A Conversation with The Rippingtons' Russ Freeman
Mike Ragogna: Russ, you recorded your new album Fountain Of Youth with vintage equipment. Why?
Russ Freeman: I'm always looking for textures to feature and try to get a sonic reality, a sonic palette. In constructing the sonic palette I came across the idea: I have such a great guitar collection and I just kind of pick and choose what's needed for the color at the moment, that's always been my approach, but I somehow got in front of it. Through my travels I picked up some interesting instruments and started playing some other string instruments and started thinking, "What if I started featuring all these things?" At the time I I didn't really know how all the instruments would blend in terms of creating a real point-source focus but I was really pleased when I started recording with instruments like the ukulele, that are typically used for other things. Or pedal steel, all of these beautiful instruments I have, I'm just really happy with how they sonically blended together.
MR: Were there any instruments that spoke to you more than others?
RF: Yeah, I was really surprised by the two I just mentioned. The ukulele, I had no idea how useful of an instrument that is. It's a melody instrument. And I actually learned how to use the pedal steel, I've got a ten-string version, there's also a twelve-string version and it's a completely different kind of instrument than I've ever played, but I've always heard it and always loved the sound of it. I'm just really pleased by how I was able to blend that in. Of course they're all great, you fall in love with these instruments and as they age -- some of them have been with me thirty or forty years -- you just kind of fall in love with them all over again.
MR: It seems that this album expanded on The Rippington's sound. Did you predict that would happen as you added these layers?
RF: I didn't know how it was going to work. Actually, I was concerned that as you add all of these things together you never know what the mix is going to be. It's like a recipe of food, you can add the wrong spices or overpower with one flavor or another. I just went with my instincts, really, and tried to use the right instrument at the right time.
MR: One of the instruments you used is the bağlama, the sitar-like instrument on "Rivers Of Gold." It makes the piece seem like it's world music.
RF: Oh absolutely. I picked that instrument up in Istanbul. My wife and I spent months travelling. There's an entire street in Istanbul that's just lined with instrument shops that feature all their hand-carved instruments. It's something you don't really see in our country anymore, you know? They're still featuring these ethnic instruments from their cultures. I thought that was really cool, so I picked one up. It was harder to play than I thought it would be. It's not a very huge instrument but it's oddly shaped and it has seven strings. It was great, I just loved the challenge of trying to incorporate that completely different cultural sound into our music. I think that's always a challenge as we try to cross-breed these influences, and that's what makes it so interesting.
MR: And you're also cross-breeding genres, like what happened when you added the pedal steel on "Sun King" and "Rivers Of Gold."
RF: It's funny, I can't really take credit for being the first to use that, David Gilmour artfully used the pedal steel throughout his work. It's typically known as an instrument that's in country music, but it's an incredibly useful and beautiful-sounding instrument, so kudos to him for having used that in rock in a very memorable way. I was inspired by his idea to say, "Maybe I can take the pedal steel outside of its normal vocabulary and try to put it into Rippingtons-land."
MR: Did the instruments inspire the composition and the arrangements or was it vice versa?
RF: It's triggered with the visual references. I always come up with a concept first; it really helps me to visualize a concept, Fountain Of Youth for me specifically. I created a painting, the artwork on the CD, that could help me visualize. All the sounds and all the instruments and all the melodies spring from an original idea. That seems to be the way I work the best.
MR: Did any of these instruments then effect the arrangements? Did you have to change anything up to fit the sonics or the vibe of the vintage instrument?
RF: I'll give you an example. You were talking about the bağlama; I started playing it and I had seen how the instrument was approached by Turkish players, it's all very interpretive to tuning, so I tuned it up and started playing it and got a vibe going. Then I had played some other guitars that were electric, so to answer your question they just happened to be playing at the same time on the track and I said, "Wow, these actually sound cool together." I hadn't had the idea to do it that way, I was going to isolate one and then go into another, but I started playing them at the same time and I said, "Wow, this is different." So I kept that arrangement. Sometimes happy accidents occur. They're mash-ups, really.
MR: Is this a possible future path for The Rippingtons?
RF: It's funny you should ask that. I think the band is so well known for its saxophone melodies that when you look back through our catalog I can only count maybe one or two or maybe three instruments where the guitar carried the melody all the way throughout. I've always shared it with saxophone and shared it with different instruments. That's another reason I felt like, "Hey, it's really time to feature guitar." I've got such a huge arsenal of great sounds. I don't know if people realize but back before, I did a lot of guitar synthesizer and that had, in the early years, a great influence, too. I kind of abandoned that when the band started touring and we just had these great musicians in the band. I really love having all of these palettes of color available. To me, that's what they are.
