Yes, that’s right. I supported myself for just about 20 years working as a legal proofreader and a word processor, and in 2000, I was working for a firm that was defending tobacco companies, and it was very surreal. I was sitting in this fancy law firm, and nobody was doing anything — I think the deal was that the companies had this firm on retainer to do research, you know, to disprove the connection between smoking and cancer, and so that’s what I was looking at. All these articles saying, “Well, you can’t really prove…” Splitting hairs or whatever. I was basically getting paid just to sit there all day, and that’s when I decided I couldn’t do it anymore.
So I made the jump, but already I’d released my first album, which I made in…oh, 1994.
That far back? I thought Living It All Wrong wasn’t released until 1997.
It didn’t, right, but ’94 was when I started to record it. Since I was funding it on my own, and recording or mixing at night, it took a long time to finish.
That’s fascinating to me, because that album doesn’t sound self-financed at all. It has a real depth to its sound, and the arrangements sound like triple-scale stuff.
Right, well, there really isn’t that much going on in there. There’s a string quartet, and percussion, and a clarinet…
There’s a song with a pretty lengthy clarinet solo, right?
Right. The clarinetist was this guy named Harold Seletsky — he’s known as the “Prez of Klez.” [Laughter] He was a trip, really a trip. He came in and heard the song, and he was already not too young — in his 50s or 60s — and he said “This is so fresh! This is gonna be a hit.” I don’t think he’d ever heard a song in a major key in his life. [Laughs] He was great.
But you’re right in the sense that the album wasn’t cheap to make. I think I spent $25,000 to make that album, and I paid for it all myself. And the guy who recorded it and produced it, Roger Peltzman, he became my manager. We were both really happy with the album, and he started shopping it. We got turned down by I think 60 record companies, until Pure Records picked it up. They had an independent distribution agreement with Mercury.
So eventually Pure folded, and Mercury came to see me play, and they weren’t interested in picking up my option. But we kept on getting good reviews, and Roger made it his goal to get 35 really, really solid ones — you know, from places like the Atlantic Monthly. And once he got them all together, he took them over to Mercury, and they ended up signing me. And then they folded!
I made the second record with their money first. But while we were going over the artwork, Polygram, who owned Mercury, were bought by Seagram. So it took me another two years to find out whether I’d been dropped or whether I’d be able to put out that album on my own, which I eventually did, and I’ve been without a label ever since.
I’m about to make another album, so who knows what will happen? But things have changed for the industry in general. Now I make a living teaching piano at a very nice place called the Third Street Music School Settlement — it’s the oldest community music school in the country. My family lives very inexpensively — we’re in the same building I’ve lived in for over 20 years, so the rent is stabilized, and we don’t own…anything. [Laughs]
I wanted to ask you about your job at Third Street, and how you feel it affects the way you maintain — or improve — your craft.
It’s been really great in that regard. I had classical training when I was a kid, and was very classically oriented, although I listened to the Beatles and plenty of other things. I pursued that until I got into my teens and started getting into rock and jazz and different directions. And it was the same thing with jazz — I got into that, but I didn’t really want to become a mainstream jazz player; I was more interested in free improvisation and composition, and so I never quite developed as far as I wanted to in either discipline. Classical or jazz.
Now, because I’m teaching kids who want to learn how to play those types of music, I’m going back. For the past five years or so, I’ve really been dedicating myself to becoming a better classical and jazz pianist. It’s helped me on a couple of different levels, because there’s so much you can’t control in the music business, and I had been finding it very tiring hitting my head against the wall and worrying about my “career.” It wasn’t productive, but spending time learning Bach or Red Garland is much more concrete. And I simply enjoy teaching, too. I like working with the kids.
It’s interesting that you describe your playing in those terms, because from the first couple of songs on your first album, it’s obvious that a significant amount of theory went into the music. Almost right away, you’re resolving your melodies in unexpected ways and playing with discordance.
I really thought — until pretty recently, in fact — that what I was doing was the most commercially accessible stuff in the world. I mean, I thought anybody would get this. Like, Beatles-y type stuff. Just catchy songs. I didn’t think of my music as particularly sophisticated or hard to get.
Do you think pop music has gotten dumber over the last 40 years?
I don’t know about that, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. But I was always continually surprised when people would say “I don’t get it.” But I’d get mixed messages too, because they’d also say “I can’t stop singing it — it’s so catchy.” So if it’s catchy, then…I don’t know. I still don’t understand it, really. But I accept that it’s the reality. Some people are going to like, or understand, my songs, and others won’t. [Laughs]
Well, I think you tend to speak in a musical language that isn’t often heard in the pop dialect anymore.
