The new Stevie Nicks video, "Moonlight (A Vampire's Dream)," yes, was inspired by the Twilight series. The song is featured on her latest album In Your Dreams, its video presented here for HuffPost's Stevie Nicks and Twilight fans to savor to the last drop (frame).
A Conversation with Tori Amos
Mike Ragogna: Hi Tori, how are you?
Tori Amos: Hi Michael, how are you?
MR: Excellent, now that I'm talking with you! Oh, my God.
TA: (laughs) You're funny. Where are you?
MR: I'm talking to you from Fairfield, Iowa. It's really a pleasure.
TA: Well, thank you for having me.
MR: Tori, your new album, Night Of Hunters, is very different from many of your other albums in that it's just you, a piano, and an orchestra, all centered around a classical theme. What inspired you to do that this time around?
TA: Well, somebody from Deutsche Grammophon approached me--that's the classical side of Universal. This German musicologist, Dr. Alexander Berg, found me while I was out running around the world, and he said, "Listen, I have an idea for you to consider. What about doing a 21st Century song cycle based on classical themes," and I looked at him and said, "Can we start drinking now?" He said, "Look, it's a challenge. I know it's a challenge, but you've been writing this musical, so you should know how narrative works in a song cycle. And how many times have you been offered something like this?" I said, "Never. I've never had this opportunity, and if I'm going to do it, I really need you to supply me with endless amounts of classical music so that I'm exposed to more than I know myself."
MR: Were there specific pieces that resonated with you more than others?
TA: Well, yes--those are the ones that made the record. And there were a few others that did resonate, but with the story you're always thinking, "Okay, this has to have a beginning, a middle, a denouement, and an end," so I had to make some tough choices and the Chopin piece kept coming back to me. It's funny how these pieces start stalking you, because they do. They really, really do. Honestly, you'll be sitting there watching a movie and eating popcorn, and all of a sudden, there it is again! There's the Schubert piece in the room, and you think, "Where'd you come from?" That might sound a little "is that how it really happens," but what is key here is that the songs demand you to respect them, and yet a lot of them wanted to be in this 21st Century expression even though most of them are over a hundred years old.
MR: Tori, what was it like listening back to this song cycle when it was finished?
TA: I had listened to Schubert's "Winterreise--" I just talked to the German, and anytime I say "Winterreise," I get corrected on how it's supposed to be said; I studied it, realizing how the structure needs to work. It's very different from a musical, but there are similarities. And so, what was kind of key was deciding, "Okay. If this is going to be a Cathedral--if we look at the song cycle like a sonic Cathedral--then how do we build this thing?" What was key was getting "Shattering Sea," which opens the story, setting it up like a cliffhanger, and then bringing in another character that would take us into the story further. So, I designed a character, Anabelle, which is kind of a mythic, Irish representation of the Triple Goddess or nature, or however you want to see it.
MR: The narrative comes off so beautifully as it goes. Now, you mentioned the musical you've also been working on, The Light Princess.
TA: It'll have a different name, but the musical is inspired by George MacDonald's The Light Princess. I've been working on it for five thousand years, yes. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) So, this album really did go hand in hand with the concept of how you're creating at this moment.
TA: Well, yeah. I think that Deutsche Grammophon was correct in that I wouldn't have been able to approach a 21st Century song cycle if I hadn't been hammered by the whole musical-writing process, and with such an incredible creative team that I've been lucky enough to be working with. They're at the British National Theatre. This team is connected to them in some way. So, I've been cutting my teeth on narrative in a really disciplined way, and I'm thankful for it, though there are some dark days during the musical process. But, it really helped me to be in a place where I could understand what this Deutsche Grammophon person was talking about when he said, "Why don't you write a song cycle, but based in the 21st Century...and remember, song cycles can travel in time and do anything you want, as long as you have your foundation clear." So, I think I understood that architecture finally. After all these years--at 47--I was ready to take up the challenge.
MR: Are there artists--classical composers--that you have a better feel for now, as opposed to before you did the project?
TA: Oh yeah, completely. I mean, I feel that way about all the composers that are on this project. Each song is a variation on a theme except for one, which was inspired by another piece, and it's all notated on the record what the original themes are and where they come from. I've always had a soft place in my heart for Schubert, but once I got "Star Whisperer," that was really the first one that came that was complete. It's nine and a half minutes. Once I knew what that was, then I started throwing away all kinds of things that I was working on, because they just weren't good enough. I realized, "Okay, this is the benchmark, this Schubert variation. Everything has to live up to that." So, that was kind of a breakthrough moment.
MR: When you create--even before this project and before starting work on the musical, say back even as far as Little Earthquakes--what is your process for the creation of a song?
TA: The one thing you have to have is a delicate ruthlessness. You have to, or you can't hear correctly. You have to be able to listen to what's coming through the cosmos. Say you're walking down a street in San Francisco and you see something and because you see it, it translates to sound for songwriters. So, seeing means you're hearing. When I can hear something, that's how I really understand it, and I know that might sound strange to you, but you're dealing with a form of songwriting ether--it's etheric--and you're having to take this and make it tangible. So, having said all that, going back to Little Earthquakes, you have your instrument, whatever that is--for me, it's a piano--and sometimes, you just play to understand what you're feeling. But then, once you do that, you can't leave it there. This is where the delicate ruthlessness comes in. You can't just say, "Oh, because I was feeling that, it's great." No, it's usually not. Then, you have to get out your chisel and you need to start sculpting it into something, into a form. That's the art form of songwriting.
MR: One of my favorite Tori Amos songs is "Silent All These Years." It affected me very deeply when I heard it, I couldn't believe I was hearing those words come out on the radio. Do you know where that moment of inspiration came from, and do you think back on how great it was?
TA: Well, I think my whole life had been leading up to that moment. It's one of those things where I had been writing for a long time before that success. So, it didn't just come overnight--I mean, that was 27 years of work, as I'd started playing at two or two and a half. So, it all culminated into that after many, many, many--I mean hundreds of songs--had been written. They might not have all been copywritten, but had been written. Then when Little Earthquakes, that body of work, was coming out, it wasn't as if that was my first go. That's how the world might've seen it, but it came after many, many, many, many years of songwriting.
