A Conversation with Naomi Judd
Mike Ragogna: Naomi, now that your book, River of Time: My Descent Into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope is available in paperback, it seems the perfect time to go back and reflect on its original hard cover release. You’ve lived with the book for about a year now. How did releasing it and documenting your challenges affect your life?
Naomi Judd: The first few months were really difficult. When I went out in public, I felt like everyone was staring at me. Of course they weren’t, but in my imagination I felt very exposed and, as we would say ‘buck naked,’ because I felt everyone now knew my deep, dark secrets. As many interviews as I have done throughout my career, I had never really exposed a lot of the deepest and darkest secrets before releasing the book. But then my feelings sort of did a flip flop. I can remember exactly when it happened. I was at the carwash way out in the country. An older man in overalls came up to me and got kind of choked up. The guy has probably never cried in his life, but he got choked up and he said “Well, I always liked your singing but I never knew you went through such a hard time,” he said. “I went out and got your damn book.” He just had this look on his face that said that he got it. He told me that the book helped him a lot and that reading it taught him things he had no idea about. So I actually started carrying about 15 paperbacks of the book with me in the trunk of my car so that people who came up to me, whether it was in the grocery or at the dry cleaners, I could hand them one. A short encounter like that is just not enough time to really help someone, I would want to, you know, bring them back to the house and cook them dinner and really listen to them, but I just didn’t have time. But now I can take that moment, go into my trunk, hand them the book and say, “I care about you and that’s part of why I wrote the book.”
MR: After having people come up to you and share with you how much the book has touched their lives, how has that impacted you?
NJ: I have to admit that writing the book was incredibly painful. There were times when I would divulge something and I would have to put it away for awhile. I would need to summon my courage back up to go back and finish writing a section or chapter. Finally, I got to a point, because of the positive feedback, I realized, you know the old saying ‘the rising tide lifts all boats.’ Well, I was trying to heal others and trying to give them a life raft by saying, “You’re going to make it. I went through the dark night of the soul too and I’ve made it to the other end. I am recovering and finally healing, and you can too.”
MR: While you were writing and reliving some of these painful experiences, did you have any new realizations?
NJ: Well, you probably have heard people say, “The worst thing that ever happened to me was actually the best thing that happened to me.” I’m not there yet. This is all still raw to me and I am still working through it, but maybe next year I’ll be able to say that.
MR: You’ve had amazing success in country music and yet look at what you have had to go through and overcome. Were there elements of your career where you felt like you needed to put the brakes on? Was some of that contributing to the anxiety and the depression, even though you were having so much success?
NJ: Absolutely! Thank goodness for my psychiatrist. I was very blessed to meet Dr. Jerrold Rosenbaum, Chief of Psychiatry at Mass General Hospital, the number one hospital in America. When I would hit those spots, I would go talk to him and spend some time in Boston. He has sort of been my detective, helping me go through all those spots. When you’re in the heat of battle, as they say, you can’t really see the big picture. Dr. Rosenbaum helped me see the big picture and understand why I was afraid of certain things that I was still carrying around emotionally that caused panic attacks.
MR: What’s interesting to me is The Judds started at a transitional time in country music, when it was just coming off the Urban Cowboy era. But The Judds were not that Nashvegas kind of act. Did you find it difficult to find footing in the industry during such a time of transition?
NJ: No. You know, Wynonna and I never had money. I never had money to buy LPs and we never had money to go to a concert. We were totally unspoiled in that sense. The only album I ever bought was Bonnie Raitt. With the exception of that, we had no outside influence. When we moved to Nashville, it was during the whole Urban Cowboy scene, and I just hated that. Wynonna and I would sing around the kerosene lamp in our little old, pitiful farmhouse and we really didn’t want anybody to touch our sound. I remember when we signed with RCA Records, Joe Galante, who was the head of the label, in our first meeting, wanted to do a video for “Mama He’s Crazy” and I stood up in a room of about 8 men and said “Let me tell you one thing. We’re going to shoot this video at our house. We are going to wear our clothes. My red ’57 Chevy is going to be in the driveway and that’s the way it is boys. Now we’re going home.”
MR: I remember The Judds being a strong, assertive, and groundbreaking act that shouldered a lot of the evolution that was opening doors for women to have more control of their careers in country music.
