A Conversation With Taj Mahal
Mike Ragogna: Hi-ya, Taj.
Taj Mahal: Hi, Mike.
MR: You have a new project, The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal: 1969 - 1973, with some studio gems on one disc and a Live at the Royal Albert Hall performance from April 18th, 1970, on the other. Can you go into those hidden treasures and the concert? I imagine you worked with the label in determining what the material was.
TM: Well, they had come to me several times. It ultimately started in the eighties. They started trying to create The Best of Taj Mahal, blah, blah, blah. Most of what they did back then was without communicating with me, what the best was, and so they made their choices based on trying to match what I was doing with the market. I was out there, and it was so far from right. It was pitiful. I didn't have any control over that, but I was vocal about letting them know that they missed the mark. Anytime that we had any communication, I would tell them, "Look, you guys missed the whole point. I told you what my audience was listening to and you just went on and tried to compare what I was doing to what was acceptable for other people."
This was a different thing. I still maintained some relationship with them -- me and the people that were there back in the days, you know, my hey day at Columbia. Now it's morphed into Sony and it's a new crew of people in there who didn't have a history with me. Some people started twenty years ago and developed a new history with me. They were able to come to me with some different ideas and, basically, see eye-to-eye on everything. It was certainly a lot better relationship than what it used to be and that's when they said, "You've got to stop hanging here, it sounds pretty good." I was like, "Nah, if I put out a record, it isn't something that good." They worked on me for a while, a couple years in fact, and they said that they would send me copies of it. I said, "Nah, I don't want to listen to it." They said okay and then left me alone. They came back at it again and said, "You know, we think there's some good material here."
A few years ago, we started to talk about it and they sent me copies of what they had there. I was quite surprised with it. I didn't really change my mind about what I thought it was. Looking through the spyglass of anthropology, looking from the big end down to the little end, it sounded pretty doggone good. I didn't really feel all that excited to put it out there, but they were. For once, let's listen to what somebody else has to say. There isn't tons of it, there's just a precise amount of it. This is not bad. A lot of times, it's just like, "Ugh, there are a lot of takes, you have to wait to try this," and distraction. It's not like that. It's pretty concise and I am very happy to have kept it that way. I'm very excited for people to hear what's there.
MR: The first disc has 12 tracks, but the total time is 77:27. You're taking your time though some of these tracks. Can you remember some of these sessions? For example, you have "Sweet Mama Janice" on here. You've got "I Pity The Poor Immigrant Jacob Cyder." Do you remember any of these sessions?
TM: All of it!
MR: All of it?
TM: All of it. I will tell you one that took me a second to really grab. It is called "Butter." You know what it was? Often, when we're recording something, we'll come up and play on it to see if it's going anywhere and then get back to the segueway into another song, collect our thoughts on something we're trying to play. I was one of these guys, I didn't go over three takes on anything. It might be five or six because you have a couple false starts, or there's a breakdown or a mistake in it. But, mostly, I didn't go over three takes. I thought that, if you can get it in take one, that's the best ever.
MR: Also, it's the way to capture the most inspiration, right?
TM: Right, exactly.
TM: After that, you are spinning your wheels.
MR: Now, Sony Legacy has released some amazing blues collections by folks like Robert Johnson. But when it comes to living legends, they've got you.
TM: Uh, no, they've got Tony Bennett.
MR: (laughs) Yes, they've got Tony Bennett.
TM: Tony's wonderful. What a wonderful guy. With Tony and his career, he's still it. It's an ongoing thing, it's in process, and it's in motion. But the music changed around him. For a while, people weren't listening to what he was doing. He had his people who he was playing for, but he did other things. He has a very full life. He's a great painter. I've seen a couple things he's painted. And he is also an incredible human being. For myself, I am still in the career of it, so it's kind of hard for me to look back and have the perspective of the observer. I wish I could sometimes because there are certain things I need to decide or figure out. Yeah, it's exciting place to be in, man.
MR: On The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal, your fans finally get to hear a terrific version of your Royal Albert Hall concert as well as those previously unreleased gems.
TM: Yeah, that's good...there are not that many recorded concerts. I think there's another live show we did in Chicago and, I don't know. One of these days, I'm going to go down to the vault with those guys and look at what they got there. One time, I was in the photo lab with them. Very interesting; it's all exciting.
MR: Speaking of live shows, you tour.
TM: We tour. I haven't toured than less that 125-150 days a year since the late sixties, and that's every year since then. By 1971-72, we were pretty much on the road a lot. My year is based around me being on tour. So regardless of what it might seem like, if you guys got stages, we're going there to play. That's just the way it is. If we're not here, we're in Europe or down in Australia and New Zealand. We get to go to Japan, you know, we get to do the Caribbean, South America, Central America, we do Canada and around Europe and the Mediterranean.
MR: You're in demand.
TM: It's not based on what's hot now, it's based on the fact that people like the music. They like to relive it. They like the relationship between us. Outside the country, they are less fairweather players. They like you because they like you. Not because you've got something hot and there you are.
MR: Sure, but in the Midwest, we love our performers too! (laughs)
TM: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It not to blanket it as being negative here. Here, it's just more scripted. If they've got you by the neck, you're going to hear from the guy. If you don't, well, you're on your own. (laughs) I don't mind that. I don't mind the "on your own" part because the people that like me like me because it's the fact that they made that decision, not that someone made it for them. You're right about the Midwest. It is a solid group of people that I've been playing to since the sixties. It's been just about solid every year. It's exciting, man. These songs are great to hear, great to hear the energy, and I think a lot of people are going to have a good time listening to them and dancing to them, hearing how things are developing.
