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JD Souther: Natural History

| July 18, 2011 | 1 Comment

When JD Souther was thinking about making an album that would re-cast some of his best-known compositions in stripped-down arrangements, he had one or two dark nights of the soul—wondering if it was really a good idea to go home again, musically, as it were. So he sought some advice. “I called Linda Ronstadt, because I try to ask her opinion about everything musical,” Souther says. “And she thought it was a brilliant idea and said, ‘Yeah, go for it, absolutely.’ But Linda did give me a funny warning right before I did it. She emailed me one night and said, ‘Hey, and by the way, don’t try and rewrite the songs!’” He chuckles to recall that sage counsel. “So I didn’t.”

If ever there were songs that had weathered the years without the need of an editor’s pencil, it’s these. Natural History is an album that includes a few obscurities from Souther’s catalog and one never-before-heard composition, but for the most part, it’s putting a new spin on some of the most familiar and beloved songs from the peak of the Southern California singer/songwriter era. One was a smash for Souther himself—1979’s “You’re Only Lonely.” Some were recorded by him back in the day but became classics in the hands of other singers, like “Faithless Love” and “Prisoner in Disguise,” made famous by then-girlfriend, Ronstadt. Three are collaborations with the Eagles that Souther never recorded himself until now: “The Best of My Love,” “The Sad Café,” and “New Kid in Town.” Finally hearing the band’s legendary co-writer offer his own take on these tunes—au naturel—feels historic, all right.

If you didn’t know better, you could mistake Souther for a new kid in town. The acoustic arrangements of these songs—usually with no more than two or three of his six band members playing at a time—put the focus squarely on his voice. And while other singers of his generation might be worried whether they’ve still got it, Souther is singing far more exquisitely here than he ever did in his initial run of record-making back in the 1970s. “I don’t scream anymore,” he admits. “And I haven’t smoked cigarettes for 20 years or more, so I get the full use of my lungs and voice now, and my voice is much more durable and flexible. I always had a very casual attitude toward vocals when I was making records before. I didn’t want to oversing, and despite opinions to the contrary, back then I didn’t think my voice was that good anyway. Since I had always been a player when I was a kid, I never really embraced the idea of just being a singer.” That changed when he made a return to record-making after a nearly quarter-century respite with 2008’s jazz-influenced If the World Was You, and comes to greater fruition with Natural History. “I used a beautiful old ribbon microphone,” he explains, passing the buck a bit. “If you don’t yell at them, they work really well for some voices. It might make my voice sound a little silkier than it really is. Who knows?”

Souther says the new album is “actually the first record I’ve ever made that I really like listening to.” But he wasn’t so confident it would turn out that way when the project was broached, or even in his first days in the studio working on it. “It started rough and ended really smoothly, after I lightened up,” Souther says.

The producer, Fred Mollin, “has been kind of following me around for years trying to get me to do this album, and it finally made some kind of sense to me. He’d done two of them with friends, Jimmy Webb and Kris Kristofferson, that came out beautifully. It was the same theme—us singing our songs that were hits for other people—and both of those guys were delighted with the results and urged me to do it as well. But once I got there, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can go through these songs again.’ Or as Jimmy Webb said when he was doing his album of the same type—Ten Easy Pieces, a gorgeous album—he said ‘These songs almost killed me the first time. I can’t imagine going through all this emotionally again.’ And I felt that, too. Standing in front of the microphone, I thought, ‘I have to sing “Silver Blue” again?’ Jesus, I can remember my girlfriend and I both sort of weepy and estranged after I sang her that song. I wasn’t particularly anxious to go there again.”

But after being in the studio for a bit, a different perspective dawned on him, which was: “The songs were written. So some of the heavy lifting was way in the past. It really was in a way like singing an album of standards—which I’ve been trying to do for years, anyway; not mine, but other people’s. I think I didn’t expect it to feel like that, but in the end, it did. I found out in the process that everybody—including myself—was so familiar with those songs that it was kind of liberating, in a way. It gave me enough distance to be able to just approach it like a singer. For a “singer/songwriter” most of the songs that you record are new, you’ve just written them. It’s too fresh, and the elephant in the room is that you’re not completely sure whether it’s a good song yet, and because you’re an artist, you’re probably a little insecure about the work. By now, most of these have kind of been proven to be standards, and that gave me a way to look at them that sort of unknotted my stomach a little bit. Well, this is today, always the best of days, and I wouldn’t sing any song unless it had the resonance to make me feel something deeply, whether the song was mine or Duke Ellington’s.”

