ALPHANAUT'S "UNNECESSARY SOLDIER"
According to Mark Alan, aka Alphanaut...
"The term 'Unnecessary Soldier' comes from Thomas Jefferson's vision for keeping military costs controlled in the US by reducing the number of soldiers employed in times of peace. This idea stuck in my head for years, especially in our current age where we've done the complete opposite of what he hoped for.
"With this title I wanted to create an anti-war piece, but really struggled with an approach. I felt there are so may classic protest songs out there and I didn't want to duplicate a message that had already been delivered. Plus I had already written my own anti-war song 'More Than I Do' several years earlier.
"In the end, I decided to write a lyric that was told from soldier to soldier, human to human, each with an agreement to throw down arms and ignore the machines of conflict that sent them each out to the field. When composing the piece I really wanted to have it reflect the sounds of the '60s and '70s keeping everything revolving around a very simple melody. Thanks to my co-creator Fox Scarlett, vocalists David Santos and Angie Whitney the results far exceeded my vision for the song."
The song "Unnecessary Soldier" is taken from Alphanaut's forthcoming album Meanwhile Back on Earth, which will be released in January.
A Conversation with Maia Sharp
Mike Ragogna: Maia, was there a mission for your new album The Dash Between The Dates production-wise or thematically?
Maia Sharp: Once "Phoenix" and "The Dash Between the Dates," the first two songs written specifically for a new album, were finished the theme started to show itself. I was writing more from a broad life perspective, not just about one relationship or one moment. And as difficult as that can be, I was on a mission to carry it through the rest of the album.
MR: What was it like working creatively this time around with your longtime collaborator Linda Taylor this time around how has that changed from previous projects?
MS: Officially co-producing was the natural progression for us. Linda played on my last two albums, we've played together for other artists like Edwin McCain, Crystal Bowersox and Art Garfunkel and we've been "co-producing" how we're going to represent these songs live for about seven years now. She's a master of marrying inorganic elements with live performances and that extra sonic layer is the thing that makes this project different from the others.
MR: Though you're a singer-songwriter, you also frame the material in bluesier than not arrangements and productions. To that point, you recorded "I Don't Want Anything To Change," a song you co-wrote and Bonnie Raitt made popular. As you're growing as an artist, are you noticing how it's affecting the topics or even the feel of your material?
MS: I grew up listening to Bonnie Raitt, so I'm sure there's some blues in my blood. She did such a great version of "I Don't Want Anything to Change" that I made sure I waited long enough so people wouldn't necessarily compare us side by side--nobody wants to step into the ring with Bonnie. My version is more of an album closer, more sparse and it features the beautiful, brilliant background vocal of Lizz Wright.
MR: Your lyrics for your single "Nothing But The Radio" are almost country: "Take off your shirt and don't stop until there's nothing but the radio on." Plus it's got a teensy hint of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," except for, you know, that being a striptease song. So who influenced you and what are some of your favorite lyrics and songwriters that influenced your own writing style?
MS: I'm a huge Randy Newman fan. You called it. Plus Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, Feist, Neko Case and my father, Randy Sharp, all major lyrical influences.
MR: That song, as well as "Phoenix" and "Real Love," features James Taylor's trusty backup vocalist Arnold McCuller. Your album includes other impressive guests such as Dave Stewart, Lizz Wright and Gabe Dixon. How did you choose which musical pals to include?
MS: I was very fortunate to connect with everyone you mentioned right before it was time to make a new album. Arnold and I met singing some BG vocals on Bonnie Raitt's upcoming album. Dave and I met through M:M Music and Surfdog Records. Lizz and I met through Bonnie's Production Manager, Derek Williams and Gabe and I have known each other for years but we had just reconnected to write a song called "Unrequited" for his new album. So as my album unfolded, I started dreaming and scheming about maybe getting each of them on a tune or two. When people I admire like Arnold, Lizz, Dave and Gabe, agree to be part of what I'm doing, it's a giant validation.
MR: Your material was covered by the likes of Cher, The Dixie Chicks, Keb' Mo', Lisa Loeb, and Bonnie Raitt. What do you think of their versions of your material and which ones amazed you by their interpretations?
MS: I've been lucky. I genuinely like every one of those covers. Everybody owned it. I think I was most amazed that Bonnie did "Crooked Crown" in the first place. I would never have guessed that she would choose that song but she did and she nailed it!
MR: Just curious, what was it like producing or working with acts like Bowersox and McCain and especially Art Garfunkel? Do you feel as comfortable with producing as with your other talents?
MS: Before I take the producing gig I already know what I need to know about the artist. I had spent many hours writing and/or touring with Crystal, Edwin and Art before we ever went into the production sphere together. Yes, Art is very particular but also extremely articulate so he can let me know what he's thinking and we can chase it down together. He trusts me and I feel the silent compliment in that every time.
MR: What keeps your creative vision fresh?
MS: Good question. It doesn't feel all that fresh sometimes...but when it's a little stale, I don't let it out of my studio. What keeps it fresh is probably that I never stay in one place for too long. Touring always brings up new ideas and concepts, producing other artists makes me brush up on different skills...I think as long as I diversify I can keep tilling the soil.
