A Conversation with Peter, Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow
Mike Ragogna: I am honored to interview such a legend! Peter, how are you?
Peter Yarrow: Doing well, Mike. But I shrink in horror and dismay at your use of the word "legend." (laughs) I will tell you that I think the legacy of Peter, Paul & Mary that we inherited and that we carry along with us is formidable, it's very worthy of note, it's been so inspiring. We did, however, lose Mary two years ago this past September. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm just another guy with feet of clay who has to get up and brush his teeth every morning. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to perform and sing onstage and that legacy invests itself in me.
MR: That's great. Well, we're very glad that you do. Let's jump right in by discussing a song that means a lot to you and many others, "Don't Laugh At Me."
PY: That song is the anthem of Operation Respect, a non-profit that addresses creating a caring school environment for children so that they aren't constantly dealing with bullying and ridicule. There is a terrible scourge of negativity in our society and in lots of societies today. That song was the inspiration for the creation of this non-profit thirteen years ago. There is a program by the name of Don't Laugh At Me at over 22,000 schools nationwide. I didn't author the song, it was written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, but I probably sing it 20 times more than either of them ever thought anyone would sing it. (laughs) I did 500 appearances all over the country over a period of three years when we began to school national organizations on this issue. We did things for organizations for the administrators, the teachers, at national gatherings, and at state gatherings. We sang and spoke about the issue that is now on the front pages of newspapers every day. We talked about the mean spiritedness and cruelty that can exist, not only as it exists in these schools, but as it exists in society as a whole. We've seen ridicule become a real sport in this past decade. It's now entertaining. Its effect on society and children in particular is horrific. Childhood and youth depression are running rampant, suicide rates from this bullying are rising, and the heart of America is bruised by this. I think a lot of what we need to bring back to our country is the caring, good-natured, generous kindness that was so much a part of the world I grew up in. Now it's becoming particularly tough, especially for those with special needs, those who are Muslim, or are born with other sexual identities. When all of that transfers itself into the world of children, it's particularly horrible to see. It's hard to believe that this has happened, but it's happened gradually. Now we've sort of grown used to it, but for me it's still hard to believe.
MR: That's very powerful and I very much appreciate your passion for that work. Peter, let's talk a bit about you recent appearance at CSPA in January. Did you do many songs from your catalogue at that show?
PY: I always do a lot of Peter, Paul & Mary songs, it's my legacy. I do talk about them, though, and give them a context like I just did with, "Don't Laugh At Me." There's more music and less talk. I think it was sold out.
MR: I also wanted to chat with you for a bit about your children's books. What inspired you to do that? Was it creating "Puff, The Magic Dragon"?
PY: For about fifteen years, an agent had been urging me to record a special version of "Puff, The Magic Dragon" for an illustrated book. I resisted the notion because I didn't see how that was gonna help mankind, you know? (laughs) "Puff... " was just a song to me, and it didn't occur to me that it could be so, so important. First off, what initially made it important to me was the fact that I was then beginning to join my daughter, Bethany Yarrow, onstage with her band sometimes and sing that song. Her band is called The Bethany and Rufus Roots Quartet. It was then that I realized how beautiful it was and I said that I would record it for the book with my daughter and make it a generational thing. What I didn't realize is that it would launch a whole other world for me in which music is now a part of books. There are about 50 songs in this repertoire -- there are only a few where the whole song is illustrated. It transformed me from an activist folk singer to the only activist folk singer who's toyed around with anything outside the genre in the last two decades -- unless you consider Bob Dylan, who I think has also transcended a category. It proved to me that even though the world of recording and commercial pop music has closed the door on folk music with it's sensitivity and conscience, that music has found its place in publishing. What maybe sold 100 copies as a CD sold a million copies as a book. I did four books of twelve folk songs each that are kind of a basic library of songs -- there's an illustration for the song, chords, and some commentary. My hope is that this kind of music reasserts itself into the lives of children, because I believe some of the things missing from our culture is singing together and music. I feel the role of music in the Civil Rights movement and other movements that have come along is enormous. Just the simple idea of creating community through music is a basic principle of the Don't Laugh At Me campaign. So, I think there's a real link between the books, the Don't Laugh At Me program, and the legacy of Peter, Paul & Mary.
MR: Many remember those powerful pictures of Peter, Paul & Mary alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., reminders of how determined you all were during that period as activists.
