A Conversation With Robert Pollard Biographer Matthew Cutter

Here’s a tip for any aspiring biographer hoping to chronicle the life of their favorite musician: Befriend him/her and, preferably over beers, ask. Hey, it worked for Matthew Cutter, author of Closer You Are: The Story Of Robert Pollard And Guided By Voices, released today by Da Capo Press. (Full disclosure: I edited an early draft.) The Pollard-approved tome is a must read for GBV fanboys and anyone interested in how a normal dude from Dayton, Ohio, developed into one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest songwriters. Cutter answered a few hard-hitting questions about the book’s genesis—and what Pollard thinks of the finished product.

When did you first hear a Bob Pollard song? What was it? Did the song hook you immediately?
“I Am A Tree” playing in a Boulder, Colo., record store in ’97, followed by “The Old Grunt.” During the next song, “Bulldog Skin,” I asked the clerk what it was. and he handed me Mag Earwhig!. I was instantly hooked, and went back for more albums a few days later. Been hooked ever since.

What is it about his music that created and sustains your fandom?
I’m primarily a lyrics guy, so the allusions and mystery and multiple meanings Bob plays with intrigue me. It’s similar in a lot of ways to what Joyce did with language. And I come from a Beatles/classic-rock background, so I think I’m wired for the types of songs and indelible melodies Pollard writes—even though he always manages to surprise. His music is familiar without ever being predictable.

You’d been acquainted with Bob prior to writing the book. How did the idea come about?
At a Dayton bar, in the midst of an afternoon of drinking and bullshitting, I just asked Bob if I could write a book about him. I honestly didn’t give much thought at that time as to whether or how I would do it.

Was he hesitant at all?
He took a few months to think it over. And with good reason; I didn’t have a whole lot of mainstream writing credits to go on. It was a risk for him.

What was your reaction when he gave his blessing?
Primarily gratitude for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And joyful surprise, followed by mortal fear. I mean, it’s an honor and an immense pleasure, but I also knew I had a huge responsibility to Bob and Guided By Voices fans. As Bob has said, “When you get your shot, you have to rise to the challenge.” So that became my goal.

Bob’s a really nice guy, but he’s had moments of, let’s say, a mercurial nature when it comes to the band. A couple of those are in the book; were you wary of including them?
No, because Bob has always taken a pragmatic view of those stories: They’re the truth. They’re what happened. Bob’s often self-deprecating, and I think he’d prefer to put a truthful, good story out there rather than a hagiography. He’s complex, like most people, but at his core he’s just an honest, generous person. His stage persona is certainly part of his personality, but it’s not even close to all of it.

What was his reaction when he read the book? What was your reaction to his reaction?
He had a bunch of corrections, naturally, so I braced for the worst throughout that process. But then he exclaimed, as I recall, “Three, two, one … book!” and told me he liked it. I was flabbergasted. I had a few drinks to celebrate. That was the first moment I thought, “Holy shit, maybe I can pull this off.”

Since you had a relationship with Bob prior to the book, did that make it easier or more difficult to write it? I guess what I’m getting at is you’re a fan and a friend and not an objective observer.
That was a concern at times, but as mentioned earlier, Bob made it easy. You know the journalistic idea of a “nose-picker”? That is, adding character details that are not necessarily flattering but help to humanize the subject? Bob was always OK with including those if they were true. So I hope the book presents a well-rounded view of Robert Pollard as a person, but in the end I’d want his good nature to shine through. Otherwise it would be like when Albert Goldman spent years writing that hack job on John Lennon—what an absolute waste of time and effort, just to tear someone down.

Diehard fans are going to love the book. Did you have any sense while writing it that it could have a broader appeal? Or is it really for them?
The lyrical analysis and detailed accounts of live shows are definitely for the diehards. But I think there’s also a broader appeal for anyone who’s struggled to make creativity and art the center of their lives. American society is not generally set up to appreciate or support creative, artistic efforts unless they generate millions of dollars. So for me Bob’s story is as timeless as that of Pinocchio; it’s the idea of a dream that survives all its struggles to become reality.

Given the speed that Bob works—he’s prolific, you know—how did you decide where to end the book?
That he is! We talked about that early on, and agreed that the book should be “a good read,” with a satisfying arc to the story. The Electrifying Conclusion (2004) ended up being a new phase of Bob’s career rather than the end, but we felt that was the natural place to drop the curtain. When Geppetto’s puppet turned into a real boy, so to speak.

Related to that, any plans or ideas for a follow-up?
I’d love to do a revision/expansion down the road that covers more of Bob’s solo work and side projects, and especially explores the band’s current incarnation in more detail. But there are no plans for that right now. I’d recommend that anyone on the fence about seeing GBV catch them on this tour. They’re going like gangbusters and blowing the doors off every club they hit.

There had to be things that you left out. Give MAGNET readers an exclusive anecdote that didn’t make the final cut.
One of my favorites is alluded to in the Circus Devils song, “Sunflower Wildman.” Summer of 1968, Bob, (his brother) Jimmy and their friend Emmett came upon a large cherry tree in someone’s front yard, branches bowed with fruit. They crept up to it. No one emerged from the house, so they started slamming these cherries. The juices, cool and sweet, popped in their mouths. They gorged themselves.

A hollering man appeared on the front porch. The boys fled to their bikes. “No, wait!” the man yelled. “Come back! It’s OK!” They paused. “Let me show you something.” He pulled a cherry off the tree and broke it open with his fingers. In the remnants writhed a plump, bright green fruit worm nearly as big as the cherry had been. The boys blanched. “Probably just that one,” the man remarked. “Let’s try another.” He proceeded to pluck 30 or 40 cherries, and none lacked a writhing parasite at its heart. “Oh, I guess it’s the whole tree.” He smiled. “You boys take care now!” Bob thought he might puke. Like the song says: “Don’t eat the cherries from Oscular’s tree/Filled with green larvae, as they simply wouldn’t agree.”

—Matt Hickey

Exclusive Cover Story Excerpt: The Breeders Interviewed By Actor Elijah Wood

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

Interview by Elijah Wood

Photos by Jon Enoch

A quarter century after releasing the platinum-selling Last Splash and then drifting into an on-again/off-again period, the classic lineup of the Breeders is back with the aptly titled All Nerve, rocking like it’s 1993 all over again. Elijah Wood sits down with Kim and Kelley Deal to illuminate everything.