MR: Are there any songs on the new album that you became more enamored of as it grew in the production process? Any songs change drastically from their original vision?
MS: Both "Phoenix" and "Nothing But the Radio"--couldn't be more different from each other--changed drastically from where they started and, in both cases, maybe because the road was longer, it feels like more of a triumph.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MS: I hope you REALLY love doing this just for the doing. Sometimes the creating, recording and performing is the only life your song enjoys and that has to be okay. How much money or how many fans can't matter because there's no way to know how that's going to go. If you rely on response you'll be paying for a lot of therapy.
MR: What was the best advice ever given to you?
MS: It was a version of what I just said given to me by my dad, Randy Sharp.
MR: Do you have a favorite track from the album or one that you're the most proud of and why?
MS: There are so many stories to the making of this album it's hard to choose a stand out...writing "Maybe Tonight" with long-time idol, Dave Stewart, "Phoenix" living up to its name being re-invented 3 times, "Nothing But the Radio" getting a total overhaul in the nick of time to be the first single and "Underneath" just fully realizing what it was from the very beginning. Okay, "Underneath" was the teacher's pet. It just was what it was from the start and now it plays itself live. It gets the gold star.
MR: Haha. Ideally, what would you like to be working on a couple years from now?
MS: Another album. I'll keep writing and producing and chasing down opportunities but I think I found the handle on the coffee pot and I'm looking forward to making another album.
SIT KITTY SIT'S "SUPERBIA/LIFE #6" EXCLUSIVE
Kat Downs from Sit Kitty Sit's Kat Downs...
A Conversation with Ben Caplan
Mike Ragogna: So I hear you're running for president. Wait, that's Ben Carson. And you're Canadian.
Ben Caplan: Well, Ted Cruz is a Canadian, so maybe it's not so far fetched! Wait...no, it is far fetched. We're sorry about Ted Cruz.
MR: Yeah, thanks a lot. Alright, you think your album is a collection of...here it comes...Birds With Broken Wings. Or do you? Do say more! Actually, please say a lot more, like about everything that happened in the studio and songwriting processes. We've got a lot of virtual ink, leave nothing out. And while you're at it, why did you take so long to follow-up your critically acclaimed In The Time Of The Great Remembering, huh? I've been waiting to reinterview you for years!
BC: Oh, Mike! That's marvellous. I honestly never thought about the album as a collection of birds. I suppose that lens works though. Each of the songs is about struggle. There's something being worked through. There's a searching for a way to be made whole or mended.
The album took a long time for two reasons. Firstly, I am on the road so often it's hard to pin down time for writing and recording. It takes a lot of time and effort to pull all of those logistics and inspired moments together into a cohesive whole. Secondly, the album production itself took a lot longer than I expected it to. Including pre-production, the creation of this album took well over a year, with breaks for touring imbedded.
The pre-production involved a little bit of demoing, trying different ideas, locations, and people out. Figuring out how to work best and with whom. Then there was commissioning arrangements, trying things live, finding the heart of each song. We followed that with two busy weeks in Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal, nailing down bed tracks, horns, strings, and other more exotic sounds. Add to that dozens upon dozens of days in studios in Halifax, Ottawa, and Paris doing overdubbing, recording new instruments, making edits, changes, and mixes. It was by far the biggest project I've ever worked on. And it makes me excited to get started on the next record. After some extensive touring, of course!
MR: How are you feeling about the music "scene" these days and why did you and Old Man Luedecke pick on Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk"? Don't you have enough songs of your own?
BC: I'm fairly optimistic about the music "scene". I mean, hell, there is a lot of music out there. That's a good thing, right? I try the best I can to listen to all musics with an open mind. On this past tour, I've been listening to more pop music than I ever have before. It's not my favorite music, or the kind of music I want to make, but then again I don't want to make Eastern European folk songs either, but I listen to a hell of a lot of those. When you really immerse yourself in a song or a sound and try to understand it you invariably learn a lot.
So "Uptown Funk"! It's funny you should ask. That wasn't really our idea. Old Man Luedecke and I will both happily give credit to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]. They asked us to do a Top 40 cover as part of a larger session. The journey we went on trying to find and select the right tune turned out to open a very interesting door for me.
MR: Ben, what are some of your favorite birds, I mean songs, on this project and what is the story behind the songwriting?
BC: It's so hard to pick. I love the moods we built in songs like "Devil Town" and "Deliver Me." I love the crescendo of horns on "Dusk," and the groove on "40 Day & 40 Nights," but since you're forcing me to narrow it down, I'd start with "Birds with Broken Wings," the title track. That song was one of the harder ones to write. I must have written forty or fifty different stanzas to that song--trying to tighten the imagery and figure out what the song was trying to tell me. I was writing from a place of frustration with extremism in politics and religion. Frustration with a general disregard for doubt. I think doubt is one of the most important tools that we have used to create the modern era. I wanted to write a protest song, but I didn't want another whiney folk song, so I took on the voice of a character who affirms all of the little nasty things that I myself have serious doubts about.
