Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Baladista Returns: Catching Up With Joel Rafael

Joel Rafael

Despite only ever having spoken once before with singer-songwriter Joel Rafael, our phone conversation on April 2, 2015 felt as comfortable as catching up with an old friend. Signed to Jackson Browne’s Inside Recordings in 2000, Rafael has played an integral role in the folk music community, serving on the Board of the Folk Alliance for several terms. A Woody Guthrie devotee, Rafael was the featured performer at a Guthrie tribute held in 2012 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. During the course of his career, Rafael has shared the stage with the likes of Joan Baez, John Trudell, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Sheryl Crow, Laura Nyro, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, and John Lee Hooker. The California-based artist is about to release his ninth solo album on April 14th and is heading to New York City for an April 13th performance with Tom Chapin at City Winery.

Roy Abrams: I’ve been marinating myself in the new album, Baladista. Just like 2012’s America Come Home, it’s like a favorite flannel shirt; the songs just seem to slip right on and they’re instantly comfortable, instantly familiar.

Joel Rafael: Thank you very much, I sure appreciate that.

RA: I wanted to discuss the writing process with you. I recently spoke with Richie Furay and Jimmy Webb and each of them talked about their changing perspective on songwriting with the passage of time. What are your personal views on that?

JR: Well, I’m not sure what their process is, but I do know that every time I’ve figured out what the formula is, what I realize is that there is no formula. I might have told you that before! [laughs]

RA: Yes, you did!

JR: I’ll stick with that one, but the thing that I have noticed is … when I work, I save everything, even if I just get a short start of a few words or a sentence or two, I keep it. I’m not very good at keeping track of it, but I keep it. And when I get in a writing mood, I dig through the stuff that I’ve got, so consequently sometimes my songs come from pieces that are stretched out over a long period of time. I might find a couple of things that, all of a sudden, I realize that they go together. I think what happens in the finished product of a lot of my work is that it covers a time range that reaches the demographic that’s within that time range, but also, probably, my own demographic, you know, as well, because obviously we’ve lived through the same times. I guess what I’m saying is that the songs cover some time, some distance. It’s not like you sit down, and OK, I’ve got a new song this week. The song might contain elements that have been composed over a period of many years; at least in my case, the way I write.


RA: The autobiographical nature of the album is revealed in a sort of timeline. On the opening track, “She Had to Go”, I was having visions of being back in middle school or high school … it really brought a lot back! I also love the line in “Love’s First Lesson”—Ask anyone with a love that’s true/Love’s first lesson is a broken heart. Bravo! That song is a collaborative effort with Jack Tempchin; how did that one materialize?


JR: [laughs] Well, we’ve been friends for a really long time, around forty years, really. We haven’t hung out together all during that time; we’ve kind of run into each other at different chapters in our lives down through the years. We met forty years ago, and we don’t live that far from each other, so we tend to run into each other and had become really good friends over a period of time. But we’d never written together, and he does do a lot of co-writing, but he’s very prolific as a songwriter on his own, and he writes with other people. I came to write mostly on my own; I do have some collaborations. Anyway, I was just at dinner one night and he called me up and basically said that he was looking for somebody that was a good writer who was willing to stay up really late, drive over to his house, and help him write the epic song of the ‘60s … and he said he narrowed it down pretty quickly to me! [laughs]


So I said, that’s an offer I can’t really refuse! So I went over there, and we worked for the whole night, pretty deep into the night, back and forth, a lot was just hanging out, conversation, and then we’d write a little bit, play a little bit, and “Love’s First Lesson” is what we came up with. It’s not exactly the epic song of the ‘60s [chuckles] but as I like to say, sometimes when you write a song, you don’t really know what you’re going to come up with.


RA: You touch upon a wide variety of areas on the new album. Not only is it intimately personal, but songs like “Sticks and Stones” and “El Bracero” offer vivid social commentary. What was the genesis of those two tracks?


