A Conversation with Esperanza Spalding
Mike Ragogna: Esperanza, your latest album is written through the eyes of your alter ego, “Emily.” Is Emily a kind of darker side?
Esperanza Spalding: Well, I think it’s an aspect that everybody has access to. Further, I wouldn’t use that term, but maybe it’s an aspect that has been dormant, in terms of the curious mind. People who do music or do dance or choreography or whatever you do, you are constantly in a state of searching and seeking. Emily opened up a channel for me to seek in some different directions. I would say she’s a dormant curiosity, a dormant mode of interacting with the world around me. That is embodied in Emily.
MR: The “Unconditional Love” video is a bit theatrical and you seem to have a flair for acting. Does that play into your performances these days?
ES: Yeah. I am always exploring in different territories. The elements that are woven into this, in contrast to music, seem more different. But I think Chamber Music Society was a very broad exploration into new sounds and textures and Radio Music Society was, too. The element that maybe seems most striking in comparison to my exploration in music would be the theatrical element. I’ve always been curious about it, though. I’ve never pursued acting as a medium for expression other than just the acting that I do day-to-day, like everyone does. We’re all actors all day every day. But I think I found a parallel in improvisation, and that’s what intrigued me. What intrigues me now and where I feel most charged and most inspired is exploring the mode of improvisation that happens through language and character and intention and interpersonal dynamics played out in performance.
MR: It’s very difficult to be a vocalist and bass player simultaneously. But your M.O. does seem to be about pushing boundaries.
ES: I don’t know if there’s another option for anyone. I think that’s the common denominator of all musicians, all “artists,” or really with anybody. If you’re a dentist, if you’re a doctor, if you’re a nurse, if you’re a potter, I’m sure that you’re always looking for how to improve your craft. If you manage a company, you’re going to maybe go to seminars or read books or read trade magazines. You’re always trying to find a mode that you can use or harness or learn to enhance what you’re doing. That’s not a novel idea. It looks different for every individual, of course, because we’re all different and we all have different curiosities and passions and strengths. For me, personally, that fundamental human quality of wanting to improve, even if you want to look at it solely from a “career” perspective, you want to do better. Everybody wants to do better. My version of “doing better” is following my intuition. If I get a hit that exploring this way is going to make me grow or make me improve, I trust it and I follow it. I don’t remember how exactly my interest was piqued in the direction of theater or interdisciplinary performance, but it was, and as I started digging I realized, “Whoa, this is really challenging and it’s broad and I think this is the direction that will yield most growth and most discovery.”
MR: You’re credited with breaking barriers in jazz, and for women. Is there something about exploration that you like to represent as an artist, a person, or even as Emily?
ES: In front of me, there’s a poster from this Blue Note Jazz Festival celebrating Wayne Shorter’s eightieth birthday. He and every member of the quartet are the forbearers, some of the trailblazers of creative music, improvised music, “jazz.” Any time a person ends up in the room when they’re playing, I’ve heard comments from the audience, I’ve read reviews, I’ve talked with my family who aren’t necessarily jazz heads. Every person walks away from that experience moved, and open, and excited about the idea of jazz. That’s because of their mastery, and what they bring and the potency and the genuine spirit that they transmit from the stage. I’m using that as an example because I happen to be looking at the poster, but I experience that over and over again at many, many concerts.
I remember hearing the Thomas Morgan/Bill Frisell duo. I brought a friend with me down to The Vanguard. She wasn’t really a jazz fanatic, but afterwards, she was like, “Oh my God, that was so beautiful, I had no idea! This is the music that you guys are always talking about? This is amazing!” I’m giving these examples to show that it’s in the music. The magic is there to be received. If I put my records next to fifteen albums from the last fifteen artists that moved me, my record is the least potent in terms of introducing people to jazz. It’s more my character and the novelty of being a woman who’s young who can really play. I think that is a lot of the allure for people paying attention to what I’m doing, but I wouldn’t play the music that I make for someone outside of jazz because it’s young person music.
It’s a student, fledgling body of work that’s ever-expanding, thank God. I don’t really see my music as being the portal, I think it’s me. People getting into one of my records isn’t necessarily going to bring them out to hear Bill Frisell or Wayne Shorter, unfortunately. I wish it would. I don’t really buy that tagline or the hook about all these things that I do for jazz and what I represent in the jazz world. It’s kind of phony. What I can do is talk a lot about the people that I think are really relevant, which is almost everyone, and hope that somebody reading it or talking to me will go explore them and actually get a taste of the concentrated potency that is so many of the heroes and titans that are all around us who don’t get the kind of spotlight and hype around them that I have. It’s really disconcerting because neither I nor the people in “my generation” would have anything to say if it weren’t for these master craftsmen.
Yeah, sure, I’m constantly exploring in my music and my craft. So as a human being, whether I’m doing Emily or Chamber Music Society, I’m advocating for that, I’m an example of that, and the people around me are even more so. I don’t think it’s that special. I do feel a responsibility. I’m very excited to be one of the few women playing instrumental improvised music, but that’s kind of cool because it’s uncharted territory. I just feel like because so many people are watching, young women too, I want to make sure the example I set is of excellence. Just because you have a little shine directed at you doesn’t mean you get to stop practicing. Pushing yourself, and actually being in danger of “losing” the hype, if you really are pushing yourself you’re going to go into territory where you suck. You’re going to have to go there and be willing to be exposed there. That’s a typical part of expanding in music or any kind of art, or business!
MR: When you’re working with your group in the studio, the recordings have a very live feeling. Everyone’s bouncing off each other creatively. What is the chemistry that makes your band bigger than the sum of its parts?
ES: I would reiterate that I don’t know if the word “jazz” is effective in describing this project. We all have played a lot of jazz music and love that music and are constantly seeking at exploring it as a way of life, and if someone didn’t know it was me and just heard the record I think ninety nine out of a hundred people would not call it jazz. Just to put that there for your pleasure. You know when you’re sitting at a table and there’s an animated, high-energy conversation going on amongst highly articulate, joyful people? You’re sitting there and observing it and it amuses you because you watch them feeding off of each other and arguing and making a point and trying to come up with a metaphor and maybe making a joke and it lands and everybody goes “Oh!” and laughs. You recognize that there’s an energy of fanning the flames of the conversation; you’re egging each other on. You are looking for understanding. Every person is struggling to have their point of view heard, but they’re not striving for the sake of quashing anybody else’s perspective, it’s just a conversation. When I’m in a situation where I’m at a table with people I don’t know very well and I get to just observe their own excited, animated conversation, I find it terribly enlightening and definitely enjoyable. I think that is the best way I can describe what it’s like to sit and listen to a band that has great rapport and really egg each other on and are working to express their ideas so that people understand it. We wanted to capture that energy. It’s a lot of other things, too, but maybe that’s the metaphor that most broadly encompasses it all.
MR: Beautiful. Esperanza, what advice do you have for new artists?
ES: Just don’t settle for less than you know you can be. You know. Everybody knows when they haven’t done their best, that they copped out, or that they’re hiding. They really wanted to go for this idea, but it looked hard, or they didn’t have enough time so they settled for this. They really wanted to play like this, or sing this song, but they got embarrassed and they copped out. I would just say, “Don’t settle.” Don’t settle for less than what you can imagine.
MR: What would you like to ultimately do creatively or otherwise?
ES: I don’t have an “ultimately” anything. The ultimate is right now. Ultimately, what I want to do is be excellent today and create some beautiful s**t that I believe in and sounds strong and is inspiring, and learn how to do my thing better. I’m thirty-one. I don’t know what I’m going to want when I’m fifty or sixty. I just know that I want to be at a place where I can make it happen, and play a role in the manifestation of other great artists’ visions. And the cool thing is, no matter what I say or what my intention really is, people are going to receive it how they’re going to see it. I really have no control over how a person decides to receive me, even if I write the tagline for my own career. That’s why it’s so important for me to just put what I mean into the work and put what I mean in my body, in the way I carry myself and the way I interact with people and the way I play with people and the way I do my show and the way I dress and the way I curate my website. Everybody’s going to project whatever the hell they want to project, so all I can hope is that the true intention that I put into the work. Or even if it’s a phony intention, s**t, I don’t know, I could be completely deluding myself. The main thing is that I do it how I think it’s supposed to be done and trust that a certain percent of the human beings that receive it will get something good out of it. Maybe a young woman somewhere in Ohio―or a young man―hears it and goes, “I can do better than that,” and that inspires them to grow. Who cares. That’s why I said it’s not about an overarching goal; that’s not in my power.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JOEY ALEXANDER’S “COUNTDOWN” EXCLUSIVE
According to Joey Alexander (and in the spirit of Swing)...
