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Still On The Levee & The Boat That Carries Us: Conversations with Peter Himmelman and Chris Smither

07/16/2014 12:01 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014

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A Conversation with Chris Smither

Mike Ragogna: You've got a newly recorded, two-disc retrospective, Still On The Levee. You've had this wonderful career that the masses...

Chris Smither: ...don't know a thing about!

MR: [laughs] Yeah, what is that?

CS: Back before cable, on UHF, you used to see this guy being advertised. He was some kind of a country or cowboy singer and people would say he sold millions of records and you've never heard of him.

MR: Why, that's Slim Whitman!

CS: Right. It's funny, sometimes, I feel like Slim Whitman. I haven't sold millions of records, but it's kind of like that. In a way, I don't know how to explain it, but I'm not sure that there's really anything to explain. One of the things that I take from it? Parents, people my age who have kids who want to get into music often ask me, "Is this a viable thing for anybody to do?" and I say, "Well, the strange thing is I'm hardly a household name at all. But the fact is that I own a house, there's two cars in the garage, I put my kids through school. It's at least as good as advertising."

MR: I always wait for the end of the interview to ask this, but you just brought this subject up, so what advice do you have for new artists?

CS: Well, my first advice is to remember that it's supposed to be fun. There's no reason to get into this game unless you're enjoying it. It's hard enough as it is and if it's no fun anymore, then there are a lot of other things you can do that are no fun that will make you more money. Another answer that I've heard artists give is that you do it because you have to. If you don't have to do it, if there isn't something that drives you to do it, then think about something else, maybe. At the same time, I think that's a little harsh. To me, I look at it as a legitimate career choice. Maybe that's because I'm from New Orleans, where that's just one of the things you can do. You can be a plumber, you can be an electrician, or you can be a musician. Musicians are just working stiffs like anybody else. When I first moved from New Orleans up to the Boston area, I would meet people from Providence, Rhode Island, and if they were Italians, the mob was a career choice for them. That was just one of their options. It always took me aback. That was the most amazing thing I'd heard, and yet in New Orleans, the same thing is true of music. It's just a career choice, something you can do.

MR: Speaking of career choices, what would you have told Chris Smither when you were first starting?

CS: Actually, my advice to Chris Smither, if I were talking to him now, I would say, "Go for it." If you're passionate about it and it makes you happy, go for it. You learn soon enough whether it's going to work or not. You usually learn soon enough to change. People change their minds all the time. The interesting thing for me is that I never thought about it as a career choice until I was already doing it. I didn't make up my mind that I was going to be a musician. I was going to be an anthropologist in real life. I always thought that music was just an avocation, it was something I did when I was trying to avoid what I was supposed to be doing. I dropped out of school after four years, I never got a degree. I just left and I said, "I'll try to do this for one summer." Now it's been forty-seven years.

MR: So Chris. You thinkin' this music thing might just stick after all?

CS: [laughs] I think I might be able to make a go of it.

MR: It is interesting. These days, I believe lot of kids get into music because it's the American Dream, you know? Take American Idol. It presents the narrative of following the American Dream to superstardom.

CS: I always thought it was peculiar. Sometimes you can ask little kids, "What do you want to be when you grow up," and they say, "A rock star." When I was a kid, that wasn't a legitimate aspiration, that was just something that might happen to you, like winning the lottery. Nowadays it's kind of an aspiration, "I want to be a pop music star."

MR: Right, or anything that has the word "star" associated. Speaking of music stars, you have had your very fair share of people covering your songs, and you put some of them on your new album. How did you whittle it down to the twenty-five we have here?

CS: The answer to that is that I had help. Most of the work and most of the whittling down was done by my producer David Goodrich. He has a much better perspective on the totality of my career than I do. When my management and my producer first proposed this project to me, I didn't see the point of it. It wasn't until I'd gotten into it and gone back and looked at it that I realized I didn't have any perspective on how much stuff there was. I had never internalized what a pile of stuff it was, because I go day-to-day and year-to-year and album-to-album. I just keep doing it. I put one foot in front of the other. Somehow it had escaped me that the whole thing could be viewed as a body of work. I didn't really think of myself or my work that way. Actually, it wasn't until the project was almost finished that I looked at it and said, "Holy s**t, this is a lot of stuff, it's kind of amazing." Dave and I went in and recorded almost twice as many songs as are on here. You can think of this as almost being the first installment because the rest of the stuff is as good as this, but it didn't fulfill several criteria; did it represent a certain period in my growth, did it represent a certain feeling? There are several different things. There are a couple of lyrical stages in my writing where you could see an obvious change in the way I approached lyrics and the way I approached guitar playing and the way I approached playing with other people. What he was trying to do was get together not only very good songs but songs that were representative of each period and each stage of the game. I think he did a pretty good job. He did a better job than I would've. I get tied up in sentimental favorites that might not be necessarily representative and give a whole picture.