MR: Taj, you're a Grammy winner, which I imagine you appreciate in some way, right?
TM: Yeah. I had nine nominations before I figured out that it wasn't something that they just dropped on you even if you got nominated. You had to do a whole lot of inside work. Once we mastered that, everything was pretty good. It's true. People will nominate you, but there is work that you have to do to secure that nomination. You have to make sure everybody gets your record, they review it, they send in their comments. It's more complicated than you just standing there waiting for them to say they like you. I'm really happy that after nine nominations, we won two in a row.
MR: Where do you think the blues is heading? What are your thoughts on it in general?
TM: Ultimately, it's in good hands with the younger people who are involved in it. It needs to have, as usual, more of a platform and visibility. There's still too much shrouding of things that should be things that people should know. It came out of the American experience that somehow resonates in everybody that are wanting it or enjoying listening to it, or whatever. It's more than some old music people made here in this country. It's a really powerful statement and testament to overcoming adversity and being able to enjoy getting over that adversity. To apply this incredible tone in music, to every motion and everything that's happening in your life, it's a fabulous point of view and place to start. So many musicians that I know who are now playing jazz or music beyond jazz started out with blues as their prime style. In my estimation, it's like any other indigenous music we've come up with here, created here in this country. It needs to have a much better visibility and platform. But as far as the health of music, it's incredible. Never before has there been a time where so much blues has been so available to people who download and have the internet, just many kinds of ways.
MR: We still need a national platform to make it more visible. Maybe it needs a weekly TV show or a sports event.
TM: Yeah. (laughs) Or you're watching some sitcom and you here a phrase that's 15 years old that's making its way, you know, into the dialogue, in a script. It's just the same thing with the blues. You hear people say the same thing over again. "Well, you know, I thought I was going to go to the concert and listen to something that was going to bring me down," or they would think, " I heard these guys playing blues for a half an hour and I was bored to death." That's not what the blues are about, ya know? I dare anyone to listen to the great players and not feel bored. If you are, you're dead.
MR: Taj, what's your advice for new artists?
TM: New artists? I'm not limited to blues, I'm just talking about music. What I usually say to artists is that people try to figure out how one becomes unique. There are a lot of reasons for that. One reason is that you have a respect for your tradition, your culture. Guys got a French brother or a Scottish father or a French father and, you know, an Italian mother. If you're 19 years old and you're playing music, why wouldn't you take the time to investigate, you know, what would be your role as a popular musician in the culture of your parents or a musician in either of those cultures, you know? Find out what it is that you can use. Put it down in your hand, mold it up like a piece of clay, add some blues, R&B, or some pop or country or some reggae and some classical music. You're going to be unique. I mean, it's right there. In my estimation, it is like the concept of cooking or alchemy, which is, to me, cooking with elements. The other cooking is with vegetables and oils, onions, etc. This is something that's going to be more as people change their ways, buy their foods, spending and puttin' out that money, to have it all 3,000 miles across the country. They're going to have something close by dealing with everything that's 25 miles outside your city. The reason it's going to be is because some people are going to, in the future, in order to change their economic basis to something that makes some sense is to stop taking for granted that the supermarket down the road is always going to be there. That leads to the same kind of thing as music. You're going to be more self-sufficient about how you produce it. That's all I've been headed toward. All I want is to play for myself more than anything else because it helped to balance out just being inside your head.
TM: And being an intellectual. If you can't feel it in your body and in your movement... I am sure a lot of people live their lives that way, but I didn't want to. I encourage people to move on both levels. Have the mind and body working soundly together and music is something that helps that.
MR: Nice. While on tour, will you be playing songs from your Hidden Treasures release?
TM: That will be later on this year. There are some tunes that I've already played in other bands I've had along the way. This is all coming out, I've never really liked to tour the album I was playing. Maybe back in the early sixties, when there was so much music playing, after a while, there's some stuff that I would have to cover anyway because that's what people came for. They wanted to hear those classics -- "Corina," "Fishing Blues," and, you know, many of the other tunes that were really popular. "Leaving Trunk" and "She Caught The Katy." Right now, with the trio, I haven't started working with any of that material yet. With the bigger band we will because a lot of it does entail a larger arrangement to pull it off. I haven't thought about it, we're not focusing on it. I'm just looking to make sure this thing gets out there. I just can't believe they are putting it out.
MR: Congratulations on that and all the best with that. Taj, I appreciate you spending time talking to us here, and thanks for bringing in sustainable living.
TM: Before the music kicked in, I owned an Associate's degree in Animal Science and a minor in Veterinary Science and Agronomy. I spent a number of years in the vocation of agriculture; I spent six, seven, eight years on a big dairy farm making money to go to college and, you know, my thought is there are two things that we really can't do without -- music and food. Getting to the sustainability, I've been thinking about it since the fifties when it appeared to me that we were going to run out in the direction that we were going. Then we got to the sixties and there were people that were thinking on that same level. I've spent a lot of time dealing with sustainable energy, permaculture -- people that are not plowing, they're fielding, cuttin' it low. Sometimes, they burn it off, take off the straw and plant it back in the same fields again. The stuff that can be done, I've always had an interest in it. It's a personal study for me, what's going on with the agriculture, all the time. I've been a supporter of farmers markets for 40 - 50 years. Always have been. This is more of a real thing, 34 miles a gallon. 56 miles a gallon? Alright, they know they can do it. They also know that they don't want to do it because they are making too much money. We just have to guide them. "If you want my money, then you are going have to dance to this," instead of the other way around. I'm dancing to your tune, and you've got my money! (laughs)
MR: That reminds me of one of your quotes. When you were talking about The Hidden Treasures Of Taj Mahal, it was a general statement, but you said, "Go for it babies, listen and dance your," well, we'll just say "butts off."
