|JD Souther interview
30 September and 2 October 1997
at JD's home in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California
© Debbie Kruger
First I wanted to ask you briefly about the early days...
I worked for a long time before Longbranch Pennywhistle, a lot of bands, I don't even remember their names. I played drums in a band that I think was called the Icehouse Blues Band. Also I played drums for a Texas singer named Bobby Doyle, and I was with Norman Greenbaum's Natty Bumppo.
Where? Here in LA?
When did you come out from Texas? When did you have the infamous operation? Your appendix.
I don't really think my appendectomy is a suitable topic for discussion...
Not everything we discuss is going to end up in the story. Don't you understand how journalists work?
Only too well.
I read some reviews of your albums in Rolling Stone; I understand your skepticism. They hated you.
They turned on us.
Was it the Eagles affiliation?
It could have been those pesky Eagles. I don't know, everybody loved the first album, and it didn't sell, and then when they began to sell they somehow didn't get reviewed as well.
So tell me briefly then what you did when you first came out from Amarillo. Isn't there a song with the word Amarillo in the title?
Several. But I didn't write them. I think I came in '68 to California and then I went to New York for a while, and then back to California.
But you made Longbranch Pennywhistle in what '69, '70?
So you did so much stuff in that brief year or two before you got together with Glenn?
Yes, I just worked and did some house painting and played in some other bands, some general carpentry.
And how did you get together with Glenn?
Glenn was visiting from Detroit, and his girlfriend and my girlfriend were sisters.
I heard that story, yeah.
That's how me met. And we were both out of work; I'd just quit my band and he'd just quit his band. And we wanted to write songs, so we started writing songs together. That really is where I started writing songs, right at about that time.
When you made Longbranch Pennywhistle did you think at the time that it was something good? What was your intention when you did that?
Well, your intention is always to make something good. But we were new songwriters, I didn't have any illusions about writing the song of songs then. Certainly my aspirations are much higher now.
Was it really like you were really psyched to have a record deal and you just wanted to make that first record.? A lot of the musicians who've been around for 30-plus years say that when they made the first record it was just like the excitement of making a record, and they didn't necessarily think past that.
We had just enough naiveté about it that we actually asked for all these great players Ry Cooder and Doug Kershaw and Jimmy Gordon and James Burton and all these guys, and we got them just because we didn't really know any better, and it didn't occur to us that they wouldn't play for us. So the guy who was producing it just called them and they all came down and we were in seventh heaven. We had very little time to do it; I think it was cut eight track, so we didn't really get to do overdubs, and most of the album was cut in a couple of days. So it wasn't what you'd call an overly cautious work. But you know, as far as I was concerned, I was just learning how to write songs, and I think as far as the record company was concerned, we had not quite learned to write songs, because they were always trying to get us to record other, better-known songs. And we finally convinced them that our primary goal was to be songwriters, and that there was no point in us making a record unless we could just cut our own songs. So it wasn't the very first bunch of songs I had written but it was certainly among them. We sat most days just with acoustic guitars and listened to records and played guitars.
And what were you listening to?
Burrito Brothers, a lot of Hank Williams, Tim Hardin Tim Hardin had a huge effect on me as a songwriter, probably the most direct influence as far as feeling like I could make complete sounding music with an acoustic guitar. I loved Tim Hardin, I thought he had a style and a gift that really had bits of everything in it. You could hear that he loved country music, 'cause the forms were simple and there were not very many chords. And folk music, too. But you could also hear that he loved jazz; he sang with this kind of fluid almost legato style that was not as angular as most of the bluegrass that I was listening to and the country music. And then Bob Dylan was and is a huge influence, just because he is so damn good, he just writes such good songs. And it really forced the notion on me that there are no throw-away lyrics, that they all matter. Not that I was anywhere as good as Bob then, because he was, you know, we were in love with his records when I was at school. But it was such a step away from kind of pop songwriting, where very often the most important thing to me sounded like it was just the rhyme, not the content. And Bob, and Tim Hardin too, and Hank Williams to a large extent, really demonstrated the fact that you could fill out your vision in a song without just rhyming words, that the rhyme was really maybe the second or third important thing down the row. But Glenn and I were enormously influenced by the Burrito Brothers, 'cause I thought they were really courageous. They were the first like hippy country band; they were long-haired sort of guys like us, with cowboy hats and these weird nudie suits with marijuana leaves on them.
And is that what you wanted to be then, a country music artist?
I don't think I wanted then or now to be any particular type. I always thought just because of the sound of my voice that it was kinda country, kinda folksy. No matter what I did I wasn't going to escape that label. I mean, I thought my first album was a country album. It wasn't viewed as that and certainly was 20 years too soon for anyone in the country field to play anything like that. But that's what it was to me.
Your first solo album?
I thought it was a country album.
Yeah, I did too.
Did you and Glenn have this vision of being famous? Was that part of the whole thing?
It's always part of the whole thing; I don't know how big it was. I just wanted to be a good songwriter.
So songwriting was more important to you than performing?
Oh yeah. I think at that point I had ceased to see them as separate things.
Why did it finish? Why did you only do one album and why did it all end?
Well we actually tried to do a second album, and our record company then just didn't really like what we were doing.
Amos who were they?
It was a company that was begun by Jimmy Bowen, and we knew him, and two guys who worked for him named Tom Thacker and Red Stegal, who were both from my home town, both from Amarillo. And it was, to tell you the truth it was our only real connection. We didn't really know any big time people and they were just really starting out too, in a completely different vein, but they let us make the first album as much like we wanted to as we knew how to do. And then when we were ready to do a second album, we wanted even more control over it, we wanted to produce it ourselves, or do it with somebody whose music we specifically... we wanted to work with somebody who already made music that we liked. So we had met this guy named David Briggs, who had been Neil Young's producer, he produced the Crazy Horse album which I thought and still think is one of the seminal rock and roll albums. So we went out to David's studio and we played for a couple of days, just Glenn and I, just the two of us. And sometimes with a bass player named David Jackson who I told you about, he was our bass player. And I thought it was pretty good stuff, it was really funky and it just wasn't sonically rounded off the way pop records were. I think it sounded more like that album of Neil's, and we liked it, and we took it to the record company and we played them the tapes, and they sort of went, "What's this?" They just didn't get it. Which is not to say that we were brilliant and they were stupid, it's just that they just didn't hear it. And they said well who do you want to produce it, and we said this guy who did it, David Briggs, and they said who's he? And we said he produced the Crazy Horse album, and they went who's Crazy Horse? And I think at that point we just saw that we were really going in another direction. And also, not long after that I met Linda Ronstadt, and Don Henley, and we were all playing the Troubadour then, and Glenn wanted the band to be bigger, he wanted more people in the band, he wanted to make a band out of it instead of just a duo. And I just sort of wanted to stay home and write songs, I felt like I was just starting to get a handle on how to do that.
Did you envisage being a songwriter whose songs would be sung by other people? Did you have that clear a notion of a songwriter, a career as a songwriter?
Yes. I didn't think of it much in terms of career then, but I know that I always thought and I'm sure that Glenn and Don thought too, and Jackson too, that what we wanted to do was write songs that would last, that that was more important than writing songs that were immediately popular. Well, I can't speak for those guys, but to me that was, I had just as much respect for Harold Arlen and Jimmy Van Heusen and the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Matt Dennis and all those guys as I did for Hank Williams and Tim Hardin and Graham and Chris and the guys that we already sounded more like. And those songs had already been around for 40 years or something, 50 years. And Stephen Foster, who sadly was, lyrically came out of a period in American history that's politically completely unacceptable now, but the musical themes of those songs is timeless. And I think I always wanted to do that; I wanted to write songs that would outlive me.
And Glenn wanted to be up there playing with a band? So that's why you split?
Yeah, well , yeah, and just a lot of things happened at that time. Linda was looking for a band, Glenn and Don were trying to think of a way to put a band together, and you know, obviously any kind of financial endorsement you can get when you're trying to do that is good, and Linda wanted a band, so they said let's... I remember Glenn and Linda and I were eating dinner one night at the Nucleus Nuance, a great restaurant on Melrose that was here for years, and I said to Glenn, you should go on the road with Linda, she needs a band.
