Thoughts On Visiting The Motown Museum

I’ve  lived in the Detroit area since 1969, but I never went to the Motown Museum until today. I’d heard great Motown stories from my old pal Bob Dennis, who worked with Motown in its heyday. Still, it was inspiring to actually be IN that room where so many great records were made and where so many careers were launched. Indeed, where so many dreams came true.

And I was moved by what Berry Gordy and Motown achieved in the 60’s and beyond. The music resonates with millions to this day. Hey-just seeing the faces of the people who came today proved to me that this music was an important part of their lives. They sang along with the songs. This was positive music that impacted lives in a positive way. For many of my generation, these were some of the songs that framed the days of our lives. When we hear My Girl or Heard It Through The Grapevine, we remember where we were and what we were doing at that time.

Being there, standing within the walls of this almost mythic music making studio, I was deeply inspired. I’m going to be honest here: my first impulse was to recreate this incredible music machine for a second time here in Detroit. We have the musicians, the singers, the studio engineers and the writers to make it happen. On paper, it all looks like a great dream until…

Until I understand that the music business that allowed this miracle to happen is dead. The computer and the internet killed it. People used to gladly pay a buck for a 45 single of a hot new tune. We were grooved in to the idea that we paid a little money for the privilege of owning a great track. People don’t do that anymore. When they can have it all for a few bucks, there is no longer interest in owning a copy of a song.

Now, we stream to our hearts content using Spotify or Apple Music-maybe Amazon Prime Music or Rhapsody. Well, streaming has made music valueless. Unless you should somehow happen to to blow up viral and huge. But hits like we knew in the 60’s? It doesn’t work that way anymore.

Even iTunes is closing their shop. From now on, it is all streaming. So who does it benefit? It benefits the consumer and the internet companies that do the streaming. It does not help the artists, the musicians or the songwriters who create music. Their intellectual property has been reduced to fractions of a penny. There is no real living to be made anymore. And you wonder why music sucks? Imagine if your career talents were reduced to fractions of a penny. Would you bother anymore?

Right now, we are in a perilous state where genius in discounted, thwarted and made useless. Had Berry Gordy  tried to build Motown Records today, he would have failed miserably because there is no real money to be made. Streaming services are thriving as long as people want to hear the old music. Eventually, nobody will bother trying to make a living from making records. It has become a calling card. Hear this and then come and see my show, where I can at least recoup with a ticket price. Or possibly get you to buy merch at an inflated price.

I think we were much better off when radio played the cream of all the genres and folks could by the records, know who produced them, who write them and who played on them. Now, we don’t know anything. The corporations that stream don’t give a damn. A record is just a way to get a customer to pay the monthly streaming fee. Basically, nobody buys records anymore and the losers are the musicians and the public.

If I thought there was a real market, I’d been on the horn to all the talents here in town and I would find a way to make the spirit of Motown rise from the ashes. Artists would rise, songwriters would get paid and records would sell like hotcakes. Motown was a beautiful dream and vision that succeeded in the time it existed, but that time is history. And, to me, it is such a  shame.

When I heard all this music today, I thought about all the lives it enriched-both the performers and the audiences. It was beautiful-a perfect symbiotic relationship. And I despise the powers that be that killed it. All that beauty and all that joy-kicked to the curb forever. What is left is a vacuum. Nobody knows what a hit is today. Nobody even knows what is going on in the big picture of music. Everybody is losing-except, of course, for the streaming services that are raping all the parties that once made great records.

To me, it is a sin that can never be absolved. A sin against culture-a sham that was the inevitable result of the digital age. I wish I had known before I let all that inspired me lead me into a life as a songwriter, performer and a musician. Maybe I could have followed my medical dreams and saved some lives.  

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All Things Al Songwriter Interview Series Volume 3: Mark Jewett

I first met Mark when I was sitting in with his band Whitewater a few years back. Then, he turned me on to GW Staton’s Black Crystal Cafe, which is an amazing house concert venue in Ann Arbor. After that, we did a songwriter show at the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore together. In the process, we have become friends, sharing the joy of writing songs and making music.

https://www.facebook.com/MarkJewettMusic/

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Am I right that you came to songwriting later in life? Or have you always done it?

Quite late. I didn’t finish a song until I was 52.

Wow

In my head, I probably started writing fragments of songs when I was seventeen, but I never sat down to write one and finish one.

It was always a piece…

I just didn’t think I knew how to go about it. It didn’t happen until I went to a songwriting retreat.

And what happened at the retreat?

Oh. Gosh. I got all kinds of guidance. I got pulled through a portal to the songwriting world. It was traumatic for about an hour (laughter). The opening night of the retreat, there was an open mic that I didn’t know about and I had never performed solo before. I had no songs of my own, but Jill Jack was on the staff up there. She asked me if I had signed up yet and I said i don’t know what I would sign up for. She said “you need to do this”. So she took me aside and gave me a pep talk and I did it, trembling and terrorized, but I did it. So that was in 2008. That’s where I caught the bug.

You just kinda learned the ropes there about how to go about it and just dove in.

Mm hmmm. My first song… I’m still reluctant to claim it as something I wrote because I basically built it in Garageband with Apple Loops and added some lyrics to it, but it had form, it had function. It was a blues format thing with no choruses.  Actually, it had a chorus when I first wrote it, but it was awful, so I just deep sixed the chorus and left it as a four or five verse blues thing.

I think very few beginning songwriters have amazing luck on the first try

It’s like I took more care going about the next couple. I got some keepers early on.

Tim Dubois said that the first hundred don’t count (laughter)

Yeah, I’ve never been able to get on that train where you just keep writing all the time and just accept the fact that some weren’t going to pan out. I abort a lot of ideas because I don’t get the sense that they are going anywhere.

Right

And some songwriters say you should follow up and finish everything you start. I don’t have to so why?  I do it because I enjoy it.

And I think its wise when you get to a point where you know this isn’t going somewhere.

Yeah

I gotta come back to this because I am missing the handle on it, you know?

Yep. I have parked many. Probably close to 40 unfinished pieces. Some of them are barely started, but it was an idea I thought was worthy, so I captured it and parked it somewhere. I go back to that when I don’t have anything burning a hole in my soul

Yeah. I always keep a bunch of unfinished stuff around. Every once in a while, I will get a flash. Its like you have to sometimes get far enough away from something to see it for what it is.

That is very true.  And sometimes, you can take on a whole different angle to an idea that is so different from you original angle that is seems like—it IS a different song.

I find that songs kind of tell me where they want to go. I don’t tell them. They tell me. And if I try to push it where I want it to go and it doesn’t want to go that way, it isn’t going that way. They have a life of their own.

Yeah. I’ve experienced that. It feels good when you get one that tells you where it wants to go. I write different types of songs. Some of them deliberately tell a story and are often rooted in real life and I’m pretty picky about what stays in and what gets left out of those. I try to stay pretty true to the story. But then the lighthearted ones — you know, the almost nonsensical novelty songs—they come very easy…

Love refrigerator!

That’s an example! (laughs).  I think I had several verses that I threw away because it was just too long. Sometimes, for that kind of a song, they just keep coming. You just have to shut it out. Seven verses are enough!

Right! (more laughter) How did you get into music to begin with?

I didn’t necessarily back in, but I didn’t go in the way I wanted to. I wanted to play drums. I think 4th grade was where they introduced the music program at the elementary school where I was. And my mom didn’t say no to drums, she said hell no! (laughter) She didn’t want drums in the house. So…I played trombone for a long time, and outside of Trombone Shorty and Glenn Miller, I don’t know a lot of trombone-oriented songwriters.

Trombone Shorty is pretty cool!

Yeah. Trombone Shorty IS pretty cool. I played trombone all the way through high school-the regular concert band, the marching band, the stage band—which was the big band kind of thing. That’s where I got to appreciate big band music. But I wanted to do something else and I chose bass. I was probably in my sophomore year going into my junior year of high school. I bought a Kalamazoo bass and started to play around. I bought a Mel Bay book and my friend Keith showed me some real common rock and roll bass figures. I started from there but I did not have an orthodox beginning, much like the songwriting thing. I didn’t start a band, playing songs. I joined a bunch of guys that jammed in a living room and it was just freestyle jamming. You know, once in a while, somebody would pull out a song but usually somebody would just start playing a couple of chords and nobody knew where it was going next. It was kind of wild.

After playing big band music, that was probably quite a departure for you.

It was a 180 from that!  But most of the time, in that environment, you are getting a lot of garbage. Once in a while, you will get a miraculous convergence of ideas and timing that sounded great together. Then it’s gone in a flash.

I always figured the Allman Brothers probably started out that way. They’d probably tape their jams and then went back and found those magic parts and said, ok, this is something-we’ll use this section and this idea and this other idea.

That would not surprise me at all. But out of that (the freestyle jamming), with some of those people, we did form some bands coming out of that and, of course, started out on a lot of Beatles and Stones and pop tunes, but ah, the bands I joined tend to be a little offbeat-a little different. We played, material like Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Savoy Brown. Some unusual stuff. One band was extremely eclectic. I’ve never seen anything like it since. We played anything from Iggy to Minnie RIpperton, Gino Vanelli, Beatles, Stones, Tim Buckley—it was just all over the map. It’s the only band I’ve seen at a bar that had tympani on stage!

