A Conversation with Guy Clark
Mike Ragogna: Guy, hey. My Favorite Picture Of You is your first studio album in about four years.
Guy Clark: Has it been that long?
MR: It seems it has, sir. In general, what's your writing process like?
GC: Well, it's different every time. I try to write about stuff I know about rather than just total fiction, I'm not especially good at that. If you've got something that sounds like a song, it probably is.
MR: Out of all of the songs on this project, if one were to start somewhere other than the first track, is there a song that you think might be a good place to learn a little more about Guy Clark?
GC: Well I would have to guess "The High Price Of Inspiration."
MR: Nice, which is sort of what we were just talking about--inspiration.
GC: That's a good place to start. They're all personal songs, they're not totally made up.
MR: In the song "Heroes," a veteran returns, basically, changed. What inspired that? Was that a real person or just your feelings about the subject?
GC: There was either a newspaper article or a television documentary about the number of those young guys who come back from the Middle East who kill themselves. There are more suicides coming back from those wars over there than have ever been in the history of the United States--Vietnam, World War II, anything. More of these kids come back and kill themselves, simply because they can't deal with what they did or what they saw. It was just something I felt like addressing. That's where that's coming from.
MR: And in a bigger sense, talking about them as being "heroes," as in these people are unsung heroes of those wars.
GC: Yeah, I mean they are heroes. They just can't live with what happened to them.
MR: Yeah, it's very difficult. I think we've had wars before where it was more defined and you could see your place in it, but in these wars it seems like there was no definition. Planes going into the World Trade Center was almost the only reference they had before they got over there.
GC: Yeah, I think that's probably true.
MR: Guy, there's a Polaroid of Susanna that you're holding on the front cover.
MR: When and where was that taken?
GC: Oh, it was taken probably in the late seventies or early eighties. It was taken in John Lomax's house; he's the grandson of the famous Lomax family. Townes Van Zandt... we're in there drunk off our asses just being jerks and getting worse and Susanna had enough. She just walked out and said, "F**k you guys!" Somebody--it might have been Lomax--picked up a Polaroid camera and snapped that picture. It has always been my favorite picture of Susanna. I've saved it all of these years. It just said everything about Susanna.
MR: You guys have written songs together over the years in addition to doing your own stuff. What was it like collaborating creatively with your Susanna?
GC: Oh, it was not a planned thing. We didn't do it very often. But when we did, it seemed to work well. We wrote a great song called "Black-Haired Boy," and I helped her write "The Cape." We just wrote whenever we felt like it, whenever it came up. She wrote with other people quite a bit. We didn't try too hard at it, to keep it from getting tedious.
MR: I imagine you really still miss her, don't you.
GC: Well, of course, sure. That's forty years of glue to unstick.
MR: You've been given many awards in your life including the Americana Association's Life Achievement in 2005, and in 2013 you received the Academy Of Country Music's Poet's Award along with Hank Williams. How did that feel?
GC: Well nobody invited me to the show, they didn't pay my way to LA.
MR: Oh, dear God.
GC: I don't now what it was, I had no idea what it was about. It was just something they did and I was pleasantly surprised and very flattered, but I think the poet's award is sort of an afterthought.
MR: You've also had multiple Grammy award nominations.
GC: Oh yeah, I always get nominated the same year as Bob Dylan.
MR: [laughs] That's terrible!
GC: Kind of precludes getting it.
MR: Remember in the mid-seventies when Paul Simon won Album of the Year and thanked Stevie Wonder for not having an album out that year?
GC: Yeah, right! That's kind of the way I feel.
MR: Guy, you're not only an icon but you sort of represent Texas. What are your thoughts on Texas these days? What's going on?
GC: I'm from Texas and will always be from Texas, and if I ever break even, I'm moving back. It's a wonderful place to be from. There's a lot of history there and a lot of stuff that you know about and nobody else knows about.
MR: It's almost like you can't get off of that "L.A. Freeway."
GC: Yeah! [laughs]
MR: That's one of my favorite songs by you, "L.A. Freeway." I think it introduced me to your songwriting.
GC: Oh good, good.
MR: There was a guy named Jim Dawson who did a cover of the song, too, that I thought was going to be a hit.
GC: Yeah, I remember him. I haven't thought of him in years, but I do remember that.
MR: A lot of very talented people have covered your material such as Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Ricky Scaggs... And I believe you were sort of a mentor of sorts to Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, right?