And you didn't want to do that?
No. Although I ended up playing a few dates with them as drummer, but it was just cause we were together, cause we knew each other and we were all around each other. But yeah, that was the genesis of their band, and in a way it was a big stepping stone for me as a writer, because then I really was alone, not part of a group any more, I was home trying to figure out how to do this by myself. And I'd already met Jackson and I saw that there was something about this one man kind of introspective songwriting that appealed to me, that was already in my nature, it would just improve my whole world if I tried to write songs that way instead of aiming them at necessarily getting them recorded or performing them or something.
And yet your first compositions that people know of were collaborations with the Eagles.
Yeah, the first number one song was "Best of My Love."
And right from the inception of the Eagles there was always this reference to you as the fifth Eagle and then later on the sixth Eagle. And stories about how you were asked to join the band at various stages. Is that true?
It was talked about once. We rehearsed together a couple of days.
Real early on, yeah, and I guess it was okay, but we were not essential to each other; they didn't need me in the band and I didn't particularly want to be in a band.
And as they flew off into this great success, did you still feel the same all the way along, that you had made the right choice? And you never wanted to be a part of that?
Well I was a part of it in a way that suited us all best, which was for the three of us, or the four of us sometimes, including Jackson, to write together. It was the best way for me to work with those guys. Cause also, they wanted to tour a lot and touring is something that, touring is another whole life, life on the road is life in a bubble, and it's just a different life, and you either like it or you don't, in fact you usually either love it or you don't. And with me, like a lot of things in my life, sometimes I love it and sometimes I don't, and then I just didn't want to do it, I wanted to just stay home and write.
So that level of fame and fortune that they were achieving, obviously, particularly by the time they got to the Hotel California phase, you were glad not to be a part of that?
Yeah. I didn't want to be in the band, I didn't want to be answerable to four or five other people. I think democracy is a swell way to run a country, and not so swell a way to make art.
Okay, so you then went and got your contract with Asylum.
Well I had it before then, I had it even before Don and Glenn did.
Wasn't it you and Jackson were the first male artists to be signed?
Yeah, and Judee Sill was signed then. I think the first four artists were Jackson, Judee Sill, Ned Doheny and me. [The first four Asylum artists were Jackson Browne, David Blue, Judee Sill and Jo Jo Gunne.]
Whatever happened to Ned Doheny?
He's still around.
I can't find his albums anywhere.
They're hard to find. Some of them are in Japanese release... He wrote great songs, he wrote a great song called Postcards From Hollywood that was really cool left turn of a song that we all liked and we all knew how to sing. He doesn't record very often. Perhaps he will again. He's a great guitar player and a good writer and an interesting singer. Judee influenced me more than any of those people as a writer, at that time. Judee Sill and Jackson. Judee was an incredibly focused writer. You should seek out those records and listen to them. They are miraculous and even more so with the passage of time, because they're bold, they're really bold. They're very specific songs with absolutely no compromise, and the musical roots of them are almost entirely this hybrid of classical and Hollywood cowboy music, movie cowboy music. It's like Bach meets the Sons of the Pioneers, and it's great stuff.
What's her voice like?
Very plain, uninflected, no vibrato.
Yeah but you'd have to hear it. It's very sympathetic, but kind of icy. Strange girl, strange singer, one of my greatest friends ever and really really potent writer. I miss her often. She's one of those that just left the set too early, like Lowell George and Belushi and a bunch of people you just wish you could wake them up and shake them and say don't do that. Don't die.
So did your career end up taking off the way you envisaged it?
I'm not sure what I envisioned, actually. I think it just continued to surprise me the way it went. Obviously I'd have been happier if my first album had sold more, but it actually was the record that I wanted to make. It was just me and a few friends - me and Ned Doheny and Gary Malaber and Brian Garafalo. Most of the album was actually the four of us, and Chris Ethridge played bass on one thing, but bless his heart the bass was, one string was so out of tune that I had to go back in and replace the bass part, which broke my heart because he was a great pal and a great hero. And Glenn worked on a song or two, and my friend David Jackson played keyboards and bass, but it was really just this bunch of guys that didn't really know how to make records. We went up to a little studio in San Mateo, and David Geffen was, I don't know, was enough of a gentleman to just let us make the record we wanted, which was what he told us, what he told me he'd let me do. And it was the first time anyone had just said okay, here, go in the studio, do whatever you want, do it the way you want, make it sound the way you want, cut the songs you want.
Was there some sort of conscious effort to make something that was different to what Jackson was doing, say, because you were saying the introspective singer/songwriter thing.
Well probably, because I was so much more country influenced than Jackson. We all sounded different anyway, I mean when you sort of separated out that little group, even Don and Glenn sound different, but they were a unit and as a unit they sounded one way, Jackson sounded another way, I sounded another way. So to whatever extent it overlapped was okay with us, it was okay with me. We didn't have to try real hard not to sound like each other.
So other than those Rolling Stone reviews, how was your work received here in the States? Because I mean, in Australia, I have no idea, I wasn't necessarily aware of it at the time.
I think mostly good. I wasn't a big review reader, because I had already read too many good reviews of music that I thought wasn't very good and bad reviews of music that I thought was great.
But more than just reviews; I mean, you were out touring in the '70s? What was your profile like?
Well the first time I was out I was just out playing little folk clubs by myself, kind of suitcase in one hand, guitar in another. And it was good, it was like you know, to me it was like Jack Kerouac or something, I was just out doing what I wanted and I didn't really have to chat up radio stations.
But didn't the record company want to sell the records?
(Laughs) Undoubtedly they did; it's usually in their plan to do so.
And you defied them at every turn?
I don't think I defied them, I think probably they pushed a little and I resisted a little. It clearly wasn't gonna be an enormously commercial record without some kind of, without some kind of fluke circumstance around it, so I think we were pretty much in agreement that it was a building, a long term thing.
Did Peter Asher come in on the second album because you had been working closely with Linda on various projects, or was it a record company initiative? Because it was obviously a more overtly commercial album.
Well, Peter and I became friends through working with Linda, and also through Kate Taylor and James Taylor, and I just asked him to do it because he was a good producer and I didn't want the responsibility, and also, the first album was really raw and deliberately so; I listen to the singing now and it's fascinating, it's almost like listening to another person, it's really unaccented sort of, very little vibrato.
Closer to Longbranch Pennywhistle?
No, actually, not. More away from that. To me it sounded like what I was listening to at the time which was George Jones and Tim Hardin as always. And also there was something about the Longbranch Pennywhistle albums that sounded excessive to me, even as underproduced as they might seem to other people. They sounded like there was non-essential stuff on there... there just seemed to be aspects of the music that were non-essential, and aspects of the singing that were superfluous. I mean I was learning how, I didn't grow up a singer, I was a player.
I guess I'm just trying to get a sense of... I mean when you look back on it now the '70s was just like this decade, and here we are in the '90s.
But see it wasn't to me, it was just a series of days and months and different projects.
Exactly, but when you look back on it now and you look at all the relationships that were going on, and you've referred to some of them, personal and professional, can you look back on your body of work there and see connections to what was going on relationship-wise?
It's unavoidable. And it should suffice, I mean that's why I don't talk about personal relationships in interviews, because what gets into the music is enough, it's all that needs to get out. But yeah, we all influenced each other enormously. I sort of thought of it like... you know when I was a kid I used to listen to the Blue Note Jazz records, there was like a million great artists on Blue Note Jazz, you know there was Coltrane and Miles and Jackie McLean and Wenton Kelly and Wayne Shorter, just all these great guys, and they were all on the same label, you know and they made different records but they played together, Paul Chambers, and Billy Higgins, all these wonderful players, there'd be a Miles album and a Wenton Kelly album and a Horace Silver album, and sometimes they'd play together and sometimes not, and there'd be a Silver song on a Miles album or a Wayne Shorter song on a Miles album, and it was probably in a way easier for them to meld into one thing because in jazz one thing is taken for granted that everybody knows how to play, everybody knows all the scales, all the keys, so you can, a good alto player can walk up to any bandstand, and listen for a while, and if you know sort of what the song is you can play, or even if you don't maybe. There's just a language to jazz, cause all those guys did a lot of time in rooms by themselves playing scales. And pop music, even the kind of sort of folk-based music that we played, everybody came from not only from a little bit different point of origin, but with wildly different skills and among those skills different degrees of development. So.. you couldn't throw us all on the road without rehearsal and say here we're going to do six songs tonight, this this this and this. I mean, maybe we could, but it wouldn't be the same as... I mean, the night before last I went to hear Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, just the two of them, and I got the feeling they could have played for six days, you could have thrown any song at them and those two guys could have woven a blanket out of it. And I neglected to mention Herbie in the Blue Note group, but those guys were big influences on me, too, I just wasn't a great player, so it's not as obvious an influence. I was like a folky, a guy with a kind of a hick voice.
