The Popdose Interview: Kenny Loggins and Gary Burr of Blue Sky Riders
The Blue Sky Riders have taken an old school approach to building their brand as a band. They spent the second half of 2012 on the road playing headlining shows featuring a full album’s worth of mostly unfamiliar material while at the same time, introducing a group that very few know about. That’s only a slight challenge, right?
Putting it together brick by brick, one fan at a time, is a tactic that Kenny Loggins, Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman have some experience with, being veterans of the music scene. Loggins, of course, brings a good amount of instant recognition to the group, based on his name alone.
But Burr and Middleman have an equally impressive resume – Burr being a member of the Country Songwriters’ Hall of Fame with 32 Top 40 singles to his credit as a writer, 14 of them being #1, plus a four year stint as a member of Ringo Starr’s Roundheads (a thrill, growing up as a big Beatles fan) and in his words, “thousands of other projects.”
Middleman (who also is married to Burr) has had her own formidable success as a songwriter, with a number of writing credits, including Keith Urban’s 2009 hit ‘I’m In.’ Together, all three members form the nucleus of the Blue Sky Riders, a band which took shape over the past couple of years in Nashville.
Offering a preview of the sound of their upcoming album Finally Home (produced by Peter Asher and due on January 29th), the band has released two songs as a preview. Listening to the material, it easily calls to mind the rich harmonies of classic bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, but as Loggins is quick to remind, “we were doing that shit in the early ‘70s” with Loggins & Messina and from his point of view, Blue Sky Riders represents a return to those roots for him.
It’s a leap of faith for Loggins, who found himself out of songwriting “juice” a couple of years ago and searching for his next move. Starting a band seemed like a good idea to Loggins. A friend tried to talk him out of that idea and told him he was “too old” to be thinking about starting a band. Dejected, he sent a text message to Middleman that said “too old to dream.” That text transmission laid down the roots for ‘Dream,’ the song which has become one of the standout tracks for the group.
So far, the gamble seems to be paying off. The opening night of the band’s fall tour (in Kent, Ohio) brought a sold-out crowd of music fans who were curious to see what Loggins and his new band would sound like. They were rewarded with a set which mixed the entirety of the new album with an acoustically loose mid-set “songwriters’ round” which gave each member the chance to share some choice moments (read: some well-known recognizable songs) from their past work. 90 minutes later, they wrapped things up with an encore of ‘Help!’ by the Beatles.
In the thick of it all, I had the opportunity to talk with Loggins and Burr to dig into the inner workings of what the Blue Sky Riders are all about.
Kenny, you’ve described the moment where the “juice” was gone and you didn’t know what to write about anymore. Some artists either stop creating or do something else, like make a covers album. How hard was it for you to take the step of starting a new band instead?
Kenny: Not hard at all. I had written with Gary for How About Now, a record I made for Target and in the process, I had a great time. We wrote together and we laughed a lot. We sang together and it sounded like brothers and I thought “this guy’s a lead singer,” not like a lot of the writers you meet in Nashville [many] who are good singers, but not great.
So when I felt into what I wanted to do next, I kept getting the message that I should be writing with Gary. And the last time we wrote together, I said sort of half-jokingly, “you know, if this was 20 years ago, we’d start a band. So I cooked on that idea and when he called me back, I said “you know, I was serious about that, do you want to do that?” And he flippantly said yes….
Gary: I must have been drunk.
Kenny: [Laughs] Yeah, you were drunk at the time. A couple of months later, I was finishing up a children’s record for Disney and a couple of months later and I had the flash that we needed a third [voice] and I had a sense that Gary would know who it is…and know her – he married her!
Kenny: Yeah, smart move. And she is a star.
Gary: She’s our secret weapon.
Kenny: It’s amazing to me that Nashville had given up on her because she didn’t sound like Faith Hill. It just blows my mind that the accountants don’t have ears.
Gary: Well, she was sort of too pop for country and too country for pop, but just right for Blue Sky Riders.
So working off of that, where does this band fit in?
Gary: Kenny said something when we first started, which I took to heart, which was “don’t try to figure out what genre we are. Let’s create our own genre.” Let’s create our own genre or subgenre or not even think about that. And saying that, I would say that we’re “country pop.” [Laughs] How’s that for sounding independently needy?
I don’t want to pigeonhole it, but “Feelin’ Brave” to my ears, has a really good Fleetwood Mac-like vibe to it, both musically and in the energy of the song. I’ve heard that song and I’ve heard Dream, what would you say about some of the other songs on the album?
Kenny: Well, it’s difficult to do that, but that’s a good hole to be pigeoned into. Fleetwood Mac, [with their] multi-voices, good harmonies, big grooves. That Lindsey [Buckingham] was actually a country writer and singer to my ear. Now if you listen back to those first couple of Fleetwood Mac records [with him], he’s a picker.