"Belly of the Worm" is another song that took a big effort to write. The first drafts of that song bear almost no resemblance at all to the finished song. The song started as a lofty bit of words, drawing on imagery from greek mythology, taking a turn while I went through some personal turmoil, and then eventually becoming someone else's story, or a future self's story. Sure as each flower blooms, every flower is doomed.
MR: Your song "40 Days & 40 Nights" has a biblical reference. Just what are you saying here?
BC: I like mining cleverness, imagery, and poetics from a host of different sources. But that biblical and mythological stuff is strong brew. A lot of people are into reading the bible very literally, and if that works for them, then fine. As for me, I try to read those texts, if I do, like a big poem. To me, the recurring time frame of "40 Days & 40 Nights" sounds less like a precise account of events, and more like a nice way of saying "a long time." So I've been missing my woman a long time. And the rest of those words, it was a fun exercise twisting old images into personal metaphors.
MR: So you're a Canadian, fine. But if you were to run for president of the US, which Birds With Broken Wings song would be your campaign anthem and why?
BC: I'd pick "Under Control." If through some bizarre circumstance, I somehow became your president, I would want to prepare myself by hearing one of the lines from that song during the campaign. "All the children are laughing outside. The work never sleeps and there's nowhere to hide." Campaign slogan, anyone? Get ready, America!
MR: Well, works better than JEB!, great. Oh, and which award did you win this year and why do organizations keep giving them to you? Have they no self-control?
BC: Did I win one this year? I dunno. I figure the juries must just be intimidated by my beard. What's a person to do?
MR: I know, right? Okay, what is the most embarrassing moment of your life that we don't know yet. Nah, kidding, what is your favorite animal?
BC: Geez, these are tough questions. I am fond of the tanuki. A sort of raccoon dog native to Japan, with enormous testicles and mystical powers. Google it.
MR: What is your advice to new artists?
BC: Know what you want. If your goal is just to play music, don't worry too much about business. If your goal is to make a living playing music, then first and foremost, worry about the music. No one owes you anything. You've got to be great. You've got to hold yourself to a very high standard and constantly be aware of working on your craft. And then worry about the business. Trying to survive as an artist also means becoming an entrepreneur and a small business owner. It's important to have clear goals of where you'd like to be in five years, and really ask yourself why. Try to whittle down your aspirations to the most essential aspects, and allow the world and your journey to fill in the details. Break down your plans into smaller and more immediately accomplishable goals. Work through the small daily tasks. Don't let the magnitude of your goals overwhelm you.
MR: What was the best advice ever given to you and why didn't you follow it?
BC: The best advice I ever got was to meditate for 30 minutes, and stretch for 30 minutes every day. I don't follow that advice because I'm always on tour, and it feels like there is never an extra hour in the day! Oh my lord, I have so many unread e-mails. So so many many unread e-mails. It's a practice I am trying to be more diligent about, but I am also diligent about trying to get eight hours sleep every night. So much driving.
MR: So have you started writing new songs yet for your 2019 album and what will the title be?
BC: I've got a few strands and notions. I will be coming at album three pretty fresh though. I am still unclear of what I want to explore on that album. There are many musical and lyrical directions that my brain is traveling in. I am watching and waiting and trying to learn as much as I can to help things coalesce.
MR: Are you still having fun doing this music thing?
BC: I really really love it. Every day is not fun all day, but I do have fun every day. When you're on tour as long and as often as I am, there is a certain sameness to every day, in which I find some comfort, but each day is also radically different from the last. A different city, a different road, a different venue, a different stage. A new challenge, or a novel combination of familiar challenges. A new audience, and a new connection forged with different people and places.
I kind of hate writing songs. It's hard, and painful, and it takes too long. It's like climbing a mountain. And I often never get past the foothills. But one the rare occasions that I find my way to the top, and back down again, the trip is always worth it. And the thrill of sharing what I found up there with an attentive audience is my greatest joy. I can imagine living another way, but at this moment, I wouldn't want to. Bring it on.
BUTCHERS BLIND'S "BLACK & WHITE DREAMS" EXCLUSIVE
According to Butchers Blind's Pete Mancini...
"I wrote 'Black & White Dreams' while commuting from a temp job in the city. I remember looking out the window passing all the different streets, and I started wondering who actually named them all. I thought it must feel pretty satisfying to leave behind something lasting like that. I started thinking about my grandfather's generation, and all the challenges they faced. What will become of our generation? What will we leave behind? They say our great war is fought in our hearts and minds. To me, this is a song about the desire to make a difference even though the deck is clearly stacked against us.
"This was one of the first songs we worked on for the EP, and we all knew right away it was a keeper. This track in particular seems to resonate with people, which has been great. It means we've done our job."
A Conversation with Peter Case
Mike Ragogna: Peter, HWY 62, the title of your new album is the road that connects Mexico's Ciudad Juarez with the Ontario side of Niagara Falls. Have you ever taken that ride and should we look at the new album as a travelog of sorts?