MR: And there's your other quote that I love. "I made the music of my heart and y'all helped so thanks -- Maestro Mahal."
Transcribed by Joe Stahl
A Conversation With Little Feat's Bill Payne
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Little Feat's Bill Payne!
Bill Payne: Hey, how are you, buddy? I'm good.
MR: I'm pretty good too, thank you. So the title track from your album Rooster Rag was "grateful-ly" co-written by you and a certain person. Now, who would that be? Robert Hunter maybe?
BP: Robert Hunter! I tell you what, Mike, I just got off a tour with Little Feat, which was about a month long, and right before I went out on that tour, I handed in my eleventh song to Robert. We've got eleven tunes, four of which are on this record, so we've got a good basis for writing songs with one another.
MR: Yeah, to me, the song "Rooster Rag" sounded a weeeee bit like The Grateful Dead.
BP: Oh, yeah. Robert's lyrics are Robert's lyrics. What I did, Mike, was I kind of scored my music to them. He sent me these lyrics and I went, "Okay, Tubal-cain was the god of fire; let me make this more of a ragtime, I'll put a little bit more emphasis on the ragtime chords." And then the last line in the last verse, which was, "Make this old world a better place, paper chase, what a waste," I thought, "Hmm, let's bring this down a little bit." I worked with James Taylor for five years in the mid-eighties and I became quite accustomed to the idea that when you play acoustic music or when you bring music down softer and lower the volume, people, consciously or otherwise, lean in to hear it. I thought that a pretty important part of Hunter's song was the idea of a paper chase being a waste. Yeah, I scored my music and my vocals to his lyrics. We both have a very cinematic approach to the way we write and do things anyway, so it was a really good handshake between the two of us.
MR: Now this is what, the sixteenth album for Little Feat?
BP: Yeah, that's what they tell me. I'm glad somebody's keeping count. I can't anymore.
MR: You've had different lineups of Little Feat, especially with Lowell George and Richie Hayward's passings. How do you account for the band's longevity?
BP: Well, its longevity is also without two prime members, the second guy being from Iowa as a matter of fact, Richie Hayward. How do we continue it? The idea of the music that we write is based on a real flexibility. It's based on an honesty, too, and the connection we have with our fans is a super important part of it as well. It's about shared values and a community and such. When you put something in front of people that has an inherent honesty to it, it's about continuation, it's not about replication. We sound like Little Feat without Lowell, we sound like Little Feat without Richie, and yet we are those two gentlemen wherever the heck we are and whatever the heck we do. That's an important part of it as well; really, really understanding your legacy and trying to do things in a fashion that don't harm it but add to it, and to keep those two folks that are not with us anymore, keep their flames burning brightly in front of people as well.
MR: Beautifully said. By the way, one of my favorite songs by Little Feat that never seems to make it on these greatest hits packages is "Be One Now."
BP: That's a fantastic song.
MR: Yeah, I just wanted to point out that was such a wonderful moment on the Down On The Farm album. I always thought that sometimes, there are missed opportunities as far as having big hit singles, but I don't know if you guys even care about that. You don't, right?
BP: We don't. The few times that we thought we cared about it, we quickly learned that nobody else cared about it. We were out of power to do anything. Why go after it? It may not be a paper chase, but it was a different kind of chase, and I think it didn't lend any authenticity to what we were doing in the first place. It was just to see if we could do it. I think that's what people admire about this band -- not just fans, but other musicians, too. They know what it's like out there; it's a tough flog. There are a lot of great young players coming up and a lot of guys my age and older and younger. As Keith Richards told me in Amsterdam in 1974 -- maybe '75 -- The Rolling Stones en masse came to hear Little Feat play and it was at Eden Hall just outside of Amsterdam, and I'm down in the dressing room going, "Oh, it's Keith Richards!" and he goes "Aw, mate, we're all part of the same cloth." In Keith Richards' biography, he had written about being in a dressing room where he was part of the show with Muddy Waters and Little Richard, and he thought, "Gosh, if I'm with these guys, I must be one of the guys, too!" That's what Keith was telling me: "You're one of the guys." I kind of feel what he's really saying is it's this larger entity out there, it's bigger than any of us. We're musicians. The pop star thing, that's okay. He's a pop star. I thought Richie Hayward was a pop star, too -- a rock star, to be honest, no denigration to that at all. Keith Moon was a rock star, but he was also a musician. I feel I'm under the category of being a musician. It's an honorable place to be. I think it's been chewed through the pop cultures. It gets excused sometimes to what this is all about. I don't want to denigrate what other people are trying to do, to make music and make a living doing it. I think everything's wide open. I liked "Alley Oop" as a kid, sort of a comic tune. I like all kinds of music. My vocabulary, musically, is all over the map. It's a cool thing to be a part of it, and it's a cool thing to be in a band that's actually lent some weight to the argument that it's okay to be a musician as opposed to what they wrote in the Oxford Dictionary, which is, "People want to keep their wives and girlfriends away from these people."
MR: (laughs) Interesting. And to prove the point of "Hit single, hit schmingle, who cares," Waiting For Columbus is a classic album, and why is it a classic album? I feel that it's because you captured the essence of the band, you captured the spirit of the audience, and the interaction and the interplay between the two. It's like a document of a unique moment in time. You're all, in a bigger sense -- audience and band -- from the same cloth.