So jazz was not really an option.
Well it was, but I just wasn't good at it, I wasn't that evolved along those lines. But I love that music and in some way it informed the other stuff I did, I guess. I can hear it, don't know if anybody else can.
And then when you had "You're Only Lonely" and that was a hit, which I realised in retrospect was a hit in Australia... How did that change things for you? Did that give you a level of profile that you wished you didn't have because you'd been avoiding that whole scene?
I liked it at first and then I didn't like it. The first rush of it was good. I went out to do the promotional tour for that album, where you go out and hit the radio stations, and it was the same week that "You're Only Lonely" was released and "Heartache Tonight" was released, so I was going to radio stations and playing two songs that I'd written and watching them both just rip up the charts. I think they were both in the top ten in the same week. So it was pretty heady, it was great stuff, you know, but I wasn't, you know, I have no idea what I think about fame. Some of the perks are great, you know it's always great to be able to travel the way you want and stay in the best hotels and eat what you want and play to more people. And some of it is just wretched because you feel like you're being watched all the time. And I'm too self-conscious to want to be watched all the time. I can exude confidence but I don't necessarily have it.
Is that why there was quite a gap between that and the Home By Dawn album?
Uh, yeah, probably so, although there wouldn't have been quite as big a gap if I'd had a better relationship with my record company. I cut almost all of Home By Dawn about a year and a half before I cut the one that you heard, 'cause I was still on Columbia. And I cut it here with Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather and Waddy and a bunch of LA guys that I knew. And I just fell into a rift with Columbia, actually with one guy at Columbia that I just couldn't get along with, and he misrepresented us to Columbia. And we were slow, we were working very slow, in his defense, we were spending a lot of money.
We're going into the '80s now, this is when Don started doing his solo stuff, it seemed like everyone slowed down in their output.
Yeah, big budgets, yeah. Slowed down in our output and increased the cost of the albums, which in my case was a disaster in both ways. Don makes great albums that way. He can spend a million dollars on an album and it still breathes, it still sounds like good music, it just sounds really seamless and pretty and perfected. If I spent a million dollars on an album I'm sure it would sound like a, I don't know what it would sound like, cause I doubt if anyone would give me a million dollars to spend on an album, and if they did I'd probably be sick of it and run screaming into the night before I got half of it spent. The best way for me to cut, it turns out, which I didn't really know then, is to really learn the songs with a band and just go in and play them. That is what actually works best for me. But at that point, from You're Only Lonely on I was sort of trying to cut albums the way the Eagles did and I wasn't any good at it. I didn't have the patience for that kind of work.
Well after You're Only Lonely there was only one more album.
But during that too. Because I mean, Don and Glenn helped me with that album. They helped produce some vocals, which for some reason I neglected to give them proper credit for on the record. But they were kind of guest producers on some of that stuff, cause they sat, Don in particular sat through several vocals with me, he's great at listening to vocals and comping them together and knowing what makes a good performance and what doesn't.
Of course in all of this we didn't touch on the great supergroup of the 70s, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. As you said previously, you kind of hated that.
SHF was David Geffen's idea, and it was a good idea. It just didn't work out well for me because we were under too much scrutiny from day one. No band should have to rehearse with people from the press coming to watch their rehearsals.
It was totally contrived.
Well all bands are contrived to some extent.
Yes, but it was contrived more so than most bands, but it was a good idea, David's a brilliant guy, it was a good idea, take some elements that sound like they'd work together, some of which are really well known, meaning Richie and Chris, and throw the X factor in there, which was me, and like I said, I'm not a great team player under those circumstances and I just sort of took over and the results were just a lot of hostile moments that didn't add to the band's ability to really play together well. Although our first tour we had some good dates. I think if we had toured more before we had recorded we could have been a good band.
So did you make a conscious decision after Home By Dawn not to makeany more solo albums?
Yeah. It was the only record that I had really tried to make a hit record, a commercial record, and it sold less than any of my other records. And there's some information in that paragraph that I don't do well trying to do that. And it's timing to some degree, you know, I was, it was an attempt at some kind of rockabilly record in Nashville, but a few years too early. People weren't doing that yet there. And it just didn't quite work and to tell you the honest truth, we overplayed that record, I think the demos, the rough tracks from that record are probably better than what we released. I think we played some of the life right out of it. And the sound of it is not particularly my sound of record, I didn't really love the sound, it was too slick and too much echo for me. I mean it's all by consensus, I'm not blaming the producer, David Malloy, a good producer, but it didn't serve my songs in the best possible way.
So meanwhile you were collaborating on pretty sort of monumental songs with Henley, and I've always wondered with a song like "Heart of the Matter"... I don't remember if I read Don talking about this somewhere, but
Yeah, what did he say?
I don't remember, but was it a case of like sitting there with your hearts broken talking about miserable times you'd had in relationships, and getting drunk and pouring out this song, or was it a more like one of you said I've got this idea for this song, and then the other came in and helped technically, or... I'm really interested in how a song like that came to be, because Don treats it as such a personal song
Well it was personal for both of us because a few years before that we'd both been engaged, and each very much in love with the women we were engaged to, and both relationships had broken up and you know, there's a lot of residual information after something like that happens.
Well the idea of writing is to open those suitcases and get rid of it.
And in the case of that song, there was one other writer involved.
One. Mike Campbell. It was his track. Mike gave us one of the best tracks I've ever heard. I mean, Don brought the track over to my place and said listen to this, and I just went man, if we don't write a good song to this we are truly at fault because this is just as good a track, it sounded like he'd been reading our minds, I mean, it was exactly the kind of music that he and I would like to make anyway. And Mike Campbell is a great musician, he has just a beautiful concise feel for the shape of a song.
So did you decide okay, this is the song where we sit down and get through this stuff?
I guess to some extent but also I guess we just come to the table with bits and pieces and try 'em, sing 'em, talk them back and forth, write 'em. It was more Don's than mine because it was fresher for him, the breakup was fresher, and he really had the theme of the song. I mean we'd been writing the words for a while but he came in with this notion of forgiveness one night, this thing that repeats in the chorus. And to be perfectly honest with you I didn't hear it. I mean I sort of listened to it and went, yeah, that's alright. It took me a while to really see where he was going with it, that it was a theme that he wanted to go under this other stuff and to answer these things that had gone before. And it was a brilliant idea; that is a song that we'd both wanted to write, but he was a few yards further down the field with it than I was.
How do you feel about the acoustic arrangement which Eagles fans now consider to be a far superior version than the original?
That's what makes them Eagles fans. I like it both ways, I think it's a good song and I think Don could sing it if he had nothing but a zither to go with it. Yeah, I like both versions.
Do you have a favourite song that you've written either with other people or on your own?
Oh it probably varies depending on what I've heard most recently, but there are a few songs that I listen to and kind of think, gee, how did I do that? I read this piece in the NY Times about Bob Dylan and he actually had the courage to say at one point in this that he listens to some of those old songs and he finds himself sort of in awe of them. Or at least in awe. I don't want to misquote him. I mean if I could wake up every day and write "Faithless Love," what a world this would be, you know.
I'm sure Paul McCartney must feel the same way too. He must listen to some of that late Beatles stuff that he did with John that was just so sublime and think... cause he's never matched it since.
No, but you hit it now and again in different ways. And also it's very rare that you ever have the kind of impact again that you had at the first real peak. I mean, it's very rare. Paul Simon may have sort of done it with Graceland. Because you can't duplicate the circumstances that are around it. So whatever you do is going to appear in a different context, it just won't look the same. It's like framing a picture, you can't control what's in the background in that case, which is the environment in the world around you and the state of music and art and society and all that stuff. But Paul (M) hits it again, what is it that song "Willow" that's on the last album? That's really good. And Paul Simon has stuff on Graceland that's truly remarkable.