“I always love Coltrane’s Changes and I find Countdown much harder than Giant Steps to solo on and to stay in the groove. Feels like so much space to fill, it’s very tricky. I tried to be as wise as possible but the tempo was not friendly J. I arranged it a bit to make it personal and so thankful that the first take we made is included on the album. Ulysses and Larry really made it happen. To me, Jazz is not only expressing ourselves freely but also a group thing, especially when we each improvise. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did when we recorded it in January of this year!”
ELAYNA’S “THE WORLD IS A HUSTLE” EXCLUSIVE
According to Elayna...
“’The World Is A Hustle’ is one of the most personal songs. I actually feel like its chorus is the heart of the EP because I always feel like I am having to hustle to hold everything in life together. I wrote the 3rd verse about having to deal with mistakes that I’ve made, or situations where I totally got burned, and not dwelling on them―but letting it go, and not giving into feelings of resentment. And I’m still working through a lot of that. Even though I sometimes second guess myself and feel like I am not moving forward, I know that I just need to pull it together because I can’t waste time waiting for those feelings to go away; I just need to move on. ‘The World is a Hustle’ is about doing what I feel called to do and trying to give it everything I have even when I feel like I am failing or not making progress.”
The Mamas & The Papas 50th Anniversary Interview with Michelle Phillips
It’s been half a century since The Mamas & The Papas―Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and John Phillips―launched a string of pop music classics over a three year period before abruptly disbanding in 1968.
Michelle, the group’s sole survivor, navigates their musical saga in California Dreamin’: The Songs of The Mamas & The Papas, presented by TJ Lubinsky’s TJL Productions, airing on PBS stations nationwide beginning the week of August 22. (Check local listings.) The new 4-CD Ultimate Anthology with all of The Mamas & The Papas’ studio recordings, rarities, remixes, solos and previously unreleased songs, produced by TJL, is available through PBS as a pledge only premium/gift.
This is an exclusive interview in which Michelle reflects on that golden era...
Mike Ragogna: Michelle, from your perspective of having been a member of the group, what did The Mamas & The Papas add to popular music?
Michelle Phillips: It brought some beautiful harmonies. Rock ‘n’ roll was really not about beautiful harmonies. John [Phillips] was a wonderful, wonderful musician. He could take a song and make it sound like his own. We could do old songs, like “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” and make them sound contemporary. He also knew how to use the voices that he had. He had some very wonderful voices in Cass [Elliot] and Denny [Doherty], and I brought a rock ‘n’ roll feeling to it. I just wailed as much as I could. I was the only one who really had no interest in becoming a singer. I mean, I was kind of forced into it, but once I started singing with Cass, I realized that it was really fun to create the sounds that John was arranging. Even a song like “Dedicated To The One I Love,” this was not The Shirelles. It was not that kind of Top 40 pop sound. John made it sound like a song that he had written himself. There had also never really been a group of men and women, that I’m familiar with, and he just had to get everything perfect. He’d drive you crazy, because we’d say, “Oh, that was a good take,” and he’d say, “No, we’ve got to do it again.” “John, that was the thirty-sixth take!”
MR: [laughs] Do you think that led to the group refining themselves? Practice makes perfect, right?
MP: Practice does make perfect. He was influenced a lot by The Hi-Lo’s and the Brothers Four and vocal groups like that who did a lot of harmonies. He really always felt a little older than everybody, which he was. He struggled to write songs that were contemporary. We wrote “California Dreamin’” three years before we recorded it. We didn’t know what the song was, really, until we heard the track put down with a whole room full of musicians. We’d only sung it as a group with one acoustic guitar, so when it was being done, there was a lot of, “Oh, wow!” It was a whole new sound to us, too. We’d never heard ourselves singing with a bass and a drum and a piano and a lead guitar. There was a kind of mystified response to it from us. When we would hear our playbacks, we would say, “Gosh that’s great.”
MR: I imagine it also was a big creative transition from the collective’s previous groupings―you and John in The New Journeymen and Denny and Cass in The Mugwumps―to The Mamas & The Papas, adding more sophisticated instrumentation, that being one of the major evolutions.
MP: Yeah. It was a major transition from the Journeymen. We didn’t even know what to call it, and I still don’t. A lot of people called it “folk-rock,” but there we are doing standards and covers. I think what really stands out a lot are the background vocals. We did some beautiful, beautiful backgrounds.
MR: As it was happening, I imagine the group knew it was offering something different.
MP: We knew we had something very different, and we didn’t know if the audience would respond to it. I know when “California Dreamin’” was first released, we heard it on KFWB or KHJ or something, and it was so exciting to hear the record come on the radio. I remember when we all just dove for the volume control! We were going up Laurel Canyon with the top down on our 1959 Buick and it was just glorious to hear it. Then...silence. We didn’t hear it again, and we thought, “Oh, well, guess they didn’t like it.” Then a couple months after the initial release, it broke in Boston. When it broke, it broke all over the country. All of a sudden, “California Dreamin’” was a huge hit. Then we knew that we were not going to be a one-hit wonder.
MR: It’s not always good to compare artists, but people used to say Karen Carpenter’s voice had a “chill factor.” As a song, “California Dreamin’” has that chill factor and it seems baked-in no matter who covers it.
MP: If you’re listening for this, you’ll realize it’s kind of a march. That was John’s history. His family were in the Marine Corps. He went to Annapolis and he was anxious to break out of that military, catholic schooling that he had. He just wanted to play guitar and be hip. Sometimes when I listen to “California Dreamin’,” [I hear] John making the transition from his catholic military background to something more free. The lyric really is about freedom, and getting out of the rut that you’re in―the cold winters in Wisconsin―and going to sunny California and freeing yourself.
MR: Was that the intent when you and John wrote the song?
MP: Definitely! The only part of the song I wrote was the second verse, about the church. In fact, John didn’t even like the religiosity of it. I said, “Well, okay, we’ll change it. Someday.”
MR: I’ve heard artists sing the lyrics, “Got down on my knees and began to pray.”
MP: That’s not the lyric. It’s “pretend to pray.”
MP: That’s funny. We were doing a sound check once and Cass turned to me and said, “What did you just say?” I said, “Pretend to pray.” She said, “That’s not the lyric, it’s began to pray.” I said, “No, it’s not.” So on the record, she says “began” and I say “pretend,” so you know what? Everyone’s right.
MR: Never knew that, wow. So The Mamas & The Papas story kind of begins with you moving to New York City.
MP: I went to New York to be a model. That’s all I wanted to be.
MR: What was it like living in that era?
MP: It was really fun. I was making a lot of money, I had cash that I could spend, and John and The Journeymen were making a lot of money, too. John wanted me to go on the road with him, and that really pissed off the rest of the group because they were no longer The Three Musketeers out there on the road together. I think that I sewed a lot of discontent with the rest of the guys, so when the group broke up, which was inevitable―and don’t forget, they were all very good friends with his first wife―they felt like John got a little fame and then he left his wife and kids for this seventeen-year-old blonde, blue-eyed chick.
MR: So you’re the original Yoko Ono!
MP: [laughs] Yeah! And when John didn’t take me on the road, he would check me into a place in Manhattan called The Rehearsal Club, which was an all-girls boarding house for underage kids in New York who were working but their parents didn’t want them to live alone. I don’t know who they thought this guy was who was checking me into The Rehearsal Club, but it was funny. I roomed with another girl, Robin, and she was the youngest member of Holiday On Ice. It was kind of fun for me to go there, to be around a whole bunch of girls who were models and actresses. I guess they thought he was my uncle or something. Don’t forget, I was seventeen when I went to New York with John. My father let me go because I had pleaded with him. I never even finished high school. My father was very concerned about that, but he also knew that if he didn’t let me go, I was going to go anyway. So he was very pragmatic about the whole thing and said, “Okay honey, but you know you can always come home if you’re not happy.” I set off for New York and started modeling right away. It was just kind of fun, you know?
MR: How did you meet John?
MP: He was playing The Hungry I in San Francisco, and I went to see Dick Gregory, who was headlining. John and I made eye contact and I was besotted with the tall, funny guitar player. We asked the owner, Enrico Banducci, to introduce us and he did. My girlfriend started seeing Scott McKenzie, and John would come by the apartment to pick up Scott for a sound check or a rehearsal and John and I started seeing each other. We weren’t actually “seeing” each other, but he was in the apartment and I’d say, “I’ll go get him...” I think probably two or three weeks later, we ran into them at a party and John just made the big pass and there we were.
MR: How did Dennis and Cass creatively get involved with you and John?
MP: Well, first we had Marshall Brickman. He was playing banjo and guitar, but really there wasn’t a singer between the three of us. We could croak our way through the songs, but there was no real lead tenor, no real lead contralto like Cass. I was going to see a singing coach in New York and in San Francisco when we were in San Francisco and I started to get a little more confidence. Then I remember we went back to New York and Marshall said, “I kind of want to try my hand at writing,” and we were all laughing into our sleeves, saying, “All right, Marshall.” Then he started writing for Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson and he was an immediate success as a comedy writer. Just about that time, we had met Denny on the Southern lap of The Hootenanny tour, when he was with The Halifax Three. We had heard that The Halifax Three had broken up, so we kind of put the jungle drums out in the village to find him. He called us and we said, “Why don’t you come over and see if we can put a sound together? He came over and boy, it was so wonderful to sing with somebody who really had an incredibly beautiful voice.