But you know, starting with Loggins & Messina, we were doing that shit in the early ‘70s. So this is just sort of back to my roots. Extrapolating out from there, [you had] multi-harmony bands like the Eagles and of course, like you said, Fleetwood Mac, on into [present day with bands like] Lady Antebellum, which of course, all we have in common is two guys and a girl and I think our writing is very different…..
Gary: …and one of us is very tall.
Kenny: [Laughs] One of us is better looking, but never mind that!
Gary: One of the things, when we first sat down to do this, one of the things that I mentioned to everybody was that….one of my favorite records is Revolver and what I love about Revolver is that every song is like it’s own thing. It’s got its own instruments, it’s got its own style and you can’t guess what the next song is going to sound like, based on the last song. Not that I was trying to compare us to that, because you know, we made a record much better than Revolver.
Gary: I’m just kidding. But this record, you cannot guess what the next song is going to sound like based on the last song you hear.
Gary, as a songwriter, you’ve certainly seen Kenny’s career path over the past several decades and the different things he’s been doing. Working with him initially on some of his solo stuff and now this Blue Sky Riders stuff, did you have a particular idea in mind about where you’d love to go, with the chance to guide and influence Kenny Loggins?
Gary: Well, my main concern was that I wanted this band to write songs that were “band” songs. I didn’t want us to each bring a song to the project. Like “Oh, Georgia brought in a song and we’re going to learn it” and Kenny brings a song……I wanted every song to be the three of us writing it together and I was hoping that Kenny would want to go sort of back to his roots because that’s my roots too and that’s sort of my wheelhouse. So when I knew that was going to happen, I was pretty confident that we could pull it off. And he certainly didn’t need our help to continue for years making incredible music. We’re thrilled that he decided to go swimming.
There’s a formidable body of past work and songwriting success between the three of you. Each of you, have numerous highlights – Georgia with Keith Urban’s “I’m In,” to throw out one recent example. What would you say the strengths were that each of you brought to the songwriting on this material?
Gary: Well, Georgia sort of brings the soul. Kenny kind of brings the…and I say this in all generosity, he brings the jazzy element. Me, I’m just sort of middle in the road. Everything I write, I try to write two and a half minutes long radio sticks in your head mindless [songs]. I always tell people that I’ve been just ripping off “Love Me Do” for thirty years. But whenever I am playing something ridiculously stupid, Kenny will put in these unbelievable chords and you’ll just go “oh, that’s why he’s Kenny Loggins.” And then Georgia will sing something really soulful over it. But once we throw the harmonies on it, it’s not soul or R&B, it’s very country pop.
I’m the “how’s it going to sound coming out of the three inch speaker guy” and Kenny is the “we can make this cooler and put more in the song without sacrificing the hookiness of it” and Georgia is the melodic beautiful soulful [element], the stuff that makes the girls pull out their hankies in the audience.
Kenny: I would say that it depends on the song you’re talking about. Gary claims to be writing “Love Me Do,” but every now and then he’ll throw in something that totally catches me by surprise. So I think we all basically, when we hit that moment where a song needs to turn a corner or do something unexpected, we’re all sort of focused on that as well. I just approached it in a different way because I’m from a different history. I wouldn’t call it jazz, myself – I’d call it rock and roll. It doesn’t matter what we call it, there’s a synergy that when we write together, we end up with something that’s a fourth [level], because it’s not any one of us, but it equals something that we are calling Blue Sky Riders. I know that sounds kind of corny, but that’s the only name for that fourth.
I can hear how invested each one of you are in this material. When I’m listening to “Feelin’ Brave,” the attack on your vocal reminds me a lot of the same attack that you had on a lot of your vocals with a lot of that “rock and roll” stuff.
Kenny: You know, the “Footloose” voice was from my rockabilly upbringing. Whereas “I’m Alright” is a different voice. Because of [Paul] McCartney I think, I learned to sing in characters. I always appreciated that on one song, he’d be Little Richard and another song, he’d have the music hall character and then he’s got his straight ahead rock and roll voice. So I always appreciated the fact that he could shift characters based on the song and that’s just how I was raised.
In this format, I don’t sing through my nose the way I did with Loggins & Messina, because I had a deviated septum back then and I don’t have it anymore. But I use that edgier throat voice….it’s a better blend with Gary and Georgia.
You both have previous experience working in a group setting. How did that mold your approach to what you’re doing here with Blue Sky Riders.
