photo by Steve O'Brien
Interview by Jason Hillenburg
Perhaps there are no Hall of Fame inductions in David Baerwald's future. It doesn't matter. Fans of this great singer/songwriter know his ranking in the canon is secure. Since his eighties debut as one half of the duo David & David, Baerwald has consistently produced albums highlighting his novelist's eye for significant detail and compelling musical skill. The following interview touches on aspects of Baerwald's past, present, and future.
PSF: I have my own "mini narrative" written for how a talented singer/songwriter ends up moving to Hollywood and doing soundtrack work for television and film. From an outsider's perspective, it's akin to Faulkner or Fitzgerald writing for the movies when they couldn't live on their fiction sales alone. How did you get started with that?
DB: Well, it was something I had dabbled with from the very start, as sort of a hobbyist. I like movies, and I knew some people who were film makers of one kind or another. I think the first one I did like that was "Clueless." But I, ah, took the film and television side of things a little more seriously when I was told by my record company that A) they owned my name and B) that they were not going to let me record under it.
So simple economics drove the decision, and I'm lucky to have been able to accumulate the necessary skills along the line to do that kind of work, and been given the opportunity. But it's a dangerous thing to pursue, as it's really easy to get lost in the technical details of hitting a mark, and you can easily forget your own thoughts and turn into a mindless hack.
"Come What May," from Moulin Rouge is a case in point. I wrote that from a completely artificial place, grinding it out, really, bar by bar. At one point, years later, I was sued by somebody regarding that song, and had to track down the initial mini-cassette recording from when I wrote it, just bonehead piano-plonking and croaked vocals.
It's really hard to listen to, because you can tell I wanted to write anything but that song – I kept on breaking into other things just because I was so completely bored. But one does what one has to do, really, especially if you're a parent. And in a pinch, it's nice to be able to do that kind of thing, though it's more of an athletic event than a creative one. And no offense intended to anyone that likes that song, nothing even against the song. Truth is, I should probably write more of those kinds of things – I know my publisher would like it.
Instrumental scoring directly to picture is an entirely different ball of wax, it uses an entirely different set of muscles, and I usually really enjoy it, particularly if the film is good and the director is nice.
PSF: I'm sure many things have stood in the way of writing and recording new albums, but what have been your two biggest challenges in releasing new work? How have those challenges changed since your recording career began?
DB: Probably insecurity, combined with my own particular brand of fatalism and despair. My obnoxious personality. Writing, unwriting, recording, erasing… There are so many things one should do, and sometimes one ends up not doing any of them. Parenthood. Also, I was pretty much blackballed from the business side of things after all the Sheryl Crow kerfuffles. The guys from A&M really went out of their way to make things difficult, and I didn't help matters with my big mouth. You could ask Tony Berg about that, he heard it from both sides.
PSF: I can't imagine you were any sort of neophyte to music business machinations when the Crow problems exploded, but did the resulting melee and the price you paid shatter any remaining illusions?
DB: One is always capable of surprise, and this circumstance was proof of that.
PSF: You've offered up a number of great, for lack of a better word, "topical" songs over the years. I've always thought that character driven pieces and songs with a sort of non-specific, even poetic universality span generations while other songs of this ilk fade into semi or total obscurity. No one sings songs like Joe Hill's "The Rebel Girl" anymore. Neil Young's "Ohio" is a history lesson set to a great guitar riff. I think of Dylan too - I'm willing to bet that "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" will continue to impress long after "Hurricane" loses any remaining meaning. In your estimation, is it sometimes more important for an artist to speak for and to their times rather than aiming solely for aesthetic posterity?
DB: Polemic writing usually isn't very good on its own merits. I mean I love Upton Sinclair, I love his passion, but it got in the way of his story-telling. If one just can't resist the temptation to rail against a specific temporal evil, I think it's probably better to go very micro – for instance a song that says "O Climate Change, O Great Bummer of Endless Death" is going to be a lousy song. But a song about the last drop of water drying in a Dust Bowl sink could theoretically be OK. For me, when I do polemics I try to make it as small as possible, as zoomed in and personal as possible, rather than an over-arching "Damn You CIA for Importing Crack Cocaine Into The Ghetto" kind of a thing. Active word there being "try."
PSF: I remember reading you once memorably invoke the imagery of chasing a whale when describing the songwriting process. How has the writing process changed as you've grown older? How has a life lived tempered and transformed your creativity since the early years?