GC: I've heard that term bandied about. I never felt like a mentor or tried to be a mentor, I was writing songs just like everybody else. If they chose to characterize it that way, I'm more than happy to help anybody do anything. Something about the term "mentor" doesn't sit well with me.
MR: I guess a better way of saying it would be they were inspired by you?
GC: I'm sure they were because I was inspired by people.
MR: Who inspired you?
GC: Well, Townes and I were best friends for thirty or forty years, and I was always inspired by the quality of his work. You don't want to be Townes or you don't want to be like Townes, but you certainly want to aspire to be able to use the English language as well as he did. That's the main thing. Plus he was the funniest son of a bitch I've ever met in my life. He was hilarious.
MR: Can you share a Townes/Guy story?
GC: If I had thought about it before you asked me that question I might have. Every day was a story, just like that picture on the cover of that album. Townes and I were in that house just being absolute jerks.
MR: You've been writing for about forty years and so many people have covered your material. Do you have any thoughts about your catalog, like what your favorite song is or highlights?
GC: I think always my favorite song has been "She Ain't Going Nowhere." Something about that song is just so succinct and so well written. It only took about forty-five minutes to write it. It just popped out. It's a song I guess based on the way I feel about women and the way I was brought up. It just said it all, really.
MR: Are there any covers of your songs that you particularly like?
GC: Oh yeah, "Desperados Waiting For A Train." Remember the old cowboy actor Slim Pickens? He read "Desperados Waiting For A Train" as a poem on an album he did. It was spine tingling.
MR: Geez, you've had adventures with everybody. Did you have a Jimmy Buffett wild night or two?
GC: Yeah, a couple! I've known Buffett a long time. He's kind of drifted away, but I know him.
MR: Jerry Jeff Walker?
GC: Oh yeah, I've known Jerry, I don't know, forty or fifty years. Jerry's a big inspiration simply because he was actually doing it. People were always talking about him going on the road and being a traveling folk singer and all that stuff. Jerry did it. He was one of those guys. He writes so many songs that are just wonderful.
MR: What is your advice for new artists these days?
GC: Write what you know about. I don't know... How do you tell a new artist who's making a million bucks riding around on a magic bus just because some record company decided to get behind him but they can't get on stage with a guitar and play a guitar for you. My advice to new artists is to be the best that you can and stay out of jail.
MR: [laughs] You wrote a couple of other songs that are personal favorites of mine such as Vince Gill's recording of "Oklahoma Border Line."
GC: Yeah, that's a good song.
MR: And there was John Conlee's "The Carpenter"
GC: Yeah, that was a wonderful surprise that John picked up on that song and did it and it was a hit. That's another of my favorite songs.
MR: Steve Warner's "Baby, I'm Yours"...
GC: Yeah, we wrote that for him to do.
MR: And then you have the Rodney Crowell collaboration, which is probably is one of my top five songs of yours, "She's Crazy For Leaving."
GC: Yeah, yeah. Rodney does that really well. Once in a while, when we're together playing the same gig, we'll try to remember it together.
MR: Guy, what is the one piece of advice you would give Guy Clark as he was starting out?
GC: You couldn't tell him nothing.
MR: [laughs] Are you going to be touring in support of the album?
GC: As soon as I get my strength back. I've had both knees replaced fairly recently and an arterial bypass in one leg. I was kind of laid up for a couple of years and I kind of lost the muscle mass in my quadriceps. It's really just debilitating. It f**ks with your balance, it f**ks with your balance, it f**ks with your ability to walk any distance or stand on stage. I got to where I had to sit down to play.
MR: But you're making progress, right?
GC: Yeah, slowly. I'm seventy-one, it's hard to build that muscle mass back, you know? But I get stronger every day and I work at it, as hard as I feel like.
MR: All right, boss. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.
GC: Oh, thanks. I appreciate it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
LOTS OF LOVE "FROM THE START"
According to Lots Of Love's Jessica Fleischer...
"From The Start is the name of my debut album as well as one of my favorite songs on the album. When I listen to the song 'From The Start,' it gives me the same kind of feelings I get when I listen to songs that I love by some of my greatest influences like Connie Francis, The Shangri-Las, The Crystals and The Beatles to name a few. I like how the verses in this song are somewhat dark and mysterious, and the choruses are very poppy. I also think it carries with it a contemporary element, which I always strive for when writing songs, no matter how influenced they are by '50s and '60s music.
