A Conversation with Jamie Cullum
Mike Ragogna: Jamie, your new album Interlude features covers of Randy Newman and Richard Carpenter songs, a dark film noir approach on a couple of tracks, some lo-fi dirty boogie, and, of course, straight ahead jazz. How did this all come together?
Jamie Cullum: I've lived my short life as a record geek. I take quite a heavy interest in music. Lots of people are interested in music, but I'm the kind of guy who'd be digging through boxfuls of old records in secondhand stores and record fares and things like that. I present a radio show once a week on the BBC, so I kind of have quite a collection, quite an interest. If there's one thing I know I can do, it's bring things together and hopefully communicate my passion for it. That was the impetus to make this album.
MR: You have the number one jazz show in Europe and an appreciation for all of music's various styles. It must have been a challenge to whittle a list of potentially thousands of songs to a max of fifteen tracks on Interlude's expanded edition?
JC: The producer and I sent ideas back and forth, songs that we wanted to do, songs that not only hadn't been done too much, but also ones where we felt we could take the audience and the listener on a journey through this music. It was stuff that perhaps maybe was ignored, a particular period of standards--less from the fifties, more from the forties and thirties and nineties and seventies, kind of ignoring certain periods. I think also the working relationship that I got going with the producer and the band that I used on this record--who I met through my radio show--we did this fully knowing we would do it again, so things that didn't make the cut will make the cut on the second volume as it were.
MR: Interlude 2?
MR: So Ben Landin was the guy you worked with on Interlude. What did he bring into the mix that you normally wouldn't have?
JC: He is an interesting producer, the way he works. He manages to get results without impressing himself upon the situation in an aggressive way. He's got a very, very subtle way of producing that manages to get a great result. He's very good at getting you to keep the performance and keep the spontaneity of things without going in and polishing up all the edges. But one of the main things he has is this amazing working relationship with a particular studio called Fish Factory where we recorded and with the musicians that he uses under this banner "Nostalgia 77." When you walk into the studio, pretty much an hour, later you're recording, and you're doing it in a large room where you're not using headphones, you're not cordoned off by walls and glass panes and big bunches of fabric. You're actually recording in a room, almost like you would be on stage, all looking at each other and recording in a way that feels very real and very organic. You're very much inspired to keep these first and second takes. This whole album is made up of things that were done first or second time.
MR: In a way, it's a bit of a testament to your live show. It seems like you brought that talent into the studio to be able to do one- and two-takes on the recordings.
JC: Yes, it's two things: It's an increased confidence in allowing yourself to just be more comfortable with things that aren't perfect and making that part of the story, and also, I guess I have a greater ability than I did ten years ago, full stop really. I'm a better musician than I was ten years ago. I'm still nowhere near where I want to be, but I'm better than I was.
MR: [laughs] That's interesting coming from someone who literally set pianos on fire as you were becoming popular.
JC: Yeah. Another great thing about making this particular record is that I was very much surrounded--and I say this with no false sense of modesty--by what I consider to be far superior musicians. It's great to walk into a situation that makes you really raise your game.
MR: So you're the number one-selling jazz artist in Europe as well as having a number one radio show there. When you look at the relatively short span of time in which you've done all this, it's clear you're looking past your own music. For example, you're the one who introduced Gregory Porter to the world--last year's jazz Grammy-winner--on your show.
JC: Yes, I feel very proud of that, actually. Gregory got his very first plays on my radio show. He's someone I definitely had been shouting about for a while. The radio show has almost, by accident, become something that's very much a part of my life, and something that I take very seriously. I give it my full attention once a week. It's become this thing that people at home enjoy. I love doing it. It's a lot of work but it's really increased my enjoyment of the music that I make and I get a great chance to shout about great artists that maybe have not traditionally gotten the platform they deserve. As I said, it's just a wonderful thing. I'm not really referring to Gregory in that sense, but I'm talking about some young British jazz artists who tend to get played on things. They are more jazz shows that go out on other radio stations very late at night or don't have the chance to have the kind of audience I do being on at seven o'clock on what's essentially a very big pop radio station. They get to infiltrate people's dinner times with some really out there music. It's really fun.