Elijah Wood: Like so many, when I first heard the Breeders in the summer of 1993 (I came to discover 1990’s Pod later), my ears were struck by the opening clack of Jim Macpherson’s drumsticks as intro to Josephine Wiggs’ iconic bass line of “Cannonball.” I was hooked. These four musicians, led by the singular voice of Kim Deal, stood out then—and remain now—as a band very much its own: sonically vital, idiosyncratic and incredibly special. I was honored to be asked by MAGNET to chat with Kim and Kelley Deal over the phone about their beautiful new album, All Nerve (4AD), the first with this lineup since Last Splash 25 years ago. Enjoy and rejoice that these fine folks are coming to a city near you and continuing to share their music with us! And check out Kim’s solo seven-inch project for an early version of “Walking With A Killer”

Elijah Wood: Where are you right now?
Kelley Deal: I’m in Dayton, Ohio, in my house.
Elijah: Oh, nice.
Kim Deal: Not really. I’m in Florida and sitting in a bay on the Atlantic Ocean in Summerland Key, in the lower Keys north of Key West.
Elijah: That sounds so lovely. Are you on vacation?
Kim: Yes. We started coming down here. You know, my dad used to come down here all the time, every year. And then he got old and needed help, so me and Kelley would grudgingly come down here. I don’t know about Kelley, but I hate the beach and laying out in the sun.
Elijah: I’ve never understood that, either. It only seems like kind of a weird waste of time.
Kim: It’s a punishment.
Elijah: Yeah. I’m good with swimming. I love to swim in the ocean, but the idea of laying out a blanket and reading a book or just lying there just seems … I have the same relationship with baths.
Kim: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
Elijah: I just feel like after 15 minutes, I’m bored with it. And I overheat, and I need to get out of it.
Kelley: Yeah. We have similar coloration, don’t we? We’re kinda light skinned like that.
Elijah: Maybe it’s just not in our blood.
Kim: Yeah.
Elijah: Um, your new record is really incredible. I was so pleased when they sent it to me. I didn’t know that I was gonna get a chance to look into it before talking to you, but it’s so good. How did it come together? I know that you all reformed the Last Splash lineup for the reunion tour. Is that kind of how you all came back together?
Kelley: Exactly. I was sitting on my couch with my sister. Kim was visiting me. It was 2012. I commented, you know, “Next year is 2013. It will be 20 years since Last Splash, it will be the anniversary. Should we, like, give a show? We could invite Jim and Josephine and could just play the record and maybe just do a show or do a couple of shows or something.” And Kim said, “Sure. You invite Jim, and I’ll talk to Josephine.” And so we did, and everybody was game for it. They texted right back and said, “Sounds awesome.” That kind of started that. That was sometime in the summer of 2012, and we played our first show at the Bell House in Brooklyn in March of 2013. That started the ball rolling.
Elijah: It obviously felt really good to be back together again as a band because it clearly led to this album. When did the conversation begin about recording something new together?
Kim: Well, at first we’re just concentrating on, “OK, this song goes into this song. This song goes into this song. How are we gonna do ‘Mad Lucas’?” So a lot of that time, you know, it wasn’t that … It was something like eight months of touring from March to the end, but then as the touring was getting a little farther in, it’s sounding really good and people are enjoying it so much. It was a London Forum show where people were so happy to see us, and there was a booking agent that’s just, like, “Man, have you guys thought to do another record? You really should. This was a really incredible night.” And our friends were saying, “You guys need to play more.” And, of course, we think, “This is sounding good.” So we began to go and do things.
Elijah: Wow. Then with Kim’s seven-inch series … I’m trying to figure out the timeline. Was that happening concurrently?
Kim: Yes, the first seven-inch, which was “Walking With A Killer,” came out, like, Jan. 1, 2013. I had some other ones, in different stages of completion, ready to go. Now, I have another one ready to go, but I haven’t manufactured the seven-inch yet. I thought I would put them all together as an album maybe.
Elijah: Oh, that’s a cool idea.
Kim: Yeah, I thought maybe I could do something like that. But yeah, it was happening concurrently. And what’s one of the ones we’ve … Josephine and Kelley said that they really liked the “Walking With A Killer” song, and I knew other than you, Elijah, and a couple of other people, not a lot of people have heard of the song, you know. So we started playing that one live, and it just sounded so big and lush.
Elijah: Yeah, that sounded good.
Kim: I’d never played it live with a band. It was always done in pieces, because it was a solo thing.
Elijah: That was ultimately how you all decided to record that for the album: just playing it live.
Kim: Yeah, I was just like, “Oh my God, we should do this one.”
Elijah: That’s so great.
Kelley: It’s interesting. I’m sitting here thinking about all those songs on there, and there are so many that I would do: “Range On Castle,” “Dirty Hessians,” “Likkle More,” “Biker Gone.” There’s so many that I would love to play live because these songs don’t get a chance. But you know what’s interesting about that is just this band—like Josephine, she really liked “Walking.” I don’t know that she didn’t like the others. They’re not the ones that spoke to her, I guess. It’s interesting how in this particular band, the push and pull is different. It’s interesting to me ’cause I’m sitting here thinking, “I’d love to do ‘Range On Castle.’ Oh, it’s so awesome.” But I gotta respect what she sees. That’s what makes this different than the last thing or the solo series. It’s really interesting how that works out. It’s fascinating.
Elijah: The thing of a group of people coming together as a band is different than an individual person writing a song. Under the auspices of the band, it’s seemingly a democratic process. And therefore, it is. It totally is. It’s fascinating. The thing of those voices coming together as one making the band what it is for whatever reason.
Kelley: Yeah. Jim Macpherson is working a full-time job, and Josephine is very busy doing her stuff: soundtrack work and art-installation work. She’s like a little scientist up in Brooklyn doing her stuff. So you would think that here we are—we’re doing this and we’re offered that. I love the idea that Kim or Josephine can say, “It’s a deal.” Or, “No, no. I don’t wanna do that.” It wasn’t until recently that I thought, “You know, a lot of people wouldn’t do that with Kim.” They would just say, “Whatever you want,” you know? It’s interesting.
Elijah: I think that’s what makes the Breeders the Breeders: the combination of those voices.
Kelley: Exactly, yeah. It’s true.
Elijah: There’s another song that you all re-recorded, I think it was on (2002’s) Title TK. You recorded the Amps song “Full On Idle.” What was the thought process behind that?
Kim: Nobody knew the Amps record (1995’s Pacer) when it was out.
Elijah: That seems crazy to me.
Kim: But it’s true though, right?
Elijah: Yeah, I guess so.
Kim: So, it felt like nobody had heard it anyway, and sometimes a beautiful song could be done better. That was really the main thing. We were playing it live, and it sounded so much better. Maybe it’s not a really great thing to do, but I couldn’t stop myself. And the same with “Hoverin’” on the b-side of “Divine Hammer.” It’s just me and Kelley just going into a demo studio and doing it together for fun. I ended up using it as the b-side because I thought it sounded really cool, so rickety. I thought it could be done way better. So me and Jim did it with (Steve) Albini for the Amps record. Were you there, Kel?
Kelley: With Albini? Yes, I was.
Elijah: Speaking of the legendary engineer/record handyman … He recorded some of the new record as well, right?
Kim: Yeah. OK, here’s the thing with Albini, I think. When you go to a studio with him, it’s not sort of a place where you can workshop an idea out or anything. There’s definitely spaces on a song that don’t sound good. [Laughs] For instance, there can be a song that I can think of that it’s not the greatest part, but if we get the guitars distorted enough or whatever, it’ll sound OK. I don’t know. There’s things like that where these things worked. But with Albini, the recording process is so revealing of what’s happening, and he takes it to the basics. So at every level, it can’t just be … I can’t cringe anywhere in the song with Albini.
Elijah: He’s sort of notorious for that, isn’t he? He’s kind of the person who refuses to be called a producer. He refuses to take that producing credit, and he’s just there to filter whatever the band is bringing them without any … I’ve heard that he notoriously doesn’t offer any kind of thoughts necessarily, right?
Kim: Right. Well, he would, you know, refer to himself as a plumber.
Elijah: Right. [Laughs]
Kim: If you want a good recording of what you’re doing in the studio, out in the room, he will give you the best recording that he’s capable of doing. And he approaches everything professionally. He will make you sound exactly like you sound, and sometimes that’s not good.
Elijah: If your idea or if your song is not as fully fleshed out as you’d like it to be, then it can showcase some of the work that you weren’t keen to experience.
Kim: It could. On the other hand, he does like to say that he doesn’t like to influence anybody’s recording and artistic decisions. But at the same time, with “All Nerve,” I definitely had a harmony that I wanted to do to that part of a song, and I got some pushback. “You don’t need a harmony.” But whenever I wanna double something, he’ll say, “It just sounds better single here.” But sometimes, he likes to listen to the damaged fragility of a single vocal. He finds that way more compelling than he would find a voice like Adele that’s beautiful. Not that she’s not doing a damaged beautiful vocal. I’m not saying that.
Elijah: He’s not looking for perfection. He just wants the naked, revealing recording of the band.
Kim: Which is sometimes extremely, exactly what I don’t wanna do. But in the end, he’s always right. He really is always right. It’s really ridiculous how right he usually is. It’s frustrating.

