Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An Interview With Southside Johnny

Last Friday, before his show at the Nokia Theater, I interviewed Southside Johnny Lyon. We had a great discussion about the making of his fabulous new album, Grapefruit Moon, as well as Tom Waits, the soul revival, Scarlett Johannson, the 30th anniversary of his classic Hearts of Stone album and finding one's niche in the world.

Q: You’re known known for being a soul and rock based artist. But the feel and arrangements on Grapefruit Moon are much more big band – Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Sinatra-esque style arrangements which La Bamba did. Had you ever sung that kind of material before?

SSJ: I used to sing it with my parents. They were big fans of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and artists like that. So I used to sing along with Jimmy Rushing (vocalist for the Basie band). But never in a formal setting. But then La Bamba started doing some big band type arrangements years after we had made records together. And I would come up and sing a Billie Holiday song – songs that I really loved and had grown up listening to. And I always thought, “Jeez, I’d love to make a record like that, but who’s going to listen to that?” But then along comes Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart, and I thought, “Well they’re doing it, I’m not doing it.” But I wanted to do Tom Waits too. And then one day it just clicked, that those things would go well together. So I hadn’t formally done it, but I had stuck my toe in the water – I had sung with a big band. My father drove a cab in Asbury Park, and he would listen to jazz broadcasts at night. So in 1938, he was driving in Asbury, and they announced that that night’s show was going to be Count Basie and his Orchestra from Kansas City. He had read about them in Downbeat, but he had never heard them. So he pulled over and listened for an hour to this absolutely incredible music. And he was that enthusiastic about that music until the day he died – and as a kid, some of it rubbed off on me.

Q: Singing those songs in that style – was there a particular approach to phrasing that you had consciously or were you in the moment on it?

SSJ: It takes a little bit of thought and and La Bamba helped me with some things too. It’s different – there are things you do differently in soul, in rock, in blues - because the horns will interject. So you want to sing either with them, or around them. You really have to know the arrangement to do that. I was used to the melody line being the lead instrument and everything worked around that. I learned something that I already knew, but didn’t quite realize; the singer in those things, like Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra at the Sands, he sings with the band – the band doesn’t play off of him. I tried to incorporate some of that too. I also wanted the freedom to let loose, because that’s what I know best.

Q: Do you have a favorite Tom Waits album?

SSJ: The Heart of Saturday Night – but I like all of them. There’s something on every album, that makes you go, “Oh God…I’ll never write another song again." (Laughter) I heard stuff early on. Vin Scelsa was playing him really early on. Bruce was into him right away too, so I might have heard something from him as well. But it was really like, “Who is this guy? We really like him – he seems like he’s from the streets of New York or New Jersey, but he’s a California guy.”

Q: One thing I couldn’t help but think of while listening to the album is that you guys are flipsides of a very similar coin. You both have a strong background in 50’s and 60’s blues and R&B – but he comes from an obvious bohemian tradition, where I would assert that you – and Bruce and Steven for that matter – never really quite fit in anywhere quite the same way that Tom does.

SSJ: Well, I think – it’s that feeling of not being part of the mainstream. And it’s not a conscious decision to be that – we weren't deliberately trying to be cool or buck the mainstream. It’s like when you go to a dance when you’re in junior high and they’re playing songs you don’t like and everyone is dancing to, you go, “Why don’t I like this? What’s wrong with me?” Of course the beats were like that, and all the be-bop guys were like that until they made it through. It’s the same old story – you don’t have a niche that you fit into, so you kind of make your own. And Tom’s is a combination of that bohemian stuff…but he loves Howlin’ Wolf – and you can hear that in his voice.

It’s not outcast. It’s that your sensibility is not common and at first, you angst over it…and then you start to celebrate it, because you realize, you’re not alone in the world, because there are people you really admire – poets, writers, actors – who also have a different sensibility. Then you start to find out where it’s going to take you.

Q: Tom Waits has been covered by a lot artists. When you were first conceiving of the album, did you have a spirit or soul in mind that you wanted to bring to it – a thought of, “Here’s what I can bring to this material that no one else has brought before.”

SSJ: One of the reasons why I didn’t do it before – 10 to 15 years ago when I had a bunch of songs of Tom’s that I wanted to sing - was because I didn’t want to do them the way they were being done. I was thinking, “Who needs another one of that?” Then I was thinking about doing a big band record – Billie Holiday songs – and I was like, “That’s all been done before,” and then it dawned on me…”Why don’t we do the Tom Waits stuff in that format, and see if it works?” And right from the beginning, when La Bamba and I sat down, we were like, “This is it…this is going to work.”