Peter Case: Mike, I've traveled that road on both ends and in the middle, taken a few long trips up and down and across, but never drove the whole thing in one shot. Never heard of anyone that has done that, as a matter of fact. Its mostly two lanes and it gets a little tricky some places. But, hey, sometimes it seems all my records are travelogues some way or another.
MR: Sweet. So is there a little autobiography written into "Waiting On A Plane" and "Evicted"?
PC: "Waiting On A Plane," sure, its like a snapshot...but "Evicted," that's something I see going on in the cities, people getting run out by landlords who want to jack up prices. I don't dig the way they're doing that.
MR: How do you approach songwriting these days? Do you let inspiration hit you or are you disciplined with the process or both?
PC: Always inspiration, that's the only thing that makes music worth hearing. But it can be a funny thing, unpredictable, elusive. Still, you need it.
MR: In the studio, how far from your original vision of a song do you let recordings stray?
PC: The sound changed a lot over the course of a few days, then we settled in. Its was mostly about me and DJ finding a sound together, a feel...
MR: You included guests such as Ben Harper, Dead Rock West's Cindy Wasserman and David Carpenter, plus X's D.J. Bonebrake and Lone Justice's Don Huffington among others. How did their contributions help complete your communicating the stories behind these songs?
PC: Ben Harper was a key man here...he came with so much enthusiasm and knowledge. Cindy and David and DJ have all worked with me before; I produced an album for Dead Rock West a few years back. And DJ drummed on Wig!, which was a pretty screaming electric blues-rock 'n' roll kinda thing.
MR: Peter, when it gets right down to it, though you're talented at many things, you're really a singer-songwriter in the classic sense, right?
PC: Mike, I'm not sure what that means really. I'm not that good at describing the musical borders, I just like crossing them. I've played a lot of rock 'n' roll, a lot of folk music, both from an early age. The Nerves and Plimsouls was a ten year period when I focused on rock 'n' roll, but thats only ten out of forty or something, know what I mean? A rock 'n' roll folksinger, thats a good one to call me. I dig songs, and they gotta be right for me to be interested. And singing is important, seems a lot of singer-songwriters leave that one out maybe... I dunno.
MR: And you've had a pretty diverse musical career ranging from punk to new wave to folk, etc., though these days, you're considered an "Americana" artist. Would you also consider yourself that? And from your perspective, how have your musical tastes and creativity evolved over the years, maybe since the days of being in The Nerves?
PC: Before The Nerves, my heroes were poets and blues singers. I saws Lightnin' Hopkins play in Boston, in 1971, and he really hit me hard. I dug writers with far out syntax, fresh language, outspoken beauty. Like Corso, for example. But I loved The Stones and Hendrix too, same time period, so... The Nerves were minimalist teenage rockers and I learned bass and how to be in a band. It was fun; we had high hopes. But finally, it all blew up.
MR: Your critically acclaimed group The Plimsouls was another major mile marker for you. Do you ever miss the days of creating recordings within a band like that?
PC: I could get a band like that together if I wanted to--I know how! In fact, I did take a band like that to Australia two years back, touring with the Flamin' Groovies and the Hoodoo Gurus. The Buzzcocks were on the show, and Blue Oyster Cult. Plus I did solo shows in pubs with the bloke from Radio Birdman. It was a package tour. But we didn't record. The sound was cool, but being in a band, I dunno anymore. I'm kind of a one man guy, as Loudon Wainwright said in a song. And I feel what I can do solo is more unique, nobody does what I do live, so I feel like I got my own thing a bit. Its a good feeling.
MR: Speaking of creating recordings, you just wrapped up producing singer-songwriter Bob Hillman's Lost Soul album. What was the creative process and pre-production like working up the project? What were the actual sessions like and what are some things you observed about him as an artist? Did you become pals?
PC: Bob Hillman's very talented, a fine writer, and a joy to work with. I put together a great crew for him to bounce off. We worked on the songs just a little; I'd suggest he write more, and he did. It worked and a lot of people are really digging that record. The sessions were a blast.
MR: What is your take on young songwriters just starting and do you have any favorites, perhaps keeping an eye on a couple that you would work with someday?
PC: Well, I don't know, I see people now and again that are very good, really coming along. You never know, I can't talk about it now.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
PC: To thine own self be true, period. And pay attention.
MR: Did you get an advice that was a game changer for you?
PC: My Dad told me to "cut the crap!" That was the big one.
MR: Any artist you would still like to produce or work with?
PC: I dig the Malian music I've heard, and rockin' Arab music I hear on the radio here, the theme breaks on a talk show in San Francisco. Man it's just exciting and dynamic, the best thing going in the world now. I've been to some shows, and I'm intrigued by that.
MR: You've been involved with various projects beyond you own healthy sized catalog. Are there any musical or creative boundaries that you still need to push, maybe writing a musical or record another themed project like Wig!?
PC: I'm interested in writing a play, staging it, also working on a film. Music plus crime. And every time I get the chance, I'm working on the book. It'll be done sometime soon.