"I wrote this song about a short bald man who worked at a health-food store in Los Angeles. He worked at their Tonic Bar, making teas and super-food treats using Chinese herbs. I had the biggest crush on him, and would always try to start up conversations. No matter how kind he was to me, he never seemed to show any romantic interest. It drove me crazy. At the time I wrote the song I had just found out that he was going to be moving to Japan."
The album will be released on August 27th.
A Conversation with Butterscotch Records' Allen Farmelo
Mike Ragogna: Why it's Allen Farmelo of Butterscotch Records, a new audiophile record label. Those three words next to each other--"audiophile," "record" and "label"--are, you might say, music to my ears.
Allen Farmelo: [laughs] Good.
MR: So tell me Allen, are you out of your mind starting up an audiophile label when nobody seems to care about audio quality anymore?
AF: You're asking a great question. I'm a little bit out of my mind, and it's a moment in time where everybody is wondering, "How are we going to get the value back into music?" As a record producer and engineer, I've spent the vast majority of my adult life trying to make records sound amazing. That's my job description. I've come to the conclusion that part of the reason people don't value recorded music anymore is because the fidelity has been reduced so greatly. We live in a time when it's very easy to shrug recorded music off as a value-less thing. It doesn't have a physical object, it doesn't need to sound that good, it's just about the tune. But I grew up in a time when recorded music was experiencing a 3D holographic magical experience. We were obsessed with the stereo, we were obsessed with sound quality. People talked about the greatest way to reduce hiss and get better signal-to-noise ratio. Speakers in cars had equalizers, and not just bass and treble. We were obsessed! We really were, and this all came crashing down when MP3 became the focus of how recorded music was going to be delivered. At the same time, you see other industries that are involved in promoting our senses doing the opposite, especially television and film. They're getting more high tech, the price is going up, people are spending tons of money on bigger TVs, more elaborate televisions, home theaters, and meanwhile, recorded music is sort of falling off the map. So for me, I know it's not the whole story about how to revive an interest in valuing recorded music. For me, if it doesn't in and of itself present people an amazing sonic experience, then we can't really even begin to ask them to value it. I guess I would also add to that that I would like to redefine High Fidelity. "Hi-Fi" used to be for everybody. It seemed synonymous with wearing a jean jacket with a Pink Floyd emblem on it. It was like, "Yes, and I'm also into great-sounding records." It was not highbrow, it wasn't snooty. High fidelity has kind of become sort of a small hobby for people that are really into classical and jazz music that's going to reproduce live performances and it's very expensive and it's very elitist and, as one friend said, they've kind of become pretentious, striding around in their BMWs. I really want to see fidelity brought back to everybody, so I'm kind of redefining it as "Holographic three-dimensional sonic experiences that you can get lost in."
MR: Can I ask you, then, what about 5.1 to 7.1 and beyond, all these configurations within the television medium where people have invested big money? How come music business sonics haven't been keeping pace with other technologies? I think our pop culture sort of settled into an inarticulate sound, though they're not okay with an inarticulate visual. But as you said, we have a history of loving superior sound. So what is the plan to get that back? Is Butterscotch Records doing this with artists who are more friendly to this medium?
AF: I think so. We've tried surround sound over and over again with audio. It was called Quad in the seventies. We always come back to two speakers and we come back to that stereo image because it really works well and you don't need to be sitting exactly in the right spot all the time to get the right experience. To ask somebody, "If you're going to listen to a record you have to sit in that chair only," is just not reasonable. I think we've always wanted portability, we've wanted to listen in cars where you're never in the center, we've wanted to listen on headphones, and all of those formats work really well in stereo and they can present these great experiences. And now with earbuds being so ubiquitous, we can get great fidelity into a pair. So I think that the reason we haven't done the surround thing is it's just not necessary. It's one thing to have a helicopter circle around you, it's another thing to have the drummer behind you and all that. It's just not how we really perceive music, as if we're standing in the middle of the band. We learned that pretty quickly, because in the early days of stereo they'd throw the drummer off to one side and the bass player off to the other side."It'll be like having the band in your living room!" But that quickly fell out of fashion in favor of the kind of holographic three-dimensionality that could be brought in by having two speakers replicating the same sound just a little bit off from each other so that you get that stereo depth. It's just like closing an eye or opening both. Your depth perception is there. That's what becomes interesting, because you can deliver that in a lot of different portable ways. For me, the other part of your question which I think is so important is bringing high fidelity back to genres of music that are engaging young people and all kinds of people and all genres of music. Some records sound absolutely amazing and a lot of people don't know it. Radiohead, Bjork, tons of electronic music, some of the most amazing, articulate, three-dimensional soundscapes you're going to find, beautifully recorded, beautifully produced, and then they shoot out into the world on an MP3 and get played on a laptop or something, so there's this missed opportunity. Through Butterscotch Records, what I'm trying to do, partly, is to bring that sense of the quality of production and the quality of an audio experience to music that typically doesn't have that emphasized for it. And that's not the whole story of the label. Of course, it's really more about the artists, but that's something we're trying to do. We're trying to ask people to value the recordings again so that artists can be compensated and keep making them. That's a big part of the story as well.