BP: Yeah. I think there's some truth there. It's taken me a very long time to sort that out and to embrace it and I'm doing solo shows, by the way, where I go out and talk about this sort of thing and exemplify it by playing music and by showing my photography. I'm a good photographer, I'm a writer, and I've got a poem, which I read over some music from an album I had called Cielo Norte. You get a deeper sense. I want to give people a sense of what it's like to be a creative person who happens to play rock 'n' roll, who happens to play a lot of different styles of music and why I'm inspired by that and what's kept me going all these years and, in part, what keeps Little Feat going all these years, too. It's feeling good and having a passion for what you do, and laying that out to people that are passionate about their lives. And, occasionally, when we've all hit the wall and kind of dropped out, that's when you need that infusion of good feelings or reflections or whatever it takes that allows us to move on from difficult times. That's part of the thing that art provides to people. It's a refuge sometimes, and it can challenge them as well. It challenges their sensibilities and I think all that's good. It's free expression.
MR: Right, right. Now, you're the ultimate sideman, too. Whenever I interview Ben Taylor or his mom Carly Simon, I always bring up Another Passenger. I think that's a brilliant album, her best, and you're all over the place on that one as far as a performer.
BP: Carly Simon's a wonderful person, obviously a very great person, with all she's been through and is going through. I was at her house when we were working on a movie called Heartburn and Nora Ephron wrote that movie about Carl Bernstein, her ex-husband at that time, and Mike Nichols directed it. There were a lot of very smart, sharp people in that apartment on the west side of The Park in New York.
MR: Right, and her, of course, being the daughter of the Simon of Simon & Schuster, there you go.
BP: Oh yeah, and she goes, "Look down at that apartment down there," and I go, "Yeah?" And she goes, "That's where Lenny Bernstein lives." I go, "really?" "Yeah, he prances around there all the time."
MR: Lenny Bernstein! As a musician, I want to know where your creativity comes from. How do you source it?
BP: Well, I source it from my teacher, Ruth Newman, who, when I was about five years of age, I started taking lessons from her. What Ruth provided me, Mike, was the dual track of playing music by ear and by learning to read music. She didn't monitor me on what I was playing by ear, she said, "You know, if you have something you want to play for me, go ahead." What she told my mother was, "Look, I'll make sure Bill knows how to read music, but let's not take the magic out of this for him," and that was a very astute comment for her to make. It's really led me down the path of being a very good improviser when it comes to music, and I take my chops from sitting there and playing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et cetera, and I also played a five-manual pipe organ at the Presbyterian church along with every other church in town which might not have helped me in a religious sense, but I certainly did learn the literature of music that's in the church. I'm not a church guy, so I wouldn't have anybody under the notion that I am. It's just that it was a part of my upbringing, so it involved choirs and being able to take signals from the preacher or whoever I was dealing with. Then I got into rock 'n' roll, and then all bets were off. I find myself today writing with Robert Hunter. It's a good hat trick being sixty-three years of age and doing my first solo shows as well. I don't know what to say; I'm a late bloomer, I guess.
MR: That's a really sweet history. By the way, earlier, when you mentioned "Alley Oop," from that period, The Coasters and The Drifters are probably my favorite vocal groups.
BP: Sure! Well, The Hollywood Argyles did "Alley Oop" if people want to Google that, but James Taylor has done at least one, if not a couple of Drifters songs, "Up on the Roof" being one of them. The Drifters came to Lompoc, California, when I was in high school. I was in a band there. That kind of band would come into town and go, "We've got a pickup group we've got here. Do you know this song?" "Yeah." "Do you know this song?" "No." "Okay, we won't do that one." We'd forge us a setup based on the songs we knew, and I thought, "God, that's a tough way to do it." These solo shows I'm doing, I go out and I go, "Do you know 'Oh, Atlanta'?" So, we're doing it in advance, but I work with some pretty good players and I don't do it the entire show. I get them up there for a couple or three songs if that, and if there's nobody there, I'll just do everything myself. I've got a couple different ways to play "Oh, Atlanta" for example. One's more of a New Orleans-style rather than the straight-ahead Charlie Watts two and four on the snare thing, which is the way Little Feat does it.
MR: Yeah. That's really pretty cool. And I imagine, just to stay sane on the road as a band, you have to have some alternate versions of how you do your songs all these years later.
BP: Well, in some cases we do. We've got a reggae version of "Under The Radar," which is very cool. We play off vocals. "Dixie Chicken" inherently is played the same way, but sometimes the tempos make a little bit of a difference, too, and then the way we improvise and the way we throw different things in too, whether it's "Fatman In The Bathtub" or others, those things morph over a number of years. Gabe Ford as a drummer plays a slightly more solid groove than Richie did, but he's capable of moving off the signature the way Richie would in a really Love way and manner, and kind of have it swim a little bit sometimes. The beauty of Richie was that when he was at his best, I'd never heard anybody like him, to be honest with you, and maybe when he wasn't at his best, there was this thing like, "Is it going to go off the road or not?" That brought a certain excitement to it, too. It was just like, "Oh my gosh, where is he going?" It's a band. We're up here doing anything, but what we need to do on a level of making things work from night to night.
MR: Bill, what advice do you have for new artists?
BP: If you've got a chance of becoming a lawyer or a doctor or something...I'm kidding. My advice is just "communication." I'll put it in these terms: The biggest argument you're ever going to have with either your band or people you hire to back you up is going to be when you can't hear on stage. You're just going to tear into each other. I just suggest taking that down to a minimal boil, you know, a little bit, but don't go crazy because the next night, you can play in that same venue and have the monitors actually work, or you've got enough of a crowd to where the sound is absorbed and it sounds really good and you're going to just love each other again. So there's that aspect of it and I would also say for new artists, not to be preachy about it, but figure out what it is you really want to say. That can change over time, too. I've been doing this for forty-three plus years. Finding your voice is important, and the only way you can find it is digging into your influences. If you like blues and you like Eric Clapton, let's say, maybe check out what influenced Eric Clapton, which would be Albert Collins or Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, et cetera, and begin to get into that amount of music and stuff. Being inquisitive is always a good thing and that ties over to everything else in life, whether it's what you read or what you eat, where your politics are, even if you don't have politics, what your sense of the community is. Get involved and be, as I said, inquisitive about what makes things work. That's what you're going to share with your audience, how you perceive life.
