A Conversation with BMG Songwriter, Recording Artist and ASCAP President/Chairman Paul Williams
Mike Ragogna: Paul. We meet again!
Paul Williams: Hey, how are you, Mike?
MR: Pretty good. Thanks for taking the time.
PW: Absolutely, happy to do it.
MR: Me too, I do appreciate your time. And I'm happy for you, your co-writing "Touch" and "Beyond" with Daft Punk.
PW: Isn't that exciting, for an old guy to have something like this roll along? I met yesterday with a guy who writes for The Street and he said the most amazing thing: "You had cuts by Elvis and Ray Charles and Daft Punk." One of the miracles of my life is the fact that I live and work in a musical world where ageism isn't really nipping at my heels, evidently. I kind of like that.
MR: Plus you've had a documentary about you and your life that premiered a few months ago.
PW: It premiered for the first time in the Toronto Film Festival and then it was shown at the Angelika in New York and at Lincoln Center Theater, and it's now on Showtime. It's interesting. Recently, we did the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards and honored Usher. Dr. Dre was there and Diddy and all these guys and several of the young writers came up to me and said that they'd seen the doc. I'm proud of it.
MR: It gets very personal, and it's not shy when it comes to you dealing with your challenges.
PW: I worked through it, my warts and all, and that's great. I think it makes a fair statement about recovery.
MR: Paul, you can create music in so many genres, your Daft Punk songs being the latest example. How do you do it?
PW: You know, I think that the gate into all of it is authenticity. I think that whether it's writing songs for Bugsy Malone, which is kind of a twenties gangster-era film with kids or a Muppet movie or writing with Scissor Sisters or Daft Punk. I joke that I've spent forty years writing co-dependent anthems. I think that as long as the writing process for me is never me trying to do what somebody else does, never me trying to write differently for Daft Punk than I do for a song for a Clint Eastwood movie--separated incidentally by thirty or forty years--I think as long as it's me writing honestly about what I feel, it seems to connect.
MR: Is that the key to what's happened over the past forty years in the evolution of your songwriting?
PW: I think so. I have a high school education and I think it really shows in my lyric writing. I write in "American," not "English." The language of what I write is pretty simple, really. "Hello, such a simple way to start a love affair. Should I jump right in and say how much I care?" "What I've got, they used to call the blues..." It's conversational; it's how we speak. I don't think that my intelligence ever gets in the way of my emotions in my songs and, based on three marriages, evidently not in my life either.
MR: [laughs] Before we leave Daft Punk, we need a story about how the connection came about and what the creative process was like.
PW: I had been on the road, with a guy named Chris Caswell and there was an engineer, his name was Franco, mixing sound on the tour. We came back from the tour and Franco was doing some work for Daft Punk and they needed a keyboard player for something so Cas went in--I call Chris Caswell "Cas"--and did a little keyboard overdub that might have been on Tron. While Daft Punk were sitting there, they started talking about Phantom of the Paradise and Paul Williams, and he and Franco were like, "Well we just came off the road with Paul," and they said, "We have to find him, we have to talk to him." So I met with the guys and they talked about doing a project together, there was no real concept yet. At the very first meeting, Thomas gave me a book on after death experiences and I said, "Yeah, I've read that. I'm really interested in that. It's phenomenal, these people that are coming back to life." He played me the music for "Touch," and I wrote the first words.
I think the first real conversation we had about the album was, "Who are we writing for?" We never really nailed that down. To me, it was like somebody coming out of a coma, somebody damaged, somebody really childlike, who's going "Kiss, suddenly alive, happiness arrive" not "happiness arrives," speaking in almost-broken English. The words are new to this person whether he's coming out of a coma or not. Is he a time-traveller, is he somebody who has come from another world, is he an alien visiting, is he somebody who's been in deep sleep for a long period of time? He's remembering "touch." Then, of course, there's the metaphor of being immersed in the social media digital world where we're all walking around with our faces stuck in our iPhones, not looking at each other. There's kind of a duality, I think, in the message there. I think, in a lot of ways, it's reflective of where they are in their careers right now and the fact that twenty years ago, they essentially started EDM--electronic dance music. There are 250 tracks on "Touch" with real musicians and tape. I think they're trying to get back to something that is about deeper emotion than maybe has been expressed in the past in their work.