PY: It was certainly one of my, and the group's, proudest moments, if not the proudest. There was also the Selma to Montgomery March and trips to the Philippines to celebrate successful revolution. Most important, in my opinion, are the movement appearances that we did then. You have to understand that today, I've been singing at all of the "Occupy" protests because that movement has continuity. These efforts that are surrounding us are very much a part of that same vision that we shared in August of '63 when Dr. King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. When I go to these protests today, it's the same vision -- it's about being humane, fair, equitable and just. The essence of the "Occupy" movement is not about just changing one law so that you don't have the collusion between big business' interest and wealth and the creation of the laws of the land. That's only because the people that are elected by that wealth are then beholden to the people who paid for all of their television advertisements. If we look at the big turning point in the Republican primaries, for instance, where Newt Gingrich apparently got these five million dollar gifts -- we have to stop and ask ourselves if this is really the functioning of democracy. Why are the people with all of the wealth solely the ones determining how this country is run? The wealth of this country continues to be distributed more and more inequitably -- greater and greater wealth being amassed by some, and the rest of the people losing ground in very critical ways. Then there is the recession that everyone expects our president to fix, and yet he is blockaded at every turn. People in Congress are acting like bullies and doing everything they can to destroy this president. They expect him to fix the economy when we were bankrupted by a war that should never have been fought -- it was based on a lie. There were no weapons of mass destruction. We have become so crazy blind.
MR: Many would say that perhaps we've been living in a period of extreme cynicism.
PY: Right. The day after 9/11, the president said we were a nation at war. We weren't a nation at war until he made us a nation at war and sent us into Iraq. We had endured a terrible terrorist attack, and believe me, in Israel and Palestine, they know the difference between enduring a terrorist attack and being at war. But he leveraged that attack so that he could instill fear in Americans and no one would question his policies. That devastated America on many levels. Even though we had eight years of George W. Bush, we know that it wasn't even due to any sort of electoral decision -- it was a Supreme Court decision that was extraordinarily out of line.
MR: Then, four years later, there was that dubious Ohio count.
PY: Yes. There was an article in Rolling Stone that said that even that was a fallacious count. We had two four-year terms that have decimated the reputation of the United States in other countries and we've injured ourselves terribly. The costs, both moral and financial to this country, have been overwhelming. And what did we accomplish? There are bad people overturning tyrants all over the world, and if we decide to take on everything, in the end, all we get is hatred from other countries, because we have, in the process of making those decisions, done horrific things around the world. We don't reflect on that. We think that if the U.S. did it, it must be justified. It just doesn't work that way. What about the apology to Guantanamo Bay detainees? What about the 7th and 9th Wards in New Orleans? There are places in Iraq that have been deemed unsafe to have children because of the amount of radiation that exists there now. We have to acquire the reflectiveness and the decency to understand that as great a nation as we are, we are still extremely flawed. We have to do something to make amends for that.
MR: And I know that you all shared very similar views and passions about the world as Peter, Paul & Mary. Speaking of Mary, are you still affected by the loss of Mary Travers?
PY: Of course. Every time I sing, I feel her presence. I still sing "Leaving On A Jet Plane" at my concerts and I invite the audience to sing Mary's part. I'll always still sing our songs -- I won't stop singing "Puff, The Magic Dragon" or reminiscing about all of those times. I will also be keeping people like you up to date on the fact that this kind of music is important in our society and history. We need children growing up learning how to sing this music, sing together, and create an environment that fosters acceptance in one another rather than teasing and rejecting those that are different from us.
MR: Do you think that Peter, Paul & Mary would have a vision or cause, in addition to Operation Respect, that you all would have been united on?
PY: Sure. We would have a united front about the destructiveness of big business and the destruction of the democratic process. We would have strong feelings about the "Occupy" demonstrations. We would be very much untied in the belief that part of what has to happen is that children need to be educated in their hearts. There is an education paradigm in America that is so focused on the academics and that's wrong and destructive. We have to nurture the whole child in order for them to become a whole human being. We have to teach them to take care of each other, respect each other, and respect themselves. We need to instill in them a natural feeling of obligation to contribute to society. I could go on and on, but we would be united in all of that, I think. Adults are stuck in a very terrible gridlock -- we need a following generation that's moral, caring and humane. And hopefully, they will inspire the older and younger generations to be the same.
MR: Great. What advice would you give to a new artist?
PY: Don't try to follow the winds of popular taste and style. Follow what inspires you. Think of your art as something that first and foremost expresses your sensibilities, then you'll be an artist and the value and content are yours. But if you're trying to write to be successful or paid to sell your art, you won't have much to say. That's just not the way it works.