We started to do some concerts with Denny and everywhere we went, we would see him on the phone after the show talking to somebody and laughing. Finally I said, “Who are you talking to every night?” and he said, “That’s my friend Cass. She was in The Mugwumps with us.” I said, “Really? Why don’t you ask her to come over? I’d love to meet her.” A couple of nights later, she came over, and it was the first night that we’d ever taken any acid. I remember our pot dealer had come over and he said, “Look, I’ve got some LSD-25, do you want to try it?” It was in sugar cubes. We said, “Sure, okay.” I just put the sugar cube in my mouth and went about my chores. I went to the pharmacy and came back and we’re still waiting for Cass to come over. Finally, there’s a ring at the door, and as I passed the guys in the living room, I said, “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but this stuff does nothing for me. You should call and complain.” I opened the door and as I took my first look at Cass Elliot, the acid hit me so strong, I turned around and said, “Hold that call.” She took a sugar cube because we bought four, and she had come over with a Beatles album. We had never heard The Beatles, and it was just an amazing experience―to meet her, to hear our first Beatles album, and to take acid together. It was a very bonding experience.
That night was the night that we decided that we had to take a vacation somewhere. We had this big map on the wall. Denny covered my eyes with a scarf, and then he gave me the dart and said, “Okay, wherever the dart hits, that’s where we’re going to go.” It hit the mid-Atlantic. So he takes the dart and moves it over in little steps to the Virgin Islands and said, “There we go!” And that’s where we went. Cass was already a rising star, so she said, “Look, I’ve got a couple of gigs, but I’ll see you down there,” and she did. That’s when we started humming. We sounded so great together. We were just wondering if maybe it was our own egos, we weren’t sure. We were just playing songs and kind of writing a little this, a little that, trying to get a sound. We were living in tents on the beach in Saint John’s and then eventually we realized we had to make some money, so we went to a place called Duffy’s Boarding House. He had a bar but he heard us singing together and he said, “How about if you guys sing here at my place? I’ll build you a little stage.” We said, “Okay.” That was kind of compensation for our rent, which we never paid. Cass wouldn’t get on stage with us because she told John, “I’m not going to get on stage with Michelle because I’m not going to let an audience make that distinction between us.” So Duffy gave her a job as a waitress, and she would sing her part from the floor as she was delivering drinks. Finally, we really did run out of money and we ended up back in Los Angeles. Also, when we were in the Virgin Islands, we were listening to the radio and “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds comes on and we’re incredulous. We’re listening to them and we say, “Is that the Byrds? Yeah, that’s the Byrds.” I remember Cass or somebody saying, “Well, if the Byrds can have a hit, anybody can have a hit. We’ve got to get to L.A.” [laughs] So that’s how we got to L.A.
We went to Barry McGuire’s apartment. His song “Eve Of Destruction” had just hit number one. He asked us if we had set up any meetings with people out here on the coast. We said, “Well, we’re going to go see Nick Venet over at Capitol and that’s about it,” we didn’t have a lot of connections out there. The music business was all New York until then. Barry told us to talk to Lou Adler at Western Studios and we met with him the next day. We sang him everything we had. We came back the next day to kind of talk about it some more and the contracts were all laid out very neatly on the floor for us to sign, so we had a label and we had a producer and it went from there.
MR: Jay Lasker signed you to Dunhill, right?
MP: Well, Lou [Adler], too. Bobby Roberts, Jay Lasker and Lou Adler owned Dunhill Records together.
MR: So you’re now having hits, the relationships had to be evolving in the group.
MP: They were, to the point where Denny and I actually had an affair.
MR: Oh, no, the hell you say!
MP: [laughs] And boy, this did not go over well with Cass, who was madly in love with Denny, and it didn’t go over very well with John. That’s when I was thrown out of the group. But that’s not the whole story, either. It’s such a great story, it’s just one twist and turn after the next. They had to go out with a replacement for me.
MR: Jill Gibson?
MP: Right. That was met with some trepidation on the part of the fans. They would say, “Where’s Michelle? Where’s Michelle?” I think John, on a very practical level, realized that I had to be back with the group. It was the most painful thing for me to get a letter from them saying they no longer wanted to record with me, or tour with me, not to call myself a “Mama” anymore, and they left and went to London to meet The Beatles without me. Oh, it still hurts. [laughs] Anyhow, when they came back and they’d done three shows―one at Forest Hills, one in Denver and one in Phoenix―John called me and asked if I would pick him up from the jet. I said, “Yeah.” I went out there and Lou and Jill―Jill was his girlfriend―they got off and got into their limo, and then Cass and Denny got off and they waved at me and got into their limo, and John got into the car and I knew at that minute I was back in the group. I knew it and they knew it, and as long as I behaved myself, I was back in the group.
MR: So like every group, you eventually break up then record your reunion album.
MP: We only did the reunion album [People Like Us, 1971] because we were contractually obligated to do it. Nobody had any material. We were scratching the bottom of the barrel to get that album out, and it sounds exactly like it was―four people trying not to be charged in a suit.
MP: It sounds like we’re all just trying to stay out of jail. We had done “Dream A Little Dream” before that, and we just gave that song to Cass because she was going out as a single. That was her gift from the rest of us, but it was still a Mamas & Papas song, and it was on a Mamas & Papas album. It was a great way for her to start off, with a song that really emphasized the kind of beautiful voice she had, the kind of soft, beautiful sweetness and tenderness that she had in her voice.
MR: You’re a Cass fan even to this day, aren’t you.
MP: I’m a huge Cass fan!
MR: One of the group’s historical milestones was your performance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival.
MP: There had never been a rock festival before. This was the very first one, and we realized after we took it over and paid off the guys with the original idea that we couldn’t possibly get all of the people that we wanted to be there and get the stars that we wanted to be there if we had to pay them. John and Lou quickly concocted this idea that it was for charity. What charity? [laughs] “Well, we’re going to build music schools in Harlem, and we’re going to buy instruments for underprivileged children, we’re going to support the free clinics...,” and they did a brilliant thing. They called their friends, like Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and they made them all the Governors of this festival. The more talent that they got, the more names that they could put on the cover sheet. That these people were all supporting this festival, it kind of looked like they were all going to be there, and it suddenly became a really important thing for groups to be invited to this festival. Everybody got to make a suggestion, too. Paul McCartney suggested Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin was suggested by somebody. These were people who were totally unknown in the States at the time. Janis Joplin was doing the Fillmore in San Francisco, but that’s as far as she had gotten. I suggested Otis Redding, I’d just seen him at The Apollo. He had never performed before a white audience before. He was still just kind of doing the chitlin circuit, you know? He was really honored to have been asked to be part of this festival. I will never forget when he came out, he was looking at this packed crowd of white and black hippies and he said, “So, this is ‘the love crowd,’” and the whole place just erupted.
MR: So Cass moved on to her solo career, and you made a transition into acting. In 1969, you appeared in Gram Parsons’ Saturation 70 sci-fi flick. What?
MP: [laughs] Well, you’ve got to break into the movies somehow! That was just a fluke. We all went to Joshua Tree, it was really fun. I had never met Gram before but I just became good friends with him. Of course the movie never did anything, it was never finished, but it was still fun. It was just one of those things that you throw yourself into, something completely unknown to you.
MR: And after that you were in your first true film role with Dennis Hopper in The Last Movie.
MP: Uh huh and then I did John Milius’ Dillinger. I was so lucky to have been surrounded by really great actors. Everybody in that movie was a real actor: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Richard Dreyfuss, Harry Dean Stanton. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience for me and I had so much support and so much help and so much encouragement. That was really my first movie. Dennis’ movie was a lot of improvisation and craziness. Everyone was out of their minds up there in the Andes.
MR: Then in 1977 comes along your Jack Nitszche-produced album at A&M, Victim Of Romance. How did that come together?
MP: John started producing it first. At that point, he had started using a lot of drugs. When I met John he was hip, but he wasn’t into drugs. Well, he smoked grass and he took a lot of bennies, but he didn’t like junkies and he wouldn’t let people like that into our house. By 1976, he was a lot worse off than I thought he was. He produced “Aloha Louie” and he did a version of “There She Goes” and the version of “Lady Of Fantasy” that’s on my album. Jack kept that one because he liked it. Then John and Geneviève [Waïte] just went to New York in the middle of the album and we never heard from them again. So Jerry Moss at A&M said, “I think we ought to find you another producer. What about Jack Nitzsche?” I was beyond crazy. I thought, “I can’t believe I’m getting Jack Nitzsche!” I was such a huge fan of his.