MR: Still having fun?
PC: Life's a wild trip...
A Conversation with Bob Hillman
Mike Ragogna: Bob, your new album Lost Soul was produced by Peter Case. How did this come together and were you already a fan of his music?
Bob Hillman: Peter Case is one of the songwriters who inspired me to become a songwriter. I grew up in LA in the '80s, when The Plimsouls had A Million Miles Away and were featured in Valley Girl. I bought his 1989 solo album--The Man with the Blue Guitar--based on Robert Hilburn's LA Times review, and spent a lot of time with it during my second year of college. In the summer of 1990, I went to a show at McCabe's, which opened my eyes: you could play solo, but with rock energy. After that, I went to Peter's shows whenever I could, and a couple of times approached him after. He was always very generous with his time and wisdom, but never moreso than when I sent him my first batch of demos in the mid-'90s. He not only listened, but called me on the phone! We stayed in touch after that, and both wound up in San Francisco in the 2010s, where we met for coffee periodically and talked about songwriting. Eventually, I convinced him to work on a record with me.
MR: It's been a few years between the last album and this one so you must have a backlog of quite a few songs. What was the process for choosing material and while working with Peter, what was the recording like?
BH: Peter pushed me to re-arrange and re-write a bunch of the songs on Lost Soul. For example, we transformed "Bad Business" and "I'll Replace You With Machines" from their original versions. In terms of lyrics, he pushed me to reconsider a verse here and a bridge there. For example, he asked me to write five new second verses for "Alison's Part of the Equation," which I did while running the San Francisco Half Marathon. I sent them over to him later, but he never really responded. Maybe he just missed the email, but it's more likely that he just wanted me to get my juices flowing. The second verse that appears in the recording is the last of the five I came up with during that run.
Peter spent a lot of times with the songs, and came up with a few different concepts for the album. At one point, he considered taking all the songs with a place in the title: "Big Sur," "Saint Catherine Street," "Holly Park," "Ocean Beach," "Mission Creek"...there were a lot of them. Eventually, he settled on the batch that ended up on the record, with minimal input from me. My big contribution was to argue for the inclusion of Lost Soul. In hindsight, he chose a group of songs that hang together lyrically but have enough musical variety to make for good listening.
The recording process was very different from my experience. For one thing, I've never played and sung at the same time in a studio, much less played and/or song at the same time as a bunch of other musicians. There was me in a small booth, Danny McGough in the keyboard room, and Danny Frankel [drums], Jonny Flaugher [bass], and Joseph Arthur [guitar] in my line of sight. I'd give them a chart and run the song down once, then we'd run it down together a time or two. Peter might tinker with the arrangement or say something about a part--"More of this! Less of that!"--and then we'd run it down again and move on. Seriously, it was that "live." So, instead of me singing the songs in a dark room by myself, punching in syllables for hours, what you're hearing are complete live vocal takes. Literally, there might be three examples, of comping a word or line. I am actually amazed at quality of the performances, under the circumstances. I mean, there are definitely some cringe-worthy moments in terms of pitch--I won't tell the general public what they are, in case they don't notice those things--but in general I'm happy with what I and the band accomplished in such a short time.
One more thing worth noting is that I had almost no input beyond the songs and my vocal and instrumental performances. I certainly wasn't listening to what the other guys were playing. I had enough going on! So, it really was the musicians coming up with ideas and fine tuning them with input from Peter. In the past, I have been known to obsess over this and that bass line or guitar sound. This time, in accordance with Peter's wishes, I just let it go. The result is a much more spontaneous album than I've ever made before. Does anyone even play the same thing twice over the course of a song? I told everyone I wanted something different, and that's exactly what I got.
MR: How did you want Lost Soul to differ from your previous works? What did you want to achieve sonically?
BH: I just wanted to do something different. By which I mean, come up with a sound that was different from what I hear in my head. What I hear in my head is fairly straightforward folk-rock, but I've made that record three times. If I was going to make another record, I was going to branch out, and that's why I needed a producer. Peter and I discussed various touchstones, including Suzanne Vega's 99.9 F°, when she worked with Mitchell Froom for the first time and made that transition from folky to ultra-modern. We weren't necessarily after those particular sounds, just the spirit that moved her in that direction. In the end, David Bowie's Low was probably a better analog. Anyway, we sought out musicians who, above all, would not fall into a folk-rock groove. Danny Frankel, for example, is a super-creative drummer who would not fit into The Eagles. I wonder what Peaceful Easy Feeling would have sounded like if he'd been behind the kit!
MR: You're a pretty literate artist who worked for The Princeton Review and joins songwriting workshops, even spending time in Iowa as your wife pursued a career in writing. Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite works? How have they affected you as a person, your own writing and life's path?