MR: Are there any duet albums or solo material from Russ coming down the pike?
RF: Good question, I'm not sure! I know that the duets are really popular. Fans love seeing the interaction between artists, and we all do. It's really fun to do those records because you get in the head of somebody else and see how they like to work, and it's fun to write together. I've always really enjoyed doing those. I hope the opportunity comes up to do some more.
MR: Who reaches out to whom when it's you and David Benoit for instance?
RF: We always reach out to each other, and it's just really if the opportunity arises, primarily with the labels and scheduling and all the other exterior influences. But I think if you got us in a room we'd both jump at the chance.
MR: Ever consider doing an album loaded with guests?
RF: Not really because I feel like all The Rippingtons are so self-contained. That's kind of how they group was devised. They are guests. It's funny, I love having these guys who became my friends, like David Benoit. He was a guest at first and then we started working together in a duet capacity. You never know.
MR: Are you one of those guys who's constantly in creative mode?
RF: I would say yeah. I'm always trying to grow and learn new things. I think it's fascinating. That's what's great about music, you have to always keep learning.
MR: Jazz has been this fluid conversation that's always growing and changing. With the integration of R&B and more electronic elements, when someone says the word "jazz" to you these days, what does it mean?
RF: That's a good question. It's a really timely question, too, because you mentioned it in the backdrop of the history of the music and yet the future is going to probably have to address technology. That's another fascinating influence; how we're using the technology. Really I think it's all going to come down to elevating vocabulary and combining the musicians. I don't know the total answer but I do know that I think jazz is going to be influenced by the technology of the future. I guess I should clarify that by saying that one of the great things about technology has been the ability to discover new music, and that's kind of what I meant by that. Musicians will discover working together and discover other cultural aspects of music. That's fascinating. We wouldn't have had that opportunity twenty or thirty years ago, but now we can hear music from all over the world very easily.
MR: The Rippingtons came in a wave with Incognito and Yellowjackets, and it seems like you all benefitted from that surge of "new jazz." Do you see another jazz wave coming?
RF: I just think that as new artists are coming on the scene, EDM is influencing quite a bit of music. I know that seems like a non-sequiter, but in terms of what I'm seeing and in terms of culture I think that's kind of what's happening, and it's kind of a different vocabulary and we're not used to that, the instrumentation is different. I don't know how to specifically answer the chronology of what you're saying but I think that as new artists appear we're going to be influenced by their surroundings and their culture. Does that make sense?
MR: Sure and that leads us to my traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?
RF: My nephew is a really good guitar player and aspiring musician and I see that it's difficult in this environment although there are new opportunities we never had. But what he's doing is multimedia and to branch out into new ways would be my best advice.
MR: Does Fountain Of Youth make you...watch this...feel young?
RF: I'm so pleased with it, Mike. I'm just really happy with the way it came out. Every album is a painting where you try to get as close to your vision as possible, and I feel like this is pretty close. So yeah, I feel young again.
MR: What do you think is in The Rippingtons' future?
RF: I've never known the answer to that, and maybe that has been the secret to our longevity: To not have a preconceived idea of what's next. I know it sounds odd to say that after this amount of time, but I feel like the best thing to do is be open to whatever the correct path would be, so I don't know.
MR: What do you think is the Rippington's place in jazz music?
RF: That's a perception best left to the fans. It's kind of up to them how the public perceives us. Probably the way they look at us would be different to how I look at my contribution. I always look at it like what I was giving was composition. I've focused the most on compositions themselves, not really on the personnel and the band and all that kind of thing. To me, that's been secondary to trying to create music that I felt would last and would be more compelling. I learned early on that the time-proven instruments are the ones that won't go away and won't be out of style in a few years. I've really tried to write with those instruments, and those include string instruments, piano, the real instruments. I really try to feature that. That's another reason why I was trying to make almost a diary of my favorite instruments and try and play them as well as I could.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
HOLLIS BROWN'S "DOWN ON YOUR LUCK"
According to Hollis Brown's team...
"Hollis Brown was started in Queens, New York City in 2009 by college friends and songwriting partners Jon Bonilla and Mike Montali. Upon writing over fifty songs together, they decided to take things to the next level and form a band. After a self-released demo, they were signed to Alive Natural Sound, releasing their debut Ride On The Train in March 2013. Critical acclaim soon followed. On April 19, 2014, they released an exclusive Record Store Day tribute to The Velvet Underground called 'Gets Loaded.' They haven't looked back since. Non-stop touring including several weeks in Europe packing out venues, performing to a rabid, enthusiastic crowd. Next up, it's dates with Rich Robinson from The Black Crowes in August."