MR: What about "Beyond?"
PW: "Beyond" was the second one that I wrote. It's kind of a spiritual song. My favorite line in the song is, "There's no such thing as competition." I love the idea that it's really about love. It's love above love. It comes back to "Touch" with "...if love is the answer, you're home." But I think that with "Beyond"... There are things on this album that remind me of Space Odyssey. When I heard "Touch" for the first time, I said, "Can I see it again...I mean, hear it again?" I said, "'See' it again" because it was such a visual experience for me. I listened to the entire album and the odd thing for me is that it starts with a feel that could have been recorded in Stevie Wonder's studio in 1971 or whenever; it's strange because there's a harmonic to that track. When I hear it, there's like a memory in my mind that takes me back to that time and then, of course, it moves through the album where you've got that going and, concurrently, almost at a parallel time, you've got sounds that are of the future. The odd thing about the whole experience to me is that we met in what was A&M Records, so I'm driving through the gates of a place I went to every day. I'm standing with these guys and looking down at the office where I wrote, "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days And Mondays," "Old Fashioned Love Song," and the songs from Phantom Of The Paradise, the movie that started their whole interest in what I do. I'd sit in the studio with them, walk out the door, and look across the hallway, and in the studio we're standing in right now, we recorded a song called "Out In The Country," which was a hit later for Three Dog Night. But my producer walked in and he had friends recording in the next studio, and it was Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Gerry Beckley from America, and these guys came over and sang background on my record. It was so bizarre because it was like time travel. Being able to stand there in 2013 and listen to this recording in the exact same building in the same studio where I recorded in 1973.
MR: Let's talk about that. You penned "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days And Mondays," "Old Fashioned Love Song," "You And Me Against The World, Rainbow Connection" and so many others. What does it feel like, being that guy who wrote all of those songs?
PW: You know, it's interesting because I get the benefit of the guy I used to be. There's a certain point, and I don't know how quickly it happens after a song is written, but there's a certain point where it's almost not yours anymore. I get the credit for it and I get the accolades and I get somebody coming up to me saying, "You know, I got married to 'Evergreen.' That's what I call a heart-payment. Somebody comes up and says, "My little boy is learning to play the piano and the first thing he's learning to play is "Rainbow Connection." That's a heart-connection. Somebody told me yesterday that they played "Rainbow Connection" at their father's funeral. That's an amazing compliment. With "Rainbow Connection," Kenny Ascher and I wrote it for Kermit in 1979. To have somebody walk up to me and say something you did in 1979 has been an important part of their family's life to the point where it was played at their father's funeral because it's his favorite song, the intensity of a compliment like that... There's something about the elegance of that connection that is so reassuring to the writer.
MR: And as they say, it's all about the song.
PW: With a song, I think it's successful because you honestly write about what's in the center of our chest. It's something that sometimes is very intimate; sometimes, almost embarrassingly intimate. It's like we're writing about things that we feel deeply about and somebody else comes up to you and is like, "I heard that and I felt the same." That, for many years, was the most powerful way that I connected to other human beings, through that moment when somebody says, "Yeah, I know what you mean when you say 'let me be the one you run to," or when I sang, "I can take all the madness," or "Day after day, I must face a world of strangers where I don't belong, I'm not that strong." I had somebody come up and say, "I've felt that, too, that's why I bought the record. Your writing about what I feel means I'm not alone. I'm not weird or different." I am the same as the person that is enjoying the song. My connection, for years, was pretty isolated, especially in my alcoholism. When my cocaine and alcoholism got insane, my one connection I still had to the world was my music. When I got sober, there was an even greater connection. My connection was I turned to other alcoholics and I said, "I need help, I don't know what to do." It was for the first time in my life when I was trying to save my ass instead of my face. I turned to other alcoholics coming out of rehab and I said, "I'm lost. What do I do?" I connected. For the first time through my disease of alcoholism and my addiction, I was actually forced to a place of honesty where I turned into another human being and really got as honest with them as a person as I think I was in my music. I think I've been really honest in my music and people related to it. I think when I got into sobriety, that's when I turned into me, when I stopped trying to be who I think people wanted me to be. That little media whore that you saw...I don't know if you saw the documentary or not.