MR: Everything on that record was very pointed and poignant. It had this "You've GOT TO listen to this" quality.
TA: Yeah, that was the idea for that record.
MR: Your recordings in general demand attention. Is it intentional?
TA: Well, I think that making records is its own sort of--hmm, what do you say--what would it be like in surfing terms? Like surfing a huge 25-foot wave...a 30-footer. I think in making records, you can get locked into some kind of dimension where you don't know if you're gonna make it out alive. A lot of people have made records and that's it--they've never made them again, or they've made a couple, they've had a success, and then it's done. The thing about making records is that it's a real discipline. You have to be able to stay focused, knowing when the magic is there. You can play something a hundred times and there's no magic and you can't explain why, but you just know when you're listening back. There's that elusive something, that sparkle, that something that makes you want to play it again. Like, "Could you play that again?" It's very difficult to define these things, but a good producer begins to eyeball it. It's almost like you have to be a hunter and you can hunt that frequency down and the tone of it, and you have to know when you have it and when you don't. I usually have a team around me, it's not just me, it's never just me. It's always about a team when you're making records, I think, and it's about pulling different people together at different times to make music together. So, many years on, still making records, each record is never approached casually. It's not a casual exercise. It's f**king ferocious. But there's something quite sexy about it, too. It's like I've heard surfers talk about riding these waves that could really wipe them out and kill them. Well, you know, making records can be like that too. Surfers lose their lives. I don't mean to belittle their experience, but I've known many musicians that love to surf and would say, "The difference in your analogy, T, is that we could die.," and what I would say is, "Yes, but how many musicians career's have died because they make the wrong record."
MR: Interesting perspective, really. Now, in the past, you got to work with the great Arif Marden. That must have been a marvelous experience.
TA: Yeah, I must say, I've been so fortunate to work with so many amazing people over the years. I've been really, really blessed. I also love working with Ahmet Ertegün, who is related to Arif. Ahmet Ertegün danced with me at my wedding. His wisdom was so...he really gave me some amazing advice over the years.
MR: I imagine that this team you've surrounded yourself with has not only contributed to your music and your records, but also to your life.
TA: Yes, absolutely.
MR: Considering your incredible catalog, what advice do you have for new artists?
TA: Like what kind of advice?
MR: What should a new artist do, creatively, to further their adventure?
TA: Well, you have to be clear on what your style is and you have to embrace that style, and if you're not loving it, then you need to expand it. And you can always expand what I call your palette. But you have to keep expanding your chord vocabulary, and if you're a songwriter, your structure, because the problem now in the 21st Century is how many times have you listened to the radio and thought, "Oh, wait a minute. That song sounds like this other song that sounds like this other song." See, now you're coming down the food chain in the 21st Century, and a lot of writers have come before you who have written in possibly similar structures, so it's challenging, but new artists have to have even more in their arsenal than they did fifteen years ago if you're going to be original. You need to play with structures, and not just listen to the radio of today, you need to go back to some of the great masters and look at their chord progressions, because it's a bit different from the derivative that you hear all the time right now. I don't mean what you hear all the time and everywhere, but you do with the obvious Top 40 stuff.
MR: Well, that cycles right back to your approach on Night Of Hunters, your classical song cycle and exploration of the great works of the last few hundred years. I really do appreciate your time, Tori. It's been very special for me and I'm sure for the readers. Thank you again.
TA: Thank you. All the best.
1. Shattering Sea
3. Battle of Trees
5. Cactus Practice
6. Star Whisperer
7. Job's Coffin
8. Nautical Twilight
9. Your Ghost
10. Edge of the Moon
11. The Chase
12. Night of Hunters
13. Seven Sisters
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Suzanne Vega
Mike Ragogna: Hey Suzanne, how's it going?
Suzanne Vega: I'm good, thanks.
MR: What's been going on with you these days?
SV: I'm looking forward to the release of Close-Up Vol. 3, which is coming out November 1st. I've been doing this project where I've been re-recording most of my catalog, so Volume 1 and Volume 2 came out last year, and Volume 3 was released earlier in the UK and now here in the US in November. It got great reviews in the UK, so I'm really happy about that.
MR: Let's talk about another project you're associated with, Pioneers For A Cure, for which you contributed your take on "The Streets Of Laredo." October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, and this album is released, of course, coordinated with that. Is this a cause that you're particularly aligned with in addition to other causes?
SV: This is in addition to other causes. Most of the time, if I have to prioritize, I work on behalf on human rights, and especially children's rights. In this case, I took this on, because I love the song, I like the cause. I recently had some experience where my father-in-law and mother-in-law both passed away from pancreatic cancer within the space of a couple of years of each other. So, all of the proceeds from this particular song are going to the hospice that nursed them in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
MR: I'm sorry for your loss, Suzanne. So, do the royalties that come out of the sales of the project go to artists' various causes?
SV: Yes, exactly. As the artist, you choose a charity that's the recipient of the proceeds and it goes there directly.
MR: Some other artists on this project are Tom Chapin, Randy Brecker, and Tom Verlaine. How did it work, were you approached by someone?
SV: Yes, it was Beth Raven who approached me for this. I know her from some NARUC meetings I attend in New York. She asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said I would love to. So, I researched this song, and we got taken out to this house in New Jersey. It was all very mysterious, and we recorded it there.
MR: And there are like a hundred songs involved, it's not just about what comes out on this CD collection.
SV: I guess not. There's a website that's associated with it--I think it's called The American Collection because there's another collection with Israeli songs. So, the website is quite extensive and you can go there and check it out.
MR: A moment ago, you mentioned you were affiliated with other social causes such as children's rights, and, of course, you have one of the best narratives out there on child abuse in your classic, "Luka." What are a couple of your affiliations?