There’s a consistency of tone, even though the songs are as hopeful as “I’ll Take Care of You” and as dark as “Silver Blue.” “If it was a movie, it would be called film noir. Someplace kind of smoky and dark, with vibraphones, a muted trumpet and deep blue lighting. But every cut is an attempt to be true to the song,” he says. The jazz influence that came out on If the World Was You remains constant, as the number of horn solos and other musical choices will attest, but one goal was to recapture the moment and emotion of creation. “They were sung the way I intended. I didn’t scat-sing or try to make a jazz album out of it. It just happens to have great players on it, jazzmen, who are comfortable with music. Period. My music always had some curious intervals in it,” he points out, though that may have gone unnoticed because of “a particular style of record-making. ‘Best of My Love’ had some very interesting chordal stuff going on in it. But if you make a record of it with four harmony parts and a steel guitar, you get a very different effect.”

Souther moved from L.A. to Nashville a few years ago, where at the 2009 ASCAP Awards Ceremony he was honored with the prestigious Golden Note Award, during which some of the top singers in town serenaded him with his own songs before a black-tie audience. The award is inscribed to him as a master songwriter, musical innovator and distinguished recording artist. There is a bit of irony, though, perhaps, in the fact that Souther’s move to the South seemed to coincide with his music having shed most of its country-rock touches and moving in a jazzier direction.

“That’s funny, isn’t it?” he allows. “But I don’t really care if it’s Miles Davis or George Jones. If it’s great, it’s great. If you listen to my first album [John David Souther, from 1972], there’s hardly any vibrato on it, and it’s very lean. Sometimes it sounds to me like I was trying to make a George Jones record with a bit of Miles Davis in it. Incidentally, those are the two artists I was listening to most. No surprise.

“Back then we were all very much in the sway of the powerful interface between rock and roll and the country music of that time. In the late ’60s and early ’70s everybody that I knew was listening to Buck Owens, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and others. The group of writers that came just before me—Bob Dylan, obviously, CSN, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, the Byrds, Tim Hardin, Dillard and Clark, Carole King, Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb, Poco, the Burrito Brothers, and the first country rock band I ever heard, Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band—had pretty well integrated rock ’n’ roll and country music into this really formidable sound. Linda and I were together, and she played me a lot of country music that I had never heard before. In fact, I just realized yesterday that there’s one little thing I do with my voice at the end of lines, and it sometimes irritates me that I just can’t seem to help doing it. I was thinking it was something left over from what we were doing in the ‘70s, but I realized it’s something I heard on a Louvin Brothers record that Linda played me, and it just stuck, somewhere in my muscle memory. My voice just does that—a little tiny ghost of a yodel at the end of some lines. I don’t always mean to do it, but it doesn’t seem to go away. There’s another little eccentric trill at the beginning of some held notes. I always thought it was a remnant of that country music or even that little hiccup in Dean Martin’s voice. Not so. It’s Ella Fitzgerald, pure and simple. I think most serious musicians are a composite of all the music they’ve heard and played before in their lives.

Listening to the new album, Natural History, inevitably invites discussion about how cohesive that early 1970s songwriter scene really was. “The fact that the music we made was considered to be its own genre —Southern California rock or whatever you call it—wasn’t intentional. First, the only intention was to play better, write better, sing better, and have a job and an audience. Besides which, there were no true southern Californians in that group except for the late, great Lowell George, an actual native of Hollywood, and Jackson Browne, who was from Orange County, then south of Los Angeles. Glenn Frey is from Detroit, Don Henley is from East Texas, I’m from the Texas Panhandle, Amarillo to be exact, Linda Rondstadt is from Arizona, Bonnie Raitt is from the East, Boston I think, Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar are both from New York, and probably my two biggest influences as writers and dear departed friends Judee Sill and Warren Zevon were from everywhere. Warren … possibly Mars. I miss them so. It was an incredibly diverse bunch of people who had moved there from everywhere else. The common denominator is that we were all hungry at the same time, except for Linda, who had already had a couple of hits. The rest of us were all playing these open-mic nights at the Troubadour, hoot nights, and we became friends and had a real shared ethic about music being good, and about its being good being more important than it being temporarily popular. We tried to write songs that we felt would last a long time.