DB: If you sit down to write a song, I think you should be prepared for a long hunt – maybe it'll all come really fast, and probably it won't.
A lot of people think the very first thing they write on a topic is the final word, and to me that's usually a mistake. Sure, sometimes it happens, but counting on it is like counting on being dealt 4 aces every hand, just because it happened to you once. You've got to give the song enough body that it starts telling you what it wants. Until then, you're just knitting air. Leonard Cohen took something like 3 years to write "Hallelujah," and for me, that was time well spent. I wish I'd spent the last 3 years doing that.
PSF: From Bedtime Stories through Here Comes the New Folk Underground, what kind of progression do you see? What holds up for you still?
DB: Overall, I'm pretty proud of the writing. I still think the records could be better though.
PSF: You have impressive narrative gifts and a novelist's skill for creating full characters with just a few key details. Who were some of your key influences as a songwriter and lyricist? Have you ever seriously attempted any writing outside of music, like prose?
DB: Nathanael West, Lou Reed, Raymond Chandler, Jean Genet, Georges Simenon, Beckett– concise people with visual imaginations who understand human behavior and aren't afraid to use the stiletto. Songs are small things; the fewer words, really, the better, unless you want to go full-on into "Desolation Row" territory, in which case you'd better be Bob Dylan. So minimalist writers who cut deep– John O'Hara, Carver, Chekhov... these are all good people for songwriters to read.
I like the brute minimalism of things like police reports – just straight story-telling. I shy from adjectives. The poetry comes from the hard edges, details rubbing against each other. I try not to judge my characters any more than they judge themselves. Just let the facts of what they do, say, wear, eat, drink, shoot up, whatever, tell the story. Action is character. Of course all this is just one third of it- the other two thirds are what makes it music. And again, the active word is "try."
Re longer-form writing, yes, in fact I'm working pretty hard on that at the moment.
PSF: I'm a thirty-nine year old senior at Indiana University and took a class on structured verse with a Pultizer Prize winner last semester. While discussing some of my writing one day, someone remarked on its compression and mentioned how I avoided using certain words like "was" in prose and poetry as well as using articles sparingly. He lightly scolded such compulsiveness before conceding obsessions like those often form the bedrock of a writer's style. Has such compulsiveness always been your aim as a writer?
DB: I don't know that I've aspired to compulsiveness so much as precision. I want to be precise, The world is chaos, and I need to find some artificial way of pretending there's any logic to it all. So I cling to things, like narrative, like harmony, indisputable things… Things that make sense. Without them I'd be a gibbering idiot.
PSF: Like many, my first exposure to you was through "Boomtown." The effect of its unexpected success isn't something I've heard you discuss. How do you remember those times now and how does the album stand up for you today?
DB: It was a little disorienting, I've got to admit. When you first start doing this kind of thing you're in the dark, the world lit up around you – nobody knows you, you're free to sort of sit in the corner and watch people, you're like a camera, taking it all in. Then you find yourself on television, and suddenly you're a topic of discussion yourself. You can get really self-conscious.
Add to that the weird effect of reading about oneself, or one's work, and you can wind yourself up like a cheap watch, bust the spring. I remember once fighting the blank page blues, started writing something, got a little momentum going and then asked myself something like "yeah, but what is Greil Marcus going to say about this?" and was just paralyzed. Pathetic, really, but… there you have it.
The Boomtown period itself was pretty crazy, really – I had gotten into a hell of a lot of trouble with the law, and was going to court, and being interrogated by detectives and whatnot during the day, then singing by night at Dave Ricketts' apartment. We were really just getting to know each other in those days, and I didn't feel I could share too much with him about the dicey predicament I was in. But it gave me a lot of determination to change my circumstances. A&M came to my defense at sentencing, said I was going to be a good citizen. Wrote a letter to the judge. Aaron Jacoves wrote it. I ended up skating with time served, probation, and community service. So I owed them.
As far as how the album stands up for me, with the exception of certain unavoidable Eighties production issues, I think it stands up really well. Dave is brilliant, of course, and I'm proud of the position we took regarding the Go-Go Eighties, and think time has proven us right.
PSF: I watched the Cobain documentary debuting tonight on HBO with my wife and reminisced with my wife about the day I learned he died. It's hard, if not impossible, to find a definitive reason why someone stays in the spotlight when it withers their lives like his. Self-preservation kicks in for some and eludes others entirely. Was there a single moment when you knew you needed to change your circumstances or else? Or did it accumulate?