SV: Well, of course, there is Amnesty International, which I've been a part of since 1988, there's a group called Casa Alianza that I've done a lot of work for, especially in the UK. We've raised money, and given out leaflets, they are a group associated with Covenant House here in America. They deal with children's rights, and they actually get involved in children's lives, especially homeless teenagers here New York--the Covenant House is associated with them. Those are two of the groups I'm affiliated with.
MR: You're in New York now, right?
MR: You're watching the Occupy... protests that are happening right now?
SV: I am kind of watching it, I must admit from a distance. I live five miles away from where it's going on, but I'm watching it in the news and I'm interested to see where this is going.
MR: Apparently, it's a grassroots movement.
SV: A lot of people are feeling very discontented, and it's completely understandable.
MR: It seems like the intentions are very good with everyone who's involved, but the hard thing right now is how do you turn everything around with who's in place in government and who's in place in corporations. How do you know where to begin?
SV: Exactly, and how do you frame the problem so it can be addressed. Right now, it's sort of a vague feeling of discontent people are giving, giving vent to people that have different answers and different things they want to talk about. So, eventually, it can be more than just a mouthpiece for emotion. Hopefully, at some point, it will click.
MR: Hopefully, people like Obama and Boehner are watching.
SV: I'm sure they are, believe me.
MR: Obama's election happened partly out of a grassroots movement. I wonder if he's looking at this deciding whether or not to be front and center or he's just hoping it goes away.
SV: Maybe neither? Maybe he can take some of that discontent and channel it, I'm sure some of that is aimed at him. There are a few people who are unhappy with the amount of change he's been able to affect. To be honest, I remember the night he was elected, him saying that this is going to take time. I still stand by him, and I think he is still doing a good job, despite the kind of opposition that he's had to deal with.
MR: Okay, back to the music. In addition to the Pioneers... album, you have a new one coming out soon called Close-Up Vol. 3.
SV: I'm hesitant to call it a new album, because if you call it a new album, people expect new songs. I don't blame them one bit, I would think so too. These are new recordings of catalog songs.
MR: Though these revisits respect their older arrangements, they also breathe more, they come off more mature.
SV: They are more intimate. First of all, they don't have some of the production they had. When I had the big record deals, a lot of the production was aimed towards, "How do we get this on the radio," so they have effects and reverb and all kinds of stuff on them. A lot of that was to be able to get it on--if we could even think about it--Top 40 radio. So, these songs are performed much more intimately, and they are engineered so you can listen to them with your ear buds, and it actually sounds like I'm talking to you right up close.
MR: I'm assuming you used mp3s with the ear buds to achieve that?
SV: Yes, but we've done them various ways. We've done them digitally, and I don't really remember now. I know with the Beauty And Crime record, we recorded a lot of things digitally and transferred it to tape in order to get the warmth you sometimes get. I don't know Joe Blaney's secrets; all I know is when I listen to my vocal on these recordings, it's full and warm. It doesn't have that thin, bright sound the older recordings have.
MR: That supplies the intimacy, that being the mission.
SV: It's sort of meant to humanize it. Some people have said, "Close-Up? How Close-Up? Are you in the room? So, you're playing in a small club?" No, I mean "close-up" like I'm in your face, like I'm in your ear, that's how close. Maybe that will make some people uncomfortable, but if you listen to the new recordings, it does have this warm, grainy intimate sound.
MR: And air.
SV: Yes, the air around the guitar parts and the melodies and the vocal. It's the song that stands up, not so much production--not that I have anything against the productions. I really stand behind all of my old albums, but I don't own them. I don't own the actual recordings--A&M owns 6 of them and Blue Note owns the 7th. So, these I actually own and I can do what I want with them for the rest of my life. That makes a difference.
MR: As you know, I come from working with catalog for a while. From the artist perspective, it was often hard to come to an agreement on what the track list, etc. might be since two different angles are at work.
SV: Well, back 25 years ago when I was a receptionist looking for a record deal, the contracts that they had available back then didn't seem like a bad deal. It was better than answering the telephone as a receptionist, so the 12 or 16 percent deal didn't seem so terrible. These days though, it seems if I can make more than that if I own 70 percent of my own catalog, then why not do that, especially in this day and age when record labels are not interested in holding on to individual artists. The big companies are sort of like dinosaurs. Unless they can sell millions of records, they're not going to cultivate you and nurture you.
MR: At A&M Records, you were in a beautiful place for that.
SV: I must say I had a happy relationship with them for 18 years, so I'm not complaining about that. These days, I'm thinking how can I go forward, and that's what I've chosen to do. I've started my own record company and I'm re-releasing most of my catalog on the Close-Up series. Most people get it when they come and see me live, they look at me performing and they say, "Ah, what is on these CDs is what she's doing live these days." It might take a little while for the whole idea of re-records to sink in to people who are not familiar with the record industry and how it works. I'm sure there are people who say, "We love the original, why do we need to buy it again?" You don't have buy it again, but if you want to know what I've been up to, then you could buy it if you wanted to.
MR: That's another interesting thing. Traditionally, people would say, "Why would I want a re-record?" I think we still associate them with those awful doo-wop re-recordings and the like.
SV: Yeah, you would think to yourself, "Why would you want to re-record?" I'm not trying to re-create some nostalgic moment, I'm trying to say, "Here's the song in its bare bones form."
MR: Of course, your lyrics and performance then get to pop out.
SV: And the guitar work. Whatever I need to get the song across, whatever it is I need to get the song across, that's what it's boiled down to. There's no extra stuff and there's nothing cut away too much. It's just what each song needs to end up on its own.
MR: Suzanne, what advice do you have for new artists?
SV: Let's see...I thought you were going to ask me what was the best advice I had ever received.
MR: Sure, let's go there first. What's the best advice you've ever received?
