Saturday, July 21, 2012

Joel Rafael in Conversation: The Living Room, NYC, June 19, 2012

"Be a good listener because the story is happening all around you."
-- Joel Rafael

On a beautiful late spring evening in NYC, I was lucky enough to find a parking spot on the street in the Village, and made it down to the Living Room for the 2012 Folk Alliance New Music Showcase, featuring a spellbinding live set from California-based singer/songwriter Joel Rafael performing songs from his newest album, America Come Home (with a surprise walk-on by Graham Nash). I had a chance to speak with Joel outside the venue after his performance. Read on and enjoy!

Q. That was a great set!

A. Thanks, man.

Q. How did you get involved with Folk Alliance?

A. It was something I had heard about from some other people who play music; in L.A., actually. It must have been in ’97 or 96 for the first time that I took my band out there – it was in Canada that year. They moved from year to year. At a certain point, things were really changing in Folk Alliance. On the Board, at least five people sort of got up and left because they didn’t like what was happening; the executive direction was changing; Louis [Meyers] took over as Executive Director, and I threw my hat into the ring … I got elected by the skin of my teeth but I’ve been on [the Board] for two terms now.

Q.  I was reading your bio on your website – 1978 seems to have been a pivotal year for you. What happened?

A. I had been doing stuff prior to that but ’78 was when I started approaching recording seriously. There wasn’t the kind of potential to be able to do that on your own, like there is now. But I was able to raise some money and I recorded a couple of songs. I researched where you could get a record pressed; there weren’t the templates for the artwork and all that stuff. Initially I put out a single, and then in 1980 I put out an album with a friend of mine. Actually, a couple of the songs off that album are on my new album because {the older] album had no distribution. It was really an experiment. There’s some good stuff on it, and I just felt like well, maybe I’ll put some of the songs on the new record, try to  get a little bit more exposure, get a few more ears.

Q. I’ve been listening to the new album (America Come Home) and I love it; it’s instantly familiar, comfortable, and real. You probably hear that all the time.

A. No, I don’t hear that all the time. It’s a great compliment, and I appreciate it! [Laughs].

Q. I’m hearing a cool mix of sounds in there … the Byrds; a lot of Guthrie; certainly Dylan; Tom Petty. I was telling Michael [Jensen, CEO of Jensen Communications] that the fabric of your music is woven by a master hand who knows how to put it together.

A. Well, that’s very kind, I appreciate that. You know, in the music business, you kind of have to have a gimmick. My gimmick has always been that there’s no gimmick. What you see is what you get. It’s all about the songs, and so … but it’s been really rewarding because my career has been fairly long, actually, and at this point, I’ve been able to travel on the songs and go to places like Italy and Spain, and find that there’s people there that have actually heard my songs already; it’s pretty cool. Music actually travels pretty far!

Q. America Come Home is your fourth release on Jackson Browne’s independent label, Inside Recordings?

A. It’s the fourth physical CD release; actually it’s the fifth CD release – two CDs are in the Woody Guthrie set. There’s two original records already out on the label, and there’s two albums in Songs for Woody Guthrie – Volumes One and Two.  The new one is the fifth album to come out: America Come Home [released July 17].

Q. How did you cross paths with Jackson Browne?

A. Jackson is somebody who I got onto early in his career. It’s kind of ironic that we’re working together in terms of me being on his label. It’s really awesome that he extended the invitation. You know, for someone like me to have distribution is a major thing. I’ve been following him since the very beginning; one of my kids is named after a song on his first record – “Jamaica Say You Will.” Over the years, I’ve met Jackson a number of times and eventually we started to get to know each other and he heard some of my stuff, some of which was being recorded at his studio at the time, and he invited me onto the label.