MR: Beautiful. And speaking of beautiful, those Neon Park album covers that you guys have featured over the years? How amazing. Those are in a whole other realm. We didn't really get a chance to talk about your photography, so we're going to have to do another interview at some point, Bill! I really want to thank you and thanks for calling in to Solar-Powered KRUU-FM.
BP: It's a real pleasure, man, and I like the fact that it's solar-powered. I had some parabolic units up at my house back in 1979, believe it or not, when Linda Ronstadt was dating the governor of California, Jerry Brown, who's the governor again. He came out and took a look at them. And we had No Nukes with James Taylor and a bunch of people. But yeah, solar-power, good for you, good on you. I think it's a good thing.
MR: Thank you so much for the shoutout. That's right, I forgot you guys were involved with the No Nukes project.
BP: Yeah. We were actually rehearsing for a concert to commemorate Lowell George and to raise some money for his family and that's why Linda Ronstadt was at my house and she brought governor Jerry Brown out there with her. So he was taking a look at that parabolic unit I had. We've got to keep focused on moving the ball forward with alternative energy sources.
MR: Exactly. All the best, man, and we'll definitely talk again.
BP: You've got it. Thanks, Mike, take care.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
Luther's guitarist and vocalist, Nick Harris, said this about the group's new track, "The Glory Bees"...
"To me, 'The Glory Bees' is a sort of 'realization' song. I wrote the first line years ago, right after I left the town I grew up in and moved to Philadelphia. Almost like 'Wow! How did it take me this long to realize that place was killing me?' It ended up being a song about finding a place, or at least a state of mind, where you can be productive in the ways that are important to you, and that there will be tons of people that make a complacent life seem acceptable and at times appealing. To me, those are the people you have to avoid."
Without further adieu, here is "The Glory Bees"...
A Conversation With Nona Hendryx
Mike Ragogna: Why it's the lovely, the immortal Nona Hendryx. How are you, Nona?
Nona Hendryx: I'm good, and those are way too many accolades.
MR: No, we go way back. I have an accolade for every year we've known each other.
NH: Okay, I don't want to start believing my own hype.
MR: Oh, it's no hype at all! I forgot to add you're awesome, and you have a new album with a wonderful title, Mutatis Mutandis? Let's do the phonetic pronunciation.
NH: If you went to see The Lion King, you'd say "Moo-Tatis Moo-Tandis."
MR: Now this is album has a topic or two. It's not like you're taking a stand on anything on this album at all, no not at all! (laughs)
NH: No, no, that would be not me to do this. But the title is a legal term, an agreement that lawyers would know, and it means changing those things that need to be changed in a contract so that if you want to change the name of someone, instead of doing a whole re-write, you can make those changes but things remain the same. And for me, I look at our social and political land and I see many names and faces changing, and some of them don't. But a lot of things for a lot of people, especially the 99%, or the poor, or the middle class, remain the same. The only thing that doesn't remain the same is that there's less and less of the pie for them.
MR: Well, you've got the track "Tea Party" that's pretty political. Can we get into what motivated you to write that?
NH: Well, the Tea Party's rise as a result of Barack Obama's running for president was just absolutely stunning to me. To see Americans who claimed to be patriots and patriotic and defend America come out carrying guns to political rallies and saying they're going to take their country back, which, if we look at history, was not their country, was taken from violence from the American Indians. So the hypocrisy of the American democracy has really put a pain where my heart is and where my gut is, because I love my country and I love being an American. But I travel the world and I find it so disheartening, especially during that time, how people were seeing the behavior of the Tea Party around the world.
MR: I have very reasonable, very intelligent friends who got sucked into that, though not so much for taking our country back. But that's the key phrase, isn't it? Taking the country BACK, as in back to the good ol' days, whatever they were. Moving forward is really scary to them. And I see greed and many people with wealth afraid of Democrats and President Obama, who they accuse of taking away their money for social programs. It seems that's the old stereotype.
NH: That, to me, is the shortsightedness of individuals and of groups of people who want to think that way, because if you do not raise the people who have less with you and all those who rise with the tide, those people are going to come and take what you have anyway. So you're going to have more crime, more prisons, need more money to control people that way rather than allowing them to share in the pie, taking less of a slice for yourself because you cannot use it all, you cannot spend it all, you will be dead before you spend it all, and maybe let your children work for their living.
MR: Another tactic is to dredge up the scary word "socialism."
NH: Yes. Call me socialist. I do not want our country to become a country of haves and have-nots. And it is that way and has been that way, sort of to a lesser degree, since sort of the beginning. The people who drew up The Declaration of Independence did not include the American Indians in that declaration. So, "All men are created equal," and all those things... It has never been an equal playing field. Somebody has to say, "Okay, if you call me a socialist, fine." I've been called Negro, colored, black, African-American. I can live with "socialist."
MR: Smartly said. Something else I wanted to point out is about women. The Declaration of Independence and all of the major historical documents we have don't represent women properly.