BH: I'm always surprised to hear about writers who don't read. For me, reading is not only a diversion but also a way to hear different voices and experience different perspectives. The Basketball Diaries was formative for me in my senior year in High School. I couldn't believe someone would choose poetry and drugs over basketball! That particular teacher--who was a parent at the school but also affiliated with The Beats in some way--asked me a series of questions that led me to the conclusion that you could make that kind of choice, and that there were damn good reasons for it. Some of my all-time favorite authors are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen--from the "old school"--as much for their humor as anything. I love Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow, Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson, and Hunger by Knut Hamsun. More recently, I'm on the George Saunders, Karl Ove Knausgaard, W.G. Sebald, and Edward St. Aubyn bandwagons.
MR: You've also been a professional athlete. How does that ethic affect your approach to writing, recording, career, maybe life?
BH: It's a stretch to say I was a professional athlete. I played on the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach volleyball tour for one week, and earned $175. I did that for fun, but also to check a box: I demonstrated to myself that I could qualify for an event when the AVP was at its peak in the 1990s. I'm sure I could have played in a few more tournaments and earned hundreds more dollars, but instead I moved to New York and started the ball rolling on the singer/songwriter thing. Details aside, I did play a lot of sports in high school and college, which has had limited bearing on my recording career. One notable area has to do with performing. I understood the "stage fright" feeling, because it's the same thing you get before an important game or match. I'm not sure how much that knowledge helped--getting on stage is still petrifying at first--but I did make the connection. Another obvious connection between sports and music is that being on a team is a lot like being in a band. It's easy to bond with people when you go through strange experiences with them, like traveling to away games or going on tour. I feel a strong personal connection to many of the musicians I've worked with, and that feeling can develop quickly, i.e. over the course of a week-long recording project.
MR: Lost Soul is your fourth album, it following If You Lived Here You'd Be Home, Welcome to My Century and debut, Playing God. Creatively, what do you think evolved most over the course of your albums and how do you think you've grown as an artist?
BH: I have ALWAYS tried to get better at writing songs. That comes from early exposure to Jack Hardy, once of whose mottos was "you're only as good as your next song." I remember Jack once saying to me in front of a group of songwriters, "Bobby, you've got to address the melodic situation." More recently, there's a tendency to fall into abstraction--"tell don't show"--that I struggle against. During the Lost Soul era--essentially the 2010s--I've tried to pick my subjects more thoughtfully and also write more vividly about those subjects. I've also evolved from angry songs to, I hope, songs with a little more heart. "Alison's Part of the Equation" is a good example of that, and maybe "You Started Drinking Again," which feels compassionate to me even as it describes someone who's going off the rails.
I should add that I've also been working on my singing with an exceptional voice teacher named Louise Taylor. Louise is an accomplished singer/songwriter herself, and so knows exactly what to do with someone like me. Among other things, she has addressed my longstanding "breathiness" problem, and helped me "inhabit" the songs more. I studied voice for a year or so in the '90s, but that teacher took a more technical approach: here's how you warm up, here's how you pronounce certain syllables, etc. Louise is more about putting songs across, which--I hope--is reflected in the vocal performances on Lost Soul.
MR: Some of Lost Soul's titles are pretty pointed, for example "I'll Replace You With Machines," "Overnight Failure," and "I've Taken Enough S**t From You This Year." From where do these characters get conjured and how cathartic does your writing get?
BH: "I'll Replace You with Machines" is a complicated hybrid in that it was written for a friend, the songwriter/journalist Jim Allen, when he made a synth album in the vein of The Magnetic Fields. It sounds like I'm one band member singing about another, but in fact I'm Jim singing to his acoustic guitar, which is getting uppity and can easily be replaced. It might be a mistake to reveal that, because it sounds idiotic, but that's where that particular song came from. More often, my characters are really real--like, they are my friends, and the songs chronicle their exact experiences--or informed by a distant reality. "Overnight Failure" and "Bad Business," for example, come pretty directly from things in my life, but "Alison's Part of the Equation" and "You Started Drinking Again" are more imagined than real. So, you know, there's a continuum, but there's generally some basis in reality that gets distorted into something that's worth saying and can be said with three verses, a chorus, and a middle eight. In terms of catharsis, I offer "I Think I've Taken Enough S**t From You This Year." I really had taken more than enough shit from that person that year, and it was fun to get that feeling out.
MR: My theory about Bob Hillman is that the latter song--much like Playing God's "List Of Enemies"--is kind of proof that you're about 50% singer-songwriter and 50% punker. Which artists inspired your musical outlook and are there any creative contemporaries or current artists that you admire?
BH: As I think I mentioned earlier, I have always been interested in solo performers who bring rock and even punk rock energy. Black Flag was hardcore, but so was Woody Guthrie. Would anyone ever argue that point? He didn't scream or run his guitar through a fuzz box, but his guitar killed freakin' fascists. Is there anything more punk than that? It's a version of that energy that first attracted me to Peter Case's music, which comes explicitly from old folk and blues and the punk and rock scene of Los Angeles in the early '80s. Another touchstone is Dan Bern, with songs like "Too Late to Die Young," which offer dramatically different takes on sacred subjects: "The day that Elvis died was a mercy killing." Dan's vision was fairly uncompromising in his early years, when--for example--he sang a song with the line "aliens came and f**ked the monkey, they f**ked the monkey" at a folk festival. People were freaking out and dragging their kids away from the stage; I'm pretty sure he was immediately banned from that event. Now that I think about it, "List of Enemies" started with a line from his song "Estelle": "I was sitting there updating my list of enemies..."