SV: One day, back in the '80s, I had the occasion to speak to Peter Gabriel. He gave me this lovely bit of advice that I've sort of taken to heart. He said, "Take your idiosyncrasies and blow them up." I have done that in my own career, sometimes it's been good for my career and sometimes it hasn't been. It definitely leaves you open to more criticism. People say, "What the heck is that?" or "Why do you need to write about blood?" or whatever I'm writing about. So, you leave yourself open to more criticism, but at the same time, you get to be yourself, you get to be a distinctive person in the landscape. That's something that I would pass on to a younger artist. First of all, have something to say, and second of all, have a style to say it in. To add to what Peter Gabriel said to me, I would say know your limitations because that becomes your style. A lot of people these days try and expand themselves. If you have an eight octave range, then good for you, but if you have a one octave range then work within that because your limitations become your style, and that's what you become known for. Don't be afraid to be yourself, even if it garners criticism. You will get criticized but you will be remembered.
MR: It's the antithesis of what goes on in shows like American Idol, where you're there to be molded.
SV: Yes, you're kind of fit into a machine and you come out the other end.
MR: It's almost a reality show on how not to make a true artist.
SV: Well, yeah, although when my daughter Ruby was younger, we would watch it and there are some things to learn from when you watch it. Mostly, I learned about songwriters--I learned about Stevie Wonder and different interpretations you can make of a song. There's always something good to find there, but ultimately, you will get a pop star out of that system, but you wont get a real artist.
MR: I interviewed Scotty McCreery for HuffPost recently, I like him as a young talent and as a person, and I was wondering what path he would take.
SV: That's the thing. Somebody like Kelly Clarkson? In the end, she is some kind of artist and she has tried to kick against the system and they end up resisting terribly. She's really had to fight for the past few years for her own vision of how her albums should be. So there you are.
MR: Yeah, very true. Hey, is Ruby musical?
SV: Yes, she is. She is a vocal major at LaGuardia and she's been doing some composing and playing a bunch of different instruments. In some ways, her musical talent comes from her dad, Mitchell Froom, the producer. Her talent is a lot like his in the scope of what she loves.
MR: Has she thought of herself as an artist in the same way we think about singer-songwriters?
SV: Well, she writes songs, but her instincts are more like a musicologist. She is way more sophisticated musically than I am. I'm not being modest, I'm just saying she can read music, write music, she knows how to modulate, and she knows how to do all of those things I used to hire her dad for. She's written some songs, but I think her interest goes beyond being a female singer-songwriter. She's interested in composing, and right now she's interested in reading all of the biographies of different composers.
MR: It seems like everybody's doing well.
SV: I'm doing as well as I can in this economy as we referenced before. I definitely don't feel above the fray as far as I'm concerned. Me, myself, am involved in this economic crunch we're going through.
MR: I think everybody is to some degree. The economy is playing the most heavily on making any real future decisions for most people I know.
SV: I know, and I know people who are just starting gardens and growing their own vegetables, because it's so much cheaper than going to the store and buying them. It's that kind of time we're living in. The good thing about being where you are is that you can still be in contact with the world because of the internet and the huge technological side. You can still be a part of the global consciousness; you're not in LA, but you can still join with the world's traffic if you want to.
MR: That's really it. The old stereotypes don't exist anymore. It's an amazing thing to watch.
SV: It is an amazing thing, and it gives you a more global awareness. I remember for the first time realizing way back when, like 15 years ago when I first started fooling around with the internet, that there was a person in Turkey and I could hear from her. When I would go to Turkey there was somebody that I knew who would come to the shows and I could look them in the face. That was so different than just this faceless country, Turkey even today still feel fairly exotic to me, but the internet makes us all feel the global identity more than before.
MR: As opposed to boarding a Pan Am flight with Frank Sinatra.
SV: (laughs) With Frank Sinatra?
MR: You know, a "Come Fly With Me" reference. You know, post World War II culture flying around the world to explore mysterious and exciting cultures!
SV: Oh, I see.
MR: It was lame, sorry. (laughs)
SV: Yes that seems terribly old fashion to get on the plane and go there, you can learn all about it beforehand, or you can participate in parts of the world where you can see what's going on and participate in it. You can take part in it and you can know what's happening in ways outside of the normal media.
MR: Is there one thing about Suzanne Vega that we don't know that you can share?
SV: If you want to know those things, you have to go join my Facebook page because lately, I've been uploading these pictures of what I'm wearing now or where I am. I'm so surprised by people who get online and say, "This is not you," whether it's my pair of shoes or they've decided they don't like my goggles. I did a picture of myself in a bathing suit on the beach, I posted it up, and I was surprised by how many people were vicious. They were saying, "This isn't you," or they thought this is really great and that's cool. So, you would be surprised by some of the things I would wear when I'm not on stage. On stage, I think I dress conservatively. You would be surprised to know what's in my closet.
MR: Everyone, don't forget to go to Suzanne Vega's Facebook page.
SV: Yes, you can see some of those interesting items, which I suppose as I go along, I will be posting them more and more.
MR: Anything else happening in your world?
SV: Just the Facebook page would cover that, and also if you go to www.suzannevega.com and you sign up there, you can find out when I'm doing the Carson McCullers play, when box sets are coming out, all sorts of things.
MR: Before we leave, I want to ask you about "Instant Of The Hour After," the new song coming from the project that you're collaborating with Duncan Sheik on. Can you go into that a bit?
SV: The song is based on a short story by Carson McCullers. I have written a play, and I'm still doing some work on that play, of the life and work of Carson McCullers. I wrote 12 to 15 songs with Duncan Sheik, and it's gotten a great response. I think we're going to re-stage the play for the Fall of next year, probably in San Francisco. But as I said, if you go the website, you can sign up for all the latest updates on that.
MR: What was the experience like?
SV: It's been so great to work with him, I've known him for years and I was really hopeful this would work out, and it's worked out beyond my wildest dreams. The melodies that he comes up with are so beautiful, it's been very inspiring working with him on this. I can't wait for everything to be in place, so in the meantime you get a taste of it on Volume 3.
MR: Looking forward to Volume 4, Suzanne. As always, it's been terrific, thank you so much.
SV: Thanks, Mike.
