A new interview with Jackson Browne who appears today on the Crossroads Stage at Bluesfest.
By Brian Wise.
Addicted To Noise: Well, Jackson Browne, welcome back to Australia.
Thank you. It’s great to be back here.
Let’s talk about your latest band and the repertoire we can expect, because this is going to go to air before your concert in Melbourne. I’m sure people are going to want to know who’s in the band. You’ve got someone … Well, they’re all special. You’ve got someone that’s very special playing guitar.
Greg Lease is kind of the most sought after player in rock or country. He plays with Bill Frisell. He was in Eric Clapton’s band. He’d played with k.d. lang. He produced the last two Lucinda Williams’ albums. He’s a great musician. I’m fortunate to have him for the time being in my band. He’s great. He’s really a very big influence in the way these songs on this last, this recent album Standing in the Breach, in the way they got played, was very much based on the fact that we had him available.
The band is Greg. On this tour we have Shane Fontayne playing guitar. We played with him in Europe too. Bob Glaub playing the bass, and Mauricio ‘Fritz’ Lewak playing drums. Jeff Young playing piano and organ. Alethea Mills singing. It’s really kind of the latest incarnation of a band that’s really been sort of … Has been my band for a while. Particularly great….. because Greg and I are actually from the same place. He’s a little younger than me, and he played … He went to the same high school. We knew a lot of the same friends growing up. We didn’t play together then. He was in a band called the Funky Kings.
Love that band. With Jules Shear.
With Jules Shear and Richard Stekol and Jack Tempchin. He was a guitar player in that band. Funny, because I just sang a Richard Stekol song from the Funky Kings called ‘My Old Pals.’ I sang it at the memorial for Glenn Frey. It was the day after the Grammys. We had a family. His family had a memorial for him. The Eagles played. I played, and Greg … Henley wanted to sing this Funky Kings song. We got Greg to come play it because I can get him. It was like … He was really amazing because … When I listen to this song, this was a song that was made in the ’70s, probably around the time that my The Pretender was made. Right around that time.
He plays now the way he played then. To put it another way, he was that guy then too. I wish I had known it. In fact, I had David Lindley for quite a few of those years. He grew up admiring David Lindley too. He plays lap steel. He can play mandolin. He plays a lot of string instruments like pedal steel, which David doesn’t play. As a multi-instrumentalist, he’s perfect for my band. Not only able to play the way some of these records were played initially, but also just bringing a whole new sensibility that is his, that makes him one of the most sought after players in music today.
It’s exciting that we’re going to be seeing Greg playing with you. You’re sort of still promoting Standing in the Breach.
We aren’t doing that here. We’re pretty much at the end of having played. We played that record. I will keep those songs in the playlist for a while. There are some songs we haven’t even started doing. We start out by doing about seven. For the last year, we’ve been playing about seven from that album. I don’t know how many we’ll play at these shows. What happens when you take a song into your repertoire, the song grows. Something happens, and the song continues getting developed. We’ve really taken the same band that played, roughly the same band that played these songs, and continue to play them on tour. Then we also go find some old, deep cuts, you know? Some rarer things to play. Keep things lively.
What are the songs that you have to play? What are the songs in your repertoire that people get upset if you leave out? Do anybody-
Are you asking what are those songs?
What are those songs? There are songs that you have to play everynight.
I don’t know. I guess I should be say … I thought you were going to tell me which those songs were!
No, there are people that call. People come to my shows, they do call for songs. Sometimes they’ll call for a song all night long, and I won’t do it. Sometimes I’ll say, “Well, here’s a song they were calling for last night.” What songs you do is pretty much a combination of what you’ve come there prepared to do, and what you feel like doing in the moment.
Sometimes what someone calls for is a really good idea. Other times, somebody calls for something that is so like the song they just heard that you couldn’t do that one. It would just show how similar those two songs are from either the same key or the same instrumentation. Sometime their mind goes like the collective unconscious of an audience skips to the next thing that you do want to hear, that is the next place you want to go.
