Tuesday, January 1, 2019

In Search of the Philosopher's Stone: Michelle Willis, December 28, 2018 at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3


Michelle Willis in the moment
Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3
December 28, 2018
image by Roy Abrams
For the past decade, Toronto natives have come to know the magic that their own Michelle Willis has the ability to conjure at a song’s notice. Her singular set of vocal cords possesses an otherworldly ability to identify, isolate, assimilate, and transmit the essence of her emotions into songs that captivate, transfix, and deeply move the listener. Willis's 2016 solo debut, See Us Through, presents the artist as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the Four Elements.

My introduction to this extraordinary artist took place through Lighthouse, a 2016 release by David Crosby. Billed as a solo effort, the album was recorded with the help of three brilliant younger musical collaborators: Michael LeagueBecca Stevens, and Michelle Willis. From both the album and follow-up tours—loved by fans and critics alike—it was apparent that a new “4-Way Street” was evolving, one that foretold of new music on the horizon. Sure enough, two years later came Here If You Listen, the product of true hands-on creative collaboration between all four members of what is now being called the Lighthouse Band. Michelle Willis’s contributions to this album are masterful, highlighting her originality while underscoring the intuitive communication she enjoys with the other three members.

With only a few weeks passed since the triumphant closing show of the Here If You Listen tour, Michelle posted an announcement on social media that fish-hooked my eye: A special solo performance, to be held at the Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, on Friday, December 28th. This intimate show, closing out a year filled with more than 230 live performances, would surely be special for both the artist and her audience. 

Minutes before showtime ...
image by Roy Abrams



Walking into the intimate Stage 3 and taking our seats mere paces from the baby grand piano, my family and I absorbed the glow of red light which bathed the stage in subtle frequencies of mystery and anticipation. This was the moment! Having waited for this opportunity since 2016, I was ecstatic that it was finally here. Having experienced the pure magic of what followed, I am equally ecstatic to have lived it. More than three days elapsed since that unforgettable hour, but the afterglow of that performance remains palpable.


After a casual entrance and a friendly greeting, Michelle took her seat at the piano, adjusted her vocal microphone, closed her eyes, and was gone. Angelic airiness capped ethereal yet earthy elegance. Willis’s smoldering soulfulness sent rivers of fire that flowed in, around, and through songs that gave voice to their author’s innermost hopes, dreams and fears. 

Trust Me,” “See Us Through,” and “It’ll Rain Today”, three tracks from Willis’s 2016 debut solo album, See Us Through, were breathtakingly riveting in this format. So, too, were “Glory” and “Janet” from Here If You Listen. Taken together with a handful of unreleased material and specially-selected covers, Willis revealed to those in attendance what so many Canadians have known for years: She is a force of nature, an ever-changing ratio of the Four Elements, blessed with a voice that David Crosby describes as sounding “like God on a good day.”

Willis’s choice of covers highlighted her eclectic tastes. Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” was treated to a gospel-tinged interpretation, while “Rectify,” penned by renowned Toronto-based artist Rob Piltch but never recorded by him, was introduced as a personal favorite.

The unreleased material proved to contain perhaps the most personal musings of the evening. “Think Well of Me,” a short piece, was introduced as “more a thought than a song.” “Just One Voice,” with its walk up and down motion, featured the decidedly barbed hook, “So tell me, am I crazy now?” “Liberty,” a more mid-tempo song, was described by its creator as “groovy” thanks to its verse. The last of the unpublished songs, “Snow Drift,” was yet another glittering example of muse-mining songwriting skill and finesse.

Chatting with Michelle after the show, I learned that sessions for her next solo album are slated to begin in March. Here’s wishing her all the best for a fulfilling New Year on all levels!



© Roy Abrams 2019


Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Lifetime High: David Crosby in Conversation

David Crosby
Image by Anna Webber

David Crosby is back with another masterpiece. Well into his eighth decade, hot on the heels of his fourth album in as many years, the Byrds and CSN(Y) co-founder is flying high, soaring to new creative heights with Here If You Listen, a collaborative effort with Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League. The quartet originally convened for the Lighthouse album, released in 2016, and followed with a critically-acclaimed series of tours. Where Lighthouse and Here If You Listen diverge is that the former was approached and billed as a Crosby solo album, while the new release is a true group effort: All four artists contribute their unique sensibilities to both lyrics and music, and the result in nothing short of brilliance. Consider Crosby’s compatriots: Michael League, mastermind of Snarky Puppy and a myriad of other musical projects; Becca Stevens, a singer-songwriter who represents what a Crosby/Joni Mitchell “soul child” may well have sounded like; and Michelle Willis, a Toronto-born singer-songwriter once described by Crosby as sounding “like God on a good day.”   


Harmony fans will bathe in waves of complex vocal stacks that will break over you, lift you up, and gently set you down on the shore of your imagination where Crosby and friends are waiting to take you away. As a self-diagnosed chronic harmony fan, the arrival of the new album was an event, and at the first available opportunity where peace, quiet, and a good set of headphones co-existed, I let the songs break over me, lift me up, and carry me away. Still deep in the absorption stage, I prepared for the impending phone call from an artist for whom I have been increasingly finding myself at a loss for words to describe just how astounding the past four years have been.


No one is more astounded—or grateful—than the artist himself. His youthful voice is filled with the fearless liberation of one whose understanding of the value of time, of the joy and power of music, is at a lifetime high. At 77, David Crosby continues to speak up and sing out.


The current tour winds up on December 8th at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. Our conversation took place on October 9th, just prior to tour rehearsals. 


David Crosby: [sounding for all the world like a 20-year-old] Hi there!
Roy Abrams: David! How are you?


DC: I’m good, man!
RA: Thank you for the call! So … the album is making my brains liquid—
DC: [extended laughter]


RA: I’m kind of running out of superlatives here! I wanted to start off by talking about the harmonies.  I’ve watched some interview snippets with you online regarding what’s taking place here with Here If You Listen. I remember back in the day with CSN when the three of you would hit a (vocal) chord and fall together, laughing. That happens to me, too. However, something else has also happened here with this album. The chemistry developed between the four of you during the recording of Lighthouse has evolved to a degree that ended up with this particular listener being moved to tears.
DC. Man!


RA:Yeah, I had some serious eye leakage listening to this album. If Lighthouse was an alternate universe, then this (new album) is another dimension entirely.
DC: Oh, man. I’m so happy that you like it. It’s an amazing chemistry.


RA: Yeah … I’ve never heard any other project that you’ve been involved with that has produced results to this degree. I don’t have any basis for comparison. I saw the interview when you were talking about “Glory” and the fact that it was a veritable 4-way street … to have that happen, and according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, you were telling them, “You guys are thinking about things too much. Just shut up and go with the thing that feels good!”

DC: [chuckles]


RA: Did they take your advice?
DC: I’m so happy that you love it, man. It’s a magical chemistry. What happened, man, when we did that first Lighthouse record, I was just completely knocked out with working with Michael as the producer and writing with Michael, and then singing with Becca and Michelle. I went to them this time and said, “Listen, I want to do a record, but I don’t want to do another solo record with Michael producing and you guys helping me. I want to do a four-of-us record, where the four of us write and the four of us sing as a group. And they said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Yes, I’m absolutely sure. There’s a chemistry here that’s a thing I want to follow.” And they said, “Oh, boy! Whoopee!” and they jumped in with both feet. They are fiercely talented people.

David and Becca
Image courtesy of David Crosby


RA: Absolutely. Once again, thank you so much for making that introduction to me. Becca and Michelle … I just don’t even know what to say. When their voices blend? That’s just another thing altogether, for which I still can’t find the words, and I’m supposed to be a word guy. Can we go through the album tracks to get a sense of who contributed what?
DC: Sure.


RA: “Vagrants of Venice” … I know those are your lyrics, right?
DC: Yeah, those are my lyrics and Becca wrote the music. All four of us contributed to it a little bit, but basically it’s me and Becca.


RA: “1974” … that’s your music?
DC: Yeah, my music, and we wrote new words to it.


RA: “Your Own Ride”—which, by the way, has killer lyrics—
DC: I wrote those (lyrics) to my son Django about ten years ago, and I gave them to Bill Laurance from Snarky Puppy and he wrote the music.


RA: “Buddha on a Hill” …
DC:  “Buddha on a Hill” we all wrote. It’s basically a love song to my wife.


RA: ”I Am No Artist” …
DC:  A set of words that Becca found and brought, and she wrote the music, and the words are just so strange and wonderful. I think that’s some of the best harmony singing we did.