MR: Jamie, you've also been a guest musician on other artist's records spanning across many genres. Plus there's a great span of music that you've incorporated into your own repertoire, perhaps because of all of these things?
JC: Well, you know, when I was growing up and becoming a musician, my hope was... If you set yourself a goal of becoming a good musician, of course, you'll be in all these things. If you think about what Herbie Hancock has done in his career, he's guested on everything. He just showed up on the new Flying Lotus record. If you set yourself the goal of being a good musician, then absolutely, you should be able to spread yourself around all these different genres and enjoy all these different aspects.
MR: You bring up Herbie Hancock, I interviewed him the other day and we spent most of the interview talking about the source of creativity. So where does your own muse come from? Do you sit at a piano and make yourself create or does it come out of nowhere?
JC: It does do a bit of that. I believe in the kind of blue-collar aspect of it. I think you need to show up to work and think things will come out of that. They may not come out one day, they may not come out the next day, but they will show up. And if it's not showing up, I go for a walk in the woods with my hip flask. Or I take a snifter of whiskey and I put a great record on in my studio and go and read a passage from a book that I love. Surround yourself with great art and hopefully you will make something in between it. But you've got to show up. When I'm writing, I go into my studio and I close the door and I'll start the day and put on something I love or that I've never heard, I'll put on a couple of new releases that day or I drink a really good cup of coffee and I make sure that I've got fresh air in my lungs. Eventually you sit down, you pull out the fishing line, and you hope something will come.
MR: To me, especially after all the projects you tackle in addition to your show, it seems you have a very strong work ethic. When you look at your early recordings and perhaps the video of the live concert, it really seems like you've always been on a mission.
JC: It's funny, I talked about this with my wife because my work ethic kind of annoys her sometimes, but I don't really see it that way. I think when you get on a roll, you just go with it. I'm quite good at not looking in the past, I'm quite good at not looking too far into the future. I just kind of turn up one day and say, "All right, what am I going to do?" My life is complete chaos in every other way. When it comes to work, I tend to be able to get things done and I don't overthink things too much. Maybe I just get on with the job at hand and then move on. I don't think about the consequences too much. I'm not too overly worried about what people are going to think about it, I just do something I think is good and then move on to the next thing, really. That is my main strength. I don't think I put more hours in than other people, I'm not working through the night, I get to work and I get one with something and then I move on, really.
MR: So the creativity drives the drive.
JC: Absolutely. Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of times where I've felt like things have just not gone well. Interlude is a good example of the process: Me and Ben booked three days in the studio before we had any idea what we were going to do. We had this date in the future and we thought, "We'd better get ourselves together." That's sometimes a good way to work.
MR: When you look at Jamie Cullum starting out, just a jazz fireball who was adding elements that were, at the time, pretty brash, what do you think about that guy?
JC: Yeah, he doesn't feel that different! I still feel like that guy. I still feel like the interloper in some ways. Those stage performances certainly haven't gotten any less brash. I have a few grey hairs, my eyes are a little greyer underneath. I'm married now so my blinders are on. I'm very happily married. I have this gorgeous family, so that aspect is different. I try and get a bit more sleep these days, but I don't look back at that person and not know who he his. I think that's quite nice. Having said that, I've never listened to any of my other records. Occasionally, I'll hear them in a restaurant or something, but I've never sat down and put on any of my old records. Like I said, I'm not nostalgic, but I'm also not very good at looking too far into the future.
MR: So there's no savoring process with your work?
JC: No. There's just so much going on in my head during the moment that I can't really worry myself with that stuff too much.
MR: Jamie, what advice do you have for new artists?
JC: I think it's good to just do without thinking too much of the consequences. So much of the really good stuff happens with that. Obviously, now you can broadcast everything you do straight away, technically, you can start getting feedback straight away and you can get so caught up in what other people think about what you're doing it's quite hard to develop and make mistakes and get on with it. You really should be getting on with it. You can put stuff out there, that's great, but you really need to do it without thinking, because you need to develop. And it's great to imitate your heroes as well. Imitate your favorite people as much as you want and through imitation, you will become the person you want to be eventually. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. If you want to sound like Prince, listen to a ton of his records and make a few things that sound like Prince. Keep doing that and eventually your true person will come out of that.
MR: Is that the process you used?