MR: Beautiful. Thanks so much for joining us today and I hope to talk to you again soon.
PY: Thanks so much for having me.
Transcribed by Evan Martin
A Conversation with Geographer's Michael Deni
Mike Ragogna: Your new album is titled Myth. Can you go into the concept of "myth" as it relates to the project?
Mike Deni: I'm more concerned with myths in the traditional sense as opposed to concrete misconceptions. The album explores the myth that people live by examples of what is possible, and not instructive stories to help them cope with the inexplicable.
MR: Myth follows your album Innocent Ghost and the Animal Shapes EP. How do you feel the group has evolved over the course of the three projects?
MD: Innocent Ghosts was a pure expression of feeling, and we had basically just met each other when we made it, still getting to know each other as people and musicians. Animal Shapes was an attempt to reach out and move an audience, our first real try at crafting songs thoughtfully, but we still hadn't really toured that much. By the time we went in to record Myth, we knew what it was like to be a band, we had the confidence of a record deal waiting for us, and we were determined to make something we thought was real and true.
MR: Are you playing SXSW this year?
MD: We are. It's my favorite time of year, and it lands right in the middle of our first tour for the new record. We're very excited!
MR: How come no one ever attends that event? Do you think SXSW will ever catch on?
MD: Young people don't like the sun. Or loud music. Never have, never will.
MR: What was it like working with producer Eli Crews and Chris Zane?
MD: Eli, to me, is like a fatherly scientist. It gets a little intense in there, and he was an extremely soothing and sage-like figure to guide us out of the labyrinth. We told him what we wanted to do and then sat around getting extremely excited about how to do it. He wanted to know what the songs were about before we did anything, and that helped the vision for each song be established from the first note or drum hit. Chris Zane's work style is completely different from mine. "Don't overthink it" hangs on a sign in between his speakers. And, well, I overthink it. So, it was a very fruitful struggle between my desire to control everything -- which I am constantly trying to squelch -- and accepting the way things turn out, to let them breathe. Control constricts and this is a very wide-open record, I think, largely due to Chris Zane's prowess and philosophy.
MR: Do any of the songs on Myth have any outrageous stories connected with them, either in the creative or recording processes?
MD: By outrageous do you mean waking up at a reasonable hour every day, having a nice breakfast, and going to the studio, 'cause that's pretty much how it went down. As for nerdy, I did occupy the vocal booth with about six synthesizers for a few days, and I decided that was where I wanted to be buried.
MR: Considering your musical style, what is Nathan Blaz, Brian Ostreicher's, and your view of "pop" music these days?
MD: These days, it's easier than ever not only to make a record, but to become popular. The one downside is that listeners don't expect or need music to last for more than a few weeks, because their favorite blog is going to tell them about another undiscovered gem. It seems like nobody's here to stay. In the old days, there were assuredly some less than amazing bands that people went through like candy. But the fact that you couldn't record an album without a record deal and you couldn't get a record deal without polishing your live show and honing your writing was one of the things that made bands better than they are now. Many of my favorite bands have come out of the DIY culture. But I think I feel a little oversaturated when I go over a friend's house and they say, "I love the new ____" and then they're not listening to it the next time I see them. What happened to being obsessed? That's what I miss. There's a desire to always find the new, to seek innovation over truth. It's always been like that. But people are extremely creative, and I think we're selling bands short by not demanding more of them.
MR: What's your advice to new artists?
MD: I'm not really in any position to give anyone advice. If you love playing music, keep playing it.
MR: After recording an album such as Myth, is there really any reason to ever record again?
MD: Haha! Yes. Every album is a stab towards some obscure, unattainable truth, and unless we use something else to cover the hole that the lack of that truth leaves, we will need to keep making albums.
1. Life of Crime
2. The Myth of Youth
5. Lovers Game
6. The Dream Has Faded
7. Shell Beach
8. The Boulder
A Conversation With Rosie Thomas
Mike Ragogna: Your new album, With Love, is a very sensitive collection. What inspired you to be this revealing with your material this time out?