A Conversation with Rick Braun
Mike Ragogna: Rick, your new album Can You Feel It? certainly has a lot of energy.
Rick Braun: Exactly that. It's been quite a few years since I've recorded a record like this. In fact, the last time I did a record like this one was Beat Street, and that was probably the first CD that put me on the map. I was a newcomer as a solo artist way back in the day. When I started recording that record, I treated it as a garage band, and coincidentally, I do record my records in my garage, which has been converted into a studio. For this record, I brought some of my old friends including Nate Phillips, who played in a jazz band, Randy Jacobs, who was with Was (Not Was) playing guitar and bass, and I brought them together with some new friends. I just wanted to include all of their energy on the record and make sure that I laid out a format where everybody could just express themselves. I wanted it to be a garage band approach, an organic, energy-filled, fun-packed record.
MR: The album doesn't seem forced or fussy. Was that also your intent?
RB: Absolutely. I really wanted to again not go back and dwell on the perfect performance, I wanted to allow everybody who participated in the record to express themselves. I even encouraged people who came in -- we didn't record everything live together, not all of the tracks. Some of them were that way, with drums, bass, and me playing keyboards or trumpet all together, but as people came in I encouraged them to play more than what they normally would, to treat it as if it was their own record and not be afraid to take risks with what they were playing on the record. I think that was one of the things you're hearing, it's not just guys coming in and performing on a record, trying to get that perfect cut. There's a lot more freedom involved in this record.
MR: For you the artist, what do you consider some of the more inspired performances of the album?
RB: There are a lot of them. The record took over a year in the making because of all the touring that I do. The thing that seemed to happen on this record is it evolved organically. One of the stories that I love to tell is Dave Koz came over to have me be a guest on his YouTube video channel, Dave TV. He came over and we did a little thing in the backyard where I talked about my landscaping and power tools and stuff unrelated to music, and then we had some dinner and then I said, "By the way, did you bring your horn?" and he said, "Well yeah, it's in the car." I said, "You want to come in and play on something?" I wasn't really a hundred percent planning on him playing on it, but he brought his horn. He came in and I had the track, which became "Get Up & Dance," which is now the first single. Dave came in and after we did the thing out back he got his horn out and all of fifteen minutes later his performance was done. I set up a microphone and it just happened that naturally. There were numerous things that happened that way on this record; put the music up and have someone play. It happened so organically. It seemed like there was some sort of an energy going where if I stayed out of the way and allowed it to happen it was pretty wonderful.
MR: How do you maintain your identity within performances when other musicians contribute heavily?
RB: I do have a lot of control over the spaces that I have allotted for people to play. I kind of keep a big picture in mind when I'm making the record, but having said that, you've touched on one of the most difficult things for me, being the artist, the producer, the engineer -- which, by the way, I wear all of those hats when I'm making a record because I go out into my garage, and stumble down without my coffee in the morning and do that -- the hardest thing to do is to maintain that focus. I actually had some difficulty during this record and I needed to bring in some help. For that reason, Bud Harner, who is a retired drummer and now is a manager who has worked at GRP as an A&R guy, and he's a dear friend as well, came in and put his ears on the project about halfway through and helped me maintain that focus. It's not something that's easy to do, Mike. It's difficult when you're wearing all those hats, and I'm very grateful that Bud stepped in and helped me maintain direction.
MR: And I also imagine that since you're trying to allow the artists to give their best performance possible, it's tempting as a producer to just let them go wild.
RB: One of the things I've learned over the years of working with all of these people who are my friends -- and by the way I'm so grateful to have friends like Jeff Lorber and Philippe Saisse and Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz and all of these great musicians -- part of the trick of being able to produce people like that is again to create an environment where I can almost step aside and get out of the way and let them do what they do with minimal intrusion.
MR: This album took three years to develop. Was that in order for the material to experience a natural evolution?
RB: I kind of call it "demo-itis" when I get stuck on a performance that may have been from a sequenced part or something that I programmed in and then have somebody come in to add their personality. One of the mistakes that can be made is to fall too in love with the part that's programmed, the sequence, and not allow people to express themselves. But on this CD I was really careful not to be married to anything I had done. I took a lot of liberty with that and just let people express themselves and let things go where they may, which was pretty much my primary focus: to let the players lead the record where it's going to go and just put the people in a position to shape it. I'm really grateful because everybody who came in did a fantastic job.
MR: Not that I'd call you album "smooth jazz," but it seems the genre has tried to rewrite itself by embracing much more R&B, soul, hip-hop and electronic, kind of going where you went with this project.
