Louise Goffin talks with PopMatters about crafting a timeless pop album with the unexpected support of a patron.
All These Hellos
Majority of One
9 November 2018
Thirty-nine years after she made her first album, the vibrant, slightly pugnacious Kid Blue (Asylum, 1979), Louise Goffin is back with a new one, All These Hellos. It's been a career of overcoming hurdles, living down (as well as up to) the expectations that come with music industry parentage, sometimes taking a step to one side and playing for other people (Bryan Ferry, Tears For Fears), and then coming back center-stage with another strong album. Sometimes, her albums struggle to get the attention they deserve. Goffin says that All These Hellos is, of all them, the one that's most accurate a reflection of who she is. "Right now, it's just getting people to listen… otherwise, I'm looking at the situation where I have this massive catalogue, and I don't want it to be something that people get ten years from now. But you can only do so much. It's like traveling door to door, saying, 'Have you heard my record?' Everybody is so hungry to be listened to. It's almost like to ask someone to listen to an entire album is demanding too much, because everyone is so busy."
Goffin, who came of age under the original music business model, is a staunch defender of the album format and her new work is the first since 1988 to be issued on vinyl. The modern-day ailment of everyone supposedly being too busy to listen has coincided, ironically, with a time in history when, thanks to streaming, music has become an ever-ready utility, something we can turn on at the touch of a button, accessing unfeasibly vast libraries of almost everything ever professionally recorded. Music is more present than ever and yet streaming undermines the concept of the album and leaves us less inclined to experience music in an immersive way.
Music is at once everything and nothing. And then there's the impact it's had on remuneration for writers and artists. "The fact that it's on tap makes the effort songwriters put into it very undervalued," says Goffin. "People feel, 'I can go get it, I can grab it, I can steal it' and we are fighting that right now and making headway, particularly with some very badass women at the helm – Dina LaPolt, Michelle Lewis, Shelly Peiken and Kay Hanley. They all started this thing called SONA [Songwriters of North America]. We just got the MMA, the Music Modernization Act, passed, which was a massive accomplishment. To have a 100 percent Senate vote to pass something, that never happens." Goffin isn't anti-streaming (and as things currently stand, you can find most of her albums and some of her soundtrack work on the usual platforms), just anti anything that dishonours and rips off content-creators. "It's great to be able to check out a whole bunch of different kinds of music. But we want the value to go back into it as well."
The vast, internet-wrought changes that have affected both the entertainment and publishing industries are what have led Goffin to new ways of making records. In 2014, she made an album via the crowd-funding method. This time around, rather than seeking out a new way, it was a case of a new way presenting itself to her. And it wasn't really a new way at all – in fact, All These Hellos was funded with the kind of old-fashioned patronage by which classical composers were often supported. It all began during one of the songwriting masterclasses that Goffin teaches – "mostly to adults", she adds.
"A student bought my CDs and he just became obsessed with the records. He felt I was sitting around with so much potential and 'why wasn't I super-famous?' sort of thing [laughs]. And I said, 'Well, you know, it's expensive to go into a studio, it's expensive to be an artist doing it on that level'. I sent him a Dropbox folder filled with demos and songs that were unrecorded and he just freaked out and said, 'You've got to go into the studio. I'll pay for it. Don't worry about it. What would you do? Who would you have? How would you do it? Don't hold back! Get the best!' And after completely checking it out and making sure I wasn't be stalked in any way and it was just his absolute enthusiasm, and trying to arrange an investor's deal, we went into the studio."
As with all her projects, Goffin has assembled a stellar team of musicians, among them industry legend Van Dyke Parks, who created orchestral arrangements for two tracks, one of which appears on this album ("Chinatown") and one of which is being held over for the next. "I had already talked to Van Dyke Parks a year earlier about doing something, and he said, 'When you find the right song and the right project, call me, and we'll make it happen.'" Also on the album are Chris Difford of Squeeze (on sprightly opening track "Paris France"), Rufus Wainwright and a host of musicians, including famed session-ist, Mark Goldenberg, and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers. Goffin co-produced with Dave Way. Along for the ride came the Brit rhythm section who played with her at her 2015 appearance in London, opening for her mother, Carole King, in Hyde Park; Jeremy Stacey on drums and David Caitlin-Birch on bass. "They flew in for four or five dates. And Timothy Young, guitarist in the James Corden house band – we found a window when he was off for three days."