RA: “1967” …
DC: I think that’s the one where you actually hear me writing the song. You hear me finding the melody in the beginning there. It’s the only time I know of where I actually got the inception, the actual birth of the song, on tape.


RA: Wow. “Balanced on a Pin” …
DC: “Balanced on a Pin” is just a recent song that I wrote … I don’t know if I should tell you this, but it’s very simple; it’s how I feel.


RA: “Other Half Rule” …
DC: That’s us singing to the women of the United States of America: Would you please get more involved and start running things, because we think that you could do a really good job.


RA: I know that “Janet” is essentially Michelle … that was performed last summer on the Sky Trails tour.

DC: That’s Michelle’s song. Boy, what a woman! [laughs]


RA: Congratulations on your recently-concluded European tour! I know that was a long time in the works.

DC: Yeah, it was really good. We tore it up, man. The gig in London was just killer. You should read the Times review!


RA: I did!
DC: The gig in Milan might have been even crazier than the one in London but they were both stunners.


RA: What’s the vibe over there? How do they feel about what’s happening on this side of the pond?
DC: Every conversation, every interview starts with “What the fuck?!?


RA: I can definitely get behind that!
DC: They are baffled; they are worried as well they might be.


RA: I want to circle back to the advice you gave to the other three, about thinking too much. What did Michael, Becca, and Michelle specifically bring to your table? What did you get from each of them?

DC: Each of them is a completely individual writer, not like anybody else I’ve ever heard. So, what I get from them is creative juice. They are incredible artists, all three of them. Michael can play anything well, and he’s such a wonderful composer of music and such a good writer of words. Becca and Michelle are completely different from each other and two of the best singer-songwriters I’ve encountered. I found Joni Mitchell; I do know what I’m doing. 


RA: Yes, you do.
DC: [laughs]


RA: Something that everybody who’s ever worked with you says is that you bring a childlike enthusiasm. Do you recognize this in yourself?
DC: Probably not the same way everybody else does. Yeah, I am enthusiastic. I love this, man, I love singing! I love music! I’m not doing it to get famous or rich, (or to) get laid or anything; I’m doing it because I absolutely adore doing it.


Image courtesy of David Crosby


RA: You and Paul McCartney are the same age and are probably the two busiest men in this business.
DC: Well, we both feel the same thing, which is: We have a certain amount of time left; how do we want to spend it? That’s pretty clear, huh?


RA: Absolutely. The last time we spoke, you mentioned that there was a Cameron Crowe documentary in the works. What’s the status?

DC: It’s done! Ah ha! Whoo! [laughs] We’re gonna sell it at that big movie festival up in Utah. I think it’s an amazing piece of work. It’s probably the most honest documentary I’ve ever seen. We’ll see if people like it or not. I hope they do, because boy, I didn’t pull any punches.


RA: Speaking of punches, you just provided me with a very weird segue … from the same Rolling Stone article, your wife Jan was quoted as saying, “David functions best while simultaneously praised and abused.” Care to comment on that?
DC: [laughs] Yeah, sure! If you have an ego as big as mine, the only healthy thing you can do with it is make fun of it! [cracks up laughing] As often as possible! My family and my close friends all abuse me with great regularity and hilarity. There’s a lot of sense of humor there!

Michael League, Becca Stevens, 
Michelle Willis, David Crosby
Image courtesy of David Crosby


RA: A quick diversion into a question for guitarists: We all know and love the EBDGAD tuning. Is there another alternative tuning you can share with me for the guitarist to experiment with?
DC: Oh, Jeez, let’s see … try DADDGC!


RA: Returning to the feedback you were getting while in Europe, and what’s swirling around now with the November midterms, and where the country may be headed …
DC: Every conversation started off with them being completely aghast and worried as hell because, obviously, Western Europe is very, very strongly linked to the United States, and they used to be able to count on us to be their buddy. Now, we’ve got an idiot running our country and he’s doing great harm to that relationship. So, every conversation I had over there started with “What the hell is going on, and how did you let it get there?” And it’s embarrassing, and it’s tough. I made jokes about it, I tell people we’re all gonna wear a Canadian maple leaf on our shoulders and (say) we’re Canadians, because everybody likes Canadians! But it’s very tough in Europe right now to be an American; it’s embarrassing.


RA: Do you have a sense of where the midterms are going?
DC: [sighs] I know where I want them to go, man, but what you’ve got to remember is there’s people like the Koch brothers who committed $80,000,000 in swiping that election publicly.


RA: As important as the issue behind the No Nukes movement was (and is), the U.N. report on climate change that just came out yesterday is an issue that seems to be a rallying point for humanity. My question to you is: could, should musical artists help to lead the way in terms of awareness—
DC: We’re human beings and we live here; we have a responsibility to our families, to our children, to our children’s children. The worst part in what this current administration is doing isn’t the damage to our democracy, which is awful, and it isn’t the damage to the belief in our democracy, which is even worse; it’s the fact that by not doing anything about global warming, by denying any report that gets in the way of profits, we are doing a disservice to the entire human raceevery single human being on the planet when we’re supposed to be a developed nation with the intelligence and the technology to lead the way to fixing it, we’re doing this awful, backsliding, stupid, ignorant move, and we’re doing harm to the entire planet and everybody on it. Not a good thing.


RA: I agree. The last time we spoke was in May, just before you toured the U.S. with the Sky Trails band, we were speaking about the activism of musical artists, you brought up the CSNY mothership, so to speak, and you said that you felt that they should be out there adding their collective voice to the mix. Have your thoughts changed at all regarding that?
DC: I wish we were! You gotta remember, the last time we got together was to sing Neil’s “Let’s Impeach the President for Lying” which is a perfect song to be singing right now!          We were just singing it a little too early; we didn’t realize we were gonna have a liar of this proportion to work with. I wish we would; I don’t think it’s gonna happen, but I get messages every day on Twitter and Facebook saying, “Will you pleeeease stop bickering with each other and do your job? Be our voice; we need it now." And I agree, and I would like to. But it’s up to Neil, it’s always been up to Neil, and it’s up to Neil now.


RA: It was interesting this summer to see how the others’ songs were popping up on everybody’s set lists …
DC: I don’t know about that; I’ve been doing “Ohio” but that’s normal. I don’t think any of them ever do my songs.


RA: Graham performed “Orleans” which was on your If I Could Only Remember My Name.

DC: That’s a French children’s song, it’s not my song.


RA: At one point, did you add Graham's “Marguerita” to one of the European shows? I had seen a reference to that from a fan on Facebook.
DC: No, they made a mistake.


RA: I understand that you’ve already started writing for the next Sky Trails band album.
DC: Yeah, we already are.


RA: Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, how do you find the time?
DC: You know, it’s what I said before, man. You look at your life, you know that you have a certain amount of time; anybody my age knows that they’ve got a certain amount of time. And you think to yourself, okay, how do I spend this time? Do I sit around, retire, and stare at the walls? What do I do? To me, there’s only one contribution I can make. There’s only one place I can do anything personally; me, to make anything better. And that’s to be doing my job, to be making the music, the best music I can make, as fast as I can do it.

Image courtesy of David Crosby


RA: The upcoming tour starts on November 2nd in Seattle and winds up in Port Chester, NY on December 8th. Have rehearsals started yet?
DC: Just about to.


RA: It’s been decades, and I always want to just express my thanks.
DC: Well, thank you, man, and thank you for the help!


(Island Zone Update features additional interviews with David Crosby from 2014 to 2018.)


© Roy Abrams 2018

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Everybody Get Together: Jesse Colin Young Returns

Jesse Colin Young
image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young



A great song crystallizes the time and place where it’s first heard, embedding itself into one’s DNA, permanently placed onto the soundtrack of one’s life. As a young child during the summer of 1969, I was captivated by a magical song that featured ethereal guitar playing, angelic vocals, and a timeless message that has lost none of its original resonance nearly fifty years later. Written by Chet Powers a/k/a Dino Valente, the interpretation of “Get Together” recorded by Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods is the universally definitive version, one that has retained every ounce of beauty, elegance, grace, and hope for humanity since its release a half-century ago.

Jesse Colin Young personifies the troubadour role of the singer-songwriter. With a career spanning six decades and nearly twenty albums, the outspoken artist is returning to the concert stage, armed with powerful new material and backed by a seven-strong band of young musical wunderkinder, led by his son Tristan. The new album, recorded earlier this year, features topical songs whose mission it is to awaken and inspire listeners to rise to the challenges that face our society during these deeply troubling times. Young and his band will be performing at the Boulton Center in Bay Shore on Thursday, October 4th. In our recent conversation, Young proved that he is back with a vengeance after an eight-year retirement, eager to share these new songs while celebrating the old, ready to take on the status quo and encourage everybody to get together, right now.