Rosie Thomas: I think I'm a pretty revealing, transparent gal. I wear my heart on my sleeve in my music life and in my personal life, so nothing new under the sun for me here. I can't write any other way, really. My whole hope is to impact others so I can't hold back, somebody's gotta shout it out. Somebody's gotta admit to it so that others can relate, so i'm the girl for the job! There's nothing I love more than getting real with people. My brother once asked me on tour what was my perfect idea of heaven, I said without hesitating, "One-on-one conversations with people," and he started laughing. If we met at a party, I'd be the girl in the corner having a heart to heart with someone while techno music is blaring in the background. I'm always looking for meaning and chances to connect with someone, even in the moments when we're supposed to be dancing and even if there's some dude bonging a beer beside me. I can block it out if I see a chance for a good heart to heart, I'm in! By the way, not sure the last time I've been around someone "bonging a beer" or listening to techno for that matter? Oh nevermind, it was yesterday at the Jersey Shore.
MR: (laughs) A very lyrical, and I'm assuming autobiographical song is "2 Birds." Can you go into that period of your life... you were 19, right?
RT: Correct! It was really the first time I was leaving home for good. It was all so bittersweet, because I knew how excited I was to go and chase my dreams and explore what life had in store for Rosie, but I knew how it hurt the ones I had to leave behind too. There's always loss with gain. My favorite line in that song is, "I remember my father in the driveway, I could tell that he was putting on his brave face for me," because I can still see my father's face holding back tears and not wanting to let me go but instead he cheered me on as we pulled out of the driveway on our way to the unknown. Still gets me teary eyed when I think of it.
MR: "In Time" is another song that seems extremely personal to you. What's the story behind this one?
RT: Why, a break-up, of course. My brother kept reminding me, one summer, how time heals all wounds, so I wrote a song about the longing for time to hurry up and pass along so I could be free from the hurt. Most often in life, we want time to go slow or we think there's never enough time in one day... during that season, I longed for life to go in fast-forward to a time that I could finally feel like myself again. "Hurry up day," I thought. "Hurry up hour. I'm counting on you to hurry up here, so that I can get to feelin' better!" Though I know that there are many other factors that come into play when it comes to letting go, time is the one thing that we can count on because with time, new memories are made that replace the old and with time, growth comes alongside perspective, and with time and prayer comes healing. And with all of that, comes a new song... check!
MR: "Where Was I" has a pretty universal theme we all can relate to. But looking at that song at this point in your life, do you know where you were then?
RT: I was in Seattle living in a basement. The first time I ask where was I, I was in Seattle auditioning for theater school; the second time I ask and the last time I ask, "Where was I," I was a kid living down a gravel road in Michigan, probably playing with my brothers in the ravine and getting my hands dirty.
MR: You have Iron & Wine's Sam Bean, Pedro The Lion's David Bazan, and The Posies' Blake Wescott appearing as guests on the project. What was it like working in the studio with them? Any stories, touching or goofy, about the recording process in general?
RT: The stories are endless. Two come to mind right now. The first time Sam and I played one of my songs that we just finished up recording for his wife and kids, we were dancing to one of my songs. Never thought I'd see that! That whole moment was just so beautiful and when the song ended, the kids yelled, "Play it again, daddy!" and we did and danced some more. The second that comes to mind was the time in the studio when Bazan and Blake kept pushing me to sing out, and I did vocal take after vocal take and finally, Bazan came running into the vocal booth and showed me his arm. His arm hairs were standing straight up and he looked teary eyed and he said, "Now I believe you."
The ones that really stand out are the times that I felt so encouraged by the friends I had around me pushing me to do my best. Sam and Dave and Blake all had one thing in common -- they had my best at heart and I trusted every challenge they set before me, because I was in the company of friends that I knew cared a great deal about me and knew that I was capable of more.
MR: Not to get too personal, but is your thyroid condition a problem these days?
RT: Not really. I still have to have it tested from time to time to make sure my numbers are good. It's something I'm more conscious of than I'd like to be only because if things are off, it can make me feel pretty lousy. Because the thyroid controls the adrenal glands -- our fight or flight mechanism -- if it goes out of whack, it can fill you with unexplained anxiety and that can be quite crippling. You certainly don't want to feel like that as a performer. Whatever I went through, though it bummed me out a bit, it did reveal to me that what really matters in life are the simple things. Everything else is just bonus. It just makes the good days even greater to me now. Hard seasons do pass, and somehow, we do get through them and we do come out stronger for it, honest, and with a deeper compassion for others, so I can dig it.
MR: Who are your musical influences and who's your greatest personal hero?
