YOU’RE AN EASY LAUGHER, BUT ARTISTICALLY YOU’VE ALWAYS STRUCK ME AS BEING A SOMBER TYPE OF GUY, OR AT LEAST VERY SKILLED AT ARTICULATING BLUER MOODS. IS IT PART OF YOU? I agree, I think it is. I love laughing, but I like melancholy a lot. Wistfulness, longing. I like autumn; I think there’s particular energy there.
I’M THINKING AS FAR BACK AS THE RAINDOGS’ “PHANTOM FLAME” AND “THIS IS THE PLACE” — THEY’RE BITTERSWEET. They tug at my heart. But bittersweet is still sweet, right? I think there’s more to mine [when you’re working with] sadness. I wish I could be clever and funny like some people I know, but I just don’t think that’s where my strengths lie.
EVER TRIED TO WRITE SOMETHING AGAINST TYPE? THE SONG THAT SOUNDS LIKE NOTHING ELSE ON THE DISC IS “AIN’T BEEN BORN.” That’s my tribute to Lowell George. I originally wrote it on electric piano; I was thinking of Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man” and I recalled a line in a Laura Nyro song, “He ain’t been born yet,” so that went in there. And I was thinking of the LA scene of the ’70s — Bonnie Raitt and those guys. Some people say that track sounds like the Band, but especially during the slide solo I was thinking of Lowell. The simple and beautiful way he played.
AGE-OLD QUESTION: WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT, LYRICS OR MUSIC? I don’t mean to cop out, but they’re intertwined — though it’s the music that usually hits me first, then the sound of the words, and then the meaning of the words. It’s the overall sound, you know?
SEVERAL OF THE SONGS ON RED AVOID THE BOLD STATEMENT. THE LYRICS ARE MORE SLANTED TOWARD POETRY THAN NARRATIVE. There are secrets in there. There are no lies in there, meaning they’re all honest. They’re all meant to be up for interpretation. Fun to figure out.
LET’S UNLOCK SOME SONGS. “COUSIN MARY’S NEW CAR.” The title is from John Coltrane, and then I wanted to write a song for Rickie Lee Jones, like in the Pirates mode. If I had the right arrangement — the Van Morrison vamping with the horns — I think you’d hear [the Rickie Lee thing]. But all I had was a guitar and little box I was tapping on when I wrote it. Johnny Tornado — what a great name — was a friend of mine. I threw him in there. It’s about loss of innocence: “Reaching the state of grace sure would be fine/but we’re miles away from that sweet borderline.” I remember [Rich] Lupo telling me about Jaco Pastorius standing outside Lupo’s in a puddle, rubbing Vaseline all over him in a frenzy. That’s where I got “I was shining the street in my off-Broadway show.” A bunch of collected images, and when you put ’em together they create a painting.
WHAT ABOUT “YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO”? Actually, that’s about blackmail, even though it sounds like a love song. That song was an assignment from the Rhode Island Songwriters Association, a “songwriters in the round” thing. The subject was “Innocent Eyes.” I wasn’t going to write a song exactly called that, so I started thinking: “What about fake innocent eyes?” There are all these little kernels of life in there.