Q. How did the connection form between you, David Crosby, and Graham Nash?

A. A few years back, ultimately I ended up on the same management roster as Jackson, and then a few years back, Graham Nash’s manager [Gerry Tolman] was killed in a car crash. Within a year or so after that, he came over to the same management roster as me, and so I met Graham a couple of times; it gave me an opportunity to meet Graham and David and one day they heard some of my music. They really just kind of volunteered to sing on my stuff. It was on the Thirteen Stories High album on a song called “This Is My Country” and then after they sang on it, Crosby, Stills and Nash were out on tour [2008], and Graham started coming out after the intermission and doing that song. It was a really good antiwar anthem. This was just before the last presidential election so it was really cool for me. All of a sudden I had people calling me from Chicago and Texas and saying, “Hey, I just went to see Crosby, Stills and Nash and they played your song!”  I hadn’t even heard it yet; a few months after that they were back in California and I was at one of the shows and they actually invited me up to do my song with them. That opened up the door to be able to sing with them a little bit more, and then when this new album was coming out they both just approached me and said, "Hey, do you want us to sing on something? Just let me know!” And I said, “The title track would be awesome … "and they were glad to do it. I was quite honored for them to be a part of it.

Q. From a songwriter’s perspective, how do you view a lot of what’s being played on the radio from the major labels?

A. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the major labels. To tell you the truth, when people ask me what I listen to, I’m almost embarrassed but I gotta be honest: I don’t really listen to much. I’m pretty involved in making music. There’s a lot of music I like; don’t get me wrong. I don’t really listen to the radio much. They always say that songwriters should listen to the radio and try and pick up on what’s going on. In terms of what’s being done these days, I think there’s some great stuff out there. There’s a lot more in the pipeline now than there used to be because the music business has kind of turned into the record business. The indies are picking up the slack and bringing it back to the music business. I’m pretty active in Folk Alliance International; I go their conference every year; I’ve been on the Board of Directors for a couple of terms and so I get a pretty good feel for what’s coming in to the folk community. The folk community is alive and well. It’s cross-generational. We had a lot of young kids coming up. That first band that was on earlier, the Stray Birds, they were excellent! They’re from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I hadn’t heard them before but I know they’ll be at our conference and we’ll be showcasing them. John Fulbright is making a lot of waves right now, from Oklahoma; he just got a great review in Billboard. Everywhere he goes people have been really impressed with his songwriting. His new record just came out on an independent label. So there’s a lot of young people who are making great music and they’re not isolating themselves off in their own demographic. They’re mixing it up with the old-timers, the veterans, the people who’ve been doing it for a while, and seeking out the leaders in the field and learning from them. So there’s this great interchange of music going on in the folk community unlike any other genre. Folk music to me is almost anti-genre. You say, what is folk music? To me, it’s about anything that carries the song to the people; it could be in any style. Woody Guthrie, when he got to New York and they started calling him a folksinger, said he’d never heard the phrase “folk singer” or “folk song” until he got to New York. To him, a song was just always a song. It was a good song or it wasn’t a good song. If it's a good song, you keep singing it, and there’s a lot of different ways you can sing it. So that’s what I like about having my feet planted in the folk community even though I think my music kind of rolls over into some other areas: The folk community is my community; it’s cross-generational, you’ve got all ages there; it’s not age or youth-generated so a guy like me can continue to make music and feel comfortable in my community. You’re not pushed out when your hair turns gray.

Q. What words of advice would you have to give – not so much to the seasoned songwriter – but to the ones just starting out and testing their wings?

A. Well, I think the best advice I can give anybody about songwriting in terms of styles … one thing that I learned is that every time I think I know what the formula is to write a good song, eventually I realize the formula is that there is no formula. The other thing I would say is: Be a good listener because the story is happening all around you. Like Woody said, everything in the world is music and the story of the people is the song. So, when you’re talking with people, listen to what they have to say, listen to their story. Seek out the words that come out of their mouth that just sound like lines. Poetry and prose are just all around us all the time. The only other thing I’d say, especially to people coming up that are flooded with influences and stuff, is something that I heard Arlo Guthrie say about Woody, which was to sum up Woody’s philosophy of music and life: It’s better to be a failure at being yourself than to be a success at being somebody else. Don’t try to be somebody that you aren’t; try to figure out what it is that you’ve got to bring to the table and then just work on that. There’s gonna be influences and you’re gonna be influenced by people, and that’s all really good. Emulation is part of the learning process but eventually you come out of that with something that’s your own take on it.

-Roy Abrams
 Long Island, New York

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