NH: That is true. And for each thing that women have gained in this country, it's been a fight. To try to reverse Roe V. Wade and to take away a woman's right to choose, this whole thing in Mississippi becoming the first state to outlaw a woman's right to have an abortion is male legislation of a woman's body, and that's insanity. I have to say, America, on the whole, is a shining light among some of the horrible political systems and systems in this world. But going around the world saying, "We are Democracy, look to us, look to what we're doing, we have freedom, we give our people freedom and choice," and then enacting these things in our congress by the people who are elected to represent all of us is really insanity.
MR: Do you believe it's coming from belief systems by our elected officials and their constituents, or do you think politicians are just worried about getting reelected? Where's the problem stemming from right now?
NH: It's actually both things, but mainly people are worried that if you won't take a stand, you're worried about getting reelected. If you have a belief and you believe in what is considered the foundation of this country and the civil rights that have been enacted over time, correcting the inequities over time, then you should take a stand and give up your seat. And if it comes to the point where those who get in power are so adverse and so odious in their beliefs, what will happen is there will be a rising tide against them. That's how it works. The pendulum swings. If you're not willing to represent all of the people that you were elected by, then you're a false representative.
MR: Absolutely true. Now let's talk about another song from your new record. How about "The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh?" Do you think that somebody like that is doing what he's doing as entertainment? Do you think that he's yelling fire in a crowded theater? Why is he still so popular?
NH: Well, you know, to me, it's so ridiculous because the people that he's claiming to represent, he does not come from himself. He comes from a wealthy family -- his father was a lawyer -- and he comes from a family with that kind of background. So he's claiming to represent, in a sense, the underclass and the middle class and he's also an entertainer! This is for his ratings, this is to keep him in the lifestyle that he lives, and how he actually acts and lives in life is totally the opposite of what he is saying. Either he's so addled from drugs or he's so crazed in terms of celebrity and fame and holding onto that, or he's crazy like a fox.
MR: I would say it's the last.
NH: Yes. I mean, that is my feeling, that this is what it was. I felt the same way about Herman Cain. This man saw an opportunity to project himself onto the larger theater of the world, advertise his chicken restaurant and there he was, pretending to take the throne of the presidency of America. I think either they drink their own Kool-Aid and start believing that this is possible, or they're really insane or they're crazy like a fox. For a person who grew up believing in the system of our country and learned in school in Social Studies about the politics of our country and what this country was built on... I saw the flaws. It's not that I didn't see those, going back to the Vietnamese wars, Kent State, the Black Panther movement, all of those movements that I lived through -- The Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, traveling in the South, not being able to go into restaurants, not being able to stay in hotels, and having those same people come to our shows to see us perform -- I've lived through this and I understand it. But I still believed in the main premise of our country. Our country is hijacked by these Philistines, really, and it is just so annoying. So I had to write a song called "The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh."
MR: So you're also on a tour titled The Women's Bill of Rights Tour. You've just kicked it off. Is it basically what we've been talking about, an educational tour as much as it's a musical tour?
NH: It's a conversational tour. The conversations need to be had musically. During the Vietnam War and the issues that were going on in the late sixties and early seventies, musicians and artists were addressing those political ills. They were accepted in the musical setting that they were performed in and there was dialog, and young people were taking those things and learning from them and sharing with others. And that's what this is again, to reinvigorate that kind of conversation in music so that it's not just "This boy band, this girl band, this booty shake." I'm not opposed to shaking the booty, I do that, but I also want to shake your mind, shake your spirit and make you think.
MR: Now, you're also making people think with your PledgeMusic site where you're putting up all sorts of things like videos, et cetera.
NH: Yes. You know, it's a new day in the music industry. We imploded as an industry by overcharging, overdoing, over-everything and overmaking the people above. The 1% in the music industry made the money that they, in a way, forced the public to pay, and now it's gone back to kind of where we first started, where artists pretty much were traveling on the road, selling their CDs, engaging with their audience. This is what PledgeMusic is all about. As an artist, I spent my own money and made the record, I'm marketing it and promoting it. It's on Righteous Babe Records, the Ani DiFranco label, and, basically, I'm putting my money where my mouth is. PledgeMusic is a way for people to help me put my money where my mouth is, put their money where their mouth is, and I can come and continue this conversation with them around the country.
MR: Nona, let's talk about a couple topics on the album that we haven't touched on yet.
NH: "Oil On The Water," that really has to do with the large corporations like BP and how people responded to that. That ties into the Katrina hurricane for me, and New Orleans and how the gulf was impacted by the response by our government at the time. I think our government did a little bit better responding and holding BP responsible by taking that 20 million dollars and saying, "Okay, this going to go towards restoring the gulf," but I don't think it was enough. I think there should be more, and I think BP is trying to do a really good PR job to say, "Oh, we're there, we're helping, you can eat the fish." That spill will affect us forever. That affects everyone. It's not like it's just BP or the gulf or the government or England, it affects all of us. It is the air we breathe. These is our lives now, it is our children's lives, it is their children's lives. That needs to be taken as seriously as Kim Kardashian's butt.
MR: Oh, but it's such a fine butt!
NH: Yes, a fine butt.
MR: Nona, we talked about the music business imploding, but what advice do you have for new artists?
NH: My advice is really very small, but very important. Be yourself. Someone gave me that advice a long time ago, midway through my career, but it's one of the things that is most important to me. It allows me to always be able to put my head down on the pillow at night and sleep.
MR: Nice. With American Idol and all of these shows that are fabricated versions of "how to make it," do you think that shows like that are -- I don't want to say damaging, but do you feel that they're sort of giving people the false idea of how to approach this?
NH: You know, I guess I've been around long enough to have seen lots of that kind of thing, and it has always been, and it will always be, because there's always going to be an audience for it and there's always going to be an artist or artists who want it and who will take that avenue. As long as there are young girls who will scream -- preteens and tweens -- that's going to happen. But the thing about it is you have artists who rise from that. The true artists are going to take the way that they get in front of an audience seriously, because what matters to them is getting in front of an audience who's there, who looks them in the eye, whether it's one person or one million people, getting across and connecting with someone, rather than getting the cash and prizes or taking the shortest avenue.