JC: Yeah, I think so. When I started out in one of my bands I was trying to be Ben Folds, in another one I was trying the Harry Connick, Jr. thing. In another band, I was playing guitar, trying to be Jeff Buckley, then I was a DJ on the weekends thinking I was a member of The Beastie Boys. Eventually cut to twenty years later and maybe I operate somewhere between all those things. Or I try to, anyway.
MR: For somebody with as broad of a taste in music as you have, how do you ever become satisfied with your recordings?
JC: You don't. That's the great thing about it. You're always searching for that satisfaction because it always eludes you. That's why you keep going, why you keep trying to get better and keep searching. That's actually the beauty of it. It's an old and much-hackneyed thing to say, but the destination is an illusion. The journey is the whole point.
MR: So what's on the horizon, Jamie?
JC: I'm always writing but I feel like I've got a good bunch of original songs for another album that's more cross-genre. After I've finished with this album tour, I'll probably go back to my studio and start putting a few of these things down. That'll be next.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
YELLOWCARD PRESENTS "ONE BEDROOM" IN SUPPORT OF INVISIBLE CHILDREN
According to the Yellowcard camp, "Instead of presenting a standard video for its new single 'One Bedroom' with a storyline sticking close to the emotional love story of its lyrics, Yellowcard have chosen to put its support for the organization Invisible Children front and center. Filled with statistics and accounts of the terrors ongoing in Africa waged by Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, the video shows a dramatization of an abduction resulting in brainwashing and forced recruitment in this African terror organization."
"Working with Invisible Children for the 'One Bedroom' music video was an incredible experience," said vocalist/guitarist Ryan Key. "We have never had the opportunity to connect our music to something so much bigger than ourselves in such a direct way."
"Invisible Children is honored to have been able to partner with Yellowcard on this very sincere project, giving us all a look at the reality of what life is like for people in central Africa, who are still being terrorized by Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army [LRA]," said Alexander Collins, Invisible Children's Strategic Partnerships Manager. "Together we can put an end to this unnecessary violence and bring back the women and children who are still held captive."
A Conversation with Peter White
Mike Ragogna: I heard you have a great big Smile coming soon.
Peter White: [laughs] Well, yeah. I've actually been trying to get myself on an album cover smiling for years. I thought if I called the album Smile there couldn't be any way that I could avoid it. I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice for me to be smiling on an album cover?" and I never really achieved it after what...thirteen albums?
MR: Is it because your music lends itself to being more contemplative?
PW: I don't think we can draw any conclusions about the music. There are certain songs that are very happy. In fact, the title track "Smile" is a very happy song. It's about encouraging people to smile. "I love the way you smile."
MR: How did you approach Smile differently from the last album? Where there any new tricks, technical or otherwise, that you used?
PW: I would love to say that there were, but there really weren't. I'm pretty much doing the same thing I've done on every album. I'm just trying to create a variety of music that if someone listens to the CD all the way through, they will be taken on some kind of mystical journey through different moods, through different landscapes. Of course, if you listen to each song separately, you won't get this.
MR: Ah, an intentionally coherent album. It gets harder and harder to do that in an environment where people don't have a lot of time to listen to full albums and who have also gotten into the habit of downloading singles.
PW: Yeah, and sometimes, I do that too. But if it's an artist I really like, I'll listen to the whole album, absolutely. I think if you are an artist that listeners have grown to like because they like the fact that you make a whole album they can listen to all the way through, then I think I'm always going to have that kind of following, where people listen to the CD all the way through. "Hey, there's not a bad song on here," when somebody tells me that, that's the greatest compliment. "Oh, I liked that one song!" Well, thank you, but what about the others? [laughs]
MR: So what about the others, sir? Takes us on a tour through the album from the creator's perspective.
PW: A lot of these songs, I actually wrote a long time ago, I just put together these songs that I thought would fit together nicely to form almost a movie from beginning to end. I've even made a story using all the titles. I play that game sometimes. "Make a story using all these titles...in the correct order, by the way!" I just try to make the best music I can and present these songs in the best way possible. It's up to the listener to figure out, "What is this? Does it touch me?" If it touches people, that's all I care about.
MR: And I imagine that same intention had to be understood by your guests on this project. You have Mindi Abair, you have Rick Braun, Euge Groove, and many others.