JR: Well, that’s kind of interesting, because those songs are new songs; they were written within the last year, but they cover – in a documentary kind of way – a lot of material. “Sticks and Stones” is almost like a song inside of a song, because it’s about the experience I had of singing a song that was written in 1940 about something that had happened in 1911. So, you’ve got a hundred years there, and two songs that are rolled into one.

The other one, “El Bracero” … I wrote a song that actually used some of the same lines back in 1973 or 1974, when I first moved to this area that I live in. We are not so far from the Mexican border, so there’s always been a stream of people coming North to work from Mexico, in the area where I live, which is what they call residential agricultural. It’s been split up into smaller ranches, but at one time it was all agriculture with different kinds of crops along the coastal foothills here in North San Diego County. When I first got here, there was always a stream of workers, and always conversation about that issue, which is really the same issue we’re talking about today; the issue of immigration. It was being discussed in different terms then. The immigrations officials or border patrol were busting people and deporting them, much like they are now. They were even riding the borders on horseback at that time, in the ‘70s. People were saying, they should bring back the Bracero Program; that was a really great thing for Mexico and for the United States. They brought the workers up legally. I never really knew anything about it, just the name of it, it was something that had existed before I moved here that actually started in 1942 and ran roughly until 1964 in one way or another. I didn’t know that at the time, but farmers around here seemed to think it was a good idea, and wondered why it had ended, and why they didn’t just bring that back to solve the problem. I probably even said it a few times, just because I heard some other friends say it. But a couple of years ago, (there were) some people up in the Central Valley of California … a couple of friends of mine; a songwriter and an author. The author is Tim Z. Hernandez and the songwriter is Lance Canales. They put together the fact that there was a mass grave in a small cemetery in Fresno, California, with 28 unnamed Mexican nationals with just a small plaque on it, and that there was a song that Woody Guthrie had written about some Mexican nationals or it seems to be undocumented workers that had been killed in a plane crash near Los Gatos Canyon in 1948, called “The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” or as we know it in the folk music canon, “Deportees”.  And a lot of people were aware of the grave, and a lot of people were aware of the song, but never really connecting the two, even people who had lived in that area, because that was only one accident, and Woody heard about it on the radio, so he wrote a song. You know, it’s 66 years now that it’s been part of the folk canon. But what happened was that these guys found the names; they went through the public records, they put advertisements in the newspaper, and they tracked down families and friends of the victims of this crash—some of them; there were not very many at first—they had actually found all of the names, but not all of the relatives, so they decided that they would raise the money to put a proper headstone on the graves, and they (Hernandez and Canales) raised $10,000 and on Labor Day 2013 they placed a 4’ by 8’ granite slab on the grave, with all the names of the victims, and some of the lyrics from Woody’s song, with 28 falling leaves engraved on the headstone. I went up there for the ceremony, because these guys had heard that I’d worked with some of Woody’s material, and subsequently got invited. While I was up there I met a guy named Juan Martinez. He was about my age; we sat down the night before the ceremony at a restaurant, and we were talking about the song and the fact that there were going to dedicate the headstone. He said, what do you know about the explosions about the makeshift transportation van, when 14 braceros were killed, and I said no. He said, did you know about when a train hit a bus full of braceros, 32 killed in Soledad, and I said no … and he said, well, did you know that the people in the plane in Woody’s song were not illegal or undocumented, they were documented workers on contract in the United States, on their way home as part of their contract. No, I didn’t know that. He said, no one wrote a song about other accidents. Then he told me that his life’s work had been to get a section of US Highway 101 dedicated as the Bracero Memorial Highway, the section that goes through the areas of grapes and vineyards and agricultural crops where the braceros worked, and that it had finally been approved and that they were having a dedication two weeks later at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and he invited me to come back. I went to that, and as it turned out, he put me on the program, so I ended up singing “Deportees” at that program. Subsequently, through him, I learned a lot about the Bracero Program. The first thing I learned is that it was a terrible program. In spite of how good everybody thought it was here, there were a lot of flaws in the program. There was no medical insurance, there was very poor housing, food was scarce and not nutritious, there were lots and lots of accidents, and no safety blanket. And so, the workers were sprayed with poison DDT in some cases, piled in the trucks. They were transported in trucks in such tight capacity that some of them died before they even got to the places where they were supposed to work. This was really vivid to me, the whole explanation of something that I had really kind of known about for forty years, and so I just started writing about some of the things he had said to me. The first line was the newspaper headline;  it was in the video that we posted that says “Bring the Mexicans” … that’s what the headline did, “Hey, there’s the solution to our problems!” because in 1942 when the war started, the way I’m perceiving it, it was kind of an upgrade for the workers in the Central Valley; a lot of whom had come out during the Dust Bowl that Woody Guthrie chronicled; it was an upgrade for them to be drafted or to join the army; to fight with the Allies. The Braceros—as I learned, and is stated in the song—grew the food, during that time, for us, feeding the entire nation; food for the troops, for the Allies, even for the prisoners of war. They really should be recognized as part of the Greatest Generation.