How many songs would you have to have prepared for the set? You’ll have a set list, but how many other songs would you have in the back of your mind that you might do depending on how you feel or what people say?
There are quite a few… We know a lot of songs. Sometimes the biggest thrill I can have is to call a song that the band really wasn’t planning to play or hasn’t played in a while.
Matter of fact on one occasion, a guy would not stop calling for this song. I even, I tried to get him to cut it out, like, “Stand down, don’t like … ” In between every song, and then he’d finally sort of silently holding up this sign and I think we have to do this song.
I looked at the stage. I realised there was the bass player that was there when we cut the song originally. There was a keyboardist that had played it the intervening years. Then there was the drummer and the guitarist that had been playing it recently. There were really differences in the way the song got played in all that time. We played it, even though I couldn’t really explain to each of these guys before we played it what’s different about. We just sort of … The next day we spent a while, and touched up everybody’s arrangement so that we … That song was ‘In the Shape of a Heart,’ which I think we pretty much know everything in the same way now.
I guess if people call for a song I haven’t done in a long time, I want to do it because I want to know what’s there. I want to know what’s in a person’s recollection of a song that may make it, may illuminate it, may make it new for me.
A lot of your songs mean a lot to people, don’t they? You would have had that response a lot.
Well, I’m hoping that are people listening the way I listen, which is to really be engaged, and to, and especially know … I’m a little spoiled because most of my audiences know the songs very well. It’s a matter of feeling them and summoning the emotion of the song as much as anything. If you just walk through a song, and it didn’t do anything for you, it’s probably going to be the same way for the audience. It’s a way of going through something together. It’s a way of experiencing these songs.
The audience themselves give us indications of that while they’re listening and in between songs. I’m far from being annoyed if people are yelling for a song I’m not going to do. I’m happy for the encouragement and for the acknowledgement.
You mentioned Glenn Frey, who you knew for many years, obviously in the early days of the LA, that LA scene. You had moved there. You wrote with him, of course, one of the classic songs of all time [‘Take It Easy’] from the West Coast. It’s kind of hard to believe that a guy like that’s no longer there, isn’t it?
Yeah, especially him, because he was such a larger-than-life personality. He was usually the biggest guy in any room that he walked into. In terms of their partnership, he and Don Henley, they really wrote together. We wrote this one song together, but it was really a song of mine that I had begun, and he wanted to do. Was happy to hear that I wasn’t going to finish it in time to get it on my first album. Then, was impatient that it wasn’t done yet for his. He finally offered to finish it.
I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I loved those guys. I loved the way they sing and the way they played. I didn’t think of them as the writers that they then became. He and Henley became great songwriters, a great songwriting team. The way that partnership worked really was that Glenn was the excited, the mercurial, the guy with like the bottomless enthusiasm. Henley was the guy who would like do the serious work of hammering those syllables together as the song got finished.
It’s not that he didn’t come up with any ideas either himself, but there was a marked difference in their energies. Think of them as the odd couple. The lovable slob, the over, you know, over enthusiastic … Ren & Stimpy. You can think of them as Ren & Stimpy. The other guy who would like, constantly cleaning up after you, that one.
They brought something great to their band that I think is … I think losing Glenn is, that’s pretty much it for that band. You can’t really replace that. They all could … They could go on and be a very different band. It would be okay. They’ve got Joe Walsh and Don Henley and Timothy Schmit. It could be … I even think that they should. I kind of think that they should. I don’t think that they will.
They could get JD [Souther] in.
JD would be a good choice. He sang ‘New Kid in Town.’ He sings so well. He’s singing better than ever, and he always was sort of the best singer in our group of friends. He’s really like in fine shape. Yeah, they could do that. They could be the kind of band that … Do you know about the Watkins Family Hour.
