“The holes in people’s lives need to be filled / I get that. I understand that. / But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with / Do you get that? Understand that?”
“245th Peace Song,” the opening track on Peter Himmelman’s new album, There Is No Calamity, immediately grabs your attention both sonically and lyrically. By the time the refrain kicks in—“Stop the hate, stop the hate”—you’re singing along. See for yourself: Himmelman has shared the exclusive preview of the video for “245th Peace Song” with us. The video was created by Peter’s son Isaac Himmelman, a filmmaker based in Brooklyn.
I asked Himmelman to share a little background on the inspiration for “245th Peace Song.” Was he thinking about a particular event or was it was intended as a more general commentary on the state of the world today?
“I’ve found that most everything I do is a response to a specific moment, or a specific conversation,” Himmleman explained. “‘Peace Song’ was written after I’d read the United States’ Department of Justice’s report on the causes of what happened in Ferguson in 2014. Or let me put it this way, when I read the report—which by the way, was not an editorial piece, it was the published findings and conclusions of the Department of Justice’s investigation—those bits and pieces of information stuck in my mind, in that sense the song was conceived, but not yet born. The song actually came into being after a conversation I’d had with my Uncle Arthur Himmelman, a brilliant guy who’s been a mentor to me since I was a kid. He said something like, ‘why don’t you write a piece that addresses your feelings about what’s happening in the world around you, instead of the world inside your head?’ I don’t think he put it quite those harsh of terms, but it did strike me that it would be interesting for me to stray a bit from the way I usually write. ‘Peace Song’ was something I wrote specifically to send to him.”
Peter Himmelman is a prolific creator. As “245th Peace Song” makes very clear, he is a talented singer and songwriter. There Is No Calamity, set to be released in bricks and mortar stores on August 11, 2017 on Himmasongs Records, is Himmelman’s twelfth studio album released since his debut effort, This Father’s Day (1986). Himmelman has also released five children’s albums, composed scores for television and movies, writes for The Wisdom Daily, creates visual art, and offers workshops designed to spark and encourage creativity. Himmelman released a book last year entitled Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. It’s a good thing he figured out how to unlock the creative mind, because he has a lot of good ideas to bring to life.
Despite that, There Is No Calamity wasn’t Himmelman’s idea. Like many musicians, he struggled with whether it makes any economic sense to release records these days. “Many people aren’t aware that making a record these days is in most cases a question of, ‘how much money do I want to lose on this?,’” Himmelman explained. “I, of course, don’t look at it as a loss, just as people who go on fishing expeditions or trips to Africa don’t look at the costs as a loss. For me, and most musicians I know, record-making is one of the most fulfilling creative experiences they can have. Why make a record these days if you know you’re almost certain never to recoup your investment? Because it’s a rare joy to be in a space with master musicians who are giving their all to make your vision come alive.”
Himmelman’s longtime tour guitarist Scott Tipping, who Himmelman describes as “a Monk of the Blues along with hundreds of other styles of guitar playing,” mentioned that Steve Berlin of Los Lobos was a fan of Himmelman’s work. Berlin signed on to produce There Is No Calamity, a relationship that Himmelman repeatedly describes as a “collaboration.” In fact, Himmelman deferred to Berlin in terms of choosing which of 53 demos would make the cut for the album. Surprised by an artist surrendering so much control to a first-time collaborator, I asked Himmelman whether that was a difficult decision.
“Yes indeed,” Himmelman replied, “choosing one’s songs is a very personal choice and choosing them is something I’ve done over the course of decades. On the other hand, collaborating with someone is also a personal choice, and in some ways, it’s perhaps an even more personal one. The choice I made to include someone else’s perspective, to willfully bring in someone else to weigh in on one’s decisions borders on something akin to intimacy. Of course, in my case, I felt so strongly about Steve’s ability to expand my thinking; interestingly, this came about after just one long phone call. Have you ever spoken to someone, felt the cadence of their words, as well as their substance and felt, ‘this person completely gets who I am and what I’m trying to achieve?’ This was my assumption about Steve, which later proved to be truer than I could have known.”
Berlin appreciated the trust that Himmelman placed in him, noting that it “was remarkable in that when we started he really didn’t know me or my taste yet he basically said ‘just tell me what to do and I'll do it as good as I can.’ A producer can’t ask for anything more than that, and I can tell you that too is rare in my experience.”
Did Berlin choose the songs that Himmelman himself would have chosen? No, Himmelman told me. There Is No Calamity is “radically different” than the album that would have resulted if Himmelman chose the songs. “The way I’d characterize Steve’s choices,” Himmelman explained, “might be to say that he went for songs that were more melodically adventurous; most of them had bridges, modulations, and singable choruses. The stuff I’ve been into for years—both from personal taste, along with perhaps, just a touch of sloth—are bluesy, modal sounding things that often have a…how should I put this; a sort of jaundiced perspective. Steve contributed to this being much more ebullient than the record I first envisioned.”
“Ebullient” is a perfect word to describe There Is No Calamity and my 11 year old son, who is also a fan of the album, will attest that there are a number of singable choruses. Case in point, Himmelman felt that “254th Peace Song” was a “a little too ‘on the nose’” even though it was more “reflective” than “overtly political.” Berlin disagreed and “made a strong case for its inclusion on the record,” Himmelman told me. “I’m glad that I took his lead.” Me too.
