Mystified And More: A Conversation With Joe Scarborough


After years of recording music and playing live, Joe Scarborough finally released his new EP Mystified (as”Scarborough”) on June 23. In addition to the president’s tweets about him and Mika Brzezinski making them currently the most famous people on the planet, their cable news show, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, recently beat CNN for the 9th straight quarter in total viewers and in the coveted A18-49 and A25-54 demos for the month of June.

Scarborough / <em>Mystified</em>
Scarborough / Mystified

A Conversation with Joe Scarborough

Mike Ragogna: Joe, you might say I'm "Mystified" by how long it's taken you to start releasing music again. Did you just keep pushing it off or have you been making music all this time and finally committed to releasing it officially?

Joe Scarborough: Why does it always take so long to ask the girl that you really love out? It's the fear of rejection. I know it sounds bizarre to most people in the outside world but being in Congress when I was thirty or having a national TV show at forty wasn't a big deal to me because it didn't mean that much to me. I always tell the story that when I was being sworn into congress at thirty, everybody around me was crying because they were so happy and I was like, "Eh, whatever. Let's go to work." But I remember going home one night in the middle of a long, hard slog in Congress and being away from home for two-hundred nights. For some reason, somebody was playing A Hard Day's Night on TV and I watched from like midnight until two, and I said, "Why am I not doing that? That's what I love!” I immediately got a band together there in Congress, went in the studio, and recorded some songs.

It's what I've always done, but I think, up until now, I've feared rejection. But you get old enough and you say, "Well jeez, I've written four-hundred songs, I haven't recorded them, my kids aren't going to see this side of me, which is actually the most important thing in my life outside my family." I just started doing it, and once I started... If you've got four-hundred songs to choose from, you think you're going to record five or six, and then we just kept going. By the end of the year, we'd been in about four or five different studios, played with all these different great musicians, and we had fifty songs down. At that point, we were exhausted. I said, "Ugh, got that out of my system!" Two months later, we said, "We've got to do something with these songs," so we started playing live. We played live for a year every week and that went great. We kept waiting to get our heads knocked off and it just never happened. At some point, somebody said, "You know, you really need to release these songs," so I came up with the idea of doing an EP a month, releasing fifty songs a year. I figured by the end of two or three years, somebody might find a couple songs they like and say, "Yeah, he's not a bad songwriter."

Scarborough live at NYC’s The Cutting Room. l-r: Tanesha Gary, Rosalind Brown, Joe Scarborough
Scarborough live at NYC’s The Cutting Room. l-r: Tanesha Gary, Rosalind Brown, Joe Scarborough

MR: How do you feel your music has evolved, as far as songwriting and performing?

JS: I've always been a studio rat. In Florida, when everybody was at the beach, I spent my summers locked in my room. I bought an old Teac A3340 reel-to-reel--this is really aging me--and I spent my summers recording. I would bring in a drummer at the beginning of the summer, because that's the only thing I didn't do, I would teach him the songs, I'd record that, and I'd spend the rest of my summer throwing on thirty instruments and sort of doing it the way The Beatles had to do it. You'd record on three tracks, bounce it down to one track and keep doing that. That's how I spent high school and college. When I got out of law school, I was still doing it, but by that point, I had an eight-track. Then I got into Congress and was away from it for about five years so when I came back, everything had been digitized. I was shocked. I was like, "Wait a second, you mean this ProTools thing has a noise gate on it? You don't have to spend a day and a half mic-ing and gating the drums?" At that point, that's when I could really go crazy. I was like, "How many tracks does this thing hold?" They were like, "How many do you want it to hold?" Sign me up!

Mainly, it was demos and me sort of experimenting, but I didn't start playing live until the past year because that's just not what really mattered to me; it was writing songs, recording and producing. Playing live actually has been great for my songwriting because everybody would come up afterwards and say, "Oh, that was great, that was great," but you can tell when people start to turn away or a couple walk out, you can sense when your songs start to lose people and that gets you back. "I need to write a different part here, I need to have a solo pop in at this part, or have the girl sing something here just to keep things going." I think it's tightened up my songwriting a good bit, playing live.

MR: You included many sounds and influences on your EP—the horn sections, the eighties sound, big vocals, the Motown drums... As they get older, most musicians seem to hone in on one "classic" sound, maybe jazz or blues or whatever. But you're still having fun with sounds and elements from different eras.

