NPR Interview: Deeper Detail

A fuller transcript because radio interview

Kurt Anderson: “Are you comfortable playing the blues?”

Playing the blues intimidates me. Almost more than any other musical expression. You can’t fake it, and unless you’ve lived it, you can’t be true – merely authentic. And I’d rather eat, say, “true” Soul food than “authentic” Soul food, any day. The blues, along with most African American art forms, is an expression of a secret history, one that I may only learn about and process from afar.

That said, I’ve been down, way down. I’ve been to dark dark places inside myself, too. But have I ever had the true blues? History and culture have not oppressed (or suppressed) me in my lifetime (though my Jewish ancestors, even into the mid 20th century, were not so lucky). Depression, though debilitating and oppressive in its own way, does not “the blues” make. This challenge hit me right in a discomfort zone, which on some level, made it a perfect challenge to wrestle. I tried to approach with fearlessness, to conjure the courage of someone suffering the blues, hopefully, then, speaking to, recalling and giving safe harbor to the suffering. No judgments here.

Kurt Anderson: “Tell us about your process and approach to this recording.”

In W.C. Handy’s narrative, no one is in a fixed place, whether physical (Easy Rider) or mental (Susan Johnson). That’s the darkness of “the blues,” that you are robbed of a place in space and time – robbed of roots. As I wrote on SoundCloud in my track description, this story attempts to reconcile the desire to stay put with the yearning to run and never look back. The talk of technology and communication in the song (cablegrams, telegrams, letters, trains…) sent me thinking about the wait-times between communications, and then the spaces, static and snow between radio stations and tv stations. And then, broader, thinking about the spaces between songs around the same narrative. After all, W.C. Handy was continuing a story started in another song, jumping into it at a different time and place. What happened to Susan and her Easy Rider between those songs is part of the mystery. What happened to them was the blues.

Louis Armstrong’s recording helped get my timing right for the vocal part and understand the idiosyncrasies of the original’s 2/4 rhythm (I went 4/4, but did honor the underlying 12-bar structure). Then, Eartha Kitt’s take with Nat King Cole on piano opened a window into how to rearrange and rewrite some of the lyrics to suit my own style. In the end, I just tried to be “true” to myself rather than “authentic” to any canonical version. So mine is cool where the original is hot. I changed the chorus up, too, because when I’m blue, I’m more bVII-IV-I than V-IV-I.

I started by layering frozen guitar drones based on the melody lines and chords over some old royalty-free snippets of radio and static from a sound effects disc from the 80s. Then took a stab at the actual song, albeit with a new arrangement. I had intended to helix the drone and the straight track together in a more holistic way, but in the end, time got the better of me. So I cleaved the drone piece in two and bled each part into the straightforward track. In the context of my concept, Easy Rider drones along on a quiet train until hitting a town, where he’s seen and Susan is sent a message (Easy Rider’s unaware of that). Then, after some raucous celebration, Easy’s off again, real life receding into the background; time and communication technology just moving forward, though radio brodacasts, tape recordings, television surfing… oscillating into space with all the other particle waves…

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