MR: I absolutely did.
PW: There are parts of that that are really hard for me to watch.
MR: I understand, but it was so natural and came off perfectly. And I especially love that you were so open with that information.
PW: Thank you. I had editing rights and at one point, I thought, "That's got to come out," especially The Merv Griffin Show where I'm joking about infidelity on the road. I was like, "My daughter Sarah is going to see that. I don't want that." And then I realized that if the film was going to have an impact and be about recovery, it would have to be in there. So thank you, I'm glad I left it in.
MR: Paul, some recording acts think they find their creativity by using drugs and living the resulting lifestyle. When you found your sobriety, did you notice any differences in your creative process going from that hard time to when you found sobriety?
PW: Yeah. I had a really interesting gift that happened to me. It's so dead-on what you're talking about that it amazes me to this day. When I got sober, I was scared to death. I didn't know whether the drugs were part of my writing. What I've found in the last twenty-three years was that the creativity was in spite of the drugs, not because of it; that was really, really clear to me. But I think what happened was in the first year and a half that I was sober, I got a call from Brian Henson asking me to write the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol, an interesting project when you think about it, because it's about a man who has a spiritual awakening. It's about Scrooge turning into a new man. So I'm sitting down to write these songs--and I've told this story before, but it's so key to the way I live my life now. First of all, I read Dickens' original book, the novel of A Christmas Carol, and read the script, and I knew what the songs were supposed to be about.
The first song in the movie is Scrooge; you see his feet coming out of the door and he's walking down the street and it's Michael Caine's feet splashing through these puddles in the snow, and you see these Muppet characters that seem to get colder when he walks by. That's the first song, the first song has to be about Scrooge. I read all the material and then I, in a sense, prayed about it. I said to my inner creative self, to my higher self, to my higher power, "You know what, it's in there, let me know when you've got it." A couple days after, I thought about what the song needed to be about. I sat down with a Lawrence Block novel and a pen and paper, and I basically said to my inner self and my higher self, "When you've got an idea, let me know." I read about three pages of a mystery and about three or four pages into the mystery, I put the novel down and said, "Okay, he's walking. [hums melody] It's got that feel to it. When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone. But there's nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone." I went, "Jesus, that's not bad, You guys are good!" "...paints you with indifference like a lady paints with rouge, and the worst of the worst, the most hated and cursed is the one that we call Scrooge. There goes Mr. Humbug, there goes Mr. Grim. If they named a prize for being mean the winner would be him." It rolled out of me. I couldn't write it down fast enough. The lesson for me at that exact moment was you have to trust. You have to stay out of the way. You don't stand on the hose; what you do is you play at writing instead of work at writing and you trust that it's within you.
I'm writing a book right now called Gratitude And Trust: Recovery Is Not Just For Addicts. In that book--which has affirmations which I've created with this woman Tracey Jackson, who I'm writing the book with--one of the affirmations is, "I don't know how to do this but something inside me does." It applies to every element of my life, Michael. My work, my writing. I know that the drugs and alcohol did nothing but get in the way of my work. I would stay up two days and nights trying to write, I'd finally fall asleep, and then get up and write something that was right. I'd look at two days worth of scribbling and there might be something intelligent or even interesting or clever in there, but what was authentic and what came from the center of my chest was almost always written after I finally fell asleep and I'd get up and I'd write. So everything was written in spite of the drugs and not because of the drugs.
But I'll tell, you at the same time after I wrote the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol, I thought I was done. I said, "You know what, the passion's gone," and people were always asking me, "Are you writing? Are you writing?" and I would go, "No." All I wanted to do was be around recovery. I went to UCLA; I studied their drug and alcohol counseling certification program; I started to work for the musicians' assistance program; I worked at a couple of hospitals around LA like Brava Hospital; I worked at Beverly Hills Medical with a guy named Buddy Arnold. Musicians are over-medicated and under-insured so at MAP, we were putting guys in treatment and providing the service for them. MAP is now part of MusiCares and thanks to the good people there, it's a continuing program. But all I wanted to do was be around recovery. I had no passion for music. I thought it was gone, but then, maybe six years into my sobriety, I fell in love with writing again.