JS: It's what influences me and what makes me excited. When I listen to all my XM channels, I'm listening to ’70s [on 7], I'm listening to Soul Town, and it drives me crazy. So I go to XM U always hoping to find a great new band and a great new sound. I'm always trying to push forward, but I was heavily influenced by everybody from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols to Radiohead and Elvis Costello and R.E.M. to Starz—which is a band out of Montreal who had one of my favorite albums out of the last decade, Set Yourself On Fire with “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”—to New Pornographers... Just a whole lot of different sounds. The only thing that I would warn people when they listen is not to say, "Gee, Joe wrote this last week and he's trying to sound like..." No, I've written things over thirty years. There was a review in Variety where the guy said, "Oh, the lyrics on this song, Joe's trying to prove that he's hip to what's happening in New York City in 2017." Well, not really. I wrote "Superbad" in 1998 and the original inspiration was Gwyneth Paltrow when she was the “It Girl.” It's about leading what looks like a glamorous life but is probably a bit dreary. But yeah, I updated it and put in The Boom Boom Room and all these references that were New York-centric because I've lived in New York for over a decade now. It’s just a ton of different influences from everything I'm listening to.

About two or three years ago, I started getting into Motown especially, not just for the songs but for the production. I'm like, "Why is there so much energy here?" and I realized they did the exact opposite of what I'd been doing my whole life. We sort of wander around in the mid-range, but Motown, they've got the bass, they've got a tambourine, they've got singers, and they've got a guitar chugging up high. It strips out a lot of the sound in the middle and creates this completely different sounds that Berry Gordy and everybody else was pushing for. So that may influence me in a song. Or the Sex Pistols may influence me in a song, or the Talking Heads may. It may be a little more difficult to follow for listeners because there are going to be a lot of different styles over the course of fifty years of writing.

MR: On this EP, you synthesize various elements into your style of pop and rock. With the amount of unreleased songs you have, is it always going to be this kind of approach?

JS: No, absolutely not. I've written two new songs that are going to be released on the August EP already. We're recording them this weekend. It's going to be an evolution of sorts. I've got a song that was inspired by M83's "Graveyard Girl"; it's got a big, echo-y sound. Then I've got another song called "Welcome To The Monkey House" where my biggest challenge is not making it sound too much like Green Day. It's all going to change. I've always played in bands that didn't have horns or background singers, but when I decided to play live... I'd gone to see Steely Dan for three nights at The Beacon over their last run and I said, "I've never tried writing songs with horns and background singers," so I added that. I suspect I'm going to get to a point where I say, "Man, I wrote songs with two guitars, a bass and a drummer for most of my life." I'm sure there are going to be some EPs down the road where I go back to that because it's what I love the most. What always excited me the most was when I heard The Replacements for the first time or buying Elvis Costello's first three albums, or R.E.M.; just guitar bands. If you're going to be able to put out two-hundred songs over two or three years, it gives you a chance to experiment.

MR: One of the songs on the EP, "Let's Fall In Love," is that about a certain person you might have gotten engaged to recently?

JS: That is about a certain person I got engaged to recently, and the funny thing is I hardly ever write love songs, but I did write that one for Mika. I wasn't going to put it on the first EP. I was really self-conscious about it but the RED MUSIC people heard it and said, "Nah, nah, you've got to put that one on." I said, "Okay, well, we'll do it but it'll be the fifth song because it doesn't quite match the style of everything else." We went out and did it and I think it's worked out okay. It's not the style of what I usually do, but hopefully, Mika likes it.

MR: And how did you score Peter Max for the cover artwork?

JS: Peter came on the show several years ago and unveiled two Peter Max portraits that he did for Mika and me. We were so blown away that we started using those portraits for our graphic design look on social media. When it was time to do an EP, he seemed like a great place to go. It was obviously a great honor and Mika and I are thrilled with the result.

MR: Your video for "Mystified" strongly suggests that it's aimed at Trump, but if you don't see the video, there are other interpretations. Before I watched it, I thought the song was about looking inside and being “mystified,” “horrified,” and “terrified” about what one saw in him or herself, almost like Michael Jackson’s "Man In The Mirror" with its "change starts from within” message.