A Conversation With The B-52s’ Cindy Wilson

If you see Cindy Wilson as part of her now-40-year-old day job—with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider, one of three vocalists with the B-52s—she’s in a bouffant wig singing tart, dance-punk classics, wriggling through the Mashed Potato and celebrating the band’s anniversary on tour. Yet for her first-ever solo projects—two self-released EPs, Sunrise and Supernatural, and a spooky-yet-cheerful album, Change (Kill Rock Stars)—Wilson is resplendent in a Warhol-white hairdo, a cool musical reserve and a powerful, nuanced and beautiful voice that’s always sounded as if it’s come from far beyond the heavens of Planet Claire.

You’re a Southern belle from birth, and I know you just moved back to Athens, Ga. What’s the long-lasting allure? And is this the Athens of our youth?
The B-52s all moved to New York City once we signed with Warner Bros. and lived there for years. After (1989’s) Cosmic Thing came out, my husband and I moved back down to the South, first to Atlanta and, more recently, to Athens in a cute little house in Five Points. I love being back there. And you know how Athens is. Even back in the day it was ever-changing. That’s the thing with a college town. I was born there, so it’s like watching a river go by, always flowing. One of Athens’ charms is that it has new energy, that it’s constantly replenishing itself. That’s fun to watch.

Do you find yourself part of the scene again down there like you were at the start of the B-52s?
Are you asking me if I’m a regular at certain venues? [Laughs] Not really. That’s not to say I don’t ever get out to see bands. Doing this solo thing does put me back in the scene, especially as we’re back to playing small clubs. I think that I have the same new energy as the city.

I know there’s 40th anniversary stuff with the B-52s, but in the last 20 months, everyone in the band has done solo stuff. Do the three of you discuss being apart as much as you do band work?
Oh, sure, and everything works out great among us. Kate’s record came out not long ago, and Fred is constantly making new music, but we’re totally committed to the B-52s. We’re friends first and foremost and still have a great time performing. I think we’re having as much fun as the audience.

Forget about what took you so long to make your solo debut. Have you been working toward something on your own before the EPs? Was doing a solo thing much of a big deal?
Music is a lovely and wonderful stress reliever. I had some free time, and a friend of mine (Ryan Monahan) and I just started kicking it around the studio. We started working with another friend, Suny Lyons, and it became a thing. If it’s not fun or exciting, why do it in the first place? As it got more exciting, it became more and more concrete in my mind. It felt like something that I could put my energy into. Several songs into it all, we came up with a show and took it to SXSW—that’s when it became real. That’s when we decided to bring it to a label for support and guidance, and Kill Rock Stars was able to appreciate the whole package, even though we put out the EPs on our own before we toured.

I love that the EPs feel different than the album. Were you testing the musical waters for yourself with the EPs or were you seeing how a potential audience, old and new, might respond?
We kept hearing after the EPs came out that we might want to add more uptempo numbers to our repertoire. [Laughs] We agreed, so we wrote more upbeat tunes for the album and the show.

You have two sonic modes upon which you rely on Change: Germanic motorik krautrock and French electro pop. Is this stuff you’re listening to and bringing to the table? How did you know that would work for your voice, as what you do during your day job is so far from this?
We combined all of our interests and sounds, but Suny and Ryan are just genius. It was a process, but the first song where I knew we could do this was “Brother.”

I don’t love pinpointing or interpreting lyrics, but I can’t help but think that the idea of “Brother” is deeply personal. [Wilson’s brother, B-52s co-founder Ricky, died from the effects of AIDS in 1985.]
We started performing with a bunch of old friends, starting with this tribute night to Athens bands from the later ’70s and early ’80s like Pylon. It was a cool evening where we all did each other’s songs. That sort of led me to put my own twist onto the whole brother idea.

You’ve been part of a band dynamic since 1977 and friends with the B-52s before that. You keep talking about Suny and Ryan with great respect and affection. Would it be fair to say that maybe you waited as long as you did to make your own music until you found an equally comfortable nesting place as the one you had with your brother and (B-52s co-founder who no longer tours with the band) Keith Strickland? Is how you worked on Change in any way like how you used to work with Keith and Ricky?
That’s very perceptive of you. It was indeed something I was looking for, and I didn’t even know that I was looking for until I found it happened. When it did, it just felt natural. Now, I’m tripping. I’m just so happy about it. Really.

You should be. Going back to the B-52s, “Big Bird,” “Give Me Back My Man,” “She Brakes For Rainbows.” These are all your songs. Fred and Kate had a more Dadaist lyrical approach, but you seemed to be silly but to the point. That’s what I noticed about Change as a whole, that it’s more impressionistic than your B-52s work and more universal without being socially or politically tinged. What say you?
I think so. I hope so. I’m a liberal, a Democrat. I want to talk about it all but not in the music per se. What I tried to do … I definitely always had my silly side, where we’re laughing and jamming, but I wanted my songs to sound real. Even now, something such as “Ain’t It A Shame,” I wanted that to sound sincere and not as if I was making fun of a thing … I want to be amusing but with just a touch of realism.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With Marc Almond

Be it his epic, cabaret-pop solo albums or his wonky electro-wave work in Soft Cell, Marc Almond is an avatar of modern dramatic vocal arts. Whether he belies or deifies his influences (Lotte Lenya, Gene Pitney, David Bowie), Almond has remade the image of the nü-pop singer with a tortured theatricality that would make Judy Garland seem tame. He hasn’t released music in the U.S. since the ’90s—2016’s gorgeously collected Trials Of Eyeliner 10-CD anthology was only properly released in the U.K.—but things change with Shadows And Reflections (BMG), an album of stirringly stagey new Almond songs and rare covers, all tinged with a cosmopolitan sheen and arching melodicism fans of Bacharach, Brel, Webb and Hazlewood will adore.