Gary: Well, I’ve been actually part of lots of bands and every band is its own sort of entity as every band has its own personalities. What’s been the hardest thing for us is that we’ve been out on the road opening for Kenny, so there’s this weird feeling of Kenny’s part of the group and then he’s also the headliner. Any time you’re in a band, you have to figure out the dynamic certainly. Kenny and I butt heads a lot, just because I tend to worry more about how long something is taking than how good something is. So we’ve had to learn all sorts of things like that. We’ve had to learn how to bend and grow a little bit. We haven’t had any real problems. Of course with Georgia and I being married, we can outvote him anytime we need to!
Kenny: [Laughs] I think that maybe Gary’s done a better job of that than I have. At least, I have to work harder at it because I’ve been autonomous for thirty-five years and for me, it’s just a knee jerk reaction to go do this and get it done. So I’m constantly having to remind myself that this is a band and there are things that have to be talked about. Like any democracy, things move more slowly [in a band] and I’m a very impatient person. It’s just in my nature – I want to get it done and move on. So in that way, we have that alike [in common]. So we’re doing pretty good, I think, considering.
I think the advantage of what we have is that we have been in bands before, we’ve seen the pitfalls of not working things out and of just sucking it up and moving on. I know that doesn’t work for me, because six months later, I’m screaming about the food and not ever talking directly about what’s going on. So for me, when something’s bugging me, I’ve got to sit down and talk about it and clear the air. And I wouldn’t have done that when I was 22.
The other advantage is that we’re not young men in search of identity. Because I remember how difficult that was with Jimmy [Messina], that when we first got together, we were so connected at the hip that everything that came along, we both wanted the same thing. I’m not talking about creative decisions, just [things] like jackets in a store or the same guitar strap. It was difficult, because I was searching…and I wouldn’t have put it in these terms, but looking back, I was searching for who I am. Who am I in this format [and] in this situation and it was difficult to have that absorbed into another person as well.
Here, I know who I am and I know what I bring and I want him to show up for this band as much as possible. It’s an interesting balance, being part of a group, melding in with that group and not being subservient to it where you lose track of your own style and personality.
Gary: We’re all on our best behavior, because we really want this to work. This is a big investment in time and creativity and we really think that we have something special here that we want to work. So we will stop on a dime and talk over any issue that we need to, to make sure that everybody is represented and everybody feels validated and any others ‘80s buzz word that you’d like to put in there.
You were both in groups and then not in groups after that, so it’s always an interesting move when an artist decides to go back to the group format. It must be an interesting headspace to be in, to make that decision that “I want to go back to that.”
Kenny: My manager said to me, when I first brought up the idea of starting a new band, he said “you know, Kenny, most people leave bands to go solo.” He said “there’s a reason for that” and of course I know that – I’ve done that. One of the biggest emotional reasons I wanted to start this band, other than the primary reason being artistic, was that I just needed to get back into my writing and back into something that had some juice behind it.
Emotionally, I was just sick of doing it alone. I’ve done that, I know that I can do it – there was nothing exciting for me on the horizon. I didn’t have a burning rock opera that I needed to write, it was just “what’s next?” Well, let’s go somewhere where there’s inspiration and ideas and let’s see what we can come up with. As soon as we started writing together, I felt enthusiastic about my writing again.
Musically, it sounds like it’s been a liberating experience. It’s probably a good feeling to not have to be one person carrying all of the songs, all of the time.
Kenny: Yeah, I’ve always been a collaborator, so I know that my process is that I call up my friends. Whether it’s Mike McDonald or David Foster or new friends, I call them up and say “let’s get together” and myself, I put my butt in the chair and get into a situation where I have to come up with the goods. Because I’m basically not like [a typical songwriter]. I know that Jimmy Webb goes into his office, which is basically a mini-studio and writes every day, like Stephen King, you know, “gotta write every day.” I have just never been a disciplined writer
But I think Gary, you’re kind of that way, you show up at the office…
Gary: Yeah, I’ve always said that if I didn’t have a different person knocking on the door every day at 11 o’clock, I’d never wear pants.
Kenny: You’d never get out of your shorts.
Kenny – do you write if you don’t have to? And has that process changed through the years?
Kenny: What I always do is I get little song ideas. I get starts – I get lyric ideas, I get little pieces of melodies that tell me that I’m still supposed to be doing this. It’s probably a habit that will never go away. I call it “writer’s mind.” I notice things that, well that would make a great tidbit of a line for a song or a song title or a band name. It’s just part of me that I’ve been trained to be on the alert. I’ll wake up in the morning and I’ll have a piece of a melody going around in my head. So I just use my iPhone and use voice memos and I keep track of all of that stuff.
Having worked with so many producers over the years, where did Peter Asher fit into the Blue Sky Riders process?
Kenny: Peter and I made a couple of records together. We made a Christmas album and a children’s album and in the process, I saw him as [being] very cool headed and great with people. I suggested that we bring Peter in because I knew that Gary and I were going to have different opinions and I didn’t feel that, having worked with Jimmy, I didn’t feel that it was a healthy thing to have to bang heads in the studio to figure out who’s right.