As a writer, after playing all those years, which songwriters would you cite as influences?

The first one was probably Jackson Browne.

Were you a fan of his all along?

I’ve always been a fan of his. Going all the way back to Doctor My Eyes. That was the one that first caught my attention. It probably didn’t hurt that he was recording and performing with Leland Sklar on bass. He’s one of the most melodic bass players I’ve ever heard.

His playing on Saturate Before Using was an eye opener to me

Haven’t heard anyone quite like him before or since.

His lines in “My Opening farewell” are very cool

But… a lot of writers have wedged their way into my psyche. Dan Fogelberg was really good. I don’t think I emulate much that he did but I really appreciate it. Crosby, Stills and Nash. Currently, I’m a big fan-have been for a long time-of Nick Lowe, as a songwriter. Norah Jones. Kathleen Edwards. Jason Isbell. If a guy my age can have an idol that’s 20 years younger, then he might be it.

I have many, many idols, I would say. I love Jason Isbell and that Southeastern album.

Yeah. The others are good but…

That ones’ about the best…

Nothing has knocked it out of first place for me. I liked that Vampires song…

Me too.

I find myself writing more about mortality now.

I do too. Do you think its just because you get to be this age and you keep seeing the road getting shorter? (laughs)

Every time you get out of bed, you’re reminded. (more laughter). We’re not getting younger, but mentally, I don’t feel older, and I think for part of that, I can give credit to a lot of the younger people I listen to and get to play with. I think it keeps me young.

I think the music helps to keep us young-at least in spirit. Music doesn’t really have an age attached to it. Maybe musical styles…

Well, it’s been a challenge getting started so late. I was never too accomplished at guitar. I owned one for decades but I never really went past the cowboy chords and didn’t play that often, but soon as I started writing, I quickly realized I had to become more proficient to express what was in my head.

So, what did you do? Did you take some lessons?

I took a few lessons. Private little sessions from some good teachers. We’d sit down for three or four hours and I’d say said, ok-that’s enough. I’ll see you in three or four months.

Right.

I’m gonna chew on this. I didn’t want to get into a weekly thing where I was biting off small assignments and getting ready for the next one. I felt for a long time like I was playing Monopoly all by myself and I’ve got three or four pieces and every time I roll the dice I move one piece forward. You know, I’ve got the writing piece, the singing piece, the guitar playing piece, and then some overall consciousness of performing better.

Each piece is sort of an art in itself.

Yeah. So no one of those pieces is going to rocket forward too far ahead of the others because I’m trying to pull them all along.

Well, you are doing it all at the same time, except for writing, I mean, that kind of exists separately from everything, in a way.

Yeah, writing-it happens whenever it wants to happen. In can happen in the middle of a conference call in your day job, it can happen when you are driving. It often happens when you are trying to get to sleep.

When I used to play five or six nights a week, songs would come when I was in the shower, getting ready to run out the door. You’d think the muse would have better timing…

In the Tom Waits biography-I think it was an unauthorized biography that I read-he was talking about how ideas would come to him, and he said they would often come to him while he was driving. You know, he’s in traffic and he’d get this idea and he would say-really? Right now? (laughter) I can’t write this down. But Tom Waits is another inspiration. He always reminds me that there aren’t any barriers. Go ahead. Be weird. If the idea you have is weird, go with it.

He certainly does

He’s fearless. 

Did you like Warren Zevon?

I LOVE Warren Zevon. Why did I not mention him? In fact, the most recent song I’ve written is called Warren Zevon’s Birthday. My dad passed away on Warren Zevon’s birthday. January 24th. And this past January, I’d been thinking about it and it occurred to me my dad and Warren Zevon couldn’t have been two more different people, but there was a common thread in that they both really liked the power of words. Finding the right words. That wasn’t the only thing they had in common. They were both pretty thirsty guys (laughs). And I just started thinking about a compare and contrast thing. There is definitely a common thread. They both influenced me in a similar way, but then they diverged on very different paths and the song is about that -the commonality and the divergence.

I thought Warren’s writing changed a lot as he got older. The first couple of albums came from a little bit different place for me.

Most definitely.

Although he always seemed to maintain that weird sense of humor. Like the song Mr. Bad Example.

Yeah! (laughs)

There’s no reason I should like that song, but I love that song!

I know exactly what you mean. I cover a few of his songs when I play gigs that call for covers.

Which ones do you do?

Hasten Down the Wind, Carmelita. Those are two of the common ones. My favorite of all his songs is not a well known one. Its called “Genius”. And, ah, I think its on My Rides Here. The first line caught my attention:

I’ve got a bitter pot of je ne sais quoi

Guess what—I’m stirring it with a monkey’s paw

Where is this going?

Right! (more laughs). I always considered him-I don’t know why exactly, but his songs seemed to be backed up by a real literary awareness. Its like this guy could have been a novelist had he not been a songwriter.

Oh, he devoured books. His estate still has thousands of books. His wife Crystal is auctioning them off for various charities. Yeah, he was really well read.

Did you read the biography that she wrote? (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead)

Yeah. In fact, I’m still reading it. I’ve owned it for a while, but I really have a cue of a dozen books waiting to be read. It takes me forever to find time to finish one. Are you familiar with Gurf Morlix.

No.

He’s a Texas Americana songwriter, producer. He played guitar for Lucinda Willams for a while. He was in Warren Zevon’s band as a bass player for a few years-toured with him. I met him at a house concert and he was telling some Warren stories. And when I got the idea for this Warren Zevon’s Birthday song, I sent him a message and asked if he would mind looking over what I had and tell me if I was getting it right. He said, yeah, you pretty much got it right, but there’s a whole lot more. He suggested that I read that book and I have it, so now would be a good time to start reading it. I decided I’m going to finish reading it but the song isn’t really about Warren Zevon. It’s just taking some really powerful features of his personality and comparing and contrasting them with my dad.

That’s a really interesting idea. I’ve never heard anybody do anything like that. So are you working on a new album now?

I am. 

How’s the progress.

Well, we’re still at the starting gate. I did a couple of just exploratory sessions to create some rough demos and decided I’ve really got too much going on in my head. I really need some other ideas and a producer so I don’t have to worry about things I don’t have time to worry about. I’m doing pre-production with Billy Harrington out of Ann Arbor, a young and very talented guy. I’m looking forward to getting this thing into a full gallop pretty soon.

Good!

I’ve got five songs that are pretty much set and I’ve got a co-write with Amy Petty that’s ninety percent done. Just needs a couple tweaks. And then… I have to rely on pressure to cause me to finish a few more!

Book the CD release party…then write the rest of them!

Actually, I did, but plans have changed. I had a band date at Trinity House in Livonia in November, but instead, I’m going to open a show for a friend from Toronto named Jon Brooks then. To accommodate that, they gave me a January date for the band show. Having two extra months won’t hurt me to finish this project and I’m really looking forward to opening for Jon Brooks.

Its a win-win.

Uh huh.

As you are approaching this new record, do you just look at it one song at a time or do you look at it as a whole package? A theme?

I’m on the fence about that. I’m still a fan of albums, and songs that relate together and feel like they all belong. I’m still a fan of that.

Me too

The world at large is not. People pick the songs they want, they put them on a playlist and that’s what they listen to.

It’s not fair to us songwriters!

No, it’s not. I even debated on whether or not I wanted to turn this into an album or just do a series of singles, but I still want to do something that feels more cohesive. It’s a little problematic for me because I write songs in very different styles and some of them could stick out like a sore thumb. I thought maybe if I had some of these lighter hearted, less serious, romp in the park kind of thing, I could put them all on one EP. And I might do that. The others—it feels like they belong in a thematic collection to me.

If you were to describe your musical direction, what would you call it?

Well, “Americana” gets a lot of raised eyebrows, but I think it’s a thing.

It’s a big umbrella nowadays.

Yeah, but its a real branch of roots music and country music and it tends to emphasize human stories but it also brings a lot of texture and vibe that is not present in country music. Country music has its own fingerprint and American has a different one.

Definitely.

And I like that kind of stuff. That real warm vibey music with space in it, where you can hear all the parts individually and together.

A guy like Chris Stapleton can kind of walk the tightrope between country and Americana. You could say he’s either one and you’d be right.

He’s got a voice that competes very well in the pop arena but his songwriting skills and his guitar skills allow him to go other places.

Did you listen to much country music when you were growing up?

None. There wasn’t a single country or country and western album in the house. My dad liked big band music and jazz and I don’t really recall what kind of music my mom liked. You know, she’d sing along with whatever was on the radio. My dad took a few piano lessons as a youngster. He gave it up early but he always appreciated music. He always appreciated the stuff I was listening to. He was forever sneaking into my bedroom and listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer on my headphones and he was a huge Santana fan. I took him to a Santana concert when he was probably 64. He loved it. He loved the Latin percussion stuff.

I backed my way into country by way of exposure to bands like Poco, the Eagles, the Marshall Tucker Band…

Country Rock

Yeah, so that was the front door for me-working my way backwards. I didn’t start with the country classics and work my way forward. I really like Guy Clark’s catalog.

There’s a writer!

Yeah, I try to stay open to it all. No regrets.

So, what do you have coming up?