Do you believe in fate or free will? Where do you stand on the philosophical side of the ledger?
I don’t believe in fate because, in some way, that requires we believe in something predetermined by supernatural powers, and that doesn’t interest me.

You’ve had great health and lousy health. How has the latter made you appreciate the former?
Great health is something you take for granted until you lose it. I suppose if I thought I was going to live this long I would’ve taken better care of myself.

I’ve witnessed you in many live music circumstances. Are you done with Rewind ’80s tours or is there something heartening about seeing and hearing audiences respond to your most public moments or hits?
I find myself in the fortunate position that I’m still asked to do Rewinds and retro festivals, and I’m now OK with that because it isn’t all I do. I can do a song cycle, Ten Plagues, which was a metaphor about the AIDS crisis by avant-garde composers Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill. Or I can sing “Tainted Love” to 40,000 people and see how happy it makes them to relive their youth. That’s a great position to be in.

Coming off a 10-LP boxed set of your past and knowing Mike Thorne is readying a collection of Soft Cell tracks, have you had just about enough of your past?
No, the past defines us. If I only had the past it would personally be worrying, but I don’t. I keep working and recording new material, or revisiting the past. I no longer have a problem with going back, since there’s more behind me than ahead.

Several songs on the new album—“Overture,” “Interlude,” “No One To Say Goodnight To”—set and frame the record’s mood. They’re composed and orchestrated by you and longtime collaborator John Harle. How does his music speak to you?
John Harle is another great musician/composer, one of Britain’s finest. His understanding of the limits of musicality, his extraordinary ability to take out as much as he puts in, to let a composition breathe and have life, is amazing. His music doesn’t just speak to me. It is transformative and transports you.

Why the ’60s—that particular 1960s—as an inspirational éclat for Shadows? A little bit Mod, a little Carnaby Street cosmopolitan, a little—in the words of Sandra Bernhard—bit of Burt?
I mean, where do I begin? It’s the roots and new shoots of so much of the family tree of all modern music, so much potential, so many possibilities, so much to say and hope for in that decade of music. It just felt like such a natural thing to do and such a joy to explore so many great, relatively unknown songs.

Considering the whole Jimmy Webb/Bacharach vibe of Shadows, did your heart sink when Glen Campbell passed?
He will be sadly missed, and his influence is far more deeply felt than might’ve first been apparent.

You worked with Bacharach at the London Palladium, and you do his “Blue On Blue” here. I don’t mean to starfuck, but that just sounds like a magnificent opportunity—was he cool to work with? Why do this song, as opposed to a million others?
It’s still this relatively unknown song, and I love tunes that are sad and mournful, but feel in their arrangements to convey the exact opposite. It was great to work with Burt. He, of course, writes principally with women in mind, the simplicity of his storytelling always masks a subtext. He was thrilled I chose this song.

On the new album, you start with a picture of a man in an apartment, and end with a picture of a man in an apartment. Are you selling real estate now, or do you picture Shadows And Reflections as someone walled in by circumstance?
Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I wanted the songs to hang together to form a narrative, arranged around the opening and closing tracks. In many ways, it’s an homage to the films of the late ’50s and ’60s directed by Douglas Sirk. Once again, it’s the subtexts that I am fascinated by, the language of what is not said, and the bleakness of pursuing capitalist soulless dreams. It’s also about the emptiness of things, a lack of spirituality as a warning.

I ran around with you and the Soft Cell crowd when you first came to New York. You seemed to love the city, and then you seemed to hate it and never came back, more or less. Are you ever coming back?
I did love it. You have relationships with cities and places, you fall in love, and then they change and madden you, or leave you behind, or become something other than that thing you fell in love with. Or maybe we change. I loved New York, and then didn’t. I was in love with New York, and then wasn’t. But infuriatingly I still love it in some hope that we can rekindle something.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With Jane Birkin

For every sound and image of Jane Birkin burned into memory (e.g., Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Vadim’s Don Juan, Or If Don Juan Were A Woman), there’s an equal amount dedicated to her time with Serge Gainsbourg. From 1969 to 1980, the love pair created the legendarily naughty song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” a film (Slogan) and a daughter, Charlotte. Gainsbourg made Birkin something of a muse, writing dozens of complexly wordy songs for her and, in turn, she continues the observance of their co-joined legacy with the new, lush Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique (Warner Classics/Parlophone) and a rare live celebration of such, February 1 at Carnegie Hall.

Once you made your fortune in France, you never really returned home to London. What was the allure?
I left for France to do a screen test when I was 20. John Barry (her then-husband, known for composing the music for 12 James Bond films) had already left for Los Angeles, with me not knowing what else to do. So I went to Paris and never came back—maybe just for Christmas or holidays. I just wound up staying with Serge after John and I divorced for the next 13 years or so.

I would be remiss if I did not mention your daughter, Charlotte, and her latest album, Rest. Do you keep up with each release, the minutiae of it all?
She let me listen to Rest about two years ago, and I was astounded by her words, her honesty. It was so true and beautiful, poetically speaking. I think that she was brave in opening her heart to what hurts. What’s strange about this is that she was always a very secret child—a very introverted actress. She never talked about her private life. Now she has this desire to be open and for people to understand her. And that has a remarkable beauty to it.

Does she get that from you or Serge?
I would say that she got that most from Serge—at least maybe the writing, though Serge used a style of writing that was very much like Cole Porter, really; of cutting words into two and singing them as part of the next lines. So it is a whole thing. He was the most modern writer that ever existed in France, more so than Brel and such. It was his way of shortening words or using slang. No one has really been like him since, so he is a constant reference to anybody who writes in French

He had a brilliant level of wordplay that mixed the erudite with the erotic—even foul. When you were first presented with his lyrics and his shifting musicality, how did you embrace it?
I’m never really sure what people mean when they say embrace. [Laughs] He wrote many songs for me—eventually one every two years over 20-odd years.

Until he passed.
What he gave me to sing was what I believe was most feminine about him, and all his sadness, and all his breakups, even the one involving me, as well. That’s a very strange psychological position to be in. It was intriguing to try to be up to his standards and honor it in some way. When we were together, I guess it felt more normal for him to write about me or to me, as I was always by his side. He gave me the most beautiful of his songs always.

I don’t mean to sound naïve, but if someone was writing songs for me and about me on a regular basis, I might find them difficult to sing. Flattered and moved, yes, but did you find that awkward?
Not a naïve question at all because it is really not that simple. I mean, there were songs that he wrote explicitly about me having an affair and about how he cried. And they were written in such a beautiful way. I was like you; terribly moved and awkward. I could understand they were wonderful songs and from a man’s soul. I just tried to sing them as high as I could in pitch to make him as pleased as he could and feel as if I was interpreting his words to the very highest of standards. I would watch him through the glass of the studio and hoped they were as beautiful as they could be. And not disappoint him I was singing his pain. I always hoped for another 12 songs, then another. And then he died.