RB: It's been five years since I did a "smooth jazz" record. I look at this record more as a funk instrumental record than smooth jazz, because it's got a lot of funky horn parts and I'm playing valve trombone and horn section stuff and Elliott Yamin is doing wonderful vocal stuff, so it's a very funk-oriented record. The last project I did was a vocal record with a fifty two piece orchestra. That was a real divergence from who I am. I discovered that the audience for that is an entirely different audience than mine. You do have to be careful. As much as that record opened doors for me and I now have shows that I can do at performing arts centers, I have a show called A Walk Down Broadway With Rick Braun and I explore stories behind all of those great standards and talk about the composers and the shows they were in, I did step away from my home turf. This record brings me right back into the center of where my fans and I started out, which is a funky good feeling, groove-oriented stuff. I don't know if I answered your question, but as an artist, it's fun to go different places but I think it's also fun to come home, and this feels like coming home to me.
MR: I think this your sixteenth album. What would you say is the biggest evolution you've had over all sixteen?
RB: Well the biggest realization for me is when I go back and listen to my old records, when I listen to stuff I produced for other people, if I had that option to redo anything or to change anything it would be to get rid of just about every sequenced thing that I have on there and put in real people. I grew up listening to George Benson, CTI Records, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Herbie Hancock, that's just incredible musicians coming together and making great music. You can go back and listen to any one of those great records and you're not going to say, "oh, that sounds dated, oh, that stinks, that loop I've heard a hundred and fifty time already," you're going to hear great performances by great musicians, and you can put those records on for like fifteen, sixteen year-old kids who have the ears to appreciate it and they will. They will. That's the one realization I've had: I have so many great, talented friends and I'm going to include them on every record that I do from here on.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RB: First of all, anyone who's starting out in music has to realize they're dealing with a time in the music business that is unprecedented. We're almost back to the days of Mozart and Brahms when it took patrons of the art to develop new artists. What's happening right now is that record companies don't have the money to put into developing artists, not in any niche area. I would say to any up and coming new artists -- especially instrumentalists -- first of all you have to practice, practice, practice, it's like the old saying, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." You've got to be great. Second of all you have to be your own promoter. Not in an annoying way, but you have to be your own biggest fan. Nobody's going to put the word out there for you. The responsibility of self-promotion is more than it ever was. It's tough.
MR: Jazz has always been the redheaded stepchild of the music industry yet it's also been the most flexible and surprising genre. It seems there's a level of quality in jazz that you always can depend on.
RB: Yeah. It's an integrity, and again it's that freedom. People have always enjoyed jazz and with the exception of a few minor times in history, jazz has always been a fringe music. But I think people go to it because it does free up your soul. It really does. I think that for the people who take a moment and have the capacity to appreciate it for that it's a wonderful thing. I know for me when I close my eyes on a flight or I put on my Blue Mitchell or Roy Hargrove or Freddie Hubbard or Chet Baker it takes me out of my world in a way I think that more structured pop music can't do. It takes me to a place that's much deeper and quieter. I think that's why even though jazz is a niche form of music, it will continue. I think people need that place to go to.
MR: Nice. By the way, I think the Strings album took a really sweet approach.
RB: It's interesting, I found that the audience that has embraced it has embraced it big time, and very passionately. I'm on rotation on the Sinatra channel on XM, it's such a thrill for me to hear somebody like Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole and then here comes little old me doing my thing. It's humbling. I did have some knee-jerk reaction from some of my hardcore fans, "Where does this come from? This is not the Rick Braun I know and love," but on the other hand there are people who have embraced me who didn't know who I was before.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
THE MOJO GURUS' "WHERE YOU HIDIN' YOUR LOVE"
According to The Mojo Gurus' gurus...
"The first single off The Mojo Gurus new album Who Asked Ya?, 'Where You Hidin' Your Love,' is a horn driven, funk-rocker that was produced by Tommy Henricksen (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed). This album is a rock 'n' roll tour de force, barreling out of control down Highway 61 and crashing through your speakers. You think rock 'n' roll is dead? Well, The Mojo Gurus say... Who Asked Ya?. Their singer/songwriter, Kevin Steele, says, 'It's about time people were exposed to some real rock 'n' roll again. If we're lucky, it might even catch on.'"
A Conversation with Craig Bickhardt
Mike Ragogna: The new album's titled The More I Wonder. So whatcha been wonderin' about, Craig?