For More Suzanne Vega Information: www.suzannevega.com
2. When Heroes Go Down
3.My Favorite Plum
4. Solitude Standing
6. Last Year's Troubles
9. Blood Makes Noise
10. 50-50 Chance
12. Straight Lines
13. Pornographer's Dream
14. Instant Of The Hour After
Transcribed by Theo Shier
A Conversation with Jackie DeShannon
Mike Ragogna: It's a joy to be talking today with Jackie DeShannon who has a new album, When You Walk In The Room. Hello there, Jackie.
Jackie DeShannon: Thank you, it's a joy for me as well.
MR: Jackie, I want to start out by recognizing that you have in your repertoire some of the biggest anthems of all time. One is "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" and another is "What The World Needs Now Is Love." You like this love thing, don't you.
JD: I think that's part of who I am. I grew up in Kentucky and started singing gospel songs when I was very young, and the "hug your fellow man and try to be nice to people and help anyone you can" way is really part of me. I think that, especially today, we need some "love, sweet love" and we need to "put a little love" in our hearts for sure.
MR: And we need to not be looking at the world through "Bette Davis Eyes."
JD: (laughs) That's funny. Yes, for sure.
MR: Readers may be confused by the "Bette Davis Eyes" reference, don't worry, we'll get there gang. So, today we're talking about the new album, When You Walk In The Room. It's an acoustic re-imagining of your hits and a couple of songs here and there that have very interesting backgrounds. But Jackie, let's talk a bit first about the early days. How did you get into the music business?
JD: Oh, well that's about eight hours...that's where the camera pulls back. (laughs)
MR: Hey, we've the got plenty of virtual space, Jackie. (laughs)
JD: (laughs) Actually, my parents were both singers and played musical instruments and I come from a varied background of classical and country blues, and my mom was a big band singer, we always had musicians in the house, so music came to be pretty naturally. But, you know, in those days, it was pretty hard for a girl my age to actually break through. I just sang at different places to try to get noticed, made some demo records, made a few records that were "breakouts" locally, and ended up meeting Eddie Cochran. I worked with him at different parties we would do for disc jockeys when they had dances and were promoting their records. He said, "I think you should go to California. You look like a California girl, and I think you'd be successful there." So, I said to my parents, "Well, if Eddie Cochran said so, we have to go," and that's kind of how I got out to L.A.
MR: What was your first big break?
JD: Well, I signed with Liberty Records, and that was the start of my recording career, basically. It just sort of happened. They were, I think, pretty much a singles-oriented label--they were not like a Columbia who did four or five or six albums with someone before they actually started selling. They were a young record company and I liked the president, so I ended up signing with them.
MR: One of your first hits, "Needles And Pins," was written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono.
JD: Yes, that was a song that was written for me for a recording session. I had worked with Jack, he did a lot of arranging for me, and we were really, really close friends. I helped with it, but didn't really get any credit for it, which is fine. The thing was that the record company didn't want to record it, and I just ended up saying, "Well, if we don't do this song, then I'm not gonna go into the studio for a while." So, they gave in, and that's how the song happened.
MR: "When You Walk In The Room" is another one of your hits, and "across the pond," as they say, we have a group called The Searchers, who also had monstrous hits with "Needles And Pins" and "When You Walk In The Room." What gives?
JD: The Searchers were a very big group in England, and when my record of "Needles And Pins" came out, they covered it and had a very, very big success with it. They were fans of mine, and it was a little disappointing that it didn't really happen as fast for me, but at that time, there was kind of this thing with Billboard and Cashbox where you needed to have "bullets," as they say. You needed to be in the Top 5 across the country, and "Needles And Pins," oddly enough, was maybe Top 5 in Chicago, and then it was Top 20 in Washington. It was just bouncing around. So, we didn't get the big, broad connections that we might have. Nevertheless, The Searchers did a great record and I think that people were covering records more in those days, so they would've had a hit with it anyway...they were very big in London. And, of course, being a songwriter, I was absolutely over the moon that they recorded "When You Walk In The Room."
MR: And then there's "Breakaway," which became a classic in a strange way and is my favorite Tracey Ullman recording. What is the story on that one?
JD: I don't know the story on "Breakaway." (laughs) It kind of has a life of its own. I was so amazed to see it in The Secret Life Of Bees, being performed at the kitchen table by Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. It was amazing. It just has a life of its own. I really don't know how to say much more. Tracey Ullman did a fantastic version of it that was a major hit in the U.K. It's just, you know, one of those songs that does its own thing.
MR: Now, Jackie, there is a certain Beatles connection--a certain someone went on tour with them. Would you care to elaborate?
JD: Well, I had the great honor of performing with and opening for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour, which went across America. It was for about six weeks, and I just had an amazing, amazing time. And, of course, nobody needs to say how great The Beatles are, but we'll say it anyway. They're the best.
MR: Um, this same certain someone dated Elvis Presley, right?
JD: Well, yes...we had some interesting dates. Our dates were musical dates. I would go up to the house and sing with Elvis. He loved gospel music and he'd have The Jordanaires up there. And, you know, being from the South myself, we had that connection with the church and gospel music. I went to see him a couple of times in Las Vegas, and he introduced me from the audience. He was an amazing guy. I learned a lot from Elvis. He loved his fans more than life, and he just was so humble and so amazing. I think that people who have a big attitude are not on the right path, because this guy sells more records than practically anybody, and his fans love him. I think that's great.
MR: There are so many Elvis stories, and they range pretty broadly. Of course, people like to tell the horrific ones, but there are all those beautiful stories as well, like the one you just told.
JD: Those negative stories? That was not really Elvis' spirit, and if you ask anybody that's had an opportunity to see him or meet him, they will tell you exactly what I did--that he was an amazing talent. And actually, he didn't have as much opportunity to show his talent as he could have. Elvis was a great actor, but for some reason, the Colonel didn't really push him or get him out there the way he wanted. I think Elvis was always frustrated by that.
MR: You were also friends with The Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson.
