Monday, May 27, 2019

Roger Street Friedman: Feeling Like Himself

Roger Street Friedman
image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

Long Islander Roger Street Friedman embodies the immortal Walt Disney phrase, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” The Jericho native spent the majority of his adult life in the retail business world, but his singer-songwriter’s soul yearned to be free of the suited confines of corporate America. After releasing his debut album, The Waiting Sky, in 2014, recorded primarily as a labor of love, Friedman happily realized that others appreciated his work. Garnering a slew of positive press and radio airplay, Friedman began to listen more intently to his inner voice that was telling him to set his sights on a path that would bring true spiritual contentment.

For the next few years, Friedman gradually made the transition from being an executive-level cog in the corporate world to a full-time pursuer of the Muse. The Waiting Sky was followed in 2015 with an EP, Gone, Gone, Gone, and in 2017 by another full-length album, Shoot the Moon. His recently released single “Sun Never Sets” features Friedman accompanied by folk legends Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Joel Rafael, and Peter Yarrow. Described as a protest song in support of “all immigrants past, present, and future,” the track was hailed by Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame), who said, “I could feel the spirit of Pete Seeger as I joined my fellow folksingers on this poignant song. With such songs we re-confirm our commitment to pursuing our collective dreams for a fairer and more just society. Each note sung is yet another act of creating greater hope and peace in the world.”

Friedman brings his musical art and craft to My Father’s Place at the Roslyn Hotel on Thursday, May 30th, and is also a featured performer in the Clearwater Festival, on June 15th. Both are events not to miss, as they represent an opportunity to witness undiluted creative artistry of a kind that seems hard to find these days.

A recent conversation with Friedman explored his long and winding journey toward self-fulfillment …

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

Roy Abrams: Bravo for your work supporting immigrants, with “Sun Never Sets,” given the current situation and the whatever-you-want-to-call-it in the White House.
Roger Street Friedman: Yeah, the Idiot-in-Chief.

RA: I’ll take that. It’s a nicer way of putting it than I would have, but it’ll do. So, how did you hook up with Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Joel Rafael, and Peter Yarrow?
RSF: Jason Samel, he had a show on WCWP called “North Shore Now” and he’s also a music promoter, and he put on this Morgan Park festival a couple of years ago that Dar Williams and Amy Helm headlined. I played it, and he really dug us. He invited me on the show last year sometime, and I had just written this song, and I played it on the air, and didn’t really have any plans to record it, because I’d just released Shoot the Moon in 2017, and didn’t know what I was doing with the next record project.  But (Jason) encouraged me, he said, “It’s a beautiful song and you’ve got to get it out there. It’s so important right now.” So, I have a really nice home studio, and I put it together with some local musicians playing the basic tracks, and me singing the whole thing. And then, when the whole thing was done, I played it for him, and I said,”Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some other voices on here?” He knows Tom through doing some music promotion; he knows all those guys, He said he’ll send it around and see if he could get any takers, and he did. Yeah, I’m really pleased with the way the whole thing evolved, especially with everybody being so busy, and having other commitments; it was really nice of them to make the time to do it.

RA: As a teacher by profession, I want to let you know that the song will surely find its way into my curriculum at some point.
RSF: At Adelphi, the head of the Human Rights program is using it in that curriculum. Jericho High School is trying to implement it as well. I was really gratified by that. I guess you can feel so powerless by what’s going on. You’ve got this party that’s controlling two branches of government, and the executive branch having so much control over the policy, and completely willing to flaunt international law and human rights. I was just so frustrated. The song was co-written with two other guys down in Nashville. We got in a room and started talking about what to write about, and we were talking about Trump and immigration and his policies and everything. I told them my grandfather’s story, and the first verse and the chorus kind of evolved in that session, except for the line “The trials come by fire and they will try your faith.” That’s the one I added to the chorus when I got back. Then I wrote the second verse and the bridge and finished it up back here.  Really, all I have is my music and my ability to share my inner feelings about this with the world in that way, so I might as well try to get it out there in some shape or form. If it moves one person, it’s better than nothing.

RA: David Crosby has always maintained that one of the roles of the singer-songwriter is to act as a troubadour. What is your view of the singer-songwriter’s role in society?
RSF: I’m not that much younger than them … they’re in their sixties, I think, right?

RA: They’re in their seventies.
RSF: I’m in my fifties. I came up at the end of the … my brothers were hippies. I’m the youngest by a lot of years, and so I wasn’t old enough to march on Washington, but my middle brother went, in ’68 or ’69, protesting the Vietnam War. So I kind of came up in that mold, and I love that (Crosby) put it that way. Part of the job description is to tell the truth, like a painter or a photographer. You’ve got to say what you see. I’m always struggling as a songwriter to make sure I’m not being trite, banal, and hackneyed in what I’m writing; that it actually is a meaningful line, that everything I say is verified by feelings. That’s the most material, the stuff that resonates with us, when you say, “Holy shit, that’s so true.” Joni Mitchell saying, “Love is touching souls,” something like that.