RA: There’s a line in the song “The Good Samaritan” that says “I see the face of that Samaritan in every person’s eyes.” Does this represent your view of basic human nature?

JR: When a person writes a song, you kind of have one thing in mind, and once it goes out there, a lot of people can kind of see it in different ways. There’s different ways to see it: if you’re looking into somebody’s eyes, you can just see their face and see their eyes, so you could be seeing that Samaritan in the capacity or the ability to be that Good Samaritan in every human being. Or you could be seeing your own reflection in somebody’s eyes. So, take it however you want to. [laughs]

RA: The connection I made on first listening was to The Diary of Anne Frank, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

JR: I would never have thought of that, but that’s great! That really makes it bigger and more expansive for me. I tried to put a universal twist on something that I think is a universal story. When Jesus told that story in the Bible, I think it was in answer to a question about “Who is my neighbor?” So his answer to the question was to tell that story. So I purposely tried to kind of put it more into a universal kind of tone, because to me it’s not a story that can be owned by one particular group or religion or philosophical outlook. You know what I’m trying to say?

RA: Absolutely! That line hit me really hard and I think it’s a great sentiment.

Joel Rafael and Cousin

RA: I wanted to talk about the recording process for the new album, which I understand was recorded at your home. I love the clarity and that there’s such warmth to the tracks. Was your recording approach analog, digital, or a combination of both?

JR: Basically, I’ve got a small home studio and it’s ProTools based, so it is digital, But everything that I used to get into the digital realm is analog. I have an interface, of course, which takes me from my room into the digital realm. I’ve had a studio for a long time, so I’ve had a number of formats in it. When I first built my studio, I had a lot of used equipment from various other studios. It was a 16-track, two-inch (tape) format. At a certain point, the troubles of keeping that thing working outweighed going to a digital format, which at first was ADAT, which had idiosyncrasies and problems of their own, with synchronization and transport; that kind of thing. Eventually, I was able to move into ProTools, which is what I’m using now. Over a period of a number of years, I’ve been able to collect and acquire some preamps and compressors and microphones that are of high quality to be able to get a nice sound. I’ve treated the couple of rooms that I have, which are not very big, but I’ve treated those in a way that I’m getting a sound that I like with the microphones that I have, and the preamps and compressors and equalizers that I have are pretty basic, and that’s what goes into the digital recording. I take that to a mastering lab that I use. I use Gavin Lurssen, of Lurssen Mastering in Los Angeles, who actually started his career at the Mastering Lab with Doug Sax as Doug’s apprentice. Doug, as you may know, just passed away, just this morning. I had the chance to meet him, the first couple of times I mastered with Gavin, because it was at the Mastering Lab. I went on the recommendation of my son-in-law. They basically had two rooms there; the analog room, which was all of the stuff that the Mastering Lab had originally been built around, and then they had the digital room which when everything became digital, Doug Sax had built, and had taken over the digital room and the analog room had kind of become Gavin Lurssen’s. The few records that I mastered at the Mastering Lab were mastered by Gavin. When Doug moved his mastering services up to Ojai and closed down the Mastering Lab a few years ago, Gavin Lurssen started his own (company), Lurssen Mastering. He has a lot of the analog equipment. So we’re basically taking a digital recording and running it through a really high-quality, vintage analog board. Gavin and (engineer) Reuben Cohen, they master so much amazing stuff there, so many hit records, even records you’ve never heard of—great-sounding records come out of there!

