As longtime readers of this site must have noticed, Popdose has pretty deep roots in the soil of legacy music artists. We do love our Wilsons, Springsteens, and Princes around here. But the lifeblood of the modern music world is with the “indies,” not just in aesthetics, but in the actual creation and distribution of modern music.
Jerry Woods is certainly someone in the latter camp, but is also someone deserving of your attention. With a new song, “Narcissus” out now on CD Baby, Woods is a student of ’70s pop sounds working in a system that is most assuredly of the 21st century. Popdose caught up with Woods to find out more about “Narcissus” and what is required of being completely indie these days.
Your new song “Narcissus” is out via CD Baby. Can you go into the impetus for the song a bit?
The idea for “Narcissus” was really floating around in my head for several years – maybe a decade – by the time I started writing down the words, in November of last year. With the current political climate being what it is throughout the world, the timing seemed right to begin recording this song. It really is a composite of all the real nasties we’ve seen throughout history, right on up to today, rolled up into one fictional character.
Will “Narcissus” be a part of an album, or is it, for now, strictly a single? What are the benefits to a musician to not focus so much on the album format in the age of digital?
I am chipping away at a new album and there are three individual downloads via CD Baby, including “Narcissus,” which will probably be included in CD format, once the full length project is complete, and will also be downloadable.
Recording an album can be a long process in a group environment, but even longer when performing roughly 90 percent of the instruments. And I only have an 8-track recorder, so that definitely adds to the time component.
That’s where releasing some of these songs individually, well in advance of an album, comes into play. I think releasing individual songs helps to maintain a certain level of audience interest instead of going years without releasing a single thing. When focusing on singles, it’s just a different mindset. There’s no temptation to put this song or that song on a disc as throw away filler to increase the playing time of the disc. The other side of that coin is that there is pressure to really put my best foot forward when putting out a single, as it should be.
As an independent musician, you have a lot more control over what you do and how it comes together. What are the drawbacks from doing it all on your own?
Ha! Numerous! While the single biggest pro to being an independent musician is that you get to be a control freak, the single biggest con stems from that same thing! It’s really easy, I think, to become my own worst nightmare as an artist. There’s a ton of responsibility with wearing multiple hats – and I can’t do it all. I do the songwriting and I choose the material of other artists I want to cover. Then there’s the engineering, production, mixing, and even mastering to some extent.
Being that close to the process is both good and bad. But there’s no substitute for an unbiased third party listening to what is a presumably finished product. Actually, “Narcissus” almost went out more sparse than it is now, because I really didn’t want to take the focus away from the words. But I ran the song past my wife (October Elsewhere bandmate, Lisa Chester) and our daughter. Their response was more or less, “Um, well… not bad. But kind of boring during the first verse. Couldn’t you add something small, maybe a little bit of guitar to add some interest?” And so by the third or fourth line in, there’s literally just a bit of guitar – two notes scattered around then later some arpeggios – to build things up a little more before the bridge.
As a member of the band October Elsewhere, is there a different mindset in songwriting when it is your name above the door versus a band name?
I think the biggest thing is that if someone in the band screws up there’s always a small chance that the finger won’t get pointed at me; in a solo situation, there’s no escape. In October Elsewhere, there was quite a bit of free reign, but we still tried to push each other to write this lyric better or to change this bit of music for the better, etc. I did quite a bit of the writing in that group, but vocalist Lisa, bassist Jon Hiltibran, and drummer Carlos Paraskevas, all made valuable contributions, including their own writing, over the years. They actually taught me quite a bit about when to let go of things, when to say “Enough’s enough! Finish the damn record!”
Are you doing everything on the song “Narcissus”?
I am playing everything on “Narcissus” (hmmm… maybe Freudianly appropriate?) but that’s not always the case. I’ve had some of October Elsewhere’s help over the years and also contributions from Bradburys/Click Beetles’ Dan Pavelich. Dan and October Elsewhere have all been very supportive over the years.
Here’s the cheesy standard interviewer’s question — but I think it is still a relevant question: who are your musical influences but, more importantly, why are they your influences? What have you drawn from them that informs your own work?
Just remember, you asked for it! I tend to get all fanboy when it comes to my influences so stand back. These are some of my top ones. Number one and two are interchangeably, depending on the day, Badfinger and The Beatles (and the Apple Records artist roster by extension).
I was about seven years old the very first time I heard The Beatles. It actually took a while for their music to grow on me, but once it did, I fell in love with that sound. I had to get my hands on every record I could. Even when I was a kid, there was just something about the production of the records themselves that grabbed me, but also the lyrics, especially in their later music. I think John Lennon and George Harrison were the ones who influenced me the most, which is kind of funny. In some ways, they’re kind of like opposing influences, since John could be so confrontational at times in his writing, but George less so. Maybe having both of those influences as a writer helps me to stay at least a little grounded, most of the time.