But that in itself is 13 years old now.
Well, but who knows, maybe next year you'll be having this conversation and there'll be some Paul Simon song that sounds as, rings as true to you as "American Tune" which I think is one of the great songs written in the second half of the century. It is, think of it, it's a really wonderful song. And that was many many years after the stuff that was his first peak. But it's hard to do, that's why people just break from it for a while. I can't do things the same way over and over for years, and expect them to have the same resonance that they did the first time or even the fifth time.
What drives you to write with other people when you obviously have written such classics on your own?
Just their contribution, their point of view. Plus, a good collaborator serves the highest purpose of the song, which is to finish it.
Especially with a writer like you.
Exactly. For me that's the, there are two huge steps. One is actually getting the idea to float, and seeing a place for it to go, and the other is actually putting a period at the end of the sentence and saying this song is done. It's like being able to walk away from the canvas, you can just stay there and paint until it's a blur, until it's too much information, or until it's too refined, until it loses its kind of essential stuff.
I guess I mainly discovered your work through Linda's albums. I knew you'd co-written Eagles songs but it was just a name.
Those were some of my favourite things, I can't think of very many records that I've written that I think are better than "Prisoner in Disguise." I think the record of that that Linda and I cut together is a really good piece of work.
I really liked her version of "White Rhythm and Blues" and then when I got your albums it was like, oh cool, he recorded them himself. What was your feeling when you sat down to record a song that someone else had already recorded but it was yours? How did you feel about making it your own? Particularly something like "Faithless Love."
Well to turn it around a little bit, I think when we were making Linda's record of "White Rhythm and Blues" I knew that at some point I was going to record it. And so I tried to steer it into, move it in a way that would be hers, that would be her record of it, not just a girl singing my version of it and then mine would be a guy singing his version of it. "Faithless Love," Linda's record is great. Personally I wouldn't have chosen the banjo for that introductory thing, but you know it was a little fit of genius probably on Peter's part, or Kenny's, whoever thought of it, probably Peter. Cause it was certainly, most people would not choose a banjo to finger pick those chords, that introduction.
But were you surprised at some of the choices she made of songs of yours to record, like "Simple Man Simple Dream," that kind of stuff, I mean it's like she sings songs that are completely for the other sex sometimes and she just kind of does it.
Ah but you see I don't think they are completely for the other sex. Because most of the time with me it's as much metaphor for something else as it is about the specific information in the song anyway. So the fact that the point of view moves from one gender to the other or that the pronouns change doesn't really affect it an awful lot.
Why isn't Linda recording your songs any more?
I don't know. You should ask her that.
But you're still friends aren't you?
[General chat about LR]
So tell me how you started working on soundtrack albums.
Somebody called and said, come look at this movie, would you write a song for it? Simple as that.
There are lots, aren't there?
Yeah, I guess. It's certainly a big part of the market now. Sometimes it's a good idea, sometimes it's cheese.
But you do it anyway?
No, I do it if it's a good idea.
Idea being the movie or the idea for the song?
Cause there are movies that you've done songs for that I've never even heard of the movie.
And I bet I know what one of them is and it's probably one of the best movies that any of the songs have been in. Permanent Record. That's a really powerful good little movie about teenage suicide. Everybody was quite proud of that movie and we were all I think pretty sure also that it wasn't going to be a big movie, too. I saw the first marketing campaigns and they made evident in the ads that the kid dies. And at the time, I just thought, I don't see people lining up to watch this very sympathetic and very attractive kid die, knowing that he's going to die and leave all these friends mourning at the end of the movie. But it was a really potent little movie, I liked it, I thought Keanu was good in it.
When was that?
I'm not very good at dates, chronologically I can't really separate highschool graduation from last Saturday.
What were you doing last Saturday?
Graduating from highschool.
You were not. You were here doing nothing.
I told you I wasn't good with chronology.
You were paging me the wrong number.
That's it. See? How would I know, I just graduated highschool. I think it was '89? Does that sound right?
It was definitely 80-something.
I really don't know. Don and I did a song for The Color of Money, cause it was a cool movie with Paul Newman in it about, you know we liked it. And it was a good song, I like that song, we had a great time with that song. Fun to cut, you know, we had, you know Joni Mitchell and Rosie Vela sing those great female very suggestive very great background female parts, and Don sang it good, and it was fun snappy lyrics in it, great Kooch track.
And when did it all lead to... why did you decide you wanted to act?
I was acting when I was in school too. When I came out here I was in bands and we were always playing in bars until four in the morning or something, or until two in the morning in Huntington Beach and then having to drive back to North Hollywood. There was just, I didn't feel like getting up and going to auditions in the morning. It was a full time job being a musician. And that's my first love, that's what I am, a musician. But I always liked acting, I liked acting in highschool. Even though I just became an actor because I joined a drama class cause there was a real cute girl in it. I was a sophomore. I was in drama just because there was a great looking girl in drama class and I knew they were going to do Rebel Without a Cause that year.
And you got the lead?
No I didn't, it was most humiliating, they actually gave it to someone who deserved it. And it crushed me. They gave it to a senior who'd been acting for a few years. But I did get the girl. She was my girlfriend in highschool.
Is she the one you married?
No. We went to different colleges. I think her parents encouraged her to get away from the musician. They sent her away to the University of Texas and I stayed home and went to Junior College where I was cause I had a band that, we had a hit record at home. So we were making money and I didn't really want to go away.
How did the acting come about here in Hollywood?
I don't remember. Somebody called and said do you want to do this? I didn't get the first thing I went up for, so I don't really remember what it was. And I thought well, that would be fun. I always thought it would be a good idea. In fact we had a couple of scripts over the years that, one Larry McMurtry thing that we were trying to develop years and years ago, which I think was, I don't know if it was ever made, called All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers. And I wanted to play a guy in that, it was about a writer, a Texas novelist.
And there was another piece that was about some kind of twisted outlaw story that appealed to me about the time that we were doing Desperado. I can't remember what the name of it was now, I though maybe if we got that developed I could act in that. I really didn't have an appreciation of how hard it was and that you really needed to do some of the steps, like actually studying, getting an agent, going to auditions, going to meetings, and sort of participating to some degree in this big machine that at least then controlled a lot of movies. Now there's a lot more interesting stuff happening independently because it's been proved that there's a market.
Sure. You must have enjoyed doing that "Desperado" shoot.
We had a ball. That was a great day. Turn a bunch of young guys loose with guns, damn right.
Henry says that VH1 are going to put together a one and half hour special, an Under the Covers special, so that he'll actually be able to show finally the full three minutes, cause I don't know how much is on the CD-Rom, I think it's only about a minute.
I think altogether there couldn't be more than five or six minutes of footage.
But I think that's so cool that he was just kind of hanging around with a super 8 camera all the time filming this stuff, not realising at all that it would become what is basically historical footage.
It was cool. I mean, I think we all have an affection for those pictures when we see them. It also represents a time before we all kind of fragmented and went our separate ways. It was all of us involved. I mean, there's a reason that all six of us are on the album cover. It was really the last stand of Los Desperados.
And yet it wasn't, I mean
But it really was, it was the last time that Glenn and Don and Jackson and I wrote together.
The four of you?
Jackson doesn't really collaborate so much.
He now is collaborating with his band on almost everything. In fact I think the last album, every song maybe except one I believe is mostly all his band members are involved in the writing which is a good thing, I'm sure that's probably given him a real infusion.
That and Barcelona. So the acting. You did Thirtysomething which was your first high profile thing but that was only how many episodes?
Five or six.
At least you made an impact, it was a high-rating show. And tell me about this little film To Cross the Rubicon.
Well, there again it was just someone called me. It was a little film that these people in Seattle had written and it was interesting, it was very, it was just one of those real earnest small projects where everybody was involved in every aspect, kind of.
It's very interesting though, you didn't seem to be involved in the music.
I wasn't at all. I finished acting, came home, that was it.
Did you like that film?