RA: I also wanted to touch on the folk music community. When we last spoke in 2012, you were on the Board of the Folk Alliance. What’s your relationship with that organization now?

JR: I stepped off the Board after my second term. I spent six years on the Board. At the end of the 2014 conference, I didn’t run for reelection. I made that decision based on two reasons: one, I felt that I had done everything I personally could do to make Folk Alliance better. From my standpoint I did everything I could do. I brought in a couple of really great keynotes, I was able to establish a couple of fundraising programs that brought some money into the general coffers. And just generally, my input helped us move to Kansas City, because Memphis was not a place to be after five years. There were a lot of people  who wanted to be on the Board, so I thought, I’ll just step aside and let some new blood in. The other side of it was that, as a Board member, personally, I’ve always felt that it was not appropriate to utilize the organization to promote my career; it was a conflict of interest to work any angles of people that I knew there. Consequently, even though there were opportunities that I could have pursued that wouldn’t have really been a conflict of interest, it might have appeared that way to somebody, and for that reason I didn’t pursue them. I just felt that after six years, that with new songs and working on a new album, that I needed to focus on my own career, and to open any doors that might be available to me to try and be able to perform more, to do more of what I love to do! Time is of the essence; you only have so many years, and so much time in this life, and I am admittedly at least approaching the winter of mine. I want to be able to just do more stuff, and to things that I couldn’t do when I was a part of that organization.

RA: Speaking of performances, a final question for you: The upcoming show at City Winery in Manhattan on April 13th with Tom Chapin—how did that materialize?

JR: It materialized in a really organic matter. I love it when things develop that way! I was invited to come to New York as a labor of love, because it wasn’t like a big paid gig or anything, but I was invited to come to Long Island last November to celebrate David Amram’s 84th birthday. I love David, and we’ve become really good friends over the last 25 years or so. His legacy is amazing; he’s a mentor to many people. Certainly, I consider him (to be) a philosophical mentor and a musical mentor in some ways. If we’re both at a festival, he will invariably be on the stage during my set, and sometimes invites me onstage during his set—even though I don’t know what he’s going to ask me to do—but I just love him as a person and as an entity; he’s a positive force in the music world and I really think he’s an American treasure. So, when I was invited to his birthday celebration in which he was going to be performing too, I of course said yes. And so I went out there and as it turns out, the lineup for the show included a couple of people who I don’t know very well: Guy Davis and Tom Chapin. I’d met Guy before but we’d never really gotten to know each other. We had a great time hanging out and Guy actually sat in with me during  my portion of the show and played mandolin, which I guess he’s kind of learning, but he played great! Also, Tom Chapin was there; backstage, we found a room that wasn’t already taken by a lot of people, so the three of us ended up in a room together, and we jammed a bit, and I talked with both of them about possibly doing some co-bills, because I knew my new album was going to be coming out in the spring. Tom and I talked about it, and we started to put together the promotional tour for the release of the album, the City Winery show was in New York City, and Tom’s on the East Coast, so we asked him if he’d like to join us, and then the WhyHunger connection just seemed like a natural for the both of us, because we both support that cause. I think the organization was started by Tom’s brother (Harry) way back, so it just seemed like a natural progression. We both enjoyed meeting each other and decided to do the show. I think it’s going to be a great success. I hope a lot of people turn out.
RA: I’m sure that a splendid time will be had by all!

© 2015 by Roy Abrams

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