Last year, I did a lot of songwriter in the round shows. I really enjoyed it. I’m splitting an evening-basically a song swap—with Chris Degnore.

I know the name. Does he play with Billy Brandt?

He plays with Billy frequently. He’s got his own band called the Black Drops I think he has a record in the can, but he hasn’t rolled it out yet. I wouldn’t have the patience!

Yeah. When I have something done, I want it out yesterday.

I’ve kicked the word wait out of my vocabulary. W-A-I-T. It seems I can’t kick the other one out! (W-E-I-G-H-T)

When you get to be my age, better get what I can right now, cause who knows what tomorrow holds.

Exactly, and that theme has come up in songs I’ve written in the last few years. I really don’t want to let go of it. Jill Jack has a song called “Live Like There’s No Tomorrow”. It’s a good philosophy.

Pretty much what I’m doing.

Oh-I’ve got something else coming up in June. I’m playing Porch Fest in Port Austin with Amy Petty. It’s one of those front porch concert festivals.

Don’t they do one of those in Ferndale?

Yes. I think it might even be the same weekend, but a guy I used to work with, he and his wife bought an old house in Port Austin. They are refurbishing it and they are going to host some music for Porch Fest. So, I’m looking forward to that.

(We drift into a discussion about the Black Crystal Cafe, and start talking about Craig Bickhart’s classic song, “This Old House”)

I don’t know if the writer knows it when they’ve written a near perfect song. Does it feel different than others or is it all in the ear of the listener?

I think you hope you have it, but you don’t really really know until you put the songs out there and people say over and over, that’s great and they keep pointing to that one particular tune.

I do that. If a song really strikes me and I really drill down and listen to the lyrics and how it is built musically, if I’m really impressed, I’ll tell everybody about it. And sometimes they’ll go, yeah its nice… NO it’s not nice, it’s FABULOUS! (laughing)

A Man Of Faith

We’ve all heard “talk the talk and walk the walk”, but who really does it these days? Well, let me tell you a story about a man that does.

First, let me preface my tale by being clear. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the Christian churches, soaking up the teachings, parables and stories. Between my folks and the Bible studies, I learned a set of values that I still subscribe to today. For the most part, the words in red ring true for me, yet I do not subscribe to the belief that Jesus is my only hope for salvation. I’m a Christian by raising, but my faith might be better described as “mystic Christianity” due to my interpretations of those words in red. At any rate, I know the teachings and I can recognize when they are being followed.

I met my friend Mark in Nashville. We shared writers rooms, trying to unearth hit songs. We played some showcases together for our publishing company. I’d been to his house and I’d seen him in action in the Nashville show he was a part of. His is probably the quickest imagination I’ve ever witnessed-bright, funny and lightning fast. One day, we had a title as a starting point for a song. I think we wrote an opening line, then he stopped us, looked at the almost plain page and said, “OK. This one’s finished.”  We laughed, but I’m not so sure he was joking.

Though I try to stay away from political discussions on Facebook, he posted something on his page one night that I, for some reason, couldn’t let stand unanswered. I launched into a heated reply and said that he was free to unfriend me if he wished, but I couldn’t stand silently by.

He could have done just that.  Instead, he said that all opinions were allowed on his page. He complimented me for my artistry. Then he did a most Christian thing-he told me he loved me. He never said I was wrong. He never argued. He just let me be me. He acted on Jesus’ 2nd commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”.

And somehow everything changed. He followed his faith. He “walked the walk.” And I learned possibly the most beautiful lesson of my life that night. Thank you, Mark.

My political opinions didn’t change and I doubt that I changed his, but it also bolstered my belief that our love of each other is always more important than our political leanings. Maybe someday all those so called Christians in Congress will have the faith to walk the walk like Mark does.   

Random Thoughts On Music 2019

Disclaimer: I’m basically an old dog trying to learn new tricks in an age where everything has changed in the game of music. Still, I think there is validity in both the old ways and the new ways of creating music and song. The following are just observations-trends I see, if you will. Nothing written in stone and I am not here to argue my position. I just want to share what I am feeling and observing as we approach 2020.

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I started playing music with bands in 1965. We played covers. We played high school dances, YMCA’s, teen clubs, and later, fraternities in the South. A bit later, starting around 1970, I played in a band at college for two years, then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I played in a young country band after a two year stint on the folk circuit. From there, I went through incarnations of rock and country bands for years, playing the clubs. Too many to mention.

It used to be that the clubs had music-often five or more nights a week. If you wanted to go out for entertainment, you had movie theaters, sporting events and millions of bars. Most of them had bands. People danced and drank and music was the backdrop of the night scene. This facilitated my path. I found I could make a living playing bars as my full time job. My musical discipline was to try to be the best guitarist I could possibly be. I practiced and I took my newfound skills onto the bandstand night after night.

This went on into the nineties. At that time, I was writing and playing country-both originals and covers. At one point, I quit playing country in bars because the line dancers were rude to the band, like parasites to the clubs and spent no money. Clubs starting charging them for water because they were bringing their own. Long story short, they ruined the old vibe of the country bar which was mostly country with a few rock numbers. Dancers just danced without the line mentality. So I quit that scene and ended up with a Nashville publishing deal.

From there, I had a run playing the multitude of blues bars that sprang up. When that waned, I did solo work in restaurants and studio work for corporate projects. Then I got into a couple of rock bands, the blues band came back together, I played some more country. Next thing I knew, I was in a bunch of projects. The era of the five night a week music gig was history. MADD rose and forced bar owners to choose between live entertainment and accelerating insurance premiums. Music lost out.

Then, bars just booked Friday and Saturday. Soon after, bars only booked you for one night. The hunting grounds were rapidly expanding and the chance of bagging game was much more difficult. And in all of this, the times, like Dylan sang, were a changing. The old drink, dance and listen to the band paradigm for weekends was being challenged by cell phones, cable TV, the internet, music streaming services, Netflix movies, etc. What once was three networks is now hundreds of channels on cable TV. And there were other ways to meet potential partners other than sliding into the local watering hole.

Add to all of this an aging demographic for old country, rock and blues, the whole gigging music world was upside down. DJ’s were now replacing wedding bands. Karaoke was replacing band nights at local music clubs. Other music genres were attracting young audiences to rave and dub and techno clubs. In actual fact, outside of Greta Van Fleet, there has not been a successful rock band for almost two decades. What does that suggest?

Now, there is a rise in the number of tribute acts that resurrect great old music and reproduce it to a T. 

Talk about inverse proportional…most of the guitar pedal manufacturers are trying to emulate the past. Pedal demos are full of 60’s and 70’s blues and wankfest playing that isn’t heard on records and bars much anymore.

And it seems like the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s music somehow still has a foothold on musical relevance today. Every big city is full of tribute acts that play the old but still popular music. Its not in the Top 40, but its streaming on people’s Spotify playlists. So the tribute act is what I am gravitating to now, along with the original music projects.  Sorta makes me wonder what the hell is really going on.

Well, music always changes. Always has and probably always will, but it does not mean that all change is good change. Yet it seems like music is not the same cultural force that it once was.  People today can make a record on an iPhone. I prefer the sounds of older recordings. They often listen to music on an iPhone. I much prefer listening on studio reference monitors. Fidelity doesn’t seems to matter much these days. Appreciation for an entire group playing a track in real time seems not to matter either but my age is definitely showing. In my defense, music is my lawn and I don’t want just any ordinary crap on it.

Growing up, there was a lot of what I call brain candy music. It went down easy. It was like watching a play that wasn’t serious. Full of repetitive hooks—ear candy. And then, I went and bought Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home”. There was blues on it, poetry, comedy, folky sounding songs. This was a serious artist that wasn’t just trying to amuse me. The guy had something to SAY! And he had is own language to say it with.

Oh, I still liked some of the brain candy music, but my view and expectations were changed by Dylan. Then by the Rolling Stones. They also played music from what seemed to me to be another place, even though it was basically in my own backyard. Bluesy. Different grooves under the songs. Radio was so sanitized that I didn’t even know it was coming from my own country. Black music. I loved it. Even the Beatles were heavily influenced by it.

From my vantage point in the early 60’s, I watched Black music grow and evolve. Saw the whole Motown thing happen. Ray Charles always caught my ear. Then I started hearing some current blues music, which I loved. In time, along came Stevie Wonder, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, etc. And then, I got lost, or something did.

When rap and hip hop became popular, I personally found it greatly inferior to what had come before it. Sorry. The whole persona of the rapper, talking AT me, with the drum machine beat laid down in a track at a time in some urban studio just didn’t measure up to the Black song stylists that I loved so much. It didn’t move me emotionally.

With the advent of the computer, anybody that so desired could now be a record producer, making tracks in the insulated world of their own homes. I freely admit that I was one of them. And, gradually, the whole idea of like minded musicians making music as one unit began to fade. The feel changed. The spirit of the music was somehow devalued for me. For me, it’s almost as if playing music with others was like singing in church. There is a spiritual and temporal connection that I cannot conjure up alone. It takes others, you see. Sometimes, I can get close, but there is synergy in group playing. Trust me.

