I had to figure out which of my songs had enough substance lyrically that I could just play them by myself.
Marshall Crenshaw’s been writing terrific songs for decades, and yet, people are still discovering his music for the first time. The label “a songwriter’s songwriter” certainly fits for Mr. Crenshaw. His new album Jaggedland is a fine collection of songs and is out now.
What in particular drew you to Mambo Sinuendo?
I almost hate to analyze it but, for one thing it sounds amazing. The studio that it was recorded in used to be the RCA Victor studio in Havana before the Revolution. If you listen to old Perez Prado or Benny More records you’re hearing that room. The place has a magnificent sound and Jerry did a great job capturing the energy in the room and the sound of the room. But of course it’s mainly about the music itself: Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban are both Duane Eddy fanatics, lovers of that era of Rock guitar instrumentals (like I am), that’s their starting point, but they take it someplace brand new, and it’s all played with tons of feeling… And being that Ry Cooder is a forward-thinking guy, there are some tracks that sound futuristic. It’s a cool record..
What are some other records that you’ve been drawn to of late?
I’m still enjoying the Fleet Foxes record; that one hooked me at first listen; I played some of it in the car today. A couple months ago I heard Vin Scelsa play a tune by Anja Lechner and Dino Saluzzi, from their new CD Ojos Negros, and bought it the next day. It’s just the two of them, he on bandoneon and she on cello, and they’re incredible… Great compositions too. And I’m still playing a Terence Blanchard record that I bought last year, A Tale of God‘s Will (which I also first heard on Vin Scelsa’s show), which is this real emotional and soulful instrumental music, kind of a meditation on post-Katrina New Orleans.
Who are some of the lyricists you look up to?
Just to name a few, how about Harlan Howard, Percy Mayfield, Al Dubin, Chuck Berry, Johnny Mercer, Bob Dylan, Dave Alvin, whoever wrote the words to “I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord” (Jimmy Durante sings it.), whoever wrote the words to “Many Happy Hangovers to You” (Jean Shepard sings it), Doc Pomus, Jon Hendricks, Lucinda Williams, Barrett Strong, Iggy, Rob Tyner. I love writers who use clear plain language but can make you think, “WOW!!”…
If you had to say you were a songwriting student of someone, who would it be? Who taught you the most about songs or just listening?
I can’t name any single person. As you can see, I’m open to a lot of things, and I’m still learning.
What was it like recording with Jerry Boys?
It was really nice; I trusted him completely, knew that I would like what he did; also he’s a really good collaborator, open to suggestions. For instance, I wanted to use real tape echo on my vocals (I have an Ampex 350-2); he thought that was great.
How did producer Stewart Lerman get you motivated to record again?
I imagine that Stewart might have a dark side, but I’ve never seen it. I just know him as this really warm person who’s great at making records, getting music to happen. He just sort of befriended me at one point, said “Let’s do something”, and I liked the idea on a personal level.
When you have the breadth of time in between albums, in this instance six years, how often are you writing and recording demos?
Usually when I finish a record I feel sort of drained and don’t write anything for about a year (I’m planning on breaking that cycle this time though). Around four or five years ago we moved into this house that we’re in now. I set up a studio. but still didn’t feel ready or able to try anything. Then, when I did start it went very slowly at first; I finally got a real good sense of direction and a momentum going during the last year and a half.
While you were out on what you dubbed the “NPR singer/songwriter” circuit, what kind of songs were you writing? What was that experience like?
As I said, for a lot of the time I wasn’t writing, but when I first started playing solo, which I still love to do, I had to figure out which of my songs had enough substance lyrically that I could just play them by myself. And I’ve thought in those terms ever since: the songs that I write have to be strong enough to come across, with or without the impact of a band…
Then what was the editing process like for Jaggedland? How were you selecting songs?
There really wasn’t an editing process for the album as a whole, other than sequencing. I didn’t have any extra songs; there was lots of editing and crafting on the songs themselves, but I just wrote the number that I needed for the album. Maybe that’s another cycle that I need to break, just for a change.
What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter trying to hone their craft?
Always put your heart into it; get emotionally involved with what you’re creating, that’s what it’s all about… And be patient with yourself if you have to…