MR: Michelle, let’s not forget that you’re in pop culture not only as a Mama, but also as the scheming mama of Paige Matheson in Knots Landing!
MP: I won the Best Villainess award, I want you to know.
MR: Yes! Good for you!
MP: [laughs] There are three things on my piano―my Best Villainess award, my Grammy, and my Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame statue.
MR: And yet another major memory in your life―or at least mine―has to be playing Star Trek - The Next Generation’s Jean-Luc Picard’s love interest, Jenice Manheim.
MP: I couldn’t believe how many Trekkies there were! I just took it as another job, but that never goes away.
MR: Yeah, you’re set for life, in case you don’t know yet.
MP: I have a [Star Trek] card, an embossed card, that’s me! They were very smart about the marketing on this: They would make a card for every guest actor and then they would emboss them and all the Trekkies would try to collect every single card that they could get. They send them to me folded up in protective paper and they write, “Put your signature and nothing else, please.” They don’t want, “Hey, to Bill, all the best, Michelle Phillips.” They just want your name. I’ve been invited to every single Trek convention there ever was, and they are huge. But I don’t go.
MR: Oh, you should! They’re a blast. You would be revered as one of the Next Generation goddess with yet another devoted following for life.
MP: [laughs] That’s very sweet.
MR: So it seems you sang background on Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.”
MP: My daughter and I did.
MR: Do you remember that session?
MP: Yes, I do. They called me that afternoon and said, “Do you want to come sing some background?” I met Chynna there, we did some backgrounds, it turned out really nicely. Very, very nicely.
MR: It became a number one record.
MP: I have a picture of the four of us singing together―there was another girl singing on the backgrounds, too. It’s in my day-by-day for that year. It’s a really pretty picture of all of us concentrating and singing.
MR: And your daughter, Chynna is part of Wilson Phillips.
MP: You know, you’ve got to put the kids to work as soon as possible.
MR: [laughs] It’s only fair! At what age did she start working?
MP: I would not let her work until she was eighteen, and believe me, since the time she was being strolled down the street in her stroller, people were saying, “Can I use her in my commercial? Can I put her in my movie?” “No!” But I did let her take any class that she wanted to take. Singing, acting, dancing... She took tap and ballet and jazz, and she took voice lessons. I said, “When you’re eighteen, I will let you work, and you will be so prepared that you will glide right into it,” which she did! She did a couple movies right out of the box. I let her start modeling when she was thirteen. When she went out for her first job, there were over a hundred girls there; it was like a cattle call. She got it! It was for Neutrogena soap. She was so talented and she sang so beautifully, and she was writing songs from about the time she was four years old. I remember her banging away at the piano when she was about twenty.
She was still living in the house and she was writing this song called “Hold On.” I thought, “God, that’s a really good song.” This is in the middle of her acting career. She came home one night with Carnie and Wendy Wilson and they said, “We’re going to put a group together.” I said, “Really?” They said, “Do you want to hear us sing?” I said, “Yeah.” They sang eight bars of a song and they said, “What do you think?” I said, “It’s great, but eight bars? That’s it?” They said, “Yeah, we need a producer right away.” [laughs] You can’t go to a producer with just eight bars of a song, you have to work up some material.” They said, “No, we need a producer right away.” So I called up Richard Perry as a joke, honest to God. I said, “Richard, the girls would like to come over and sing for you.” He said, “Well, uh, you know I’ve got a date tonight.” I said, “Well this won’t take long.” About an hour later I called him and he said, “Yeah, they called over. You know they only had eight bars of a song worked up?” I said, “Well I told them they had to work up some material.” He said, “That’s okay, I’m signing them anyway.”
MR: [laughs] Nice.
MP: The first song that they did was “Hold On” and then they had three number one songs. They’re still working. They do spot concerts. It’s nice, twenty three years later they get some really interesting jobs.They have the most fun live concert I’ve ever been to. Really, really fun. Joyous. They invite all the kids to come up on the stage and sing with them. It’s just beautiful.
MR: You have had an amazing career in many fields; model, singer, actor, mother. What advice do you have for new artists?
MP: Don’t sell your publishing. [laughs]
MR: That’s like Stephen Stills’ answer, “Don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room.”
MP: [laughs] Is that what he said? That’s good! When the girls came to me when they were about to sign a deal with SBK, I said, “Look, I’m just going to tell you one thing: You must not sell your publishing.” They said, “But they’re not going to sign us unless we give them our publishing.” I said, “If you give them your publishing, don’t come back to this house. They will try to get your publishing, but you have to stand strong and not sell it.” They came back and they were amazed that they still had their publishing and that they’d signed with SBK. It’s meant a lot to the girls that in all those years, they are still getting royalties from their publishing. We were going to a party that SBK had for them when their first album went platinum, and I took them all into an adjoining room and I said, “Now, I’ve only given you one piece of advice, right? And it was pretty good. I’m going to give you one more piece of advice: Audit.” You can distill it down to a couple of words. You’re either going to be a pawn in their game, or you’re going to get paid instead of being given a Cadillac every three years or something.
MR: What advice would you have given yourself when you were starting out?
MP: Never leave your clothes around for somebody else to hang up, always know your lines, never be late.
MR: And don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room.
MP: And don’t leave your wallet in the dressing room.
MR: Michelle, back in 1987, you were arrested for possession of marijuana in Amarillo, Texas. But with so many states legalizing or approving it for medical or recreational use, what are your thoughts on the subject these days?
MP: First of all, I fought it. I got a great attorney in Amarillo, Texas, named Jeff Blackburn, who is a big civil rights attorney. He said to me, “I’m not a civil rights attorney. We’re in Texas, there are no civil rights.” But we fought it. It was illegal search and seizure and the case was dismissed, so I don’t have a record. I can honestly say I do not have a record. I am not a crook.
MP: And I just got my global access card. That’s where you don’t have to go through security at the airport. You just slide by everybody. You have a special little entrance and you show them your global access card, because you’ve already been interviewed by the FBI. They did ask me if I’ve ever been arrested, and I said, “Yes, in Texas, in 1987, but the case was dismissed,” and I left there with no stain on my character.
MR: But what about now, when marijuana laws are being reconsidered?
MP: I can only say that John Phillips would have been very disturbed by all this because he told me once, “If pot ever becomes legal, I’m not going to smoke it anymore.”
MR: Because it’s no longer rebellious.
MP: That’s right.
MR: Michelle, what are you working on right now?
MP: I’m working on a film about The Mamas & The Papas. We’ve finished the script, now we’re about to sign a managerial program with Jeff Jampol. He represents The Doors, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding. He takes the name and does what he can to make it marketable and he’s really good at it. Once we sign this agreement, we’re going to go pitch the script. The script is so good and so funny. The stories that I’ve told you are all in this script, and so many, many more, and they’re funny as hell. This is really a comedy. It’s not “The Rise And Fall Of The Mamas & The Papas,” it’s just the absurdity of the four of us being together and going through what we went through, from cockroaches in a cold water flat in New York City to Bel Air mansions in California, all the way through. Living on the beach, the romances, the broken hearts, the open hearts, the singing, the relationship with Lou, from nothing to stardom, and that’s the end.
MR: But will it cover your seventeen craps shoots in a row that you won in the Bahamas?
MP: [laughs] I’ve always been quite lucky at a new game, and I’d never played craps before. I didn’t know anything about the betting, it’s a little confusing to me on a craps table, but all I did was throw the dice, and I threw them seventeen times and we won seventeen times. That’s not unheard of, but it’s very, very lucky. That’s how we got our plane tickets to Los Angeles, first class. It was all just an omen. It was an omen of things to come. The first time I played baccarat in Caesars Palace I had a hundred dollar bill and I left three days later with twenty-five thousand. I kind of pick up a card game easily. I get the nuances of it pretty well.
MR: And who do you want to play you in the movie?
MP: She hasn’t been born yet. I know how long these things take. But I’m sure that this will be a lot of fun to cast. People ask, “Where are you going to find someone for Cass Elliot?” I say, “Are you crazy? Cass Elliots are going to come crawling out of the woodwork the minute this casting call goes out.” I’ve already had major movie stars get back through my agent saying they want to play John or they want to play Denny. I’ve had a number of people give me ideas about who should play Cass. But the truth is that by the time you get around to casting it, you are pretty well on your way to shooting it. Right now, all these people that I’m talking about are going to be much too old to play us. It’s a very small window, age-wise.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
ULTAN CONLON’S THE GOLDEN SANDS
According to Ultan Conlon...
“‘The Golden Sands’ is the story of a man escaping the rut of his everyday existence, even if it’s just for one day.”
Starring Irish actors Barry Ward and directed by Oisin Mac Coille...
M ROSS PERKINS’ “EVER EVER EVER” EXCLUSIVE
According to M Ross Perkins...