PW: These are all my best friends and people I've played many shows with. In fact, I just did a show recently with Rick and Euge and I'm doing another one this weekend with Rick and Euge. It's a show called Jazz Attack and we all play together. I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to get my friends to play on my album?" Rick plays the flugelhorn like no one else in the world, I think, so it's natural to have him on there. I've got Euge playing some lovely--plaintive, almost--soprano sax. It's not the funky Euge that you're used to hearing. Mindi, I had her put down her saxophone and just sing. I said, "Just sing for me." She said, "Peter White, did you write these songs? Did you write these lyrics?" "Yes, I did." "Well, wow, they're so romantic." She was very surprised.
MR: Earlier, you compared this album to a movie. Was that film in your head from the beginning or was it something where you jumped into creating the music and then saw where it took you?
PW: Yeah, I think the latter is right. I don't usually start an album with any kind of concept. I find that the concept grows out of the music. I think you're possibly confining yourself if you start out with a topic. "Everything's going to be like this." The only "concept" albums I've really done--I've done a Christmas CD, yeah, and also I did a couple of CDs which were all cover songs, mostly from the seventies by the way, because to me that was the best time for music. That was when I was a teenager, so the music stayed with me all that time. But apart from that, I think people get too hung up about style. Let me go out on a limb here. I think if you have a great song, they can present it in many different styles and it still is valid. I'm trying to present my songs stylistically in the way that I think presents them best for my style of guitar playing.
MR: By the way, speaking of playing, I've always loved how you played like a wild man on the Al Stewart recording "On The Border."
PW: Yeah, that's how I started, with the Spanish guitar. Back then when I was twenty years old, Al Stewart put it in my hand and said, "Play this," and the rest is history. I'd never really played nylon string guitar. We have different names for it, nylon string, classical, spanish guitar, it's all the same really, but I'd never really played that kind of guitar, I was playing steel string. But Al's influence set me on a road from which I've never strayed. People would remark on that and say, "That's the sound! You sound great! When you play that, you sound unique." I thought, "Wow, I've got to go with this."
MR: Can you see how you've influenced him as well?
PW: No one's ever asked me that question. I congratulate you, Mike. I'm always looking for a question I've never heard. Al really sees his songs more as lyrical rather than musical. In that way, I don't think I've influenced him at all. I never really had a hand in his lyrics. I would make suggestions now and again but nothing major. He always liked the music that I'd come up with, so what he'd do is take a piece of music I'd written and put words on top of it. That's how we worked together. He never really got that much into the music and I never really got that much into the words.
MR: It can argued, though.
PW: I would love you to argue, Mike! I don't really see it but maybe you do.
MR: [laughs] This is more like what I mean. When you look at Bacharach and David, you've got the music influencing the lyrics and vice versa. My feeling is that Al must have looked at the music from that more tactile sense when working with you, no?
PW: I think certainly before I met him, he was more used to going into the studio with an acoustic guitar and the band would play around him. When I started writing songs with him, that kind of changed, now that I think about it. I think you're right. We would create music and it wasn't necessarily based around guitar. For instance, "Time Passages" was written around an electric piano riff. The acoustic guitar was actually not a huge part of that song. Since I stopped playing with Al--I do play with him occasionally--he's made a few albums without me and he's pretty much gone back to playing acoustic guitar and having a band play around him, which is how he did in the old days before I met him. But there was a whole period in the middle where the band would create the sound. The musicians--myself included--would create the sound and then he would work his magic on top of that.
MR: I've often wondered if the approach of folks like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan wouldn't have been furthered if they didn't have bands like Tom Scott & The LA Express and The Band to collaborate with.
PW: Bob Dylan was already established as a folk singer but not to the extent as when he played with his band. Same with Joni Mitchell. It took their music to a whole new acceptance level.
MR: Yes, especially Joni with Court And Spark and Miles Of Aisles, and I'm thinking The Band/Dylan collaborations helped get him not only through Planet Waves, but the experience got him to Blood On The Tracks. Beyond the new acceptance and success they experienced, my feeling is it might have opened up creative portals for them. I'm suggesting you had that influence on Al Stewart.
PW: Well, I appreciate that, Mike.