MR: Your title track is so uncomfortably honest about a particular failed relationship scenario. The guy's an a**hole, right? He knows it, the relationship implodes, but he regrets it and has good wishes for his lost love's future. Thoughts?
BH: The guy's not necessarily an a**hole. Rather, he felt like an a**hole in that situation, and may have been viewed as an a**hole by the other person in the relationship and her friends. Lost Soul revisits a subject that will be familiar to anyone who heard my late '90s songs, a number of which were recorded for but left off of Welcome to My Century. Now, of course, I have a different perspective, and a remove that permits a more balanced viewpoint.
MR: Do you rework your material until it achieves a certain level of character exposure or is it an unconscious process?
BH: I am NOT one of those songwriters who waits around for inspiration, or blurts out ten verses and changes nothing, or experiences fully-formed songs in dreams. I come up with an idea and some sort of structure, and then fall back into craftsman mode. I am extremely meticulous when it comes to the "mathematics" of the song--that's what Bob Dylan calls it in Chronicles--and am not satisfied until a line is perfect in terms of sound and meaning. When I say "perfect," I guess I mean "as good as I can get it under the circumstances." Sometimes, a line or an entire song doesn't work no matter how hard I try, because I've painted myself into a corner, meter-wise, or I can't dial in the meaning, or whatever.
MR: My favorite song on the album is "War of Independence," which I believe addresses an outlook on life that embraces complacency, the mundane, or maybe just surrender. "The war of independence is not a revolution, here out West, the people rest." To me, it's kind of building on the blasé of "Celebrating Nothing" from If You Lived Here You'd Be Home.
BH: "War of Independence" is basically the same song as "Celebrating Nothing." I write one of those pretty much every time I visit a certain place to see a certain person. Both songs--and, for that matter, "The Latenight" from Welcome to My Century--address the complacency situation. And, they're all somewhat angry songs. Why am I so angry at people I perceive as complacent? Is it any of my business? Are they even complacent? Or, are they just living their lives as they see fit? Probably, my vehemence comes from a place of insecurity or fear, but I don't have the psychological training to make a final determination.
MR: That brings us to the album's closer, "Party Dress," about the "wonderful actress" who fools everyone but you. The intimacy of the recording with its mournful trumpet and after-hours vibe brings out how pathetic the character is. You can almost see her sitting alone at the edge of her bed after five drinks too many complete with runny mascara and distant gaze. In a connected universe, I think she also could be the star of "You Started Drinking Again." Or not. I tend to overthink things.
BH: Man, you really missed the boat on this one!
MR: Yay! Love when that happens. Okay, divulge.
BH: That song's about a woman who is uncomfortable in the limelight. Her partner perceives this--"tongue-tied in the spotlight," "I have never seen you less than self-assured," "fooling everyone but me"--which is touching, because only he knows her well-enough to see through whatever veneer she's putting out there..."you are a wonderful actress."
MR: Many of your songs seem to be tales of people losing their way, falling off the hero's path, and the mess that follows. Thus "Lost Souls"? Maybe a tad? And to some degree, do you believe we're all kind of lost souls?
BH: The idea behind the title is that, in middle age, people sometimes seem squared away--family, job, etc.--but may be just as confused as anyone else. Some are pretty far out there: for example, "Overnight Failure" and "Bad Business" are about adultery, and "You Started Drinking Again" is about alcoholism. Others, however, are just exploring or figuring something out, like the guy in "Big Sur" or Leonard Cohen in "Saint Catherine Street." You may only be a "lost soul" for a short time, or in a specific situation--e.g. the woman in "Party Dress" who is uncomfortable in the limelight--but you will feel lost at some point beyond when you're supposed to feel lost. "Lost souls" are not just for people in their twenties who have been reading Kerouac or Henry Miller.
MR: You include a few musical guests on the new album. Can you reveal each person's contributions and what you think they added to the better interpretation of the song or recording?
BH: Peter Case identified the musicians, with a couple of assists from Sheldon Gomberg, the engineer. Peter goes way back in the business, obviously, and knows everyone in Los Angeles. So, he had clear ideas about who could help execute our "do not make a straightforward folk-rock record" approach. That's how we ended up with Danny Frankel [drums] and Danny McGough [keyboards], who have played with people like Lou Reed and Tom Waits and for whom "not straightforward" is a default setting. Frankel is a drummer who builds his parts around the words. Literally, instead of working out a beat while he's listening to a song for the first time, he's annotating the lyric sheet. McGough, who supported Tom Waits on the Mule Variations tour, which I saw at the Beacon Theater--one of the best shows I've ever seen--is a perfectly sane person who transforms into a mad scientist in a room full of musical instruments. Jonny Flaugher [bass] and Joseph Arthur [guitar] came through Sheldon. Jonny is a versatile, extremely musical bass player who happens to live in an apartment above Sheldon's house, which is in front of the studio. How can you not hire him?! Joseph replaced another guitar player, who had to bail out at the 11th hour. I only knew Joseph as a singer/songwriter, but it turns out that he's talented in about ten other ways. For example, have you seen his paintings, or his off-the-cuff snapshots on social media? As a sideman/lead guitar player, Joseph is about boundless energy and unlimited ideas. While I was running down a new song, he'd head into the other room and create a loop. We weren't planning to build the album around loops, but that's what developed. Then, I don't think he played a single guitar part that I ever would have thought of. The vision for the album is definitely Peter Case's, but he would have realized that vision very differently without Joseph Arthur.
