Thursday, January 16, 2014

Songwriters on Songwriting: Paul Zollo

What were some early influences in your life that led you to pursue a career in music?

A great love of music from as early as I can recall. I remember well that there was nothing that moved me and sent me more than music. I had a little record player with a big cylinder in the center that played only singles – 45s. Which sufficed at first? My sister Peggy had a regular little stereo that could play LPs – and I remember lusting after it; the thought of being able to listen to a record anytime at all seemed like heaven to me.

My dad had great folk records I loved, like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie & The Weavers. And I loved AM radio and my 45s. I remember distinctly the first time The Beatles were on radio, and how different – and amazing – it sounded. It was the sound of their voices in harmony – the quality of those voices – and chromatic chord changes with minor chords like in “I Want To Hold Your Hand”- didn’t know technically at the time what that was, but I knew it was new. Different. And so powerful. The Beatles were a jolt of electricity to my soul.

Nothing meant more to me than music. Early on it was bands like the Stones, Monkees, The Association. I loved Peter, Paul & Mary. And Donovan! First record I ever bought myself was Donovan. And the first big concert I ever saw. My parents took my brother and me – the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. We had to wear jackets and ties! My brother, who is older, was so embarrassed. But I didn’t mind. I got to see Donovan! He was like a god. A young beautiful god.  

And Simon & Garfunkel were everything to me. I started playing guitar at 11 and writing songs right away, and very much in the sway of Simon and the Beatles. My first songs were imitations of their songs. Mostly in terms of the music and phrasing – and they were poetic, my songs, but really made little sense. Which is okay. I learned how to rhyme – how to phrase – how to construct a song. Clarity of content came later.

Then the Chicago folk music scene inspired me – which was amazing then in the early 70s. Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bob Gibson, Corky Siegel, Claudia Schmidt. I loved them all and would ask them – backstage, after shows - to listen to my songs. Bob Gibson liked one enough to ask for a tape of it, which thrilled me. And Goodman – he wrote “City of New Orleans” - gave me my first songwriting lesson. He let me play him a song on his big black acoustic. I played a very surreal, abstract song I wrote called “Troubled Winter.”  He said it was good, but that he “coulda written that whole song in one line.” Which was brutal but true, and from that day on I started writing good songs. Songs that made sense. Thanks Stevey for that. I have been on that path ever since.


How did you originally come to the vision that became your most celebrated work, Songwriters on Songwriting?

As I kid and after I was always frustrated by interviews with great songwriters – such as Dylan or Simon or McCartney – that asked very few questions about songwriting itself. And very little about music. Most journalists are not musicians, so they cannot speak about the music itself to any extent. But this is the subject about which songwriters know most.

So I came to Hollywood and formed a band called The Ghosters to do my own songs. And started hanging out at the National Academy of Songwriters. In 1987 they made me editor of SongTalk – which was their journal – I took the job with the aim of inviting the world’s great songwriters to talk in depth about the art and craft of songwriting, with keen focus on their body of work. To ask all the questions I always wanted to ask! The people there gave me a great honor, this job, and though they weren’t sure what I would or could do, they let me do it.

I made a big list of people I hoped to get interviews with. From the start, my vision was the one which is constant in the book – that all songwriters are to be included, that all “songwriters are links in a chain,” as Pete Seeger put it – and not to be segregated into genres or generations – although that is how the industry markets music.

So my very first issue of SongTalk reflects my aim – it had an interview with Frank Zappa! And also one with Livingston & Evans, songwriters of “Silver Bells,” “Que Sera” and other standards. That extreme – from “Silver Bells” to “Black Napkins” – that encompasses the whole aim.

Over successive years I was able to land many of the main interviews I had hoped for, and with so many of my personal heroes, including both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. From the start I always envisioned a book of these interviews – and I did the first one with Writer’s Digest books. That one was much smaller – then Da Capo Press in NY agreed to do a revised version – and they have published three beautiful editions of it. I am very grateful to Da Capo, because unlike most other book publishers, they keep a book alive over many years. Because of them, I am presently at work on Volume II, which will be complete in 2014.

Many of the artists that you interviewed in the book are notoriously press shy. How were you able to interview them?