MR: Nice. Don't you feel it's no coincidence that you're the head of ASCAP? I mean, it seems like somebody who's been through all this can be a very good mentor and a leader, as you have been. It's a perfect position for Paul Williams.
PW: You know, I always tell people that we are 460,000 small businessmen and metaphorically, I am the perfect president for ASCAP because I am a small businessman. It's interesting that in my life today, there are two things that I'm intensely passionate about. One of them is recovery and the other is music creators' rights, and it's an immense honor to be able to do this. And you're right, to me, it doesn't feel like almost any of this stuff is an accident.
MR: One other thing I wanted to throw out there, knowing your material all these years and being a fan of the artists that have covered you, there are three songs that became classics regardless of the fact that they weren't big hits and I'm happy for you for that. I think "Let Me Be The One" should have been a Top Ten record, "Traveling Boy" as well, and even your "What Would They Say?" from The Boy In The Bubble TV movie. Right?
PW: Yeah, exactly. It's funny because you mentioned three songs that I really like. There are songs like "Time And Tide," "Waking Up Alone" and "What Would They Say," for sure. Art Garfunkel's recording of "Travelling Boy" absolutely blew me away. Totally blew me away.
MR: To me, the seventies was this beautiful time for music, right when the music business still had flavors of the Brill Building mentality, expanding really quickly.
PW: Sure, sure.
MR: As a kid, I loved learning about songwriters like you and other great writers of the time.
PW: We just had the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame event again, and I think one of the great things about that event is that we're all fans. Jimmy Webb is now chairman of the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame and he's my Writer Vice Chairmen at ASCAP, but I walk into the room every now and then and I go, "That's Jimmy Webb!" Felix Cavaliere was sitting at my table, and I go, "Oh my gosh, wow!" Hal David was a great mentor of Carole King and I've written with Carole and every now and then, but I still get this, "Oh my god, you're sitting in a room with Carole King."
PW: I think that we all do that. I remember a writer named Phil Ochs, remember Phil Ochs?
MR: Oh, yeah.
PW: So the first person that I ever met that I knew their songs was Phil Ochs and I just went, "My god, that's the guy who wrote 'Crucifixion' and 'Flower Lady." I think one of the great things that is a real asset to anyone's personality is to maintain that ability to be in awe. Just be in awe of someone else's talent.
MR: [laughs] I love that it doesn't go away.
PW: I just met Leonard Cohen recently--I guess a year or two ago at the Songwriter Hall Of Fame--and Jennifer Warnes sang the Famous Blue Raincoat album, which I wore out. I'm standing there just grinning, and I look at the man and I'm like, "This is the man that wrote "Dance Me To The End Of Love." Do you know that song?
MR: Yeah, terrific song.
PW: The other night I went to dinner with Billy Bob Thornton. He got up to have a cigarette and he didn't come back. I went, "Where the hell are you?" I looked over and he was talking to Tommy Waits and I hadn't seen him in probably ten years. I had a conversation with these two guys and I'm thinking, "I'm wondering if they're feeling anything that I'm feeling, because I'm like a kid in candy store." I was standing there with Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Waits. I wondered were they feeling, "Wow, I'm standing here with Paul Williams?" I don't know, but it's one of the things that I cherish, that I can feel like a twelve year-old again when I'm with talent like that.
MR: Billy's a pal and he has this studio, I think he bought it from Slash. Actually, I think the story was he bought the house and it came with a studio, and he told Slash, "I'll buy the house if I get the engineer with it."
PW: [laughs] That's great.
MR: He's a really good human, he and his musical manager, Lisa Roy. Love them. I was once in a meeting with them and Universal execs, and Billy and Lisa intentionally empowered and positioned me to look really good. That was one of the most outrageous and generous things people have ever done for my career.