RA: Which brings us to “No Safe Place,” another song I really enjoyed that addresses a current and ongoing dilemma in this country. How involved are you with the two groups, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the Refugee Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services?
RSF: The extent of it was offering to them to use the video to help raise money and awareness for themselves. I’m not really on the board or anything, although I am at the point now where I’m wanting to take it a little further and get more involved on a day to day basis, because this issue (sighs) … that, and the environment; there are so many things to focus on, but I think it’s better to pick one and do it well. I think they’re great organizations. They deal in facts. They’re literally out there, on the ground, helping people, and educating the public as well. The whole debate has gotten so … everybody’s just asking the wrong questions. I love their response, “Yeah, but they came here illegally” to somebody turning themselves in the border to seek asylum, which is not illegal. Yes, some people came here illegally; they’ve been doing it for generations, and the government turned its head and put their hand out and said “No, don’t come,” but then winked and waved them in, so they can pick our fruit and our vegetables—

RA: —And work at Mar-a-Lago—
RSF: And work at Mar-a-Lago (chuckles) and now they’ve established families and roots and have contributed … they’re paying takes, 98% of them, whether it’s under their own Social Security number or not. My brother is a rabbi up in Boston. He works with people that are detained by ICE, helping them spiritually and trying to be supportive. He tells stories about guys who’ve been here for two, three decades who are supporting a family, sometimes more than one family, like a kid from another marriage, and they took them and put them in detention, so now they can’t work. These kids, who are American citizens, and the wife, are unable to make a living. It’s just nuts.

RA: I wanted to circle back around to you if we could—
RSF: Oh no, I hate talking about myself! (laughs)

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

RA: One thing in particular that I love about what you’ve done is that you launched your career in mid-life, at a time when few people are ready or willing to take that sort of risk. About 20 years ago, I created and hosted a radio show on Long Island called The Island Zone that featured unsigned musical artists across all genres. One of my frequent on-air guests was a singer-songwriter who went under the alias Sonny Meadows. He took a similar path as you, when at fifty, he said, “I want to do this.” I don’t believe he ever left his day job as you did, but he became an omnipresent figure on the local scene for years. What was your trajectory that landed you in your current position? I understand that you were deeply involved with music as a younger guy, but that you stepped away for a while.
RSF: For a long while, yeah. I went completely into a day job, in the retail industry, basically selling stuff, and I made a good living, and was really good at it, and became an executive at a company, and a couple of life events happened. Let me just back up a minute. I never stopped writing songs or playing my guitar. I had all this recording gear in storage since 1988 and always in the back of my head, I was thinking I was going to get back into this; when I retired, at least I would have a home studio to do something with it. But then, my parents were getting older, and in 2004 my Dad passed away from Parkinson’s. He had a nice, long life. He was a great guy who sort of had this long, slow decline. It’s just a terrible disease. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and it was a real wake up call. I had been living with my girlfriend. I said, “Let’s get married, this is ridiculous, this is not a dress rehearsal, let’s do this thing.” We got married in 2005 and then in 2006 Peggy got pregnant with our daughter, which was another incredible, life-changing experience. And then, in 2006, right before she was born, my Mom passed away, in the best way to go, I think. She was 87 also, and had a heart attack. She was totally healthy—other than that. I started writing again. I wrote a song called “The Miracle is You” which is on my first record, about my daughter and my wife, and I played it for a babysitter we had. We were living in Brooklyn at the time, and she said, “That’s a great song. My husband has a studio in our house. You should go record it there.” So we made that happen, and I was up in this great attic studio, just a little demo place, and I’m strumming and singing into the microphone, and it was like one of those scenes in a movie when the world goes from black and white to color. I had this epiphany. I hadn’t been in a studio since I packed up the whole thing in 1988. I (thought), “I just love this. This is what I’m meant to be doing.” At that point, I just started saying that I’m going to wind my way back to this. So I started playing out live in 2007, 2008, little open mics in Brooklyn, stuff like that. Little by little, I put a band together, and decided I want to make a record, because anybody can make a record these days (laughs) and I found this great producer named Felix McTeigue who dug my stuff. He worked with a lot of little-known people. We made a great record, The Waiting Sky, and released it in 2014. I just thought it was going to be for me and for posterity, but it wound up getting some really good press and getting played on the radio. I was like, “Oh, man, this could be fun!” It was like a slow burn kind of thing, where the more I did it, the more I loved it, and the more I realized I couldn’t stop doing it. I was getting tapped on the shoulder by an inspiration, and I had to follow the thread and finish the song. In my opinion, the songs started to get better. I started to have more of a deliberate command of the craft. With the benefit of age, I kind of know, as well all do, that you get good at what you do, if you do it enough. I knew that I wasn’t going to be great coming out of the box in 2014, but if just kept at it and kept doing it, it would get better and better, and that seems to be what’s happening. The live show has gotten really, really, good, and the feedback is immediate. I’m seeing that the audience is really responding. We’re making friends wherever we play. It’s been a slow and steady evolution and I realize that this is what I love to do, and I’m going to do it as long as I can. That brings us to the present day. I made the second record, which got even better press and was more widely played, and led to some cool opportunities. I’ve got about 45 new songs, and trying to weed them down to 12 for the next record, which Larry Campbell’s going to be producing. I’m pretty excited about that.