DB: That happened pretty quickly for me, I remember being in the bar under the stage at the Montreux Pop Festival, listening to all the conversations around me, listening to myself, my stupid self, realizing what a naïve fool I'd been, and wishing a giant bomb would just kill us all, just for being such greedy, narcissistic stains upon humanity. I knew only craft could save me then. I needed to get educated. I couldn't see any dignity anywhere else.
PSF: A new, crowd funded album is in the offing. Without giving too much away, what can admirers expect from a new project? Would you like to tour behind any future release coming out of this?
DB: Well, people can expect a kind of a mini-opera, or an audio movie – 10 songs, interconnected loosely by theme and characters, instrumental excursions, some sound design. A concept album, I guess. Tightly written songs in a lazy landscape. You can expect to hear Buchlas, Moogs, some orchestra… Some great musicians… Some gospel-inspired chord changes, some country blues influences – a bit of John Fahey, some hard guitars… A lot of dynamic range, cinematic arc, and hopefully succinct enough to be enjoyable. One song is going to need a full gospel choir.
Sometimes brutal subject matter. Some jokes. A little love, a little hate. A lot of female background vocals… Look out Roger Waters, I'm comin' for ya!
Obviously the scale of the thing rides on how interested the people on the crowd-funding side are in something like this. I will need a lot of help to pull this off.
Also, to a large extent people can expect the return of David and David, as Dave Ricketts is going to help (whether he likes it or not!).
I'm also really fortunate to have access, through a good friend of mine, to the legendary recording chain from the Contemporary Records studio, their microphones, pres, compressors, etc… so it's going to be a pretty audiophile-ready recording. It's probably overkill, but we're recording at 192k. There will be vinyl! There will be mysterious and powerful cover art by Rick Boston. There Will Be Blood!
And yes, I want to do some live performance, but again, there has to be some interest from somebody for me to do it. I'm not going to force myself on people.
PSF: It sounds like this project has been percolating for some time. Have you actually demoed any of the material, written lyrics, etc?
DB: Yes, loads, but as the over-arching theme develops I'm writing new stuff, and have also barely even begun with Dave Ricketts.
PSF: We live in a time where songs and the people who write them have lesser quantifiable value than ever before. Do you think the cultural pendulum will ever swing away from its current trajectory and restore some of art's lost respect or will it continue declining towards the lowest common denominator?
DB: I do, but I think it's up to artists to make that happen. One of the problems that the form has is that it convinced itself that the mass market is the only market. People think they need millions of fans, and to get them, they must pander to the lowest common denominator, which ultimately leads to mutual contempt. Somebody just did a statistical study of the literacy level of pop singles which shows the literacy level of mass singles maxes out at the 3rd grade level. So it's a cycle of mutual contempt. A hooker/john type of relationship.
As a result I've never seen such hostility towards artists, and I find myself sharing it myself. The Top 40 is at least for the moment, on one hand, this grotesque Vegas/Soft Core candy floss that exists in a strictly material world, without even the hope or intent of any emotional connection or spiritual aspiration, and on the other hand the sort of cloying, kitschy sentimental cutesiness that appeals to 14 year old girls--ultimately equally as insulting.
Making music is a form of prayer, and we seem to have largely forgotten that.
You can have 5000 friends on Facebook and still have no friends. I think the general reaction to Tidal was proof of that. It takes a village to support an artist, but it doesn't take a megalopolis. And it doesn't take a megalomaniac to run it.
There are always going to be loud, needy people willing to pander to any godawful crap for a buck. Always have been, always will. And we've enabled them to operate under the generic term "artist," which confuses people. They're not artists, they're manufacturers of products. Which is fine, but there has to be something else or the culture dies. The heart dies.
For me, I want hand-made things, things made with more heart than calculation. Things I can hold, touch. Things that contain secrets that I have to uncover. Things I can come back to, 5 or 25 years later and hear something new. Things that don't make me feel like some jerk is trying to hustle me.
Some people can pull it off in the mainstream, like Lana Del Rey. She's a terrific writer. She captures a world, and maintains her mystery inside it. I love what she does. I love her sound. I love that she's not splattering herself all over the tabloids. And I think people are going to look back someday and realize that she's the most interesting popular artist of this decade. I think she knowingly embodies our ennui – postcards from a suicidal culture too bored and lazy to even pull the trigger.
But for people who don't happen to be as beautiful or charismatic or well-managed as she is, but who still have something to say, there needs to be a new model of support from the audience. We need to be able to directly support the people that we believe in.
