AN ILLUMINATING CHAT WITH THE FABULOUS J.D. SOUTHER


This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST

MIKE RAGOGNA: J.D., since the title of your new album is NATURAL HISTORY, may we start with a little history lesson about you and your career?

JD SOUTHER: We don’t really have to do that. My version of my history seems to digress and ramble all over the place.

MR: (laughs) Aw, now we really do have to.

JD: (laughs) I started playing violin when I was seven and then clarinet at 10, tenor sax at 11, then drums at 12. Drums to this day are the thing that I’m really good at. Then piano and after I went to college, it was drums, drums, drums. I loved it and I was a jazz kid my whole life. Then when I went to California someone left an acoustic guitar in the apartment and I didn’t know how to play it. And I had all ready been writing poetry, so I decided to pick it up and give it a try and everything just seemed to work.

MR: So you merged your poetry with what you were working out on the guitar?

JD: Yeah.

MR: Eventually, you meet GLENN FREY and since you both are from Detroit, you guys bond and one of the things that grows of this friendship is LONGBRANCH PENNYWHISTLE.

JD: That’s right, the world’s first acid acoustic duo.

MR: (laughs) You must look back fondly on those times.

JD: Oh yeah! (laughs) They were absolutely joyous. We were really just kids and we owned nothing. I had an old Triumph motorcycle and a guitar and he had an old beat up Falcon and a guitar. We lived in this tiny apartment and we got to go wherever we wanted and play music. It was great. And then our friend JACKSON BROWNE moved out of the apartment below us. So we each had our own apartment and after that we all three got record deals so we each got little houses. (laughs)

So yeah, it was great. I generally thought of myself as being unsentimental and not the least bit naïve. But I think back then, I had a great deal of naïvete about how difficult it was to make it in the music industry. Back then, I never had a Plan B because I had been playing music since I was a kid.

MR: It’s interesting that as a kid, you listened to lots of jazz and grew into a jazzer.

JD: Yeah. Well, my dad was a big band singer, his mother was an opera singer and her parents were actually big Gilbert & Sullivan stars. So actually, I grew up listening to GERSHWIN, COLE PORTER, HAROLD ARLEN, RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN and so on. That was the music that I grew up listening to in my house. My dad was a huge big band and jazz fan and we both sort of enjoyed bebop. But man, it required so much skill to play it. And then there was cool jazz – the era that Miles, Coltrane and Ornette ushered in and that found a home in me. It turns out that that music was just really where I breathed.

MR: It’s no wonder you’re able to write such melodic and passionate songs. So, someone left a guitar in your apartment and you met GLENN and began writing with him, right?

JD: Actually, on that first album, I think he and I only wrote one, possibly two songs together. We were both obviously singing and playing each other’s songs, but we hadn’t actually become a writing unit at that point. The thing is, when I got to California, my formative year was 1969. In 69, we hung out at THE TROUBADOUR BAR the whole year and every great songwriter you can think of in the past 30 years passed through that bar that year. We saw JONI MITCHELL, NEIL YOUNG, ELTON JOHN, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, the unbelievable LAURA NYRO, JUDEE SILL, GENE CLARK, TIM HARDIN, JAMES TAYLOR, CAROLE KING…

I can hardly think of a songwriter that’s prominent in the last 40 years that didn’t come through THE TROUBADOUR that year. So we had the best songwriting university ever. That really was the thing that moved me off of the tenuous spot that I was on between all of these fields of music that I grew up with and made me realize that what DUKE ELLINGTON said was true: “There are only two kinds of music; good music and bad music.”

MR: So, was that a catalyst for a revised style of California country rock?

JD: Well, you also have to realize that the sound of the music also has a lot to do with what the craze is at the time. You know, I wasn’t around for the folk scare of the 60s. (laughs) But I was a part of the country rock addiction in the 70s. So I imagine that when I moved to California, if the men and women my age were still playing jazz, I would have still been playing tenor sax and drums. But everybody had guitars and they are so much easier to carry than a drum set. And you can’t put a piano on the back of a Triumph motorcycle no matter how hard you try.