MR: You're very welcome. Now back to you. What do you think of jazz these days? It's grabbed and integrated a lot of other genres, R&B, hip-hop, funk, soul. I know it's a silly question, but what is jazz?
PW: It's not a silly question. I heard a perfect definition of jazz one day, I think it was Pat Metheny on a TV interview. He said, "Jazz is music for improvisation." How succinct is that? I feel that my music skims the boundary of jazz, there's a little bit of improvisation there and I think when we play live there's a little more because tend to jam out a lot more but my music is far more grounded in pop and R&B and rock than it is in jazz even though there are elements of jazz in it.
MR: And if one were to classify Peter White?
PW: Well, I don't bother myself with classifying. I hear other people all the time, I walked in a music store one day and a guy said, "Oh, you're Peter White, you're the new age artist!" and I said, "Oh okay, yeah, I'm the new age artist." What does that mean? I record it with a crystal? People want to categorize. Generally musicians don't categorize; we just don't do it because we feel it inhibits us. It's just music. We're the sum total of all the musical stars we heard growing up, which for me was The Beatles, Motown, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell. It's all in there.
MR: And obviously you have to be exposed to the current biggest hits in the world, the things you just can't get away from...
PW: It's funny because I just read that Iggy Azalea has the number one single of the summer and I hadn't even heard it. I thought, "I'm doing something right." I heard Daft Punk and it was great. It sounded to me like, "We Are Family" because it was Nile Rodgers on there.
MR: I love what you said earlier about how, basically, even if you have clear influences, people shouldn't genre-fy musicians. That's got to be the most unsatisfying thing about making music.
PW: It's pretty inevitable, especially from journalists, because they have to put down in print something that will make people understand and hear the music they can't hear and yet it's kind of impossible at the same time. No matter how much you describe a song, you still can't hear it whether you like it or not. If people say, "If you like this music, you'll like that music," well, no, that's not necessarily true.
MR: It's like how Amazon makes suggestions.
PW: That's right! No one has yet said to me, "Because you like Joni Mitchell, you'll also like AC/DC." No one has said that to me, and yet it's true, Mike. I do like Joni Mitchell and I do like AC/DC, but that doesn't fit into any algorithm. To me, this whole thing about, "If you like this, you'll like this," because it's all stylistic and as I said before, I think categorizing by style is way overrated. I can listen to music in any style and if it touches me, it touches me. I'm not going to worry about, "Oh, it's the wrong style, it's too hip-hop, it's too rock." It doesn't matter to me.
MR: What is the thing that brought the biggest smile to your face about Smile?
PW: The feedback that I've been getting from people, people who have obviously listened to it and remarked to me about certain things that really touch them, which makes all the work that I put into making the album, months and months of work worthwhile. I'm obviously very nervous every time I finish an album because I don't know who's going to like it. This is very much my vision, it's not by committee. I'm not going around saying, "Do you like this, do you like that?"
MR: Have people commented on your continued growth as an artist?
PW: I get all sorts of different comments. That's their perspective, I don't really see it, I just hope that with each album I make I get better at making music. I'm too close to it to really see if that's true. I can listen to my earlier albums and say, "That's a good song, but it could have been done differently." In fact, I'm redoing my first three albums. This is a long-term project where I'm going back and remixing them the way that I would if I was making them today.
MR: Are you going to recut some of the musical parts?
PW: I've actually added some musical parts, but I haven't touched the original guitar. To me, there was nothing wrong with the guitar; the guitar was fine. It's kind of a remix in that I'm taking the melody and just adding a few things that if I was recording it today--which I am--this is what I would add, this is how I would present it. It's really a remix, it's not a redo, I'm not re-recording, I'm just remixing.
MR: You have a good share of beats and samples that you're throwing in?
PW: Yeah, some. We didn't have them in those days. I've gone back and I've found bass parts that I've never used because they were out of tune, but now with modern technology, you can make anything in tune. I was talking to Brian Culbertson. He redid his first album but he completely re-recorded it. What I'm doing is different because I like the guitar, it's everything else that I thought wasn't up to par. So the guitar is completely unchanged but I've also added things that I think would make it better for today's audience and today's atmosphere.
MR: It seems like you and the group of artists and musicians on this album took concepts like good songwriting and furthered them within your own creative atmosphere. Does that seem right?