NJ: Before entering the business, Wynonna was totally unaffected by pop culture or what was going on in the music scene. We would sit and sing old Appalachian songs that no one had ever heard of. We heard them while living on an isolated mountain top with no television and no telephone. A lot of our music was influenced by the local bluegrass scene. We were so impressed with it. We also got a lot of our sound from just listening to each other.
MR: How did your relationship with your daughter grow as The Judds saw more success?
NJ: Wynonna was very content letting me handle the business side of things. Trying to make her do any of the business stuff was like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. All she wanted to do was open her mouth and sing.
MR: That could have helped her as an artist. There are certain artists who, if you support them and their work, give you their best art. My feeling is that might have been your daughter. Is that something that you kind of sensed?
NJ: Yes and she is still that way today. I know so many people in country music who are that way. All they want to do is sing and that is just fine.Nancy Jones was that way with George Jones. George is right up there with Wynonna in that category, they were both focused on the music.
MR: You are also the mother to Ashley, who seems totally different from Wynonna.
NJ: Oh, Ashley is the exact opposite. Ashley lives on an adjacent farm and they’re both one minute from each other. She always walks through the backdoor barefoot and all she cares about is what’s for supper or if the weather will be nice enough for her to go for a walk in the woods or University of Kentucky basketball. She is actually there now getting a huge award for her advocacy work. She travels the world going to refugee camps in Syria, Turkey, India and Africa. It is absolutely astounding. I cannot keep up with her. Ashley is the exact opposite from Wynonna. I love them both the same but they could not be more different.
MR: Your family has accomplished tremendous success. Ashley and Wynonna are so talented and here you are, a mother who’s raised two incredible women. All the while, you were right there with Wynonna, guiding her career path in the very beginning and winning all these awards. Yet all this acknowledgement and multi-platinum records and awards couldn’t lift you out of depression?
NJ: You are very kind. I did build a big cabinet I am very proud of and it holds six Grammy awards. I would go into my little office, which is the only place that I allow any symbols of show business, and I would go in there when I was in a dark place and sit in the chair, turn on the light to that cabinet and really reflect. What was going on when I won the Grammy for Best Country Song as a songwriter and all of the other awards of course… One of the biggest things that helped me get through depression was gratitude. When you are down in such a deep, dark hole, you are just in such exquisite pain and feel like you can’t take another moment, which I hope you never feel. You have to clamor for any shred of light, any semblance of hope that you can. I have so much to be grateful for. I have been married 38 years to my soulmate, Larry Strickland. I have four dogs that also are my children, Wynonna and Ashley choose to live one minute from me. I have so many close friends. I have so many blessings, though I hate that word. It is so overused and corny. But I have so many wonderful things in my life that I am grateful for. Of course, my two biggest are not the show business, or the glitz and glamour of it all. It’s my girls. The fact that they are healthy, happy, we are in touch with each other and they are making their mark. It doesn’t matter what their station is in life but they are self-actualized and that makes me happy.
MR: What does it mean to you to embrace those who are struggling in your own community?
NJ: The Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville is fabulous. We are so lucky to have it here in this community. I always have people coming up to me talking about the book and I’m excited for the ability to reach so many people at once.
MR: Final question. Naomi, what advice do you have for new artists?
NJ: Don’t ever let anybody tell you who you are. So many people come to Nashville and they listen to what people working at the labels thinks they should be. That will never make them satisfied unless they figure out who they are. Be yourself. Period.
A Conversation with Walter Afanasieff
Mike Ragogna: Walter, you and Mariah Carey co-wrote "All I Want For Christmas Is You," a modern Christmas classic. It's rare to achieve a perennial hit like that. How did that come together?
Walter Afanasieff: Back in the early nineties when Mariah and I first started working—I believe we met in '89—we finished up some work on her first album and then we started working together, collaborating on her next albums and so on. Around that time, Christmas albums weren't what they are today. It's almost like a reverse. When you did a Christmas album back then, it was like your swan song—"Well I have nothing left to do, here's my Christmas album." It's like how today, ending up in a residency in Los Vegas is the biggest deal in the world. Everyone in the world would die for that, but back then, playing in Vegas was kind of like, "Well, my career's over." So doing a Christmas album wasn't in the forefront of everyone's mind as, "Oh yeah, this is the coolest, greatest thing," it just happened to be something that Mariah really loved.