So the fact that I could just get a strap for my guitar case and go and play a gig was, believe it or not, a big part of my musical development because it was what I could carry. So because I couldn’t play it very well, I had to invent things – some of which I didn’t find out what they were called until 30 years later. I would just find something on the neck of the guitar and play it. I had no idea what those chords were in the bridge of PRISONER IN DISGUISE when I wrote them. I had to go over to Don Gorman the piano player and ask what in the world I was playing. And he’d tell me he didn’t know, but he thought it was beautiful and he’d help me figure it out.

So, as PASCALE said: “An artist’s style is defined by his/her limitations.” It really is! That was just the style that was available to me at the time. My secret heroes were JOE MORELLO, RAY CHARLES who is, in my opinion, the most dominant figure in musical history in the 21st Century and FRANK SINATRA. Those are my heroes. And as a writer when BOB DYLAN came along it was a miracle because he gave us all permission to say anything! And I don’t mean that in a bad, loose vernacular way. I mean you can address any subject in a song now.

Stand up comedians say that anyone in the audience can be funny, but people paid to see us because we’re just a little bit funnier. In the same way I think anybody can play music – in fact I think everyone has music in them, but some of us can do it a little better. So we have to drag ourselves through airports and such travelling and that’s stuff is not any fun. But the two hours that we get to spend on stage playing music is really really fun.

MR: When you look at your catalogue, the sheer volume of songs that you’ve written and that people have covered, what are your thoughts?

JD: Well, I have to preface this question by letting you know that I am probably the least nostalgic person that you will ever meet. I always think that today is the best day that there’s ever been. The song that I’m working on is always the best song I’ve ever written. The woman I’m looking at is the most incomprehensibly beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. These dogs that I have now are, by far, the best dogs I’ve ever had – although, so were the last pair of dogs I had. (laughs) I always think it’s about living in the present because I don’t think you can do good work if your head is lingering in the past.

MR: Getting back to NATURAL HISTORY…As you revisit some of your older catalog, the reinterpretations of the songs on this album seem to be a reflection of how you see these songs now. Is that a fair assessment?

JD: That’s right.

MR: How did FAITHLESS LOVE and PRISONER IN DISGUISE come to LINDA RONSTADT’S attention?

JD: I was in my little piano room at the back of our apartment at two or three in the morning and I guess I woke LINDA up. So, she came down the hall and asked me what it was that I was playing and I was trying to write the bridge of FAITHLESS LOVE. I told her I thought it was gonna be a really great song but it’s kind of hopeless. I had a modulation going into the bridge and one coming right out of it and it seemed too crazy and I didn’t think it was gonna work. She said that she thought it was beautiful and she wanted to sing it.

MR: That’s great. And then, of course, there was GLEN CAMPBELL’S version that came out years later, which was one of his last big country hits.

JD: GLEN is a great singer and it was a completely different market and came out a reasonable amount of time after the other version. It was even nominated for a GRAMMY. He really made it a big record. The funny thing is the public memory seems to be that the hit came from LINDA’S version in the same way that people thought that DESPERADO was a hit for THE EAGLES, which just wasn’t the case. It’s just by virtue of accruing an audience that really liked those songs over the years and sort of made them into standards. Even though in their initial release, they weren’t singles or hits.

MR: Producer FRED MOLLIN, who also oversaw BARRY MANN’S SOUL & INSPIRATION and JIMMY WEBB’S TEN EASY PIECES remake albums, did a great job with you on your own revisit of your older work. Let’s talk about working with FRED and the musicians you used on this more intimate take on your older work.