PW: Some of us have actually come right out and said it, I think Mindi said it on her previous album, all we're doing is trying to keep up with what they did in the seventies. Those great founding records back then. Forget about improving the music, we're just trying to keep up with that music. That was the best music ever. There's a song on my new album called, "Beautiful Love," which is my tribute to Barry White. I don't know if anybody gets this, but if you listen to it and the way the song starts, you can almost hear Barry White starting to moan and groan the way he does. That's what I hear anyway. I wonder if anyone will ever get that. The first time I heard Barry White, I was awestruck. I said, "Wow, this is amazing. I've never heard a pop song where the music starts but the singing doesn't come in for another minute. I've never heard that before. That was pretty revolutionary. I've taken that concept with this particular song with a long, drawn out intro that just builds gradually.
MR: "Don Quixote's Final Quest" seems almost like a commentary on what has come before on the album. Was that intentional or is that just my over-reading?
PW: I love that. It's certainly a throw back. I'm glad you said that because I've never really looked at it that way. That goes further back than any other song, I think. I wrote that song maybe twenty years ago. I kind of forgot about it and then I ran into Freddie Ravel who's a piano player and he reminded me that we had tried to record this song together and then we gave it up and that was about ten years ago. I said, "We have to finish that song." So we finished it and I nearly left it off the album because it's just so different to everything else. But I said, "Why not?" When The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's... there were all sorts of songs on there that were completely different from anything we'd heard before from The Beatles. "She's Leaving Home," just the string quartet, with The Beatles singing. I thought, "Why not?" This is part of the story. Maybe the protagonist in our story went to the movies and he saw a movie about Don Quixote. Maybe that was in the soundtrack. Maybe that's what happened on that particular day if you look at everything in sequence. I'm glad I did leave it on the album because I've gotten a lot of positive feedback on that song.
MR: And you end with the optimistic "Awakening." Since you described the album in terms of a film, it's clear you understand the concept of a happy ending.
PW: Yes. Once again, I didn't really get that, but now that you point it out to me, it really does make sense. It's a nice awakening. Maybe it was all a dream, Mike, maybe it was all a dream...
MR: [laughs] Cue wavy visual effect and scene change! See, that's what you get when you talk with an over-thinker. So. What advice do have for new artists, Mr. White?
PW: I think you have to open yourself to as many musical styles as possible. If you can play the piano, to me this is the bedrock of western music. The fact that I can play the piano even though I'm known as a guitarist, it has enabled me to write and arrange all of these songs because most of it's done on the keyboard. When I joined Al Stewart's band, by the way, he hired me to play the piano. He already had a guitar player. I probably would not even be here talking to you today if it wasn't for that. Whatever other instrument you play, or if you're a singer, whatever, it doesn't matter. Learn to play the piano. And get out there and play as much as you can in public. Go to places where people play and meet them. There are clubs here all over in L.A. For instance, there one I know called Cafe Cordiale. I go there all the time and musicians hang out there, musicians jam there, this is where you get to meet musicians. Be true to your heart. Make music because you love it, not because you think this is what people want to hear. I've never been good at that. Maybe that's a good thing. I've never been good at trying to figure out what people want. What did Rick Nelson say? "You can't please everyone so you've got to please yourself."
MR: Nicely played, sir! What about you? What advice would you give you if you were starting out as a kid again?
PW: This is a great question. I would say, "Don't worry. It'll be all right."
PW: I remember being very worried when I was younger, and now I look back and I think, "What was I so worried about?" If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. There's only so much in life that you can control. Probably less than you think. Just do your best and go with it. Try to avoid making decisions based on fear or greed and that'll give you a good life. I'm paraphrasing here, but that's the best piece of advice. If anyone had said that to me, that would've given me a lot of solace. A lot of comfort. "It's going to be okay. What are you so afraid of? Don't be so fearful." And if you do have fear, because we all do, walk right through it. Don't let it control your life. When I started out, I was full of fear. I had no experience, I was just starting out, I didn't know anything. All I knew was how to play the guitar. And yet that was what kept me going. The fact that I could play guitar opened doors for me even though I wasn't sure where I was heading.
MR: No fear. This said from the man who was handed a Spanish guitar and told to play it.