MR: Nona, let's close this out, but there's this song on the album titled "Mad As Hell" that I think we still need to talk about.
NH: Most people know the rest of the line, "...I'm not going to take it anymore," from the movie Network, and it's prescient in terms of some of the other things that are happening in television at the moment. I don't know if I can do a shameless plug for New Night -- I think it's called that, maybe not. But it chronicles slices of lives in America that I'm seeing on the streets of New York, who are dropping out of life. They're dropping out because they can't afford to live here. New York is very expensive to live in, and when you reach a certain age and you can't get a job, there are a lot of people on the street, and people who I look at... I'm not sure at first whether they're on the street, because they still have some of the remnants of their lives from before. But then you take a closer look, and you see that they're carrying bags that you know is their life they're carrying on their back.
MR: Yeah, it's very heartbreaking. I remember when Giuliani was shipping the homeless to New Jersey. Do you remember those days?
NH: I do remember those days.
MR: I looked at that as the peak of arrogance. "Let's not deal with the issue, let's ship them away."
NH: Yeah, and it's not that people could not earn a living, could not pay their own way, but we're a country of great wealth, and we're willing to give millions and millions of dollars to other countries -- not that we shouldn't help other people around the world. But really, if you're not healthy, you cannot help other people to be healthy. This is the problem, this is what is at issue here in America. Education, health, those are two primary issues because if you don't have educated people, we are going to become less and less helpful in the world. And if we're not healthy, which it looks like we are very unhealthy as a nation, those patriots who want to defend our country, the people who are going to be helping to defend it, won't be able to run to catch anybody and won't be able to help you defend it if we're not healthy. So healthcare is really paramount to the care of our country. I don't understand why people can't simply sit and grasp those very clear and, to me, evident issues.
MR: Yeah, we're polarized now in ways I don't even understand.
NH: If we're willing to spend millions and billions of tax dollars on building bombs or F-1s or whatever they're called now -- because it's probably obsolete, and drones and all the things that we build -- but if we don't have a people who are healthy and educated to defend, what are you doing? Take that money and have some smart people. Maybe we'll have less trouble in the world.
MR: Nona, thank you very much. I have appreciated knowing you and Vicki Wickham through the years. You are a couple of my favorite people and I wish you all the best. All the best with this new album, too.
NH: Thank you, very much. You can tell that I'm passionate about it, and that I'm passionate about democracy and about America. I just want it to heal itself.
MR: The only other thing I wanted to throw out there is that I'm at a solar-powered radio station.
NH: I love it! It's like electricity is in the air and solar-power comes from the most powerful thing in our solar system, the sun. There's also hydrogen from water, and wind power. Hey, oil companies -- THAT'S the answer!
MR: Right, it is kind of nutty, isn't it? I really appreciate it, though. Thank you for your time, Nona, and we need to talk again someday in the future.
NH: Thank you very much, and we'll speak again.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation With Steve Forbert
Mike Ragogna: It's always a pleasure talking with you, Steve. How are you today?
Steve Forbert: I'm great, Mike.
MR: Terrific. Can you talk to us a little bit about the genesis of your new album, Over With You?
SF: Well, for me, it's always just writing songs. I am under new management and we have a new record company. There was a lot of serious talk about putting together an album, and it'd been about three years since The Place And The Time, the last album we did. There wasn't anything particularly different about the making of this album. I'm sure I did it much the same as Richard Thompson or Sean Colvin put together their records. When you write songs all the time, at some point, you should, hopefully, make some sort of cohesive picture of those songs as a group. I did this record with Chris Goldsmith, the producer, and I sent him about 15 songs. One of the songs I sent was very topical and it's been on my website for quite some time. It's called "Set The World Ablaze." Another was about my daughter when she was fifteen. Chris Goldsmith elected to make this an album of relationship songs, which I thought was fine, though I don't know how long a song about the Wall Street crisis would actually pass for a relationship song. It's topical as it can be, but it's still relevant. I mean, I've had it up for a year or so, maybe longer. Chris thought it would be best if we left that song off the album because he really wanted to make this album about relationships, which meant that some songs fell by the wayside. But all of that turned into this new album, which we had to record in just three days.
MR: And you recorded this album in Silver Lake, right?
SF: Right. And all of that is really thanks to Ben Harper. He had locked up that studio, but didn't really need all of the time he reserved. Chris Goldsmith was in contact with him and, apparently, Ben offered for us to take about a week of time when he wasn't going to be around, and so we said yes.
MR: He also appears on a few tracks on the album as well.
SF: Yeah, he came by on the third day. Sounds like the title of an E.L.O. album, doesn't it? (laughs) He came by on a Thursday and played on a few things. There were some really nice touches that he added. We were pretty sparse, so there was plenty of room for him to add something, and he went with some slide guitar that was atmospheric.
MR: You also had an up-and-coming artist by the name of Ben Sollee with you on this project. Was he someone you were familiar with or did Chris recommend him?
SF: In this case, my manager had been telling me about Ben for weeks and saying that he thought he should be on the record. This was just such a whirlwind anyway that I found myself saying yes to everything. It turned out, though, that my manager was right. I think Ben is only about 28, but he's a virtuoso cellist and he works with a lot of Americana artists. So he came out and played some bass for us, and I thought he was an excellent bass player. I actually did a show in Memphis with him back in June as well.