JS: Right. What's so fun is I had written the song and it was about me. I had just gone through a divorce. I was knocking around the house feeling like a total failure. It was a really, really dark time for me. I would just walk around and drive around thinking, "What a loser." I remember I was driving to pick my kids up from school and I sang, "I've been looking inside and I've been mystified by what I saw," and that's all I needed. I sang it into my iPhone and I said, "Okay, I can do something with that." I amped it up and made it darker and tried to build it out to make it something that other people could relate to. That was the first song that I really went in and decided, "Hey, I'm going to start recording again." I did all the instruments, recorded it in my studio, got a drum machine, and just went with it. I brought it to everybody and said, "Hey I'd like to start the EP with this song because it has special meaning to me." As I was listening to it, I got to the second verse and was just not paying a whole lot of attention as we were mixing it down. There's a line that says, "So tell your Russian girlfriend what you want," and I thought, "Russian girlfriend, wait a second." Instead of looking inward at myself this could be a lot more universal and be me taking a look at the country, at the state of things, at how horrifying things are. What was written as a very personal song, takes on a more universal meaning on the video.

MR: As the video flashed through those quick cuts, one of the more disturbing things to me was what ultimately happens to the “reporter” who looks a little like Mika. I felt like it was representing what's happening to the media and reporters.

JS: Yeah, it was. It was representing the woman that Putin had gunned down outside of her house who was an investigative reporter in Russia. We have a president now that actually respects Vladimir Putin and we had him on our show in December of 2015 and had a showdown with him then because he kept talking about how Putin was a strong leader. I kept saying, "Yeah, but Donald, he kills journalists," and Donald said, "Well, he's a strong leader." "But he kills journalists." "Well, we kill a lot of people in this country, too." It took us a while to push him to sort of say under his breath that he condemned Putin. But there's no doubt that this is a president who has used a Stalinist term, calls the press the “enemy of the people.” He's a president who respects autocrats and tyrants in Russia and Turkey and across the Middle East, who treats journalists with little or no respect. It was a message; this is what happens in Russia, this is a leader that our president respects a great deal and won't even criticize, and we have a president now that is calling the free press the “enemy of the people.” There's no doubt that was on my mind when we were editing the final cut of the video.

MR: Did Trump respond? Did he tweet about it?

JS: Well, no, he hasn't tweeted about that, but let's just say his allies in the media have and are attacking me, which is a really good sign. I always like that.

MR: I ask everybody this question, let me ask you too, Joe. What advice do you have for new artists?

JS: Write songs. Young reporters will come to me and say, "The media landscape is changing so quickly, what's your advice?" I say it all comes down to being able to tell a story, and to do that, you've got to be able to write a sentence. Don't learn to write a good paragraph; learn to write a good sentence, and then learn to write another good sentence. Learn to become an effective storyteller. For songwriters, all I can say is lock yourself in the room and just start writing, and know the first one-hundred songs that you write are going to probably be really bad, but you'll stumble onto something that works and then you can build from there. You just have to stay at it. It doesn't happen by mistake. I have idolized The Beatles to such an incredible degree that they have become almost like my deities. God sent these four guys down, especially Lennon and McCartney.

I remember getting my thousandth book about The Beatles and hearing George Martin talking about them, bringing them into the studio for the first time. His take was interesting. He had to work with them, and then their second album, he had to work with them a little, and then he said by the third album, he realized they had stumbled onto something. They had stumbled onto a formula and they had actually become, as he said in his understated British way, "Quite good." That was the first time I had actually looked at The Beatles as something other than deities. They were guys that had played in Hamburg for hundreds and hundreds of hours. They would have to play fifteen, twenty hours a day sometimes. You do that enough, you get good.

I've never really focused on playing live, but crazy things happen when you play live all the time. You actually become a better guitarist, become a better bassist, become a better singer. The notes that you can't hit when you began, a year into it, you find you can go places that you thought you could never go before. I hate to sound like a boring old man, but it's all sweat equity. One of my favorite stories about working hard was about Ben Hogan, the great golfer. When he died, somebody was saying people would always come up to him on the driving range and say, "What's the secret?" He would just kind of look at them and stare and say, "The secret's in the dirt," and then he'd hit another hundred golf balls and dig up a hundred more divots. The secret’s in the dirt. It's in the sweat. It's in the hard work. I would also say do what I did not do. Get out of high school or get out of college, whatever you want to get out of, throw the equipment in the back of the car and go, and play, and jump off the cliff early. Take the chance, and if it doesn't work out, come back home a couple years later and start your boring, respectable life.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

“Mystified” screen shot / Mika Brzezinski & Joe Scarborough
“Mystified” screen shot / Mika Brzezinski & Joe Scarborough

For those who missed it, on June 29, Trump tweeted the following...

“I heard poorly rated @Morning Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"

Here is Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough’s response on Morning Joe...