MR: You said you looked at your work as a complete body for the first time. So what are your thoughts on the career Chris Smither has had to this point?

CS: I just feel really lucky. We talked about it before, I've reached the point where I'm very comfortable, I get a degree of respect from my peers. As we talked about at the beginning of this interview, I'm not a household name. The great mass of American people don't know anything about me. But the people who found me do know who I am and I'm rewarded for it. It seems hard to believe to me that I could be sitting here in my own house talking on the phone with you about all this. I have a good life and it's all been from doing things that I love to do. I mean, I would cheerfully have paid somebody to be allowed to do this.

MR: What about these recording sessions? There must have been some interesting tweaking and catharsis that happened while re-recording the music on this album.

CS: For one thing, it was the most time that I'd spent in New Orleans since I'd moved away, and I left New Orleans when I was almost twenty-three. I grew up there. We spent three weeks solid doing this recording right in the heart of it. I was getting back into the neighborhoods and looking up a lot of old friends at the same time. You know, I found myself going back into a head that was not familiar to me anymore, and I suddenly remembered what it was like to live there and to think of New Orleans as the center of the universe. Nobody realizes this unless they live in New Orleans, but New Orleans is this very inward-gazing whirlpool that looks at its own navel all the time. It thinks of itself as the center of the world, and the rest of it just sort of "out there" and in some ways, it's vaguely threatening to the rest of the world. But the real center of everything is New Orleans, and I started to think into that again and what was nice about that was that it put me back in the head of where I was when I wrote some of the earliest songs. It was a vivid reminder of exactly where I came from. So much of this project was this self-exploration going back. I would say at least a third of these songs I had to relearn because it had been so long since I'd played them, and I would go back and listen to recordings of myself that are twenty and thirty years old and sit there and listen to them and go, "What the hell is he doing?" [laughs] And it was me playing! I would sit there and puzzle it out and work it together. Sometimes it was muscle memory alone that retaught me what those songs were about. Some of them I never remembered and I had to reinvent them. I had to rearrange them in my mind and come up with the way that I'd play them now as a seventy-year old man instead of a twenty-four year old guy.

MR: And a few icons dropped by to pay tribute like Allen Toussaint and Loudon Wainwright III. You're aware that you're revered by the revered, right?

CS: [laughs] I'm aware that I have friends, and I'm grateful for it. You can't value that too much.

MR: Being from New Orleans, how did the Katrina disaster affect you?

CS: It did not touch me directly. I was concerned when it happened because I've still got a lot of friends in New Orleans. I've been interested in it ever since, I've contributed some time and effort into the reconstruction, but not a great deal. In the first couple of years, I talked about it a lot on stage and I tried to emphasize to people that you can't just forget about it. It's not just one of these things that happens and after six months, you can say, "Oh yeah, that happened a long time ago," because the fact is that it's a very valuable place. To tell you the truth, they don't really know how to take care of themselves down there very well. They do what they do extremely well and what they have going in terms of a city is extremely valuable to the American experience, but they don't really know how to take care of themselves. In some respects, people have to take care of them. They're very worth taking care of.

MR: Were there any lessons that you think could have or should have been learned from that disaster?

CS: Well yeah, but they're the same lessons that should've been learned in New York before Super Storm Sandy. Ever since I was in elementary school in New Orleans people have said, "There's going to come a hurricane, and it's going to bust the levees on the lakeside and it's going to flood the whole town," and everyone said, "Yeah, it'll probably happen someday." And one day it did, and nobody had done anything about it. People had been screaming about it for decades. Not one year, not two years, not five years, not ten years. Decades. Part of that is the fault of the city itself. It has sort of a "Mañana" atmosphere to it. "We'll take care of that coming up. Not right now." But part of it is politicians. The federal government bears a lot of responsibility for it, too.

MR: New Orleans seems to end up being a political football.

CS: Yeah, it does. Part of the reason that they don't take as much care of it is it's not as important of a port as it used to be. It used to be an extremely important point of entry for import/export stuff, shipping and so forth. But it's been passed by Houston, it's been passed by Galveston and all these other gulf ports. One of the things that makes people dismiss it and not take it so seriously is because most of what it has to offer is cultural. It's very easy in the United States to ignore cultural importance. Politicians have made their livings on it for years, saying, "We don't have time for culture, we've got to make money."