PW: Well, it changed my life. Al Stewart--who I met at the age of twenty and I'm so glad I did--I only met him because I was living with my mother and going down to London to do auditions on the train. I was making appointments to meet people on a public telephone because we didn't have a telephone. Kids today say, "How do I get someone to listen?" You have everything now. You have the internet to tell you how to do everything. "How do I fix my sink?" It's on the internet. "How do I play this song?" It's on the internet! Everything's on the internet!
MR: Yeah, some things shouldn't be on the internet, huh! [laughs]
PW: [laughs] Some things shouldn't, but if you can think of it, it's on the internet. We didn't have the internet, all we had was blind luck. Just keep going and, hopefully, things will click. And you meet people along the way, as I did with Al Stewart. As I said, it changed my life. I was very lucky.
MR: So what's in your future? What else does Peter White want to do?
PW: People do ask me this, and I wish I had some exotic hobby to talk about like falconry or pole-vaulting. Underwater pole-vaulting, now that's something new. I'm going to turn sixty soon. I'm just amazed that I'm still here. In fact, that is a question that no one ever asks me: "Why are you still here?"
MR: Hey Peter, why are you still here?
PW: [laughs] I don't know! I've managed to keep away from drugs and only occasional alcohol, but I'm still fit and I'm very grateful for that. All I want to do is keep making music and playing music because that's what keeps me going. That's what keeps me young and enthusiastic. As long as there are people out there who are willing to listen and want to come to the shows and take the time to wait after the show to tell me that they liked the music, that means so much to me. Otherwise why would I do it?
For those who want even more, there is the Smile EPK. Enjoy!
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Amanda Kravat
Mike Ragogna: Amanda, your AK EP showcases quite a few, I'm assuming, influences or artists whose music meant something to you. Is that the case and who are some of your favorites?
Amanda Kravat: Music seeps in and becomes embedded in our DNA, definitely into mine. I always say if I write something nearly great, it's probably because somebody else wrote it first, whether it's a Stravinsky bit, or a great jazz change. There are only so many notes and the ones in between. As for the songs on AK--yes--so many influences are in here. There's that John Lennon nod, it's a minor/major chord thing in the verse to "I Could Tell You I Don't Love You"; one of the first bands I ever saw was Cheap Trick, and "Not Myself Today" is certainly in that 1970s, I'm winking at you' mode--"Saturday was Klonopin," etc. Also I really dig New Pornographers, love how they can make pop songs really rock. I hear a little Neil Finn in "Wouldn't Be This." Also I always wanted to throw in a little octave singing, I loved that about Squeeze, and that's in "Wouldn't Be This" too. TV On The Radio...archetypal indie rock. Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders. The clenched-fist drama of "I'll Stand By You." Ahh, and the strings on "I Could Tell You I Don't Love You" thanks to Patrick Warren. The strings were producer Max Coyne's suggestion. Remember INXS and those cellos? Not sure if that was Chris Thomas or INXS' idea. I've always wanted to have a ballad with just the right amount of strings on it. I think we got it just right on this one. So, yeah, if these songs are any good, it's because I let my heroes sneak into the studio...
MR: You raised a couple of kids over the last few years, which put your recording career on hiatus. What motivated you to return to the studio and how did it feel to be back?
AK: My motivation to get my ass in gear was the sudden onset of debilitating, infuriating panic attacks. Diagnosis? A blocked musical artery. I literally felt like I was choking, couldn't leave my apartment. Then I started singing and writing and was revived. Working with a band and being back in the studio felt like diving into the ocean--after escaping a burning building. Being a wife and a mother was and is fulfilling and delicious. But it has nothing to do with standing in front of a kick drum and belting it out. Dancers need to dance, and I guess Amanda needs to sing. Pardon the cliché, but I actually feel "whole" again. So, I really do see this as the beginning of my "second chance" as they say. But from a more substantive starting point--I've lived a fuller life.
MR: If you compare your last album with this one, what would you say are the ways your music has changed or evolved?
AK: These songs flow more easily, at least to me. I don't hear myself "trying" when I listen to them, they just get to the point. Now that I'm an adult--at least chronologically! And not wrapped up in trying to be "clever" or "sound articulate," I feel an ease, a fluency I never had. That old paralyzing need to please everyone, whether it was radio promoters, A&R people, management, publishers, even family members, became a prison. I like that I can keep it simple, when it works.