Craig Bickhardt: [laughs] The record for me is a forty-minute memoir, a very personal record -- much more personal than the stuff I wrote when I was staying behind the scenes. I think because of the stripped-down production and live in the studio approach, it reflects what people hear when they come to see me in concert. I think it's really just a singer-songwriter record that a lot of people in our generation grew up on and enjoyed. As far as the wondering, I think as a writer I spend a lot of time looking for the extraordinary in ordinary occurrences. I've always done that as far back as I can remember. I feel like you have to be adept at that in order to really experience all that life has to offer. I see that especially when I'm hanging around with my grand daughter here, it's just great. The song "The More I Know, The More I Wonder" sort of relates to how experience teaches us that a lot of the mysteries of life just continually get deeper. I turned sixty this year, so this record is kind of a fresh start for me. It's definitely an acknowledgement that a lot of my values have become clearer as I've gotten older.
MR: You said this is your memoir, and look at that, it opens with "It Opens."
CB: [laughs] Right.
MR: Did you write these tracks with the album in mind or did they just collect.
CB: There was a little of both. As I was writing the record, a lot of the songs seemed to reflect where I was at. "It Opens" was written not long after I left Nashville. I was in the middle of a fairly successful songwriting career there but I'd really had enough, so I turned my back on all that. I wanted to get back to getting in touch with my audience again, so "It Opens" was about finding opportunities in unlikely places. When I left Nashville, I had to really see everything as an opportunity otherwise I would have been constantly looking back and it would have been a really depressing thing. These opportunities generally appear when you're not looking for them. The songs, I think, sort of reflect that. There wasn't necessarily a sequence or a song cycle attitude when I was writing it, but they do tend to reflect the whole scenario of what was going on in my life when I decided to leave and after leaving, raising kids, and being with my family. So much of this is really about that.
MR: When you look back, what was it that brought you to Nashville?
CB: I went to Nashville in '83, and essentially, it's still the same town. It was buzzing with very intense creativity, it was a very friendly town. When I got there, the hit songwriters were people like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt -- these were hit songwriters, not just guys hanging around the town -- Townes had had hits with "Poncho & Lefty" and "If I Needed You," and Nancy Griffith, you remember her, Lyle Lovett was there, Steve Earle was there. It was a really cool place for a young singer-songwriter to sharpen his craft. I did not go there to be a songwriter. I went there to record, hoping to be an artist and thinking that these guys were representative of where Nashville was going, and it did go, indeed, for a short period of time. I don't think it's going in that direction now, but that was a great time for me to be there.
MR: I remember there was an open-door, "Nashville is evolving" policy. Then the big hats came back.
CB: This may not be a popular thing to say in the music industry but some of it has to do with what took place in radio. You have corporations like Clear Channel coming in and buying up all of these radio stations and streamlining the playlists to the point where there were something like seventeen current records in rotation and everything else was recurrent and oldies. With those restrictions and with this homogenization of the whole market a small group of people were really selecting the songs that were going to get played on the radio. The labels reacted to that and then the Nashville songwriting community reacted to that and it sort of trickles down to the very lowest levels of the industry. It's a case of the tail wagging the dog. I think radio changed and as a result Nashville changed a bit, but also the way new acts are signed these days, television plays a huge role, American Idol plays a huge role. That saves the record labels a lot of money for promotion because these artists go out and find a huge audience that way and that helps them because sales are down, at least somewhat. The whole thing is like a reflection, a negative image, it's backwards from how it appears. I wouldn't say that Nashville is not partly at fault for changing the way things are recorded or how they sound. There's definitely been a give and take in this, but there are a lot of factors. It isn't just the music that Nashville has decided to make.
MR: I think Nashville had a golden moment where it could've turned the corner on its identity and evolved into something more significant, maybe even becoming the capitol of Americana, classic rock, rockabilly, Southern rock...
CB: Yeah, I think I read Steve Earle someplace saying it was "Nashville's brush with credibility." There was room for everything. There certainly was room for the singer-songwriters, the left-of-center people, but there was also room for the traditional artists. I think that versatility has been lost. The fact that there used to be such a broad range of music at that time and now it seems like it's fairly restrictive. Again, whether that's a reflection of the way radio has operated or whether it's just that the town has become more conservative, all these factors weigh into it. Even when I was there, a lot of people in Nashville were afraid to take risks because they'd gotten burnt before and sales were just plummeting. After 2001, record companies were closing, people were being laid off, and the response to that was to become more conservative and go back to this way of thinking that was probably pre-1980s. It's a shame because I think the potential was there to become a hot bed for the kind of music that we grew up on. There could've been another wave of Dylans and people like that developing in Nashville at the time and that was nipped in the bud.
MR: You lived in Nashville for many years. Is it fair to say that you grew as an artist based on your time there?
