John Oates knows a thing or two about what makes a song great. As part of the famed duo Hall & Oates, he co-wrote eight Number One hits, from “Kiss On My List” to “Out of Touch.” The 2004 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee recently finished recording his latest solo album, Mississippi Mile, right here in Nashville. American Songwriter had a chance to catch up with Oates when he was in town for the 2010 Americana Awards. Read on to find out about the upcoming Aspen Songwriter’s Festival, the secret to his partnership with Daryl Hall, and how the song “Maneater” went from reggae jam to smash hit.
You just finished recording your next record, Mississippi Mile. Can you talk about the process behind that?
It’s about as close to a live album as you can get. I started out not knowing I was even going to do an album until I started playing some old songs I liked when I was a kid—stuff like Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Chuck Berry, and Elvis. I said to myself, “You know what? I’m going to do an album that are just my favorite songs but done in a really cool acoustic, ritzy way.” But then I thought, “Well, I’m a songwriter, I’d better write something.” So I wrote the title track, “Mississippi Mile.” I’m glad it’s the title track cause if you’re going to write an original that will hold up to some of those classics, it better be pretty good.
We set out to do this Doc Watson song, “Deep River Blues,” which is a song that I’ve played for years and every guy in the room has probably played in a million different variations. We played it a couple times and the first thing that popped into my head was, “This will never be as good as Doc Watson.” I don’t care who’s playing it; I don’t care what I do to it. And I stopped in the middle of the track and I said, “Guys, why are we doing this? What’s the point?” So we took the chords and we started fooling around with pretty much the same chords as “Deep River Blues,” but changed the groove completely, changed the feel and the duration of the chords and I started singing something completely different. It was after the flood that happened here in Nashville. I started singing something about deep river, just singing the words, “deep river.” After we came out of the room, the track was real swampy. Mike Henderson, my co-producer said, “That’s a new song.” I said, “Yeah it is. Now all I’ve got to do is finish it.”
It started out as “Deep River Blues” and it ended up being “Deep River.” It’s kind of cool how a song can evolve from another song, which is really the tradition of American music in general.
How is recording in Nashville different from some of other places you’ve cut an album?
I’ve made my last two solo albums here, and I’m not just saying this because I’m in Nashville, but it’s the best place I’ve ever recorded in my life. The atmosphere here, the music; it’s the only place left in America, probably in the world for that matter, where you have this focused community and thriving scene where people really care about music. Sure, there’s always the business aspect of it—there’s the commercial aspect of modern country pop music—but there’s a music community here who really care about what they’re doing and the bar is set so high in terms of musicianship and professionalism.
I pride myself on being professional. I’ve been doing it for so long that I like people who are really good at what they do, and that goes for the engineer right straight down through the whole process. I feel really blessed and lucky that I’ve been welcomed by that level of players here.
Even the first album I did, I had seasoned studio musicians I really didn’t know, who would do things like play on a track, call me up that evening and say, “You know, I think I can do that better. I’m going to come back tomorrow.” They wouldn’t charge me. They’d come back and play. That kind of dedication really goes a long way with me because I just feel like that’s what I would do. A lot of times you hear about these studio cats, they’ll just come in, do their job and leave. That might exist in Nashville, but from my experience, the people here really want to do what the best they can. The whole infrastructure of the city is based around that. There are all of these great outlets for young people to play and for songwriters to do showcases. There’s no other place I know of that is like that. Thank God there’s at least one.
Do you feel like you’re trying to capture some of that feeling with The Aspen Songwriters Festival?
The more I did these festivals and songwriting get-togethers, the more I realized that this is something that people really enjoy. It gives them a glimpse into the process a little bit. It’s really eye opening for the average person to hear the originator, especially if it’s a well-known song that perhaps was a hit by another artist. I think it’s a glimpse behind the curtain in a way. I wanted to bring that to Aspen, because it’s a great artistic community. We have a great tradition of a lot of amazing thinkers and performers, and we have the Wheeler Opera House, which might be one of the best acoustic venues in the world and I’ve played a number of them.