“The song began as a way to describe this pathetic kid I was imagining. I was picturing a quiet, rotund, sort of cross-eyed, ginger-headed doofus who nobody liked and who sucked at baseball. Just a completely unloved little idiot trying to gain affection. That brought about the chorus: ‘Is he ever ever ever gonna get your love?’
“But then as I got into it, I realized that I was just describing the way that I see myself when I experience self-doubt as a songwriter. Sometimes, after I’ve written a song, it feels like I’m holding up some childish-ass drawing, like, ‘Look what I did.’ And I imagine everybody kind of rolling their eyes, annoyed, unimpressed, like ‘What is it, a lighthouse?’
“So, that chorus ended up saying something much more personal than I had intended; the question of whether or not the kid would ever receive love was really a question of whether or not I would ever earn respect or praise as an artist. My favorite part is that, even after realizing what the song represented, apparently the best I could come up with was a one-line chorus, a one-line bridge, and three super low-brow couplets, none of which actually rhyme.”
MORGAN’S ROAD’S “OLDE CUMBERLAND” EXCLUSIVE”
According to Morgan’s Road’s Ben Woodruff
“The lyrics and sound for ‘Olde Cumberland,’ came to me almost immediately upon moving to Nashville in March, 2016. Struck immediately by its’ beauty, talent, and really great people, but as an artist, what also stood out to me most was the generic flavoring that coats so much of pop country sound today; It seems almost at if the soul of some music has been filtered through a giant homogenizer before it makes it to market. And this so often readily happens because it is predictable and safe. In spite of this, there is still very much the presence of the old Nashville happening in the clubs with artists playing, writing and putting out some really incredible new music. It felt like the ghosts of time’s past that cling to the walls of the old buildings, famed music venues and studios that draws one in and awakens something within that was never realized until that moment, as was the case with me. It is a seduction of sorts that one cannot help oneself; like when it’s all said and done people end up coming back to this place because the beauty and potential of it all is just something that you turn your back on. The video was written, directed and produced by Chris M. Stanton.”
A Conversation with Lee Greenwood
Mike Ragogna: Lee, I want to congratulate you on becoming the ambassador for Disabled American Veterans.
Lee Greenwood: Well thank you, I consider it a great honor.
MR: We all know that you’re famous for the hit “God Bless The USA,” but what were the events that led to DAV acknowledging you with this honor?
LG: Let’s go back a lot of years. My wife and I have been married twenty-four years. While we were dating and engaged―we married in 1982―the DAV honored me and Dan Quayle at the same time by flying me out to Washington for their annual convention and giving me their Silver Helmet award, which is their highest award. My association with the DAV has only continued through the years. I think this honor to be an ambassador was put together by our press agent because they were looking for someone to represent them in this next phase of operations. They’re such a wonderful group like the PVA, the American Legion and the VFW. The DAV is actually the ones who go around picking up the homeless and alcoholics and drug addicts and those suffering from PTSD. They actually get the survival rate much greater than it is because of their involvement. I’m all in for that. So when they offered me the position to be their ambassador, I just jumped at it. I said, “I’m going to go ahead and push some things aside and let this be the focus for this year.”
MR: What are your duties going to be?
LG: We will visit veterans’ hospitals around the country. I’ve already cut the PSAs, which will be video and audio running this year wherever military is and wherever they need to buy advertisements for DAV. As you know, there’s a very hard copy mailing list that comes every month where they really reach out for donors, because money’s hard to get in different places. We’re hoping to raise the awareness of that fact everywhere I go.
MR: Do you offer any ideas to them that may be innovative? Casual thoughts that make them say, “Yeah Lee, we should go in that direction.”
LG: We haven’t had that meeting yet, it will be coming shortly. I don’t know that I could offer an awful lot to the team. There are really an awful lot of people, there’s lobbyists in Washington D.C that lobby for veterans and take care of the needs of DAV nationwide. When I have that meeting I’m not sure that I’ll be able to offer something they haven’t really thought of, but certainly it’ll be in the mix.
MR: With veterans, what do you think are some of the issues that need to be addressed immediately?
LG: I’m sure politically there are some things that can be addressed...certainly to align with all other veterans’ organizations and improving conditions for veterans hospitals. I visited several and I asked the patients one and one and asked them how they’ve been treated, and I spoke to the doctors and nurses. It seems to me that except for the numbers things have improved greatly over the past twenty years. The overwhelming number of disabled American veterans is the thing. I have friends from the Vietnam era who now require more aid and they tell me the same thing, it’s just waiting in line to be seen. That’s a DAV issue, but it’s also a VFW issue. I’m sure that all of them will have to address that on a political level because it becomes dollars and cents. Other than that, the bigger issue is probably just awareness, and how to buy advertising time and let people be aware that funds are short and this is a non-profit that serves our greatest military long after their service. That’s a tough issue.
MR: Over the last few years, one of the more prominent organizations associated with vets has been Wounded Warriors. Is there any thought to aligning all of the organizations that exist to share the influence, fulfill everyone’s goals, and maybe generate more money from the private sector, if the government can’t do it all?
LG: That’s a perfect world. I don’t know if that will happen. It might happen somewhat, generically. I’m also a spokesman for another organization called HelpingAHero.org and we build homes for wounded warriors. I’m aware of the Wounded Warriors project, which has a much wider spread, but we’ve built a hundred homes in seven years in twenty two states and we will continue to do that at a rapid level. We get private sector money, we get contractors who donate their time and subs who donate their time. In a four hundred thousand-dollar house, we may put fifty or sixty thousand cash in it and the rest is all volunteer. We reach out and there’s a lot of people who want to be involved, they just need to be asked. On a DAV level, I’m sure that some of that will correlate and some of that will come together on a parallel.
MR: When you look at some of your music history pre-”God Bless The USA,” you already were on track to be a hugely popular country artist. You had “Going, Going, Gone,” “I.O.U.” one of my favorites, “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands.” Then along comes this little record called “God Bless The USA” and all hell breaks loose. What do you think happened with that single that made it resonate with the country and turn you into a household name?
LG: First of all, I’ll give you a little history about the song itself. At MCA, we were all working pretty darn hard three hundred days a year―most of it on the bus―to be creative and come up with music for my CDs. Well, it was “albums” in those days―remember the big square one with the picture?
LG: It was really tough to be creative, I spent a lot of time after shows in the bus writing. We already had three albums and quite a few hits on the charts, so I had a Greatest Hits album covering the first two. The fourth album coming out was You’ve Got A Good Love Comin’, and that’s where that song ended up. It was not meant to be a single, it was way out of the wheelhouse for me as far as where my career was headed. I was kind of a crooner, a ballad singer like Conway Twitty. I love singing romantic ballads and things that get to the heart, but I really wanted to write “...U.S.A,” so when I talked with my producer Jerry Crutchfield, who produced all of the thirty albums at MCA and at Liberty Capitol, we said, “Okay, let’s just put this on the album, but we’re not considering this a single.” It wasn’t even in the light at the end of the tunnel.
Once Universal heard the album, they made the call. It was interesting that over the hit, “You’ve Got A Good Love Comin’,” which we’d already filmed a video for in the London train station with Patrick Duffy―we were prepared for that launch in the summer of ‘85, but when “U.S.A.” hit it was a shock. As we did our shows, every new song that we put on stage and the crowd loves you whoever the current artist is, Luke Bryant or Kenny Chesney... They release a new song, the crowd cheers, they scream, “Oh it’s a new song, we love to hear that, let’s sing it again!” “...U.S.A.” was just a tad bit different. After my first three or four stage appearances with it, it was automatic that I had to put it at the end of the show. That’s when “God Bless The U.S.A.”―or a lot of people call it, “Proud To Be An American,” and that’s fine with me―became an umbrella for the career. It was that way for several years. Then we went to Capitol/Liberty and we released Holdin’ A Good Hand, A Perfect 10, and American Patriot, and those three CDs did very well.
Then something stepped in, and that’s called the attack on America in 2001. The Gulf War had already proven “U.S.A.” to be a patriotic anthem for the military, which I didn’t intend, but I was pleased. Then once my appearance at Yankee Stadium happened in 2001 “U.S.A.” became a really big umbrella over my career. Accepting the good over the negative, “That’s all they want to hear,” I did look back and say, “We’ve had thirty albums and seventeen number one singles, I’m still a country artist, so we’ll take ‘...U.S.A.’ and put it at the end of the show,” and I still do that today, after touring for thirty-five years.
MR: And more congratulations, it was just certified gold and platinum for digital sales.
LG: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. That’s a million downloads since they started tracking it.
MR: It was song of the year in Nashville in 1985, and then it was a number one pop record in 2001. You’re one of those crossover artists, which is a very hard feat. What do you think it is about the song that keeps it resonating to this day?