No, but that's no real reflection on the film, I just didn't particularly like my work in it and I don't, I'm not wild about that film, I think the intentions were better than the finished product.
Cause I've got a copy of that film on tape, someone sent it to me.
It was the first time I'd ever really been responsible for more than just a few scenes.
You were in just about every scene.
Yeah. And I was also trying to sort of, you know, acting is such a funny thing, I didn't really know how to do it. There are people who can tell you how they do it, and I watch them and I'm interested in when they go on about it, but the most interesting person I've ever seen talk about acting was Paul Newman on one of those Inside the Actor's Studio. They have a great series that James Lipton does called Inside the Actor's Studio. And they invite people back to talk for an hour and they've had really interesting people, they've had Christopher Walken and Angelica Houston, and a lot of really interesting people. Paul Newman did one session and he was trying to explain something about just part of the process, just doing a scene, and he just stopped and said, I don't know, it's magic. It either works or it doesn't. And I just thought, yeah, I mean, you can do all the study and I've studied, not to the extent that some of those people have though god knows to have studied at the Actors Studio would be a blessing no matter what you did in life, cause it's a profound experience. Strasberg left an enormous legacy for actors, and for artists of any kind, that process is really deep and invasive in the best and worst sense of the way, it really forces you to actually do the work, not just act, not just be on top of it. But I don't really know how to do it. I don't know where I was leading to with that. Was I going any place? I got enraptured with the idea of studying with Lee Strasberg.
To Cross the Rubicon. Okay, I don't know what's wrong with it, cause I don't want to critique a film that involved a lot of other really nice people that I liked, and that we were all trying to do our best in. But for me, I hadn't really gone inside the part enough to figure out a history for the character, for myself, so I wasn't necessarily standing in the room with all the sense memory and all the life experience, invented or otherwise, that this character, that any character would have needed to occupy that much screen time, that much space. And the film was written about a relationship that involved the guy that was directing it, by the two women who were in it. So were completely caught up in their history. And in the end I just tried to watch this guy Barry, really sweet guy, nice guy, good director, I was trying to just watch him, cause the character I was playing was him in this story that Lorraine and Peyton had written. And I think it just was on my part just superficial, I was caught up in a lot of the stuff going on on the set, it wasn't easy cause like I said the two lead actresses wrote it about them and the guy who was directing it. So my job was to come in and be in this play that had been going on for years with these three people and if I had just spend some time really alone with it and thinking about who that guy was from the inside out, I'm sure I would've been happier with what I did in it. But it also just looks new to me. I didn't know how to carry a film, I had no idea about camera, and what size the frame was and -
Wasn't that up to the director?
It's up to the director but you know it's the actor's fault if you don't do it.
I thought you were one of the least problematic things about that film.
I've heard that. You have to have some sense of how it works though. You need to know the progression of events, even on the set, even in a scene. There's a master and then there's coverage on you and closer and closer and closer and you need to know the progression of it so that you save an appropriate amount of stuff for the right time. I mean there are people who can work who probably have such an innate sense of camera that they can work in front of the camera and the camera just loves them and they know with some sixth sense where it is. That's not who I am exactly. They're not hiring me to be beautiful. All I can do is sort of inhabit the guy and try to make him interesting, and I don't think I made that guy very interesting. And he could have been more interesting.
Did it win some awards or something?
Yeah I think it did well at some little film festivals. I think in the end it had a couple of unsolvable problems which is why it didn't really even reach a big video audience. But you know those people are all still writing and making films, they'll probably make better films. I certainly have. I think I have, I don't know. I'm sure I will.
What else have you made since, other than My Girl 2?
This one that I just finished called How To Make the Cruelest Month. I haven't seen it although as you know I'm going later today to look at some of it, but it felt good to do. It also felt like it was a character I don't ever have to do again. You know like, physically, the guy that's in this movie, Jerry, is not me, physically. And I sort of made some concessions to this guy's life, he's kind of sedentary, he's a professor, he's got this very protracted adolescence, and I don't know, there's something about it reminds me a little of Woody Allen in some ways. Anyway, I just went to this place, physically, and I pretty much stayed there for the film cause I did some work in advance with actress Mary Kay Place, a wonderful actress and a great friend of mine and a huge help in this. She's a good teacher, she should be teaching acting, cause she's wonderful at it. And I found a way to go to this character and just kind of stay there. Now whether it's going to look great or whether people are going to say I'm a good actor or not, I don't have any idea. But for me, with the exception of a couple of scenes that I just missed on, you can tell, at the end of the day you just kind of go, shucks, could have done that better, but it was a great relief to me to do it, cause it was I think it was good work, it's a wonderful script, really hilarious smart script, surrounded by great actors, I mean, I'm just a cog in this machine, and the actors are all just wonderful in it. But at the end of it I sort of went home and like slept for three days and I went oh, great now I can go and look at some of it. And the first day I looked at some dailies, cause I don't watch them when I'm shooting, it's too distracting, I'm too self-conscious for that, I looked at it and went, there's something about this I don't quite understand and I watched more of it and I realised I was sort of another being, physically. I was walking kind of a different way, it was kind of like a little bit of my dad, the way he walks, and a little bit of Woody Allen and I thought, is that really like the way I move all the time?
We are starting again, it is now two days later, and you were going to talk to me about "The Heart of the Matter," you wanted to say some more things about that.
Oh I wanted to actually say something instead, I thought the way I was telling you before was just too much detail. I thought it was way too much needless detail.
Well I'm very good at sifting through needless detail.
Yeah me too, I write songs. You asked me I believe was it the result of...
The question was how did you write it, did you both sit down and pour your hearts out and get drunk and whine about the miserable deals you'd had from these women or was it a more technical thing?
We didn't though, we both broke up with them.
I thought she left him.
He's a gentleman.
Texans are, aren't they?
No that's why I wanted you to ask again, because I was going to say much more simply that each of us had had serious relationships break up before that song that clearly had some residual tale left to be told or something, some sorting out to do. And when I said before it was more his than mine, his breakup was more recent than mine at the time, and ... what were we talking about? See that sign up there: Mind Expands. Not always a good thing, sometimes it's like a helium balloon, it gets bigger and bigger and lighter and lighter, and floats away. What we got to was this notion of forgiveness being the important factor and that I don't know if I've ever been asked exactly, but that was his idea, that was his brilliant idea for that song. We were sort of struggling through the verses and he came up with that idea for the chorus.
I told you I didn't quite even get it at first... okay, so you just sing that over and over? Yeah, that was the deal, you just sing that over and over. And then the lyrics all sort of led to it. I'm not going to be nearly as articulate tonight as I was the other day when you didn't have a battery. I like that song. I like that song. That song was really wrung out. It was a hard one.
But it was worth it, obviously. When you write a song like that with him, do you not wish afterwards that it was your song, that you had recorded it?
Well I wasn't making a record then so not really, I mean we were just writing a song and he was in the studio, so we knew where it was going. I actually don't sing that song as well as him. I sang it I think once in Japan, very acoustically and it seemed, and I guess I sang it once here too. But I don't do it on stage, it's very, I mean it's moving and it's almost even too personal, just with an acoustic guitar.
Well he's made it so his own.
Well it's kind of like an anthem now or something.
He always says it's not just a personal thing about him but that it's about the band.
Even at the end of the song it says "the ashes will scatter", that this is all just temporary and that without compassion it's really pretty meaningless.
Are there any other songs that you've written either on your own or with Don or with someone else that have as deep a resonance as that one?
Oh yeah, I can't say which ones more or less. Personally, it just depends on, it probably just depends on the mood I'm in, I mean it's completely capricious whatever happens to strike me that day as having the most resonance. I mean, I was singing "Prisoner in Disguise" once on stage and I almost began to cry, and it was kind of frightening actually, it had never happened in that song before. And from that point on that always had a little bit of extra sauce.
But there's no, I don't think I have a favourite song. Usually my favourite song of mine is "Simple Man Simple Dream." And it's not even, it's funny, cause it wasn't even, it was written almost sarcastically, I mean the last thing I am is a simple man. It was more like what I aspired to be, some part of me, some deeper kind of...