Sessions were kept happy and upbeat, infused with the spirit of collaboration and being open to other people's ideas. "I'd play the song and the band would just take their own notes and then we'd go and cut it. We were an insta-band, so it's not like we sat around hearing someone bang a snare drum over and over. We were all fresh and we were able to capture things. If someone said, 'Oh, I loved that thing you just played, you should play it again', we were responsive." This kind of heady cross-pollination is something Goffin thinks is unlikely to have happened in any other kind of set-up. "We all kept saying that with a major record company, we would never have been able to make this record. It would not happen. There'd be people listening and saying, 'Where's your hit sound?' It wouldn't be allowed to have this organic flow. We made every decision only with artistic reach in mind. There was no other agenda than just to record these songs in as innovative a way as possible and to communicate them as well as possible. We were all very influenced by Beatles records and all our collective histories came into play. It was an amazing process."
It's all very different to how she started out, when she come to the attention of Asylum Records, home of the world's preeminent singer/songwriters, back in the late 70s. "I was this little girl who wanted to make a record, 17 years old," she recalls. Although Goffin baulked at the unpleasant cocaine scene that had come to characterise the industry at that point, she credits her first A&R person with making some key introductions for her. "The first was Bob Ezrin [producer of Lou Reed's Berlin and a series of Alice Cooper albums]. I am friends with him today. I went to his house and I think he had just done a Peter Gabriel solo record. He said, 'I'm not gonna producer her. She is too sweet. I'm not going to put this girl in the music business. Please don't ruin her life!'"
The next stop was Peter Asher, noted for producing a string of James Taylor bestsellers. "He was too busy, but he said, 'You know who'd make a great producer? Danny Kortchmar!'" Kortchmar, a singer and session guitarist already well-known to Goffin, had been part of her mother's inner circle, playing on Tapestry and the series of hit albums that followed, right up to 1976's Thoroughbred. He'd been a member of Flying Machine, James Taylor's early band, and the well-liked Jo Mama, who recorded for Atlantic. "Danny had been in the studio with Peter and James [Taylor] on so many occasions, making production decisions, arrangement decisions, so he ended up being my producer. Danny's roots were very New York, R&B, Stax, rock. He was really into punk rock and shortly after he made a punk rock record which now he is embarrassed about [Innuendo, Asylum Records, 1980]. I was really a kind of folky singer/songwriter. I sat at the piano and wrote songs. I wrote finger-picking songs on acoustic guitar and was a folky, lyrical hippy in my songwriting. Danny was really into the Sex Pistols – he loved the energy of all that."
Perhaps Goffin and Kortchmar's stylistic mismatch was what gave Kid Blue, Goffin's debut, some of its bracing tension and excitement. It emerged in 1979, clad in a sleeve on which Goffin looked rather like rock'n'roll's answer to Brooke Shields. Although she viewed herself as "this folk-rock sensitive girl", Goffin rose to the occasion, as can be seen in one of the early examples of an MTV promo video, made for the title track, in which she's all attitude and teen pluck. And the album itself did find room for her sensitive side, particularly on the final track, "Singing Out Alone", with its David Campbell string arrangement and appearances from J.D Souther, Don Henley, and Carole King. There's also the tremendous "Red Lite Fever", written by Goffin and Kortchmar, which had a wonderfully strutting intensity. "Sometimes," she says, "I look back and go, 'Oh, it's endearing. You're trying so hard. You're trying to be Mick Jagger. You're walking on tables and throwing the mic in the audience'. But I wish I had really honed my skills more as an artist and then made a record I was more in charge of, that might not have been so rock but a little more true to who I was."
The next album, 1981's Louise Goffin, was another Kortchmar production. It's probably the album to go to last of all if you're a newcomer to her body of work. In some ways, it picks up where Kid Blue left off, but this time Kortchmar hit upon the idea of getting Goffin to sing at the very top of her range. The effect is to make it sound like an album by a splenetic, albeit gifted, 16-year-old who's been at the helium. "He wanted it to sound like I was pushing more, and I always regretted that decision because I don't think it brought out so much warmth and soul. I got completely off course. I was fortunate enough to have a record company that said, 'go on tour', so I put together a band, and I would write songs that revolved around guitar lines and drum parts. It stopped being so song-centered. Those first two records for me were like public displays of a learning curve."
In the years that followed, Goffin parted ways with Asylum and moved to London. "This was kind of pre-Facebook, pre-internet, so when you were in a foreign country, you really felt far from home. It's not like now where the world feels smaller. It was a challenge." Goffin initially found her London friends emotionally undemonstrative and had trouble knowing where she stood with them. "Some of them are my close friends now, but then it was like, 'Oh, we've gone out and done things five times and they still sound all proper and I'm not sure if I'm really their friend.' It was just the English properness. I was never sure if I was someone's friend or if I was at arm's length. It was really hard to get a read on people and what they felt, where in America you kind of know how people feel within 30 seconds. They tell you everything and none of it's true! [laughs] But yeah, it was hard going. I focussed on work and had a couple of friends that I started to see. There was still smoking in pubs back then and I hated it. The only place that people would meet was the pub, which I loved because you could meet friends, but I'd come home and my hair and coat and just everything smelt of cigarettes."