Through many years of persistence – of what I call ‘polite pestering.’ One interview often led to the next. The great Van Dyke Parks, happy with the interview we did, asked if I wanted to talk to his pal Harry. He meant Harry Nilsson! I did. And many noticed previous interviews. My talk with Randy Newman got a lot of attention – as I love Randy dearly and really know his stuff – and he is very brilliant and also hilarious. It took years, but eventually Paul Simon said yes – and we did two long and in-depth interviews. Dylan noticed that one and said yes. He said, “You and Paul Simon talked a lot.” Tom Petty and many others saw my Dylan interview – the only one he ever gave on the art of songwriting – and such an amazing talk we had – he is Bob Dylan after all! – that led to many.

But mostly it took years of persistence – of pleading with their gate-keepers. It’s not easy to get directly to these people – you have to go through their people – and that is an art in itself. It is still my life. I am still trying to get certain interviews, as I compile Vol. II of Songwriters On Songwriting.

Among the many interviews, were there any highlights or surprises for you as a writer?

Of course! Being with Dylan, for me, was like being with Shakespeare. Just so monumental. Dylan saying to me, “The world doesn’t need any new songs.” Pete Seeger singing and playing banjo for me. Laura Nyro sharing SO much love and wisdom after years of resisting doing an interview. Harry Nilsson driving around the Hollywood Hills with me playing tapes of him and Lennon working on songs, and tearing up. Randy Newman making jokes just for me – and great jokes! And Randy playing new songs for me – like “Four Eyes” when it was new – thundering on his grand piano. Madonna, in answer to my question about why people don’t know she is a songwriter, saying, “Because they think I am a slut?” Alice Cooper being one of the sweetest and warmest guys I have ever met, and telling me his favorite songwriter was Laura Nyro! Then we both swooned over Laura for awhile. Willie Dixon showing me his BMI print-out of thousands of songs, as thick as a phone book. Frank Zappa inviting me to his home and playing me works in progress on the Synclavier. Sammy Cahn making up rhymes about me (“There’s Paul with his beard, he looks a little weird…”).Paul Simon kindly allowing me to play him some of my songs – and giving me a critique of each. Paul letting me watch his recording session during Rhythm of the Saints with Roy Halee engineering. Drinking coffee out of a glass with Bob Dylan cause Dylan said it’s better out of a glass. Dylan singing part of the song “People,” which Barbra Streisand sang. Watching a Cindy Crawford bikini photo shoot at a hotel pool from a hotel window with all 4 members of R.E.M. Sitting with Leonard Cohen in his home, paging through his notebooks of lyrics. Talking to Pete Seeger about Woody Guthrie, and delighting in this closeness to history. Meeting the mysterious and amazing P.F. Sloan, who had been missing in action for decades. Planting a tree on Vine Street in Hollywood, 1984 with the great Mose Allison (a tree that’s still there!). Talking to Brian Wilson as he lay on the couch like I was his analyst. Playing chess with Gerry Goffin and getting quickly beat! Eating tuna sandwiches and corn chowder with David Byrne at Ben Frank’s diner in Hollywood. Sitting with Leiber & Stoller in their office as they talked about the guy they called “Presley,” and his recording of songs they wrote, like “Hound Dog.”

And so many more.

What were the details regarding your collaboration with Art Garfunkel?

I had the great privilege and joy of interviewing him a few times, and he appreciated my “earnestness,” as he put it, and my deep knowledge of his work, and his contribution. I’ve always considered him one of the greatest harmony singers of our time, up there with McCartney and David Crosby. So I interviewed him first on the phone and the second time in Manhattan. We went out for breakfast, and he invited me to his apartment – back when his son as just a tot. He’s a very sweet guy, Artie, and a poet. And very smart. So I loved talking to him. When I was working on my first solo album, Orange Avenue, I wrote a song based on John Fante’s books called “Being In This World.” It’s very folky, and it was my dream to sing it with Artie. Well, that has been a lifelong dream of mine – to have that voice in harmony with mine on one of my own songs. So I invited him to do it, and he kindly agreed. He was coming out to L.A., so during that trip he came to the studio where we were working, Boulevard Sound, on Hollywood Boulevard, and he sang his parts.

And he was so great. He could have just done a part on the chorus, and that would have been wonderful. But instead he spent several hours learning my phrasing exactly by singing in unison with me, and then composed harmony parts for every verse and chorus. And we doubled each part – and on the bridge I asked him to sing an extra harmony part against just his voice, without mine – which he did – and the effect is so beautiful. It’s a dream come true for me, that song, to hear my voice with Art Garfunkel. I still haven’t gotten over it!  I grew up dreaming every day of being in that world – the world behind the microphone! In the mysterious and great recording studio! In the world where Simon and Garfunkel made their magic. So to go there – and to exit that dream with a record of Zollo and Garfunkel together – well, to me, there is nothing more magical.