PW: They really, really treat people well. Incidentally, maybe one of the funniest movies I've ever seen in my life is Bad Santa. I love it.
MR: [laughs] Bad Santa is so very wrong in so many ways, and you can't help but love it. Paul, I asked you a couple years ago at the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame, but would love to ask you this question again. What's your advice for new artists?
PW: Authenticity. It always comes back to that. I tried to be David Bowie, but there was already a David Bowie and he was much better at it than I was. My advice is twofold: Creatively, trusting what's inside you is what we need to hear; don't try to be anybody else. When "We've Only Just Begun" was the number one record, the number one album at the time was In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. You couldn't get further away from what was commercial than what I wrote with Roger Nichols for that bank commercial, and yet it became a number one record. There's something about if you write honestly what you feel, other people feel it too. I think what I would also say to them is, "Become activists. Learn about the business, learn about what's going on with creators' rights, be willing to dive into that world and be aware of what's going on." It's an amazing time right now. More music's being played on more devices than ever before in the history of music. It's a great time, it's an exciting time. But in the digital world and all, there are challenges, and for somebody starting out, the more they know about what's going on, the better prepared they are to make the right choices. And I would say don't lose touch with the mystical element. I've always said that I am very Jiminy Cricket about the life I have today and about the things I get to do. I think that the more difficult time men and women are going to have to slosh through as they try to build a career, trust that the talent in the center of your chest was not put there as a burden, it was not put there for you to suffer, it was put there for you to celebrate and for us to celebrate your gifts.
MR: Beautiful, thanks. And by the way, the person that I've just been talking to I truly do believe is the same enlightened simian who tried to protect the world from having arms proliferate in Battle For The Planet Of The Apes.
PW: [laughs] Absolutely. I live right on the water, and as you walk up the stairs and you turn the corner at the top of the stairs towards the bedroom, you walk by a collection of photographs and posters sent from Japan or wherever from Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. It's a great big picture of me as an orangutan and you can always tell it's me. I'm the one guy in the world that I know you can put orangutan makeup on and I still look exactly like myself. It's too weird.
MR: [laughs] All right, I guess we should wrap things up here, I'm sure you've got things to do. I so admire you, buddy. What an amazing career, and I love how your story is not only about coming out on top, it's coming out on top with honor.
PW: Oh, thank you. That means an awful lot. I've got a new website called Gratitude And Trust (http://www.gratitudeandtrust.com). And again, I am writing this book, Gratitude And Trust: Recovery Is Not Just For Addicts, with a wonderful writer and dear friend of mine, Tracey Jackson, check it out. I've written a bunch of blogs, we both blog, there's affirmations there.
MR: Awesome, thanks Paul.
PW: Thanks, Michael.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
photo credit: Justin West
"WE ARE THE NIGHT" BY MODERN MACHINES
Making their label debut, renowned New York City based electronic DJ/ Producer duo Modern Machines--composed of Dimitry Mak and Kapla--are excited to announce their anthem, "We Are The Night." It was released by Dutch label, Black Hole Recordings on July 1st, and it's already receiving airplay on SiriusXM, BPM, BetaBeat. "We Are The Night" became available exclusively on Beatport.com for 2 weeks beginning July 1st, and it will be followed by iTunes, Amazon, Traxsource, Masterbeat and other digital outlets on July 16, 2013.
Dimitry and Kapla decided to join forces forming Modern Machines, supporting Producers and DJs including Showtek, Alesso, Just Blaze, DJ Chuckie, Dash Berlin, Krewella, Cazzette and Paul Oakenfold and have produced tracks including "Trouble", and a remix for The Knocks entitled "Modern Hearts." Receiving overwhelming support from the New York club scene through shows at LAVO and Marquee and nationally, playing events during Miami Music Week and Bounce Music Festival (throughout North America), the duo decided in June that it was time to start releasing their tracks including a new series of monthly mixes entitled "Welcome to the Machine."
"IF YOU'RE WITH ME, THEN YOU'RE AGAINST ME" WITH ELI MARDOCK
Eli Mardock is premiering a new song with us today called "If You're With Me, Then You're Against Me." The haunting and dream-like tune appears on the Nebraskan singer/songwriter's debut full length, Everything Happens For The First Time, released August 6 on Paper Garden Records.