How did you even learn to sing, since acting was your thing?
I was in a musical when I was 17: The Passion Flower Hotel. It was very bad with lots of stupid songs such as “I Must I Must I Must Increase My Bust.” So not funny. A real school farce. There were, however, a few beautiful melodies because that is what John Barry did. No one noticed whether I had a good voice—it was just that I lived with the composer. It was weird that I found myself again in the musical arena with Serge, especially at first with this terribly sexy song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus.” It was a lot of heavy breathing, which I understood exacty what that was. I also understood that every other pretty girl in Paris wanted to sing that song with him. I was no fool. So when he said he’d written “Jane B Preludio De Chopin 4,” well, I loved him. I didn’t care what the song was. It was just good fun being with him being out on the road. I never cared much about anything. I wasn’t really a professional person with some grand ambition. I believe he would think it funny that I’m here doing this in America now. He loved America.

I do get that Serge was classically trained, but why do this as a symphony?
I don’t know if he saw it as so grand, but he did use classical music as inspiration and when he wanted to give us something beautiful. His father was a classically trained musician who played piano in cabarets and casinos. It’s a bit pompous, this show, as I didn’t know if I had the voice for it. But I did do this first as a reading of his lyrics—to show off what sort of poet he was. I believe Serge would have been pleased, as he was only able to use full orchestras for his movies. Orchestras were always so frightfully expensive. I believe he would be moved especially hearing “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” played that way.

—A.D. Amorosi

Suicide Wife: Alan Vega’s Missus Liz Lamere Chats Love, Art And Boxing

When Suicide Sally: A Celebration Of The Music Of Suicide And Alan Vega unfurls in real time on January 25 at The Bowery Electric in Manhattan, the sold-out live event promises to go beyond mere renditions of classic Suicide songs and those of the late Vega. This time, it will most likely be deeply personal. Led by Jesse Malin and Mr. Pharmacist (Gregg Foreman), the live celebration will include old friends and collaborators—Martin Rev of Suicide, Ric Ocasek, Ben Vaughn—as well as those who followed in Vega’s footsteps: JG Thirlwell (Foetus), Peter Zaremba (Fleshtones), Kid Congo Powers (Cramps, Gun Club), Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello), Bob Bert (Sonic Youth) and Cynthia Sley (Bush Tetras).

Best of all, there will be family—Vega’s wife/collaborator Liz Lamere and their son Dante—hailing the one-time singer/songwriter for minimalist experimental/electronic duo Suicide and his series of latter-day, primal soundscape/rockabilly solo efforts. Renowned for his aggressive way with song (as a raw gut-shot howler and as an earthen apocalyptic lyricist), Vega passed in 2016 at age 78 with his legend intact—as an avatar not only of the proto-punk scene that birthed Talking Heads and Television but of the scorched-earth sound of noise and beauty, a terroristic, tremulous tone that continued to be his life’s work up through his last solo album IT, which came out last year. (Lamere contributed to all of Vega’s work since 1990’s Deuce Avenue.)

If Lou Reed was NYC’s saint of the streetwise, Vega was its soul.

MAGNET recently spoke with Lamere, a fascinating woman whose Twitter handle reads ”Artist Producer Manager Fixer – Music Art Boxing Life.”

I don’t know what’s more fascinating about your Twitter tagline—the art or the boxing bit.
Funny you should say that. Alan was a boxing fan from way back.

That does not surprise me. I am a fanatic as well—the whole mano-a-mano thing.
The early days of listening to boxing exclusively on the radio—he was so fond of that. And Alan put Mike Tyson into a sculpture of his before anyone really knew who Mike Tyson was. That theme has appeared and reappeared in his visual career as well as the music. He’s always talked about warriors and underdogs—that passion and drive. Boxing is not a game. It is a science, and you are literally putting yourself in a situation where you could be killed. Alan felt that was about being on the stage. He had tremendous respect for athletes on the whole and boxers in particular. They put their life on the line for their artistry.

So how do you figure into that?
Fighting teaches you tremendous life lessons. About 11 years ago, I started boxing to stay fit. I was coaching my son’s soccer team—I played varsity soccer in my youth—from the ages five to 15, and by the time they hit eight, they start getting stronger and faster. I liked to scrimmage with them because I’m not a sideline-type coach. So I just starting boxing to keep up for fitness. The traditional club I was in they, call it a white-collar boxing club because the men and women who were there—on Wall Street—were investment bankers. About five or six years in, one of the owners of the club knew that I managed Alan’s art and music and asked if I would do the same for some fighters. So I got my manager’s license and began managing a female fighter first because it is tough for the females. So much of it is pay-to-play—you have to really build up a track record and support and sell your own tickets, and someone picks you up.

Sounds like the music industry.
Yeah, where you have to build up your own support system and following until the big guys come in and put you on the bigger stage. Interestingly enough, I want to be in the Guinness Book Of World Records and make my boxing debut as the oldest professional to hit the ring for the first time. I’m 50-something, and the record is currently held by a man who was in prison for a crime he did not commit, and when he got out, Bernard Hopkins put him on the undercard. I’m moving toward that. I’m working on my defense, and I’m very aggressive. My son Dante—I spar with him. He wants me to know what’s it is to get hit in the face. I did the same with a lot of professional boxers—men—in the past, but I need to get hit in the head and get my defenses up. Too many men won’t hit me. Women—they will go at you. They’ll kill you. But with women, I go right at them, too, so they don’t want to spar with me.

This is the woman Alan Vega fell in love with. What were you doing circa 1987 when you met him?
I actually met him Oct. 23, 1985, at a record-release event thrown for him by Elektra Records for his Just A Million Dreams album. I was a second-year associate at a corporate law firm, and one of my colleagues was the sister of his guitar player at the time. We were actually going to pick him up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, as the party was at the Palladium. I didn’t know who Alan Vega was even though I did play drums in a band—did so since age 16, nothing serious—in Boston and knew the Dead Boys and the Neighborhoods. Even knew the Cars, though I thought they were pop. Suicide and Vega? Nothing. So anyway, we go to pick him up, and he whips open the car door, and the first thing I notice is that he’s got this crazy amount of energy. I mean, it was just radiating off this person. We get to the Palladium, and there are these three light sculptures on the wall. On the floor were effects pedals—a real mish mosh of electronic stuff, and he just took command of it all. I was impressed. He was impressed with me, too, as I was this lawyer by day, punk-rock chick at night. Weird because my colleague thought I would click with her brother. Alan kept leaving his circles of well-wishers that night and coming over to me especially, as he was leaving the next morning for a tour of Europe. After that night, I didn’t see him for six weeks. Oh, and here’s the weird thing.

