ON HIS NEW ALBUM, YAMAHA PIANOS AND LIVING IN THE PRESENT
EVEN BEFORE HIS SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM—FREQUENTLY REFERRED TO AS “SATURATE BEFORE USING,” DUE TO THE COVER ART—JACKSON BROWNE HAD ALREADY DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A SONGWRITER WITH THE UNIQUE GIFT OF CREATING BOTH COMPELLING LYRICS AND MEMORABLE MELODIES, WITH SONGS ALREADY HAVING BEEN RECORDED BY ARTISTS LIKE THE EAGLES, THE BYRDS AND LINDA RONSTADT.
Since the beginning of his career, Browne has had an ability to write intensely personal songs, that are both intimate and universal, tying romantic relationships to social issues and seeing the connection between inner reflections and the outer world. “When I’m writing a song,” he says, “I’m trying to get to a place where I’m trying to say something but I don’t know what it is. I’m trying to access something that I feel, almost like an oracle, I’m trying to divine what I think about something. So it’s both meditative [and] contemplative.
“Particularly when I was young, I would be writing a song and I didn’t know how I felt about anything—I didn’t know what to say about anything going on around me, so I would just write and I would play and eventually I’d start making something out of it and I didn’t know what it was. By the time it became a song, it not only described something to me that explained how I felt and why I felt that way, or what I was going to do about the situation, but also gave me a secret edge. I had no stature, I didn’t play sports. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have any money. But I had a song tucked in my back pocket. I had something in my head. I could sit down and play a song and for those friends I had, they knew I did this. You could say I had contact with myself. I had some identity that I was aware of, and it didn’t matter who else knew because I had this song. It was like having a shield, or almost like armor, some kind of special … something that I knew about myself that I knew was up to other people to find out.”
His new record, Standing in the Breach, released this fall, spans the full range of his songwriting, from the intensely personal to the deeply political. It also offers an overview of his evolution as a songwriter, starting off with a song, “The Birds of St. Marks,” that he wrote in 1967, and then proceeds to travel through ruminations on personal relations, contemporary social and political events and ending on “Here,” a song that looks at the choices we make between hope and despair. “I think it’s lucky that song works in that way,” he says, “and without the other songs it might just seem like a very personal song about loss, but I think in the context of the album it adds a kind of note at the end that is very internal. It’s about your decision to be in the world or not in the world. It’s that moment when you realize that ‘I am here, I am here. I might as well … be here.’”
Though “Here” was originally written for the 2008 Kevin Spacey movie, Shrink, its roots run far deeper into Browne’s life. “Both the person singing and the person he’s singing to are survivors of a suicide—of another’s person’s suicide. I could be singing this song to my son, you know, having lost my wife and him having lost his mother. There’s that moment where I’m repeating the words, ‘Here, where the sorrows flow. Here, where the questions grow, and all you will never know about her.’ To me, that’s the heartbreak—all that you’re never going to know, including why this person did this, but also all the other things about her you’ll never get a chance to know. There’s a lot about it that’s so painful that it can’t be quite deciphered. You can’t really make it make sense. You’ve got to worry if it does make sense.”
It’s exactly that ability to reflect on personal pain or political struggle and strip it down to elements that resonate in a larger way that has kept Browne’s work in the public ear over the years and earned him a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I think it’s like being in touch with your emotions and, clearly, language—it’s like a love of language,” he explains. “It’s knowing that you could say something ultra-simple, but it’s that desire to make people feel the same way you feel when you say that thing. So you say that and it has a certain feeling. But there are songwriters that I admire [who] really have a command of the language and some that don’t really care about that at all. They don’t care about a lot of words, just the right words.” As an example, he cites Peter Tosh’s “Stepping Razor.” “Joe Higgs wrote this song … ‘I’m a stepping razor. Don’t watch my size.’ Amazing, amazing command of the language and there’s just a power and a command in the use of the language and a uniqueness in the way that he talked and of course the music served that as well as the message: don’t mess with me. But you could write a song that says don’t mess with me. ‘You might think I’m small, but don’t mess with me.’ That’s not as amazing as ‘I’m a stepping razor. Don’t watch my size. I’m dangerous.’
As part of his evolution as a songwriter, Browne says that these days, he does much more of his writing in the studio. “The last record—not this record, but the one I made six years ago—half those songs were really written in the studio, having gone in with just a verse or a verse and chorus and then tracking and finishing the song from there. I really like to work on the music without the song being done, because it means that the lyrics—I’m so particular about how they work—that I don’t want to be done with the song and not be able to change it.”
Browne’s commitment to the gear that he loves is strong, and a constant has been his attachment to the sound and playability of his instruments. Though principally known as a guitarist, Browne has made the piano a cornerstone of many compositions, and he was insistent that a Yamaha grand piano be available for this interview and photo shoot, specifically requesting the model he tours with.
His studio, Groove Masters in Santa Monica, grew out of Browne’s first studio in downtown L.A. and has become known for both its great feel and its collection of vintage gear and mics. “About 1982, I got a Studer 24-track and a Studer quarter-inch two-track,” he says, “and I already had a rack of Dolbys from doing Running on Empty. It was a rack of Dolby As, and we did this album called Hold Out, in a building downtown and from then on, I was working on my own gear. I began buying mics then. When Greg Ladanyi and I started working together, he and I began really focusing on whether we could really do on stage what we did in the studio. Some of the same gear, so I just started accumulating the gear then.”
Browne’s first love is still the music, and making it. “It’s not playing for the most people, but it’s when an audience and the performer go to a place that is absolutely transcendent and you don’t even know how you got there. I mean all the setting up, the technical setting things up to make the playing situation optimum, all of that sort of goes away and you hover in a space above the music that’s being made and it’s really… you’re one with it. You’re at one with the music that’s being made. I think music is such a redeeming thing. I see kids playing in a guitar store. In guitar stores, you can make a lot of hellacious noise, but they’re working something out. They’re working on something and I think it’s the most valuable thing a person can come upon. It’s just the most valuable thing a person can find is his own way of saying something and way in which he could play for his family or his girlfriend. I took this girl to the drive-in and I remember her telling her friends, ‘Yeah, yeah. We were sitting there and then he pulled out a guitar and started playing me this song.’ I did. I did that. I’d written her a song and I wanted her to hear it. It was a big back seat. There was room for the guitar too.”
Browne’s tendency towards hope and the possibilities for positive change shines behind it all. “I like [the idea of] personal integrity,” he says, “because in any situation where there’s room for improvement you have the opportunity to improve on your own particular performance. That’s a roundabout way of saying anything that’s wrong with the world can not only be approached but you can start with yourself. I think that is the question. What are you going to do about it? There are so many things that it’s too late to do anything about that it gives rise to a feeling of helplessness, but there are so many things that need to be preserved and protected and stood up for, and one of my favorite quotes is the Carolyn Forché poem that says, ‘It’s not your right to feel helpless. Better people than you are helpless.’”
Asked what he wants people to take away from Standing in the Breach, he’s unequivocal. “I want people to have the feeling that there’s something that can be done. It’s sort of a layered thing, but I would like to motivate people to be engaged in what’s happening in the world right now, because it’s so critical. So, like in the song, if I could be anywhere right now, it would be here. If I could be anywhere in time, it would have to be right here. If I were going to do anything about any of this, it would have to be now. So, on that level, I want to try to motivate people to look at the world like it’s a place of possibility. And at the same time, I want people to want to … I don’t know what words you give that, if there’s a message. Basically we come down to, you know, ‘we’re here.’ And have that same feeling I got when the girl says it in the movie [Shrink], ‘We might as well. We’re here.’”