MR: How did it come together, the writing and recording, creatively?
AK: "Somebody Else Is Driving": This one was written a while back with Richie Supa. I always liked it and it's fun to play live. So every time I performed it--now and then I'd play a song or two at a songwriter's showcase for BMI, etc.--people kept asking me when I was going to record it, and so we finally did it for AK. And the lyrics certainly describe the way I feel about life today.
"Not Myself Today": My husband was out-of-town for a night and I "took to bed," which is what I call sleeping with my guitar. I used to love that about being on the road and dreadful motel rooms; the only vibrations in the room came from me, the human, the leaky faucet or (ideally) from a guitar string. The bridge to "Not Myself Today" came in the middle of that night, and the next day the rest of the song fell together, kind of as I was playing it for my husband. There's a herky-jerky thing going on in that song that sort of feels like a panic attack, if you know what I mean.
MR: Did any of these recordings invent itself, the recording and writing process almost coming too smoothly?
AK: The lyric "Calibrate The Universe" fell into my mind one night while reading a book to my kids, and the song, "I Could Tell You I Don't Love You," came together the next morning at the piano. Then I met with Max and played it for him, and we added it to the list of songs to track that week. But it usually makes me nervous, if something's "too easy." Ha--I worry that if something sounds really good, with no bells and whistles, with just a vocal and an instrument, that then I'll try too hard, and I'll blow it in the studio. Do you get the feeling I'm a little anxious? The caliber of musicians and producers I get to work with now, I pinch myself, they're monsters with no egos. They keep me in check. No way my band or my producer would let me over-record or over-embellish things these days. We've all done it, and hopefully come out the other side. You know, the best musicians know how to play "space"--meaning nothing. That's the hard part. Any idiot can play too much, it takes a class act to let a pause breathe or expand. Same with singers, I think.
MR: Any problem children on the EP that eventually got sorted out?
AK: I had such trouble with "Not Myself Today," which is an ode to my bout with panic attacks and taking medication, etc. "Saturday was Klonopin, it didn't work like vodka did," was a joke I threw in, like a rough draft. Well, it was true. But I didn't think you could actually say that in a song. Then I remembered that this is me, Amanda Kravat 2.0 and I actually can say that if I want to, so I just said it.
MR: What are you looking at music career-wise from this point on?
AK: The Amanda goal? Make music, make music, make music. Knock your socks off, then make some more music. I get the feeling Viper wants to do it the old-fashioned way: develop artists--slow and steady. And so I finally have a real partnership with a label, and that's a new experience for me that I want to cultivate in a meaningful way. I really believe everyone deserves the "second chance" I mentioned earlier, and I aim to work my tail off to see this through. My goal is to make another EP or a full-length album in 2015, get back in front of live audiences, respect the process, and stay on budget. We run a tight ship and we put the money into the music, not into wining and dining. Not yet, at least.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
AK: One of the worst things we can do, as humans I think, is bore each other. Happens when you spend too much time staring in the mirror. So why not work with people you can learn from? Listen to Mozart and Prince. Then read other people's gorgeous words, for me, Ondaatje or Colum McCann. Anything really. Just don't let your own voice be the loudest one in your head. And then write a song.
MR: Is there any advice you should have or maybe did follow when you started out?
AK: I finally understand the bit about the journey, not the destination. I blew off my chance to see Nirvana play in New York because I had a photo shoot the next day and I didn't want to be criticized for looking tired. I was lucky enough to be in Paris four times yet I never insisted that we make time to visit the Louvre. Fear stopped me from enjoying so much of the ridiculously wonderful trip I've been on. I should have done more. As long as drugs and alcohol aren't leading the charge, hell, sleep when you're dead.
MR: Do you feel like a new artist yourself with AK?
AK: Ha! Great question. I feel like a new everything. Yes. I'm back to thinking of music as music, not "product." If someone buys it, spectacular! If they don't? Well, it's only rock 'n roll.
MR: What are the plans for the foreseeable future?
AK: Write, write, write, record, record, record, play, play, play. Upside down and sideways too.