CB: Yes. I had an opportunity down there to rub elbows with great people. I was continuously performing, I would do The Bluebird and one side of me would be Guy Clark and Thom Schuyler would be sitting across from me and Don Schlitz or Fred Knobloch would be there. You really had to up your game. I've likened The Bluebird to a University of Song. That's certainly how I treated it. I went down there with an attitude that I was going to learn something, but I was also pretty sure that I wanted to record. I had some validations of that in the past, so what Nashville had to teach me, I think, was partly a refinement of what I was already doing and then sort of opening my eyes a little bit to how deeply you can go in the songwriting process, how meticulous you can become, how much attention you can pay to detail.
MR: Would it also be fair to say that The More I Wonder is not only a memoir but also an embracing of what you've learned over the years?
CB: Absolutely, and I think in a lot of ways, it's full circle. My first project when I was eighteen years old was a band with three singer-songwriters in three-part harmony. This was back in 1972, we lived in a farmhouse and called ourselves Wire & Wood. We wrote very much the same kinds of songs I'm writing now, they were lyrical stories, some poetry in the words, something innovative, hopefully, musically and also influenced by the music that we grew up on from the sixties and seventies. So that was their dormant state when I already went to Nashville and then it evolved in the process of being in Nashville and now has sort of come back full circle now that I'm back on the road performing for audiences and that's what I'm drawing from. So I feel very connected to everything I'm doing, and there's a thread that runs all the way through it. Part of it is settling back in the same geographical area where all of that happened. It's really rooted me in it.
MR: Did anything surprise you while creating this album, like a song continued to evolve and just wouldn't stop?
CB: They all do that, but in particular, one of the bigger surprises was one of my favorite tracks on the record, a song called "Woman Of The Mist." It was so outside the parameters of what I'd written. I generally don't write lyrics that are fantasy, I write about reality. That song came about as part of the loss of a very dear friend of mine, named F.C. Collins, who was a collaborator, in fact he was a member of that first band I was a part of, Wire & Wood. He was a songwriter who influenced me in my youth. He also turned me on to these interesting fantasy novels by Robert Howard, the Conan The Barbarian books. When he passed away, unfortunately, I was thinking about him in those terms and I wrote this complete fantasy about his widow surviving him. That was a real departure, I think, for me. That song more than anything on the record was a surprise.
MR: What about all these Ronstadts and others appearing on the project? Did they add their own arrangements or were you conducting?
CB: The way we record is kind of interesting. I don't know how many records are made this way but it's the way I'm comfortable. I go into the studio with my friend John Mock, my producer in Nashville, we rent some vintage microphones, we set up in his studio and I just perform the songs solo on acoustic guitar. We record the vocals and the guitar live, I might do five or six takes and somewhere in there I'll get one that's pretty good, and that's the basis of what we do as far as over dubs. From that point it's just a question of really listening and thinking about where I can take the song with John since he contributes ideas to that, too. Once we decide, "Okay we're going to get Andy Leftwich in there," who's just a brilliant mandolin and fiddle player, we let him do what he hears. We don't tell him what to do at all. These guys are such great players, they'll get it. If you really sketch the song out in a way that they are playing to your performance, what you end up with at the end is everything sort of surrounds that performance, that emotional connection with the listener. That's what this kind of music is all about. It's singer-songwriter music. It's meant to be an intimate connection, a one-to-one experience between the singer-songwriter and the listener. It's not group participation, necessarily, it's not something that you listen to in a loud bar, it's not dance music, so that's it. It's listening music. I think when you get them in the situation where they are actually playing to the core performance of the song being done as honestly as you can do it, this is the result, this is the kind of record that you get.
MR: Is that the Craig Bickhardt secret to songwriting?
CB: It may be part of it. I know that when I'm doing the overdubs -- and I'm always present for that stuff -- there's always a lot of discussion about the song. They'll respond to the lyrics, they'll ask me what that line is or they'll tell me to quote a verse or they'll say, "I'm going to lay out on that line, because that line just wants to speak." I don't necessarily write the song with any of that in mind. If you were into The Beatles, you might listen to their records and analyze a song in terms of the record. You might say, "Well they were envisioning the record a certain way and that's why they wrote the song this way." I'm not real good at that, so to me the song always has to be something I can perform on my acoustic guitar in front of an audience of any size and connect. It has to be a big enough song, it has to be an interesting enough guitar part, it has to be an engaging enough lyric that I can sing it in front of the audience and that's the most important thing. It has to connect with that audience.
MR: Do you think that also was the secret with Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and B.B. King and all those people who have recorded your material?