Badfinger is another big influence. Everyone in that group was fantastic, but I especially liked Pete Ham’s work. I love the chord progressions and the vocal arrangements he created. And he was a great slide guitarist! He and George Harrison are really the two I draw inspiration from any time I attempt slide guitar.
David Bowie is another big influence. Like Lennon, he really knew how to write outside the box. But also, Bowie is one of the few artists I can sing along with and not strain my voice to hit the high notes, since we have a somewhat similar baritone vocal range!
Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano is another who I think is incredible. Like Lennon, she seems to have no fear of speaking her mind. I really like that sort of thing in people and I try to incorporate some of that same fearlessness in my own writing, but it’s not easy.
Pink Floyd, before Dark Side of the Moon. I’m a big fan of their earlier work. “Remember a Day,” “Julia Dream,” and “Cirrus Minor” all come to mind. These songs and others like them had a really serious influence on me when I first started writing.
Shoes, because they know how to write a great song lasting 3 minutes or less – that still eludes me! But I keep trying.
I also listen to newer music with a more vintage vibe. Jack White is a favorite, Olivia Jean, Valerie June, Nathaniel Rateliffe and the Nightsweats. Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes is an Australian group I’ve seen live in Chicago a couple of times – and I love their approach to Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. Whether live or in the studio, each of these artists takes a more back-to-basics approach. I can relate to that.And to me, it’s really hopeful to hear people still making music like that. It keeps me hanging microphones in front of an amp, instead of buying plug-ins! Although I confess my bass lines do run through a DI. And of course, I do overdub, whereas these are all people in a group environment who can easily track an album live. Another great group that splintered out of the Rackettes is Jazz Party. I can’t get enough of them lately. It’ll be interesting to hear what else they do. See? We really could be here all day on this…
Long story short, where The Beatles inspired me to pick up a guitar and start banging on a drum (not with the guitar, well… maybe), all the other groups mentioned above, in some way or another, convinced me to keep playing.
What role does the musician play when it comes to making a statement, particularly a political statement, either blatant or veiled? i feel like we’re currently in a time where this is a difficult thing to do. In their time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young could put out “Ohio” and be celebrated. Today, they would be booed and told to be non-partisan and just be entertaining. Thoughts on this?
I celebrate peoples’ right to boo, but also the artist’s right to speak his or her mind. And you bring up a really good point. There really seems to be a shift in peoples’ thinking – all the more reason for musicians, artists, and everyone to speak up. I really do think this is everybody’s business. Being a responsible artist is difficult and living up to that ideal is in the eye or ear of the beholder. Being non-partisan and seeing both sides of an argument is incredibly important and I can’t stress enough the real value of empathy.
But there’s a fine line between being non-partisan and burying one’s head in the sand. That’s when the problems start. If we truly have the freedoms outlined in the U.S. Constitution, then that works both ways. As artists, we should be absolutely free to speak our minds to the same extent as everyone else – no more, no less – if we feel compelled to do so.
The only caveat I would urge is that people do so nonviolently. Some will argue that an artist is somehow at an unfair advantage over those who choose to express themselves in a different, maybe less confrontational or less visible way – that not everyone has the same platform from which to speak, etc. I understand that argument but an overwhelming number of people are plugged into social media and most people can decide whether they want to pick up a guitar or a microphone to get their point across. And so the avenue a person travels is largely a choice.
Meanwhile, the listener is absolutely free to change the station, scroll left, or not buy our music or art. It’s a sensible, peaceful way that we prevent each other from ramming unwelcome ideas down each other’s throats. The minute we try to go beyond those limits and start picking and choosing certain groups of people, telling them, “well you can say this, but not that…” that’s when everyone starts losing these freedoms.
What’s going on for you in the immediate future?
I am steadily working on new music and I hope to release another single or two in the foreseeable future. I’m also working toward a Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies. In addition to continuing with music, I hope to find a place in the legal profession as a paralegal, preferably in intellectual property, someday. It’s been ages since I’ve been out to play live and haven’t done so since working with October Elsewhere. And I’d like to work with them again.
But now it’s a matter of geography and scheduling. Performing publicly has always terrified me but it is something I think about getting in and doing again, at least to get past the stage fright. For now, I really enjoy the creative process and I just hope to finish this album. I’d like to have a completed project in 2018, although there’s no end date set. I just have to take it a track at a time!
More from Jerry Woods is available from CD Baby by clicking here.