I also want to mention Cindy Wasserman and Mark and Kipp Lennon, who sang most of the harmonies. Cindy is a friend of Peter's who, it turns out, I'd seen with John Doe's band when they opened for The Replacements in San Francisco recently. She's a fantastic singer and warm person who added just the right nuance on songs like "Overnight Failure." For example, I love the way she approaches the line "get up and get out" at the end of the bridge in that song.
Finally, Mark and Kipp Lennon are old friends. In fact, they played at my wedding with their side project, The Pine Mountain Logs. Their main group is Venice, which includes Kipp's brother Pat and Mark's brother Michael. There's a great David Crosby quote out there, along the lines of "Venice sings way better than CSN." That will seem like an outlandish statement to some people, but it should help with perspective. Anyway, it was great to finally work with these guys in the studio; they took "I Think I've Taken Enough S**t From You This Year," "Big Sur," and "Alison's Part of the Equation" to the next level.
MR: Considering some of these songs have been gestating for a while, is there a song on Lost Soul that you're relieved to have finally recorded?
BH: "War of Independence" has been around for a while. It's been around so long, in fact, that I was sick of it even before we recorded it for Lost Soul. I considered it for If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home--we even cut a track with guitar and double bass--but left it off because it wasn't working on that particular day. Probably, it should have been on that album, but it works well enough here. "I'll Replace You With Machines" is another one that's been kicking around, but we changed it a lot and now I like it again.
MR: By the way, do you have any Lost Soul favorites, either as songs or finished recordings or both? How about your back catalog?
BH: My favorite track on Lost Soul is "Bad Business," which started out as a slow waltz and ended up as crazy rock music. The combination of that industrial-sounding loop and the abrasive keyboards make me very, very happy. I also like how "Big Sur" turned out, and "Saint Catherine Street." In my back catalog, I'm very proud of "Valentine's Day" and "Tolstoy," which continue to resonate with listeners.
MR: Bob, what advice do you have for new artists?
BH: Practically speaking, I am a new artist myself and in need of advice. It's true, though, that I had a run in the late '90s/early '00s, and probably learned a thing or two. In a nutshell, my advice is: write more songs. That's what it's all about, and there's no substitute. At least, in the world I aspire to being part of. In addition to having good songs, it helps to have an authentic presence on stage, in social media, etc.
MR: Speaking of brutally honest, on your first album from back in the mid-'90s, you recorded a song titled "When I Wrote The Book" that, I feel, casts the protagonist as someone who might have started out with good intentions but escalated his compromises in order to achieve success. It comes off like a fresh take on the old "sold his soul to the devil" concept. How do you feel about that subject these days and might that somehow tie-in to your creative approach on Lost Soul? D**kish question, I know.
BH: That protagonist never really had good intentions; he's on the make from the get-go. I have never been a "deal with the devil" type, if only because I don't think I could write a "hit" if I tried. I mean, I could probably be more commercial, but only a little more. Commercial potential certainly did not enter into the Lost Soul "calculus." In fact, we were thinking (1) I'd probably never try to re-create the sound live and (2) we wouldn't pursue radio play. So, there are all those loops, and two of the catchiest tunes feature radio-unfriendly words in the choruses. I actually wish I'd considered (2) during recording, because I am now thinking of trying my luck at radio.
MR: Where does Bob Hillman go from here? What are your immediate plans and ideally, what would you like to have happen over the next few years?
BH: I just want to keep doing music. It would be great if Lost Soul could find a small audience, an audience that would demand another album. Then, instead of relying of my friends for financing, I could rely on a combination of friends and fans. It might be interesting to see what Peter and I could come up with next. How far out could we go and still serve the songs?
MR: Rumor has it you have a simple yet magnificent song titled "Ian & Lydia." Any plans on ever recording it?
BH: Very few people know about that song! Two of them are Ian and Lydia, whose names have not been changed. They're a couple that should have been, but definitely wasn't. Anyway, I cut that song for Welcome to My Century with David Hamburger on pedal steel. It's unfinished, but I'm including it with an expansive, annotated set of demos in a Kickstarter package. People who missed the Kickstarter--which ran in June 2015 and financed Lost Soul--are out of luck for the time being.
So. What should President Trump do after he finishes building his massive southern construct, you wonder? Well, Bob Hillman offers up Scott Walker's favorite solution with this Lost Soul leftover...