Tag Archives: songwriting

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

(But We Like It)

It's Not Only Rock 2

It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity by Jenny Boyd Ph.D. with Holly George-Warren (John Blake, $14.95, 322 pages)

A book that does not quite live up to its subtitle.

“Musicians are the mouthpieces for our age.”

“Musicians are the torchbearers, the spokespersons of our time.”

Jenny Boyd George Harrison

Jenny Boyd’s (George Harrison’s one-time sister-in-law) book might have been called Conversations Touching Upon Creativity. This is a book in which she quotes numerous musicians, including Harrison and Ringo Starr, about the magical, mystical and mystifying process of creating music. But the book only takes us to the edge of the process and never smack-dab into the middle of it (e.g., the source of creativity). Boyd, in fact, seems unable to define what creativity is or exactly how it works. And the quotes she includes are often contradictory; for example, on the effect of drugs and alcohol – some musicians see these as a boon, others as a bane.

While the book is readable and somewhat entertaining and some of the statements from major musicians are interesting, there’s far too much reliance on lesser figures. Sinead O’Connor, for example, seems to be quoted on about every second or third page. The reader would have been better served if Boyd had focused on a few particular songs or albums and discussed with their creators the steps they took from first thought to finished recording. (Not surprisingly, such books already exist.)

Boyd is caught up with exaggerating the role of modern day musicians, portraying them as societal leaders and major change agents: “Artists are not afraid to break down the old to make way for the new….” Since this is what she clearly and strongly believes, she may wish to consider writing a follow-up book about this thesis. However, this work led me to realize why even Bob Dylan has disdained the role of prophet, socio-political leader or “spokesperson for his generation.” That crown may be too heavy for any musician to wear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Songwriters On Songwriting

Individuals with a strong interest in the subject of songwriting and creativity may want to read Songwriters on Songwriting: Revised and Expanded by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press), which covers the topic in 752 pages.

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Coming Up Next…

It's Not Only Rock 'n' Roll

A review of It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity by Jenny Boyd with Holly George-Warren.

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An Interview with Adrian Bourgeois

I interview musician Adrian Bourgeois, who has released an ambitious 24-song double album, Pop/Art. Joseph Arellano

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Pop Art

Did you and Lady Gaga get together to coordinate your new album titles, as your double album is called Pop/Art and her latest release is Artpop?

Oh, yeah, “Steph” and I are total BFFs. We coordinate everything together from what we call our albums to what we wear.

“Pop/Art” is a term usually used to describe visual art, but I’ve always used it to describe my music. My goal has been to create music that on the one hand is universal, accessible and memorable, and on the other artistic, challenging and thought-provoking. I just like the title and feel like it fits this music well.

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Your album, with 24 tracks, is diverse and sprawling; it might be called Adrian Bourgeois’s White Album. Do you agree with this, or would you describe it another way?

There are few albums, if any, that have influenced me as much as the White Album. What amazes me about that album is just the stylistic spectrum they go through from song to song – from heavy rock, to ragtime, to folk, to chamber pop and everything in between. What’s even more amazing is that the songwriting remains spectacular across the board. So I guess with Pop/Art I wanted to make sure that if I were going to record a double album, I would feel great about every song on there. There could be no throwaways.

If anything, it’s my All Things Must Pass album. I’ve had all these songs building over the years without much chance to record them.

The album has excellent stereo separation, which also calls to mind the late ’60s and early ’70s. Is this because you wanted the release to have a retro sound, or is this simply reflective of what you heard in your head?

I just go for what seems to be best for each particular song. Naturally, what I came up with ends up being strongly influenced by what I listen to. On “Jonah,” I recorded two identical drum parts and piano parts and had Andy Freeman pan one of each pretty hard to the left and to the right. I put a flanger on one of the drum parts, too. I did a totally different session with legendary engineer David Bianco. He taught me this harmony trick of tripling each part and then panning one to the left, one to the right, and one down the center, so I used that too, mainly on “Celebrate the News.”

In listening to Pop/Art, I would think that you were influenced by The Beatles (especially Paul McCartney), Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Are there others you would like to mention or acknowledge?

All of the above are definitely big influences. Probably the biggest one not mentioned is Elvis Costello, whom I’d call the greatest solo singer/songwriter. Simon and Garfunkel, the Velvet Underground, U2, Ben Folds, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, The Rascals, Tom Waits, Roy Orbison, Eisley, Hanson, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Lynne, Big Star, Elliot Smith, George Gershwin, Chuck Berry, and others have influenced and inspired me.

I would consider my best friend Ricky Berger as big a musical influence on me as anyone else.

Speaking of Mr. Rundgren, you have a song “Everybody Knows It Was Me,” that sounds as though it might have been included on Todd’s Something/Anything? album from 1972. It’s a good commercial song. What can you tell us about it?

Maybe commercial for 1972! But thanks.

Yes, Something/Anything? was definitely another big influence on this record as Todd recorded it mainly at home and played most of the instruments himself as I did. “Everybody Knows It Was Me” is probably the most reflective of that album. I don’t know what it was about. I refer to these kinds of songs as “template songs,” where you just come up with a template or concept like, “It could have been this, it could have been that, but everybody knows it was me…” and then you just fill in the blanks.