LG: I don’t know if I have an answer to that. Every time it became apparent that America was under crisis in some way, whether it was “God Bless America” or “America The Beautiful,” or the national anthem, “God Bless The U.S.A.” seemed to resonate with all ages. I wrote it that way, I’m not surprised at that. But the fact that it sustained, and there hasn’t been a follow up... I think every couple of decades there’s going to be a song that resonates with the public, but this has gone from generation to generation to generation now for four decades, so I’m pleased and proud and I sing it at all kinds of events for military and non-military, and people stand up. The first time that happened, it actually shocked me. I was like, “Why are you standing?” It’s their anthem.
MR: How does that affect you as the person who wrote it?
LG: I feel good about it because I’m the artist as well. There are other people who record it―most of the branches of the military have a version of it and there are a couple of other acts who have recorded it along the way. But as I sing it, it gives me double pride to know that I’ve written something good. My grandmother used to say, “If you’re going to be famous for something, make sure it’s something good,” and I did good there. As an artist, I’ve always prided myself on being a singer first, so it’s pretty cool that I could sing as well as I did in 1983 and record it and put it into my shows. Being seventy-three years old, I’ll sing it as long as I can and as long as my hundred days a year don’t wash over me as far as too much travel, I’ll continue to do it as long as I can.
MR: Lee Greenwood at seventy-three years old. I never even thought about that until this moment.
LG: [laughs] I don’t think about it very often, we just talk about it in passing. It’s just chronological, but I’m happy that I’m still as active as I am and in good health.
MR: Lee, how did you create “God Bless The U.S.A.”? What were your intentions when you wrote it and how was it written?
LG: The brief answer is that I just felt a need to do something that united the country, and I’ve felt that need since I was a kid. All the years in Vegas I thought about it and never got around to it, I had no platform for it. When I got to MCA and started touring hard as an artist, and I mean really a lot of sleepless nights, I was still very creative. One day, between Texas and Arkansas on my bus, the inspiration came to me, I have a piano in the back of my bus, I wrote it that night and took it to my producer the next day. He gave me his thumbs up and said, “If this is what you want to do, let’s put it on an album,” so we did that.
MR: Do you have some other songs that feel like, “That may not be as big an anthem as ‘...U.S.A.’ but that’s an anthem to me?”
LG: As I look back at the records on my wall, there are five or six that went gold and platinum. Certainly our first album, which contained “It Turns Me Inside Out,” our first single that just exploded on the charts. I think every artist needs that, but they also need the second song and the third and the fourth. Jan Crutchfield, my producer’s brother, who’s gone now, wrote me three of those hits, two on that first album, “Inside Out,” and “She’s Lying.” “Going, Going, Gone” was a follow-up later and our first number one record, only because people kind of got used to the message, they got used to the romantic story. I loved a lot of songs that were recorded that never were hits, I wrote several myself. I wrote a song for Kenny Rogers called “A Love Song,” that was on my first album. It was his number one hit worldwide. I love that song. As I go back through our discography, there are a bunch that I really love putting on stage. “Dixie Road” certainly is a favorite with all country fans, and that was the most played song in country in ‘85. Every decade or every five or six years, you’ll get another hit song.
MR: What was it about country music that made you pick that genre? You could’ve done anything.
LG: Well, I did do everything, as a matter of fact. I spent twenty years in Nevada as a dealer in casinos. I played all kinds of music, from Broadway shows to pop rock. I was a Beatles fan; I was an Elvis fan, naturally. I worked in the same hotel as Elvis while I was performing out there. I loved Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire... My favorite band is Tower Of Power. When you look at the musical experiences and you fold in the fact that I was drum major for my high school marching band, I love marches, I love old American music. The first song I ever memorized off a record was Stan Kenton’s “Artistry In Rhythm,” I played it on the piano by ear. My mother, who was a piano player, would love to have taught me that. She didn’t and I’m grateful that I’ve never taken lessons from her, because now, I have an eighteen year-old who’s a great actor and musician and singer and he won’t take lessons from me either, so I get payback.
MR: Ha! What was the bridge for you to country?
LG: It’s not exactly the way that turned out. Country was almost my last consideration. I lived on the west coast, I’m from California, and after twenty years in Nevada, I spent a couple of tries going to Los Angeles to make pop records and failed miserably. I just didn’t have the voice for it, or the look, or I wasn’t in the grassroots of that genre enough although I sang plenty of it. We had rock shows in Vegas that would stun you, and yet that crossover, just like Ray Charles who crossed from rhythm & blues to country, my voice seemed to match up with what they were trying to record at that period in time. Maybe it’s just right place, right time.
MR: You mentioned that your kid is also in entertainment. Do you find yourself guiding him at all?
LG: Well, I’ve got a twenty-one year old who was valedictorian at his high school and he’s now at Washington and Lee studying biochemistry. He’s also an actor and a singer but that’s not his passion. The younger boy really is gifted in that area. He was the lead in Les Mis last year and he was stellar. As he moves forward and probably goes to college... I would have never advised him to go to college but to take his acting and music to the streets, because that’s how I got started. But it’s a different world now and I think maybe because you get in the mix―the old adage is, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”―so maybe at the college he goes to, he can connect with the right people. We’re going to make sure he’s in the right place. He has a stack of recommendations. As far as my guiding him, I’ll do my best to give him my advice, but to tell you the truth, he’s got his own head in the wind.
MR: Spinning off of that, Lee, what advice do you have for new artists?
LG: You’ve heard the expression “a million to one”? That may have been my time in the sixties, but I think it’s probably twenty million to one to have big success now. The Carrie Underwoods and Brad Paisleys come along very rarely, and even if they are more abundant, the opportunities for success are less. So here’s the deal. Put yourself in the right place and the right time, if you can, because opportunity will come along several times and you may reach out and grab the brass ring. If you do, you’d better hold on, because you will sacrifice almost everything to achieve the highest goal. You see it in acting, you see it in athletes, you see it in entertainment. It’s a tough business to get there, stay there, and not only be happy and passionate about what you do, but to make a living.
MR: What does the future bring for you?
LG: We’re releasing a new Lee Greenwood collection. We broke that in Atlanta about a month ago and as it begins to saturate through the market, it’ll be available on my website and in major stores around the country. In addition to that, I’m recording a CD that will be all my original songs, that will be out in the fall, so that’s kind of a major undertaking. The rest is just chasing around my two seniors―one in high school and one in college.
MR: How has your creative process grown through the years?
LG: I’m not as creative as I used to be, but if I have the right environment around me and I’m not just cluttered with business... A lot of that is daily. You get up, “Oh my gosh, my car broke, there’s something with the house, one of my kids needs me.” Once you get into the right environment of having nothing on your mind, “Let’s just be creative,” well, I still have that same potential. I’m in the process of writing several songs now for different publishing companies, so I’m hoping that will take off as well. There’s not really a major pursuit. I really enjoy my career at this point because I can just choose the dates I want to work and take the celebrity as it is. We do a lot of personal appearances that don’t require me to be creative or artistic, just go on and sing and/or appear. I’m going to be the MC for the Freedom Awards in Washington D.C. later this month. Did you hear about the Hall Of Fame game?
MR: Yeah, what’s that story?
LG: It was cancelled two hours before the game. I was in Canton, Ohio as an invited guest to sing. They painted the logo on the artificial turf and it fused into plastic so the NFL and the coaches for the Packers and the Colts said, “We’re not playing.” I had to go out and sing to a kind of angry crowd.
MR: What’s that full story?
LG: As we began scrambling for music, because I was only invited to sing “God Bless The U.S.A.,” I had to call my son at home and he got on my computer and emailed me some tracks through the magic of technology. They brought both the teams out on the field without pads, in uniform, with their mascots and they met at the fifty yard line and introduced some of the Hall Of Fame greats like Brett Favre, Kevin Greene. DeBartolo was there as well, and then some of the new inductees like Dundee. The crowd’s like, “Play football!” so David Baker who runs the Hall Of Fame came out and asked me, “Please, go smooth the crowd.” I sang a couple of songs in front of the teams as they were on the fifty yard line talking and the cheerleaders did their thing and then I got the military, who were left there because they had a whole halftime planned for the marines and the army, they had to leave for some agenda. There was still Air Force and Navy on the field and I got them behind me and did “God Bless The U.S.A.” The crowd started swaying with me and we kind of diffused that into saying, “This is not the most important thing in our country right now, let’s just remember the military that’s here in our field, let’s look forward to the NFL season and let’s let this go.” On the outside of that, there’s the cost. People who came from Texas and California and Colorado, whatever their transportation was and then the tickets to the game. The NFL has to work that out yet and I don’t know what the outcome is.
MR: Oh my.
LG: It could’ve been a catastrophe.
MR: It’s hard to be in the middle of something like that. I’m sorry, buddy.
LG: Oh yeah, it was panic at the moment.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
DEERHEART’S “JOEY’S GIRL” EXCLUSIVE
According to Deerheart’s Tom Ciorciari...