I asked Himmelman to share his favorite song on the album. “This is always a hard one to answer for any record I put out,” Himmelman revealed. “I can easily tell you which are my least favorites—but I don’t want to bias anyone’s opinion before they’ve heard the album! If I had to pick, I’d say it’s a song called ‘Rich Men Run The World.’ There’s something about it that’s very rich, melodically and harmonically—in particular, a triplet figure in the melody, which begins each new verse. There’s something about the song that feels very unfamiliar, both in the lyric and in the melody. Every time I perform it live I see it from a new perspective. Sometimes it’s an indictment, other times it feels like a prayer. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ambiguity lately, and about how difficult ‘not-knowing’ is for myself, and so many others. As we mature and we gather ourselves around the safety of our skill-sets and mastery, we also cut ourselves off from exploring new perspectives. In some ways ‘Rich Men’ is like a finger pointing the way, away from what’s known, towards what is ambiguous.”
“Rich men run the world from here / It don’t run on mercy it runs on fear / And what money buys is what every man craves / As if we could carry it down to our graves–Rich men run the world.” I’d like to hear Himmelman perform the song live, because the version on the record sounds more like a prayer than an indictment.
In addition to Tipping, Himmelman is backed on There Is No Calamity by a group of artists that Himmelman effusively praises. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t … express my gratitude, not only for their exquisite playing on the record but for their very presence in my life,” Himmelman shared. The core group includes Matt Thompson on bass (“He’s as fine a musician as you will find anywhere on the planet”), Chuck Lacy on drums (“He’s from the Chicago’s South Side, grew up in the Church and his groove is so strong and pure”), and Kristin Mooney, Claire Holley, and Willie Aron on backing vocals (“Not only do they sing amazingly well, they are all first rate musicians and writers in their own right”).
Given the challenging economics of making a record in 2017, Himmelman went to Kickstarter to seek funds to off-set the costs of making and releasing the record. I’ve backed a number of musicians on Kickstarter—most recently Forest Sun, Deb Talan, and David Mayfield—and was interested in the artist’s perspective on the funding vehicle.
Himmelman told me that this was actually his second time using Kickstarter and that both campaigns were very successful. In addition to raising money to off-set costs, Himmelman told me, “the other benefit you get from Kickstarter is a way of communicating with your deepest, most ardent fan base. That alone might just be worth all the bother. And what is the bother you ask? Well, when you’re deciding what ‘rewards’ you want to bestow on those loyal fans, for which you are so grateful, you run the risk of promising too many things that need to be mailed—as opposed to digital copies of music, which can be sent with the click of a mouse.”
Timing can also be an issue, Himmelman explained. “There Is No Calamity is out on vinyl as well, and I promised my Kickstarter funders that it’d be ready way back in February. Yesterday, June 13 is when all the rewards were finally delivered. It took way longer than I’d anticipated for the pressing plant to deliver the vinyl, which delayed everything else. But like anything in life, Kickstarter is full of pros and cons. I’m glad I went for it.”
There Is No Calamity is an ebullient album (seriously, what a great word) but it is also thoughtful and thought-provoking. On “Sacrificial,” Himmelman asks a series of questions without answers: “How hot is too hot, how cold is too cold / How do you know anything when you’re squeezed into a mold / How free is too free, how chained is too chained / How do you cry for revolution, when it all seems pre-ordained.” I asked Himmelman about an essay entitled The Rhythm of Intention (A Requiem for a Friend) that he wrote in November 2016. In that essay he said that “Intention is a rhythm that reverberates in waves of questions. Why are we here, what are we accomplishing with our short time, who are we serving?” Given the myriad of creative outlets available to him, I wondered how There Is No Calamity fits in—does it help him answer the wave of questions or, as in “Sacrificial,” does it generate new ones?
“I want to point out that I rarely work with a plan,” Himmelman responded. “That is to say, I don’t often begin a project with a grand scheme. I’m basically a doodler, a scribbler. I’ll sit down and start in, often when I feel least like writing, and just as often, those efforts will result in things I’m very happy with. This is just a way of saying that in order to answer your excellent question, I have to look back on the work as anyone would, to try and find the meaning in what I myself have written.”
“Again,” he continued, “there’s a bit of mystery or ambiguity in the whole process. What I get most from the album is that it’s almost a very quiet, very subtle cautionary tale, which says: Time is moving Peter. You are alive and this will not always be so. Be aware, be cognizant of the miracle of existence, be awake to the wonder of simple things like eating string beans, or speaking with your children, or cooking fish for your wife and later, sitting down to watch Netflix together. Be mindful that there is a Creative Force—however one defines it—that is willing you, and all of existence into being, and let that bring you joy—and then, reflect that joy back to others.”
Peter Himmelman gives you a lot to think about. Final question: what would he like people to take away from There Is No Calamity?
“Peter Himmelman is 57 years old and still making good music,” he responded, “the world is a place of possibility, and our role as human beings is to do our best to bring that possibility to light.” If those are his goals with this album, I’d say “mission accomplished.” Find out for yourself when There Is No Calamity is released on August 11th in bricks and mortar stores or stream it today on Amazon. In the meantime, you can visit his website to learn more about all of his creative efforts to bring that possibility to light.