Here’s the weird thing?
I’m into astrology—not heavily or obsessive but fascinated—and that very morning I read my horoscope that said that I would meet a lamb in wolf’s clothing. Honest to god, Alan that same night when I met him was wearing a belt buckle that read “WOLF” all over it. That was really intense. I still have it in my collection of Alan things. That was my initial meeting with Alan Vega. He came back from the tour—I couldn’t get him out of my head, that visceral reaction to his presence, and he to me—and as soon as he got back from that tour, I met him at the Gramercy Park and we just talked for hours. We were together from that on.

Was he keen to work with you as a drummer?
Not really, because he used to have a keyboard player in his band—Anne Deon—who was his girlfriend. A very passionate Italian woman who slowly kept edging her way to center stage. It became something of a rivalry between them. I don’t think he dug that, and that wasn’t what I was about, either. That would be the end of our relationship, so I kept it cool. At that point, he was very much about deconstructing his music. He would work with producers and come up with polished stuff such as Just A Million Dreams, but then he would do a song like “Ra Ra Baby”—he did that when the producer was on break—that was just sheer energy and noise. He really wanted to get back to that level of raw, that deconstruction. He had this thing—this theory—of “no note,” where you held down all the keys of a keyboard all at once. Black on black. You didn’t have to focus. He liked me as a drummer because I kept it simple, didn’t do any fills. Keep the beat: the purity of simplicity. Very minimal. Right out there. So vulnerable. Nothing on the front line or spotlight. That stuck out for Alan. Can we strip it down? The paradox of that is when you hear it, hear what he did, it was true rhythm and blues. When you get a gut feel of where that is going to or can go, that was intense. I do not know if we will ever hear again a vocalist who was as pure as Alan Vega. He always did the vocals last when he got to the studio. The music would be done. He would just go into the booth without any idea or knowledge and just wail. He would write sketches nightly, tons of notebooks, that he would use as a framework but then go into a studio and freestyle from there. Done in one performance. And the placement was always unique—where he placed his vocals within the context. I get really excited thinking of all this.

You should be. I’m married to a talented artist. I get it. How, then, did you get to be his collaborator, producer and drummer?
It really was just an evolution. So natural. No plan. No expectations. That was the beauty of working with Alan. Some of the roles I executed early on … I mean he had me working these machines by hand that I had never played before. Neither had he, really—he wasn’t this amazing musician. But he just knew sound. He was the director of sound. The tape was always rolling, and he always just knew immediately when you had hit upon something. Everything from 1987 through to 2016 was just us manipulating hours and hours of tape and until we got what Alan thought was totally unique. That was his mission: something that had never been heard before. Eventually I would say, “Hey, we’ve been doing these 40 tracks for years. Can we pick 11 of them that we can turn into songs and Alan can sing on them?” He loved that challenge. He wanted to keep going until it became uncomfortable. As soon as he got it, he had to push past it. He would do the same thing with sculpture: He would work on something that seemed finished, then smash it and start again from there and deconstruct that. “Alan, can’t we save that? Alan, can’t we hold on to that song as is?” No. He would tape over things and smash things because to him it was irrelevant as soon as he did it. That was his ethos. He always needed to move forward. He never went backward. When we did—when we went through his vaults—we would find stuff that just was so amazing and timeless. Alan’s music transcends time and space. Probably because he was searching for the unknown.

Is that how IT was created—culled from tracks—or was it more centered and specific?
Maybe I’m overstating. He would bring CDs back from the studio and center on a core group of sounds or songs. “This needs more bass.” “This needs a sound that could be a guitar or a lawnmower.” That is what became the cohesive whole. I would push to get him to which songs went forward from there, then got mixed, had vocals out on and such. What was hardest then was getting him to commit, and commit with lyrics and vocals. Because that was a statement. Yes, there are universal themes that happen to or with our collective consciousness, but he had trouble with the idea of putting something out into that consciousness. He was uncompromising in his vision, but he was vulnerable once it was out there. He was the heart and soul of his own music. I just kept it on track. Even when he had his stroke.

So he knew time was closing in?
I mean, he was going back and forth from sculpting and making music and doing songs that evolved into IT at a time when he could’ve dropped dead and knowing that his arteries were blocked. His doctors didn’t even want to unblock his carotid arteries because they thought it would cause another stroke. Even toward the end, he kept doing these portraits of faces that had lost any distinction—no faces. He was connecting with the spirit world. His last group of paintings had no faces; it was degeneration. And those paintings were connected to the songs of IT. They had the same names. He knew this was his final statement. And the message was inspirational: After going through generations of war and strife, you can’t let anything stop you. You have to get up and move forward.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With The Posies

As the Posies celebrate three decades making music together, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow ponder the band’s Geffen years

Tommy Keene’s recent passing only serves to underscore the realization that power pop will always be a marginalized idiom of its own making. The Posies realized this early on and seriously set about debunking its very existence with 1993’s Frosting On The Beater, a darkly beautiful album that ranks among the ’90s finest moments—and certainly one of its most enduring.
 Starting in May, Omnivore will be reissuing Frosting, along with its DGC bookends: 1990’s Dear 23 and 1996’s Amazing Disgrace. Posies founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow assure us that each will deliver a payload of juicy outtakes and such. Vinyl versions of the original LPs are also part of the campaign. Meanwhile, Auer and Stringfellow are heading out as a duo starting this week, before reassembling the Frosting-era band for a fully fleshed-out celebration of the Posies’ flirtation with major-label infamy. These days, both are residing in Europe, where MAGNET caught up with them via transcontinental conference call.

What are the details surrounding the reissues?
Auer: May 4 for Dear 23, July 27 for Frosting On The Beater and October 26 for Amazing Disgrace—that’s the timeline from Omnivore.

What can fans expect?

Auer: I know that sometimes there’s a tendency to repackage bonus tracks that’ve been previously released and just update them, remaster then and sell them all over again, and sure, were doing some of that. But so much of what will be on the re-releases has never been made available before, and it’s all culled from our personal archives. We navigated our way through a huge stash of an obsolete media form known as the DAT tape, which yielded incredible stuff, some of which we didn’t even remember recording. It’s shocking, for instance, to see how many demoes there were for Dear 23. And for Frosting, there’s no way we could fit all the extra stuff on the reissue and make is manageable.
Stringfellow: To be clear, we did put out a box set in 2000 with a whole bunch of unreleased stuff. But almost none of the bonus tracks on the new reisssues were on that box set. So there’s that much more unreleased material that we’ve been able to find.

How about the vinyl reissues?

Auer: What’s cool is that we’re going back to the original master tapes, so it’s not like we’ll have to live with some inferior source anymore. We’re able to do a nice polish on these original masters, and that’s pretty incredible. The technology has improved so much since “back in the day.”
Stringfellow: The CD version of Dear 23 is one of the reasons why I’ve never gone back to that album much. It didn’t sound very good to me.