Roy Abrams: How are you today?
Jesse Colin Young: Pretty disappointed in my government, but I’m kind of getting used to it.


RA: You’ll be performing on Long Island at the Boulton Center in Bay Shore on Thursday, October 4th, and I understand you’ll be introducing songs from your latest album that’s in the works.
JCY:  It’s not in the works, it’s done. The work is in getting BMG to release it. I wanted a couple of things to come out (first) because there’s some political music on here. I really hate to call it political but that’s the way it is. I don’t think I’ve found a better word for it yet. If I call it “human condition music” everybody will just go blank. So, “Shape Shifters” will come out and that will be our first single on October 12th. In late October, a song called “For My Sisters” (will be released). Just let me quote you a little bit of this. After I’d written thirteen songs, I thought I was done. My wife and I live in Hawaii in our little house over there that we raised our kids in. She came up to my writing room and I said, “Wow, I’m done!” And she said, “I wish you would write a song for my sisters just to let them know that you’re here and that you support them.” She meant all of her sisters in the world. So I did. As we go into the chorus, the lyrics are:

And though the darkness surrounds us
We feel the love that has bound us
And we won’t take it anymore
You can’t take it anymore
Time to even up the score
Don’t mistake it

And I left out “you sons of bitches” …

After I say
This is a song for my sisters
I say:

This is a song for resistors
Everything we hold dear
A world where everyone’s welcome
And all our voices are heard
And though the darkness surrounds us
We feel the love that has bound us.

That’s exactly what I felt. It’s funny: Two days before that, I had watched a film of the Women’s March; the one that came right after Trump took office. In the body language of the women and men who were in that march, I got (the message) clear, right across my brain. It said, “We won’t take it anymore.” And God bless Dr. Ford! As tiny as she is, with that little voice … and the death threats … she’s a hero. To prostrate herself in front of all those—


RA: Whatever you want to call them—
JCY: --and bring that story forward because she felt it was her civic duty. You know, I grew up in a time after World War II when telling the truth was something good, and you were applauded for that. It was kind of like, “Yeah, I was smoking a cigarette. I just wanted to try it.” Even when (telling) the truth was difficult. There was a certain respect for girls and women that I guess I just absorbed from my father. What this event in the judiciary process says to young men is: “You can get away with this. If you cover your ass well, you can get away with this.” That’s the worst thing that we can say to young men growing up.


RA: On your website, you make the statement that you feel “compelled to speak about these times.”  First of all, I applaud you mightily, because in my opinion, I don’t see enough artists that are actually taking a stand.
JCY: It’s kind of weird. I was retired. My son graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2016 and we went to his senior recital, my wife Connie and I. The band that he had put together to play some fusion were all in their early 20s and they just blew me away. That light had gone out in me. I hadn’t toured in eight years, I think, but it just came back on. I said, “You know, before I hang it up, I’m gonna play my music with some kids like this.” They are amazing, and that’s who I’m bringing with me. There’s seven of them and me; they’re all in their 20s and they’re all young geniuses.

RA: There’s another artist with whom you share that same sociopolitical awareness and outspokenness, and that’s David Crosby. Something that David is doing right now is also working with young people, and from what you just said to me, it sounds like the two of you feel the exact same way about that relationship.
JCY: Yeah. I haven’t seen David on the road, and I haven’t seen him in person since Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young came to Atlanta. I took my grown son, Tristan, who must have been 15 or 16—he’s 27 now—so it must have been about 10 years ago.

RA: It was 2006, the last CSNY tour.
JCY: I was backstage and said to him, “God damn it, you’re singing beautifully, like an angel!” He said, “Yeah, I’m having a good night.”

image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

RA: Speaking of voices, from the time I was eight years old, your voice has been burned into my consciousness with your calling card, per se, “Get Together.” I’m wondering: As a songwriter, how have you reconciled your relationship with that song as its popularizer as opposed to being the author of so many other songs? How is the relationship similar? How is it different?
JCY: I’m kind of glad I didn’t write it! I would be more like Trump. I would think I was the best thing since white bread if I wrote that song. [chuckles] Because it came straight from the angels. I met Dino years after, in San Francisco, at the motorcycle shop. He was kind of a tough guy; he must have been raised on Long Island, or somewhere on the East Coast, as I was. I thought to myself, “God! How did “Get Together” come out of Dino?” I mean, he was famous for … they would get drunk in Quicksilver and get in fistfights with each other; at least, this was the scuttlebutt. The Youngbloods had already become part of that scene, having moved there in ’67. I don’t think I met Dino until ten years after that. The lyrics are so incredibly angelic. So, when I discovered it, I thought I was kind of a tough guy; at least I was an arrogant, angry young man—I was happy to be an angry young man, and my manager said, “What are you singing that song for? That’s not up your alley.” He was destined to leave … [laughs] It was right up my alley. I knew that it was my path forward; it has always been out there in front of me. It’s like a great eagle, a great message from heaven that flaps its wings and reminds me, “Come on, man. You’re not quite making it here.” And it’s what called me to come back. We had our second rehearsal with this band, which my son Tristan helped me put together; these are all his friends from Berklee. Our second rehearsal was after Election Day, which was a terrible day for me and a terrible day for them. Three of them are here by the grace of the United States government on artist’s visas. I thought, “What’s gonna happen?”And of course, we just went straight forward. But I don’t want to skirt around your question. Nothing that I’ve written has been as accepted as “Get Together”, even “Darkness, Darkness”, and that’s okay. Maybe some of this (new music) … this is some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I look back and see that of all the songs with the Youngbloods, only “Darkness, Darkness” and “Sunlight” have lived on. They’re certainly in the show, with “Get Together,” of course. This album, Dreamers, there’s no filler on it. There are a lot of things that I felt absolutely driven to talk about. I didn’t set out to do this; it just kind of took me by storm. When “For My Sisters” came through at the end, I feel very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about the Dreamers, so I wrote a song called “They Were Dreamers.” On my father’s side, we go back to the first child born on the Mayflower when it was at harbor that winter. They were dreamers; only half of them survived. And then, the Scots and Irish, on my mother’s side, they came in the middle 1800s, starving and hungry for freedom and food. And then the Germans, who came to Nova Scotia, because the English came and wanted stout German peasants to settle Nova Scotia; that’s my Grandma’s people. They were dreamers.



Jesse, guitar, and friend
image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

RA: How do the members of your band view what’s going on with our country today? Do they see a way out of this? Do they see a way forward?
JCY: [lengthy pause] I don’t know.

RA: I ask because in addition to music journalism, I also teach high school and middle school students. I have a lot of hope for the future because I work with young people all day. They see the way the adults are behaving.
JCY: Do they see it? I’m wondering … [chuckles] of course, I live in the South, I’m surrounded by red, and I’m just not there. I’m from New York and I was raised in New England. I don’t have any people I can speak to. I foolishly opened the political Pandora’s Box in the waiting room of my chiropractor, which was definitely a mistake!

RA: It sounds like we’re on the same page. You listen to what some people have to say and wonder if they’re living on the same planet. It’s extraordinary.
JCY: Do the kids see a way forward?


RA: Yeah! They are taught to never be spoon-fed information, to get their information from as many verifiable sources as possible, carefully think about the information, and draw their own conclusions. They realize that for every person who says that something’s not possible, in general there’s probably a lot of fear behind that negativity.
JCY:  Right.


RA: At least, that’s been my experience since the election. The week after the election, for many of my students, I found that I was acting as a grief counselor.
JCY: Let’s talk about “Shape Shifters”, the first single to come out. As far as I’m concerned, there are no “alternative facts.” [laughs] There is the truth and the facts, and then there’s half-truths and half-lies, and all this other stuff. I just realized the other day when I saw a clip of Nikki Haley—you remember how they laughed at Trump at the U.N., when he was saying that he had the greatest administration since George Washington or something, and there was chuckling going on. And there was Nikki Haley on Fox and Friends saying, “They were laughing with him. They love him because he’s so human and available.” It’s Disneyland! They’ve created another world! How confusing that must be to young people. I mean, what are the facts? They turned that right around to the opposite of what I’m assuming it was, and they’re presenting that as the truth. They’re shape shifters; that’s what I call them, and that’s what the first song we’re releasing is about, and it’s important that it comes out before the election. It’s just crying out, it’s saying for God’s sake, get off your ass and get out there and vote! I mean, there are several things that put Trump in the Oval Office, but I think the main one was voter apathy. It was only 25% of the American people that put him in. That’s pitiful. So, it’s tyranny; it’s tyranny of the minority. I’m amazed, but maybe I shouldn’t be. I mean, when it hits 60%, it’s like a giant thing?