We were sitting around and said, "Yeah, that would be a really cool thing to do because nobody really does it at this point in their career." So we started writing. We wrote three songs for her Christmas album, and one of them was "All I Want For Christmas Is You." This one was written pretty much faster and quicker and more happenstance than the other two songs because it was really just kind of an old Phil Spector-meets-rock-'n'-roll thing that she wanted to do. I don't know why but I think the feeling was that if you did anything too modern and too contemporary for that day, then it would run its course, it would expire very quickly because songs and production styles change all the time. Every month, there's a new sound and a new thing coming out. We did it in a more formal, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll sense because we thought it would be more timely. There would never be an expiration to that. We know other songs—"Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and other old songs—are still running strong. So I started playing my little piano riff there, doing my bass line with my left hand and doing my right hand chords, and Mariah started singing the main melody. She didn't have the words yet. We started jamming on it and quickly we had a form, an “A” section, which is the verse, and then I said, "Okay, now we go to the ‘B’ section," and I tried some chords. She said, "Yeah, that's cool!" It all went together, and I said, "How about a bridge?" I went into what I thought was an appropriate chord change for a bridge and she liked it. We had this sound come out of us very easily into a melody as well as chord changes and then she got busy with her lyrics.
I remember over the course of a few weeks, she would call me and say, "What do you think about this lyric?" It fell into place pretty easily. And this isn't Gone With The Wind, this is a tiny little Christmas song. Christmas rhymes are very easy—"mistletoe," "tree”—it's all easily rhymed. It came together really fast and nobody knew in our wildest dreams that this song was going to go out and completely stick. It never unstuck. It was always there from the moment it came out.
MR: Why do you think it’s such a classic?
WA: Everyone loves it and I kind of think I know why everyone loves it. Christmas songs are usually in three categories. The first category is always that main, religious, "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Joy To The World," kind; the second category of traditional Christmas songs are all the kids' songs, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and all that. That's fun but you've got those two extremes and you live with them for decades and decades and decades. Then your third category started to come out, I think, around the forties, around World War II and it's "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "White Christmas," more the melancholy, "I'm not home and I miss you," and all of that stuff that's not the most positive stuff about Christmas. That category was what brought us to saying, "Well, what about a love song? There are really no love songs. Where's your 'All I want is you?'" She said, "Yeah, that is kind of cool!" My thinking is this is one of the few songs that's up-tempo, it's an old style that's never going to go away, and it's a love song. It's about wanting somebody for Christmas. I think anybody can sing it—a kid to a kid or an old person to an old person—we all sing it to each other. It can be completely fun, it can be nonsensical, it can be lovely and heartfelt. It's just a wonderful little message. I'm the luckiest guy in the world that I get to be talking to you about a song that's pretty much the number one Christmas song of all time now and I co-wrote it with Mariah.
MR: When you think of the sheer number of songs ASCAP has under its umbrella, how in the world did it end up at number one?
WA: Whatever the science behind charts is... Over the years, we've had lots of different types of accounting. When you go and count votes for Oscars or Grammys, how they count the numbers or weeks on a chart or years in a row, and before SoundScan, there was straight record sales or a song getting played so many times on the radio. Nowadays from streaming and digital sales and all kinds of stuff including the older methods, well, this song's been around twenty-four years now. Whatever their tallying methods are, lo and behold, we got lucky! I don't know how many people are downloading or streaming or whatever the new digital categories are of the older Christmas songs, but this one got in just in time. And it belongs to a superstar. Who doesn't love Mariah Carey? It got on the front of that train and it's always been there.
MR: What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? And do you know what some of Mariah’s favorites are?
WA: Mariah loved Phil Spector, Ronnie Spector and that whole category of older rock 'n' roll songs, from growing up in the world that she grew up in, which is completely different from my world. I grew up in San Francisco, California, and my family is Russian. We celebrated Christmas completely different from our friends next door to us. We had Russian Christmas. The whole thing about my Christmas was always based on musical quality. I loved the prettier songs. I never really went after Christmas songs. Like I said, I'm older. I'm almost sixty, so my generation sort of went a different way. Mariah went a different way but when we collaborated, it was always in that place that brought out, "What is your favorite kind of thing? What do you want to sing about? What is your thing?" For "All I Want For Christmas Is You," I guess we kind of dragged up a very, very huge part of our past. Rock 'n' roll, is a very, very simple yet complicated art. I studied classical music. I threw in some chord changes that are not "Johnny B. Goode.” There were a few kind of sophisticated chords in that song. I'm kind of proud that I can put that sort of stuff in a very simple rock riff. But my favorites have always been more classical, more symphonic songs.