OK. So where am I taking all this? Well, I think there are basically two ways to make music: from the heart or to reflect fashion. I prefer the former, but will allow the latter if the former is still in charge. Songs ought to entertain us based on our common humanity. And our common dignity. Just because you can throw any ingredients into the pot doesn’t make you a chef, let alone a cook. I dig human stories, especially ones that inspire or inform in a valuable way.  I keep hearing about how AI will one day compose songs. I wonder where AI will takes it’s cues? From the shallow or from those informed by the the human experience?

The first time I heard “Yesterday”, I had to drive off the road. I have not driven off the road because of a song for some time. The magic is still there. I think that is where artists should be trying to draw there inspiration-not to make something that sounds like some other hit. Rather, make something that plays the human heartstrings. Dig deep. Except when you need humor. Then, dig even deeper.

All Things Al Songwriter Interview Series Volume 2: Brad Stuart

I met Brad at a couple of songwriter showcase events, and I found him refreshingly honest, funny, humble and very talented. Though he began as sort of a “post grunge, sloppy rocker,” he’s taken a step into the Country/Americana ring with Two Lane Bridge and is working on a pair of upcoming CD releases. Here, he speaks about his music, life influences and experiences, his musical path and his current approach to songwriting, which he describes as very personal.

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Lets start with what you are doing now. So you are on the road, touring?

Yes. A lot.

With Two Lane Bridge? Is that right?

Yeah. Two Lane Bridge is the country band that I’m in and right now.  I’m working with a band called the Hymns project. That is the one I am on the road with. I get to work on that one, which is awesome. It’s a unique project. That is like a big collaborative project. There’s a lot of musicians involved. I am one of many.

Are they all on the road?

A lot of them are. A lot of them just come and go. I’m one of three or four that is always on the road. Its a Christian group and the goal of that was to take the old hymns that were written in the 1700’s and 1800’s and update the music but preserve the  lyrics. It’s an interesting project to be a part of. Its pretty cool.

Are you involved in the writing on that at all?

Yeah, musically. Lyrically nothing changes, but I’m pretty involved. I am also involved in the production end of it . I love producing records. I could live in a studio, to be honest. That’s been fun. And then, depending on the venue and things like that, I get to take the Two Lane Bridge songs to open and then transition into the role of that other group. So its been good.

Two Lane Bridge—is that two or three now?

Two of us. So the main group is just two of us. Myself and then Tim Diaz. Diaz was in Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise back in the day, and then with Uncle Kracker for a lot of years, and then he had the Tim Diaz Band after that.

I think when I saw you, you had Larry Labeck playing steel.

Larry fills in. He sits in with us all the time. He’s gonna be playing pedal steel on the record, that comes out, which is making  pretty good progress. I don’t know if you know Josh Ford.

Josh Ford. Yes. Josh is a great guitar player, singer and entertainer.

Yeah, he’s awesome. He’s lent a few ideas to the record.

Are you recording at his studio?

Partially.  Kevin Williams, who is his studio partner there at the Soundshop, thats where we cut part of the stuff. I have a bunch of gear at my place and sometimes, especially with vocals and things like that…I don’t know if you notice this when you record, but I hear things that nobody else hears and it drives me nuts. Other people are like, it sounds fine…

It means you’ve got a good ear

Well, I don’t know. Its all subjective I guess. So, yeah. We are cutting a lot of it at Josh and Kevin’s place and a lot of it at my place. I like the production and I don’t want to let go of that.

Are you writing the songs solo or co-writing with Tim?

Both. So, you know, after my last band, I left the music industry for almost five years. And then Tim left the music industry after his tour.  The thing was, I never quit writing the music. I just stopped shopping the music.

Did you quit playing?

No. I quit playing out, but every once in a while, someone would pull me out. Thats how Tim and I met-at a Rhythm Corps show.  Greg Apro called me up and had me sit in on some guitar. So I did and had a good time. They played at the Royal Oak Music Theater at a packed out show with Sponge. I met Tim there.

It was odd. My last band was really heavy post grunge, sloppy rock, you know. And all the sudden, during this hiatus, if you will, I spent more time in my woodshed. I realized I wasn’t good at guitar. I wasn’t very good at songwriting. I wasn’t bringing much like I wanted to, so I spent a lot time in the woodshed.

That makes sense. You went out and realized you had more growing to do.

I think if we ever stop growing, thats when….my goal is to look back at this stuff in ten years like I look back at that stuff now, grin and accept it that that is where was then. I just want to keep going. I went into the woodshed kinda feeling like nobody would really care about my songwriting. I stopped writing with the mentality of wondering if this would hit, just wanted to hone my craft and get out what I had to get out.

In a more personal way?

In a lot more personal way. These songs—this record-is the most personal record I’ve ever written.

Thats where you find the truth though, isn’t it?

For sure. Larry Labeck is infamous for saying all you need is three chords and the truth. Thats where this record is at. A lot more intricacy. Americana—that style, I think made me better at the craft. It forces you to not hide behind heavy distortion and heavy effects…

Its like when you can strip a song down to the vocal and guitar or piano, thats when you know something works.

Its a personal record. The stuff that I’m writing now is like songs for my daughter. Like, this is me. This is who her daddy is. Thats where I really want my legacy to live on. The whole thing started as a song about my grandparents. I was really close to them.

I think I heard you sings that.

Yeah. Its called “It Goes By”

And you had a thing on your iPhone where he was speaking.

Yeah, he does the vocals on the third verse. Its coming out on the record. It worked out really well. Capturing it at the time I really wasn’t thinking of anything else or anyone else. Just the thought of always for the rest of my life being able to hear his voice, even after he passed on was really important to me. That was the first song that was blatantly more in a country or Americana vein for me.

Growing up, did you listen to country or folk music?

Yeah. My mom-her favorite of all time was John Denver. My dad liked Simon and Garfunkel and things like that. I sort of rebelled against it as a kid, you know, but it stuck in there.

Did you grow up in a musical home?

My dad played guitar and sang, but home life was complicated. My brother passed away when I was young, and the majority of my childhood, his guitar sat in the closet. I think everybody just did what they had to do to get through that time. You know, the next ten years or so before I moved out.

How old were you when your brother passed?

I was five. It was the most….I was talking with a friend of mine. I think everybody has a moment or two you can trace back  to where everything you have now is defined by a couple of key moments. That’s definitely one of them. That changed the whole course of my life.

You were only five, so there were probably things in the family dynamic that you weren’t even aware of. 

For sure. It was complicated. It was a hard time for everybody. I used to be really angry with my parents. You know, it was just a tough time to grow up. I was always mad that they were so angry or withdrawn. But honestly, now that I have a daughter, my heart breaks for them. I don’t even know how they got up in the morning.

Right

So I have compassion for them now.

Something that you couldn’t have seen fully when you were five.

No. When you are five, all you have is the perspective of I don’t understand why the focus isn’t me.

Have you ever written anything based on that experience?

I’ve tried. There’s been some stuff. Its never been released.

Is it almost too big a subject to wrap around?

Almost. Its hard cause where do you start? And I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I’ve never been able to find the right words there. You know, the right melody, the right notes to string together. I don’t know if its just not there yet or….I have that with a lot of things. I’ve got a song that, uh, I don’t know if it will be on this record or the B side of the record, ‘cause its coming out in two parts. It called “Ghost Of You And I” and its about my old best friend from high school. And she was there when I wasn’t even there, if you know what I mean. There was never anything romantic or whatever but, sophomore year of high school, she said, hey, you should write me a song.  We’re just kids, right?

Right

And it took me almost ten years to write the song because I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. Never had the right words and then, that song just came out one day and it was exactly what I felt. Exactly how I saw her and the whole situation. Maybe it was the separation, I don’t know.

I love the ones that end up…I mean, even though it took you ten years to write it, its like that old saying: it took me a half an hour to write it and ten years to live it.

Exactly. Thats been almost every song on this record.

So, its coming from experience.

Yeah. Its super personal. Tim does half the record too and his songs are incredible. for me on this record, I have a song called “You, Me and Jesus”  thats just a letter to my daughter about my life. One of the things I’ve learned about songwriting so far is theres different vantage points of a situation. There’s different angles to approach it with.  “You, Me and Jesus” is a thirty thousand foot view of my life. You know it starts out, “my hands are shakin’, my head’s racin’, I gotta get out of this town and I’m going back to where I was as a kid. I grew up in Ortonville, and all I wanted to do was get out of Ortonville. I just wanted to be in a band and get out of here.

Right. And thats what you did, right?

Right. My brother died and I’d lie, steal and cheat to wherever I was gonna get, and I’d done it all and then she comes into my life. This little girl comes into my life and changes everything. Its like a 30,000 foot view of the Cliff Notes of my life. And then I’ve got a song called “Prayer Of The Refugee”  which was about a specific night. I was just wrestling with God. It was one o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t sleep, and I was just like, God, I want something more. And I’m not talking financially or like material things. I just want my existence to have a meaning. And that song pops out, you know? its a real personal…it was a prayer, really.  And then I get the song with my grandfather which was about my grandparents life and that song was about a specific conversation. My grandma had just passed and we were sitting on his living room floor going through photos and he was just taking me through, photo by photo. And to see their life go from black and white to color and to know what it is now and hear the different stories. You know, this is us when I’d just got out of the service and I was broke and we were twenty one years old. And this is 1958, I just lost my job and I was going to move to California.

Its all in the song. Thats the one I heard you perform.