So I wanted to bring Peter in as a sort of arbitrator in situations where Gary and I couldn’t come to a conclusion on our own. And then Peter came in with his own opinions, so suddenly we had four opinions in the studio. But we found our way through that and negotiated with Peter and he became pretty much what I hoped he would be – somebody to make that final decision when we couldn’t quite get there. It would often be a fourth idea that was based on what was kicking around. So he brought a lot to the production.
What are some of the songs that you’ve enjoyed playing live from this album?
Gary: There’s this really cool song called “I Get It,” that it was one of the only songs that we went into the studio not having demoed. We really didn’t have a clear idea of how it was going to go. And it was basically everybody just sitting around the room, grabbing whatever was closest to them and banging on it, until we got it. Peter was saying “why don’t you try this and why don’t you try that” and we were really just experimenting. We ended up with one of the coolest, most fun and catchy tracks on the record. That was really fun, because we almost weren’t going to do it, because we couldn’t really figure out how to do it. And every groove that we came up with, sounded too normal. So we were going “maybe that’s not even going to make the record.” But we messed with it on a day and are thrilled with the results. So that’s a cool track on the record.
Kenny: Yeah, and that’s the first song we wrote.
Gary: Yeah, it is! So I had a real attachment to it, because it was the first song we wrote and it was going to break my heart if it didn’t make the record. I was hoping there was some way that we could find [a way to make it work]. We tried it all of these different ways and it was pretty fun to have a song that you didn’t know what it was going to be when it grew up.
Kenny: There’s a couple of them that we’ve been doing. There’s a song called “I’m A Rider” that I love, because it rocks, probably as hard as anything I’ve ever done. I always enjoy that. We’ve been doing that [during Blue Sky Riders performances] as an opening act for me, for a while. “Dream,” I always love doing and this band kicks that one.
Gary, you spent time in a band with a Beatle. What did you take away from working with Ringo?
Gary: What I took away from that is that one of his most fun philosophies is that there’s no mistakes. If you’re recording and you do something wrong, you leave it in and you expand on it. We all would sit and go “remember this song here – how come the first time you do this part, you do four bars, but then the next time you did it, you do six bars. Who thought of that?” And he goes “nobody thought of it, we were lost! He was supposed to sing and he forgot to come in. So we went two more bars and then he started singing.” So he just says that there’s no mistakes and so [now] we’ll do something either recording or writing and somebody goes “you know, that’s not how it goes” and you go “ooh, maybe that is how it goes!” Let’s not throw that out – let’s not be slaves to being what is expected. I learned that from him. It was a very cool experience.
Kenny, you were opening for Fleetwood Mac during the Rumours period. How big was that band at that point?
Kenny: The band was just taking off when I joined the tour, so it was yet to become humongous and we were still doing 5000 seaters when we first started, but within weeks, they were in the 10,000s. It was a great experience for me on a couple of levels. Primarily as an opening act, because Stevie’s audience were young boys for the first 30 rows, so I had to learn to play past those rows, so my style got more expansive, because I had to find my audience out in row 31. And then I think it was just a huge break for me as a solo artist.
You know, I sort of assumed that everything was going to go well. But I didn’t [realize], as is typical for me, I didn’t know what I was up against. Realizing looking back that very few artists broke solo out of successful bands. I was one of the exceptions. Even Daryl Hall had difficulty creating a solo career out of Hall & Oates, because clearly Hall & Oates was Daryl Hall. And I don’t mean any disrespect to John [Oates], but everybody knows that Daryl wrote the songs and it was his arrangements. Even Peter Cetera struggled with his solo career. It’s a difficult thing to do. So Fleetwood Mac was instrumental in helping me break through and find that audience. Of course Stevie, because of our friendship with that tour, Stevie sang on my first hit and that really helped establish me as a radio friendly artist.
I’ve heard that her appearance on that song was a last minute thing. Is that true?
Kenny: No. We talked about it for a long time. It might have been last minute from her perspective, because I pulled her off the road and she only had like one day to do it. So for her, it was “rush rush,” get in the studio – we were in New York [recording] and lay it down as quickly as possible. But she obviously did a great job. Every track was a keeper.
Well, in closing, I have to ask about your “Footloose” performance at the wedding last year. Is that something that has happened in the past, where you have gotten a request like that?, or was this unique?
Well, they asked me to come to the wedding and play, friends of the family. I was not like just walking by somebody’s wedding! [Laughs] But they asked me to come by and play at the wedding. So I did “For The First Time,” because that’s a good first dance song and then did “Footloose” because it’s a party song.