Yeah, you really have to turn that one up.
Stringfellow: And after listing to the original tapes, I have to say that it’s not the same record—it’s way better sounding. Sonically, it’s much clearer and more close at hand. Dear 23 always stuck out because it sounded a little mushy and washy. Frosting was meat-and-potatoes solid and hard hitting, and our other albums just don’t have the reverb thing that Dear 23 had. We were teenagers when we did that album, and we learned a few things in the three years of touring after that.
Auer: I think there was somewhat of an intimidation factor in making that first major-label album. I mean, we’d made this independent record (1988’s Failure) that had gotten all this attention that led to this record deal with DGC/Geffen fairly quickly. And then, all of a sudden, we were making a record with one of our production heroes, Sir John Leckie, a true English gentleman who’d worked with Pink Floyd, XTC … some of our all-time favorite artists and records. I think we spent six weeks working on 10 songs for Dear 23; we spent 90 hours total on Failure! To me, sometimes it sounds like we’re trying a little too hard, like it’s a little stiff. That’s what I hear when I put it on. But I still think it’s a pretty great record.

On Frosting, the two things that stand out the most for me are the larger-than-life guitars and the insane drumming of Mike Musburger.
Auer: The ironic thing about the sound of the guitars being so huge is that it was stumbled upon through these really small amps we were using—it’s in between distorted and clean. And we were experimenting with open tunings heavily, and personally, I felt like we were finally establishing something we felt was our own.
Stringfellow: And there’s a British way of making records, and there’s an American way of making records.
Auer: We were encouraged by our new producer to relax as well. I mean, you couldn’t get more opposite of John Leckie than Don Fleming. Don was more of a rock guy with no formal engineering training, and he wouldn’t let us get fussy about things. The drums and guitars weren’t labored over; we all felt free to let it all hang out in the studio.

Any quick thoughts on Amazing Disgrace?
Stringfellow: “Dense” is a word that comes to mind. It has some wonderfully composed pop songs, but it didn’t come off that way somehow. It’s not as easy to approach, which is another reason to like it. It’s more demanding.
Auer: It’s our most rocking record—the one that has the most aggression. In retrospect, I’m amazed at how angry it sounds.

I saw you perform in Houston on the Amazing Disgrace tour. You looked a little angry that night.

Stringfellow: That U.S. tour was right on the heels of a European tour and went right into an Australian tour. It was never-ending, and the four personalities in the band were going in pretty different directions, really. There were two divorces going on, and we’d kind of hit a wall in terms of the exponential growth we’d experienced. We were just these dudes on tour, with some of us taking drugs at some point and getting into funks. We weren’t communicating very well, and that’s a disaster.

On a more positive note, I’m really looking forward to seeing Mike Musburger on drums for this tour. 

Auer: The first time we played with Mike, we decided to do a few covers. “I.O.U.” by the Replacements was the first song we ever played together. After the guitar intro, there’s this single snare hit that occurs, and I remember shooting a look at Ken after Mike made that first hit, like I’d been hit by lightning.

Stringfellow: I was 19, Jon was 18, and Mike was maybe 20. None of us was old enough to drink, and Mike shouldn’t have sounded that pro. But he had his act together, for sure. It was pretty obvious that he was amazing.

—Hobart Rowland

A Conversation With Sparks

The hammering glam pop of 1974’s Kimono My House, the lush arpeggiating disco of 1979’s No. 1 In Heaven, the spiky new wave of 1982’s Angst In My Pants, the edgy synth-house of 1994’s Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, the wily art-baroque of its newest album, Hippopotamus (BMG): Only the sonic wallpaper changes when it comes to the Mael brothers of Sparks. Russell sings their songs in a high, quavering voice, while Ron plays and writes them in gorgeously complex fashion. Along with Hippopotamus, the Maels are involved with the long-awaited Annette, their filmic, musical script about a stand-up comedian whose opera singer wife dies and he finds himself alone with a two-year-old daughter with a surprising gift. Sounds like a Sparks song to me.

It’s 46 years since your debut as Halfnelson. When did you think to yourselves, “No, Sparks is better”?
Russell: That moment arrived as a result of Albert Grossman, the owner of Bearsville Records. He loved our first album but was disappointed that it didn’t sell as much as he’d hoped—that it deserved to sell more. He thought the name Halfnelson was holding it back, that it was so obscure as to cause a problem. We didn’t see that, but we didn’t own the label. He said that we were humorous people, that we reminded him of the Marx Brothers, and why didn’t we call ourselves the Sparks Brothers, but we didn’t like that idea.
Ron: We said, “Perhaps we’ll meet you halfway,” and that’s where Sparks came in.

How has the art of Sparks most changed since your start, beyond stylistic changes?
Ron: I think there’s still this certain sensibility running through everything we do, despite all the stylistic changes and external trappings. Whether we’re working with a band, orchestras or just each other, we have faith in three- , four-minute songs. We believe there are still roads we haven’t taken. I think that we can do an album like Hippopotamus now that still surprises people. That’s what we seek to do. It’s not as if we’ve changed. It’s the fact that we’ve continued and are able to do this that’s amazing.

Seeing as your songs seem so ordered, despite the chaos within, are the two of you almost always of the same mind? And if not, where do you two differ, and how are these differences resolved?
Russell: Generally, we’re of the same mind; you’re right. When we’re not, they’re about lesser issues. Nothing grand. If so, we get on a similar path and go for it.
Ron: Amen.

Smaller squabbles. Like what?
Ron: Marital issues. Song choices for an album. Sounds. Nothing much. It’s not as if we’re frustrated by having the same POV or that we could be doing something outside of Sparks.

Ron has almost always written all the lyrics.
Russell: With the exception of the classics “Pineapple” and “Gone With The Wind.” Mine only ever come around every 10 years.
Ron: They’re generational.

Yes, but why did that come to pass? Why does Ron seek to complicate your life as a singer with tongue twisters like “Life With The Macbeths” or “Scandinavian Design” on the new album?
Ron: I don’t want to be limited by the thought of how a singer might sing my songs. That’s not my problem.
Russell: Yes, they’re challenging, but in retrospect, I think I’ve distanced myself in that I look at what else is going on in pop music and find it better to have such complexity. That makes those songs more special. They stick out from the crowd. That and having a key that goes all over the map is why Sparks sound like we sound. I embrace it.

On the song “Hippopotamus,” there’s a Volkswagen microbus, Titus Andronicus and a woman with an abacus. That’s such a silly rhyme scheme. I don’t have a question. I just wanted to repeat those lyrics to you because I’m trying to picture that session.
It’s not as much fun as you’re picturing.

Last time we spoke for MAGNET, I asked about this movie musical you were working on. You couldn’t say much then, but now … you’re laughing.
I’m laughing because we can’t tell you much more now.
Russell: It’s called Annette now, and we’re collaborating with Leos Carax, who last did Holy Motors.

How did the relationship start with Carax? You must like him a lot because he’s the topic of your new tune “When You’re A French Director.”
He used our song “How Are You Getting Home?” on Holy Motors, and as a result of that, we met him in Cannes after just finishing what would’ve been our next record, this highly narrative album, Annette. He asked to hear it and loved it so much. He said he wanted to direct it as his next film, so Annette suddenly took a different course—it no longer became Sparks’ next album. We recorded Hippopotamus for release in its stead, and now, we’re far along in preproduction having written a script and cast Adam Driver and Michelle Williams. It’s shaping up nicely.