MR: Personally, my favorite track on the album is "Don't Look Down, Pollyanna," which Ben also plays on. Can you tell us about that song?
SF: Well, the background on that song is two-fold. As I mentioned, I've had a song up on my website that is sort of a critique on some of the mechanics and shenanigans of the Wall Street crisis. In the time after that meltdown, in the Fall of 2008 and 2009, I wound up writing this song. It borrows from the movie Pollyanna, when she's sneaking out the window against her aunt's wishes to go to the town bazar. Somehow, in my mind, that made a connection to someone who is being evicted from their home and is kind of walking on a wire, if you will. The rest is hopefully clear in the lyrics.
MR: The way that I related to the song is in the sense of having a particularly positive or Pollyanna-esque outlook on the world, which I do, and then being nailed for it. In today's society, It is often equated with being naive, and can be viewed as a negative trait in people.
SF: Well, that's too bad, because I think that's wrong. The movie is actually a lot better than people think it is. And people may think I'm crazy sitting here talking about a Walt Disney movie from the mid-'60s, but who cares. It's a really good movie. One of the things in it is the lesson that if you look for the bad in people, you're sure to find it.
MR: Can you tell us about the song "Baby I Know"? My favorite line in that song is, "How many times can a person say sorry for doing the same damn thing."
SF: (laughs) Well, I guess the answer to that is as many times as they can get away with it.
MR: (laughs) Steve, this album does seem to have a particular focus on the theme of relationships which is, I believe, a reflection on some of what I know you've recently experienced. Can you tell us which of these songs, if any, are more personal to you and your personal journey?
SF: Probably the title song, "Over With You." This relationship is back in tact, and I'll just say something very little and cliché -- relationships can be difficult. I don't think any of them are easy. What is easy? But to further answer your question, "Over With You" is probably the most personally revealing song on this album.
MR: Another song from this project is called "Sugar Cane Plum Fairy," can you tell us about that one?
SF: That song is kind of a scenario that popped out of my right brain. I have a very popular song that I've played through the years called "Goin' Down To Laurel," and that new track, "Sugar Cane Plum Fairy," for some reason, reminds me of the other, as if I had revisited that first track a year later and everything had soured. It's a bit like going to a Mad Tea Party and not being completely comfortable with where you are.
MR: Nice. Just curious, do you recall giving me a shout out in the program for your concert at The Getty Museum?
SF: I sure do.
MR: That was great, thank you so much for that. We also worked together on a compilation album of the music you recorded while you were still with Geffen, do you remember?
SF: Of course. I thank you for helping me with that project. It's safe to say that it wouldn't have happened without you.
MR: Anything for you, sir. Steve, do you have any advice that you would give to someone pursuing a career in music?
SF: What I've always said remains true. I look at all of this organically, and I'm probably a little out of date here. My priority doesn't lie with the whole website and Facebook and such. I'm still walking down the road in a pair of real shoes. You need to just play as much as you can. Get in front of people, as I've always said. It doesn't matter if it's ten people at an open mic or opening a show for someone. Play all the time. I wound up singing on the streets when I got to New York City and it didn't hurt me a bit, it was a good challenge. I still believe in that. You also have to be honest with yourself. If something doesn't work, you have to admit it. Always try to find what's going right and what's going wrong with your music. If you can, pool your resources and record yourself, do that frequently. I'm still very down to earth about the whole business. I don't have any networking advice.
MR: How old were you when you went to New York?
SF: I was 21.
MR: And it wasn't long before you were discovered, was it?
SF: Well, I believe it went really well. I had a record contract within a year and a half. But that seems about right to me. Things were moving fast, I was moving fast, and I had a lot I wanted to accomplish. But I started playing in bands when I was still too young to even play at some of the gigs we booked out of town. We had to get people to drive us back and forth, so I must have been around fourteen years old. By the time I got to New York City to start solo, I had already done a lot of playing, writing, and travelling. Hayley Mills may have been an overnight success, but that doesn't happen often. (laughs)
MR: When you look back at yourself when you first started and where you are today, do you see a big contrast between the two?
SF: I'm grappling with that right now. It's a difficult question, and I'm sorry to sound vague, but the changes have been in the subject matter because I'm a singer-songwriter and a lot of the material comes from the situations that I'm currently living in. That has been the major change, the music hasn't changed much. I didn't go from being the rock kid that I was when I was young to having the guitar skills of David Lindley. (laughs) What's changed for me has really been the experiences. I am, however, doing a bit of a re-assessment of my career, asking myself why I'm still doing it.
MR: Oh, don't you even think about stopping, mister! Are your sons Sam and David following in their father's footsteps?
SF: No, and they never really were. Although, they did start a thrash-metal group. I heard some of the groups that they liked and were influenced by, and I think they sounded just as good as most of them. They even did a tour of 60 cities about two years ago. But it is kind of like me getting signed after a year and a half in New York -- if it doesn't happen in the first year and a half, will you give it two years? Three years? They had that period of time trying to keep a band together, which is hard with a bunch of young men. They gave it a pretty solid shot, though. They saw the USA in their Chevrolet and had a pretty good time.
MR: (laughs) Nice. Do you have a favorite song that is particularly special to you when you play it?
SF: No, I really don't. But I can say that although "Going Down To Laurel" was the very first track on my very first album, I still don't have a problem delivering it at almost every show. Sometimes, I will give It a few weeks to rest, but I still sing it with ease. The lyrics are still conversational to me, even today. That is one song in particular that has definitely been a part of me all this time.
MR: Wonderful. Steve, you are and will continue to be one of my favorite artists and people on the planet. Thank you so much for coming by and chatting with us.
SF: Thank you, Mike. It was great talking with you again.
Transcribed by Evan Martin