RA: Do you think we’re nearing a time when the era of complacency is over?
JCY: God, I hope so. There a lot of people who have drunk the Kool-Aid. There are many people who just don’t care enough. The Trump administration is busy deconstructing America, deconstructing all of the wonderful and hard-fought things that we’ve earned … to keep poison out of our grandchildren’s mouths, in the air and the water; all kinds of deconstruction … filling the judicial benches with right-wing nut jobs like Kavanaugh.


RA: How long were the recording sessions for the new record? I understand you recorded it in Nashville.
JCY: Yeah, we recorded at Sound Emporium, which was founded in 1969, the year that “Get Together” would hit big. I didn’t discover this until we were already there. I chose it for the sight lines … I’m playing acoustic guitar, so I had to be in the main room (with) drums, bass, and keyboards, but then the sax player had to be in an isolation room, but we all played and sang live on the tracks. It took eight days to cut the tracks, I think. I think five days into it, I had two vocals and seven tracks, and one day I walked in there and there were some visitors; there was the head of the Americana Music Association. I just got out there and whipped off a couple of vocals. It’s nice to meet people that I haven’t met before who love the music who are like a new audience. I said, “Don’t leave, man. I have to do a vocal while you’re here.” I think I went through one or two. We were five days into it and the vocals were not forthcoming and I was not pushing them. I got through four or five in one afternoon.


RA: That’s fantastic.
JCY: I was no longer worried. And then we had another three or four days overdubbing, putting the gals on. They weren’t really backup singers, they were harmony singers. I’d been recording myself for so long, since I built a studio in the ‘70s, but I hadn’t made an album under the gun like that in decades.


RA: Is there a firm release date for the album?
JCY: I don’t think (BMG) wants to bring it out until we’ve released maybe four singles. “For My Sisters” will come out before the election. There’s only two sisters that can save us from Kavanaugh (Senators Collins and Murkowski) but I don’t trust any of them to be a human first. When Corker came out of that room yesterday after he listened to that woman and said he would vote for Kavanaugh, I couldn’t believe it. How could they do this? Oh. They’re lawyers. I don’t know whether Flake’s a lawyer but Corker’s definitely one. Almost all of them are, and they think like lawyers first. If they thought like human beings first, they’d have said, “If this is a true story, this is true. It happened, whether Kavanaugh remembers it or not, that’s not my problem. It happened—he did it; that’s his problem to work out in his life. Obviously, he might have blocked it out, but he ruined her life and he should not be on the Supreme Court.


RA: What’s it like getting back out there on the road after eight years?
JCY: I love to play. I don’t like to drive around. I used to love it. I used to drive around in a motor home with the whole band in the back. I’d climb in the driver’s seat after the show and drive for a while … it was crazy. I did it all, but that love of cruising around America is over. I’ve done it enough, but it’s what necessary to get to the people, and the people are out there. Every time we go to a new place, people fall in love with the new music … God, they love “For My Sisters.” So, this set has four or five songs from the album. It’s not one set; I come out and do a short solo set in the front of the show. The first couple of songs are from my folk career. I wrote a song called “Lyme Life.” I’ve had Lyme Disease for more than twenty years and when you have it for untold decades without being diagnosed, you’re stuck with it. The AMA used to say there’s no such thing as chronic Lyme and now, they admit there might be. Having lived with it, and tried it with and without antibiotics, I couldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t on a regimen that was developed by Dr. Richard Horowitz who lives up in Hyde Park, NY; his wife has chronic Lyme, so he’s trying to figure out a cure for her. He moved to the Hudson Valley when he came out of medical school and it’s just rife with Lyme Disease. It’s one of the hot spots in the country, so he became a Lyme doctor almost out of necessity.


RA: I want to thank you for two reasons: One, for being the voice behind one of the songs that’s been part of the soundtrack to my life for the past fifty years. Two, for continuing to speak up and speak out; I wish it were more prevalent.
JCY: Yeah! Maybe this will spark something. I hope so! I hope my peers will look at this and say, “Hey, we should be writing more of this stuff!”


RA: And it should be an inspiration to young people as well.
JCY: I don’t listen to a lot of (new) music, although when cool stuff comes along, my son usually says, “Dad, look up these guys.”  You said you were a teacher. I experimented with teaching ukulele at the Waldorf School that Connie and I and some others in the community built in Hawaii, and that Waldorf School still stands; it is now a charter school. We couldn’t stay there—Connie wanted to come home where her family is and be with them before they passed away. So, Kona Pacific is now called “charter school” but it still maintains the Waldorf curriculum. Trying to teach ukulele to younger children was okay, but it got harder (as the students got older) and my estimation for teachers soared. I did it for a couple of years. I taught ukulele; I learned it because we needed a ukulele teacher and our aide moved off-island and they didn’t have anybody to hire, so I said, “Well, I can learn this.” My students never knew that I was one song ahead of them! [chuckles]


RA: Thanks so much for your time today.
JCY: Great talking to you!

image courtesy of Jesse Colin Young

© Roy Abrams 2018

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Papa Twig Revealed: A Conversation with Ronnie D'Addario

Ronnie D'Addario
image courtesy of Ronnie D'Addario


Great new music is discovered in a myriad of ways, as experience has taught me throughout my life. Perhaps the most unusual introduction took form in the shape of two sons’ praise for their father. Given that the sons in this case were none other than Brian and Michael D’Addario, better known as the Lemon Twigs, my curiosity was instantly piqued. Ronnie D’Addario has been quietly recording and releasing music for the past four decades, and may well have escaped my radar altogether if not for his sons’ recognition of their father as a primary influence upon their prodigious songwriting talent. With the discovery process now underway, I soon realized two things: First, that I needed to thank Brian and Michael for the recommendation; second, that their father is a songwriting wizard whose sense of melody, harmony, and arrangement calls to mind both Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. That’s no hyperbole; that’s fact.

The first track I listened to, “The Walking Wounded,” sounded as if Macca himself had magically teleported into the session to contribute vocals to the song’s outro.  The song embedded itself into my consciousness, and for days on end, no matter where I was or what I was doing, there it was. Then, embarking on a quest to digest Ronnie D’Addario’s vast musical output, I soon realized that a major songwriting talent has been quietly lurking in our midst. In reaching out to arrange an interview, I asked Ronnie if his sons wouldn’t mind contributing a list of their individual Top Ten favorite “Dad” songs as a guide to discovery. Happily, they agreed, and while listening to the tracks they listed, it was readily apparent that Dad has played a major role in shaping the unique songwriting talents of each of his sons.

And so it was that on a beautiful July afternoon, I found myself sitting across from Ronnie D’Addario in the living room of his Long Island home, where we ended up chatting for more than two hours about—well, about a whole lot of things. In the process, I got to meet and make friends with the two family dogs (shout out to Mona and Bruce!), chat a bit with Brian and Michael, and soak in the aura of an extraordinarily close musical family.

Here is our conversation, slightly edited for clarity. Read and enjoy!

Roy Abrams: This is an interesting situation. I discovered your music through your sons. To have that introduction come from such an unlikely source is a unique occurrence. I thank your sons! Now, we’re both die-hard Beatles fans--
Ronnie D’Addario: Yeah.


RA: --and I’m sitting and listening to your music and … well, on the outro of “The Walking Wounded” I said to my wife, “It sounds like Paul McCartney is doing a cameo here.”  Your ear for harmonies and the arrangements bring to mind not only The Beatles, but also Brian Wilson, The Zombies, Burt Bacharach, and Gilbert O’Sullivan. The earlier albums have a Paul/Wings from the early ‘70s vibe and your later albums have more of the feel of Paul’s recent “Golden Age”, from Flaming Pie to Memory Almost Full.
RD: I think I got more into layered harmonies later on, and that was mainly because I had more tracks. Also, because I got into The Beach Boys late; I got into them with the Surf’s Up album in ’71. I never paid attention to them when I was a kid, which is weird. I was so involved with the British Invasion and everything, and, you know, like everybody, after Sgt. Pepper, you’re into The Doors and Cream, and all that stuff.  I love the later Beatles stuff, but in terms of bands like the Doors and Cream, Led Zeppelin and all those bands, my heart is more into the earlier pop music where it was more song-oriented. I mean, I liked that (other) stuff because you’re at the age where when your friends like it, then you like It … Hendrix and all that … but I was always geared more towards songs.