CB: I can't say for sure, but I know for a fact that whenever I wrote a song that was really honest, just as deep as I could go, it was for me, invariably some other artist wanted a piece of that. They wanted to own that song. I would write a song like "Donald & June" and I would think, "this is great because it's just for me, nobody's going to want to cut it, I don't have to hide it from anybody or worry about giving it to my publisher and they'll give it to somebody else who's going to cut it before I do." Sure enough I performed the song like the second or third time live and Garth Fundis was in the audience and says, "That song would be perfect for Don Williams," and Don loved it and recorded it. So in spite of myself, even in spite of my efforts to write very personally it just happens to be that these songs somehow resonate with other artists and other artists want to do them. But it always seemed to me that the more I tried to write for other people -- and I really failed at that so I stopped early on doing that -- the worse I was. The more I tried to satisfy my own personal instincts as an artist the more other people wanted to sing these songs.
MR: Do you think that moving from Nashville to where you are now is going to put another spin on your creativity?
CB: It already has. There's a song on the record called "The Restless Kind," which has an odd time signature in it, and I would never have done that in Nashville, but it was like, "I don't care, this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to make this record." But also, there's always a spirit of place with writing. I think all writers are, as it's said, a product of their times but also a product of their environment. I seem to write in the hues of this area, the imagery of this area. That's always been in my music. I think I was much more influenced way back by the music in this area but primarily from New England, which is part of this area. I would go to hear these singer songwriters at the Main Point, people like Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Anderson, Doc Watson. It really all seemed like it was part of the DNA of living in this area and being part of this environment. That has certainly effected me and I think coming back here and not being really hooked into Nashville anymore, not being really even able to get those kinds of cuts that I used to get because that all shuts down when you don't have a big publisher, and I don't, it frees you up in a certain way. That's really what's going on now.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
CB: I think there's a real interest in acoustic singer-songwriters. For me, I can only speak about that. But it's due in part to a rejection that the public has to the limited choices that audiences have found in the mainstream. I hear things all the time like, "It's great to hear people who can really sing and play their instruments again." We would never have heard that in the sixties or seventies. Pretty much everyone who was playing live could play live. Now we have people singing and dancing to recorded tracks and auto tuning and all that stuff. People are dancing and singing but they don't play an instrument. They've never written a song or maybe they've written a lyric but they've never composed anything. I think getting back to that thing where it's just you and your instrument and the song. That's what I would say has a big future. Nobody's getting rich off this anymore -- well, most people aren't, there are a handful of people now -- but there's potential for reasonable blue collar wage if you have genuine talent and if you work hard. The performing musician's pay has been stagnant for a long time but it's possible for a young singer-songwriter to make a day's wage or a weekend's wage playing a couple of nights now that's somewhat sustainable because they can sell CDs and they have other merchandise and it's not expensive to create that stuff. This is not necessarily full-time sustainable for a lot of young artists but there's a decent amount of support from the audiences I think, at least the ones that I play for. Younger artists, younger singer-songwriters might only break even when they're first building a following because it's really tough but the cream eventually rises. I think, at least with most people I talk to, there's no doubt in their minds that there's a glut in the sheer number of musicians out there, but the consumer will do the weeding. They'll find the good stuff. If I were a young artist these days, I would focus on the skill of playing and singing and writing a song with yourself. You can tour, you can perform alone, the market will sustain that kind of money, you can make five or six hundred dollars a night playing some of those places and that's a little bit more of a realistic goal for the musicians these days rather than the model of selling a million downloads or whatever.
MR: What advice would you give to Craig Bickhardt circa Wire & Wood?
CB: The only thing that I would really tell myself at that age is to stick with it, don't let the negativity and the rejection put you down. You've got to be able to build on the rejection and the negativity. I think there's a tendency for a lot of young artists to become very discouraged just by the sheer amount of rejection, especially now, I think it's worse than ever. There are so many people trying to do this, the labels have gotten smaller and smaller, they've signed less and less artists and you've got to be a bigger and bigger artist through American Idol or what have you to be signed, so you've got to be able to cope with that kind of rejection or set your sights on smaller goals. I think the main message for myself at a younger age would be, "Don't be discouraged, don't give up, don't quit." You've got to believe in it. You've got to almost take a do or die attitude. That's the way it was with me. Had I known forty years ago how hard it was going to be I still would've done it. If you can feel that way at any age, then you're doing the right thing.
MR: What's next for Craig Bickhardt?