RA: The 2015 EP, Gone, Gone, Gone featured acoustic performances of songs from your debut album.
RSF: Yeah, it was released on the advice of somebody who was trying to help me with marketing at the time, who said, “You’ve got to release something regularly.” So, we took those tracks and took out the drums and tried to make more an acoustic thing.

RA: Is your recording studio analog, digital, or hybrid?
RSF: It’s hybrid. I have a ProTools setup but an analog console and a 2-inch, 24-track tape machine.

RA: What kind of console are you using?
RSF: It’s called a Soundtracs. They were an English company that was sold by Sam Ash in the ‘80s and was sort of a prosumer board but it’s been upgraded by a friend of mine who does some tech work and it sounds incredible.

image courtesy of Roger Street Friedman

RA: In addition to the upcoming show at My Father’s Place, you also have something coming up on June 15th.
RSF: Yeah. We’re really excited to be participating in the Clearwater Great Hudson River Festival, which is the longest running festival in the country, if I’m not mistaken, and benefits the Hudson River Sloop Foundation. They’ve been really instrumental in raising awareness about cleaning up the Hudson River. Mavis Staples is playing, and Ani DiFranco, just a whole slew of people. It’s really an honor (to be a part of it).

RA: At what point did you leave the business world behind?
RSF: It was somewhere between The Waiting Sky and Shoot the Moon. I was kind of slowly trying to disentangle myself from the day job.

RA: Basically, all anyone really has to do if they’re questioning their own path in life, asking themselves “is it worth going for?” is to look at your track record, don’t they?
RSF: Yeah, I think so. The other thing I realize is that when I was a younger guy doing this, I think I was afraid. It’s really hard to put yourself out there. With songwriting and singing and playing and recording, you have to be really vulnerable. You’re exposing your innermost thoughts. Looking back on it, and why I didn’t do it then, I came to the realizing that I was just too scared to put myself out there, maybe too scared of rejection. The truth of the matter is that everybody faces rejection. (laughs) Now with the benefit of more years under my belt, I don’t care as much. It’s still nerve-wracking, but it’s like, fuck it.

RA: What’s nice is that you’re doing it on your own terms.  Many younger artists fall into the trap of thinking they have to go along and play the game by “industry rules” in order to succeed.                        
RSF: I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but there was such a moment in the way music was written and recorded when we were coming up, where talent was being nurtured, and it didn’t matter if they made a record and it didn’t sell immediately; they’d still get to make another couple of records. Look at Tom Petty, right? I just think that I’m kind of fortunate in that I get to do that … I’m not trying to fit into a mold, I’m trying to write great music. I’m able to nurture my own work, because I have the luxury of having my own studio, of having the time to write, and to keep honing my craft. I’m trying to follow that model in my head, where you just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, and trying to make about great songs and then great recordings, and then great live shows. I would say to anybody who is not doing something that they really want to do, when I’m playing or doing any of this, I just feel like myself. I never feel more like me than when I’m doing this.

RA: Yeah. It’s the realizing of “This is my space in the universe.” Moving to another topic, which artists influenced you growing up, and who are you listening to these days?
RSF: I went to the record store with my brother on my 10th birthday because I got some money from my aunt, and I bought four records and a record player. I bought Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. I really loved the singer-songwriters, (including) Randy Newman and Van Morrison. In junior high I went through a real prog-rock period, and Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel when he started his solo stuff. I was joking for a while that I hadn’t bought any new music since 1989. (laughs) I kind of missed the whole grunge thing, for whatever reason. I think I was working … and partying. (laughs) But now, I’m listening a lot to people like Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton.

RA: Have you heard of Becca Stevens or Michelle Willis?
RSF: No, I have not.

RA: If you’re into the singer-songwriter genre, I cannot recommend these two artists enough. They were introduced to me through David Crosby, who has written, recorded, and toured with both of them, so I am honored to pass the introduction along to you!
RSF: Absolutely! I’d love to check them out. I’m pretty much back to vinyl now, so I’m trying to find records. I will stream if I have to. (laughs)

RA: These days, you see people listening to music on their phones. We used to listen to it through speakers.
RSF: It’s so disheartening, I want to scream, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” I love the whole experience of unwrapping the record, opening it up, looking at the lyrics. It hasn’t changed for me. I still feel the same way I did when I was ten, and I got my first albums.

RA: And then you turn 40, pick up a CD, try to read the liner notes, and realize that no matter what you do, you can’t. (laughs)
RSF: Even with glasses. (laughs) I do want to add something about My Father’s Place. I saw so many great shows there, and I just love what Eppy’s doing now, and what he did back then—which I didn’t really realize—is that he’s not specializing in a genre; he was into good original music and getting people exposure, and I think he’s trying to do that same thing again. I just want to give him a shout out, because there aren’t many places that are taking a chance on people who are not as well known as Billy Joel, so it’s just cool. We’re really excited for that show.

© Roy Abrams 2019

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