JD: Yes, yes. One of the things that would happen out in Los Angeles at that time--when I was recording and when other people were recording--we used to go to each others' sessions. If I was recording, maybe they would drop by or I would go to one of their sessions. It was just kind of a thing that artists did in those days.
MR: It was almost like a big support group.
JD: Yeah, it was. It was very different, and I love that and cherish those memories for sure.
MR: Jackie, you also were a movie star!
JD: (laughs) Oh, well I think Surf Party has circled around the globe by now.
MR: (laughs) Everybody has seen that movie.
JD: I think that, you know, it's a classic. And C'mon, Let's Live A Little is a classic too. But I did have an opportunity to do some of the TV shows, which I really was a big fan of. I did The Virginian, and The Name Of The Game--I did a lot of fun stuff.
MR: And, of course, there was Ready Steady Go!
JD: Of course, of course. You know, things were happening and I was right at the center of the scene at the time. It's hard for me even to think back and go, "Was I really there?" But I was!
MR: I also want to ask you about your Marianne Faithfull connection with "Come And Stay With Me." At the time, you and future Zeppelin member Jimmy Page were writing together. How did that come together?
JD: Well, I was in England recording, and I was very used to working with people like Glen Campbell and James Burton and Tommy Tedesco--all these great, great guitar players. So, when I was there, I said "Who's an amazing acoustic guitar player that I can have on my sessions," and they all said that Jimmy Page was the guy, because he had played on a lot of different hit records at the time and was one of the guys on the A-list of studio musicians to call. So, I said, "Great, let's have him," and they said, "Well, you can't get him here because he's in art school." I said, "What??" Anyway, he did come over and I knew right then that he was an amazing talent, so he played on a song of mine called "Don't Turn Your Back On Me, Babe" and we did some writing together. One of the songs that was inspired by that relationship was "Come And Stay With Me." Marianne Faithfull recorded it, and it was a big hit for her. We're big fans of Marianne's.
MR: After that, you started co-writing with Randy Newman.
JD: I did write a couple songs with Randy Newman, which I'm very proud of. I don't think he's co-written too many songs with that many people. He was a friend, and again, people were just kind of hanging out. I think he was writing some songs for the publishing company that I was with, and I was fortunate enough to have him for a partner.
MR: You've also musically partnered with Van Morrison.
JD: Yes, I was fortunate enough--again--to work with Van. He's an amazing talent. I did a little backup for him on a couple of his concert dates, and we ended up doing a few sessions together and writing a couple songs.
MR: And a couple of them are on my favorite album of his, Wavelength.
JD: Oh, I love that album. It's amazing. I'm such a Van Morrison fan, all the way from Astral Weeks on down.
MR: With him, it's hard to find what album is your favorite--most people say Moondance or Astral Weeks or Saint Dominic's Preview--but for me, it's definitely still Wavelength. It has "Kingdom Hall," "Wavelength" and the hit that should have been, "Natalia."
JD: He's awesome.
MR: He is awesome. Let's move on now to the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, "What The World Needs Now Is Love."
JD: "What The World Needs Now Is Love" was a song that I think that several people had passed on. I was told that I would have the opportunity to work with Burt Bacharach and Hal David and I was really over the moon. I was so excited to work with them. We were rehearsing songs that would possibly make the session, and Hal David wanted Burt to play "What The World Needs Now Is Love" and he was kind of reluctant to do it. So, finally, after a bit and going over some more songs, he said, "Please play this for Jackie." So, he did play it for me and after I learned it, Burt just said, "That's it. We're going to New York. We're gonna record this song." He was very excited about the way that I sang it. It's become a classic, so I'm very pleased about that.
MR: You're also in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
JD: Yes I am, and I...wow. That was a pretty special evening.
MR: How so?
JD: Well, I think every songwriter would like to have that happen to them, and although there are women the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, there are less women. I kind of love the fact that a lot of times, I would be so inspired by Elizabeth Cotten and some of the great blues singers that will not get the recognition that they should or haven't to this day. The first thing that I thought of was Elizabeth Cotten and I thought, "Wow. This is so cool. I'm a woman and I'm in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame."
MR: And then there was a certain song called "Put A Little Love In Your Heart," which has become a perennial.
JD: (laughs) Well, that song is definitely my favorite for a couple of reasons. The first one is the fact that, as a songwriter, a lot of my songs were passed on to other people when perhaps I might have had a hit with it, but who knows. But I got a chance to sing this song, and it became a very big record. And I love the message. That's what makes it my favorite song.
MR: And then, of course, it was redone by Annie Lennox and Al Green years later.
JD: Oh yes--there have been so many great records of it. But it doesn't get a lot better than Al Green and Annie Lennox. And to have Mahalia Jackson record it, and so many other great singers...it's just a gift that keeps on giving, really.
MR: What was it like to create that song? We haven't even touched on your creative process yet. Can you use this song as an example?
JD: Well, I wrote that with my brother, Randy Myers, and Jimmy Holiday. We were working on an album at the time, and he was actually just at the piano playing this little theme (Jackie sings) and it was one of those things that kind of fell out of the sky...it was, "Think of your fellow man / lend him a helping hand / put a little love in your heart." That just came out...boom. The whole chorus came out very fast.
MR: There's no better song that I can think of that sends out that message.
JD: It's interesting because I will be at a place and I'll ask somebody about that song, just off the cuff, and they know that song. It's just one of the best feelings you could ever have to be able to write something that people remember, and that reaches them in a very spiritual way.
MR: We'd be remiss if we left out "Bette Davis Eyes."
JD: Yes, don't leave Bette out!
MR: What's the story behind that song?
JD: Well, it's kind of an interesting story in the sense that Donna Weiss and I wrote the song, and we made this rock demo with a very driving rhythm--a really uptempo beat. (Jackie sings) I was going into the studio to record it, and I thought that it would be the same arrangement that I had on the demo, but in contrast, the producer and I had a disagreement on how the song should be recorded. In those days, the producer really was the guy that had the last say. At the record company, it was a, "Well, what do women know?" kind of thing, and we ended up recording it that way, and it was a good record, but it was a different record. So, Donna happened to take this demo to Kim (Carnes), and she was recording. Obviously, she liked it, and she recorded it. They went on a big promotional tour and finally got a lot of people to listen to it, and it became a great record.