“The new Deerheart release, ‘Joey’s Girl,’ is my telling of the time my wife, Lyn who was 17 at the time, was summoned backstage by Joey Ramone at a show on Long Island. He was a really sweet guy. Lyn had been sending him poetry via a mutual friend, and he told her how much he dug it, so he gave her a hug and a peach. Sonically, ‘Joey’s Girl’ gives a tip of the hat to the Ramones’ song “Danny Says” in the arrangement. “I wrote it to be kind of the great lost Ramones ballad.”
DAVE MCGRAW & MANDY FER’S “CREATURES WE ARE” EXCLUSIVE
According to Dave McGraw...
"I wrote this song in a little 400 square foot cabin on a horse farm on the island where we were living at the time. It is an ode to Mandy and perhaps a celebration of our partnership together, often taking the road less traveled, living with less and reveling in the richness of simplicity. Lofty ideals aside, I always had to leave the cabin and go into the horse barn when the banjo came out--and I'm allergic to horses. Ultimately, it's a tune about doing what you love and making it work, even when it isn't easy. We're always in it together. As for the video, it was an afterthought while we were filming others, but we were relaxed enough to really enjoy the moment and it was so delicious outside that we had to keep filming. My favorite part is when the camera zooms in and captures the sunlight and reflections of trees on Mandy's blue strat."
A Conversation with Ian Thomas
Mike Ragogna: Ian, just how many Canadian Ian Thomas’ are there up there?
Ian Thomas: I know there is a blues/roots artist named Ian Thomas in the New York area and a Justin Bieber clone by the name of Ian Thomas whose face appears on MY Wikipedia page! The latter looks a little ridiculous with his puppy dog pout and my birthdate attached. It begs the question about just how hideous the painting in his attic must be. And last but not least there is an Ian Thomas in Minnesota who is a marketing guru who gets upset rerouting fan mail. I now understand why Gord Sumner became Sting, after a sharp needle that sticks out of the back side of an insect. I guess that put an end to sharing his life with all the other Gordie Sumners out there. I am considering the stage moniker “Coot,” to distinguish myself from these young imposters.
MR: Fine, you’re the legendary Ian Thomas and your new album is titled A Life In Song. Any reason for that?
IT: Of course, “legendary” in Canada is quite an interesting term. It kind means “Don’t give up your day job.” For many of us. It has been said in the USA with one hit you’ll need an entourage with security guards for the rest of your life. In Canada after a dozen hits you’ll still need a nametag. “A Life in Song” seemed the right title for an album that crosses nearly 45 years of songwriting. Besides―“Shake That Thang”―just didn’t seem proper for someone my age. The “go to” sexual marketing strategy of record companies falls short in my age group. They don’t know what to do with ya if you can’t dance naked. Great business model huh? True the thought of me swinging naked on a wrecking ball is just not right & besides what would I say to my grandkids other than, “Yes, I know it has nothing to do with the song but it’s the only way they know to sell CDs !
MR: You know what they say. Once you record with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, you never go back. Which of your songs do you think they absolutely nailed and which songs had you reconsidering using orchestra samples?
IT: There is no denying that some of the orchestral software does, on occasion, give real orchestras a run for their money, particularly in the mixing stage. But in the end listening to the fluidity of 65 real players is a wonder to behold. To Comfort You, a ballad from my second Boomers album―that was also covered by Bette Midler―sounded so beautiful when the orchestra was rehearsing, I had to leave my post in the control room to hear it alive on the Prague studio floor. It was magical and made me quite emotional, a little bleary eyed actually…then I realized it was time for my pill. Like any album, by the time the thing is finished, you can’t stand it and have to not listen for a while. The process or recording and mixing burns one out on the material. I listened on my way north to the cottage the other day and was pleased with so much. All of the arrangements brought something new to the party. Like all of my records, I hear the things in mixes I would love to correct, but overall I am proud of this one and grateful to the effort of those who made it happen out of their own passion for orchestra and dedication for working well beyond the minimal financial rewards available.
MR: You recorded and mastered the project in 24/192k. Why such a highly ambitious approach and how do you suggest the listener keeps the original recording and mastering’s audiophile quality after the music eventually is reduced to 16-bit on the CD and the downloads?
IT: 24/192k tech was available and it seemed prudent to leave all the sonic options open. Who knows, some folks might suddenly understand how crappy MP3s are despite the convenient fast download. God, I remember buying records because of the production and engineering. Those days are at a low ebb. That being said, 44.1/24 bit sounds pretty good to my old ears these days with the improvements of digital recording technology but for those audiophiles interested in higher resolution, it is wonderful to have higher versions both 96 and 192k available at shopalmarecords.com and they are releasing a 192k Blu-ray audio in 2017. I have heard of some artists who are pressing vinyl from MP3 quality recordings and selling them to audiophiles. Is that phenomenon called Psycho-acoustics―when folks think they are hearing something that isn’t there?
MR: Do you have any anecdotes about songs such as “Painted Ladies,” “Long, Long, Long Long Way,” “Right Before Your Eyes,” “The Runner” and “Pilot”?
IT: “Painted Ladies” was fairly biographical. I was the son of a former Baptist minister. Dad had too many questions to remain in the pulpit and became a philosophy professor. Until I was 19, I lived a sheltered life in an upper middle-class survey full of academics and scholarly guests perusing intellectual topics over dinner. All of a sudden I was immersed into the culture shock of playing in the grubbiest bars in Ontario and sharing dressing rooms with strippers. Such venues paid the band bills. The hotel rooms often had a rope for a fire escape. I remember thinking if my room caught on fire so would that damn rope! Who was the bright light who thought about a long rope instead of proper fire-escape. How many folks can shimmy down a 30 foot rope anyway? As pop-y as the tune was, the lyric for “Painted Ladies” is pretty much the journal of a wide-eyed kid longing for home.
Regarding “Right Before Your Eyes”... I was at a dinner party at Tom Cochrane’s house with many other internationally successful writers. Every one of us fessed up to a handful of songs that wrote themselves. Right Before Your Eyes was one of those songs for me. It was more or less handed to me from wherever in about 10 minutes. It’s kind of humbling when you don’t really feel you’ve written something you’re credited with. The doing of it was more akin to channeling. Interesting phenomenon that, and maybe something of a spiritual evidence.
MR: What do you think about some of the interpretations of your songs, perhaps Manfred Mann’s recording of “The Runner,” etc.?
IT: I liked Manfred Mann’s version of “The Runner.” I thought they put their own artistic stamp on it. Some of the other covers pretty much copied my versions verbatim which left me thinking, “Well, where’s the artistry in that?” But that’s all the badmouthing I’m going to do because those covers of my songs paved the driveway and put my kids through university … so my heartfelt thanks to those who thought my songs worthy enough to record. It does bring to mind a skit on the British comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News. The skit wasn’t working well so they stopped dead and said. “Alright let’s do the same skit but with John Cleese.” So John comes on set, sits in a chair and reads a paper and that’s all. They do exactly the same skit and the audience roars. Conclusion: Skit with famous guy is funnier. So, famous guy, plus a good song = a better business model for record labels. Labels by and large need all the help they can get. I don’t know why but they’ve always seemed a fairly clueless lot with poor business practices.
MR: What explains your not being as famous in the US as you are in Canada? Marketing? Management?
IT: If I knew I would have fixed it by now. I’m a writer not a Bill Gates. Maybe I should have filed my copyrights in Ireland like Gates the great patriot―ha ha. There are pockets of folks who like my work in the USA but why I am where I am is the usual comedy of errors. You get signed by a guy who loves you and by the time the record comes out, the guy who liked you is fired and the new guy comes in with his pet project and has no time for old news. Touring in the USA with an uninspired label meant no records in the stores when you played the cities to sold out audiences. This was a serious peeve of mine. There I was doing the marketing in concert and the label couldn’t even be bothered with the basic building block of shipping product. There were other misfortunes of timing, plus labels who wanted the songs for their established artists rather than signing me. Then there was a US label who bought the record but wouldn’t release it. They also wouldn’t let another label release it in case it did well and made them look bad for not releasing it. Pretty puerile stuff really and just bad business but that’s how it went. On the upside, all of these things conspired towards a relatively normal life for me and my family. This in the long run was a good outcome though frustrating at times for both me and my fan base. I earned enough with just enough success to continue. Perfect.
MR: Are there any songs that just missed making it to this package?
IT: There were a few songs from my Boomers catalogue like “Imaginary Lines” from the Midway album and one of my favorite ballads from the solo album Levity, “Back To Square One” that I would love to have included and a few others. But honestly―the arrangement workload and expense of orchestra time would have been far too great. A symphony orchestra is a lot of mouths to feed. So we settled on 12 titles.
MR: Which songs do you think benefited the most from the orchestra revisits? And how have some of these songs changed or evolved through the years since their original renditions?