Another interesting track is “Time Can’t Fly A Plane.” What’s the back story on the song and its lyrics?

“Time Can’t Fly A Plane” was actually the one song on the album from a different set of sessions. I remember when I wrote it feeling like it was a step forward for me. I think it speaks to a universal experience of being in your twenties and feeling the need to outrun the onslaught of time and all the things dragging you away from the innocence of youth.

A lot of songs I write are letters of advice to a part of myself that’s struggling with something from a part of myself that knows better.

Interestingly, one word that I heard repeatedly in your lyrics is “poison.” Is there a reason for its use?

Sometimes it just comes down to a word having a good sound. The word poison sounds good when sung. It’s not a conscious thing. When I write a song, I usually start by singing nonsensical syllables that sound good with that particular melody and then I start associating the sounds with similar words and go from there.

Although this is a “solo album,” you had help from about 19 of your musical friends – including your father, Brent Bourgeois, right?

Sometimes the one-man band was the vibe I wanted, but I also employed the help of my extremely talented pool of friends. The two other voices you hear most on this album, other than my own, are Ricky Berger and Paige Lewis, both incredible artists in their own right (Paige and I have a band called See How They Run). There’s probably no element of a recording more important than vocal harmonies.

One person I was very excited to have on the album was Probyn Gregory from Brian Wilson’s band. He plays about a million instruments and performed a gorgeous French horn part on “New December.” Caitlin Bellah, who sings the chorus vocal on “Don’t Look Away,” was my girlfriend for four and a half years. We recorded her vocal a few weeks after we’d broken up.

Gina Belliveau is a very talented singer/songwriter from Tacoma who I became friends with. She played glockenspiel on “Parachutes.” I was happy to have cousin Pete – an acclaimed New Orleans jazz musician – play an incredible flugelhorn solo on “Touch” that added the right sound to that recording. And, yes, I did get my dad to sing on “Celebrate the News.” Vince DiFiore from Cake played trumpet on that song.

Everyone who played on the album was awesome and made the album so much better because of their participation.

If you had to select a song to record a cover version of – a song that you did not write – which song would you select?

That’s a good question. One that I’ve always wanted to record is a song called “Tommy’s Coming Home” that was co-written by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. They wrote a number of songs together in the ’80s and this is probably the best one but they never released it. The only recording that exists of it is a crude acoustic demo. I think it would be awesome to record and release the first official version of that!

How can music fans purchase Pop/Art?

The album is currently available at adrianbourgeois.bandcamp.com
and at any show of mine. Before this year is over it will be available in more places.

This interview was originally published by the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/an-interview-with-adrian-bourgeois/

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Hallelujah

The Holy or The Broken (nook book)The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light (Atria Books, $25.00, 254 pages)

“People keep finding the song in new ways… I’ve had kids talk to me about ‘Hallelujah’ as if they were the only ones who knew it – it’s a cult classic, like the world’s biggest sleeper hit. It’s like joining a club.” Singer Patrick Stump of the band Fall Out Boy

There are some nonfiction books that read like – and were written as, long versions of magazine articles. These tend to be books with lots of filler, in which not so much new information is found. Such is not the case with The Holy or the Broken – while it reads like it might have begun its existence in the form of a possible magazine article, there’s plenty of new and valuable information here, especially for music fans. For the less knowledgeable, this account may lead them to pursue more information about Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley or other musicians named within its pages.

This is the fascinating true story of Cohen’s writing a song included within an album that his record company refused to release. The song would not be discovered and appreciated for 13 years, and – as referenced in the subtitle, it was the late Jeff Buckley’s vibrant cover version that was to make it a worldwide phenomenon. The song is now a staple of televised singing competitions such as American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor.

Author Light details how Cohen’s song – a mixture of joyful and sorrowful sentiments, has benefited from being used as an anthem following tragic events such as 9/11, and via its frequent use on TV and motion picture soundtracks (including Shrek). There’s also the fact that musicians as varied as Bob Dylan, Bono, Sheryl Crowe, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, Rufus Wainright, Lee DeWyze, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and k.d. lang have either covered it and/or performed it on stage. The song has become an industry onto itself; one publisher calling the song “a brand.”

The one negative about the narrative is that Light, a former editor-in-chief at Spin magazine, incorporates a bit too much of his personal tastes into the telling – becoming, if you will, more rock critic than unbiased historian. Still, there’s ample fascinating stuff to chew on here – one example being that John Lissauer, the producer of Cohen’s initially-unreleased album Various Positions (which contained Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah”) confesses that, “I felt like I’d ruined (Cohen’s) career.” Far from it!

“When you hear the Jeff Buckley version, it’s so intimate it’s almost like you’re invading his personal space, or you’re listening to something that you weren’t supposed to hear.” Jake Shimaburkuro

“It’s a hymn to being alive. It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence…” Jeff Buckley

The Holy or the Broken is well recommended.

Readers or music lovers wishing to learn more may want to read the excellent book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne, and the new biography I’m You’re Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Holy or the Broken is also available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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