RA: You saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show at age 10 and started playing the guitar as a result. Having listened to your music virtually incessantly for the past several days, I can hear that the Beatle roots run deep.
RD: Yeah.

RA: Can you place yourself back in front of the TV while that was going on? What were you feeling?
RD: Yeah. Amazement, like everybody else who was my age—or younger or older—the music just went through me … you know how when you were a kid, that music goes through you and you get that feeling and you seldom get that again when you’re older. I mean, once in a while you do, maybe because you’re more educated musically, or things aren’t as good, but when I saw them, the way they looked, the way they played that type of music … it knocked me out. I did nothing but think about it!

RA: And you started playing guitar right around then?
RD: Yeah, my Mom bought me a guitar that summer. I figured everything out with three chords, got everything wrong, learned some licks.

RA:  When did your first band come along?
RD: My first band wasn’t for a while. I wasn’t in bands when I was a kid. In fact, I was usually the only guitar player in my school, because it wasn’t as prevalent then. I remember in fifth grade, we did a performance of Charlie Brown [sings: He’s a clown!]I was playing guitar, and my part was “why is everybody always pickin’ on me?” …and the nuns laughed. I went to both Catholic and private schools, which is the worst thing to do, because you get used to freedom and then you’re in a regimented thing … but that’s a whole other story! Just out of high school, I was in a band with my two cousins, Randy and Johnny, and we just did a lot of Beatles songs. Not much has changed. Then, I worked in a studio in Manhattan a block away from my house. I was on 54th between 7th and Broadway, and place was on the corner of 54th and 8th, called Dimensional Sound, and that’s where I met a lot of the friends that I still have. We worked for no money--$15 a week lunch money—and made friends with a guy named Paul Rutner, and then he introduced me to Nick Lohri and Buddy Zech, and all these Long Island people, so I would get picked up at the Wantagh train station; every weekend, I would stay at his house for two days, and we’d rehearse all weekend. We did The Who, The Beatles, The Hollies, all those bands. We also did Bowie and that kind of stuff. We never played out much. We were just a “basement band.”

RA: As most bands are at that time!
RD: Yeah! I remember we might have done two gigs at a place called The Iron Horse. Do you remember that place?

RA: The name rings a bell. Was it in Babylon?
RD: It was probably in the area. At that time there was My Father’s Place which—I think they’re open again?

RA: Yeah, it’s in the Roslyn Hotel. Eppy’s back and involved with it.
RD: Well, we weren’t big enough to play there. In that band, I remember we started rehearsing “Take In a Show.” That was the first time we started doing an original, but then we all got so frustrated that we just broke up. We didn’t know anything. I remember when we lost our guitarist we did the typical thing (of) putting in the ads in the Village Voice. You know how they always have “We’ve got Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, we need John and Keith.” So, we all had these lists that said instrument, tastes, how he looked, and then age: “26—too old!” [chuckles]


RA: I remember those ads …
RD: So, that was the first band I was in. I think we were called The Quick, then I was in another band with a lot of the same guys called The Noise, and then maybe two changes of members and there was The Firemen, then there was The Press …. (the bands) always had some of the same people in it. That’s where the kids (got it), before they were doing the Lemon Twigs, they were Members of The Press. They got that from our band. Now, I’m still in a classic rock band. I was in an original band; we tried it, but nothing happened. I’ve been in this band for 30 years and we used to play every weekend, doing the same songs. We didn’t want to get heavy; we didn’t want to be this major cover band that had this great equipment (and) had to rehearse and learn every latest song. We just did the same songs we’ve been doing since fifth grade … mostly ‘60s and ‘70s, some ‘50s stuff like the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry; not the doo-wop stuff. So, Paul Rutner was the drummer, and I went to his house, and he had a drum set, and that’s where I did all the drums for Take In a Show. We had one crappy microphone that actually sounds okay, but I had a click track and a rhythm guitar, and I knew the songs inside and out. I hardly ever played drums—it was always on my knees, because I didn’t have a drum set! So, I ran through it once, and he recorded me with one mic onto one track. I think I did all those drum tracks in one day, and then took my 4-track home and overdubbed the rest. That was in 1976.


RA: When did The Muse first hit you, as a songwriter?
RD: When I was eleven. I’ve got the whole list. I used to write (them) down; I don’t do it much anymore, but I have a list of every song that I’ve ever written, what year it was, how old I was. My first songs were just kind of ridiculous. I don’t know how this is gonna sound in an interview if I sing it, but [sings} I love you and I wanna be true … I love you, please don’t make me blu-u-u-u-ue. Now, that’s right out of Beatles (song), probably “Ask Me Why” or something. [chuckles] Then I had this ridiculous song called “I Nearly Died.” The lyric was “I nearly died”, from “No Reply” and the music was from “There’s a Place.” I used to have recordings of all those. When I was in high school, I was listening to it one day, and I got so embarrassed that I erased it, which was the dumbest thing, because now I wish I had it. My Mom almost went nuts when I told her. I had a little Revere tape recorder when I was a kid, so I always had stuff like that around. I had that when I was nine, playing with this little tape recorder.


RA: When did you first start to pursue a record deal?
RD:  Probably after I did that Take In a Show album, so ’76. I was 21. What I did was, those (tracks) to me were demos, really, and I remember going into Media Sound, a recording studio, and trying to get a spec deal. Now, I wanted to record them over, and they liked it, but they just didn’t … maybe (because) it wasn’t disco or something; I guess I wasn’t doing stuff that was “happening” … there was a lot of disco around at that time. In fact, I was in a studio band at Dimensional Sound where we would cover all the records of the time; it was “not the original artists,” it was us. I’d hear myself singing “Laughter In the Rain” on TV. [mimics announcer’s voice]“Not the original artists!” And you’d get maybe 20 hits for five bucks, or whatever it was, and the grooves (on the record) were really small.  And they were horrible. We would take eight songs home on a Friday, come in on Monday, and knock eight things off. They would have the original record on track 24. We played along, listening, and we sounded dead because we were listening to it. Once in a while the drummer would take an extra roll because it was a tricky 9-bar verse instead of 8. It was good for my bass chops, because there were a lot of cool bass lines going on.


RA: There are a lot of cool bass lines in your music.
RD: Oh, yeah. Especially earlier; I don’t do that much now.


RA: That’s interesting, because it’s the same trajectory that McCartney took. He still does some really cool bass lines here and there.
RD: I don’t know why that happens. Maybe when you’re younger, you’re really driven, you want everything to happen, and then when you’re older, you want the song to be the thing.


RA: I know what you mean; the focus is elsewhere.
RD: Yeah! But I still love when I hear McCartney doing great bass lines on his records, and I do enjoy nice bass lines. I got a little bit more into that on that last album (The Many Moods of Papa Twig) because the kids were pushing me on that.


RA: The production displays a great deal of thoughtfulness.
RD:  You know, that first album, I kind of just forgot about it; they’re the ones that really liked it. They said, “We love that one because it’s all real instruments.” Later on, I got into a little bit of MIDI stuff, which I tried to make sound real. I think they’re good piano sounds, decent string sounds, but if you listen to their new album, their strings sound great. They had string players; in fact, some teachers from their high school.


RA: One of the things I hear, as a songwriter, is your attention to arrangements. There’s nothing cluttered about them; there’s a lot of air.
RD: I try …

RA: When you’re writing a song, are arrangement ideas starting to gel in your head while it’s happening?
RD: Yeah. I’m definitely hearing arrangements while I’m writing, which is why sometimes in a band situation—because I’ve been in some bands where we were doing originals—a band called The Rock Club, and again, you can probably compare it to McCartney, but because these arrangements come to you when you’re writing a song, when it comes time to rehearse (it) with a band, you want to give them some parts … which is, in one sense, unfair to them because (for example) the bass player would say, “Well I really wish you’d give me a chance to come up with my own parts.” And I would say, “This is part of the song.” It’s like if you wrote “Day Tripper” and you had this lick, and you said, “This is the lick,” (and the response was) “Let me come up with my own, since I’m the bass player.”  “But that’s the lick!” And so, I had a tendency to do that, but having known what happened with The Beatles … we use them as all our yardsticks, for every pitfall every band goes through, they’re the ones that went through it first (at least to us, they were). I knew the resentment that could happen, so I would always try to be diplomatic, whereas I don’t think McCartney was diplomatic. Maybe he tried, but you could hear the resentment from the other people, except Ringo, who I’m sure welcomed his drum parts. But you’re right—these arrangements come out of nowhere, thank God! I don’t usually have to work that hard on a production because when I’m writing a song, because by the time I finish the song, I’ve already got all these parts! I didn’t have to work. I mean, you have to do some work! I just hear it; I’m not forced to work really hard to do it.