MR: With the commitment that you and the artists are making, are you looking at other delivery systems other than just a 16-bit CD?
AF: Yeah, we're just starting to see it happen with the really high-resolution digital personal playback systems. Neil Young is developing Pono, which is going to be a 192khz 24-bit iPod, basically. It's going to have really good resolution files. There's a lot of debate about the files and all that; I don't want to debate it. I know they sound great. So whether it's 96 or 192 or whatever, it doesn't matter, let's get it up into 24 bits, let's get it out of CD quality, which we know reduces the resolution. These playback systems are going to have really good digital-to-analog converters, so that you're getting a really good, accurate reproduction of it, and they're going to have excellent amplifiers in them whether it's for headphones or for going out to your stereo, they're going to have the highest-grade signal path. So the chance that somebody is going to have the experience of hearing what we hear in the studio is much greater. Now they're going to cost a little more and you're not going to be able to get ten bazillion songs on them because the files are larger, but I don't think we ever listen to ten bazillion songs. That's just a funny hoarding habit we have.
MR: [laughs] It's true, and I am one of those hoarders, sadly.
AF: I am too! I am, but I don't know why! I could throw out seventy-five percent of my music library and still not touch all that I'll listen to in the next five years, you know?
MR: I'm with you. Tell me a little bit about the artists on the roster.
AF: Okay. Well it's grown very organically out of a community of people I work with and collaborate with and who are starting to collaborate with each other in fun ways. So the first band to release a record was Graph Rabbit. They're a duo out of Brooklyn playing what's been described as acoustic ambient. It's very beautiful acoustic guitar-based music with amazing arpeggiated synths going along with that. Austin, the singer, has an incredible voice with a beautiful, dreamy quality. Their record Snowblind is already out, and it's coming out on deluxe twelve-inch vinyl on September 3rd, and then they're going to be touring. Then they're going to be releasing a cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" on deluxe twelve-inch vinyl that we tracked last month, which sounds incredible, and they're working on their next record. The next artist to release a record is going to be Mikael Jorgenson and Greg O'Keefe. Mikael is best known as the keyboardist from Wilco and he is also an amazing producer and engineer. He actually came into Wilco as the engineer for the album A Ghost Is Born. He met them during the recording of Yankee Foxtrot and then went on to work with them as an engineer and quickly became the keyboard player and has been for over a decade. Mikael's releasing very unexpected music from the Wilco camp; it's electronic-based largely, and we've got, I think, three records in the works for him. The first one to come out on September 24th is his partnership with the drummer Greg O'Keefe. It's an amazing record of mostly electronic music with a very interesting backstory to it about how that was put together and made. It's going to be on 12" vinyl and CDs and digital as well.