Goffin signed to the legendary Stiff label, home of Elvis Costello, Rachel Sweet, Kirsty MacColl, and Tracey Ullman, but ended up recording for Warner Brothers instead. 1988's This Is the Place arrived with a blaze of UK press and publicity. So determined were Warners UK to break the album that around four or five singles were issued. Production was handled by Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, a British duo who were a bit like a less suburban, much more sophisticated version of Stock, Aitken & Waterman. They'd overseen successful albums for Alison Moyet, Spandau Ballet, and Bananarama and did an estimable job, working with Goffin.
For an album produced in the thick of the 1980s vogue for programming and sequencing, This Is the Place has aged remarkably well. "I felt like I really developed a sense of my voice and that my songwriting was at a way more sophisticated level. It worked amazing on 'Bridge of Sighs' and also on '5th of July', while on some things I listen back and it sounds like an '80s pop record." The album also included a song, "Deep Kiss", which Goffin had written with the hit-making team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, then in the midst of a winning streak that included songs for Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), Taylor Dayne, the Bangles and Cyndi Lauper. "I saw Billy Steinberg the other day and he really loves that song while I never, never liked it and he knows I never liked it. It's not that I don't like the song, it's just it wasn't a sentiment I identified with. It was really teeny-bop – 'I go crazy boy for your deep kiss'. It was a great melody, though."
Goffin got some much-deserved attention when her Motown-esque "Surrender" was featured prominently on the soundtrack of 1988 movie, Shag. In the 1990s, she toured with Tears For Fears, worked with Bryan Ferry and toiled on an album, partly recorded on Dave Gilmour's boat-studio, the Astoria, which never saw the light of day. After a 14-year gap, she made the first album that she stands by as a true reflection of her own vision, 2002's Sometimes a Circle (Dreamworks), produced with then-husband, Greg Wells, whose CV included work with Katy Perry, Michelle Branch and Rufus Wainwright.
"It was the first one I was really proud of, top to bottom. Everything started with demos. Greg and I wrote some songs together and when I got the deal with Dreamworks, Lenny Waronker [co-Chair of Dreamworks] is so cool and he just said, 'Don't change anything – keep doing exactly what you're doing'. So there wasn't this A&R-ing, interfering thing. We would just overdub on the demos. It was really true to me." Goffin wasn't the only one to notice how faithful to herself her new work was. "I have these cases full of cassettes. They're home demos and work-tapes I've made since I was 18. And sometimes I would play them for people and was kind of met with the same response over and over again, which was 'Why don't your records sound like this?'." Finally, with Sometimes a Circle, Goffin sounded like the same artist on the work-tapes. The album, dressed up in deft little production tricks and effects which worked without burying Goffin's authenticity, remains a crowning achievement.
Since that creative breakthrough, Goffin has raised two sons, played some dates with 1960s legend, Donovan, won a Grammy nomination for producing Carole King's 2011 holiday album, and continued to make music. "I am having this resurgence of creativity," she says. As well as continually composing new material, she also raids her treasure trove of demos. "It's the gift I gave myself, all these songs on cassette tape. I can go back to it, and it's like this young person saying, 'Hey Louise, I've got all these really cool songs. Take them, have them, they're yours!' It's like a time capsule. A younger version of me wrote them, wrote those feelings, and when I'm singing them, it's like time-travelling. They're real things I felt, they feel completely current and while a lot of songs on my album are new, I also have this amazing gift from my past."
Sessions for All These Hellos led to the recording of over 25 songs, so Goffin already has a potential follow-up in the can. Her songwriting classes are based around the idea that you have to love something to become good at it, and then, along the way, you have to try to understand why you love it. "Be conscious of what you love. Your taste is your palette. If you're a cook, you have to know that you like this flavor or don't like that flavor. So really take note of what you love and why you love it. Deconstruct what you love about it. For me, I'll ask myself, 'What do I love about this record? What are they doing on that bass line that I love?' So many times, people want to get something in life, they want to be good at this or that or they want to be famous. They look at it like an external thing, like 'I'm going to go and get it or someone's gonna teach it to me and then I'm gonna go and get it', but you have to love it and be curious about it. If you want to make movies, you think, 'How did they do that? Why do I love that scene? Why did I cry there? Who did that camera angle look so amazing?' And that becomes your teacher. You figure out what you love and it goes into your DNA and that's what happened to me over years and years of listening to things, so that by the time you're in the studio, it's coming out of you, you're just paying homage to everything you ever loved. That's how I felt this record went. Not trying to imitate, but paying homage in essence. So it didn't really feel like a 2018 record. It felt like we were making a record that was timeless."
- Louise Goffin: All These Hellos (album review) ›
- Louise Goffin - "Let Me in Again" (video) (premiere) - PopMatters ›