“And When I Die,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Save The Country,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “Stoney End.” These are just a handful of the gems Laura Nyro gave us. Songs that start playing in our heads just by reading their names. Songs that bring back memories of a certain day or person or event in our lives.
Laura left us on April 8, 1997 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was only 50 years old. But today, on October 18, we celebrate her birth and all the great music she gave us. Songs that will live on as her mark on the world. Below are excerpts of a 1993 interview with her from a Performing Songwriter issue in which we paid tribute.
Happy Birthday, Laura. You are so very missed!
Your songs all seem so remarkably natural and unforced. Did they emerge at times from your life, or were they the result of sitting down and writing?
I think that it’s important, sooner or later, to get on a disciplined schedule with writing. I’m finding that very important. Once I’m on that schedule and working every day, or whenever I sit down and write, there are just those times when something comes together, that just feels kind of natural. And a little bit made in heaven. It’s just a feeling you get about the song. And, really, those are the songs that I kind of wait for. To happen in the writing. And those are the songs that I get more serious about and I would record that kind of song.
Your songs are quite harmonically complex. What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I come from the arts in a certain way. I was not, let’s say, raised on mainstream songwriting. For instance, when I was a teenager I listened a lot to John Coltrane. To Miles Davis. This was along with soul music and rock and roll that I was into. But I listened a lot to those incredible jazz minds. So interesting chord structures and chord progressions that were off the beaten track just are natural to me because I listened to so much of that music.
At that time were you considering being a songwriter?
Well, I just knew that, in life, music was the language that I wanted to speak. I was very drawn to the arts because I perceived something divine happening there. As opposed to your more mundane kind of perceptions. So I really felt that. I felt heart and soul energy in music. I guess I was a natural singer, you know? And I used to sing, actually, with street groups on street corners when I was a teenager. That was a wonderful thing that was happening then.
You’d sing doo-wop?
Yes. Starting from when I was 14 or 15. It was an every evening occurrence. That’s what was happening. Out on the street. Right on the street. If it was winter, then it was happening in hallways or down in the train station. Which put a lot of echo on the sound. That is a wonderful thing to grow up with…that was the delightful energy, going out singing. I used to sing with this Spanish guy’s group. I kind of invited myself into the group (laughs). I was sitting at the top of the steps and they were down in the train station singing. I mean, it was beautiful. And then I just started hearing this other harmony that I wanted to sing with them. And I just started singing. And they didn’t ask me to leave (laughs).
Did you start writing songs at that age?
Yes. I was starting to write.
Do you remember the name of your first one?
No. I know two songs I could tell you for sure, because I recorded them. “Wedding Bell Blues” and “And When I Die.” Those were songs I wrote as a teenager. In my late teens.
Really? That’s amazing. I would have thought you would have had to work up to something like “And When I Die.” Those are pretty advanced songs to have written as your first ones. Were you surprised when you started coming up with songs at that level?
I was reading poetry from the time I was really young. And I really liked poetry. So by the time I started writing songs, I was in a poetic frame of mind. And musically, I guess I have just been passionately listening to music since I was so young. Like I remember a cousin of mine played me “The Wind.” I must have been twelve years old. “The Wind” was one of the most beautiful early doo-wop songs. I listened to that and it just went right to my heart. So that’s what I was interested in.
So by my late teens, when I wrote “And When I Die” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” I was deep inside of music already. Because I was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis then.
Do you recall if “And When I Die” came to you easily, or was it something you labored over?
I don’t think I labored over it. And I think, also, that that song has a certain folk wisdom that teenagers have. They have that certain folk wisdom, under it all. So I think it just came through the song.
You said that you were attracted to the arts because in them you could sense the divine. Do you think in coming up with songs like those that you were tapping into the divine?
Yes, I think so. I really do. I think that in music there’s a oneness, there’s a sweetness. Or there can be. What I call music, anyway, the music I like. I go to it for that oneness and that sweetness. If you look at the world, there’s so much separation. It’s all polarities, wars. But to sense a oneness and a sweetness, I mean, that was it. That was the ultimate. The best thing in life. And I did sense that in music. So that’s what is divine to me. That’s a form of the divine.
—Interview by Paul Zollo
Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 24