That’s something I’ve started to figure out. I like classical, jazz, improvisatory music, and not everyone in the pop world has those interests.
There also tends to be a certain ambiguity to your narratives. For instance, “Suburban Song” sounds like it’s older than the suburbs. It’s up to the listener to decide what you’re trying to tell them sometimes.
I think I was reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy when I wrote that, and I wanted to do a sort of puzzle song, where the narrative isn’t quite there, and you can figure out different possibilities that might be going on. I know what you’re saying is true — there are eccentricities in my lyrics. For me, I like to do stuff which either interests me or makes me react to it in some way. Maybe it cracks me up, or makes me disturbed, or sticks in my head, or rolls off the tongue in a way that really seems right.
Honestly, my overall thing with music has always been pleasing myself first, and making something I know I can be happy with. When I’m honest with myself, I can’t complain about not having too much commercial success, because that isn’t really what I was going for. It would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not willing to change my creative approach to do that.
And yet it really isn’t so out there. In a way, you often strike me as a sunnier version of Donald Fagen — your arrangements don’t usually hew to the established pop framework, but occasionally, you’ll deliver something straightforward and simply beautiful, like “If I Were You.”
Oh yeah, yeah, I definitely feel a kinship with him, especially with his solo albums. I agree with that.
How does that process work for you? You’re probably the only songwriter I’ve ever heard talk about phonemes. How much of your writing revolves around concepts like that, and how much is just instinctual?
Most of the songs on those first three albums were written at the piano, and most of them came together just through me messing around with a musical idea. They usually came together pretty closely with a lyrical idea — I would just follow the thread. With “Big Women on the Shelves,” for instance, it probably happened just like that — I was sitting at the piano and playing, and out came “I went into a little room…” Whatever. It just popped out of my head: Big women on the shelves. So I followed that idea. I’m just sort of following the first thought that came, which I like, and taking it to its conclusion.
So a lot of songs are done that way. There have been a few that weren’t. “Now We Have Time,” for instance, I saw that written as graffiti on a wall in New Orleans in 1987, and wrote that song in my head. There are some where I’ve written the poetry first — “Diagonal S’s at the Motel 6” was like that. I’ll do a lot of automatic writing, where I’m just trying to connect inchoate feelings with words, and the stuff that comes out can be fragmentary. Whatever comes out, comes out, and I’ll go through it later and try to fit it with music.
That’s pretty much how it went for the first three albums. Now that I have kids, and less free time, I’m finding that I have to be more deliberate with the process. I have to really set aside times for myself to write music, and really chip away at things, or work on different things simultaneously. More of a professional approach.
Have you found that your access to the muse has changed?
Very much so. Although it’s a funny thing, because to my mind, I basically stopped writing for about seven years after my last album, but when I started writing for the new album over the last year or two, I went back and looked at the notes I’d kept and realized I’d written quite a bit. Now that I’m starting to work on this record, I have 20 songs.
Did you ever stop thinking of yourself as a songwriter during that time?
Oh, yeah. And I always doubt that. I mean, if you’re not making a living at it, it’s hard to sustain the idea of “I am a songwriter.” I mean, the IRS doesn’t even necessarily believe that. That doubt and that pain and confusion is definitely part of my work.
My example that I always give is that if somebody decided to be a dentist, they fill out the application to dental school, and once you’re in, you’re pretty much a dentist. You don’t wake up every morning and think, “I’m going to be a dentist today.” But as a songwriter, if you aren’t being asked to perform or getting checks every day in the mail, why do you necessarily want to go and write another song? It’s a little strange. I usually don’t even talk about it that much if people ask what I do. I’ll say I’m a piano teacher. If they really ask, I’ll tell them I’ve made albums, but I’m really…I’m not much of a self-promoter.
You know, one the one hand, just due to being in the music business for awhile, I’m not holding my breath for anything to happen, or for any breaks. But at the same time, I’m always kind of optimistic, and things do seem to happen for me. You just never know what. I mean, you calling up to talk to me — that’s a nice thing. You never know when these things happen.
As long as I’m alive, something might happen. And even if I’m not alive, something might happen. [Laughs]
- The Popdose Interview: Session Bass Legend Joe Chemay (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Walker Hayes Asks “Why Wait for Summer” (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Alex Dezen of The Damnwells (popdose.com)
- The Popdose Interview: Joe Washbourne of Toploader (popdose.com)