And that third verse was about the funeral and he…the whole family had ordered these giant flowers. They asked him what kind of flowers he wanted to give her and he said, I just want one single rose. That conversation that took place on the living room floor…he looked at me and said all the material things don’t matter. He’s like, uh, fear the Lord, love your wife and take in every moment because it will fly by.  And I was like, oh my God—thats a chorus! 

It is!

So I ripped it off. I made it the chorus of a song.

I think its very cool that you draw all of this from real life

Every one’s personal. The last song that I lead on from this record-its an eight song record-a song called “Responsible”. Its about a friend of mine named Steve who ah, he was a pro MMA fighter and he’s a Waterford police officer. incredible, incredible guy.

Whats an MMA fighter?

Like, mixed martial arts.  So he would get into the cage and fight guys. Just incredible guy though. He’s the kind of guy that would give anything to anyone and I used to go on these ride alongs with him ‘cause he worked the night shift. I’d go on ride alongs. We’d hop in his cop car and drive around and have these great conversations. I was trying to get in shape then. We were going to the gym and we were doing some sparring. This one night, we went to the gym and then we were going to go to CJ’s across the street to watch a band called Masquerade. My brother called me and asked if I would go have a drink with him and just kinda talk. SO I called Steve and I said hey-I’ll see you at CJ’s. I’m going to have a drink with my brother. So, no problem. I get to CJ’s and get a call from his wife that he’d passed away in the gym parking lot. He’d had a heart attack.

Oh my

I went through five years where I  just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I mean, the only thing I felt was if I had gone to the gym that night, what if? What if I had called 911 earlier or got CPR started or something. So the song was I should have been with him that night.

Some things are out of our control.

Yeah. Its a personal thing. And they are all different views of a situation. Some are high level and some are up close. 

So most of your stuff is based on experience and aspects of your own life. I was thinking about Jason Isbell. If you haven’t heard him, you should.  Very strong singer, songwriter, guitar player-the whole package.  His songs waver from being  true first person songs to being character based. They sound like personal confessional songs but he’s actually speaking through a character rather than himself.  He tells the stories so well that they become believable. Its another way of reaching the truth through fabrication. (laughs)

You know, its interesting. I’ve always been jealous of the guys who can do that. One of my favorites that does that is Chris Stapleton. He’s an incredibly talented guy.

He’s great.

Incredible songwriter, story teller. Its like watching him paint a canvas with words. I’ve always been jealous of the people who can step outside themselves. It goes back to those vantage points. You can tell the same story from five different perspectives. Thats sort of where I’m expanding to now. Focusing on and being present about a vantage point that I have about a situation. Early on, it was just slap some words on a page and put a heavy lick on

Right! (laughter)

It was more about the guitar work than anything else.

People have made a good living doing exactly that! But I tend to like songs with more lyrical meat.

Me too. Thats really where I’m drawn right now.

So, when you play with Two Lane Bridge,  you tour with them, right?

Well right now Two Lane Bridge is  kind of in its infancy. Its only about a year old, so the majority of the focus is in the studio. We play locally, but when I go out on the road it is with the Hymns Project.

Ok. I got it. Do you find it difficult to play songs for the public that they probably haven’t heard before?

Always, but I love it because anyone can suck a crowd into a song they know, but originals are a different challenge.

You are good at that I think

Pulling it into the originals?

I think you are good at communicating with a crowd.

I try to. You know, its hard to look. I don’t look at myself…but I appreciate the compliment.

The first time I saw you, the first thing you said was something like, you’re probably wondering who this heavy set guy is up here. It just cracked me up and it put the whole room at ease. It was like saying I’m not some holier than thou person…

Humor is a…I don’t know if its a defense mechanism, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? And everybody can relate to it. Nobody is comfortable inside their own skin. I don’t care who they are. People can put on a facade but everybody has a quirk.

Thats why Rodney Dangerfield was so good. Everybody was laughing at him but they were also kind of laughing at themselves.

Absolutely. Its just relatable stuff. And with the old band, too, the way it was managed, everything was PR, PR, PR. How do we look good, how do we look like the persona we are trying to portray and I don’t want that anymore. I’m a big, ugly guy with a bunch of hurt and pain stories like just everybody else and all the big, ugly people who have hurt and pain can relate.

Hey i don’t think you’re an ugly guy at all. You just don’t want to be out there acting and being something that you’re not.

Its exhausting.  We did three hundred shows two years in a row in 2011 and 2012.

And that was touring? How did you not get burned out?

I did get burnt out.  Its putting on the persona. The shows were unbelievably boring to me. Every show was like the same jokes, the same talking points and the same structure. I mean, we were doing thirty minute sets and everything was so rehearsed that we’d be at 29:45 every show. It just lost its soul. One of the reasons I was drawn to Tim was you never know whats going to come out of his mouth. We played a show not too long ago and we went like eight minutes at one point without playing a song cause there was banter. And the crowd was cracking up and people were talking to us, we were talking to them .There was a whole lot of dialog    

Sometimes I think the crowds like the dialog more than they like the music

When you get a lot of the back story about how the song came to be…

I love that

Me too. I love playing with Tim because we never talk about what we are going to go out and talk about. We made an agreement that nothing is off the table. Every show is unique and interesting.  In the old band, I couldn’t tell the difference between one city and the next. It was like groundhog day. It was the worst.In fact, in a lot of places, we used to have to tape the day and the city we were in on the monitor.

I can see how you got bored with it. I mean, half the fun is straying from the program sometimes.

Absolutely. Oh, we stray now! 

When did you start playing guitar? Was that your first instrument?

Yeah. I used to sneak into my dad’s closet and pull out his guitar. I got my guitar and I started playing. I bought a chord book and really started learning to play when I was about fourteen.

After you had the chords under your belt, did songwriting come soon after that or did it take a while?

Songwriting came first.

Before you even knew how to play?

Yeah. I was in love with lyricism. In fact the very first thing I can remember writing-I was five or six years old-there was a song by UB40 called Red Red Wine. And I rewrote the chorus to that song. Five or six years old, just kind of wrote them on little 3×5 cards. When I think back on songwriting, thats where it started for me. I heard stuff and I didn’t know how to get it out but I felt stuff. I was going through a lot. I had a brother that had just passed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with my family. It was a confusing time.

You needed some kind of emotional outlet

Yeah.  So I would jot down ideas. I was kind of an introvert as a kid. I really loved jotting down ideas and I never knew what to do with them. Until I picked up the guitar, then the floodgates kind of opened.

Hey, you were just a young kid

I was fourteen. And theres only one thing you want when you are fourteen.

You get a pass…

There’s only one thing you want when you are fourteen and thats girls. So I had a buddy named Ron in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior and he would bring his acoustic guitar to school, and he only knew three chords. I probably heard him play Green Day’s Time Of Your Life (Good Riddance) a hundred times and it was terrible, but the girls just flocked to him. I thought thats insane!

Heeey!

It was all because of that. So, of course, Christmas time comes around and I got to get a guitar. So I did and I started working on some covers. Where songwriting, where it sort of started to come together was—I got really frustrated because I couldn’t sing the songs like the originals did. I would hear myself not singing them like that. And then I’d jot down some ideas and I would put some chords to it, and I really liked that because there was nothing to compare it to. I almost started getting into it because I couldn’t do what they were doing. So I just started doing this. Then, I got in another band and had the chance to sit with a really good songwriter. He really started opening things up to me in terms of dynamics. You know, when you first pick up a guitar, its the same strumming pattern the whole time, right?

Right

And Paul was like, sometimes you don’t have to play anything. Its ok.  We had this band together and sometimes the best thing to do is to not play. That was the most eye opening thing.

I was talking with Jeff Scott about this-its a misconception that every line in a song has to be killer. Sometimes, there are lines that are just setup lines to get to that killer line.

Absolutely

We were talking about Bob Dylan. He’ll write several lines of almost nonsense and throw in the amazing line right after, and its deep, you know? Shadow and light. Dynamics.

Thats kind of the story there. It all came in pieces. Then, one day—I’m still picking things up…

You will be, I think. Always

I haven’t arrived yet. I haven’t created my Mona Lisa yet.

Sometimes, I don’t know if we ever really feel like we arrive. I go back and listen to some things I’ve done and I don’t even know how I’d written them.  just keep on hoping that heaven will pour a few more gifts down on me, you know? (laughter)

Theres definitely some special ones and then about a thousand in between. People ask how’d you do that and I’d laugh and say its kind of a game of odds. When you write three thousand songs, you might have a good one there. 

The more you write, the luckier you get. My rule of thumb was that if I wrote ten songs and one or two came out really well, I’d be really happy. Sometimes, a song has to be around for a while before you know what it is. I’ve had songs that I thought were nothing special and down the road I’d think it might be on of the best things I ever wrote. 

Yeah. definitely. Sometimes it takes another perspective too. I know with this record, I was, like, the one thing I feel with this record is, if you look at the four that are mine and the four that are Tim’s,  and his are way better. I told him that and he’s like, he’s looking at me saying you’re crazy! Your four are so much better.  So sometimes I think you went through the whole process or writing, rewriting, developing, recording and producing. You’ve heard the song a thousand times. We can’t all be a Kid Rock and be in love with everything that comes out of us.

I think its easier to appreciate someone else song because you didn’t have to go through the struggles of writing it.