MR: What kind of training did you have before you started writing a million hit songs for Mariah and others?
WA: I grew up in a house of music. My father was always listening to classical music. I studied classical music. I started playing piano when I was probably like three. I have a very particular...I'm not going to say anything special, but I can't figure out how to do anything but music. It's always been like that. My musical tendencies, my musical abilities were always on a little bit higher level than your regular songwriter. I'm a decent pianist, I've always played jazz and classical, and I started writing from a very, very young age. I can write film scores. I can write Broadway music scores. I can do whatever it takes to write a song or a piece of music. But when that force in me met Mariah’s force, it was wonderful. We have a couple of other songs on her Christmas album. We wrote one of the most beautiful religious songs, "Jesus Born On This Day.” It's beautiful. We wrote a really lovely, melancholy song called "Miss You Most At Christmas." We went into all directions in the three that we co-wrote and this faster one was the one that stuck.
MR: What about some of your other hits? What was your first break?
WA: I started writing and making music back when people like Kenny G, and Michael Bolton and I were writing songs for Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight—some of these older, more established artists. A young, new, fresh artist like Mariah Carey that came into our camp back in '89 and '90, that was a pretty cool thing. I was working for a producer named Narada Michael Walden who was producing big hits for Whitney Houston. I was then always playing on these hits that he was producing. I was his keyboardist and arranger, and I started co-producing with him. Eventually, the big break came with Michael Bolton, Kenny G, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion. She was another brand new artist I produced a song for. And there was Beauty And The Beast! When you do something big or commercially successful, everyone wants to work with you, so I started working with everybody.
Writing a hit song isn't that easy. It's a hard thing because you're up against millions of other songs. Every moment of our lives, a songwriter is writing a song or five. It's a very crowded, complicated marketplace. To get in with a hit song that climbs to a number one position, that's a huge deal. For my years of doing that and being on this record and writing that song and producing that song, I remember I didn't write but I produced "My Heart Will Go On" for Celine Dion. That was a giant song. The way people are, not everybody knows who wrote what song, people usually just defer to, "Oh, he wrote that song." Well, I didn't write it but I did produce it. I have a Grammy award for it but it's a very big deal in the press. "Grammy Award-winner"... That's a huge deal. So things all fell into place. It's a very hard industry these days because of all of the downloading and streaming and Spotify and all of that stuff. It's really not the same thing. Mariah Carey would sell twenty five million records when she came out with an album. Nowadays, to sell a million records is nearly impossible. There are only one or two people every year that could ever climb to that number. You have to be a Taylor Swift or a Barbra Streisand to do that.
MR: And I don't know about Barbra anymore either. I normally ask this question near the end of an interview but I want to ask now because of what you already introduced. Walter, what advice do you have for new artists?
WA: The thing about new artists is, generally speaking, they'll try to do something that's already been done. That's the thing—when you're writing a song today, chances are everybody in their studios are writing what they want to be a contemporary hit song, writing what the flavor of the month is, what the sound is right now. Everybody will start listening to the Top Ten songs and say, "Hey let's write a song like that!" All the songs that I have ever written that became big hits were because I didn't follow the beaten path. I would go off on my own whim. My advice is if you're going to write something, be innovative. Be someone who everyone will want to follow in the footsteps of. Everybody has that in them but they're afraid. A&R people, record companies, everyone has something to say and chances are, they want you to create something that's already been done just so they can do it the easy way. Very few songs will come out that are different sounding but they do come out. Those are the innovators. Those are the anomalies and those are the ones that will get really big, where then people will go, "Oh, let's do something like that now!" That's my advice. Really go with your heart. Don't pay attention to business and commerciality and what everyone else is doing. Do something on your own that you think is going to really change the world.
MR: So, ahem, “Let your heart go on?”
MR: Beyond the Christmas songs we spoke about, do you have a favorite song that you've either written or co-written, and do you have a favorite production you’ve done?