How do you find inspiration for your music, songwriting, and photography? What keeps your work fresh?

There’s nothing more fun to me that creating some kind of art. Songs are the best of course – but I am seriously enthralled with photography – and taking and making great photographs to me is almost as fulfilling and fun as writing a song. And they feed on each other – taking photos and thinking in terms of visuals – of telling stories with pictures – is a great exercise for a songwriter, as the best songs use imagery and symbology to tell stories. So I am forever taking photos – and working on those photos – which inspires and triggers work on songs. And I also love recording – I do a lot of home recording as well as in the studio, and am finishing up my second solo album now – and that is as creative as writing the songs – in some ways more challenging and even more fulfilling. And I write about music – and work on book projects – and all of it is part of the same hunger to create something new.


But nothing to me is more fun – or more rewarding – than writing songs. Because songs have a special kind of magic. They get inside of people. You can carry them around. And when you work on them, you go into the song – you follow it where it wants to go. You might lead it down certain paths, but it makes the choices. And that process - when it is going well – is enthralling. There’s nothing better.


But it takes a whole lot of focus and energy. So you do need to stop. To take a break. But to keep the motor going, to keep the engine plugged in and charging.


Who are some of your favorite musicians, visual artists, and writers? Past and Present.


Writers: Scott Fitzgerald, John Fante, Jack Kerouac, Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas. Artists: Jackson Pollack, Robert Frank, Joseph Cornell, Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper, Rauschenberg. Musicians: Coltrane, Gershwin, Van Dyke Parks, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Dylan, Elvis, Laura Nyro, Simon, Beatles, Pete Seeger, The Clash, Stevie Wonder, Mary Lambert, Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Pretenders.



What advice do you have for people who struggle with songwriting and guitar playing?

Stop struggling. There is much in life with which to struggle. But music – and songwriting – is joyful. If you have a gift to write songs, recognize it is a gift and not a burden. If you subscribe to the myth that life must be in turmoil for you to write songs, get beyond that and learn to write when you are happy. It is a gift and if you can play music you are privileged. Recognize that the writing of a song – regardless if anyone ever hears it even – is a triumph of the human spirit, as Van Dyke Parks said. You are successful if you have written a song already – you don’t need the world to tell you so. When you understand that, you begin to understand that songwriting is not a struggle, it is a privilege. Which is not to say it always is a smooth ride. It isn’t. Like any creative endeavor, sometimes you try and try and get nowhere. But the only person in your way is you. If you want to make art – if you want to write songs – the only way to do it is by doing it.

Even among some fine songwriters I know, I see they do not honor the songwriter in them. They do not allow it to flourish. But that is necessary. You have to recognize that writing songs matters, and then structure your life in a way that enables you to write songs. This means making time. You have to give yourself real time – every day or almost every day – to do is seriously. If you consider it just a lark, something you do once in a rare while, you can remain a hobbyist. But if you want to be a serious songwriter, treat it seriously: allow yourself ample time to do it, and to refine. You need to give yourself challenges sometimes – or assignments if you will – and then carry those out. Decide to write a song about a certain topic – or a certain kind of musical feel – and then go for it. And finish the song. And it is paramount you finish, so that you establish with your own psyche that you are someone who finishes songs! If you keep starting and never finish anything, you have your own pattern in your way. So create a positive pattern. Finish the songs.


I asked Dylan if he finishes songs he doesn’t think will be keepers. He said absolutely. That maybe it’s a song for someone else, if not for you. In fact, it’s usually his simpler songs that have been covered a lot. So that makes sense.


But also it’s important not to really even start thinking if it’s a keeper or not. You need to keep that judgmental voice out of play. As Randy Newman said, “Don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator.”  Do not start judging it while you are in the midst of creating it, or you will destroy it. You have to remain open to the joy of the music, of the words, of the play between them. By which I mean have fun! I think songwriting should be fun. It sure is for me. 


What is your message for people of all ages to cultivate artistic creativity and imagination in their own lives?