For sure…

You just see the parts that came out right. You don’t see the scratched out lines and verses that got thrown away, you know…

Its harder than it looks

So when is your record going to be out?

Hopefully in the next couple of months. It should be done in a couple of months.

You said its going to be two…it is going to be a double CD or two separate CDs?

Two separate CD’s. At this point it looks like it will be eight and eight tracks unless something drastically changes. The plan right now is to put eight on the first one and eight on the second one. The first one has got all the bed tracks done and a lot of the supporting songs. You know, we are still laying down some lead guitar stuff and larry has to come in and play pedal steel. We’ve got to finish up the vocals. The second CD, there are six songs that are about in the same place as the first. Two more that we are kind of hacking around, There is such a back catalog. From the time I took off and the time Tim took off, theres a huge back catalog, and we are both still writing. So we could release an album every six months and not get it all out.

I’m curious as to why you decided to do two CD’s. Why not just finish one  and…a year or so later, release the next one.

Yeah-its just how it happened. We started with a couple songs. We were both reluctant to do the project. Steve Taylor is really the reason we are doing it. We had met at the Rhythm Corps show and we talked. There was a lot of dialog back and forth. When Steve Taylor put both of us together at the Bird and the Bread,  we called each other and Tim said, hey, sit in on my songs and I said sit in on mine, and we did eight songs together. And the next day, we get a phone call asking to book our band. And we were like, oops!  (laughter). And we were like, what are you gonna do?

Thats a good sign

Yeah. It was cool. We sat down with the songs and I said lets just do an EP. We said ok, then we had enough for an LP, and that was cool. And then we had too  many for an LP and we had about nineteen songs. At least sixteen felt like they go together, even though they were written by two separate people in separate places, they felt like they went together.

So is this country or Americana?

Yeah. Its Americana, dipping into country a little bit. Larry makes it lean heavier into the country. Its pretty Americana. But sixteen songs, we decided was too long for one CD so we decided to split it up.

Well, I can’t wait to hear it!

  

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All Things Al Songwriter Interview Series Volume I: Jeff Scott

I am thrilled to be posting the first installment in my interview series with deserving songwriters from Michigan and elsewhere. I plan for this to be a long, continuing series. There are lots of deserving artists that need greater exposure, and these stories give a glimpse of the human side of songwriting and artistry.

I was very fortunate to have Michigan’s own Jeff Scott as my first subject, and what an enlightening conversation it was. Jeff is a strong singer/songwriter and a wise and compassionate artist and human being. His songs cover a wide spectrum of human emotion and experience, as well as a lot of musical territory.

His albums, “On The Long Way Home” and “Nola To New York” can be found on iTunes and Spotify, and can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon. His website is:  http://jeffscottmusic.com

There you can listen to his 2010 album, “Begin Again”. 

If you enjoy this, please feel free to share with others!JEFF.jpg

Photo credit: Patrick Mack

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I’d like to start at the very beginning. When did you first take an interest in music?

I was in first grade. There was a music program at the elementary school and I was very interested…I didn’t know I could sing yet. I was very interested in drums, so a buddy and I took drums. The great thing about how they taught drums back in the day was you had to play a bell set first. You know–a xylophone. You’d learn the scales and music notation and everything else, then you’d switch to a drum pad, then you bought a snare drum. About two, three years into that, I decided I was getting bored with the fact that drums were a pretty monotone thing. I wanted to play guitar. So, my parents got me a cheap guitar for Christmas, when I was eight, and I just took to it like white on rice, you know?

There was a kid down the street who played well, so he’d teach me things. And I blew through the beginner’s guitar instruction books my parents got for me.

So this was pre-Beatles?

No. It was right during the heyday of the Beatles. I started playing guitar in ‘67.

That was a good time to pick it up!

Yeah! No kidding!

That’s where all the classic albums are, isn’t it?

Yeah. That’s right. So, the deal was, I never really learned to play a drum set, so this buddy of mine, who had started drums with me, he learned to play a set and we started a “band.” His parents were both musicians and his mom was a music teacher, so they loved music in their house.  Around that time, my dad, uh, bought me-its hilarious-there was a studio in Royal Oak. This guy was closing down the studio….

A recording studio?

A recording studio, yeah. And my dad bought me an old Sears Silvertone electric guitar and this little amp. Anyway, we started this band in my friend’s basement. We got our first gig—a Cub Scout awards ceremony. At that point, I found out, I could sing.

It was all part of the process. Somebody had to sing, right? Or did any of the other guys sing?

Ah, they didn’t really sing. And I don’t know where my voice came from. I really don’t. Just imagine my voice, about an octave up, you know?

So you weren’t originally a baritone?

When I was twenty-one my voice shifted into baritone. It was pretty wild because I was recording at a recording studio in Warren and my voice just shifted. I had won this contest that WNIC had sponsored. They were looking for the best voice in Detroit—and I won it.

Congratulations!

Thank you very much.  And there were so many great singers to come out of Detroit, so it was like “I do not accept the title, but I’ll accept the award, you know?  So, right after that, we had put a single out that WNIC was playing a lot, and I went into the studio to do another single to back up to that.

Were these singles songs you had written?

Yes. I’ve never recorded anything that I haven’t written, you know-which may be a huge mistake for me. Yes, I started writing late in high school. Even when we had the band in high school, it was primarily a cover band but there were always a couple of tunes I had written.

How did you come to wanting to write?

Well, there’s like three tracks going on concurrently here for me. One is the music thing, one is the writing thing, and one is the singing thing. I was starting to write a lot of fiction in high school while I was writing songs as well. I’ve always been a writer.

Prose?

Prose. I was writing prose. I was writing short fiction. I had a lot of love for Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, then John Cheever, uh, John Updike, and Truman Capote and all those masters of that short form-which I guess translates into writing three and a half, four minute pop tunes.

Well, that answers one of my questions that I was going to ask you later. Your writing is concise and it doesn’t stray. It doesn’t go off topic. You seem to come to songwriting with a writer’s knowledge. It’s something I noticed with your lyrics. You pick your target and then hone in on it.

Thank you. I think it’s a reflection of all the writing I’ve done. You learn to edit yourself. I think it’s a desire to…I will tell you, the songs that I hold in the greatest esteem—popular songs—are-well, there are many-but I look at George and Ira Gershwin’s songs as the archetypal models of how a popular song should be written.  You can’t separate those lyrics from that music. And the lyrics seem to be circular in nature. You know, where you end is really where you begin and to write a lyric like that-I don’t think I’ve ever achieved it, but that’s what I’m going for. It’s something that is inextricably tied to the melody and the chord changes and you just feel the lyric is of a whole, you know. It can’t be punched through. (laughs).

Right. You do it really well. I haven’t listened to everything you’ve done, but I have listened to “Nora to New York” and “The Long Way Home” and both have a lot of great songs.

So, when you write, do you start with lyrics? How does it come to you? Is it a title or just an idea?

Ah, some of them come wholly formed. I was talking about “The Breathing Room” at my most recent show. “The Breathing Room” took an evening. Although I did go back to it the next day. There was something about the third verse that bothered me and I changed some words around. In those instances, you are just a channel for something…

Those are the best ones.

Yeah. And you can just feel it, so you just gotta let it ride and make sure you don’t get in the way of it.

I wonder, why can’t they all be like that? (laughter)

Songs often start with me as a couplet. A lyrical couplet. And maybe 40% of the time, the lyrical couplet has some kind of melody attached to it. This is all happening in my brain, right? Then I sit there and say that’s interesting or that’s not interesting. I was in the shower Saturday morning and I had an entire first verse of a new song by the time I came out of the shower. So, I recorded it immediately on my phone because you don’t want to lose it. You are like, what’s the syllabic structure on these melodies, cause that’s important, right?

Absolutely. Getting your meter right.

Yeah, right? So, that’ll be a tune. And I know why the song in the shower happened, because I’d been thinking a lot about an upcoming birthday, which is a big one for me. Because of that, I’ve been thinking about mortality, you know, which is fundamentally what this new song idea is about. Other times, I’ll do it like Paul Simon says he does it. Which is, he gets a rhythm going and he’ll start improvising chord changes, and then he sings a lot of nonsense syllables to get the meter going. Then it’s a constant pastiche of, you know, the melodic construction and lyric construction against the…

Fill in the blanks

Yep.

I read that Lionel Ritchie asked Stevie Wonder how he wrote songs. Stevie said he’d compose a melody and sing “la la’s.” He’d replace the “la la’s” with real lyrics.

There is something I pride myself on.  I think, from a tonal perspective, the melodies I am writing are appropriate for the lyric against them. I think there is a synergy between those two things, which creates a bigger effect, which you sort of feel. You can’t really put your finger on it but-

Your music emotionally reflects what you are saying. To me.

Good!

There are guys that intentionally do the opposite, like Randy Newman, for example. He’ll write something almost despicable with a happy melody….

Yes, yes!

So, I will go long periods of time where I am not writing anything at all. Just like everybody else. I know the regimen you developed. They were trying to get me to develop that in Nashville, but I just didn’t have it. I will tell you this, there is one more way I write songs. I will purposely say I want to write a song “like” another. And that becomes a launch point for me.