CB: Well I've got another record's worth of songs written. There's always this whole process of crowd-funding that comes before it now because I can't afford to make these records -- they cost enough money that it's just out of my budget -- and also having enough money to do a little promotion afterwards. I'm performing, selling and touring behind this record and then I have to start the whole process again, raising some money and going into the studio. The studio process really takes a while for me because I'll go in and record four or five songs and live with them for a couple of months, decide to re-record two of them, scrap two of them, and keep two of them. It's one of those things where it takes me nine months just to get to the basic performances of the songs I want to use for the record. I recorded twenty-three songs for this record. Twelve of them made the cut, one or two of them will probably be re-recorded and make it onto the next record if I can do them right. I'm ready to go. The thing that holds me back now is just the time and funding between touring and performing and living a normal life and paying bills like everybody else. It's just a process that I have to go through that's one step removed from the making of the record -- actually raising the funds for the record.
MR: What an amazing gift it is to be able to over-write.
CB: It's great, but I think it's also indicative of my creative process. I'm just a chronic writer. I've slowed down quite a bit from my Nashville days but I still manage to get enough songs written to where I've got what I need. And sometimes I live with a song and it just doesn't seem true after a year so I'll scrap it and sometimes I'll rewrite it. If I'm not involved in the creative process I just don't feel completely alive, there's just something missing from me.
MR: When is the next Schuyler, Knobloch & Bickhardt reunion happening?
CB: Gosh, I don't know. We talked about it at one point, we talked about recording again and we just never got anywhere with it. Everybody's got their own lives going, Thom is a minister in Nashville and is very happy doing that. I think Fred is still writing and producing, doing a lot of recording in his studio. I live in Pennsylvania, they live in Nashville but I would certainly do it if there was a means.
MR: Very sweet, I love it. When you heard artists like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, B. B. King or Art Garfunkel perform your songs, how did you feel?
CB: It's different every time. I think when you first hear about something -- "The Highwaymen just recorded your song" I'm floored, because what a compliment that is, what an honor. Then you go through the process of listening to it and maybe it doesn't meet your expectations or maybe it's a little different in the way they phrase or sing a line. But with that particular song and the way they did it, I was just so enamored with the fact that I was listening to these guys who I'd listened to all my own career expressing the thoughts of myself and my collaborator Barry Alfonso on that song, it was really an amazing experience. One of the more amazing experiences I've had as a songwriter. You certainly can't help but be a little bit starstruck when it's something of that caliber. Quite honestly, I've had other cuts by other artists where I was disappointed, but usually I really find it interesting, to hear another artist's read on a song because they will always stamp it somehow. It will always go through their filters. Occasionally, a melody will change or a word will change or some feel, a groove will happen that wasn't there originally, sometimes not for the better. That's all part of the process. You have to be able to live with that and accept that.
I've never been particularly openly critical of anything that anyone has done. I know that other songwriters will mention names, famous songwriters have been very critical of covers of their songs and I don't think it serves any purpose. I think when you write a song and you put it out there you're pretty much launching it on the seas and people are going to sing it whether it's amateurs at an open mic or people at a campfire or other artists. You just have to be at peace with the fact that it's going to change. If you look back at traditional music, the Child Ballads, how much change and development takes place in a song over a couple hundred years. If it's worthy of that, there's nothing better. That's the ultimate compliment, the ultimate statement about a song is that it's worthy of being sung by everyone, changed a little bit here and there and that it survives for a hundred years.
MR: Was it scary moving away from Nashville?
CB: It was scary to leave, it certainly was, and I'm comfortable admitting that because a lot of people told me I was crazy but it had just changed to such an extent that it felt to me like what I was writing and where Nashville was going were just in different directions. When I first went there I felt like I was very much in the stream of what was happening along with the other writers I had mentioned earlier. I felt very much at home, I thought I was in the scene. When that started to change, it was like Nashville had ejected me out the other side. I didn't necessarily feel like I was leaving Nashville as much as I felt like Nashville had sort of left me and I was stranded in a place where I no longer felt like the music community was really into what I was doing. Culturally, I was in a place where I didn't grow up, so when I came back up here along with being scared there was some excitement, "What's going to happen? This is going to be interesting. Whatever happens here is going to be a big change, I'm going to grow, I'm going to have interesting experiences, I'm going to be inspired, I'm going to meet new people and we'll just see what happens."
Now, having said that, I also openly admit that there are some things about Nashville that I really miss. I miss a lot of my dear friends down there, I miss my family -- my daughter and granddaughter live down there -- I miss the musical community, just being inspired by that and being able to hang out and play the Bluebird once a month and hear other songs, I miss the juice. But I think part of exploring any artistry that a person has involves being alone. It's a lonely life, you have to pursue what you feel and what you're inspired to do. If you don't do that you aren't being honest, and if your art's a lie then it's not any good. So for me this is all just part of my growth. Will I come back to Nashville? Who knows. In ten years it might be completely different and I might come back for different reasons, maybe just to be with my family again. But for now this has been very interesting and very exciting, so I'm enjoying it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne