Peter Himmelman Finds Himself Pressing on with Purpose

Peter Himmelman is a singer, songwriter, composer and communicator. In a world where interaction has nearly come to a halt and intelligent discourse has fallen far short of what we as human beings generally hope for, Himmelman reminds of us of the need for sobriety, circumspect and the importance of finding a common bond. His new album, the aptly titled Press On, is the latest in a series of literally dozens of recordings that date back more than four decades. Although the songs were recorded over a year ago, they’re surprisingly prescient considering the malaise the world finds itself in due to the perils of the pandemic. “Truth Proffered in a Hard Time,” “Outside Looking In,” “It Seems We Never Rest,” and “This Is How It Ends” are all tellingly titled and deeply considered, further examples of Himmelman’s ability to go below the surface of any circumstance and find wisdom, revelation and empowerment in the process. A man of great accomplishment, as evidenced by enough honors to crowd even an oversized mantel place, his honors include Grammy and Emmy nominations, ASCAP awards, repeated honors from various parenting groups and publications, and a nod as Best Male Songwriter from the Minnesota Music Awards. All attest to his savvy, skill and intelligence as a chronicler of the human condition.

More could be added, but as with any great artist, the craft speaks for itself.

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Happily then, the craft continues, even despite the plague of the pandemic. In typical manner, Himmelman remains cautiously optimistic.

“It’s kind of like musical chairs,” he says of the current circumstances. “The music stops and wherever you are is wherever you are. It’s like, who are you with?  Where are you? What’s your health like? What are your circumstances like when the music stops? Some people are suffering terribly, but for others, there may be something good about it. Things have stopped. People have become a little less materialistic. They’ve found they don’t need all this stuff. It’s time to settle in with the family. It’s kind of like I used to feel around Christmas vacation. No one was working. Everything was kind of quiet. Nobody was expecting to do too much.”

Perhaps, but Himmelman always seems to be doing a lot. Aside from the consistent string of albums he’s released over the years, he’s tallied ten volumes of rarities he dubbed the Himmelvaults series. In fact, songwriting has always been a part of his constant creativity, a skill he freely shares with others.

“I mentor a lot of young songwriters,” he says. “I suggest that if you have this idea to write a song and your music conforms to that particular idea, that’s always something we all try to do as writers. It’s one way to write, but it’s often seen as the only way to write, and all too often, it’s the least propitious way to get to something that’s original. There’s something about letting yourself travel with the least amount of analytical thought. Analytical thought requires a lot of judgement. So if you’re writing and judging your work at the same time, you’re going to have a really slow-going experience that’s not going to allow you to find what’s happening beneath the surface. We already know what’s on the surface of our mind. We’ve said it a million times. We’ve become habituated while speaking and thinking in those terms. We’re protecting ourselves with our intelligence. That little stint thing on the surface of our minds is just not the best place to go, so we need to get down to the nitty gritty. I would suggest writing about things that are not good. Write horrible things and let them come out, and don’t be concerned about their emergence. That way, you stop judging yourself. Write the worst things possible in the shortest amount of time and just let it come out.”

It’s evident in speaking with Himmelman that he tends to look at things from a decidedly philosophical point of view.  Naturally, that goes for his songwriting as well.

“You can’t be a better writer than you are a human being,” Himmelman insists. “You can’t write songs if you don’t experience life. If you don’t know something, you’ll never be able to say it in a song. I always encourage younger songwriters to explore who they are. What is your point of view? What are you saying in the world? What do you believe? What do you value? What do you love? What do you find beautiful? What makes you cry? You don’t have to say those things directly, but you do have to walk down the street with a kind of antennae.  You have to have sensitivity, and to be a kind and generous person in order to work with the highest and loftiest of human emotions. Gratitude, love, wonder…those have to become part of your everyday experience. The best songwriters have a very deep grasp of something important, and while I may not share their beliefs, I know they’re not only quite well developed, but that they’re also malleable. They can change.”

Himmelman’s eloquence is expressed not only on record, but also in his ongoing efforts to share his inspiration with others. A series of children’s albums garnered him many of the aforementioned accolades. A book entitled “Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life,” published in 2016, offers advice on finding one’s true potential as far as communication and creativity. It won the American Book Fest’s award for best Self-Help/Motivational book 2017. His forthcoming manuscript, tentatively titled “Glow: Ignite Your Creative Courage to Love, Gratitude, Openness and Wonder,” will share Himmelman’s thoughts about what it takes to recognize and appreciate themes precious emotions. Likewise, a company he created in 2011, “Big Muse,” helps large companies and corporations develop leadership skills and motivational methods for their executives and employees.

He’s been innovative in other ways as well. Long before the pandemic made Facebook, Zoom and streaming the new avenue for live performance, Himmelman originated an internet program called “Furious World,” a show that was broadcast every Tuesday evening from his home studio.  It was a total entertainment package featuring music, anecdotes, philosophical discussion, and special guests from varied fields of endeavor.

“I was probably the first guy in the pool,” Himmelman suggests.  “It began in March, 2008, and it featured songs and stories. I figured out how to get it on Facebook. We did 15 or 16 shows. It was a lot of work, but we were really, really pioneering.”

An admitted multi-tasker, Himmelman says these different projects may seem diverse but they find a common connection.  “I don’t see them as an octopus,” he says. “They all make sense. One flows into the other. It’s almost like creating different kinds of songs.” 

He does admit however that he misses the audience interaction that’s forcibly been sidelined due to pandemic. While he’s done a few streaming performances of late, it’s simply not the same.

“It’s really hard,” he admits. “You’re basically sitting alone at home. You become so used to the idea of playing and getting some kind of response. It’s not an ego thing. It’s like talking to someone and getting no response back. It’s not a pleasant feeling. It’s a big challenge. All human beings thrive on that communication, artists in particular. I’ve always found performing to be a big, big thrill. When I used to go on the road, and walk onstage, people would clap. Then you go home and you have to decompress. I’d have to leave my cape on the road and not take it with me into the house.”

Indeed, Himmelman’s been performing most of his life. He first recorded with a band bearing the unlikely handle Sussman Lawrence. Later, after going solo, he was signed to Island Records and received immediate attention with his initial album, This Father’s Day, which featured a title track penned by his father. He saw subsequent success after being signed to Sony Music, which yielded the album From Strength to Strength and an FM radio favorite, “The Woman with the Strength of 10000 Men.” He eventually started his own label, Himmelsongs, which is the home for his more recent releases.

With all his accomplishments, he still finds his greatest satisfaction through his family. For the past 32 years, he’s been married to wife Maria, daughter of perhaps the greatest songwriter of all, Bob Dylan. The couple have four children. A photo of his new grandson is prominently featured on the cover of the new album.

“He represents the light in the midst of this dark storm,” Himmelman suggests while alluding to the fact that the photo ties in to the title, Press On. “You can put in under the heading of faith. Faith is not an unintellectual process. It’s not a surrender. It requires a lot of brain power to keep it in the forefront of the mind. What is the point here? What am I being asked to do? How can I be of service to my family, my community, to God, to my friends at this tine? What can I do? It’s hard because our energies are limited, things are depressing and they’re not working out the way we want. That’s where the brain power comes in. You just have to keep at it.”

Of course, he can take a lesson in keeping at it from his prolific father-in-law. Interestingly enough, the two men were born in the same area, the state of Minnesota. It’s tempting then to ask if he and Bob ever compare notes and converse about their craft.

“Not really,” he replies. “For example, Rodney Crowell and I are friends. I don’t see him that often, but when we do get together, we don’t talk about songs. We talk about ideas, relationships, the things that are the basis of songs. We don’t delve into the lower levels, like what kind of equipment we use. I remember reading an interview with Annie Leibowitz, the photographer, and she said that whenever a photographer is talking about equipment, you know the guy’s not for real. You can take a picture with anything. It’s not the camera, it’s the idea. Like a guitar, the camera is simply the delivery system. It’s not the essential thing.”

Still, one has to wonder what it’s like sharing time with…ahem… Bob Dylan in such an intimate and familiar sort of way. One’s tempted to press the point while trying not to pry too deeply into what is, after all, a private family situation. He’s obviously been asked that question before, and one would think he must hate it by now.

“I don’t hate it at all,” he insists. “He played such a hugely important role in my life. He’s the one who played the role of matchmaker between me and my wife. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have the things in my life that are most important — my wife and my kids. He was very instrumental in the process. As far as the songwriting, he showed people how it was done and he still does. I have so much admiration for him, his energy and his willingness to delve deeper into creativity. Not too many people could keep up with what he does. He’s been so inspirational to me and to so many other songwriters.”

By pressing on, Himmelman himself seems intent on passing that inspiration forward.

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