Q: You did a duet with Tom on “Walk Away” which is extremely playful – it’s palpable when listening how much fun you guys seem to be having. Was it?

SSJ: Yeah…the whole track took about fifteen minutes. (Laughter) It’s very playful. I said, “Can we sing this instead of that,” and he was like, “Yeah, that’s fine,” and started changing things around a little bit. Which isn’t something you do with a writer like Tom Waits. But he was so open.

We were in this little studio in California – Tom brought his wife, and his dog – and it was so hippie. Vines growing everywhere…moss…incense burning…Indian blankets on the wall. It was like 1967 in there. But once we got in there- it was just so easy and natural, so it took no time at all. And then we went to lunch – which is how it should be.

Q: Has he expressed an opinion on the album?

SSJ: He really likes what he’s heard.

Q: You’ve been working on this album for a long time –

SSJ: Two and a half years. And it’s been an idea for over ten years.

Q: - and then this spring, Scarlet Johannson comes out with an album of Tom Waits songs. What were your thoughts when you heard about it?

SSJ: People came to me in panic! (Laughter) I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” (Laughter) I was really thinking that unless she was doing a big band version of these songs, there is no interlock – no competition. It’s not like we’re fighting for the same niche. People who like her are going to buy her thing and the guys who like big band stuff or are already fans of mine will buy my album. What – like there’s a Tom Waits fan who’s going to agonize over the choice between her record and ours? Please. It’s crazy.

Q: You’re known as a soul singer. And in the past two years, there’s been something of a soul renaissance – Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, James Hunter. Any thoughts about these artists? Does it please you?

SSJ: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting to me that they’re using classic soul forms – I hear it in Duffy too. The forms of soul are so friendly to a singer – they really project the singer – so you have to have a good voice. I’m glad they’re doing it. The great thing for me is that they have good voices. James Hunter, Duffy, Amy Winehouse – they all have great voices. It’s good to hear that music. I feel like there's been a romanticism missing in a lot of Hip-hop and modern rock - it's angry and angsty - but that romantic spirit has been missing.

Q: You’ve never had a hit single or album –

SSJ: Thank you Jesus!

Q: - but here you are, 30 years later. How does that feel?

SSJ: I don’t reflect much, because I’ve always got something in front of me. This is a big gig for me – this is out of my comfort zone. I don’t reflect that “this should have happened” or “that should have happened,” because there’s always a future in front of me. There are times that I’ve wished I had a million dollars, but I’m glad I never got locked into anything – because hit records can do that to you. I remember when Lou Reed and Neil Young did a lot of different styles of things, and they took a lot of heat for it. I haven’t stepped out that far, but I’ve done some blues things, some acoustic things. I’d hate to have to do the same thing every night. And I don’t have to.

We were very lucky in the beginning in Asbury Park, because we were doing reggae, blues, soul, rock n’ roll…David Sancious and I used to go up and do Billie Holiday songs with just piano and voice. And they put up with it. So you got the idea that if you were honest about what you did, there’d be an audience for it. And I’ve never given that idea up.

Q: In Europe recently, you played
Hearts of Stone in its entirety. How was that for you?

SSJ: A straitjacket! (Laughter) In Asbury, it worked really well. But when we did it London, I was like, “I really don’t want to do this next song, I want to do something else,” but I couldn’t – I had to do the next song on Hearts of Stone. So from that moment on I was like, “I hate doing this!” (Laughter) But then we did it in Amsterdam and the audience was just so great, so it felt like freedom again. I don’t like the straitjacket of it, but if it pleases people, that’s ok too.

I’m still proud of that album. I’d love to remix it. Steven and I have talked about that. We were really under the gun on that record. We were beneath the radar so the record company wouldn’t stop us. We had already thrown out eight songs and the record company went through the roof – and our budget was so miniscule anyway. We weren’t supposed to sell records, so they didn’t want to spend any money. And I was on the road, and then I would come back and sing, then go back on the road…it was rough. But for it to come out and be accepted, then I felt vindicated. There are great songs on that record.

Q: I was thinking on my way to meet you that Steven’s character from the Sopranos, Silvio, wouldn’t know Tom Waits from a hole in the wall – but he’d really like this album.

SSJ: Yeah! (Laughter) They’d play this upstairs at the Bada Bing! If Silvio’s still around! (Laughter)


Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben, a great interview that captures Johnny's integrity and honesty. And thanks again for the heads-up on the LP- haven't stop playing it since-Like you, it's my record of the year. mrvos

Anonymous said...

Ben, I love your work and I'm even more crazy about your Southside Interview. I'd love to copy it at ASBURYJUKES.NET...

Only If you don't mind, of course!
If you like, drop me a line at my contact form on the website.

And keep up your great work!!!