MR: You have a couple other projects going on right now, a tribute album and your lyric book.

CS: Yep! The tribute album I don't really have a lot to do with, that's my record company's doing. There are a lot of artists there who jumped on that and are doing songs. All I can say is I'm extremely flattered. I love it. I don't really have any direct involvement in it except to sit back and say, "God, this is wonderful." I love hearing my songs done by all these people, it's like your kids coming home from school. They're all grown up and they've changed but you like what they've turned into.

MR: I guess that's most evident in the lyric book. Was working on these projects collectively like you being reintroduced to you?

CS: Oh yeah, absolutely. The book is just the lyrics. I kind of like that. I got talked into it by writers, mainly, who like the way I write and said, "Just put them like they were poems with some photographs," and I love it. It's like a coffee table book, that size and that weight. I put it on my coffee table and I look at it and say, "Wow, that's pretty neat." I love it.

MR: And I'd add that your two CD set Still On The Levee, especially since it's presented within a "book" of sorts, also could be a coffee table piece.

CS: I love it. A lot of work went into it. I have to say that I had people helping me, I'm not responsible for much beyond the actual music on the discs, but they really did a great job. It's just unbelievable.

MR: Hey Chris...you still on the levee?

CS: Yeah, the levee was my playground when I grew up. I grew up like two and a half blocks from the levee. It was the only high ground in town. That was the only thing that even looked like a hill that I saw growing up, it was a big, huge, open expanse that stretched for miles up and down the river. It was kind of an adventure at the time. It's not quite so adventurous anymore. They've civilized it a great deal. But we used to spend all our time there. To me it just felt like home. In some ways I still feel it. That's what I was trying to get across by the title; at heart, I'm still there. I'm still on the levee.

MR: What you up to next?

CS: I've got a lot of touring to do over this release. I've got sixty or seventy shows in the next four months, I think. I've just started to get my toes in the water over a new disk, I've got about three or four new songs started, so there's at least one more new record in the pipeline, it'll start happening. Maybe more than that, I don't know, we'll see how long we manage to stay on the planet.

MR: I would like to raise my hand for the fifty-first anniversary, part two of Still On The Levee with all of those other recordings.

CS: [laughs] Listen, believe me, it'll come out one way or another.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Peter Himmelman

Mike Ragogna: Your new album is titled The Boat That Carries Us. How did the creative process start? Were there songs that spurred on the concept and then the process just evolved from there?

Peter Himmelman: You know, I just don't really know. That's a good question. Normally, all these pat answers come to mind, but when you do a Ragogna interview, you've got to dig deeper than that.

MR: Oh no you don't, we still need an answer, Mr. Himmelman!

PH: [laughs] I just wrote a lot of things on paper without any music. They were songs because their architecture is more rigid than some freeform poetry or something, so I had a good sense that these could be songs, and one of them was just this one. There were actually other title ideas, too.

MR: You mean "Green Mexican Dream"? Knew it!

PH: Well, no, that wasn't one of them. One of my songs is "Ten-Ton Tank," and I thought that might be fun. I think my son disabused me of that. There were a couple of rejects, and then it just struck me as so obvious, "That would be a perfect title," a summation of everything I wanted to accomplish in this record.

MR: Exactly. Like "Green Mexican Dream."

PH: I mean, that could've been just another failure.

MR: [laughs] What separates The Boat... from your last project?

PH: The last record that I made was called Are You There? It had sort of a fake band name which, in retrospect, may or may not have been the best idea, but you've got to try a lot of things when you're alive. That's the best time to do them, I always say. That was a long period of not so much time in the initial studio session but kind of a laborious post-production session. This one was entirely different. A big difference is these players: Jim Keltner is the drummer, he's been a friend of mine for many years, and I never really played much with him at all. I don't know why it never happened, but it did on this occasion. Lee Sklar, the bass player is super renowned, I'm sure all your readers know who these guys are, I don't have to put in their credits or anything. I have a guitarist named David Steele, the name was suggested to me by Sheldon Gomberg, the producer of the record. I'd never heard of David Steele but he played with a lot of people that I like, Lucinda Williams and John Prine and Steve Earle. I was really shocked at how deep of a guitar player he was. I guess he's assumed to be the go-to Americana guy. As he was playing certain changes I'm like, "Wait a minute, David, you've got to tell me you were playing Yngwie Malmsteen when you were like in junior high, I know it," and he goes, "Shhh, don't tell anyone." Of course he was, he's just so deep and so gifted. That was sort of a different thing, to walk into this room with total strangers in the sense that I'd never played with them before. We had a very short frame of time to record just because I thought it would be more interesting to hit it, budgetary reasons, "How long can you give these guys to hang in the studio?" It's not like we're making Guns N' Roses' album over the period of a year or something. So I think we had like two and a half days to get in there and make something happen. I'm familiar with how that goes, but this was even more, everything that we did, everything that you hear on the record is pretty much done live. I don't think there's any vocal fixing that I can remember. It just kind of is what it is. This is the kind of thing that Lee Sklar always liked and used to do more of in the seventies. You'd just roll tape and you'd get what you'd get. Everybody's giving it, not just getting it a little bit perfunctory from a bass track and a drum track. I'm not saying this is the greatest way, all the ways to record are really good, but this is what interested me at the time.