JD: Well, those musicians are actually my band that I play with in various smaller combinations. Except on two songs, CHRIS WALTERS is on piano and VIKTOR KRAUSS is on bass and they travel with me all the time. And when he can, ROB McGAHA is on trumpet. He’s my regular trumpet player. JEFF COFFIN on saxophone, he’s my regular sax player. In addition, the guys that we brought in were great – BRIAN SUTTON on guitar on a couple of things and JOHN HOBBS played my exact same piano part on GO AHEAD & RAIN so that I could focus on singing and not have to play at the same time. So, yeah, they were great players…God, everybody played absolutely beautifully. I had some misgivings at first because I did not want to play my what I call blankety blank blank old songs and certainly not a whole album of them. (laughs)

FRED my producer followed me around for a year trying to get me to do this. He had all ready done the same thing with JIMMY WEBB and KRIS KRISTOFFERSON with wonderful finished products. Basically, the idea behind it was going back and recording those songs that you wrote that were hit songs for other artists so that when people hear them, they then associate them with you and your body of work and it also gives you a chance to see how far you’ve come through the years and think about how you would interpret those same songs now.

I fought it and fought it and fought it.

Then I listened to a FRANK SINATRA record called SINATRA AT THE SANDS and it’s FRANK and THE COUNT BASIE BAND with QUINCY JONES doing the charts. He does this amazing version of I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN and I thought to myself, “I’ve heard at least two other Sinatra versions of this song.” So, I went through my personal record collection and found four completely different cuts of that song. One was all the way from the late 30s when the song had a sort of BEGIN THE BEGUINE beat, all the way to this incredible heart pounding double brass section that FRANK also did in the late 50s or early 60s.

I began to realize that there was nothing wrong with reinterpreting your own songs and that it was OK…and just about the time that I was almost convinced, CHUCK MITCHELL from the record company told me that I couldn’t say no to this project. He asked me how many artists get the opportunity to record an album of their own standards and that made me feel really old. But he told me to get over that because I was a part of the American songbook now. So they asked me if I did any of those songs now, would I do them, how would I change them and how I feel about them in 2011 and that sort of opened the door to me revisiting these songs.

Then we started recording and the album started terribly. I had been the producer for myself for 25 years and I was grumpy and kind of impossible about the whole thing. I still feel bad for all of those artists that were playing with me for the first two or three days. (laughs) And then it finally dawned on me that this was such a breathtaking opportunity and I began to get excited. Then we all got the flu right before the holidays. (laughs) It was just like that old BING CROSBY song. Everybody was home sick…I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it was gross.

Everybody was home sick through the holidays, sessions fell apart, we had to stop because I lost my voice and one piano player left town – it was just a scrambled mess. Then I had one of those moments of clarity that you sometimes get when you’re sick and things just sort of crystallized. I thought to myself that this new project was really a chance for me to repay my debt and pay tribute to all of that music I listened to as a kid…I get to make a crooner album. I actually just got to go in and sing my prettiest songs, or at least half of them. The list that people kept coming back to me with was about 25 songs long, so there will probably be a part two to this album.

MR: Nice…because I was going to ask about WHITE RHYTHM & BLUES, one of my favourite JD Souther songs.

JD: Yeah, we missed a lot of them. We missed HEARTACHE TONIGHT and HER TOWN TOO, THE LAST IN LOVE and VICTIM OF LOVE. But I think for this one, we got the best of them and especially stuff that fits the way I’m playing now and the musicians I’m playing with now. The confidence to do this album, for me, really came from spending the last two years on the road with these kinds of musicians playing these songs and also some older ones, because we are batshit crazy on stage. The last time we played in Memphis, we opened with a FATS WALLER song and at the merchandise table later, people kept asking, “You know that new song of yours that you opened with?” I’d have to explain to them that it was actually written in 1916. But I thanked them anyway and told them that I was so glad they enjoyed it. (laughs)

MR: So in a way, you’re educating folks by doing that and your album of revisits almost serves that purpose as well. It’s kind of a dilemma. With so much music being constantly released, a lot of the classics of the past are getting lost. I mean, how does one keep up, you know?

JD: You don’t! The numbers are too huge. I mean, the first year that I put out an album, there were about 1,000 others released as well. And in 2009, there were 115,000 albums released. It’s pretty diluted.