Mardock initially established himself as the vocalist of art-rock outfit, Eagle Seagull, a band that Florence Welch herself championed and who had toured with groups such as Tokyo Police Club and The B-52's. After the demise of that band, Mardock released two highly regarded solo EPs--Feb 2013's Hamburg and 2012's NE Sorrow is Born--playing all the instruments and producing himself. For the upcoming release however, Mardock enlisted some assistance from former Eagle Seagull members Andrew Tyler (drums) and Carrie Butler (keyboardist/violinist) on several tracks. Mixing duties was also entrusted to Justin Gerrish, whose credits include Vampire Weekend and The Strokes.
Eli Mardock will be announcing upcoming tour dates shortly and more information about Everything Happens For The First Time and the artist can be found on the website http://www.elimardock.com.
"IT'S GONNA BE ALRIGHT" WITH MATTHEW J. TOW
Premiering today is the video for "It's Gonna Be Alright," by Australian pop-psych/experimental psych artist, Matthew J. Tow. The song appears on his new album, The Way Of Things, which is available now via Xemu Records (Dead Meadow, Spindrift) and co-produced by Colin Hegna (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Ryan Carlson van Kriedt (Dead Skeletons). Though having a highly decorated career in music over the past two decades fronting groups such as Drop City and The Lovetones, The Way Of Things marks the Australian songwriter's debut solo offering.
Speaking on the imagery in the video and how it connects to the song, Tow says, "It was really important for me to fit the lyrics and imagery of the song with the right video. The song is really just an old time parable and an ode to the downtrodden in life, but ultimately it's about how we all search for some sort of meaning through an understanding of our own situation. I worked closely with film makers Daddy Issue Productions here in Sydney to get the video just right. They thought about the song and decided the images of lonely, desperate people in an unforgiving city would complement it nicely."
Tow will be announcing U.S. tour dates shortly and more info on Matthew can be found at http://www.matthewjtow.com.
"UNEMPLOYMENT LINE" - A FEW WORDS FROM CREED BRATTON (WITH SUZI HOFRICHTER)
I have had many lives. I've hitchhiked across the country and spent weeks at sea on a cargo ship with only minimum person crew. There were years spent backpacking through Europe, The Middle East, & North Africa. At one point I even had to resort to stealing food just to survive. Then I returned to the US to spend the swinging '60s living the rockstar life as a member of the Grass Roots. I played with Janis Joplin, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Cream. I've partied with The Allman Brothers and played to packed houses all across the country. But one day, it all disappeared.
After I left the band, things were rough for a long time. There was even a period when I couldn't afford a car. My wife was in New York and I'd get on the bus with my daughter to take her to kindergarten. I'd go to my day shift at a restaurant and jump back on the bus to pick her up from school and bring her home. I'd find my way to an acting classes before I did it all again the next day. At the age of 40, I hit rock bottom and found myself in an unemployment line. When I got in line I noticed a familiar face a short way in front of me. It was an ex-girlfriend of mine, and I couldn't handle the thought of her seeing me there, so I left. An unemployment line is a lonely place to be, but seeing a familiar place made it that much harder.
I co-wrote "Unemployment Line" with Peter and Sarah Dixon about that moment. There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the kind of life I've had, and this experience was a lesson in perspective that I couldn't have learned any other way. We see a lot of finger pointing these days. Everyone is convinced that their lives are the most difficult or that their obstacles are the greatest. They are unlucky and the world owes them. But, I've seen both sides of the coin. I lived the good life, and then I struggled for about 30 years. This moment taught me the hard lesson that no one is owed anything. We want and wish, while cursing our neighbor who may have more. But what we have is not as important as the perspective we maintain. I believe we fail to see the real battle buried beneath all the bureaucracy. So, please watch this video and take a few moments to shift your perspective. See the GOOD in people, the value of our connection to one another, and realize that the ailments of an unemployed society are not a result of laziness, they are a by-product of loneliness.