1. I understand that the producer of There Is No Calamity, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, selected the songs for the album from a collection of 53 demos. It seems to me that choosing the songs for an album is a personal artistic choice—was it difficult to surrender that control? Do you think that the album would have turned out much differently if you’d chosen the songs yourself?
Yes indeed, choosing one’s songs is a very personal choice and selecting them on my own 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.
In terms of this being a different record than what it would have been had I chosen all the songs —let’s just say it’s radically different. The way I’d characterize Steve’s choices might be to say that he went for songs that were more melodically adventurous; most of them had bridges, modulations, and sing-able 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.
2. “245th Peace Song” feels like a very immediate, timely song. Did you write it in response to current events or more general concerns?
I’ve found that most everything I do is a response to a specific moment, or a specific conversation. 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. I felt that even though it wasn’t overtly politically (it’s actually much more of a reflective song) it seemed a little too “on the nose.” Steve felt otherwise, and made a strong case for its inclusion on the record. I’m glad that I took his lead.
3. Which song on There Is No Calamity is your favorite?
This is always a hard one to answer for any record I put out. 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.
4. You ran a Kickstarter campaign late last year to raise money for There Is No Calamity, your second Kickstarter in three years. Has your experience with these campaigns been positive? Is this something you’d consider doing in the future?
I’ve run two at this point and they’ve been very successful for me, both in terms of off-setting the costs of making and putting out a record in these times —and notice I said “off-setting the costs.” 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?’ 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 for 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.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the core players on There Is No Calamity and to express my gratitude, not only for their exquisite playing on the record, but for their very presence in my life. In no particular order: Matt Thompson on bass. He’s as fine a musician and as you will find anywhere on the planet. Chuck Lacy on drums. He’s from the Chicago’s South Side, grown up in the Church and his groove is so strong and pure. Scott Tipping on guitar. The man is a Monk of the Blues along with hundreds of other styles of guitar playing. Kristin Mooney, Claire Holley, and Willie Aron on backing vocals. Not only do they sing like amazingly well, they are all first rate musicians and writers in their own right.
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.
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. 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.
5. You wrote in an essay entitled The Rhythm of Intention in November 2016 which read in part: “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?” How does your new album help answer those questions, or how does it fit with the answers you have already developed?
I want to point out that I rarely work with a plan. 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, 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 to 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.
6. What would you like people to take away from There Is No Calamity?
Peter Himmelman is 57 years old and still making good music, the world is a place of possibility, and our role as human beings is to do our best to bring that possibility to light.