MR: Peter, what does music mean to you these days?

PH: Well that's a good question and it's interesting that you even have to ask. Everyone that makes music, I think of a certain age, has probably asked that. It's not a ticket anywhere anymore, that's one thing. Maybe I could tell you what it's not. It's not a ticket to fame and fortune, it's not a career advance. I think that for many years with the disruption of the sold music part of the music business--and I don't want to go on a whole tangent with that. It's just a fact. I think the positive part about it is that it's a purifier. It purifies your intention. Why are you making this music? It comes down to just because it's an enjoyable thing. It's something that I've always done and when I don't do it I'm less happy than when I do do it. There you have it.

MR: You know, without trying to Mr. Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn, I think there's been some terrible stewardship over the last decade or so with music and young people. It seems the goal now is to win a televised talent contest as opposed to exploring the art.

PH: You hit the nail on the head with that. If you had to boil it down, it's probably just that everything follows the money. Everything that gets really popular is somehow following the money. It doesn't mean that it's the best, but it often gets in people's minds that if it doesn't sound like "The Best," then it's probably not good, and it becomes irrelevant in a lot of people's minds. I have said from the very beginning, that American Idol was the death knell of something. I don't know what, but it felt to me funereal in some way. And The Voice...all those shows. I get it, I understand why people do it. Everyone's trying to make a buck, trying to move things. It's fun, it's the salt, fat and sugar of the music business. But you're going to find out how bad it is for your arteries at some point. I think I put in some Facebook post that got a million responses, "How would Tom Waits have faired on American Idol?" The other part about American Idol is it's only about the way that you sing. Simon Cowell, I actually like that guy, I think he's cool, I think he's smart. He says from time to time just to reset the clock, "This is a vocal talent show, and it's specifically one kind of vocal." He would be very hip, I'm sure. I'm sure he understands very well the merits of somebody like Tom Waits, but that wasn't the nature of the show. Music just became something completely other with a show like this. An interesting thing, I don't remember where it was, but my son showed me this article, I think it was in The Atlantic. The conceit of the article was written by a music journalist and he was exploring the oxymoronic nature of music journalism. What he was saying was there was a white ethnocentric focus on rock people in the seventies. You had your hagiographies about Neil Young or Bob Dylan, but you would never find that kind of article written about Marvin Gaye because Marvin Gaye was perceived as a pop musician and it was anathema for a real rock journalist to write about pop music. It just wasn't happening. Today, things are completely reversed, where no one has any problem getting an assignment to do a thing on Beyoncé. That's the best. That's the gold standard. So it's just interesting how things have changed there because Beyoncé is one of the few people that's actually generating money. People want to write because there's money available. It's funny how it's so economically driven. It may always have been, but the economics have tilted towards something that's just pure pop at this point.

MR: But as the movement to bring music education back to schools is gathering steam, where will it lead? Will we be training kids in the basics of music or to be on American Idol?

PH: That's another great question, but it goes far deeper than that. I know somebody who went to Stanford. He got a liberal arts degree. He said, "Look, if I'd gone for anything else I probably wouldn't have gotten into Stanford," it's an incredibly hard school to get into at any rate. It was easier to get into the liberal arts program because it's not something that people value. It's diminishing all across the board, this paradigm of people who pursue ideas that aren't easily slotted into careers. My daughter just graduated from college, her major was art history. A lot of times you get people sort of snickering about that. "How is that going to serve anybody in a job?" Not, "How is that going to broaden somebody's outlook? How is somebody going to use that to put cultures into context and history into context via art?" which is an incredibly marketable and amazing piece of education to have. All across the board, the idea of refined expression, deeper expression...it's somewhat looked askance upon by certain people. Music for sure is one of them. It's not valuable--it's not mathematics, it's not science, what good does it do anyone? The truth is it does a lot of good, making people feel and understand and empathize and become awake to their emotional lives and the emotional lives of others. It's the currency of human relationships.