To realize creativity takes all forms – and all humans are creative. Whether it’s painting a picture, or writing a book – or making a garden, or a story for your kids. A whole lot of people acquire stuff every day to make themselves feel better – but you don’t need to go to the mall. You can create something new in your own life. As kids, we’re all creative naturally – but a lot of adults relegate creative play to childhood – the whole realm of imagination – and feel that dwelling in this shared reality is what matters most. But it is healthy and right to play in the imagination. It’s often considered wrong to want to escape reality in any way – but it’s not, God designed us this way with many exit signs!  – and our minds are set up that way, to exist on many planes at once – we are in the present, in memory, in ideas, in fantasy, in humor – and we zip through these levels instantly and naturally. As a songwriter, I consciously delve into the unconscious to work on songs. Which I used to think an odd thing to do – to consciously try to reach beyond your own conscious ideas. Yet I realized we do it all the time – we daydream while people are talking to us! That is a natural aspect of being human. And a nourishing one. Much more so than constant and endless passive reception of input – whether it’s TV or some other medium. Which of course, I love and do every day of my life. But it’s a whole other dimension there for us, this endless river of creativity – and available to all humans all the time. Kids know this, but adults forget.


Please tell us about some of your current projects and the organic nature of your best known work: Songwriters on Songwriting?

I have been writing many new songs, both for myself and with my pal and frequent co-writer Darryl Purpose. We have three co-writes on his current album, and are aiming to write all the songs for his new one- and of course I do a lot of these songs myself. We have written quite a range of stuff already – including my first ever Buddhist song – a song about non-violence built around a beautiful Buddha story- it’s called “When Buddha Smiled at the Elephant [With His Heart].”

And I am excited that my first solo album on Trough Records, on which I’ve been working for several years, will be released in early 2014. It’s called Universal Cure – 13 songs I wrote and/or co-wrote – and with a bounty of amazing artists and musicians. The great Terre Roche – of the Roches – honored me greatly by singing on the song “Maggie.” Tomas Ulrich, one of this planet’s most gifted cellists, plays on that song. And I’ve got the Zollo Band throughout – featuring the amazing artistry of my dear friends Earl Grey – who both plays and sings a lot of harmonies on this – Aaron Wolfson, whos electric guitar leads astound me every time I hear them – several legendary drummers including John Molo and Mike Baird. My old pal Bobby Malone – who plays now in John Fogerty’s band – on keys. And much more.

I will do several concert and club tours in 2014 – including playing my hometown of Chicago in March with Darryl – and elsewhere.

I am also working on several book projects. Most prominently is Volume 2 of Songwriters On Songwriting. To answer your organic question. This book has organically expanded many times. Volume 1 was expanded several times, so we are now doing a whole new edition – with about 60 new interviews – including ones with Leiber & Stoller, James Taylor, John Prine, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Don McLean, Loretta Lynn, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and more. Well, I hope more! I do not like to linger on the names of those great songwriters I have yet to interview, as it is maddening. But there are many. And my life and work will always seem incomplete to me until I do those. Yet I realized – after a few years – its best not to focus on that in public, as it’s negative – and better for people to see what is there than what isn’t. And what is there is substantial! I know that’s obvious, but anyone who does this work gets obsessed with the elusive ones – the missing links in the songwriter’s chain – so easy to go there. But better to celebrate what is there, and the work that is done. Martha Graham spoke about the “divine dissatisfaction” inherent in the soul of all artists. And that I share – and it is helpful and not to rest one one’s laurels (or Hardys, as Tom Waits would say).

But at some point all artists do need to stop, and reflect. And if possible – and it isn’t always easy – to revel in all that is done, and feel a measure of completeness and satisfaction. If only for a moment! Before we get back to work. 

I am hoping to finish Angeleno, which is my photo collection of portraits. Plus I am doing a book with Randy Newman, to be called Conversations with Randy Newman. I am thrilled about this; I have tried for years to get Randy to agree to do a book, and he has at last. I have interviewed him many times over the last 25 years, so the book will be rich with his thoughts as they have expanded and evolved. The man is not only a genius – he’s also hilarious, the funniest of any of the famous songwriters I’ve come to know.

Also doing a book with another amazing artist – Dave Stewart – or Captain Dave, as Bob Dylan calls him. He is a creative phenomenon, Dave is – making art in all directions – and totally fearless, as Dylan also noted. We are doing a book called The Ringmaster – which focuses on his songwriting – but branches out to the multitude of art he makes – and more. The man is even starting a bank, the First Artist’s Bank. He has written songs with so many greats – including Dylan and also Mick Jagger, Bono, Sinead, Orianthi, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and so many others. He’s one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. So I am excited about that as well.


Paul Zollo and Art Garfunkel collaboration:

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