MR: I also wanted to talk about THE EAGLES’ BEST OF MY LOVE and THE SAD CAFE which are two of my favorites by the group. How did your relationship with them come about? I’m sure it started with your friendship with GLENN…By the way, I’ve always thought of you as the sixth EAGLE. (laughs)

JD: Yeah, when there were four of them, they used to call me the fifth EAGLE. (laughs) THE SAD CAFE is both a literal and metaphorical place. It was THE TROUBADOUR BAR and this Italian restaurant that was two doors down and we practically lived in both of those places because we had crap places to live in at home. As we made money, we were actually able to afford to eat well in the Italian restaurant. I think that that was where we realized that our innocence was irretrievably lost. That’s what that song is about. It was really the thematic window into this album because I had never sung that song before. I had never recorded it myself. I, of course, loved THE EAGLES’ recording of it. It was absolutely breathtaking. But I really wanted to get in there and make the song small as if it were only talking to one other person.

MR: JD, of course, there are so many songs on NATURAL HISTORY that were recorded by other artists, but you feature your own hits as well, YOU’RE ONLY LONELY being one of your best known. Is there a story behind the song?

JD: There is, actually. It’s a very short but very instructive story. I actually wrote it many years before I recorded it. I wrote it in Colorado one winter. This may sound insane to you because you live in a place where it gets cold. But I lived in Southern California then and I would get so hot and bored during the summer that I couldn’t wait for the winter to come so that I could move to Colorado and live in this little cabin on a ridge. I stayed snowed in most of the time and wrote most of my songs there. I wrote that one for a girl that I was seeing at the time who was flying in to Colorado to see me.

She always seemed to be creating these very intricate webs of detail around what were basically simple human problems, such as: “You’re only lonely. There’s nothing else wrong with you. You’re not crazy and your family’s not abusive. Your career is great. You’re beautiful. Everything’s fine! You’re just lonely.”

So I wanted to write her this song to send her home with and it’s just two verses with a refrain line at the end of each verse. When we began recording the album that became YOU’RE ONLY LONELY, the working title was WHITE RHYTHM & BLUES, which, obviously, was not a popular title with the record company. At one point, I was playing WADDY WATCHEL all of these songs – I write slow songs and dirges anyway, I have the slowest approach to tempo imaginable–and he told me that I had to have something that was a little bit more up tempo.

I told him that I had one but it wasn’t really finished yet because it didn’t have a bridge or a chorus…Hell, it didn’t even have a last verse. There wasn’t much to it at all. But it was catchy and it was pretty and it was pure. Anyway, I played him the song and he slapped his head and said, “That’s it! That’s your single!” And I explained to him again that it didn’t even have a last verse and he told me to just sing the first verse again. So I did…and that’s how it all happened. (laughs)

MR: Now I have to ask even though it’s not on this newest album. One of your more topical singles was HER TOWN TOO, which was your duet with JAMES TAYLOR. Everyone had their own theories regarding what it was about, including me. But I would love to hear what’s really happening in that one. (laughs)

JD: Absolutely not! No. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) OK. Bluntly put, was it the JAMES TAYLOR/CARLY SIMON breakup song?

JD: No, absolutely not! It has nothing to do with CARLY. It was written about something else. JAMES, WADDY and I were hanging out at my house, which is what guys like us did in the 80s. Then WADDY said that since there weren’t any girls there, we should all write a song and JAMES and I kind of looked at him dumbly and asked what it should be about. So WADDY tossed some ideas out and we started singing lines back and forth to each other.

It was literally written about the same way that it sounds on the album – I’d sing a line and he’d respond or vice versa. And I have to say, for a record that did really well and that people really did like, that was the easiest song to write. It was just a conversation between JAMES and I about a situation that we knew. It’s not about CARLY at all. CARLY was neither mentioned, implied, nor was she the origin of that song. All the other events took place way later than that.

MR: Cool. Understood. But you can see why people might misunderstand, right?