WA: I do! My favorite song I've ever written was again with Mariah Carey. It was a song called "Hero." The reason it's my favorite song is because it was an important song and still is. It's used in a very, very particular way to bring out the importance of being who you are and being somebody who can persevere during all the challenges, heartaches, hardships, and tragedies that we're all facing. Almost every day, something horrible comes out in the news and there are so many people who are considered “heroes.” To me, that song represents something that I contributed to a society, one that really stands out because it's about the importance of who you are and how you can be somebody who can change somebody's life and be stronger and just persevere. I think that's an important song and my favorite that I co-wrote with Mariah. My favorite production, I would say, is, "My Heart Will Go On." That song in itself—in the form that it came to me which is just piano and vocal—I made it what you hear, which is full orchestra. I produced and arranged it in a way that I think brought out the majesty and the beauty of something that is so powerful, a never-ending love that somebody has for somebody. Those are my two favorites, production-wise and songwriting-wise.
MR: Beautiful. Most people don't ever have the level of success you’ve had in your life. How do you react to having hits now? Does it thrill or surprise you anymore?
WA: If you think that you're going to follow up or do better or do it again, that can drive you crazy. I don't live my life trying to achieve anything I've already achieved. I think it's great that somebody can go out and get a second Grammy or a second number one or an Academy Award or things like that. But to spend your life trying to chase something you already got completely by accident... You don't get any of those things because you made it so. It's an accident. You have to be blessed and take it for what it's worth. So I do anything that I haven't done already. I do film scores and I try to write a Broadway musical, if I can or write songs that are not meant for Top Forty radio. I think that there are so many international artists that deserve music, so I kind of stay in those fields. I love AC music, I love Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, and Andrea Bocelli; I love Barbra Streisand. I produce all of her records now. I think that's more fun because there are no rules and regulations like there are in Top Forty. Like I said, everybody's trying to chase a number one Top Forty radio single but it has to be so particular and so absolutely dripping in copycat-ism, it's almost like paint-by-numbers or cheeseburgers rather than full-on culinary meals. I prefer making whatever I want to make.
MR: I have a seventeen year-old son who listens to Top Forty, speaking of copycat-ism. I have lived through many eras of music in my life—even disco—and I never heard this level of cloning before. If you wanted to have a pop hit right now, how would you do it with any kind of originality or enjoyment?
WA: It's kind of no different than any other big industry. For instance, sports. If you were a number one quarterback for a football team and your time has come... Eli Manning just got put out to pasture, so what is he going to do? Well, if it were me, there are so many other parts to the professional football industry, so many other glamorous, great things to still be able to do. I think that's what I would do. Yeah, my time quarterbacking and doing hit songs during the nineties and 2000s is over. I'm not going to compete with the youngsters. It's pretty much not something I want to continue to do. I'm far too old for it and I don't want to compete with somebody who should be doing it because it's just not my thing. There are so many parts to the music world, so many categories of music and different artists and all international types of music, from television commercials and shows to film scores to Broadway. There's a lot of stuff that I do enjoy doing. Yeah, it's not going to bring in the kind of money that a number one song would. Then again, I don't even know if that's true.
Look at Hamilton. That's probably made more money for Lin-Manuel than any other Broadway musical. This guy is probably close to half-a-billion dollars in income. There's no more money to make for him than a hit Broadway musical. The people trying to write hit Broadway musicals these days are people who can't make it in the traditional recording industry. They're all vying for a piece of that pie now, so now you have a flooded market of people who really shouldn't be writing Broadway musicals but they are because maybe they're famous in some way or did something over here or something over there. Same thing with film scores, there are a million film composers out there and yeah, eventually Hans Zimmer is going to get the prize because he's the most successful film composer. But look at somebody like John Williams, who wrote Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, etc. He's not going out there and trying to compete with Hans Zimmer because his time had already come and gone. He's sort of there but that's not who you go to. You go for the young and cool.
It's kind of a difficult course to chart but I think if you're smart and have the talent and the perseverance and really believe in yourself, there's always a way to put food on your table. I'm lucky enough that I can tell you that all day long. I have a steady income from just one friggin' song that's the number one song every Christmastime. It's hard world out there! But if you really do think of music the way I thought of music—which is as a science and an art form—you need to study it and learn how to do it and figure out how to play an instrument. You need to know what you're doing, you can't just go out there and know two or three chords. Some of these songwriters don't even know how to play anything, they don't know how to play a single chord, a single musical interval. Computers and autotune and Melodyne--the reason you said it all sounds the same is because the computer is taking their voices and doing something to everyone's voice that makes it a common denominator. Everyone sounds the same because everyone is in perfect tune. Everyone is singing perfectly in pitch and it’s not supposed to be like that. Back in our day, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Madonna, and Mariah Carey never got tuned. Nowadays, everyone goes through the same processing. To me it's still all about the song, all about something that comes out, and you go, "Wow, what the heck, that's awesome!"