John Murry, Father John Misty, MeShelle Ndegeocello spring to mind. We need people like them, and they're going to go the way of the horse-drawn carriage without at least a small portion of the audience stepping up to the plate. And by small, I mean 4000 to 5000 people from around the world willing to give them 20 dollars a year. The old record labels are not going to support them, and if a small core audience doesn't step up, they will die.
PSF: Has the pace of modern life and changing cultural demands precluded the possibility of a single performer or band acting as a unifying artistic force, ala Dylan in the 1960's? The iconoclast has no real place at the table because, among other factors, someone interested in finding their own way isn't a license to print money.
DB: Music lost its moral authority by consistently pandering to the lowest common denominator. People sense when youre talking down to them and ultimately they resent you for it, even if they lap up the froth at the time. Nina Simone may have been hard on the people around her, but there's no question that she was a committed, serious artist. She fulfilled her side of the bargain, she told her truth, she did it with class and style and originality and passion and force and skill and talent, and that is why people still listen to her to this day, and will as long as people listen to music.
PSF: At risk of sounding a bit conspiratorial, doesn't fragmenting society into specific demographic groups make it easier to market product to them? It seems the entire business, its remnants and new paradigm emerging from the rubble, is gamed to ensure maximum profit on minimum investment and infinitesimal risk.
DB: The music business is a dying or at least a severely wounded business, and people are looking for the illusion of security. Margins are tight, money is tighter, and risks are risky. 14 year old girls are consistent. Their tastes are consistent. There's always a new crop of them.
They're easy to locate - they go to schools, they read fanzines. They're into teen idols, boy bands, girl power solidarity bands, cute fun songs you can play clapping games to. Simple, reassuring tunes. Tell them they're beautiful, that Prince Charming is waiting for them around the corner. Give them something to giggle and blush about. Hit a high note with your fist in the air. Set off the smoke grenades and cue the dancers. Hit the strobes and do some fast choreography. Pretty straightforward. So that's a relatively safe line of work to be in, as music industry jobs go. There's not a lot of grey area.
There'll be time for drug rehab later, after the publicity from the sex-tape dies down. After the Moody One decides that he's going to make his Indie Artistic Statement Record with Butch Walker and crashes and burns on SNL. Oh no, he overdosed. He got fat. He converted to Islam. Oh well. It doesn't matter. When one flames out, another springs into place., and without those onerous contract renegotiation terms.
Is there a new rebellious but sexy rapper yet? A new slinky girl with a knack for innuendo and a bikini-modelling contract? A new sensitive guy with a quavering falsetto? Of course there is, just like there's a new Spiderman Movie coming. You can bet on it! And why not, people want it. But that can't be all there is. That can't be everything. That's just death.
PSF: I think it's fair to say, without lapsing too far into cliche, that many talented people have destroyed themselves while in the music business. You've experienced, at least, a modicum of public notoriety, but clearly survived that early brush with fame and remained productive. What has been crucial for your endurance as an individual and songwriter?
DB: Dumb luck, probably. I've been pretty self-destructive, I'm just hard to kill!
PSF: I'd imagine that you're equally gratified, astonished, and depressed that much of the "political" material on Triage is as relevant as ever. Particularly "Nobody." I've heard you mention how songs like "The Got No Shotgun Hydra Head Octopus Blues" emerged, in part, from a lot of your then-current obsessions with dark, unsavory corners of American history. Did you encounter any sort of resistance writing and recording that album - from record companies, representation, etc?
DB: No, not resistance, though I think they were baffled that I chose that route - they were sort of picturing me as more of a romantic balladeer, and were surprised that I suddenly turned into this disturbed creature.
But they provided the financial support for the making of that record, and I think they recognized that it was in fact intended as a work of art rather than a commercial product. They let me finish it. They even made an expensive and demented film to go with it. But ultimately record companies aren't patrons of the arts, they're businesses, and clearly businesses that I wasn't prepared to play nice with. So it was a bitter-sweet romance we had, until it just turned bitter, ha ha! Love's comedies are eternal.
PSF: The distinctly literary flair of your lyrics leads me to believe they often go through multiple drafts before arriving at a final version. Do they often come before the music?
DB: They often have, sometimes it's easier to structure a tune around a lyric, but these days I'm going the other route as much as possible, because first and foremost I want it to sound good, it being music and all!
Also see our earlier David Baerwald article
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