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 the Huntington Folk Festival on Saturday, July 27th, and the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase on August 2nd. 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: 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) 

© Roy Abrams 2019

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