MR: And so much seems to have gone away.
WA: I think the most important thing that's gone away from our musical, creative society of people who make music is everyone has gone to a technical yet lazy place. I prefer working a few more hours with a singer and having them sing their best rather than going, "Okay, that's good enough, I'm just going to tune it," or, "I'm just going to comp it in a silly way that's going to save me heaps of time." It falls into this McDonald's cheeseburger strategy that, to me, very few people these days would know how to do any other way. That's how they've been taught, that's how they make music. I unfortunately, or fortunately, wasn't taught that way. I make music the old-fashioned way. If you can do it, let's do it until it's right. I don't care how much time it takes.
MR: What's on your bucket list?
WA: My thing is to keep going on as a composer and hopefully get some film scores. I'd like to see the rest of my life doing that, that would make me the happiest guy in the world. Working on my academy, my film score music and kind of just seeing what Christmas time brings next year and the years after.
ASCAP’S TOP CHRISTMAS SONGS
"All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff (1994) "A Holly Jolly Christmas" by Johnny Marks (1962) "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne(1945) "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Johnny Marks (1958) "Last Christmas" by George Michael (1984) "Jingle Bell Rock" by Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe(1957) "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" by Edward Pola and George Wyle (1963) "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" by Meredith Willson (1951) "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson and Mitchell Parish (1951) "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks (1949) "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin (1941) "Winter Wonderland" by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith (1934) "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano (1970) "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie(1934) "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin(1943) "Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane)" by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman (1947) "The Christmas Song" by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (1946) "Frosty the Snowman" by Steve Nelson and Walter E. Rollins (1950) "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" by Robert Kinkel, Paul O'Neill and John Oliva (1995) "Jingle Bells" by James Lord Pierpont; Frank Sinatra version arranged by Gordon Jenkins (ASCAP, 1958) "Baby It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser (1948) "Santa Baby" by Joan Javits, Anthony Springer and Philip Springer(1953) "Run Rudolph Run" by John Marks and Marvin Broadie (1958) "Blue Christmas" by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson (1948) "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney (1979)
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Strawbs’ Dave Cousins
MR: Dave, what was it like recording with the old members, creating new music with them again?
DC: The four long standing members of the band—myself, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez—have played together regularly since 2008, since our 40th Anniversary concert. The catalyst [to record] was our new Strawbs member Dave Bainbridge who has been with us for two years.
MR: What was the writing and arrangement process like?
DC: This goes back over two years when I first met keyboard player Dave Bainbridge who was recommended to me by the guitarist with Carl Palmer's ELP band. I went to Dave's studio in the wilds of Lincolnshire, 250 miles from where I live, to try out a new song “The Ferryman's Curse.” We worked together so well that I knew Dave was right for the band. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, I became ill and was in and out of the hospital for over a year. The recording possibilities were put on the back burner. We were booked to do RosFest in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, rehearsed up Hero And Heroine, and did a series of US shows despite the fact that I was in recovery. It was in May [of] this year that the preparation for a new album took place. Firstly, Chas Cronk and I got together in May 2017, with two acoustic guitars, to run new ideas through. I had a notebook full of song jottings and lyrics. We took them to Dave Bainbridge's studio to put down acoustic demos to a click track.
MR: What did producer Chris Tsangarides bring to this Strawbs project?
DC: Chris heard the demos and immediately knew the songs had a current lyrical twist to add to our “Gothic” sensibility.
MR: Did all this differ from how you would create your earlier albums?
DC: In the 1970s, we would rehearse the songs before going into the studio but then, we had an unlimited budget. The last couple of albums have been recorded as acoustic demos to a click track. The difference this time is that Dave Bainbridge added his contributions before I went back to his studio to edit the songs. They were sent to Chris Tsangarides for the studio recording.
MR: Dave, in the very first song, “The Nails From The Hands Of Christ,” a young woman seems obsessed with Jesus who, in her case, looks like Bruce Springsteen. She buys a pile of rusty nails from some barker. In some respects, this song could be—excuse the pun—a cousin to “The Man Who Called Himself Jesus,” perhaps some millenniums-later sequel.