I was very conscious of trying to make it kind of an eclectic group of songwriters. I didn’t want to make it an exclusive country and Americana festival. We have Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, and Jeff Barry, who wrote “Leader of the Pack”, “Chapel of Love”, and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” He also wrote “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton John. When I talked to him about it, he said that he originally wrote it as a country song for a male, but no one picked up on it. For his show at the festival, we got Jimmy Wayne to sing it. I think he’s the best voice in country music as far as I’m concerned. It brings the song back to where the songwriter really wanted it to be.
Do you have any songs from your catalog that have had the same type of journey where you intended it to come out one way but it ended up being completely different?
I wrote “Maneater” as a reggae song and have played it that way a few times over the years. If you think about it, you can put a reggae groove behind the chorus. But when I played it for Daryl [Hall], he said, “Hall and Oates don’t do reggae!” And I said, “Oh, we don’t?”
I’m glad I listened to him. He came up with that Motown feel for the chorus and then we wrote the verse together. That’s how a song evolves. But as a songwriter, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. All the songwriters I know get tunnel vision. They lock into something. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s not.
Especially when you collaborate, you have to be open-minded. I think if I were someone a little more stubborn, I would’ve said to Daryl, “No, it’s going to stay this way. This is the way I wrote it and that’s the way it should be.” It might not have even gone on the record. But I was open-minded enough to listen to him, and it turned out to be a big hit for us. That’s part of the process. I think as a songwriter, you have to be open.
Is that one of the main challenges of collaborating?
The biggest part for me is trust. A lot of the time, you hear actors talk about how they trust the director and trust their fellow actors. I think with songwriting, if you’re afraid, if you’re intimidated, if you’re embarrassed by working with someone else, or if you don’t feel like you have anything to bring to the table, then that’s a real negative. You can’t be with someone whom you’re afraid to throw out an idea to. If they’re like, “This sucks, get out of here, you dumb thing,” I think that shuts the whole process down. You have to have a person you trust, who understands where you’re coming from and can help you enhance your vision. Hopefully, you can understand whatever it is they’re trying to do.
What do you think has helped the Hall & Oates catalog hold up for so long?
The songwriting. I’m sorry to all you ’70s critics who didn’t like it. What people have never understood about us—I think it’s changed now—but in the past, there was a misconception that we were this hit-making machine—that we could just turn out these number one records, and that we had some kind of secret formula or pact with the devil or the radio gods or whatever.
But you know what? Nothing could have been further from the truth. We started out as songwriters before we were performers. That’s how we got our first record deal in 1970. Chapel Music signed us as staff writers. For us, songwriting is the essence of everything we’ve done.
We never made an album with filler on it. Every album track was cared for. It wasn’t, “Oh, we’ve got some #1 hits. Let’s fill it up with some other crap.” No, we cared about everything. In fact, on our box set, Do What You Want, Be What You Are, we went out of our way to choose those album tracks that really showed off our songwriting and our producing skills. There are some songs that maybe went under the radar and got lost in the shadows of the big #1 records.
What’s the criteria for a good song? It’s something that stands the test of time. It touches people in some way. It resonates somehow. And when you get a song that resonates with a lot of people, you have a hit. We’ve been able to do that somehow.
Do you see a wide age range at your Hall & Oates shows nowadays?
Oh yeah. It’s huge. Our audience has gotten younger and younger thanks to all of the new bands, like Gym Class Heroes and The Killers, who have talked about us to their fans. I think interestingly enough, a lot of the younger fans thought they were going to see some kind of 80’s nostalgia band, or some kind of weird kind of hair band. I can see the surprise in their faces in the audience. They can’t believe how good the band is, and that we’re not just trotting out this jukebox of hits. Our live arrangements have evolved over the years. I think they’re way better now than they ever were, and way better than the records. So then people are like, “What? These guys are like a real band. They really play.” And that’s what we’ve always done.
What do you think has helped you and Daryl Hall stay together?