MR: And while we're talking about all this music stuff, what song or songs on the album most reflects Peter Himmelman?

PH: I kind of like this song called "Thirty-Three Thousand Feet." I like that it's a little bit fuller production, I go back to it even though nothing's overdone. I always liked what the chorus said, it just reflects where I've been and where I'm at. I don't remember exactly, but it's like an imagined conversation I'm having with somebody, or this character is having with somebody, which a lot of my songs are. This person is trying to muster up all of his feelings about the enormity of the change and the successes and failures, the ignominious feelings and the triumphs. I'm fifty-four and this character is the same, I guess we age at exactly the same rate. He's just like, "I can't explain any of this to you. I just have no words." Really, that's where music comes into play. Music is like tears or laughter. It's what happens when your emotions are higher than your ability to express them in words. It comes out something like tears or laughter. When it goes to a different place the song is saying what can't be said in mere words.

MR: Is that the goal?

PH: Unfortunately or fortunately, I never had any real goals. Most of this stuff is pretty impulse-driven. It's just like, "Here's a thing that occurred to me" with some refinements, but it's just a thing that popped out. I mentioned this somewhere and I thought about it and I think it's important and I recently discovered it. I just thought, "I always do this stuff for just a handful of people." It could be that in my mind when I'm writing things and I'm making things I'm doing it for like four or five people, and they pretty much have been the same people my whole life with just a few changes.

MR: Do you believe you know those people well enough by this point that they're appreciating it?

PH: I don't know. Maybe they represent a larger body somehow. How many people can you really connect with at any one time, anyway? Not very many. If you think it's more than say two hands of five digits a piece, you might be fooling yourself. I think that they're stand-ins for everybody else. If the relationships are close and quantitatively small, they can be representative of reaching out to a broader world somehow.

MR: Nicely said. What advice do you have for new artists?

PH: I know that a lot of young artists are always looking for a manager. Everybody's thinking, "I need to invest some time getting this one person who can lift me off of this plateau and get me noticed, do things, cup me in their two mammoth hands and just throw me into the air." But there isn't anybody like that. Then you say, "Well, look through history, look at Colonel Tom Parker, look what he did for Elvis, he made him a huge star," and I say he didn't make Elvis a huge star. Elvis already was a star. Elvis made himself into something that was totally inimitable. He had a vision of himself that he pursued diligently, fearlessly, passionately. He had no choice, perhaps. That's what he became. When he was playing these shows that Colonel Tom Parker came and saw he already had a recording contract with Sun studios and all that. He was a star. Be more reflective of what it is that you're trying to put into the world, what it is that's going to make you completely unique from everyone else, and put passion and time into that, and the managers and all the other stuff--the catapults, if you will--they'll just come around naturally. But you've got to turn yourself into a heavyweight stone before anyone wants to put you on their catapult. It takes a lot of manpower to push that thing up, they're not just going to put up any old stone.

MR: And it seems one has to at least have potential.

PH: And he had it, Elvis had this super interesting thing going on, this connecting thing, something that nobody else had. I remember when our band, Sussman Lawrence had our first gig. It was in Minneapolis and it was packed. It was totally, totally sold out. A lot of people complained that it was full of our family and friends. There was some grousing about that. It was a three or four hundred-seat club, standing room only. I'd been playing in this reggae band and was somewhat known, we were working on a record, I think we had a record. How the hell do you think we got three to four-hundred of our family and friends? Because they liked us! We were good, so our families came out. There was some energy there. Why would you come out if it wasn't happening? I'm just saying, that's how you do it. You attract attention in your inner circles first.

MR: What does the future hold for Mr. Peter Himmelman?

PH: Well, the boat is going to be doing some sailing. The Boat... is a significant part of me generating creativity in myself as well, drinking my own Kool-Aid and adding credibility to this idea that I'm a person that makes stuff. It's not like I just made things twenty years ago. I'm actually scoring a new television show this fall, it's called Dig on the USA Network. I'm pretty excited about it. It's going to be a pretty heavy show. It's co-produced by Gideon Raff, who created Homeland and this guy Tim Kring who did Heroes. It's a really well-done show and I'm going to be doing the music for that.

MR: Peter, see if you can get some music on the Heroes reboot too!

PH: I didn't know about the Heroes reboot, that's interesting.

MR: Congratulations on everything, man. Hey is scoring something you'd like to do more of in the future?

PH: I have to figure out how to do it in a way that's going to allow me to keep going on these other things that I like doing. I think it will. There were days when you did a twenty-four episode series and it was just really hard to do anything else for say a year at a time.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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