They’re a very eclectic group of friends who sing on each other’s songs, or play at each other’s gigs – Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz – Sarah, and Sean Watkins. They draw to them people who contribute a song or that maybe do one song. David Garza plays with them. They might get Jerry Douglas. You come to Nashville, and Jerry Douglas gets it. They have his attention. He’ll show up and play.
The Eagles could have that kind of band, if it weren’t for the one thing. That is that they’re meticulous planners. They like to have things completely note perfect. If you had a taste for the unexpected, a taste for something get done differently that night than it would ever be done again, for instance, as I do, then you’d have the most fun with that group. They’re all capable of it. They just don’t believe that that’s what they … They don’t put … Probably Don who probably wouldn’t be happy allowing this sort of disorder of that to be presented.
It must have been Don who wrote that memo to the hotel manager about which way the toilet paper should be rolled. It must have been Don.
Is that an urban myth? Which way is that?
I think it’s supposed to be rolled outwards.
I thought everybody knew that.
Apparently somebody didn’t.
The way we roll.
I think it’s David Lindley’s birthday today, you know? [March 21]
Lindley. I saw him the other night. It was just amazing. It was so great, and kind of astounding really. He sounded like musically more … He is more bad ass than he’s ever been. It was incredible what he was doing. Also, spitting-up funny.
He is hilarious.
He is like really funny. Every chance I can get to see him now I take. He’s always doing something unexpected. Always kind of refining and at the same time turning odd corners. I don’t think that there was a real guitar on that stage. I don’t think there was an actual guitar. I think it was either an Oud or a …
A Bouzouki, a Weissenborn or a Baritone, Weissenborn. There’s a guy that really takes the world in hand and shapes it to his will.
Fantastic player. The other thing that’s happening right now still is that President Obama is in Cuba. You very kindly sent me the book about Carlos Varela. You recorded his song Walls and Doors on Standing in the Breach. You’ve been to Cuba. You kind of championed this. You must have a sense of immense satisfaction to think that the first President in something like eighty-eight years is in Cuba.
Yeah, it’s incredible. It is an incredible moment, and one that everybody who loves Cuba is celebrating. You have to remember, of course, that it’s just an opening. It’s just the beginning of the process that has to continue. I think that the changes that have begun to happen are sort of immutable. They’ll stay in place, but whether they really grow, whether Cuba really gets the kind of entrance into the world, to the community of nations that would be good for it economically, or whether they continue to … In so doing, like revise their approach to human rights and the law remains to be … It’s something that you can only hope. We can hope.
I was listening to news coverage this morning. People, various expert commentators started saying that, “He hasn’t really demanded and made any demands that he’s gotten. He hasn’t really negotiated and gotten anything for it.” I think that those people lose sight of the fact that this is a country that’s very independent. They really … They’re super educated. They’re more educated than the people in the United States in general.
That is to say, more of them are educated than there are educated people in the United States. You see that they want the changes that we all hope will happen, that they will have a freer electoral process.
I can’t, as a citizen of the United States, can’t make the case to anybody, any country that they should have our form of democracy. Our democracy is extremely broken at the moment. I say extremely, maybe that’s just a redundancy. It’s broken. It’s not working. Right now, whoever’s got the most money has a very good chance at winning. Unless it were the reaction against that truth will produce the changes that we need to have happen in the populace, in the people themselves.
They have to be willing to think that, ‘My twenty-five dollar donation to my candidate of my choice is going to matter.’ That it’s not going to be the millions and millions that are being generated by rich donors for the other side are going to carry the day. We’ll see what happens here. The United Sates’ democracy cannot be championed as like, “You Cubans should have what we have.”
They did a lot to answer the needs of their people. In other words, they eradicated a kind of economic slavery that only the rich would be educated. They’ve educate … Their medical system is really first rate. They train doctors. They send doctors other parts in the word. They, of course don’t have the kinds of freedom that we have, which can be pointed to as some kind of shortcoming. Then they have all kinds of regulations that we don’t have. They produce much more beneficial changes for their people.