We have this unshakable foundation of musical references. We both grew up right outside of Philadelphia, listening to the exact same radio stations, and we cared about the same kind of music. We met right after high school, and it was that common musical thing that drew us together. So I could say to him, “Oh, let’s do that thing like that Mad Lads song,” and he’d know exactly what I was talking about. No one else would know what we were talking about, because it’d be some obscure B-side of some record that we heard in 1959.
I brought that kind of traditional American blues and folk music thing to the mix, and he brought more of the urban doo-wop thing. If you really want to steal what we do, it’s this blending of acoustic traditional American music with urban R&B. You put those two things together, and that’s what we evolved into. That’s this common foundation that we have that never seems to go away.
On the other side, the yang side, is that we’re completely different as people. We couldn’t be any more opposite. I’m more grounded, and he’s more up in the air. He’s very charismatic and very fiery, and he’ll go off and he’ll just be that way, and I’ll be more nuts and bolts. Our company is called Two-Headed Monster, because basically, that’s what we are. The two of us make one human being. (Laughs). And that one human being is pretty good.
Do you remember your first impression of him?
I thought he was a little crazy. And he is, but in a really good way, because it’s that cool insanity he has that gives him the power he has as a writer and an artist. He probably thought I was a little too normal. I remember the first time we hung out together, we were going to get together and rehearse, and I said, “What time should we meet? Nine?”
He said, “Let’s get something straight. I never wake up before twelve.” So right off the bat, I guess that tells you something.
With the influence of the internet on the music business, where do you see it heading?
The problem is that we have an entire generation who have come to expect that music is free. It’s a shame. The CD, as a medium, is almost at this point just an advertisement for a live performance. I think the concept of an album of music has become antiquated, which, here again, being an old school guy, it kind of depresses me. Yet I understand it. The world seems to be moving too fast to focus on the idea of a body of work. The attention span has been reduced to where people just don’t seem to be able to focus. My son’s 14, and when he was 11 or 12 and first started getting into iTunes, he had this one song he liked and he downloaded it. I said to him, “Hey, do you want to get the CD? There might be some other stuff you like.” He said, “Why?” And I said, “You don’t want to hear anything else they did?”
Immediately, that really resonated with me. I heard that and I said, “Well, he doesn’t really care about the band at all. He doesn’t care about them as people, as artists, or whatever they are thinking about. All he cares about is that one moment where they created that particular song that captured his imagination and his attention.” And I thought, “That’s where it’s going.” And you also have an entire generation of people who don’t care about or understand the idea of high fidelity. Their conception of what music is supposed to sound like is formed by the compression of an .mp3 and the medium of an iPod and earbuds that don’t allow for the full range of the fidelity available. We’ve come to this, where technology has imploded inside of itself. We have the ability to have all this high tech stuff that’s reduced music to this thinly compressed set of values that can only be heard through what is quite frankly an inferior medium that has become the standard.
The good thing about the Internet is that it has allowed a lot of people to get heard. It’s given them a voice and an opportunity to get out there. The problem is that you’ve got to cut through all that other stuff to find it. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t want to be a new musician trying to make it and trying to cut through this morass of what’s out there. There’s a lot of good people; you’ve just got to find them.
As a veteran of the business, do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
You’ve got to write the best songs you can. That’s really it. You know what? Thank God we still have songs. Because it’s the only thing that no one can replace. That’s why I’m so passionate about songwriting and songwriting festivals. It’s really the core of our whole business. Without songs, you don’t have anything. I don’t care if you’re the best picker in the world; I don’t care if you’re the best singer in the world. You’ve got to have something to pick and something to sing.
And that’s where the songwriter comes in. It’s all about writing something great that touches people, and brings out the emotion and the soul of who you are. If you do that, you’re going to somehow be successful. People need that, because people can’t do that for themselves. And that’s what songwriters do. They express things and articulate things that people wish they could say.
That’s the magic of songwriting. It never goes away. So play out, play all those showcases, play all those in the rounds, get out there and play your songs. Try to meet kindred spirits whom you can maybe collaborate with and bring your songs to another level. That’s really all you can do, and being in Nashville’s a pretty good place to do it.