I’ve done that too

Or I want to write a song in “this” genre or I want to write a song that has “this” feel to it. So that’s a good launch pad for me. A lot of the songs on this new album I did exactly that way. I want to write a song that does “this.” I want to write a song that does “that.”  So, then it becomes an exercise, right?

Right

If you fail, you fail and if you don’t well that’s wonderful.

I found some musical differences between your most recent work ( Nola To New York) and the one before it (The Long Way Home). Its like the Long Way Home is more straight major and minor chords and Nola to New York is more major seventh, minor sevenths- jazzier. And you ditched the violin and added the saxophone. Skip’s (Skip Pruitt) fantastic by the way.

Isn’t he incredible? I gotta tell you—I mean no disrespect—there was a lot of Americana kind of stuff on the first album I did called “Begin Again,” which I did when I came back to music. Clearly, “The Long Way Home” was all Americana.  But,I got tired of it. When it came to the new album, I really just, it was like, this is not how I’m feeling right now. I was telling Dave Falk this because he was curious about it at some gig we did together.  I purposely went out and bought a classical guitar because, A, it was what I had learned on. B, it was what a hero of mine played—Kenny Rankin. Huge hero of mine. Third, that kind of jazz chord-based sensibility and changes and soul feel inside the jazz changes was really what the Big Picture was all about, which was this band I had with Duane [Allen Harlick], Skip [Pruitt] and three other guys.

And what kind of material were you doing then?

It was all original, high energy jazz/pop, soul—you know, R&B. It was an integrated band, it was very different. We won a huge national contest, did huge festivals as a result. We got signed to management in LA. We did a lot of opening act work, we did an album with Andre Fischer, and Woody Woodruff. Andre Fischer was Natalie Cole’s husband and producer, and he’d been the drummer and producer for Chaka Kahn and Rufus. Woody Woodruff was David Foster’s engineer. We were in it, man!

Wow!

And then we couldn’t get signed with the album that Andre had produced for us. It was all our stuff. In any case, I wanted to get back to that feeling because I felt the Americana was limiting to me. It didn’t allow me room to do sophisticated lyrical work. It didn’t allow me room to do sophisticated melodic work. It was just my opinion. It was how I was feeling at the time.

Well, I think you fly in either direction. I liked the Americana tone but I also like the openness of the new album. “Sanctified Man”—wow! What a great song that is.

Oh, thanks! It’s funny about that song because it was originally called “Invisible Man.” I had a whole set of lyrics written for it. We went into the studio to cut it and it went way beyond what I had written. It was one of the last songs we recorded for the album and I just had a bare bones chart for this thing. I’d sent them a little crappy demo. We got in there and they just killed it. As I listened to the session, I said to myself, oh man, these lyrics don’t work at all.

That’s the song that starts out talking about not being real religious but being spiritual

Right

I thought that was a great way to start a song, by the way

Thank you. Anyway, Al, by the end of that session I had changed the title and I had the first verse written in my head.  I went home that night and rewrote the next two verses and the bridge and everything.  Because seriously, the brand brought it. In a way, they created that song because of how they played it. Cause it feels like that.

It’s just got that great groove underneath it. It sucks you right in. I think you should have gotten that record deal.

Well…

Let’s backtrack a little. So, you were in the Big Picture, had the whole thing going and you didn’t get signed. Was that when your feelings started to change about doing it for a living?

Yeah. We had made it out of the bar scene in Detroit, right? We had made it onto the big stages and festivals and we had made it into, you know, amphitheaters and big venues, opening for people and the next logical step would be somebody signs us, somebody cultivates us for a year or so, you know—either with our own material or material that would generate some kind of charting song, you know?  And that just didn’t happen. I couldn’t see going back to the bars. I didn’t want to do four or five nights a week doing our tunes or cover tunes anymore. I was just done with it. I’d been doing it since I was twelve years old.

At that point I was thirty. I’d been doing it for eighteen years and reached this apex with one more step to go, and it just wasn’t happening.   And that process-the not happening process–went on for another two years, and I went, I’m done. By that time, I had an out, because my advertising career was going really well. I’d started out as a writer, I’d gone to University of Michigan, I was in the creative writing program, writing short fiction, and I had a great mentor/instructor there. I knew how to write prose. I knew how to write short copy, as it turned out. So, I had turned into a respected copy writer and I had a point of view on things aesthetically, so suddenly I am a creative supervisor.  The career just built. 

So, in a way, you were still being a writer but in a different capacity…

Oh right! (laughs) By that time, I had a lot of responsibility at the advertising agency, so I gave up the music. I didn’t look back.  I just thought, well, I did it (the music), and I did it in a really honorable way and I did it the best I could possibly do it and, to some degree, we couldn’t make it to the last thing, so I’m out, you know?

In those years that you weren’t playing, were you still writing or were you totally on hiatus?

Totally on hiatus. At a certain point, late in the seventeen years of that hiatus, I did buy a piano.  I had taught myself to play piano when I was a teenager and I’d noodle around with it at home but I was more interested in having it for my kids. Amazingly enough, it became the source of three tunes on this album after I got back into doing it in 2009.  I guess it foreshadowed what it was sitting there for. Look, man-I was all into the career and all into the money I was making, and I was into the family I finally had.  Eventually, all of it–all of it–disappeared, you know, which is the reason I came back to music.  I went through this existential crisis of losing my job, losing my home, losing my marriage, you know—losing the respect of the community in advertising that thought I was “something” for a long time. You know, I pretty much hit bottom.  At that point, my soul turned back to the one thing that could save me in terms of making sense of the world, and that was music. That was my psychotherapist.

That was your therapy-to come back to music.

Absolutely.

That’s kind of what it’s always been for me. If I was totally happy, I’d probably never write another song.

Right.  You learn the value of things, you know. I’m very happy that that complete derailment happened because, for me, I found out what was important and what wasn’t important. I found out how important music was to me. I found out that, in a lot of ways, because it happened, I was forced into becoming a much better writer, a much better singer and a much better musician than I had been when we had the Big Picture. And that’s absolutely true because when I got back into it, I couldn’t sing. I hadn’t sung in ages. I’d sit in with people, occasionally.

So, how did you get your voice back? Did it come back naturally after a while?

It did, yeah. and I have to say, seventeen years of not singing in bars night after night after night will save a voice. So, my vocal cords didn’t…they were getting brutalized in the Big Picture because of the shows we were doing. But that long rest period was amazingly regenerative for my vocal cords.

When I started going down to Nashville in 2009-well, I started playing open mic around town, and my guitar playing skills, which had been perfunctory in the Big Picture, as I rarely played—I was mostly the lead singer-I went down to Nashville a few times and I was just horrible. So, I came back home, woodshedded, and taught myself a more intricate style of acoustic playing than I ever dreamed I would ever be capable of, you know? So, in a lot of ways it was great. Weirdly, I feel like I’m doing the work now that I was always supposed to be doing, right? But that first go around really wasn’t about that, if that makes any sense.

So, do you have a new record that you are thinking about yet?

I’m going to put out a collection of fifteen tunes that, for one reason or another, ended up on a hard drive in the studio, that I never finished. I just thought, well, why not? Some of them clearly fall back in this Americana camp of things. Some of them absolutely don’t and they are more keeping with the stuff I’m doing now.  It will be just a potpourri-a mishmash of stuff-another genre buster. (laughs)

Good!

I will tell ya, man, I think a lot of people-somebody sent me an inquiry today about this—were thrown by the Nola to New York album.  It was so radically different than the last album and people who liked my previous work did not know what to make of it. And I hadn’t prepared them for it and, you know, I didn’t get a lot of the attention that I had gotten with The Long Way Home because of that shift. You know, they didn’t know how to handle it because it wasn’t Jeff just doing more of the same. It’s just completely different in terms of genre and instrumentation and orchestration and production and everything else. Some people wondered, “What is this?”  Frankly, I don’t think anyone in the area is writing and recording songs like this, but I’m pretty insulated, so who knows?

Don’t you think that’s good for an artist to do that? To change?

Totally. I’ve got nothing riding on this, so why wouldn’t I do that, you know?

Do what your heart tells you to do

Yeah! There is no contract I’m attempting to satisfy. We’d gone into the studio originally and cut ten tunes for what became Nola To New York. Five of them were this previous thing of “Americana” and five of them were tunes that ended up on Nola To New York. I asked Duane and Dave Hendrickson to meet me to discuss it. I said, here’s the situation and you guys know it. Here are five tunes that are all Americana and five are this new thing, this retro thing we are doing. I said, I know which direction I want to go. Which direction do you want to go? They didn’t even pause.  They said, let’s go for the jazz pop thing. Seriously. And I thought great! And I had to broom the five Americana tunes, but then I had to write five more tunes. 

Nothing wrong with that. Personally, I think if you’ve got a concept, now you’ve got a frame and you know what needs to go in it.

Right.

Where if you don’t have that concept, it could be anything.

Yeah, and the album definitely had a concept. I wanted to filter pop tunes through the classical and orchestral and jazz and the pop I heard growing up.

There were a couple of tunes that you played that had a James Taylor influence. 

Ain’t That The Way? 

I think that was the one. Who were your influences growing up?

Ah, James Taylor. Absolutely. Gotta be the top one. Joni Mitchell. Then Kenny Rankin and Paul Simon. I’d say those were the top four, but there’s a whole other part of me—those were singer songwriters, right?