IT: “The Runner”’s reinvention was wonderful thanks to Kevin Adamson’s beautiful arrangement and piano performance. That being said, I love how orchestra underscored the “Painted Ladies” narrative in a fresh way. “Right Before Your Eyes” also pleased me with the violin solo motif nestled into the brass quartette. Solo violin can be so emotionally powerful. Darcy Hepner’s soprano sax solo in the same song knocked the thing out of the park for me. He was so playful with it, in a Grapelli or Wayne Shorter way–-emotional but joyful at the same time. I think that is one of my favorite moments on the recording. All of the songs were re-imagined for this recording, which made them fresh for me. To simply regurgitate old approaches would have been boring as hell. “Pilot” and “Long Long Way” remained the most true to the original versions only because the late Milan Kymlicka’s original charts were so brilliant. I wanted his charts to fly again for sentimental reasons. He was such a mentor and dear friend. Darcy Hepner so respectfully added to Milan’s arrangements to accommodate full orchestra, which made even the most familiar sounding tracks full of new life.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
IT: First off, I am so sorry they have arrived in an era where the value of music has been so debased. I guess any advice from this old coot might come down to this. If you do it for the right reasons your creativity will survive as a joy in your life. Strapping any art to the wheels of industry places your joy in jeopardy. Some of the happiest musicians I know play in weekend bands. If you want to be a star and that is your motivation you will need a huge team to help you make that happen. Stardom needs the machinery. Many folks who get into music for that reason burn out and end up bitter when that star, that moment in the sun, fades. Now more than ever music is disposable. Some artists are washed up after one single at 19 years of age. Record companies do not invest in artists anymore. Album artists are almost extinct in a sound bite world. So, if you are a singer songwriter and it is your passion to write songs, then write, write and re-write. Know that your sense of well-being is connected to that. Whether you have to subsidize your passion with other jobs - continue to write. It is who you are, and if you keep your creative spirit healthy and continue to write, you will remain happy.
MR: What advice would you have given yourself when you were first starting out?
IT: Probably much of the above. There is much truth in that 10,000 hours theory. Don’t be lazy, be as responsible to and for your talent as you can. The more songs you write the better your writing gets. Keep your reference levels stimulated with more reading and listening to work from around the world. Listen you your inner voice, most A&R men are clueless.
MR: Would you like to follow this up with another orchestral revisits album?
IT: Well, as I have stated, it is a retail desert out there and big budget recordings are difficult. If there was a demand for it … maybe. I do love orchestra and I have learned so much form this recording that I would like to take to another one of this sort. But it is an expensive undertaking that in today’s market, and given my age, is not bound to make much money or even recoup for that matter. I did this one for the love of it. It took a year out of my life to make it happen and I don’t know how many years I have left to dedicate to projects of this enormity. My cherished time with friends and loved ones, and the joy I get from being in their presence suffers far too much when I am locked away in my head for a year.
MR: What other kinds projects would you still like to work on and are you writing for another album of original material for sometime down the road?
IT: I am always writing. I think it is a huge part of who I am. My brother Dave says that creativity is as much an affliction as it is a talent. I think he’s right. I have three books in the works, one is an autobiography that is finished, but not finished because it still bores me as I rewrite. I am trying to make it less boring. Fiction is way more fun and the two novels I have under way intrigue me. My last book, The Lost Chord was very well received and such interest is stimulating. And fortunately books aren’t strapped to the secretions of an adolescent market like CDs. Regardless of the almost non-existent retail music business, I have some new songs bubbling under. Songs bubble up from my subconscious. I think songs are how my soul cleans house to make room for more incoming. I will probably have enough for another album within a year, if I’m still alive. The folks who come out to my concerts are enough to keep me going. I feel their warm embrace as I write this. They have no idea how they validate my existence. I ain’t going to get rich, but I am so grateful for being allowed to live such a fulfilling creative life.
UNCONSCIOUS DISTURBANCE’S “LET IT RAIN EXCLUSIVE
According to Unconscious Disturbance’s Daniel Freiberg...
“’Let it Rain’ is the song that the EP is named after. It’s mostly about living an alternative lifestyle, and just going all the way even if what you like is not what is commonly viewed as the ‘right’ thing to do. Our EP talks about the freedom that comes with embracing individuality. Be yourself, love yourself, live life to the fullest, and respect people for who they are.”
I THE MIGHTY’S “ANDREW’S SONG” EXCLUSIVE
According to I The Mighty’s lead singer, Brent Walsh...
“The idea behind the Oil In Water EP was to take some of our favorite tracks on our latest album Connector and re-imagine them in various different genres. Arranging and recording this EP was a ton of fun and allowed us the opportunity to explore a wide range of musical styles that we hadn’t before as a band. The first release is a predominantly a cappella version of ‘Andrew’s Song,’ a track that never quite received the spotlight we wanted it to have.”
A Conversation with Young Gun Silver Fox
MR: How did you and Andy meet and begin making beautiful music together?
Shawn Lee: Well, as legend has it... Andy friended me up on MySpace! I thought he sounded good and suggested we should do something sometime. I never heard back from him! Years later, Andy contacted me about producing Mamas Gun. We recorded a few songs together for Mamas Gun, but I didn’t end up doing the album. While working with Andy, I knew I had found the perfect partner in crime to make the kind of album that West End Coast became. It took years before we actually starting working on the album, but boy was it worth the wait! Andy is a songwriting and singing Mofo and he really elevated and surpassed my original vision for this record. I’m very proud of it.
MR: And you’re calling this “yacht rock” because…?
SL: To be honest, I’m not calling it that. I prefer West Coast/AOR. “Yacht rock” is maybe a bit tongue in cheek in my mind. How about “Nauti rock”?
MR: Ha! Did you ever hear the new wave group The Yachts?
SL: No.... Any good?
MR: Yeah, but I just made a dad joke, sorry. Anyway, what did you and Andy bring to the mix?
SL: Well, this is how most of the album was put together... I would write and record a nearly finished instrumental track―playing all the instruments―and then I’d send it to Andy. He would then write the melody and lyrics and then send back to me to mix with my engineer, Pierre Duplan.
There were a few exceptions. “You Can Feel it” was the last song written for the album. This was a funny one... Andy thought we needed one more song for the album. Something simple and direct, i.e. “The 1st single”! Some time went by. One night I sent Andy a text message and said “how about something mid-tempo with the feel of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” He answered “sounds good.” I then sent another text message saying “what about two chords for the verse like G maj 7 to C maj 7.” He answered back “that sounds cool”. I then suggested that we should modulate to B min 7 for the bridge. I then came up with the opening guitar riff and recorded it on my voice memo function on my iPhone and sent it to Andy. This was about 11 in the evening. I went to bed and woke up the next morning with an emailed MP3 demo of “You Can Feel It” from Andy, which sounds very similar to the finished record. Andy really smashed it. A bit of a magic miracle that song!
MR: The video for “You Can Feel It” now has over 40,000 views. How long did it take you guys to click it that many times?
SL: I’m still doing it - 41,000!!! Ha ha!
MR: Okay, what do you think is resonating with the track or video?
SL: It sounds like a classic radio song. Like I said before, it just has something a bit magical about it. I could break it down and rationalize it, but at the end of day it just has that chill factor.
MR: Shawn, you and your Ping Pong Orchestra had a hit with “Kiss The Sky.” Did you know when you were recording it you had a hit on your hands? What do you think made the difference with its recording and its creation?
SL: That is another special song. To be honest, when I put together the backing track it really works. Super simple parts, but it just taps into something that has an emotionally epic feeling. That descending chord progression really is effective and very evocative to come up with ideas to. Nino Moschella wrote the melody and lyrics and sang it. He sounded great on it. When it was done, I thought it was a good song, but I had no idea that so many people would like and connect with it. Mysterious!
MR: What’s your favorite track on the Young Guns Silver Foxes project? Do you know which one is Andy’s?
SL: Tough question... I’d choose “Emilia,” I think. It just has so many lovely bits in it!I think Andy would say “Long way back.” It’s a beautiful epic track, I know a lot of people dig this one too. Great horn and string arrangement by John Pickup on it, plus Terry Lewis guests on some tasty fuzz guitar too.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
SL: Make music you love and stick to your guns. Say no to drugs and yes to hugs!
MR: Where do you guys sail this yacht from here?
SL: Marina Del Rey! Ha ha! But seriously, we have some live dates coming up in the near future and then after that, we are looking at putting out some more Young Gun Silver Fox music in 2017. In the immortal words of The Commodores, “Sail on sugar―good times never felt so good!”
THE JUNIOR LEAGUE’S “THE STARS IN OUR EYES” EXCLUSIVE
According to The Junior League’s Joe Adragna...
“As a kid, I used to ride in the back of my parents car with my sister, listening to WCBS-FM playing songs from the 50s and 60s. This song sort of documents trips down the Hutchinson River Parkway or over the Throggs Neck Bridge back home to eastern Long Island, listening to that music. An exercise in nostalgia, which is fine as long as you don’t get lost in it.”