MR: I believe it's the first official sort of "new wave" song that hit the top of the charts with the synth patterns and all. (sings synth part)
JD: Yeah, it's definitely a classic, and, of course, Kim did wonderful vocals on it. The whole record, I think, is just a masterpiece.
MR: Yeah, I think so too, Mistaken Identity was a very strong album. Speaking of masterpieces...
JD: ...uh oh, here we go!
MR: (laughs) You were portrayed in a certain NBC series, American Dreams. I loved that show, it's a real shame it went off the air so soon.
JD: Wasn't it a great show? It was an amazing show.
MR: The very lovely Liz Phair portrayed you in it.
JD: She did, and I was invited to watch her film that, and the tears...I was just crying. She was so perfect. She's such a great talent, and I couldn't have had anyone do it any better. She just owned it. It was so amazing.
MR: Jackie, what advice do you have for new artists?
JD: (laughs) Well, it's such a different planet today. I guess that you can just get on the internet and get your exposure. It's very easy to do in that sense. When I was doing it, there were just a few tiny labels, so it was very, very hard to get your songs out and get your music out. But I think the main thing is you have to believe in yourself and have the drive to continue when people say, "I'm not interested," or "I don't want to know." Adding to that, the other thing I would do is get a really great music attorney so that you get paid for whatever you do and so that you really understand how the business side works and so that when you make decisions, you are informed. So many people coming up in my day just didn't understand, and a lot of people don't want to listen if you say, "You have to think about this, because you may not get paid the way you think you will." They're so excited to do something that they don't take the time to make sure that they understand it from a business level, and then when the disappointment comes and they don't get paid properly and they don't see the kind of royalties they're looking for, then they don't understand what happened. So, I think being informed is really, really, really important.
MR: You have a new song on When You Walk In The Room, "Stay In My Life."
JD: I do. I'm very proud of that song. I haven't been writing a lot lately, but that kind of got me on a roll and I'm starting to write a lot more.
MR: Ooh, so you'll be recording another new Jackie DeShannon album soon?
JD: I will, I've got like five songs already. I'm a little bit of a cook in here.
MR: Congratulations, Jackie, great news. Are you going to tour?
JD: I am doing a day here in Los Angeles--October 24th--for the Society Of Singers, and I will be doing a lot of the songs from the new album. I think we'll have to see how it goes. But we're going to do this set pretty much acoustically. We're going to sing a lot of the favorites, and I'm really looking forward to doing that. Hopefully, as it goes along, we'll just see what the muse has in store for us.
MR: The acoustic approach on this album is so smart, because sometimes when a pop record is produced, songs get lost in the production, but not these with the approach you took.
JD: Exactly. I wanted it to be like that. What we did is revisited the songs, so it's no comparison to the real record; we never tried to go that direction. It's, "Gee, I'm stopping by your house for a cup of coffee. Would you like to hear 'Put A Little Love In Your Heart?' I happen to have my guitar with me." It's that kind of thing. It's inviting someone into your living room, or just sitting on the beach and playing the songs, and letting the audience get a picture of what the songs are about--as opposed to the production being the focus.
MR: On the album cover, there you are sitting on the couch--in your living room maybe?
JD: I'm sitting on the couch. The photograph--I am so proud of--it was photographed by Herb Ritts, who was one of the most brilliant photographers. He goes everywhere, from Vanity Fair to all of these great portrait pictures. It was a great honor to have him photograph me, and I'm so sorry that he's not with us--but he is in spirit. I said to him, "I never really knew myself until that photograph. It was a picture of me, really of me, as an artist. I was so grateful, and feel so privileged to have that photograph that he did on the cover. We'd like to thank Mark McKenna at the Herb Ritts foundation for letting us have the privilege of using that photograph.
MR: We'll have to stop there Jackie, but this has been incredible, as always. Whenever we do this, I'm giddy for weeks.
JD: We have a good time! We'll do it again.
MR: Jackie, all the best with the new album.
JD: I appreciate your support and thank you, thank you.
1. When You Walk In the Room
2. Put A Little Love In Your Heart
3. Bette Davis Eyes
4. Heart In Hand
5. Come And Stay With Me
6. Don't Doubt Yourself Babe
7. Needles and Pins
9. What the World Needs Now Is Love
10. Bad Water
11. Will You Stay In My Life
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Shelby Lynne
Mike Ragogna: Shelby Lynne, you're back for another visit, thanks. How are you?
Shelby Lynne: I'm doing great, man. How are you?
MR: Doing very well. Since you've been here before, I think it's best we just dive in. Your new album Revelation Road, to me, is a collection of paradigms of faith, did I get that right?
SL: Well, I'm glad that you got that from it, Mike. To me, it's a collection of the songs that are a reflection of my life today.
MR: Nice. I love how in the song, "Revelation Road," you use the sinner vs. the preacher analogy. That sort of seems like a reflection of the times, wouldn't you say?
SL: I mean, that's where I am. I can't imagine thinking what anybody else is thinking, you know? That's why I write songs, and I'm lucky to be able to do that and write what's in my head and in my heart. I think that it almost feels to me like a crossroads of some kind.
MR: Nice. On a more personal note, would you mind sharing what inspired you to write these songs?
SL: Well, I think it's just about letting the past be the past and living your life in as much of a positive way as you can. If you hang on to things you can't change, you tend to get stuck. So, if I've learned anything in my life, it's that you have to keep rolling on.
MR: That kind of ties in nicely with the sentiments of the song "Woebegone," doesn't it?
SL: Yeah. That song is just a clever way of saying that I'm tired of being miserable, I just want to move on and be where life takes me for a change, you know?
MR: This album seems to be the most personal one you've made so far.
