Interviews

Four Voices Is a Quartet of Greats: Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Amy Ray, Emily Saliers

Chrissie Dickinson
Photo: Joseph Sinnott
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Folk artists Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have joined forces in the collaboration Four Voices.

Folk artists Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are longtime friends offstage. On stage, they’ve joined forces in the collaboration Four Voices.

There’s a lot to be done in preparation for the tour. Besides negotiating the vast expanse of their combined catalogs when choosing a set list, there’s even figuring out the seating arrangements.

“We were just discussing what kind of chairs or stools we wanted,” Baez says with a laugh, calling on her way to a Four Voices rehearsal in Atlanta. “Chapin’s legs are short and one of mine has a weird knee. We allow ourselves five minutes for what we call ‘organ talk.’ After that, we don’t get to complain about all the things that are going wrong with the female body at this age. Listen, I’ve got 20 years on them. I’m biting my tongue through the whole conversation.”

The four women bring sizable reputations to the stage. Baez is a folk legend and longtime political activist who became a star during the 1960s folk boom. She was friends with civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., performed at Woodstock and was instrumental in the early career of her one-time boyfriend Bob Dylan. This past April, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Although Baez is a well-known interpreter of other artists’ material, she’s written some fine songs of her own including her 1975 hit “Diamonds & Rust,” a bittersweet remembrance of her relationship with Dylan. Her most recent self-penned song is the viral hit “Nasty Man,” a scalding and humorous ode about President Donald Trump.

Carpenter has built a career as a trenchant singer-songwriter. In the 1990s, she became an unlikely mainstream country star with a string of hits including the feminist anthem “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.” Georgia natives Saliers and Ray formed the Grammy-winning folk-rock duo Indigo Girls in the 1980s and recorded hit singles “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo.”

We caught up recently with Baez to discuss the first time she performed in public and her thoughts on writing about Trump. This is an edited transcript.

Q: In your acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, you said: “my public is a kind of family.” Can you expand on that?

A: Somebody was chiding me once that I really liked this business of people coming up to me. Yes, I do. Nobody ever comes up and says anything horrible, because people who don’t like me are basically chicken. (laughs) So people say really nice stuff. How can I complain about that? They feel like they know me, even though they don’t. I know I’ve been part of their lives and it’s important for them to say what they need to say. They’re good people.

Q: In your speech, you said your granddaughter didn’t really know you were famous until you took her backstage to meet Taylor Swift.

A: My granddaughter knew her abuela (grandmother) was famous, whatever “famous” means to a 12-year-old. She knew it meant a lot of special treatment for her family. But Taylor Swift was this monster thing in her life at that moment. She simply couldn’t believe that she was meeting Taylor. So now I have this sort of cool element that I didn’t have before. (laughs) My granddaughter really appreciated it and had a wonderful time. Taylor was wonderful to us.

Q: You’ve described your voice as “a gift.” How old were you when you began singing and how did you feel about your voice in the beginning?

A: I started singing and playing the ukulele around 13 and graduated to the guitar at 15. I thought I had a pretty voice but I didn’t think it was anything special until I was in my late teens. I was Mexican in Southern California and was having difficulty finding a niche for myself in school. At the age of 13 or 14, I sang at lunchtime for the quote popular girls. It wasn’t exactly having friends by a long shot, but it was something. I really enjoyed having an audience. But being able to play my ukulele and sing my rhythm and blues songs to myself at night kind of saved my young life.

Q: Your first gig in 1958 was at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What was it like to perform in public for the first time?

A: My mother, father, and sister showed up and that was it. (laughs) I saw my boyfriend through the window, walking back and forth outside. I don’t know what he was contemplating at the time, but he finally came in and that made it an audience of four. The next week, the place was half full. The next time, it was all the way full. Then I played the Newport Folk Festival. When I came back, the lines were around the block. It happened very quickly.

Q: What is your main memory of that first Newport appearance in 1959?

A: People say “my knees were shaking.” Well, my knees actually were shaking. (laughs) I was hanging onto the handrail to get up to the stage. I was so nervous. I’d never seen that many people all in the same place. But I managed to get across the stage. We launched our song and I got a huge response. I was pleased with that. I liked it and knew I wanted to do more of that.

Q: You’ve covered so many great songs and written some yourself. What was the breakthrough for you as a songwriter?

A: I was 10 years in and still doing (cover material). Somebody asked me, “Do you write songs?” I said, “No.” They said, “Why don’t you try?” “Sweet Sir Galahad” was the first one that came out. Exactly how I consider my own songwriting is that I’ve written one really really stupendous song — “Diamonds & Rust” — and all the rest are either good or mediocre. (laughs) Between 25 and 30 years ago, the songs stopped coming. That’s the best way to say it. They just didn’t arrive anymore. So I quit trying. The only thing I’ve written since then is “Nasty Man.”

Q: When you wrote “Diamonds & Rust,” did it come quickly to you?

A: It started off as another song. Then the words started to morph. When you write a song that deep, the words come from some place else. But when the songs stop coming, it would be so contrived to try and force it. Since then I’ve just been doing other people’s music. Sometimes they write it for me. Sometimes I search for material that matches the mood of an album. Right now I’m working on a record that is nearly finished. It’s the first time I’ve been in the studio in eight years. There’s nothing of my own on the album but that doesn’t really matter. I’m really thrilled with the record. It’ll come out in the spring of 2018.

Q: Where were you when you wrote “Nasty Man?”

A. I was in my kitchen. It took a couple of days. There were so many verses, I just had to pick the best ones. (laughs) They just kept coming because the situation is so awful and there are so many images of its awfulness. This isn’t a laughing matter, but you have to laugh anyway. The song, itself, becomes something of a laughing matter because we’d go crazy if we didn’t keep laughing.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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