: That was something that kind of happened because I wasn't happy with the other elements of my singing. I wasn't happy with the quality of my voice or the pitch accuracy, so I decided to develop a way to bring through the lyrics. I learned I can actually sing. (laughs)
MR: You've also played with some incredible artists like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Link Wray, and The Eagles among others. Is there ever a temptation to think of yourself only as a guitar player when you're baking them up?
DB: I did think of myself solely as an accompanist, but it was actually a brilliant guitar player who passed on a few years ago by the name of Steve Berg, who said he wanted to accompany me playing my music. He even said that to do that, he would give up guitar and take up bass. He was my first band. I used to introduce him as my backup band The Torpedoes. (laughs)
MR: You also worked with Jay Unger.
DB: Yeah, Jay was in my band for quite a while, and we still play together sometimes. I just did a gig where Jay just appeared on stage; I had no idea he was around and all of a sudden, there he was. Jay and I first played together about 40 years ago in the village. The only person I've played with longer than Jay is possibly Peter Ecklund.
MR: Can you tell us any interesting stories about some of the people you've accompanied in the past? For instance, what was it like working with Bob Dylan?
DB: Well I produced some tracks for him, two of which appeared on The Basement Tapes album. I remember when we were in the studio one time, Bob had dropped a pick into his guitar so he was holding it over his head and shaking it, and, of course, I know what that's like so I offered him a pick and he said that he had one. So, he held the guitar back over his head and continued violently shaking his guitar for quite a while. It was funny at the time, maybe you had to have been there. (laughs)
MR: And you've also worked with Carly Simon, right?
DB: Yeah, actually. A lot of people may not know this, but I produced her demo. I also played a little bit on her first solo album.
MR: She's another incredible artist. So, having worked in the industry for so long and with so many people, are there certain artists whose albums you rush out to get when they're released?
DB: Well, I'm a big fan of Ollabelle. Anything they do, I buy immediately. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but you should be. The band has a fantastic rhythm section--the drummer Ted Leone is the same guy that played drums for the Keb' Mo' session on my new album. The bass player is Byron Isaacs, and he's an incredible bass player and singer, and also sometimes plays his bass as a slide bass...very interesting musician. Then there's Glenn Patscha, who played keys for me on "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea," and is an incredibly creative musician. So, the band is made up of those three guys and two women--Fiona, who is Tony Leone's wife, and Amy Helm. Amy is Levon Helm's daughter, and she is a gorgeous singer and is very much influenced by Mavis Staples. Fiona is from Australia and her singing is more from that kind of school. They're just a wonderful roots based group. An interesting story about Amy is the first time that I played Levon's Midnight Ramble, Levon decided that he wanted to play mandolin so Amy got behind the drums and played just like her father. (laughs) There's another musician who I recently discovered that I really enjoy and his name is Jon Herington. He's done a lot of work with Steely Dan, both on the road and on the records. He, by himself, is not only a fantastic guitar player, but a really great singer and writes some great songs.
MR: Uh-oh, here comes the desert island questions. If you could only have one of your albums on said desert island, which would it be?
DB: You know, I don't know. I don't usually listen to them once I complete them. I think maybe I would chose the Live in New York recording. You can't really find that one anywhere but my website, but that one is a very interesting recording.
MR: Nice. And how about a guitar? Which guitar would you chose to have with you?
DB: Probably the 1953 Esquire that I bought used, and I would play through a 1938 Electar amp that I can put into the overhead when I fly because it's that small. That's pretty much all I use is that guitar and that amp. Of course, that would mean that there would have to be electricity on the desert island. (laughs) If there were none, I would handle it Gilligan's Island-style with a bicycle and coconuts. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) With your wealth of knowledge and experience in this industry, do you have any advice that you'd like to give to new artists?
DB: Yeah, move to a big city. Either move to Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville - no place else in the United States counts. I say that only because it takes a certain amount of time to get known in any city that you're in, and once you're known in Ames, Iowa, that fame only spreads to the city limits of Ames, Iowa. But if you are in any one of those three cities, the national press is there and what's written about you is read all over the country.
MR: David, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule. It's been great.
DB: Thanks so much, Mike. Great talking to you!
1. Tongue - with Levon Helm
2. Ride On Out A Ways - with John Hiatt
3. Bring It With You When You Come - with Levon Helm
4. Blue Is Fallin' - with Tim O'Brien
5. You Don't Wanna Make Me Mad - with Dr. John
6. Diggin' In The Deep Blue Sea - with Keb' Mo'
7. The Long Goodbye - with Los Lobos
8. Old Neighborhood - with Widespread Panic
9. It's Just A Matter Of Time - with Linda Ronstadt
10. Lookout Mountain Girl - with Vince Gill
11. Use Me
Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin
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