RT: Yikes, there are so many. Here are some that popped out of my head first: Joni Mitchell, so beautiful; Bette Midler, she has guts; Stevie Wonder, he sings from his gut; Dolly Parton, she sparkles; The Innocence Mission, Rufus Wainwright, Patti Griffin, Carole King, Judy Collins, The Jackson 5, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tori Amos... my parents. They taught me that playing music was a way to mend the heart and bring joy to people.
Hero? There have been so many throughout my life. My teacher in college who told me to quit school and go after what I loved, and I did; my mother for teaching me not to sweat the small stuff or I'll miss out on this beautiful life; my father for teaching me that all I have to do is be me and that music can be played anywhere; Larry Larson who plays music every weekend at the Gaelic League in Detroit for locals and feels famous; my brother Brian for sticking right by my side during a really hard time; this man named Eddie I met once that said, "Rosie, you will find a way to do it all in your very own way." Another teacher in college that said, "You will know what you are good at by the confirmation you get from others," so I paid attention; my friend Mary, who reminds me to look for joy despite the circumstance. When I was a little girl, I was sure my hero was the ice cream man that came down our street to bring me push up pops! It really changes for me day to day. Yesterday it was Tina Fey, the day before that, it was the guy on the subway that gave up his seat for me, the day before that, it was the woman at the doctor's office who just lost her house but still smiled at me, and today, it's my husband for all that he does and how well he loves and cares for me every single day.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RT: Whatever you do, don't compromise yourself. The world needs "you" not "someone you think they will like" and if you believe that, you cannot fail. I've always said I wouldn't want anyone but myself to walk in these shoes of mine. They're not as comfortable as you might think, but what I do desire for people is that they are cozy in their own pair. The world needs more heart, less self-indulgence. If you are doing it with your whole heart, you will win either way and it won't matter to you how big it gets or how little. You're just joyful it matters and you're joyful for just doing it at all.
When I first played shows with my father, they felt just as important to me as the shows I play now. That's how badly I want to share, that's how strongly I feel about this being my "one true calling," and it's enough for me that it impacts anyone. It's just gotta be or my heart's in the wrong place, because it would never be enough if I thought about it any other way. My grandfather, for instance, loves me and thinks I have a pretty voice, but he wishes that I played country music because that's all he listens to. I have a friend that only listens to doom metal and that's cool, but my music might not be his cup o' tea. Point is, there are a bazillion people on this planet, and all you have to worry about are finding the ones that love and relate to you. Takes the pressure off, I'd say! It occurred to me one day on tour that I felt a bigger responsibility than just singing and playing and doing my comedy bits. I wanted to engage with the audience, not just entertain them. I do that by sharing my heart up there -- the things that I struggle with -- in hopes that I am serving someone by saying something they might need to hear. The last thing I desire is to be put on any sort of pedestal, that's yucky. So, I avoid that by choosing to be real... nothin but. That makes me way more comfortable, and I hope it makes people feel better knowing that we are all really the same. No biggie, they have their way of impacting and I have mine, and mine just happens to put me on a stage. And if it put me in a living room or a cubicle -- that would surely be awkward and uncomfortable -- I'd still do it with the same heart.
Don't be in a hurry. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. There's a book I love called Hope For The Flowers. It's about two caterpillars striving to get to the top of a caterpillar pillar -- tongue twister -- and when they finally "get to the top," they find nothing. Zip, zilch. There's so much more to the story, but I think about that often, how we are so driven to climb yet lazy in our walk because were in such a hurry, and so willing to compromise to "get there," yet where is "there"? Isn't where we are the "there?" Great, now I'm sounding like Dr. Seuss. I'll say it simpler: You are right where you are supposed to be and it's up to you to see that as good enough. If it's not enough, you gotta get your perspective right and your head back on straight. Stick to who you are, do not go down the ugly path of comparing and you'll find your confidence, because no one can do what you are doing better than you! YOU are your biggest asset you see. Isn't that comforting? Woo-hoo! And when you are being you, that grabs peoples attention. Don't strive to fit in, strive to fit where you belong and you'll be much happier. Giving is the key to happiness, so don't get so caught up on you. Get caught up on what your way of contributing might be. That's real. That's refreshing. That's the ticket!
MR: What are your immediate plans for the future?
RT: Practice makes perfect, so immediate plans are to practice, and I guess that makes my long-term plans to be perfect? Cool, no pressure.
1. Where Was I
2. Over the Moon
3. In Time
4. Like Wildflowers
5. Two Worlds Collide
6. 2 Birds
7. Is This Love
8. Back to Being Friends
9. A Really Long Year
10. Sometimes Love