DC: I had a title—“The Nails From The Hands Of Christ”—from a newspaper report about two archaeologists who claimed to have found the actual nails. I wrote a few cynical verses that formed the basis of the song. “The Man Who Called Himself Jesus” asks the question, “How would people recognize Jesus if he returned as he promised?” This new song is written 40 years later and young people in the UK are not regular church goers.
MR: Would you fill us in on a couple of songs? In the gentle song “The Song Of Infinite Sadness,” you reference Babylon and Heaven. What was going on in that one?
DC: The song was written during a cruise down the Nile. In particular, it refers to the Temple of Abu Simbel. The twin temples are the two lovers torn apart.
MR: There’s “When The Spirit Moves,” the title track…we could go on with even more spiritual references that are peppered throughout the album. In my opinion, they add to the case that sonically and often lyrically, beyond simply being “prog rock,” Strawbs might have created a whole other genre that could be labeled “Cathedral Rock.”
DC: I am affected by the atmosphere of ancient churches and cathedrals. I live opposite a Norman church built in 1135. They have a spiritual aura and ambiance that I find uplifting.
MR: By the way, I’m also thinking of “Grace Darling” and “Ghosts,” two more examples of that kind of work.
DC: I was fascinated by “Grace Darling” from an entry in my children’s encyclopedia. “Ghosts”’s was inspired by the “Soldiers and Sailors Monument” in Indianapolis. To the best of my knowledge, only two songs have been written about that monument—one was “Ghosts,” the other was “Stardust” by Hoagy Charmichael, who looked up at the night sky from a café in the circle.
MR: I’ve always admired Strawbs’ approach to choral background use and arrangements. How would you define or at least hint at what Strawbs music has been over the decades?
DC: Strawbs has never deliberately taken on a new style for the sake of it. We continually evolve.
MR: Where most prog bands write with sci-fi or supernatural themes, Strawbs chooses the divine through man, heavily mixing folk instrumentation or at least melodies with its rock. Were you ever concerned that emphasis might have, over the years, prevented more commercial success or did that even matter, your focusing instead on artistic elements?
DC: The songs are to a great extent biographical. If you want to know about what has happened in my life, it's all in the songs. Our audience identified with the songs, to the extent of getting married to one or other of them, from finding consolation at times of sickness and bereavement. We tried to record a hit single for the USA but did not strike lucky. I get my satisfaction from those who have told me that they have been comforted by my songs.
MR: You have a devoted fan base that practically borders on “reverent.” Considering album releases and tours aren’t particularly frequent, what do you think explains that level of respect for Strawbs both from fans and critics?
DC: The fact that our audience identifies with the lyrical and spiritual content of the songs. Not that I preach a Christian viewpoint. These songs are deeply personal.
MR: What seems extraordinary about “The Familiarity Of Lovers” is that the music says more about the topic than the lyrics that only serve as a skeleton or perhaps the song’s forward or premise. How do you write songs these days and is that a goal of your writing or a happy coincidence?
DC: The lyrics are biographical. Chas Cronk had a chord sequence that I recognized as fitting a sketch of lyrics. Dave Bainbridge came up with a mellotron line that best suited the atmosphere. I came up with the hook guitar line on acoustic guitar which Dave Bainbridge played on electric guitar. Chris Tsangarides said it reminded him of “Summer Breeze” by The Isley Brothers. I had the idea of having a twin lead guitar section in the style of “Hotel California.” That guitar section took a week to record. Dave Lambert and Dave Bainbridge took two hours!
MR: Your positive “When The Spirit Moves” almost seems timely, my interpretation being it suggests that when we’re together, there’s strength and unity, a power that might be esoteric but can be practical.
DC: The basis of the lyrics were written when I saw the John Paul 11 pass by in the Popemobile in Prague. We locked eyes as I was calling out 'Il Papa' from the side of the street. I was profoundly moved. I saw him again twice, a couple of months later, when I was visiting Rome. Some years before, I had a reply from a letter I wrote to him. Monsignor Rey wrote back to grant me the Pope's abundant blessings.
MR: What’s the story behind “The Ten Commandments”?
DC: That song was written and sung by Dave Lambert. To my mind it complements “The Nails From The Hands Of Christ,” which is the reaction of young people to the established church. It also counters “When The Spirit Moves,” which expresses hope.
MR: “The Ferryman’s Curse”—the title track—is related to your earlier song, “The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake” from the early Strawbs album Dragonfly. What is its thematic connection to the earlier song and has it been gestating a long time, finally birthed for this album?