So Williams, and not Rihanna, who was rumored at first? Are you enjoying the longer-than-a-pop-song process?
Russell: Oh yes, the dialogue, the acting, everything. The more Leos gets involved, he wants certain rewrites, so we’re in that process.
Ron: Then again, we’ve been in that process for the last 45 years. It’s a great challenge for us to work in such a long narrative way because we’re used to four-minute songs, where the starts and ends are so contained. A script like this shifts your way of thinking, to have to make something that needs to continue to make sense over a two-hour period.
Russell: We’re just delighted that it’s finally going to start filming at the beginning of next year.
Ron: When your lead actor is the evilest villain of all time in the Star Wars universe, some things just take time.

A.D. Amorosi

Best Of 2017: Q&A With Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield

We caught up with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., during some downtime between tour legs for Out In The Storm. Here’s what she had to say about the making of MAGNET’s album of the year.

It’s no secret that Out In The Storm is about weathering a rocky relationship. And yet there’s not a lot of weakness and self-pity expressed in these songs.
I had the urge to write fresh off the breakup, but every time I sat down to do it, I had to stop myself. It was too earnest, too over-the-top. I needed to wait. By the time I actually sat down to write the songs on the record, the relationship I’m describing had been over for a year and a half. I was right at the end of processing it.

And the album is sequenced that way, especially with “Fade” as the last track.
I actually wanted to put that at the beginning of the album, and (producer) John (Agnello) was like, “No, it doesn’t belong there.” And he was right. I kind of look at the record like a long breakup conversation, and “Fade” is that last breath.

You definitely hear anger on this album, but there’s also a sense of empowerment and even hope.
The relationship I’m describing on the album is something that a lot of people have been through, where there’s this uneven power dynamic. The record was a response to really feeling like I didn’t have a voice in the relationship. So I’m saying all the things I felt like I really didn’t get to say in the moment. I wanted that combative energy to be a force to be reckoned with. I wanted it to sound strong.

What was it like working with producer John Agnello?
He’s really nurturing in the studio. Some artists like to be verbally abused [laughs], and some artists need to be coddled. I definitely fall into the latter category. He knew when to push me, and when to retreat and let me win the battle. Every song has its own atmosphere, and that’s kind of a new thing for me. There’s less space on this record. Daniel Shea, who did the artwork on the record, described it as claustrophobic, and he meant it as a compliment.

So you’re getting ready to relocate.
I’ve lived in Philly for about six years now, and I’m in the process of moving back home to Alabama, buying a house and settling here. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with my relationships in Philly; my closest person there was my sister, Allison, and she moved to L.A. I really had to do some self-reflection and ask myself where I really wanted to be. Birmingham just feels like the place. For years, I’ve really missed the South. It feels like home.

—Hobart Rowland; photo by Gene Smirnov

A Conversation With Randy Newman

Maybe Randy Newman hasn’t released a conventional pop album (ever, to be frank) since 2008, instead focusing on composing and conducting film scores (2010’s Toy Story 3, 2013’s Monsters University, this year’s Cars 3), or dropping volumes of favorites and rarities such as The Randy Newman Songbook. So when a caustically comic LP with an odd wealth of family members, political figureheads (Putin, JFK, scientists debating climate change) and a new multivoiced sense of narrative—all steeped in moody jazz, gospel and carnival sounds—comes along via Dark Matter (Nonesuch), it’s cause for celebration. Yet, as with everything else at present, it all starts with Trump.

So I wake up to my usual diet of Breitbart and Huffington Post, and the first thing I see is lyrics to a song of yours: “My dick’s bigger than your dick/It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true/My dick’s bigger than your dick/I can prove it, too/There it is, there’s my dick/Isn’t that a wonderful sight?/Run to the village, to town, to the countryside/Tell the people what you’ve seen here tonight.” Now you’re part of the news cycle.
Yup. Because of my big mouth.

What I find interesting, though, is that you’re getting all this press over a song not on the new album. That’s weird marketing.
I wrote it, like, a year ago, when Trump was just talking about so much of that stuff implicitly. I didn’t think about it for a while, just sort of shuffled it away. There I was talking about my forgotten Trump tracks when somebody asked about its lyrics. I made the mistake of telling him.

Not having the Trump dick song on the album is an interesting brand of circumcision. Thinking about your Songbook series and the things you don’t include on albums, do you have a long backlog of unused songs? Or do you wait until you have to focus on a project to write?
Mainly the latter. I wait until I’m compelled or impelled to do so. I don’t have that many songs that I don’t use at that time, though some hang over. When I don’t finish a song, it’s usually for a very good reason.

I don’t want this to sound jejune, but you’ve sung through characters in thousands of your songs. What is the difference between placing yourself in the voice of a character for film music and what you’re doing on Dark Matter, where you’re creating dialogues or more than one voice?
When I’m working for a picture, there are usually many instructions to go with them. I get as many adjectives as I can. There’re the requests for fast, slow, rock, not rock, and I go from there. Plus, I want to see what’s up on the screen. With my album, I’m free to do what I want—I’m on my own—but having a narrative with two voices is new for me. You’re right there. I wasn’t sure it would work. I’m still not sure, though, if I think that it does. I mean, I‘m satisfied. I did it as well as I can do it. I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. What did you think?

You did it quite effectively. I got that you had several distinct voices interacting with each other, including introducing or implicating yourself into the action. Why did you decide to change up your writing, go for that format or voice?
I really just wanted to push myself a bit. Do something new. Now that you mention it, I think that’s why I have the intrusion of myself in there, the mention of “Randy Newman.” That’s something that I never thought I would do. The way I work is to write myself out of things. Clearly, though, on a song like “The Great Debate,” this “me” is on the same side the audience is on. You said it—I’ve put myself in characters a thousand times before, and I’ll do it a thousand times more if I last long enough.

Is it hard to be funny and cruel at a time when everything else in the real world is funnier and crueler?
Yeah, it is harder. You can’t compare it, though, as it’s a different part of the brain. Every day, there’s something unbelievable happening.

We could look at 1974’s Good Old Boys, 2008’s “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country” or new songs such as “Putin” or “Brothers.” You don’t do a lot of directly political songwriting, but when you do, you do. What is the line you want to cross? What grips you about the Kennedys or Putin?
What interested me about the Kennedy thing is the image of the big brother teasing the little brother. I wanted to—by exaggeration—trivialize what some of the reasons may have been that they invaded another country. Once I was in, I was in. You’re a writer—you know how that is—how one thing engenders the other, then the next. I could speak to the end of that before I write it. That happens sometimes. Fairly quickly, I knew that I was going to the White House. Mainly, it was the story of the older and the younger … making fun of each other. “Putin” I set out to write because I was trying to understand that whole shirt-off thing. I mean, he’s the most powerful man in the world, maybe the richest man in the world. It also seems as if he has to be Tom Cruise as well: the handsomest man in the world, too.

Most writers only want to discuss your lyrics, but sonically/melodically, how are you choosing your palette? What is that process like, finding the right tone?
No one does ask me about my music, so thank you for that.

A.D. Amorosi