“At least that was my motivation. I mean, my dad’s mother was an opera singer, and my dad was a big band singer, so I grew up listening to Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Then when I was in junior high, I started playing saxophone and drums, and I got interested in cool jazz—you know, post-bop jazz, probably starting with Miles Davis and Brubeck.” He was serious about music, and maintains that “there was nothing flippant about what any of us were writing. The group I was hanging out with mostly was Don, Glenn, Jackson, Bonnie, Zevon, Judee and Linda—who, even though she didn’t write, played a huge part because she was such a good ear. She really chose the best of all of our songs to record. She’s smart as a whip and had a great ear for songs and for what she could sing. And don’t forget Judee Sill, who doesn’t get mentioned much, because she never sold a lot of records and died too young, but exerted enormous influence on my writing. All of us were dead serious about writing music. There was some friendly competition about it, even though we were all definitely on each other’s side. Everybody wanted to show up with something that made all the rest of us go, ‘Wow! I wish I had thought of that.’”

Not such a sad-sounding café, after all.

Amazingly, given how much adulation and success everyone involved was experiencing at the time, there is a starkly mature and even elegiac tone to much of the material they were turning out, like “New Kid in Town.” “With that song in particular, we were really writing about our replacements,” says Souther. “Hotel California was the fourth Eagles album. We were all pretty well along into who we were. We knew that there are always kids coming up. That’s why we used that gunfighter analogy so often.” (He also co-wrote a good chunk of the Desperado album.) “Because there’s always some kid who thinks he’s faster, and you know, he probably is. You better stay on your toes.”

It sounds good and healthy in theory, except for one problem: There really were no replacements, and no one faster, than this generation of writers and performers at their peak. It’s why subsequent stars have continued to dig into their catalogs for material, one example being the Dixie Chicks covering “I’ll Take Care of You” on their 12-million-selling Wide Open Spaces album, and another being George Straits beautiful version of “The Last in Love” on his 6 million-selling-album, Pure Country.

With the song catalog that he had, Souther didn’t have to keep slugging it out on the road. And after four acclaimed solo albums, ending with Home by Dawn in 1984 (along with two Souther-Hillman-Furay Band “supergroup” LPs that came in the middle of that run in the mid-’70s), Souther appeared to be through making or touring behind new music, as far as anyone could tell for the next 24 years. The legend who had always seemed a little elusive behind that beard seemed downright reclusive. In fact, he was still writing songs and poetry, listening and reading obsessively, and practicing (woodshedding, as the jazz cats say) all the while, but a thirst for ongoing adulation was clearly not in his blood.

But fans’ prayers for him to put at least a toe or two back into the spotlight were answered when he returned in 2008, first with the acclaimed If the World Was You (one song from which, “I’ll Be There at Closing Time,” closes out the new album), then with a tour that found him reclaiming his classics in new arrangements and performing some of his best-known co-writes for the very first time. Which led, inexorably, to Natural History.

“It may seem like an obvious or self-promoting thing to say, but I like these better” than the original recordings, “I have to say that. I’d be sad if I didn’t. I started this album not as happy as I should have been about it and ended up just delighted and grateful”—to the point that he’s thinking sequel, after he makes another album of all-new material in the vein of If the World Was You. “I think there’s going to be a Volume 2. The suggestion list basically was formed by about five people, and it always was hovering between 22 and 24 songs. So ‘Trouble in Paradise,’ ‘Her Town Too,’ ‘Victim of Love,’ ‘James Dean,’ ‘White Rhythm & Blues’, and ‘Heartache Tonight’ didn’t get on here—a lot of pretty well known songs that didn’t make this record. So we’ll probably do it again.”

Still, pointed and contestable omissions aside, Natural History—in its first volume—is “not really too far from being a request list. It’s most of the songs that get asked for most of the time on the road. Of course I hope a lot of people buy it, but more than that, I just hope it makes people feel those songs. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of music? All of us, not just the audience. In fact, it doesn’t work if the performer doesn’t feel it, too. So even after all the hard work … its still a bit mysterious. I like it that way. I was always impressed with Django Reinhardt’s response when people would ask him about him working his gigs. He would say, ‘I’m not working. When I’m practicing, I’m working. When you see me on stage, I’m appearing.’ And that’s it.”

Again, if you didn’t know better, you’d mistake Souther—man of quarter-century touring retirements—for someone who’s addicted to the stage after all. “You know,” he says, “you work your ass off at home so that when you get up there, you actually can participate in the magic. That’s what you want it to be. You want it to be an uplifting thing, in that you want people outside the theater lined up in anticipation, and when they’re streaming out at the end, you want them to have that same buzz that you’ve gotten: ‘Wow, that was cool! That was uplifting. It was in the ascendant—it wasn’t a downer or a bummer or some kind of a rant. It took us some place higher.’ That’s what I hope for when I go see music.” It’s only natural.

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

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  1. karen davis says:

    wow…I can’t wait to get the album. What a lyricist and what a voice. Talent at its finest, JD Souther is the real deal.

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