SL: It is personal. I wrote songs on there about my sister and growing up and such. I really concentrated a lot on writing this record for me. There's lots of lyrical content about feeling like I'm back in Alabama and being a kid. I really looked at it in a positive, "all love" kind of way. It was amazing how the songs kind of wrote themselves when I let go of any bad feelings I may have had.
MR: A revelation that came to me after listening to songs such as "Woebegone" was just how often during rough times, I had no choice but to turn to friends and family as a source of solace. Was that the same for you?
SL: Well, it's not quite the same for me. My family is not where I go for comfort. For me in life, you choose the people that you want to be around and sometimes family is not necessarily it. So, if you make the right decisions, you'll know it because you'll start figuring out who you want to be around and who's not good for you to be around. Sometimes, you realize that you're pretty damn lonely in doing that, so you have to accept the fact that being lonely is quite alright.
MR: Right. Has this been a year of making those kinds of decisions for you?
SL: Well, I've made them all my life, but I never really decided to write songs about it before. As a songwriter I'm pretty fortunate in getting to write about my life through songs. I can either put it all out there literally, or I can disguise it within a melody or poem, but it's what I do. I'm very fortunate and I like doing it.
MR: Shelby, one of my favorite songs on the album is "I Don't Need A Reason To Cry."
SL: It kind of says it all in the song. Sometimes, you just sit down and cry. You don't need a reason.
MR: Another of my favorites is "Heaven's Only Days Down The Road."
SL: It's a song I wrote from my father's perspective after he had gone over to the other side. I guess you can make the song as complicated or as simple as you want. But this song is a personal avenue for me.
MR: That's so beautiful. Now, the last time we talked was before Christmas 2011, what have you been up to since then?
SL: Well, let me see. I went on tour in Europe, which was great. It was just wonderful going there and playing for so many wonderful people. Then I came back and started writing songs for this record. I knew I had a little bit of time to sit and work, so I moved into a recording space where I could go and work in my free time. That's how I made this record. It's been a great process and I'm glad that it's done and the record is coming out. I'm really happy with it.
MR: And this record was written, performed and produced by you, I bet that feels pretty fulfilling. But that's quite an undertaking, wouldn't you say?
SL: Well, I got a really small simple recording space to work on this one. I would just go in every day when I felt I was ready and work song by song. There was lots of experimenting. I didn't know if any of these songs would come out worth a damn. (laughs) I just thought I could go in and feel it out, peck away or add stuff, you know? It's hard to explain. I had something in my head and I just tried to go and put it down on tape.
MR: The mixing and overall sound turned out well too.
SL: Thank you very much. You work with what you have, you know? I like to try to keep it as analog as possible because I like that sound and feel.
MR: Nice. So, that's how you got that sound?
SL: Absolutely. I still roll 2-inch tape.
MR: Where do you even buy that these days?
SL: You can get it if you're looking. Sometimes, I worry about finding it because it can't last forever. The world we live in just doesn't roll that way. But as long as they keep making it, I'm gonna keep doing it.
MR: Well, they predicted CDs would be obsolete by now, but they're still around.
SL: I give that a year.
MR: Really? Do you think we're already at the end of the CD age?
SL: I think so. I've been talking to all of my people about it because when you have a record company, you have to think about all of those things, you know? I think in a year or two, they just wont be around. I mean, I still buy vinyl if I can. It's weird because my record is coming out on vinyl, but we include the digital download inside the vinyl. That way, you can get the artwork and record and you can still put it on your iPod. I just wanted to do both. Another problem with CDs is that there's just nowhere to put them. (laughs) That's just the world that we live in now, there's no more room to store stuff like that. (laughs) We live in a world that's fast-paced. Everything can be done at the touch of a button. You have to really concentrate on making a record on tape or putting a record onto vinyl. Even playing a vinyl on the stereo is a foreign concept because you have to get your body up and turn the record over to hear "side b." (laughs) I have forced myself to use tape because I like the creative aspect of it. I just don't get inspired through looking at computer screens. I like to see the tape running and feel it.
MR: That's beautifully put. Working with tape just makes a very different sounding track.
SL: It does. With 24 tracks, you have to make a commitment. I like to layer a lot when I make records. I may put in 3 or 4 guitars, or 3 or 4 harmonies. Then, I start counting down every time I add something because I'm running out of tracks every time. With digital, there's an unlimited amount of tracks and I just don't find that to be very creative.
MR: Were there any major differences working on this album over others now that you were the producer?
SL: Well, there's nobody to argue with except myself. (laughs) And it's a lot less stressful. I mean, I like working with producers, but this time, I didn't want to. The record business has also changed so much. I could go into a million reasons about why I didn't want a producer, but in the music business, you're either the wonderful Beyoncé, who I love, with a big label and lots of money or you're on your own. Right now, I'm really enjoying being on my own. And, I just wanna say I love Beyoncé and that new record. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Yeah, it's awesome, but what do you think of Adele? I can't get enough of those two albums.
SL: She's amazing, such an incredible singer. She's the real deal, and to be so young and so gifted? That's awesome.
MR: Yeah, she's great. Looking go back a bit. What would you say the major differences are between Revelation Road and, let's say, I Am Shelby Lynne?
SL: I would say the most major difference is the songwriting, it's just me going it alone with no collaborators. As far as the recording part goes, it's basically the same. I used 2-inch tape on that record as well. A lot of the ideas in my way of recording come from the lessons I learned back when I first started. I like the way that record turned out. It's a layering process--you put down a performance and then you layer your record around it. That's the way I feel like I like it.
MR: Shelby, another favorite song from Revelation Road is "Toss It All Aside." Can you tell us more about that song?
SL: It's an emotional song because it takes a relationship that's over to another level. There's nothing left to do but end it all, so that's what it's about lyrically. That's a song that I actually wrote a while back but I never had a chance to put on a record until this one. I thought it fit perfectly. I thought about it a lot in the ordering of the record.
MR: I enjoyed being able to take the time and digest a lot of your songs before we spoke again, to me, it's so important. Have you ever been in a situation where someone hadn't listened to your music before an interview?
SL: Yeah, and it makes me mad. (laughs) I
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