Right

Carole King to a lesser degree. I’d buy every Joni album and listen to it ‘till I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I’d buy every Pat Metheny album and listen to it ‘till I couldn’t listen to it anymore. There was another part of me that was heavily into Steven Sondheim’s Broadway work, heavily into the songs Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote. There’s a whole traditional side, a Broadway side to me as well.

I picked up a little bit of that with Life Ain’t A Young Man’s Game.

It’s a theatrical song, for sure, because it’s a monologue, a character piece, as you know.

That one reminds me of a song Neil Diamond wishes he could have written.

(laughs) I was a huge Neil Diamond fan, too

There was a line: “See these lines upon my face, every one’s a road I walked down.” That’s killer…

“Take a look into my eyes, see the battles that I’ve lost and fought and lost and fought and won.”

Charlie (Springer) loves that tune. He says it gives him chills every time he hears it

People do seem to like that tune. I think because it’s not apologetic. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s clearly an older dude talking to a younger dude saying, sort of, prove yourself.

That song struck me like someone was grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and saying, LISTEN!

That was the intent, you know. What I had in my head was an older guy listening to a younger guy at the bar who bitching about his life. The older guy finally has enough of it and says, hey, let me read you the rules here. I saw it very theatrically in my head, you know? And there was always a little bit of Neil Diamond in there as well.  The phrasing, the concise nature of the lyric lines. 

I love that kind of thing. If you are a James Taylor fan, you know the song Millworker

Which he wrote for that Studs Terkel musical.

Yeah. “May I work the mill as long as I am able, and never know the man who’s name is on the label.”

Yeah, amazing.

One interesting thing about songwriting is that not every line has to be great. But there have to be great lines within the song. It’s like if every line were great, it would be too much.

Well there are some lines that serve the purpose of getting you to the next line.

Dylan is a master of that. He’ll write a bunch of pretty much nonsense and then, like the fourth line just knocks you cold.

Yeah.

So, you write on piano sometimes?

I do.

I find writing on piano very different from writing on guitar. Its more, ah, churchy. (laughs)

More soulful, isn’t it?

Guitars make you want to get a beat or a rhythm going, but piano is different.

Yeah, it’s funny.  I wrote a lot of the songs—this was a secondary intention-a lot of the songs that are on Nola To New York are actually piano tunes. I didn’t write them on piano. I wrote them on classical guitar, but I was hearing them as piano in my head. Purposely, because I wanted Tony to have a kind of showcase on the album with his playing.

Tony’s your keyboard player?

Tony Jaworski, yeah.  A truly fine player.  He plays with many, many different people.

He really supported your music in a nice way.

He’s very sensitive to it. He feels that music. I am very appreciative of that. He really understands what I’m trying to get to, you know? But, you know, he was a jazz player and he went to Interlochen for jazz and all that stuff. Given that most of what he’s been doing the last few years is playing in a lot of blues and R&B bands, I thought this might be an opportunity to use his real chops, instead of playing Mustang Sally.

I mean, I don’t hate Mustang Sally, but it’s been played enough. (laughter)

There are songs that don’t ever need to be played again (more laughter)

Right. I’m one of those people that still thinks Brown Eyed Girl is a great song. It’s very well written because it has stood up for all these years. It speaks for millions and millions of people, but do we really need to hear it again?

We don’t ever need to hear it again. I committed heresy a few months ago. I suggested that we never need to hear Respect by Aretha Franklin ever again. And they were like, Oh, you’re kidding!  I said I’d rather hear her sing Say A Little Prayer, frankly. I don’t need to hear her sing Respect, you know? I need to hear her sing the Bacharach/David tunes.

Do you like Jimmy Webb?

Ah.  What an amazing writer. Jesus, what a run he had.

I got to see him at the Ark last summer. He talked a lot but played great.

Just shut up Jimmy and play the tunes! (laughter)

Now he’s a guy that, his tunes—I don’t know how to say this politely—demand a stronger voice than he has, but, when he sings them, he definitely gets them across.

Yes, he does. You see the passion there. You feel what he’s trying to convey.

You know, it’s funny, taking about the current day now, there are some really great songwriter singers-a lot of women-like Sara  Bareilles, Carly Ray Jepsen, who are writing classic pop tunes and have the voices to support them and turn a few of them into hits now. So, I think there is this underlay of more classic songwriting and performing still happening.

I hope so, because these song forms have endured for a long time. You’ve got the basic AAA form, the refrain song that’s verse verse bridge verse, the verse chorus form and the verse chorus bridge form. That seems to be the most dominant thing these days. Depending how the story or the lyric is unfolding for you, it will almost dictate…

The structure…

You find that?

Yes. I was thinking about some of the songs on Nola To New York, some of them don’t have choruses. They really have bridges. They sound like choruses, but they are really bridges. because the chorus is actually a verse. So, you are leading with the hook, man, and it just plays out from there. It becomes the topic sentence for the song.

I love songs that start with the chorus. It’s bold to start with the chorus.

Yeah. I’ll give it to ya—here it is! And now you’re going to have to wait for it to come around again.

The song Delta Dawn starts with a chorus, then employs one verse. Then, it’s just choruses.

That’s right! They knew what the strong part of that tune was! (laughter) And it works!

I just have a real appreciation for people that have the ability to write coherent songs. I’m sorry to see my heroes, and some of your heroes too probably, reaching the end of the road.  Elton John is finishing, Paul Simon is on his farewell tour, Jackson (Browne) is still out there doing it, but how much longer?

I gotta tell you-this is funny—I went out to see Bacharach at Meadowbrook some years ago. So Bacharach is in front of me, he’s got a full orchestra, he’s doing all the songs, he’s got background singers on some of the tunes he’s singing, himself—by the way, he does an amazing version of Alfie…

What a great song!

And on other tunes he has background singers as lead singers. This woman in front of me says—clueless—says why is he playing all these songs? These aren’t his songs!  It was like she didn’t know why she was there.

What did she come expecting to hear?

I don’t know! (laughter)

I don’t know how to articulate this, but there seemed to be a value set in the music I grew up with that isn’t being reflected now.

I agree

And it bothers me, and I know I have to accept that times change. I’m sure that if you go back to the big band era, those lyrics were great lyrics—I agree-but they approached things in much more cautious and playful way. There’s not that much playfulness anymore.

It may be a reflection of the culture, you know? You know, the little things that give me hope are, I think, Adelle and her producer.  I think she’s a great pop songwriter. She writes them.

Not all of them.

Not all of them, but she writes a lot of them.

She does a very faithful version of Chris Stapleton’s “If It Hadn’t Been For Love”

When I hear songs like “When We Were Young” off her most recent album, I go like, that’s just a great song! Just an amazingly great tune.

Her sales figure show that people are into that

Yeah, yeah. So that does give me hope, in that it is a classically constructed tune. It has a lot of merit to it, it’s lyrically evocative, it’s musically interesting, the arrangement is great. So, there is still some standard being upheld.

I think it’s going to come back in some way. When we got into the sixties, music exploded lyrically, experimentally, went in all kinds of different directions, with offshoots of all that happening through the seventies and eighties. Now, it seems like almost every worthwhile crevice has been explored. What’s old becomes new again. Like Nora Jones.

She’s spreading her wings, too. She’s on Blue Note now. She’s done some really interesting jazz-based things…

Oh really?

Yeah, she’s got a new album out—a few months ago-really cool stuff. It felt to me like she was pushing the boundaries so that she can come back a little bit and get into a more…unless she plans to keep being experimental. I don’t know. But ah, this was clearly not a Nora Jones—sounded like her, but she’s pushing her own boundaries.

Well, she’d been through a certain amount of territory and she had to see a different part of the musical world.

Yeah, right. Exactly.

Let me ask one final question. What is next for you?

I don’t know.  I mean, I have some shows booked for later in the year. I have this rough idea in my head that I’m going to pull these completed songs together into some clump and get them released later in the year. I think, I have had an idea that I’m going to start  entering songwriting contests, which I haven’t done in a long long time.  Just to see if I can move the needle a little bit. Other than that, Al, I don’t know. It just seems to be what it is right now. I’m really just trying to be the best songwriter I can be, based on my understanding of what that means.

Well, you are doing a fine job of it.

Thanks!

From one songwriter to another, I admire your work a great deal

Thank you, Al

Upcoming Interview Series

I have decided to interview some select Michigan songwriters as a blog series.  I have always had an affinity for those who pour their spirits into music. I have also had a desire to conduct interviews, as I consider a good interview an art in itself. The stories of our local artists are, to me, as interesting as the stories of the most famous and successful.

I will try to ask both the easy, “must ask” questions, as well as a few that might shine a light on the magic of inspiration and creation. I will be limiting the interviews to songwriting artists for now, though a series based on local gifted musicians might be equally interesting in the future.

I have always felt that there is an abundance of talent that, while world class, never makes it to the musical mainstream, for whatever reason. Having chased that dream myself, I know how not catching it feels. But musical stories don’t end when such a dream dies. Some people are just wired to be creators, no matter what happens.

I have several willing interviewees and I will no doubt discover more as I continue this interview series. If I don’t get everybody, it will just be due to time restraints. I hope some of you enjoy the series.