RA: Does the same thing apply to your harmony stacks?
RD: Yeah! Well, if it’s a song that really depends on harmony, then  … when I was younger, I would just work hours and hours and hours. I couldn’t believe Brian yesterday—he wrote a new song, and he worked on it for frickin’ twelve hours. I remember I used to do that—I can’t do that now! I go three hours, I’m shot. Just trying to get the energy to even start is not easy. Back to your question, sometimes my goal is to do as little as possible. I want to fill up wherever the song needs without exactly having to add too much. And so I put in everything that the song needs, as little as possible, so I don’t have to do the work. This sounds weird! But then I’ll listen and go, “You know what? It sounds good; I could leave it.” But I, as a listener, am missing those oohs, those aaahs, little answering things. I got all the basic things; the one harmony line topping the lead here and there, and I’m trying to get away with not doing all these pads, these chords … maybe I can get it with just holding some strings down. But you know what? When I listen to The Beach Boys, I like to hear those harmonies, and I think when people listen to my stuff, they’d probably like to hear that, so I go, “Ah, hell!” [chuckles] and I’ll spend another thirty hours. You know?


RA: Yeah!
RD: It’s almost like playing games with yourself to try and get through it. Now, sometimes I’ll be incredibly inspired, and I’ll work longer. But it’s hard to … I don’t know how you feel when you’re writing, whether you’re totally enthused … it’s hard to get up that energy to start. I’d just as soon get out of bed, watch TV, eat, take a nap, get out of bed again, have another meal, watch TV … but I know those days when I get up and I hop in the shower and (think) ”Okay, I gotta do something now because I’m not greasy, I don’t gotta hide away!” I’ll tell you something that inspired the last two albums. I had a lot of songs from the ‘80s that always hung over my head, because I couldn’t get up the energy to record them. I record all day at work, by the way. We do an album a year, and every other year we do two albums; one’s a Christmas album, one’s a regular album. So, I must have done 200 songs for that school.


RA: When you say “regular album” you mean ….?
RD: They’re Christian albums, but it’s pop/rock stuff but with Christian themes. I’ve even written some things for them. So, I’m recording every day … so to come home try and work on my stuff … I’m kinda shot. But you know, I said, I wanna get rid of (these songs). I wanna get ‘em on—I was gonna say on tape!—I wanna get them recorded before I croak, and before I lose my voice … because I’m seeing all these people that are having a hell of a time singing now. Some of them can still do it; some of them can’t. The other day, somebody posted a performance that John Sebastian was doing. He does that storyteller type of thing, and he’s completely shot. He lowered the key (which McCartney doesn’t do) but he still couldn’t … [whispers} “Do you believe in magic?” So I was thinking, boy, I better get all these songs recorded. The last two albums—A Very Short Dream and The Many Moods of Papa Twi­g—about half of the songs on each album were already written years ago. The newest song on Papa Twig was “Love Unconditional” which I wrote for my boys, but “The Beginning of the Day” or “Get It Right” were written in the ‘80s. In one way, I’m kind of glad, because if I would have done them back then I wouldn’t have as good equipment, but for years, that always bothered me. What also helped was the kids getting with 4AD, and You Are The Cosmos Records getting in touch with me, wanting to release my stuff, that kind of gave me a little bit of incentive, too.


RA: The first time I heard “Get It Right,” I was driving, and I pulled over so I could completely focus on the music … and here’s a strange question for you: Have you ever attempted to make any inroads into the Macca camp?
RD: I wish! I mean, I’ve never met Paul, and I’ve never attempted to try and get something to him, because I don’t know how to do that, and now that the kids have some connections (because everybody’s connected a little bit), I don’t want to impose on them. It’s funny … you say (to yourself), the minute I get an “in”, I’ll do it.” Well, now I have an “in” but they’re my kids, and I don’t want to bug ‘em when they’re trying to do their career. I’ll tell you a funny story, talking about the McCartney thing: Brian was sitting on the couch, texting for a long time. (Finally), I asked him, “What are you doing?” “Ah, I’m texting Mary McCartney.” “Mary McCartney. Paul’s daughter?” I ask. He goes, “Yeah, she likes us.” And they’re there for a half hour, texting. She wants to meet them, or if they’re in England. She took a picture of them coming out of Abbey Road Studios, and they didn’t even know it! She recognized them and took a picture, which is on my website. So then, you think, wow! That’s one step from meeting the big guy! But then you think, what am I gonna do? Ask the kids, “Hey, can you get my stuff to ... ?” Sometimes I think of a song that might be good for an artist, which I think is more realistic than try to say to somebody, “Hey, Paul! Could you get me a record deal? I’m 63! All the kids love that!” You know, I got a gimmick! We’ll work backwards!” [laughs] But, I’ll have a song like “A Drunk Man Speaks a Sober Man’s Mind” … a lot of people tell me I should get that to Vince Gill. (I had written it mainly for George Jones, but he’s not around.) So, I’m thinking, that’s a pretty good suggestion. I looked up one address, an agent or something, but then I thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if I should ask the kids’ manager if he’s made any “ins” but it’s almost like … I don’t wanna … you know, they’re busy with their own careers.

When I was younger, I thought, instead of these record company slimes, if only I could get to an artist, but then I thought, even if you do that, they’re busy with their own careers. It’s very rare that you get somebody like Foxygen, who the kids liked, and sent Rado their tape, and he actually said, “I like this!”  Brian said (to him), “Will you be our Richard Swift?” Because that’s what Foxygen did. They gave their (tape) to him, and he liked them, and he helped them. And Jonathan Rado helped them out. That’s part of the whole media … they did it through Twitter or something. And that was great. Now, if that hadn’t happened, who knows what would have happened with the kids? Although, they’ve been successful their whole career; even on Broadway, they’ve had a lot of good fortune—as well as talent, they’ve had some good fortune, too. Back to the question, sure, I’d love to! I was on Al Jardine’s bus because I got to be friends with Darian Sahanaja. What happened with that was, one day on Facebook, I said, “I got a song on New Girl, “Take In a Show”, they’re going to place it on the show.” All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Darian says, “’Take In a Show’! I love that song!” I went, “WHOA!” That’s the guy who put Smile together, and he’s the musical director for The Beach Boys, he’s played with The Zombies … and we became friends. He got us tickets to a Brian Wilson show and got us backstage; the same with The Zombies … and I was on Al Jardine’s bus, but I’ve got the kids there. Now, in the old days, I would have had a CD with me, always! But what am I going to do? I’ve got Al Jardine, Darian, my two kids … “Hey, Al! Here’s my CD. I think you’ll really dig it.” I don’t have the nerve to do it now. And, what would happen if I did do it, I ask you? I mean, it would be great if he liked it; that would be nice.

Ronnie D'Addario, Darian Sahanaja, and Chris White of The Zombies
image courtesy of Ronnie D'Addario


RA: The presence of your influence upon your sons’ music is palpable.
RD: Yeah, they’ve been telling me that. Michael said (that) when he was writing that song, “Lonely,” he was saying, “Dad, I’m trying to write a song like you!”


RA: Their biggest musical influence happens to be one of their parents. That’s a mind-blower to me.
RD: Well, they had everything around them which I didn’t have; they had the instruments, the recording equipment, they had me to show them the basics. The first thing I showed Michael and Brian was just simple (drums beats). Once they learned the basics, they took off on their own very quickly. Michael was great at the drums and he wouldn’t touch the guitar for a couple of years, even though we wanted him (to) … I’d always (say) “Try guitar!” One day, he was always carrying it; (it was) like something hit him. Then they learned the recording process. They started with Garageband and then they went into Logic. Now, they’re all analog. The big deck is downstairs, 24-track.


RA: How long does it take you to mic a drum set these days? I asked Todd Rundgren that question back in ’93 and he said something like, “Um, about five minutes.”
RD: They’re pretty quick. They started off by just recording drums with one mic, then they did it with two: overhead mic and bass drum. Now, they (use more) but they don’t use like nine mics; one for every part of the drum set. I think they do two overhead, kick drum, snare (with a Shure SM57) … I don’t think they mic the hi-hat, because that leaks under the snare track. They mic the three toms (if they use three toms; sometimes they only use two). I think that’s basically it. They’ve done it so much now that it probably doesn’t take them that long. And, if they get a nice drum sound, I always encourage them, (saying) “Now that you have it, do three tracks, so you don’t have to get sounds again,“ which they do; they know that, anyway. They used a real piano, which is in there (points towards a rear section of the home), so we’ve got wires hooked up to the basement (studio). They will not use anything MIDI … everything is played, nothing is quantized.