DC: The earlier song saw the boatman tempted by lust in the apparition of a young, desirable maiden. The song was based on the seven deadly sins and in the finality, he was crushed. Many years later, he is living a quiet life on the banks of the river when the ferryman arrives to avenge his young daughter who perished.
MR: Speaking of gestating, The Ferryman’s Curse album is the group’s first album in 8 years. Why did it take so long for its release?
DC: Largely because I have been in and out of the hospital for two years. Also because we had not found the right keyboard player to match the ambitions of the songs. In Dave Bainbridge, we have.
MR: My personal favorite Strawbs albums are Ghosts, Hero And Heroine, Grave New World and Bursting At The Seams. Do you have favorites and which are they?
DC: I believe that this new album has the measure of any of our previous albums. We have had the greatest line-up of keyboard players any band ever—Rick Wakeman, Blue Weaver, John Hawken, Don Airey, Adam Wakeman, Oliver Wakeman, and Dave Bainbridge.
MR: Strawbs recorded the album Deep Cuts with Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lesser on board. In my opinion, they were a brilliant team that did marvelous work on Rupert’s Widescreen album but I find it was a curious choice for a Strawbs album. How did this arrangement come about?
DC: Through our then record company [Oyster Records]. Rupert was the creative element, Jeffrey was the hugely talented, if secretive, engineer.
MR: David, what advice do you have for new artists? (please elaborate, it’s a nice gesture for the kids)
DC: Do as many live shows as you can. Do not cut and paste songs on a computer. Songs must be organic.
MR: If you were to sum up The Ferryman’s Curse's message, what would that be?
DC: There is hope but you have to dig deep to find it.
MR: One last question. What magic did you use to make your voice sound exactly as it did over 40 years ago?
DC: I think it sounds better! Don't smoke. Keep listening to others and compare them with yourself. Don't use auto tune or you'll sound like everybody else.
DREE MON’S “REBEL SOUL” EXCLUSIVE/PREMIERE
According to Dree Mon...
“‘Rebel Soul’ was a song written about letting go of the ideas that things have to be done only one way. I've always been a rebellious and proud non-conformist and sometimes it's gotten me into trouble and made me feel like there was something wrong with me for not wanting to do things like I was told. Now I embrace that quality and I encourage other people to embrace it as well. I wrote ‘Rebel Soul’ at a time when I didn't know if continuing as an artist was feasible for me and in that sense pushing thru and continuing to create music and let it represent me as an artist, and all that comes with it, is my current Rebellion. Giving up would be easy, doing something more realistic would be logical. But luckily I'm too much of a dreamer. It was serendipitous as well that I met producer Cameron Tyler who spent lots of laughs and time with me in the studio vibe-ing and listening to music we both dug. The track for ‘Rebel Soul’ was already in his arsenal and when he sent it to me to see if I was inspired by it, it clicked right away. I wrote that song in a Ralph's parking lot in my parked car, ideas flowing, music blaring, old ladies staring. I think at the end of the day, I wanted ‘Rebel Soul’ to be an anthem for people wanting to break away from whatever it is they have to do that weighs them down, and just feel good.”
STING / LIVE AT THE OLYMPIA PARIS
Sliding through material from his Police and solo periods, Sting’s concert at the Olympia Paris (in support of his album 57th And 9th) is the smooth, classy event you would expect from the King of Jazzpop. Accompanied by multi-genre guitarist Dominic Miller, drummer Josh Freese, guitarist Rufus Miller, and accordionist Percy Cardona, music’s older statesman is more energized during this performance than he was in much of the nineties and 2000s. Song exact interpretations seem a bit dodgy now, since the original messages of songs like “Message In A Bottle” and “Walking On The Moon” are a bit blurred due to Feyd, I mean Sting’s maturity. On the other hand, “So Lonely” will never lose its teenage quirk no matter how many decades pass. Sting’s voice? Fantastic, thanks for asking. Dominic Miller’s playing? Mystical, as always. And just who is this “Joe Sumner” guy who is all over the bonus material? Ah, right, he’s Sting’s son, whose group Fiction Plane opened for The Police’s 2007 reunion tour. As part of that bonus material, Sting & Son blend styles on “Heading South On The Great North Road,” the younger Sumner even getting his own mini-set, one that might make you Amazon yourself a Fiction Plane disc or two.