Well that's what all this wanting to go and live in the country is about, it's just stripping away all the extraneous clutter and just getting down to the essence, to live a simple life. That's why I moved to Byron Bay. But there are always things that tempt you to keep the clutter there.
Witness... (waves hands around his studio).
Yeah, actually when I began to write that song, I was, I'm sure it was a little bit tongue in cheek, just as almost everything I say is, although I'm not sure that exactly what that means because I'm not actually trying to be funny.
You have a very sarcastic streak. It's the Scottish in you I guess.
Probably. But when I got to the second verse, "When I go down to get a job sometimes" I realised that I actually was talking about myself to some degree and just the way that the clutter that surrounds us makes us all misunderstood and clouds not only our behaviour but people's perceptions of it.
And with something like "You're Only Lonely" when you wrote that did you realise that that was a real pop song?
No, I wrote it seven years before I recorded it.
Did you write it to be played like that?
I just wrote it in a cabin in Colorado that I was renting from Stephen Stills for the winter when I was rehearsing the Souther Hillman Furay Band for the first time and I was coming home to this cold little cabin, and somebody was flying into see me, a girlfriend from LA was flying in every couple of weeks for a weekend, and she was just, she seemed so angst-ridden, that it was just a simple little response it was just, it's okay, you're only lonely, it's fixable. And it was just a little song, two verses and that little refrain, no bridge, no third verse, and then whatever, six years later, or seven, whatever it was, when we were cutting that album
Why did you wait until '79 to put it on an album? Why didn't it go on "Black Rose"?
I just didn't hear it then, I don't know. Why didn't it go on the SHF album, I don't know.
So there are always just a number of songs sitting around that you haven't used?
A man of many bits.
But we were recording... I think at the time I was going to call that album "White Rhythm and Blues," I'm not sure. And we were just looking for more songs, in my case anything up tempo. And Waddy was saying god, don't you have anything that's not a dirge? And I said well I've got this little thing that I wrote years ago, I think it's pretty good.
It's kind of another take on the Orbison song, obviously "Only the Lonely", but his is all "Only the lonely know why I cry," blah blah, it was an "I" centred song. And "You're Only Lonely" was, there's nothing about me in it, it's just a little spontaneous act of generosity to somebody else. And I just didn't hear it as a complete song.
When it came out and it was a hit did the girl know that it was the song about her?
I don't know that she does still.
Do you still keep in touch with this woman?
Oh yeah, I see her. Yeah. I just don't think I've ever told her, perhaps she knows. But I just didn't think of recording it until that many years later and as I get into the studio I sort through bits in my mind, and I just sort through bits and I find some things that are discardable and some things that need expansion, and some things in this case that are just already sitting there.
[In a later conversation Souther revealed that this woman was Linda Ronstadt.]
Talk to me about the Black & White Night project.
T-Bone asked me to do it, I was completely happy, because I'd always loved Roy's work.
And you told me you had actually worked with Roy on one occasion?
Not before that. After that. Or around then. We wrote two songs together for his last album: "Coming Home" and "We'll Take the Night."
So had you met him before?
You know I was trying to remember, I have such a poor memory for chronology.
Well he only died a year later, so...
Yeah it was all just in a short period of time. Gone too soon.
But you'd always obviously admired him, I think I remember you saying you'd always aspired to be like Roy Orbison.
I loved him when I was a little kid, I just loved his voice, I always wished I could sing like him, he was like the Pavarotti of rockabilly music to me, although of course it's not really rockabilly music, it's really very operatic in a way. But I loved his music, it gave me, it was one of those voices that just was there in the dark when I was a kid, I'd hear those songs, "In Dreams" and some of that stuff. "In Dreams" is one of my favourites, that's one of the most amazing dramatic songs I can think of. And "Only the Lonely" and a song called "I'm Hurtin" which was not a huge hit but actually which is probably more like "You're Only Lonely" than any other of his. And... there's another song of his, I'm going to have to sing the whole song to get to the title..
I like "It's Over" - that's nice and dramatic.
"It's Over" is very dramatic and very good.
Did you choose the singers?
Except Steven Soles?
He was T-Bone's friend.
You brought Jackson in, which was lovely.
I brought Jackson in, and Bonnie and Jennifer Warnes and kd, and we all sat on the floor in my living room with this sheet music and tapes of the songs and tried to recreate these arrangements, absolutely as faithfully as we could, and it was very thrilling to actually get there on stage with him and hear this all come together.
Well it must have been, it was such a fabulous project, and I particularly love the opening vocal on "Only the Lonely", cause that's you isn't, the first dum dum dum... it's distinctive that it's not the usual voices on his records. And I liked that, I liked the fact those personalities were in there.
I actually don't remember who sang what on which song. But I knew the arrangements so well cause I'd heard them so many times. I just love the phonetics, I love the fact that they're actually orchestrations just built with human voices in different phonetic sounds.
And I think you put it that this was all of your way of thanking this man.
I think for all of us in a way, at least for a lot of us it was in a way. I know Bruce, we had talked about this, really loved him when he was a kid. In fact I think Bruce wrote the liner notes to an album of Roy's, he wrote something on the back.
Bruce was really getting off on that show.
Yeah, it was amazing. It's a chance to play with somebody that you've loved, whose work you've loved for that long, in that kind of setting with all those other players and singers. It was remarkable.
And speaking of working with people whom you've loved or admired, can I talk about that Bob Dylan episode? Because it's such a cute little anecdote.
What, the song we tried to write?
Yeah, how you decided we've got to write a song together, so he comes over and -
Well a friend of ours had been trying to sort of nudge us closer together for years, a mutual friend, and he finally came over one day and we sat and got almost nothing done, talked about dogs and poetry. And had a fine day and you know there's probably no-one's work that I admire any more than his, maybe Jimmy Webb's as much, but I mean Bob is the guy you go to for that stuff. I think I told you before I felt like he was one of the first writers that by example, showed us that songs are not just rhymes and music, that they're important stories and they involve ways of living and characters that are not being judged in the usual senses. I don't know. Bob just complicated things more for everybody in a very healthy way, and I don't know that he'd even want to hear that because he really loves simplicity. We were talking that day, he kept using the phrase "everyday language", he loves things that are in everyday language. But some of the stuff that is everyday language to him is very exalted language to some people. I mean he likes Byron and Shelley and Keats and that to the average late 20th century reader is not everyday language. It's quite exalted language, and I think Bob's is exalted in the way that some biblical writing is. Some of the beauty of the story is just in the choice of language.
Do you think a lot about language when you're writing?
Not consciously. Well yeah, that's not true. I do but I'm not sure how I'd quantify how much I think about it because I drift in and out so often when I'm writing, sometimes I'm there, sometimes I'm a million miles away and then I'm back for a minute, then gone, then half there.
Do you ever write a lyric and then look back on it and think that is nothing like what I would normally say, where did that come from?
Oh to some extent I feel that way almost all the time. But it's a treat to be surprised by what you write, and unfortunately usually that doesn't happen until time has added enough perspective to it for you to be truly surprised.
And then as you said you actually look back and are actually in awe of what you've done.
Bob said that, in an interview in the New York Times, and I was just tickled to hear him say it. Of course I'm in awe of almost everything he writes so it doesn't surprise me, but it's good to hear that he hears some of his old stuff and that it means as much to him as it does to us.
Are you in awe of anything you've written?
I'm sometimes, yeah I guess. Sometimes I'll hear something and just think, wow, I wish I could do that, and then I'll realise oh yeah, I did. It doesn't make whatever's going on currently any easier, but...
Talk to me just a little bit about this whole process of songwriting and how you feel about it and you've made a number of comments indicating that you just don't like it and don't want to do it, but you're obviously driven to it.
It encompasses every emotion that well most, not every but it involves so many different emotions that it's probably never the same two hours in a row. There's a great American poet named William Stafford and he has a book about writing called Writing the Australian Crawl.
I've seen that somewhere, actually.
And it just, it struck me because I always feel like songwriting to some extent is like swimming in molasses.
And slow and it's just , it's such a... oh I don't know. It's like swimming in molasses but now and then you just hit a bubble and just shoot to the next big gooey bits. But it's not very often that you find those little pockets of air that are... It's full of friction.
Many of my favourite musicians, songwriters, did a lot of their best stuff when they were very young, when they were in their early twenties. For instance Robert Lamm from Chicago, I think the stuff he wrote at the very beginning of the group in the late 60s was really really powerful stuff. But is there something about that young angry thing from that era that everyone had so much to say and were feeling so much, and now because everyone's become so kind of successful and life is so much crusier that there isn't as much inspiring the more mature songwriter, and that's why it becomes more of a molasses swim?
No, I just don't think you mind the molasses when you're young, and I also think it's your ears, too. I mean you're not going to hear anything that any one of us writes now that is going to strike you as hard as it did when you first heard it. So all of us have been a little bit conditioned by just the fact that so much has been written and so much has gone on.
It's harder to be impressed? Harder to be surprised?
Probably so. There's just more stuff. I mean it seems like every eight or ten years you could just pinch yourself awake and discovered that the media has leapt up to encompass your life in a hundred ways that it didn't ten years before. And the business is bigger; there are more artists, more singers, more writers, all that stuff has more commercial application than it had before. So as far as folk music and rock and roll music, it's not as precious, I mean and not necessarily in the best sense, either. But it's not as precious meaning it's not as rare in society as it once was. Rock and roll fans are now 55, 60 years old, as well as 8 years old and 10 years old and 14 years old and 18 years old. We were kids, you know. Everybody old was square and the whole world has since discovered four-chord songs and edgy rhythm. So it is harder to be surprised probably by anything, I mean, witness this thing that happened in Australia, this massive, how many people did that guy kill?
Thirty-five. Now who would have thought in a sleepy little place in Tasmania that somebody would just snap and shoot 35 people? That brought the world closer to you in a way that you didn't want it to be closer to you. You know 20 years ago people used to say New York is a dangerous place. Well looking back 20 years ago it was idyllic compared to now... Tension runs high in the world.
Can I also talk about how you've been working on a song with Brian Wilson?
Well, talk to me before you print it, because if we don't finish it together for some reason it won't have been the right thing to do to talk about it. Just suffice to say that it's
"I was a flake," said Souther.
Yeah. Suffice to say that it's a grand thing to work on, because I've loved his work since I was really young. I mean, I heard "In My Room" and some of those early songs when I was in Texas, and it was very much, it was part of the painting of California. I won't be naïve enough to say that I thought California would actually be like those songs, cause the truth is when I moved to Los Angeles nothing surprised me about it. It was one of the great disappointments about it. Absolutely nothing.
It was exactly as you'd expected?
It smelled the same, I could smell that ozone, that sharp kinda acrid smell in the air, it was grey most of the time, there were like you know movie stars everywhere, but there were also bums, and normal working people selling shoes, and guys building houses and I, just nothing surprised me about it. It was exactly like Stevie Wonder said, "just like I pictured it." It was in that song on Fulfillingness First Finale, "Living just enough for the city." "Just like I pictured it." It didn't surprise me a bit. But anyway, Brian. I don't know Brian, until now.
How did this one happen? He contacted you, didn't he?
Well Irving Azoff is I guess either going to release this record or is representing him as a manager.
Irving doesn't manage you does he?
I don't have a manger.
That's a good thing.
Well not really. But... I guess if I needed one I'd have one. I've had great managers you know. Geffen and Roberts managed me for a while, and then just Elliot, and then Elliot with Irving, and then just Irving and Howard at HK. I've had great managers, I'm just not a big road touring guy so it always leaves a manager hungry for a bit more, you know. Actually, I do now have a manager, Frank Callari. He manages the Mavericks and Lucinda Williams and Junior Brown.
So Brian, let's finish up about Brian here. One of the interesting things about Brian's writing to me is that he, based on just how far we've gone in this thing to date, writes musically and phonetically rather than sitting down and actually saying I'm going to write a song about X topic. He just sort of plays music, he sits at the piano and plays, and makes sounds and the next thing you know there's a few chords, and then a little bit of melody line and then some "ooohs" and "aaahs" and, it's just some kind of great left-handed construction.
Are there "ooohs" and "aaahs" on this tape?
There are "ooohs" and "aaahs", it's a beautiful thing. It's called "Where Has Love Gone." And it's an odd collaboration so far because he just sort of handed it to me and said here, write whatever words you want, he said I'm not going to tell you what to write. Which I'm sure he doesn't entirely mean because if I was doing the same thing I wouldn't entirely mean it.
I guess what he wants you to do maybe is write something so that he can then look at it and go yeah I like that, no I don't like that...
Yeah. Well we just need to be after the same thing. It's difficult when he doesn't tell me what it is, but that's the way he works.
And is that easy for two men who've never known each other who have had completely different
Your careers have been so different and your lives have been so different.
That wouldn't matter at all. That wouldn't matter at all. All that would matter is whether the chemistry happened to be -
Is there chemistry between you?
I don't know. We'll see. I like him, he likes me, I like his music, he likes my music, he's a really nice guy and just honest as can possibly be, disarmingly honest, and obviously very bright and knows what he wants musically.
Which is great considering everything he's been through.
Yeah, he's had a hard time and I think he's great. I think people, because of some physical thing or because what they think they know he may have gone through, treat him a little bit gingerly as though he needs some extra, I don't know, as though he needs a little bit of extra handling. And I found him to be just right there, in the middle of the moment and perfectly fine and willing to say what he needed. I like him.
Tell me about whether you are going to make a new album. There are all these reports out in the biz that you are making a new album.
There's always that risk.
You said something about there being a lot of pressure on you. I want to know by whom.
I don't know, I don't feel it right now. No-one can put any more pressure on me than I put on myself. I mean the way I make an album is probably as unconventional as the way Brian writes songs. I just keep saying I'm making an album and writing things and putting pieces together until there's enough of a body of work that I actually see what I want the work to sound like, or actually... let me put this another way. I just keep writing bits and singing and playing and putting things together until I can hear the way it sounds, until I can hear the way it's supposed to sound. And then even then there's another step when I get people to play on it, and that begins to define the sound too, and then at some point which is pretty well along in the process, I begin the write more songs based on sort of the context that we've created. So then by the end of the album there are probably five new songs that weren't even begun when the album started.
What part are you up to in the process at the moment?
If I told you that I'd have to kill you.
Okay. You may kill me.
No it's not.
It's classified here.
Oh, that's incredibly disappointing. Meaning what?
Well I don't know, I couldn't tell you until I get there, that's like asking someone on a journey what it's like to arrive.
Oh okay, so you haven't started working with other people, you haven't started bringing anyone else in at the moment.
No, that's not true, Waddy and I have played some stuff over here.
Yeah, you did say that.
I cut something with Kunkel and, there are a few things that are cut. I don't know that they're, in fact I'm almost sure they won't be on the record the way they're cut.
Are you going to produce yourself?
I don't know. Sometimes that's a good idea, sometimes I really don't want to have to be bothered with that part, I just want to go in the room and play, I don't want to have to be on the other side of the glass too. And sometimes it's almost moot. "You're Only Lonely" I produced just because by the time we got there, I don't know whether I thought I didn't need a producer or whether there just wasn't one there. So I just did it. Although my friends helped me. Glenn and Don both helped, sat in the booth patiently, and listened and put things together while I was doing vocals.
Which is pretty amazing considering what they were going through at the time, that was that whole Long Run period.
Yeah, well they were here obviously and not in Florida at the time. Besides, we're old pals.
So can we expect a new JD Souther album next year, maybe?
Well, I'd be gratified if you expected it.
You obviously feel no great compulsion to do one thing or another, do you.
That wouldn't be accurate either. I'll just, I don't know what's going to happen. That's the thing about life, or at least the way I live it.
Are you as directionless as you seem?
No it's not directionless, it's just living life a day at a time. A moment at a time. When I get enough songs that sound like they want to be a record and I like the way that I feel when I play 'em with the people I play 'em with, we'll book a room, cut 'em, and go out and play 'em for some folks.
Is it going to be quite a different JD Souther than the one who made those albums back in the '70s and early '80s? It's been a long time.
Well it's always different, though, you have to realise for me it's just life just goes in the same increments it does for everyone else seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months so I can't tell how people who haven't heard any music of mine since 1984 are going to respond, because I'm here every day, so I don't have the luxury of those big jumps in perspective. You know it's like going home, it's like seeing someone's children that you don't see very often, you go my god, they've grown! Well the parents don't notice, they're there every day.
Well, I hope you do make another album.
Thank you. I'm certain that I will, I'm just not certain when, because at the moment the songs are just changing all the time, and the way that I want to play them is, wow, swimming in molasses. It's sweet, but it's slow.
It's very good for you, too. Good for your coat. It'll make your hair shine.
So I hear. I mean any artist is always going to tell you that they think the next piece of work they're going to do is the best. So there's no point in not doing it.
Yeah but with you your next piece of work isn't necessarily an album, your next piece of work is the song you're doing with Brian Wilson or the song you're doing with Peter, or the next movie you act in, I mean, it's kind of bitsy with you.
Well, it's just... I don't know what that means.
That's nice, that's actually refreshing for an artist, for a musician because you know for the Michael Jacksons and the Madonnas and the whatevers, it's just like next album next tour next album next tour, I mean that's what burnt out a lot of those artists in the '70s. I was watching the VH1 Behind the Music special on Fleetwood Mac last night, and it's what killed them in the '70s, it's what killed the Eagles, it's just the pressure to keep moving in this straight line.
The Eagles never died.
They only went on a 14-year vacation. They never died for me.
Well you know Greatest Hits 1 passed 24 million this year making it the biggest selling record of all time. Past Michael Jackson.
That's good for you I guess.
Yeah, it's just swell. It's what was the word you used before? Very gratifying.
No, you used it. Where do your biggest royalty checks come from then? Those early Eagles songs?
Well I don't know what the proportion is. You saw that list that's on that bio, I have a lot of recordings.
I need to take a copy of that badly written bio.
There are a lot of recordings of my songs and you know it depends on what's getting airplay or if something gets used in a movie that maybe hasn't been much of a check for years, then it suddenly is, or if there's a collection that's got a song in it that wasn't before, you know things change, who would have thought 15 years ago that there'd be something called CDs that would completely re-sell entire catalogues again? The answer is, we knew. And we were all very gratified.
With all of that and this new album that might happen
It's happening right now, it's happening as we speak.
(Plays some chords of Brian's song)
You're going to put the Brian Wilson song on your album are you? I thought he wanted it for his.
Ah I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I put it on mine too.
Sure. Well who's going to sing it? Is he going to sing it on his?
Yes. This is a Brian Wilson album, that's what we're working on. It's beautiful, he's a great singer. He's honey, you know.
It needs words.
That's I think why I was called in.
With all of that however you say that you'd love to stop.
Yeah it's just something I say. I do like the idea of getting up in the morning and just getting on a horse and riding fence, instead of you know answering the phone and
You probably find the creative juices might flow better anyway.
Maybe. Not for writing pop music I don't think. Or folk music or rock and roll music. Maybe some long form, maybe longer poems or short stories or novella or something like that.
I've been writing one for 23 years.
If you don't put it out soon nobody's going to be able to carry it home.
Hey it's either being left to somebody I've left it to in my will or it's being buried with me. It's not for general eyes.
Lock your house.
You're on your way.
No but somebody might be.
Would you like to complete this interview by singing something?
I was playing the end of my only TV show theme I've ever written.
What was your tv show theme?
It was a show that my friends Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis did called Anything But Love.
I don't think that ever came to Australia.
I think it was only here for a season or two.
Was it a nice song?
Of course. Why would I write a bad song? Just cause it's TV? It's a little song, it just lasts 59 seconds instead of four minutes. And it's got a verse and a chorus and a little bridge.
So sing it for me.
(Starts to sing and falters) It's too high. Can't sing it, sorry.
You failed the audition.
Oh no you mean I don't get to write another tv theme? Oh no. I'm crushed.
A little later...
You wanted to talk to me about what your new album is going to be like.
Well actually you were asking me what it would sound like and how I would know when it was ready and such as that, and the reason that I couldn't give you answer is that I don't have a context beyond myself and my own world of acquaintances and, it's very immediate right now. I don't, I'm not in step with any music that's being made right now that I hear. So unlike some other times in the past when I was preparing to record, when I had a context, when for instance maybe perhaps Jackson and Bonnie and I would all be going to the studio at somewhere near the same time or at least in the same year, and many other people, too, you know Lowell and Linda and the Eagles and Zevon and Waddy had a band called Ronin for a while, great band, and all these people, we somehow had a context that was shared to some extent even though within it we were each very individual voices. At the moment, although some of those people are still making records, what I'm sort of bombarded with when I'm fool enough to turn on the television or the radio are things that I feel completely out of step with, just as I feel completely out of touch with a lot of the behaviour that I see in life, it seems, it has such a lack of civility that it's alien to my better nature and brings out a side of me that I'm not that pleased about. So this record is not being made in a vacuum, but rather sort of being made in a chaos of things that I don't find familiar or reassuring, and all it means is that I have to, it's that thing again, swimming through molasses to make my own little honeycomb, I have to make a bubble, a cave, whatever you want to call it, maybe armur is a better word, but I have to make some context for myself, go the hell in there and make the thing, without feeling at ease or like a part of what's going on around me, because I don't feel a part of anything that's going on around me.
I understand that.
I wish I did.
Is that it?
By phone two weeks later
Why did you switch from Asylum to Columbia between Black Rose and You're Only Lonely?
It was a management and financial suggestion as much as anything else. I did four albums for Asylum, including the two Souther Hillman Furay albums, and the gist of it was that I should be trying to sell more records and that a new company would give that impetus. There was not real problem there, just a question of searching for some new blood.
And what about now with this new album? Is there a company interested?
There are always people interested so I guess we'll see who's interested the most at the time. The personnel at record companies are always changing so it depends who makes the best relationship at the time. It's about good long-range planning. But it's nice to be with one record company for a long time, so it would be nice to be back at Asylum. There's always interest, but it's about who has the right kind of interest and a feeling for the material, without sculpting.
Tell me about all the vocal sessions you've done on other people's records not just you but Henley and the other guys. Is it a bread and butter thing for cash or a friends-helping-friends thing?
None of us does it much any more, but it was never about money. It was more about favors and interest. We're a group of people, three or four of us, who are harmony singers and like to sing harmony. There would be people in the studio who you'd know and they'd call us up, usually in twos or threes Don and I or Glenn and I, or Schmit and I. Some of the best harmonies we've ever done are on Randy Newman's Good Old Boys. Songs like "Riding in the Rain." Great stuff. [The album is he referring to is actually Little Criminals.]
Why do Henley/Souther compositions only end up on Henley records and not on Souther records? Why are your collaborations always for his albums and his name never turns up as a writer on yours?
He just records a lot more than I do. I think Don would like to know the answer to that, too. He did ask me once how come nothing we've ever written has ended up on your album and I said I don't know. I guess he only collaborates whereas I collaborate and I write alone. We did write "Talking to the Moon" for my album but for some reason it ended up on his.
Tell me about the book Jimmy Webb is putting together.
It's called Tunesmith and he's interviewing songwriters for it.
Who else other than you?
I don't know. Other songwriters he knows, I guess.
Can you give me some cast and crew details for The Cruelest Month?
Kip Koenig is the writer/director, and the cast features Marianne Jean-Baptiste from Secrets and Lies, Dennis Haysburt, Mary Kay Place, Clea Duval and Gabriel Manne, and it was shot here in LA.
What about some of the awards you've won or been nominated for over the years?
I was nominated for two Grammys for Urban Cowboy and "Faithless Love." "Faithless Love" was nominated in 1987 when Glen Campbell recorded it. It's been recorded by so many people. There's been an American Music Award for Best Song, a Country Music Award, ASCAP awards for most performed songs, and lots of gold and platinum records. They're in two boxes in the out house, along with charts they send you and clippings... it's just memorabilia that you accumulate.
And what about the producing side of you career?
I produced a couple of tracks for a New Zealand singer named Jan Hellriegal for her album It's My Sin in the early '90s. We were put in touch by my friend Tim Murdoch, the head of Warner New Zealand. I don't really like producing but there was something really interesting about this girl. I'll put the tracks on a tape to send to you.
© Debbie Kruger
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