What’s happening now is the beginning. Obama’s detractors want to portray it as something that is not going to work, or he’s not really gotten anything. Nothing’s really changed. I think it really remains to be seen. I think the people there have always been … The people in Cuba who didn’t leave, the people who are patriots and who stay regardless of the … They may not be, and I know quite a few who are not down with the government. They can’t be called cheerleaders for the government.
I used to hear this phrase a lot, ‘The solution is biological.’ In other words, we need time to give us some new leaders. The Castros have to get old and … Fidel Castro is old now. He’s not really governing. Then you have this opening with the United States. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. I think it’s one of Obama’s great achievements of his time in office. It’s going to have to be carried forward.
Bernie or Hillary?
Bernie or Donald?
I think that there’s some question of course of whether Bernie will … There’s a tendency to like … People like to vote for the winner. There’s a certain kind of campaigning that happens along the sidelines, and by all the pundits, and in all of the coverage is like, you know, ‘Writing’s on the wall. She’s going to win. She’s got the delegates. She’s got more delegates.’
The delegates don’t, they don’t necessarily come from the voting. They come from the party. Many of them. A certain amount of them do. They’re trying to persuade it. It’s going to be her. The media wants it to be her. Everybody in big business wants it to be her, of course, because he’s talking about changing everything. He’s talking about changing the playing field to give people with less money a greater chance.
A simple state of his, “Never been there so, so few who have so much, and so many who have so little.” It’s not hard to understand. Young people get it, because there’s no place for them to go in this economy. No place for youth. You can have a college education or whatever. There’s only so many jobs up there on the top floor of those Wall Street corporations. It’s not sustainable. That’s why I say Bernie.
Whether or not, he’s already made the biggest contribution to our American political election cycle by speaking out and by being the dark horse candidate, the one that’s willing to talk to those people who criticize him. For instance, the punditry likes to say, “Ah.” The Republicans will say … Trump will say about him, “Oh yeah, those people like … Criticised him at a rally, and he went and met with them. Can you imagine? He met with them.”
He met with Black Lives Matter. He wanted to know what they were talking about. He found out. For a loudmouth like Trump, by every means he has to assert his authority and control.
The one thing he has no control over is that his model is unsustainable. It’s the idea of the business elite controlling the deal making. To say something like that about him is to actually give some sort of validity to everything that comes out of his mouth, which is hard to do since he’s such a buffoon. He’s such a clown. The fact is, I think people are sort of aghast. I think the real news is like how many stupid people there are. That’s the real shocker. Like, holy cow. How are … I didn’t know. I didn’t know that this could possibly get as far as it’s gotten.
Even if Hillary becomes the nominee and is the person, I think she’ll beat Trump without any problem. I say without any problem, it won’t be without a lot of noise but the biggest problem is that those stupid people will still be there. The people who believe that we should build a wall, or that we should get all the Muslims out of the country, they’ll still be there. That’s the problem. This is the shocking and very dismaying truth of where we are in time. None of those people know a thing about how the economy really works, or why they are and should be, why they should be angry.
They’re pointing at the wrong people always. They’re pointing at Obama. He inherited the economic crisis. We’ll see what happens. I think that, again I would like to see, like for instance in Cuba or other places in the world, I’d like to see some progress made. China too. We’ll see. It’s their country. They have to do it. They have to do it themselves. They have to be persuaded that, in order to be persuaded that what we’re talking about is worth doing. Right now, who could we possibly persuade that our way was best?
I think you’ve answered the question ‘Which side?’, which is one of the songs on Standing in the Breach. Does it surprise you how many of the lyrics to your early songs, looking back, are still, which reference the environment or politics, are still as relevant today? It’s almost as if nothing’s changed.
Well, not enough has changed. Some things have changed. There’s some great … There are things changing all the time. There’s that saying, you know, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The more things change, the more you see that fundamental things are still the same.