JD: I can. It’s OK though because when NEW KID IN TOWN came out, people asked me for two years after that if it was about BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Of course it’s not. It’s just about older guys in general losing their jobs to the kids that are coming up behind us. I actually started that song sitting in a Mexican restaurant, which is why it sounds the way it does on this new album. It began as a much more Tex Mex sounding piece of music. I had the chorus in my head for about a year, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Where could I go with the story? It was like I knew what I meant but I couldn’t fill in all of the details.

So I played it for all my boys and DON and GLENN just said, “Yeah, man. That’s the one. Let’s go to work on it.” So we made this story and again it was sort of a call and response kind of collaboration with each other. It was very competitive, but still very supportive of each other. We wanted the message to get across and be taken seriously. This was a song that we wanted to last 50 years. Not five weeks, you know?

MR: Yeah…and it’s yet another EAGLES song that is definitely most memorable.

JD: It seems like it. I’ll tell you something. The list of songs that are on this album, with the exception of LITTLE VICTORIES – which is actually the theme of the album – the rest of the songs are pretty much the ones that are most requested. But NEW KID IN TOWN was a great piece that was the result of my collaboration with two great writers: DON HENLEY and GLENN FREY. But that song never would have been fleshed out to the dimensions it has without those two guys. We all made each other better writers. In my opinion, working with those two guys gave me the confidence to be more of a singer as well.

MR: That’s great. Now you’re not only a singer, you’re also an actor who’s been in several projects. Like, weren’t you on THIRTYSOMETHING for a bit?

JD: Yeah. I was on for about five episodes or something.

MR: Yeah…and you were also in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE?

JD: Yup, I was. I played MERYL STREEP’S friend. And I was also in – and bear with me until I get to the end of this – I was in a sci fi cowboy movie with SAM SHEPARD and ERIC ROBERTS called PURGATORY. It was really fun! And it’s also rentable and Netflixable. I just watched it again the other night! It’s just silly as can be and so wonderful.

MR: You’re also working on a new film that’s coming out soon.

JD: We finished it actually. We shot it in the winter at just about the same time as I was recording this album. We had shooting days in between recording days and sick days. (laughs) It was really a tough winter this year. But it’s a wonderful movie called DEADLINE and it’s based on a book entitled GRIEVANCES by MAR ETHRIDGE. I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s just a great screenplay, based on a great novel, which was based on real events that happened right here, outside of Nashville. It’s about two murders that occur 20 years apart but they’re directly linked to each other. It’s a very interesting piece of work.

MR: Nice. With the amount of knowledge and experience that you’ve gained over your career, do you have any advice for new artists?

JD: I don’t think they’d take it. (laughs) I wouldn’t have. My dad once told me that I got where I was by ignoring everyone that ever gave me a piece of good advice. (laughs) It’s not really true because I took his advice often and the advice of a wonderful composition professor that I had in college whom I am still friends with. Career wise, I think things have changed so much since I started.

You have to remember when I first started trying to get a record deal, I was so in awe of the standards of the things I was hearing on the radio that I was a bit overwhelmed. First off, every artist had to fit through the keyhole that was guarded by record executives and that’s not necessarily the case any more. So for me to get in at all was so surprising.

The point is: I no longer know what the ground rules are for new artists. I don’t think anyone has yet figured out the paradigm or model for success that even has a remote chance of succeeding continually. It’s obvious that anything that doesn’t cost you a lot of money and spreads virally works in your favour. But it’s also obvious that you can spend a fortune on promotion and recording and everything and still flop or be eclipsed by someone who was the flavour of the week on AMERICAN IDOL. The rules have all changed. There’s no way to be sure about it. But there is a way to be pure about it and that is to absolutely reject things that don’t feel true to you.

What I said before about your style being defined by your limitations is true. But if you’re really doing the best you can, the thing that will emerge through that permeable cloth of limitations will be your style.

MR: Very wise words, sir. This has been terrific and again best of luck with your new album NATURAL HISTORY. You’re going out on tour to support it, right?

JD: That’s right. We’ll be going out the week after the album is released.

MR: Well, you’ll have to come back sometime to talk again. Maybe even about NATURAL HISTORY VOLUME II.

JD: Oh yeah. That’d be great. Thanks, Mike.

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