RA: You know what’s interesting? I’m looking at the lists that Brian and Michael compiled of their Top Ten “Dad” tracks … Michael gave me twelve, Brian gave me ten; there are four songs overlapping, and as I listened to the others, I’m thinking, “Oh, okay, I can understand the differences,” because the boys have different approaches to songwriting.
RD: Yeah.


Brian's List:


Michael’s List:
Amanda Lynne
Chinese Mind
A Very Short Dream
In Time
Give It Time
Just Passing Through
Yesterday’s News
Nice Meeting You Again


RA: “I See the Patterns” took my breath away … it’s Paul, but it’s original.
RD: You know, it’s more than Paul on that one, it’s more like Bacharach. I love Bacharach; it’s more of the timing … (hums the syncopated melody). Yeah, I’d say (my influences are) Beatles, Beach Boys, Procol Harum, of course, Bacharach … I love Motown and Richard Rodgers—we just saw Carousel the other night. I was really into that album. Everybody was into Hendrix and I was listening to Carousel. You were asking what my favorite songs were and that’s one of them, because it’s so different than my other stuff. The kids really like the song “A Very Short Dream”, in fact, they want to produce an album. They said, “Could you dig up some songs for us?” I said, well, I’m at the point now where I finally recorded everything. I’ve got some old songs that occasionally hit me that I never recorded, but I never recorded them because I didn’t think they were great. I don’t want to give you inferior stuff. And they’d said, no, we always liked this song “If I Were You” that I never recorded, but there’s a performance of me doing it with The Rock Club. It’s like a Chuck Berry-type thing. So they started saying, we want to re-record “I See the Patterns” –we love that song. And I said, Jesus Christ, I hate re-recording stuff. If you can sort of do it to my song and I don’t have to re-do the vocals. Everything is real, what they do. They even have this theremin where they could easily have had a synth, but no, they brought a guy in … I don’t know if it was a theremin or a saw; I know the pitch was very hard to get, although Mike Love does that one live, on “Good Vibrations.” (The album) is coming out good, but it’s slow because they’re so busy.


RA: Who handles the production now on the boys’ songs?
RD: They do their own producing.


RA: As much as I enjoyed Do Hollywood, I loved them even more live. When I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom back in February 2017, I was struck by how powerful, how tight the band was.
RD: Well, those were more rehearsed band versions. You know, the two of them do everything themselves (on the recordings). They’ll maybe do the drums first, overdub more from there.


RA: You produced “How Lucky Am I?” (from Do Hollywood)
RD: I didn’t produce it, I mixed it. They had a lot of trouble with that album in terms of audio. They had recorded it with Rado in California, and then they had to get it transferred from Rado’s analog tape to digital, and the first transfer was horrible. They had a second transfer that was better, but on “How Lucky Am I?” the vocals sounded better on one transfer and the instruments sounded better on another. Brian was having a hard time, so he asked me if I could mix it, and so I kind of synced things up, digitally cleaned it up, and then balance it out. Then (Brian) came up and he fine-tuned it with me, so that was the mix. He brought that tape home, and you should see the (digital) tracks. There’s like 50 tracks. He did all the cellos, every violin; he did horns and he doesn’t even play them! He just kept recording it until he got it right. The tracks were incredible (and were) a bitch to mix. He did a lot of work on that, and so I think they really saved it at the end. I was worried about it, because this high-priced mixer who they ended up leaving after a week because I said to them, “Give me a shot at mixing it.” It’s hard for them to involve their Dad sometimes. So I mixed this one song and said, this is how it could sound. This other guy put a million compressors on it; any kind of tape noise was brought up, people’s breathing  … it was trebly, it was horrible, and then Brian got the hang of it and he mixed the whole album. I would come down and say, “Yeah, that’s good.” They’re getting more technical now, but when they first started engineering, it was more of a natural thing; they didn’t know technically what they were doing in terms of frequency, how to get the sound they wanted; they just had to try everything. They have the innate ability but they didn’t have the training. After a while, Brian did very well. Then, when they had it mastered, it came together, and that Do Hollywood album sounds good. At first, it was very lo-fi. That was a tough album. Once they went outside of themselves, they didn’t have a good mixer (even though he’s won awards and stuff), they didn’t have good transfers—


RA: —which speaks volumes in favor of the DIY process!
RD: Yeah.


RA: Getting back to production on your albums, speaking as a bass player, I like the fact that the bass guitar is prominent; not overbearing, but present in the mix.
RD: That’s good. It depends on your speakers, too. I do try to play them on different systems, but I pretty much trust the speakers I’m using.  The only thing I use the console for is monitoring the instruments and the vocals. I mix virtually. The mixer is on the screen, and you can get your perfect mix with a WAV file and a pen (if) you want to raise a vocal up, you don’t have to do it while you’re mixing and then blowing it …


RA: [Laughs] Ah, the memories of ten hands on the board!
RD: [Laughs] Those days are over for me, my friend! I tried to warn them, but they won’t listen. Because then you always have the mix, then when you ride around in the car, listening to it on different systems, you go. “Oooh … I forgot to do that,” and you go back and it’s there, and then fix it. They don’t do that. They already got rid of their mix, and they’re on to the next song. If they want to remix something else, they’ve got to get it all back again. They write it down, but it’s not precise. But they’re benefitting in other ways.


RA: The independent record label You Are The Cosmos contacted you through your sons, initially?
RD: No; somebody like you, this guy named Paolo Milea, who’s a friend of Pedro Vizcaino, who heads You Are The Cosmos Records. They’re out of Spain, and they’re big in power-pop.  He heard my sons, and then my sons kept mentioning me in interviews, so he checked out my stuff, which was on CD Baby at the time, and he told Pedro, you have to hear the father. Everything I’ve done with Pedro has been through Facebook Messenger.  He said, “I heard your stuff, I would love to release it. Can we do three albums at a time, in a boxed set?” He released two (boxed sets) so far. The next one I think is going to be a single record, because I don’t have three albums (of new material) now.

image courtesy of You Are The Cosmos Records

RA: I’m sure International Pop Overthrow’s David Bash is aware of you—
RD: I know David Bash. He wanted me to be in that International Pop Overthrow Festival, and I said, “David, I don’t have a band.” Then the kids said, “No, do it! Do it! We’ll back you!” So I had the four of them; that’s how that started. I’d love to have them all the time, but they have their own thing, you know. I would like to play out more, but the people that I play with, they all have their families; it’s hard to get that together now. Danny’s got this band, separate from the Lemon Twigs, and they said, “We’re playing this place and we want you to open. We’ll back you.”


RA: How do you see the music business evolving or changing?
RD: I’m no expert on that. Everyone’s saying that the only way you make money now it touring because people download everything for free, so that’s business. I don’t know how that’s going to end up. Like I said, I like CDs. Vinyl is coming back, but I still like CDs if they’re mastered right; if they’re not mastered right, they’re horrible. I think it’s really strange, audio-wise, that the business finally got to the point where at home, you can have things that sound great, finally. I remember when we used to record in recording studios, analog stuff, and everything would sound great in the studio, and you’d go home and it would sound like crap. Now, things can sound great (at home) and what do they do? They invent mp3s. Now, they’ve got a great WAV file that they compress. It’s very nice for convenience.  You can take a 12-hour trip to Ohio and have 5 hours of music on a CD, depending on your big your bit rate is. People are listening with ear buds that are hanging out, which means that the bass is not there, and I even see people listening on their laptops now. So, you’ve got the ability to have great fidelity and people don’t give a shit about it. Like, when they make a flat-screen TV, they don’t give a shit about the sound; the sound is awful. I have an old RCA TV, a tube TV, and the speakers are really good. I guess they figure that everybody has their TV hooked up to their stereos or something, so they don’t bother. But the question was, where is the business going? I’d like to know what you think, because I have no frickin’ idea of where the business is going. I’m not even in the business so much. I’m in the business of music, but not in the music business.


RA: I see something cool happening. Things are morphing from the “music business” to the “musician’s business.”  Artists are out there on the road, and because of social media, you now have this degree of intimacy between artist and audience that really didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, 15-20 years ago.
RD: Occasionally, one will actually answer you, although that’s a dangerous thing, too. I’ve had people who, if I show any signs of encouragement … people send me stuff, because I’m “their dad,” and they know my stuff, and they want to know my opinion. I always try to be nice, because I’ve been in that position, and I’m still in that position. So I go, “OK, I don’t want to ignore somebody.” So I’ll say, “I listened to that, I really liked it; you could do this here …” And then they’ll write back again and again, and then it becomes, oh, we’re pals now? My kids said the best thing you could do is just not answer, but I feel funny doing that. I’m not in a position where I can help them … but I actually do listen, and I do answer them.