You can’t really expect that every four years you would have like a full changing of the forces that guide the society. The fact that Obama appointed all the same people in charge of homeland security and in charge of dealing with economic crisis, the same people who brought you the economic crisis, is just a huge, a huge disappointment that he didn’t … There was not that much change. The fact that you have a black president is a huge change socially. I think it matters tremendously to most Americans that we do have an inclusion now that we didn’t have before.
When I say matters, I mean to some of them it’s a big mistake. It’s a drag that we have a black president. There are racists who think that they’ve lost standing in the world. Their world has gotten less fair because we now have a more inclusive society. Little by little, these changes all have to happen. It’s all part of a larger process. It’s not always clear that the changes are going to result in enough time to save our country or that it will happen in enough time for the world to revert the catastrophes that are present in our, they’re in the making in our … The way we treat the oceans, what’s happening in the atmosphere, what’s happened to the quality of food and the amount of toxic buildup there is in our polluted world.
Those things are very real, and I think that Obama’s done well by, especially if you look at the divisions in our society, he’s done well by those issues. Not enough so that it could be like too little too late.
I have recently read biographies by Carly Simon. [inaudible 00:30:51]has had one out. There have been ones by Patti Smith, great, obviously Bob Dylan. When’s yours coming out? Your autobiography, should I say?
It will probably be a while.
You’re not working on one?
It’s funny. You’re actually the fourth person now in less than a week to bring this up. I’ve been thinking about it in the last few days. It would have to be … I’d have to write it myself. I couldn’t do it at an as told. I’ve been thinking about how I would go about it. The question always is which book, which things to talk about? I probably will write it.
Last year you, just one last question, last year you had a bit of a reunion with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Nashville, part of the Americana Conference. It’s been an incredible journey for you in terms of music and songwriting. Who do you listen to now that inspires you? Who do you read? What sort of people do you listen to and read these days?
I listen to Steve Earle. I listen to, I just heard a lot of Justin Townes Earle. I love Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. I like Jenny Lewis, and I like Taylor Goldsmith. I think there are a whole lot of artists, younger artists, that I haven’t really gotten to hear. They’re there. I … When I say they’re there, what I mean is that there’s a whole layer of artists that you have to search through to to find those people that are really doing great writing.
I would say anytime I’m asked a question like this, later I go, “Oh, I forgot to mention … ” I think there are a lot. I think that Bob Dylan has had a couple records had some great songs on them. Haven’t seen him live in a while. That must have been like three or four……I only mention it because there’s new songs. I mean, listen to his new songs.
That young fellow, Bob Dylan.
I like that song the ‘Early Kings of Rome.’
It’s a beauty. That’s just a blues song, isn’t it? That’s a twelve-bar blues.
It used to be that you heard everybody’s records. You didn’t know anybody. You heard everybody together on the same radio station. You heard everybody at your friends’ houses and stuff. I think Mavis Staples has made some great records. The one with Ry [Cooder]. The two from Jeff Tweedy and her collaborating, fantastic.
She’s also somebody that really, I adored when I was fifteen. She was probably not that much older than that when she started singing. When they did the [Family that Prays 00:34:04]. I consider that new music. The fact that she’s making albums with Jeff Tweedy is like, that’s news to me. That’s fantastic. That’s not, how many gospel or blues artists go on to make their more … Speaking of that, Ry Cooder’s last few records were filled with incredible songs.
You don’t require him to be a great songwriter. The fact that he’s written some great songs. The fact that he made these really very songwriter albums recently, that’s also new. There’s so much music, and you have to listen to a lot to try to find the stuff you like. I think Taylor’s a great writer. I think Father John Misty is really great. Jonathan Wilson. You know who blows my mind is Lucinda, Lucinda Williams, her last two records.
I guess maybe it’s a transparent bias. To have someone around my age charting new territory is huge inspiration and a good … An advertisement for like living long and staying plugged into your work.