Harry Shearer On Songwriting And Satire

Videos by American Songwriter

How did you wind up with so many guests? Fountains of Wayne I know you were a fan of before. You have Jamie Cullum and Dr. John.

These are people I know. When the idea came to have guests on the record, I made one attempt, I’m not going to name names, going for somebody that I didn’t know and did a cold approach and that worked out poorly. So I went back to plan A which was call people I know and see if they were up for it. Jamie I’d met on several occasions, including when he came and strapped on and joined us on the stage for Spinal Tap’s gig at Glastonbury. Dr. John I’ve known for quite a while because we’re both denizens of the Crescent City. Jane Lynch I know because we’ve worked together in Christopher Guest movies.

Fountains, I had the guys on when I guest hosted the late lamented Jonesy’s Jukebox radio show and we encountered each other in a couple of other places. Danny Thompson I worked with on the Richard Thompson show Cabaret of Souls and we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well since then. Alice Russell, I’ve been a fan of hers for ten years. Judith and I first saw her I think at a club in London that was so smoky we had to stand with the front door outside the club listening to her. Then we saw her at the Big Chill Festival and came up and said hi and struck up a friendship. She and Judith work together, and I just did the video for her next single. So we swapped favors.

Do you get along with Jeff Baxter politically?

[laughs] I don’t think anybody without a top security clearance gets along with Jeff Baxter politically. It’s funny. We just don’t talk politics. CJ makes the mistake. CJ’s done two records with him, and CJ tells me about making the mistake of talking politics with him. But Skunk comes in and just wants to live in music when I’m around him. If you just listen to him play and listen to him talk about music, it’s a whole different side of the personality than what I hear about his political views.

Is he on “Joe the Plumber?”

I believe he is on “Joe the Plumber.” And he played on “Who Is Yoo?” the song about John Yoo on the Bushman record. And I thought sure he was going to come in and give me shit about that. But he walked in, plugged in and kept saying, hey, do you want a track of this, do you want a track of this. How ‘bout a track of this? Just played his ass off with such a surge of energy and enthusiasm, it was a marvelous thing to watch.

Do the musicians have to get what you’re doing humor-wise for the song to work?

Yeah. I think if they didn’t it would show. I think everybody kind of gets what’s going on. Certainly Jamie got the gist of that song an got the swagger that it represents both musically and in terms of the attitude that it’s satirizing. I think everybody that I know that’s on the record gets it. Because they know me. They know what I’m about. They know what I’m up to.

Is it a different dynamic working with your wife, as well?

It’s always different when you’re playing with your wife. But, no, she’s such a focused pro in the studio. And she’s got such great range and such great chops that you just tell her, it’s like this, you know how to do that, and she steps in and does it.

Sorry, I got distracted because I was thinking as an addendum to your last question. The only songs that aren’t trying to be funny, the Dr. John song and the one that Charlie Wood does with Danny, I guess, those were the surprises in the sense that people came into the studio and went, “Oh, you’re not kidding.”

Why include those two? Why not do a separate serious album?

I’ll never get enough songs to do that. Those may be the only two of those I ever write. I’ve never done it before and I may never do it again. They just popped out. And I like both of those songs. And I thought a little change of pace never hurt. But no, I have not real sense that I’m going to do more than that.

Was that Ned Flanders on purpose, singing the chorus for “Touch My Junk?”

[Laughs] No. Uh… no… I… no comment.

For some reason I had Sam Elliott in my head singing the verses and Ned Flanders singing the chorus.

Yeah, no, listen, when you do that many voices for that show It’s hard not to sound like somebody.

I was also thinking on Jane Lynch’s track, that doesn’t sound like her as I know her, but she’s also a character actress. Do I really know what she sounds like?

Well, she’s a wonderful singer. She came and sang and Judith and my Christmas show over at the Broad last Christmas and I was reminded of what a great singer she was, and that was really what made me pick up the phone and say, you’ve got to do this song. Because she’s got great pipes and great chops and great control. And also is very funny. She may be like me, if you tell her to sing like yourself, I don’t know if she could make a sound. I don’t know. I know I can’t.

You have to have somebody else’s –

I have to have something in mind. You know.

I think one of my favorite moments is just how sweetly she sings the line, “Where the fuck are we?”

I know. Isn’t it lovely? It sounds like love.

As an author, and actor, a voiceover artist, and a talk show host, where does music fit into all of this? Is it a priority for you?

I would just say I like doing everything I can do, which is why I do what I do. Three years ago, two years ago, yeah, it would have been 2009, on the night of the 19th we did a live gig at the Largo. Me and my band, the High Value Detainees, as we were called then, of the Bushman record, on the last night of the Bush administration. Then we did, Chris, Michael, and I and CJ, did sessions for that year’s Spinal Tap record, Back From the Dead, and then Chris, Michael, and I did the Unwigged tour, and then we did Tap at Glastonbury and Wembley Arena, and then I started doing tracks for the next record. And it was mid-August and I realized, I’ve spent eight months this year doing nothing but music projects and I’ve never been happier. That’s all I can say.

Do you write frequently as a musician? Are you always writing a lyric here and there or keeping a notebook?

No. I’m not writing unless I get inspired to do a song. I don’t have a notebook, I don’t have vagrant ideas that are waiting to be coalesced into a song. No. When one of those phrases hits me or a character just sort of crystallizes for me I just sit down – you’ve talked to enough songwriters, you hear this over and over again – it’s almost like songs come. I’ve watched Judith, who’s a prodigious and wonderful songwriter, and songs just start flowing through her. So when I sit down, it’s a much, much faster process for me to write the lyrics of a song than, say, to write a comedy piece. It really just tumbles out. Then you edit, you fix, all that stuff. Whatever work one’s doing in between, for me, doesn’t involve a notebook or collecting stray ideas. There may be other things going on in the upstairs department. But the way I’m aware of it is, I get an idea, sit down, and either it comes or it doesn’t. To me, songwriting is not something that can be kind of labored at. The music part has to be worked on, obviously. But as far as the basic nub of the lyric idea, it either some in an hour or you say, fuck it, this ain’t working.

Leave a Reply

Correatown: Pleiades