RA: To continue answering your question, though, I see the ability for real music and real art to start rising to the top, again. I don’t think it’s going to be the same template as when the major labels were involved in discovering and nurturing new artists, but great music always has a way of being disseminated.
RD: I know there’s a whole circle of power-pop people. You’ll see the same names, certain record companies involved with that. You Are The Cosmos Records is a part of that.


RA: It must be nice for the boys to be home for a while to catch their breath. I know that they were just in London doing some press.
RD: Yes. They started out in Spain and went to London, maybe Germany too. I’m surprised they’re not here!


RA: They probably figured that Dad’s talking to somebody; let’s give him some space.
RD: No, they just went out with Danny (Ayala). They’ve been rehearsing for the tour.

RA: I understand that Brian and Michael will be touring with new backup musicians.
RD: That’s true, and to clarify something for the fans, the Lemon Twigs were always Brian and Michael—as on the albums, which is Brian and Michael doing everything. Going forward with new musicians will be the same thing. The new band is not the Lemon Twigs. Therefore there is no band breakup. The boys got their record deal on their own and they invited Danny and Megan (Zeankowski) to back them on tour. Brian taught Megan bass and gave her the bass parts. Brian also worked very hard together with Danny on his keyboard and harmony parts. They are still good friends. The new album is very different and Brian and Michael needed specific types of players for this music. Their setup is much the same as Foxygen’s or Steely Dan, not The Beatles or The Stones. It never was. The confusion is very understandable, but misguided. This was a great opportunity for Danny and Megan to launch their own careers. They did a fine job with the Twigs, but it was never meant to be a “group.”


RA: Going back to your own music, your vocals stand out to my ears as a sort of combination of Paul and the very round tones of Brian Wilson’s voice. The influences are there, but the sound is intrinsically your own.
RD: That’s good, because sometimes I worry about that. You know what? I’ve seen a lot of artists who are trying to sound like other people; I try not to. I’m influenced by them, but I don’t want to be copies. I wouldn’t do that unless it was one song where I was purposely doing a tribute. But I’m glad that you hear me in there!


[A short break in our conversation occurred here when Brian and Michael came home. We spent a few minutes chatting before returning to the interview.]


RD: You were asking about my favorite (tracks) of mine. The easy answer is probably the “Best Of” album, except I have to do it from all the albums. In other words, maybe three off each album. So it might have been other ones that I liked even more, but I would say that these are a good example.


RA: When the boys gave you their Top Ten lists, had that exercise ever been given to them before?
RD: No. And I was surprised by some of it. They would tell me and I would go, “Really?” Especially “Yesterday’s News” surprised me that both of them (liked it); a track that I thought was just all right. Some of them I think were probably obvious, like “A Very Short Dream” because that’s one of my favorites. “Chinese Mind,” an Irish guy named Robbie O’ Connell taught me that tuning and I immediately, of course, wrote a song with it. It’s an open tuning—DADGAD, and “Good For You” which is on the Greatest Hits, that has that tuning too. “Nice Meeting You Again” … yeah, a lot of these surprised me. “Walking Wounded” I can see; “Love Stepped Out,” well, they do that song, … (continues to scan the boys’ lists) yeah, it’s interesting. I thought that Michael would go for “Time Will Tell On You” as well. I always was very happy with that record. If you’ve ever listened to something when you’ve recorded and you were sort of pleased with it … I always liked the way that came out. The 12-strings are just jangling, and it’s the band. Some of my favorites are based on the way they come out, you know. Sometimes you just get it right! I’ll tell you an interesting thing about “Get It Right” … on this album, there’s an instrumental that last for only a minute called “Get It Right” that I wrote in the ‘80s and then that harmony part, I did a string version of it here, but it’s kind of backwards, so I called it “Got It Right” … I don’t know if anyone would ever notice it. You might want to check that out!


RA: How about new music? Has anything caught and kept your ear these days?
RD: (To Michael and Brian) Do I like any new music besides you guys?


Michael D’Addario: You like “Roar” by Katy Perry? (Brian laughs)
RD: Tries to embarrass me!


MD: You like Foxygen.
RD: How could I not like Foxygen? They got you guys going? I would like to like some new stuff. I think something about the Twigs that I think a lot of the older (generation) are so happy that they like something new. When I was just out of high school, when The Beatles broke up, even then I was a “young fart.” I found it hard to find anything new that I liked back then. And, luckily, I found the Beach Boys in 1971, and I bought all their old albums and freaked out; it was all new to me. I always said that they got me through the ‘70s! I like a lot of different kinds of stuff. I like Bach, I like Gilbert and Sullivan, I love Richard Rodgers, and Gershwin and all those guys, and that was ahead of my time. I loved Sinatra—so, I’m not liking something because it’s new, I’m not liking something because it’s not appealing to me. I hate to say that, because I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down. Steve Allen always hated rock ‘n’ roll. He always sounded so stupid, putting down everything, even though I loved him. I don’t want to start saying I can’t stand heavy metal and I can’t stand rap. I certainly haven’t heard a lot of it that I like, but I don’t want to sound old and closed minded.


RA: I usually respond with “I haven’t heard enough to form a valid opinion.”
RD: [Laughs] Well, that’s true, in a way, because if I hear something in a genre of music that I don’t like, generally, then I won’t be interested enough to try to dig it up, you know? Now, if the kids play me something, I might say, “Oh, I like that!” but I wouldn’t be aware of it to listen to it to begin with.  [To Michael] Who’s that guy that you were surprised that I liked that had this song that was like one chord the whole way?


MD: That was Alan Vega from Suicide. We played him “Jukebox Babe”, a song on one of his first solo records—
RD: —and I really liked it! They think of me as I always have to like something that’s very inventive, chord-wise—


MD: No, but if it’s rock ‘n’ roll, I realized it made sense, because it has a really cool rockin’ spirit, like, obviously, it’s what he liked, but it’s so much weirder than all that stuff—but it’s definitely got that cool factor, like that Elvis and Chuck Berry stuff happening.


RA: Did you ever get to see Chuck Berry?
RD: Yes.


RA: Lucky.
RD: I’m lucky to have seen him, but he was horrible, because he didn’t give a shit. Little Richard was great! When they were little, at Westbury Music Fair, we saw Chuck Berry and Little Richard together. Chuck Berry had his usual pickup band, three kids backing him, and he made a mistake, and he kept repeating it over and over to make you think the he meant to do it, and it was horrible. (I thought) “Stop! Please stop!” He didn’t give a shit. Little Richard was great. He sounded great, and his band was great. At one point he invited people up, and Michael—


MD: I’m not embarrassed; I think it’s a good story.
RD: Somebody lifted up Michael and put him on Little Richard’s piano, and Michael was just like [pantomimes a scared child] … and we asked him what was wrong, you weren’t dancing or anything … he was scared, he said that he looked dusty because he had so much makeup on.


MD: I can’t remember it, though.
Brian D’Addario: I kind of remember it. I remember the lights.


MD: I think it was a circus stage, but I don’t really know.
RD: It wasn’t long after 9/11, and Little Richard was talking about how big his head was, saying, “I got a big head! If I was on that plane, I would have beat them terrorists with my head!” I was at Westbury once when Carl Wilson had left (The Beach Boys) to do a solo album, and they got Brian, who was pretty much a mess. He sang “Don’t Worry Baby” and Michael (Love) said, “Well, as you can hear, Brian’s got a cold.” When they first came out, Dennis came down our aisle, tripped, fell, sprained his ankle, and was out for the whole show. He would occasionally come out and sing. I heard that he and Michael got into a fistfight backstage. That was a nutty time.


RA: Mike Love is an interesting character, he said tactfully.
RD: I always liked his voice. It was a big part of the sound of The Beach Boys, as silly as it was, and he always did great bass parts. He came up with some good lyrics, except when he was quoting titles all the time. People can say that Paul is corny, and George is so cool, and John’s so cool, but he’s the one that wrote the hip tune about John (“Here Today”).

Roy Abrams and  Ronnie D'Addario
image by Michael D'Addario


RA: Thank you so much for inviting me into your home today. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you, and I wish you continued success with your music!
RD: Thank you, Roy. It was a pleasure having you over!

Fans of the Lemon Twigs—and of great songwriting—will want to own the rich catalog of Ronnie D’Addario, where a wealth of musical treasures awaits: Check it out here.

© Roy Abrams 2018