The next record to come out is by a Seattle group called New Weather. They have a pretty interesting sound, something like early Pink Floyd meets Kraftwerk meets Air. Lots of synths, some live drums, piecing together a very consolidated, abstract soundscape--almost Stockhausen-y at times. One of the members of their band is a pretty renowned painter named Tomory Dodge who is starting to do the cover art for some of the different artists and cover art for their record as well. It's a very interesting record to me because you can hear a sonic version of his visual art in the music, so we're seeing a really interesting collaboration between visual art and sonic art. That's another part of bringing back the 12" vinyls; the artwork becomes so much more significant when it's big and the artwork is in your hands. His paintings are big and beautiful and deserve to be printed as such, so that's great. The next record to come out in the fall--we're releasing four to get the label launched--is by an artist named Blurry. Blurry is Robert Lurie, who was kind of the driving force for the band The Billy Nayer Show. They're probably most famous for the movies that they created, which are bizarre, surreal musicals. The American Astronaut, which came out in 2001 is probably their best-known film, and it was followed up by another film called Stingray Sam. Bobby has moved on and started to do his own solo music, so that record is a beautiful instrumental record called Lulls. The whole concept behind that record is that he wanted to do a musical portrayal of the times in between major events in life, when you have pause and you have a lull in that moment. We talked about making sonic Rothkos. "How do you make a sonic Rothko?" Again, touching on visual art, so those are the artists coming out and those are the four albums coming out. It's a busy fall, and we're going to continue with these artists and sign more as we go.
MR: Allen, what advice do you have for new artists?
AF: It might sound like a cliché, but you have to be super, super true to yourself artistically and spare nothing in getting exactly what you want to hear to happen. Make no compromises. I think right now with the landscape being what it is, a younger artist has the opportunity to do whatever they want and get it heard. I think the problem is that a lot of young artists work very quickly and they throw things up on Vine or Soundcloud or wherever...Bandcamp...and there's this immediate gratification of getting something out there. I think I would tell most young artists to restrain themselves and make sure they're getting it truly, truly great and try and get as much objectivity as they can and wait until it's really great, really wonderful, and then charge money for your music. Put value on it. No one's going to value it any more than you will and if you put "free" on it, that's what it's going to be worth. Nothing. My belief is that we love to glom onto these exceptions to the rule. The so-and-so who got in a Coke commercial and now is huge, or the weird video wonder-hit on YouTube. You can't just play the lottery. You have to make something beautiful and you have to value it. That's what I hope Butterscotch is doing for younger artists who come to the label, helping them value their music, put value on it, get into the marketplace in a real way and be part of trying to bring the value of recorded music back into the game so we can make beautiful records again, because I think it's such an important art form. That's my best advice. Make great stuff and value it highly.
MR: Okay, so where do you see the future of Butterscotch Records? Do you see yourself playing an important role in the restoration of people caring about audiophile recordings?
AF: I hope so! That's a small part of what I'm trying to do. If anything, I just hope that we can bring awareness to it and offer people the opportunity to experience amazing hi-fi listening experiences. I really do believe the technology is going to shift away from the MP3 and the crappy-sounding iPod with junky earbuds. I think we're going to see a renewed interest in better sound. We already are. People are spending way too much money on headphones at this point, and trying to seek better, actual high-fidelity options coming out there for people with portable equipment. We hope Butterscotch will be a part of that for no other reason that we have the technical know-how to get really high-res digital files delivered straight from analog masters. But it's a sub-mission, it's not the entire mission of the label, and what we really have set out to do is to over time, build a very beautiful catalog of great recordings from artists that we really believe in and to kind of foster a guild-like community where people are collaborating and working together, and I think that's part of what happens in the rare instances when you have an engineer/producer-run label. It creates a different kind of community where it's not so much "those who make records" and "those who sell them." We're the same people. I think that creates a different sensibility around how to go about making records and, hopefully, avoiding some of the classic label producer conflicts and instead coming together to know what's going to make a great record. Those are the goals over the next twenty years or so, just to build up an amazing catalog. I feel like we're on a great start with these four or five releases.
MR: Awesome thinking so large and long term. Now where do you see yourself this time next year?
AF: This time next year? Probably on the phone again with you talking about more releases, I hope. I see myself probably twice as busy and, hopefully, with a bit of a staff to help me accomplish some of those things. We already know what Mikael Jorgenson's next release is and it's mostly done; Graph Rabbit will be releasing another record that they're already writing and are starting to demo and work on that; New Weather's talking about their next record; and Blurry's already talking about his. So I actually see us in an interesting place, putting out the second records from a lot of these artists on Butterscotch while also looking around for the next bands to join the roster. I don't want to move quickly and just fill up the roster for the sake of filling it up. I want to find artists who fit really well and make a lot of sense to be on the label. I think that's where we plan to be in a year's time--doing the next batch of releases from the same artists and possibly another one or two artists getting signed.
MR: Thank you very much, Al, it's been great talking with you.
AF: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time and talking with me.
MR: All the best with the label, artists, and your vision.
AF: Thanks so much.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne