Interview On The Release Of Stream with Maya Lebromm, Music Journalist ML: Nice to be speaking with you again. BB: Likewise. How have you been? ML: Well. So, a lot has happened since we last spoke… BB: Yes. I’m working again, despite my best efforts. [laughter] But you’re probably talking about my latest release [Stream], a little late in coming due to that spell of unemployment. ML: Yes, mostly that. Your notes on the back state that none of the tracks on Stream were rehearsed. It’s pretty amazing that those songs were improvised. How did all that come out of you, and how long did it take? BB: Well, the songs themselves all came out in July and August of 2008. I remember “Children” being the last one, which I recorded right after seeing some of the Republican Convention. By that time, the formula was just starting to catch up with me. ML: What do you mean by that? BB: Well, I was just beginning to become self-conscious of the task of singing off the top of my head, and instinctively I knew I had better wrap it up soon before the results started being effected. I think you can hear it on “Children”. I’m struggling with my expression early on, but then I really did get lost in the emotion and image after image started tumbling out. That one has a lot of anger in it, in case you didn’t notice. [laughter] ML: I did notice. Again, how did all this come out of you? BB: Honestly, I think it was the result of having a vocal booth built, which now takes up a large part of my living room. A good friend of mine from Minnesota visited and said “Fishhouse? No…” [laughter] It really is kind of a strange intrusion on my living space…
ML: How did the vocal booth help all those songs come out of you? BB: Well, I finally felt safe really letting things out. For me, my vocals on those songs are much more satisfying and noteworthy than the words or music. I am extremely self-inhibited and shy when I think anyone can hear me, so most of my previous recordings reflect that to some degree. I still feel my greatest weakness as an artist has been not really feeling comfortable with my singing. ML: Really? BB: Yes. I think I really sound monotone, and sometimes there is a lot of blood and pain in my songs that doesn’t seem to come through. Some of it may be due to the fact that I don’t have a producer who would know best how to capture my voice. I mean, I do the best I can, but I’m doing all of it: the playing, the singing, the producing, the mixing. It’s hard to be a master at them all. ML: But on Stream, you feel you overcame some of that? BB: Yes. I truly feel like at this point, if there’s one creation I’d like to be remembered for, it’s this collection of songs. ML: I love the cover drawing. How did that come about? BB: I had the conceptual idea of music flowing into me, and all these images flowing out. I saw an ad on Craigslist by an artist [Thu Nong], and emailed her the image of me in sunglasses with a description of what I was looking for. She did the rest, and did a fantastic job. ML: Stream almost seems to be a conceptual album. Was that your intent? BB: Not consciously, no. But I really like how all the songs fit together. And if you play attention, you’ll notice certain images and themes repeated in different ways. Some of that, of course, is due to the fact that I am improvising, and the mind tends to go down certain alleys again and again. I’m just happy that the alleys my mind went down led to something worthwhile. I feel like it’s about as naked and honest as I can be. ML: I noticed your reference to John Lennon with the title “Crippled Inside Part II”. Was he an influence? BB: Now that I look back, it was really The Plastic One Band album. Would you believe that I first bought that c.d. just a few years ago? When my mother died [in April of 2005], I put the song “Mother” on repeat in my car, and listened to it over and over again as I drove to the airport to fly home for her funeral. It isn’t an exact fit for how my relationship with my mother was, but it’s close enough. Anyway, if I had to trade all my Beatles c.d.s to get The Plastic Ono Band, and never have a chance of getting them back, I’d do it. ML: So, even though “Crippled Inside” is not on that album, it was the main influence? BB: It was one influence. Though, again, not consciously. “Crippled Inside Part II” certainly was inspired by Lennon’s song. I used the “Part II” the way U2 did for “God Part II”. I was trying to grapple with my own handicaps, and how they are often invisible to most people who know me, and how they can be just as debilitating as any sort of crippling injury. Then I started thinking of people I know who are similarly crippled. It all came out like vomit, at that point. [laughter]
ML: One of my favorites on Stream, “When”, seems to also have been inspired by people you know. BB: One woman I loved, in particular. Love, I guess. She is handicapped in ways so similar to me, that my empathy was always strong for her. I’m very proud of that song. ML: She seems to be referred to more than once in these songs. BB: Yes. But I do think the songs are still universal in their own way. Just like the songs on The Plastic Ono Band, or the many amazing songs of Van Morrison that speak of requited and unrequited love. Van was also a huge influence on this work. Not musically, of course, since there’s no way to put myself in his class, but emotionally, and, sometimes, vocally. For me, the first six songs of No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is Van at his best. Pure vocal and emotional genius. ML: Who inspired “Walk”? BB: My old Minnesota friends. Who we all were back in our early twenties. “The Youth of A Thousand Summers”, to quote Van. I feel like I really tapped into my emotion on that song. That’s a tricky one, because, like some of Van’s stuff, it comes across as living in the past. But it’s not really that. It’s finding that feeling through creating. I remember a realization striking me very hard a number of years ago: maybe Van never found comfort in the lovers he sang songs about. Maybe the comfort came from the songs themselves. If you look at the lowest points in most artists’ lives, it’s when they are cut off from their muse, which may be their true lover. ML: Is that the case for you? BB: Yes. But you can’t hold your muse and feel her body next to yours. [laughter] ML: There’s so much on Stream to discuss. Mind if I name some songs, and you give a sentence or two about them? BB: You mean instead of rambling on like I do in most of the songs themselves? [laughter] O.k. ML: “Shore”. BB: Another song about my mother. I was feeling pretty low when I sang that one. Depression can make you feel like your time here is running short. ML: “July”. BB: [pause] Like the rest of the songs, created around dusk. Me and me. That could be the main theme of Stream. Trying to get the two to get along. Another main theme is not knowing who you are. It seems like a weakness, but it’s not. ML: “Horse”. BB: Dreamlike. Hallucinatory. Almost as if drug induced. A real or imagined lover. Foreboding. Enticing. Mysterious. Like many women I’ve met. ML: “African”. BB: A Denver black woman sang the African-American version of the Star Spangled Banner instead of the original, and was heavily criticized. That had to take a lot of guts. I think the song is really about my own struggles to overcome my prejudices. It’s a long journey.
ML: “Ian”. BB: Written for Ian Curtis of Joy Division. A good friend from Minnesota turned me on to them, and I had just finished watching Control. He was so real but I wonder how many people knew he was at the time. ML: “Birth”. BB: The first one to come out. You can hear when I realize I’m singing a bit too far from the mic, and lean in closer. That song made me realize I was on to something. ML: “Rebirth”. BB: That actually is the ending of “Birth”. I cut the song in two and created fade ins and fade outs. The last line says a lot, as long as you don’t read into it too much and think I’m one of those people who just knows they were originally from the Pleiades. [laughter] ML: “Sleepwalking”. BB: That was the second or third one to come to me. I love the bass part that came to me later. In fact, besides the vocals, that is the other thing I’m most proud of on this album. A lot came out of me on that one. ML: “73”. BB: The old Catholic indoctrination came out on that one. [laughter] How those last lines came through me is beyond me, but they point to something pretty significant. ML: “Stream”. BB: The title actually came after the title of the c.d. The song was inspired by those early memories that are as close to ecstasy that I can remember, other than moments I’ve had in love. My parents nicknamed me “Lights”, because I’d stare at them, mesmerized. The lines of light I refer to came through a furnace grill as the sun was sinking, back in my childhood home. ML: This seems as good a place as any to stop. BB: What a polite way to tell me to stop babbling. [laughter] ML: Thank you for speaking with me again. BB: Thank you.
Interview With Maya LeBromm, Music Journalist ML: Despite the fact that you are a virtually unknown musician, you have released an impressive 7 cds in nearly as many years, most of which, in the “old days”, would be 2 or even 3-album sets. What drives you? BB: Well, like many artists, it’s just something I have to do. I don’t even know why. I do know that before I was creating, I was being deeply moved by other writers’ creations, particularly songwriters like [Jim] Morrison, and later on, Neil Young, [Bob] Dylan, Jackson Browne, John Kay [of Steppenwolf], and a bunch of others. They reached deep into me, and I felt the need to try and reach as deeply within myself. Also, just feeling deeply. Being affected by things. Morrison once said something like, “It was something about the moon.” I totally understand that. ML: You seem to follow the strict rules of rhyme, almost to a fault… BB: Well, I wouldn’t say to a fault. I mean, I’m an English Major, so I’m maybe hyper aware of proper rhyming. But what I came to realize, especially after I got caught up in writing sonnets for awhile, where, if you’re following the original tradition, you must follow a very rigid rhyme scheme, is that I almost always came up with something way better precisely because I was forced to rhyme. I had thoughts and insights that never would have come to me otherwise. In fact, and I know this may sound dramatic, I am totally indebted to the invention of rhyme. Almost everything I’ve achieved as a writer was inspired by it, and often I have felt as if it was doing the creating through me, rather than me trying to show how clever I could be by rhyming. I mean, the bottom line is what you’ve written: Does it stand up artistically? Does it speak your truth, and not just a pretty truth that is supposed to hide your shadows? Does it, in the words of Bono, “reveal rather than conceal”? ML: What are you trying to reveal? BB: I always feel a kinship with poets, at least the ones that have reached me, because their goal is to reveal what I guess we have to call truth, though it’s all relative, I suppose. Their truth. No matter where it leads them, no matter if their readers will follow, and certainly with a lot less concern for how much fame it will bring than most popular musicians.
ML: Which poets have inspired you? BB: Off the top of my head, Robert Bly comes to mind. Wallace Stevens. Galway Kinnell. Sylvia Plath. Carolyn Forché, whom I met during one of my college writing classes. I’m forgetting many, many others, which is unfortunate but a sad reality about great artists, especially poets. I mean, I remember walking down those towering, ten-foot tall aisles of books at the college library, and being struck to the core by the realization that there are thousands and thousands of incredible books that aren’t even cracked for decades. I mean, at that moment, I knew that all the blood and life experience I put into my own writing would likely mean little or nothing. It’s a truth you have to face again and again, and to carry on, you have to block it out of your mind, but it’s true, and you know it. And what’s maybe even harder to face is that deep down you know you shouldn’t expect it to be any different. I wrote a song years ago that I still haven’t recorded called “A Drop In The Ocean.” Every chorus ends with a line that is then rhymed with by the word “ocean”. One of them is “Ain’t it hard when you discover that everything is in motion/And even Bob Dylan is just a drop in the ocean.” That, for me, says it all. ML: You seem to bring Bob Dylan up a lot… BB: Well, as a songwriter, how couldn’t I? I mean, he’s like this rugged mountain casting a shadow over the rest of us mere mortals for at least our lifetimes. ML: You say that almost with a sort of spite or anger. Does he not deserve that stature? [laughter] BB: No, the problem is he does. Now again, getting back to what I was just saying, there are many other songwriters who also “deserve” a little recognition, but Dylan surely deserves to be recognized as the incredible artist he is, especially since he rarely took the obvious or easy path. In fact, he seemed to be trying to throw people off his trail more often than not.
ML: Do you deserve recognition? BB: [smiling and looking way] C’mon, that’s not really for me to answer now, is it? ML: Why? BB: That’s for an audience to decide, even if it’s only an audience of one.[laughter] ML: Tell me about that cd. Why did you put that fake audience in it? BB: Well, I had a “friend” pretty much say in his passive aggressive, Minnesota way that I was being egotistical, but that’s not what I felt I was being. I thought it was a clever and funny idea, and I knew it spoke to exactly what we’ve been talking about: Who deserves recognition? Why? What is good art? Who can tell? I guess I was being egotistical. I mean if I don’t do it, who would do it for me? But in a way I was also speaking for all unknown artists throughout history. ML: That brings to mind “Open Season”. BB: Yes. I wrote that when I was hanging around a circle of activists. Though it was never spoken, it was always deeply implied that activism, and I would say most every other vocation, is more important than art. That is, of course, unless you achieve notoriety. Then you’re elevated above the rest of us mortals. ML: Again, that spite… BB: Well see, what I have always wanted was merely to be known as an artist, not necessarily known as a famous artist. Most people think that if you’re making popular music, you’re trying to be a rock star, that it’s some kinda kid’s game. I never thought of it that way, and I never will. There’s a song on my forthcoming cd for Tim, a friend in my life for way too short a time who deeply understood this. I hope he is still creating art.
ML: Are you proud of your music? BB: Yes. Now, I understand my limitations very well. I’m not trying to fool myself. I’m no guitar virtuoso, I’m no opera singer, and I have pathetic stage presence. But I’ll stand behind my songs. In fact, lyrically, I’ll put them aside the best. But then, I would also say that about David Gray and a number of my contemporaries. And yet, I know there are many important things my songs are not. But that is true for any artist. The very things that make an artist unique and important prevent that artist from being other unique and important things. I remember David Crosby once saying that Joni Mitchell was better than Dylan because she had the lyrics and the melodies. I think that’s bull@#$%. For what Dylan has expressed, his melodies are exactly what his words need. I mean, can you imagine his songs having those jazzy chords, or if he sang like a bird? Not to mention, Dylan has done more with his voice than anyone I can think of. He’s certainly become more characters in his songs than anyone I can think of. ML: So you think Bob Dylan is better than Joni Mitchell? BB: No. Definitely not. In fact, I think Joni deserves way more recognition. But again, so do thousands of other artists. This whole “Who’s the best” question really bugs me, though I’ve thought in those terms myself before. I don’t think it’s useful. Speaking in terms of what’s great art and what’s not can be useful, but getting into who’s “best” is really worthless. It’s just a cheap product of our minds, especially western minds. There’s always gotta be someone who’s the “best”, who’s the “winner”. I mean, would I want Joni to be more like Dylan? Roger Waters to be more like Jon Anderson? What is most interesting to me is how each true artist is such a unique window to the world, a unique blending of outside and inside. That, to me, is what really matters. That’s what I aspire to in my own writing and music. ML: Do you think you take yourself too seriously, not seriously enough, or exactly as you should be taken? BB: Wow, that’s a tough one. Time to play hardball, eh? [laughter] Uh, I think all three at different times. I can be very self-concerned, but very empathic. I can be filled with extreme self-pity at times, and then “love what is”, to quote Byron Katie, in the next instant. I think you’re probably referring to my perception of myself as an artist, though, right? ML: Mostly, yes. BB: Again, I think art should be taken seriously. Certainly as seriously as anything else going on in this noisy world. I take my artistic self very seriously, or I wouldn’t be doing this, sacrificing so much time and energy and a list of other things too long to get into, to keep my creative flame alive. How’s that for taking myself too seriously. [laughter] ML: You frequently use lines that have multiple meanings or can be interpreted in several ways. Do you think your listeners are catching that? BB: [smiling] What listeners? ML: I notice what you’re doing, but I am trained to do so. BB: You do? Give me an example. ML: Well, take the title line of “Solo Act”. In one instance it means being single, in another, it means an action you have to take alone, and in yet another, being a solo performer rather than being in a band. BB: Very good. You passed the test. Now comes the hard part. [laughter]
ML: Lost love and loneliness are recurring themes in your music. Is there a reason for that, or is that simply a songwriting technique? BB: Not at all. That is one of the most frustrating things for me personally: Lost love, deeply missing someone, has been a major theme in my life for reasons I don’t want to get into (unless you offer good, cheap therapy), but since it’s such plotted-out terrain, it comes across as a gimmick or technique. I can’t deny my past, or forget about it. It is a large part of my truth, of my own window to this world. Personally, I find it offensive for a singer or songwriter to create such songs simply because it’s a popular theme that sells records. I’m only interested in artists who have to express these kinds of things because it has left a deep mark on him or her. Like Joni’s "Blue". Now, maybe I wallow in it too much, and that makes me less of a true artiste [emphasizes “artiste”], but that is what has come out of me, and it is real. I always like what Roger Waters said: “The more honest and real I got, the better my songs were.” And, I must add, I think my songs stand up artistically, all my songs, no matter what the topic is. ML: What do you see yourself doing musically in the future? BB: The only thing I see for certain is writing and recording, and even that may come to an end. Maybe it’s the product of a somewhat unpredictable and chaotic childhood, but I’ve never felt like anything was secure. That anything could come to an end at any instant. I know I’m sounding dramatic again, but it’s not a feeling I choose. I mean, [Jim] Morrison said: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” For me, that’s not some clever line to laugh about. That’s deadly serious. To carry the burden of that feeling with you, and not be able to do anything to get rid of it, is a helluva weight. If there’s one way I feel a true kinship with Morrison, it’s in carrying that feeling. I believe he carried that his whole life. ML: So you don’t see yourself performing, building a fan base, selling more cds? BB: Honestly? No. Now I know all those “Secret” disciples are gonna say, “There, he just created his future”, but I don’t buy that crap. There’s a lot more going on in life than dreaming up a bike until it appears on your doorstep. And, as an aside, I find it very misleading when these people quote The Buddha as saying “Our thoughts create our reality”, and apply it to physical manifestation. The Buddha renounced all material wealth, and was sitting under a tree with nothing for a long time when he came up with that. Do you think he might have been referring to how our thoughts create a lens from which we look through, rather than a secret key to unlocking the door to the great Wal Mart in the sky? Uh, what was your question again? [laughter] ML: What do you see yourself doing 5 years from now? BB: [loud laughter] Knowing I’m unemployed, that was truly below the belt. Actually, I will be happy, well, not happy in the New Age sense, but pleased if I am able to keep my creative flame alive. In the meantime, to quote an amateur songwriter, I’ll be “praying in silence that my words come out right.” ML: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. BB: You’re welcome. Thank you also.
Well, it's been a bit too long since my last posting. Nothing kills an artist's commitment to being an artist like unemployment (other than giving 40 hours of your life every week to make money for someone else, with no guarantee that you'll be assured that "privilege" from week to week). So, I was at a friend's new house, and a popular singer/songwriter came on the satellite radio and into our conversation. My friend mentioned why he likes him: "he's a good writer, and he gives out the truth". That got me thinking about my own work, and why someone such as my friend would not say the same about it. Upon deep reflection I realize a common thread throughout most of my songs: Not knowing. Not being sure. Not having the keys to peace and love and unwaverable happiness. But beyond that, what Bono once described as true soul music: music that reveals rather than conceals. There's one unspoken theme I see expressed in almost all forms of popular music (which makes Death Metal, Goth, New Country, Gangsta Rap, Teeny Pop, etc. etc. more alike than any fan of either would dare admit): never reveal your vulnerable self, the self that doesn't know. That kind of honesty is more often found in poetry. But that shouldn't stop some of us from using the art form of songwriting to achieve the same (at the eternal risk, of course, of being called another Dylanesque artist, as if Dylan was the first and last songwriter to incorporate the fearless honestly of poetry into songs). It is that honesty that drives me to create in the first place (at least, I hope it is...the water's of self-deception are bottomless and often murky as flood water). Now, surely that doesn't mean my songs don't have opinions (sometimes strong and maybe arrogant ones). But the "I" in most of my songs is very similar to the "I" that exists in my most unguarded moments: a Self that is suspicious of anyone who thinks they are so sure about things that they can give out "The Truth", from Born Agains to disciples of The Secret. I think if more people would reveal the side of themselves that retreats soley into their own heads as they fall asleep each night, we would live in a far more honest world. The side that can never be sure there's a God or god. The side that can never be sure there isn't. The side that can never know for certain whether our thoughts create our reality, or, if they do, how to reliably steer the millions of thoughts we all have in the direction of what we think we want and need. The side that doesn't really know what it wants or needs in order to capture "Happiness" or "Truth". The side that is blanketed in a million finely woven strands of unknowable questions. The side that is as afraid and in the dark as the most neglected child. If there's a truth my songs are getting at, it's that and that alone.