Photo: Radoslav Lorkovic

Plugging In and Loosening Up: An Interview With Richard Shindell

Shindell is an influential figure in the Fast Folk genre, and with the release of his 10th album, spoke to PopMatters about the long and ultimately rewarding process of creating Careless.
Richard Shindell
Amalgamated Balladry

Richard Shindell has been recording and performing for over a quarter century now and is among the highest regarded and successful singer-songwriters of his generation. Originally from New York, Shindell first honed his skills in the late ’80s among the ongoing Fast Folk scene in Greenwich Village, spawned by the magazine of that name, that launched the careers of John Gorka, Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky, Lyle Lovett, and Christine Lavin among dozens of others.

His debut record, Sparrow’s Point appeared in 1992 and placed him at the fore of a new generation of songwriters, a status emphasized when Joan Baez chose to record three of his songs on her 1997 album Gone From Danger. In addition to the nine albums he released between 1994 and 2011, Shindell has collaborated with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky on the harmony-center album Cry, Cry, Cry (1998) and as part of the Pine Hill Project with Kaplansky and Larry Campbell on the collection of cover songs Tomorrow You’re Going (2015).

Shindell moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his wife and two children in 2000 and now divides his time between there and New York’s Hudson Valley. New release Careless, which he is releasing on his own Amalgamated Balladry label, is Shindell’s tenth album and first of original material since 2009’s Not Far Now. It marks both a return and a departure. Fans will recognize Shindell’s well-honed ability to inhabit the personas of his songs’ subjects (and this time not just human) while he utilizes a much more diverse and adventurous sonic palette in which to color those songs.

Shindell spoke to PopMatters about the long and ultimately rewarding process of creating Careless on the eve of his departure for a European tour.

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You spent a few days as artist in residence here [Gordon State College] last year, and we were talking about some of the challenges you were facing with getting this album into the marketplace. A year later, and it’s finally here. Can you talk about how the release came about in the interim time?

Because of the state of constant flux in the music industry it has been hard to know what to do with the record, how exactly to put it out. Whether to put it out in digital only formats or digital plus a physical CD, whether to manufacture vinyl, whether to put it in stores, whether to sign with a record label, and, therefore sign away a percentage of the profits, or whether to put it out oneself on some website and perhaps make an individual deal with a distributor. There used to be two ways to put out a record: you put it out with a record company, or you put it out on your own. Now, there are an infinite number of ways, it appears. [laughs] And so, in my case I was trying to figure out what would be the best way to go. Of course, if you spend too much time thinking about that it becomes counter-productive.

The other thing which caused me to delay the record has to do with the record I did with Lucy Kaplansky and wanting to let that run its course, so that was another element just waiting for the right moment to come around after that project was done. That is another issue when you put out a record: finding a good date. What time of year, how it coincides with touring. You know, you don’t want to put out a record and not already have a tour in place, so all of these things take a lot of advanced preparation, so there are many reasons why it took so long.

There’s also the fact that you recorded this one over a period of a couple of years, correct? How did that extended period affect the songs development? Were there songs that changed radically from the early to their final versions?

Yes, that happened frequently, where I went into the studio thinking the song was one thing and came out of the studio at the other end with a mastered record and with a song that sounded quite different. Usually that was the result of musical adjustments and not lyrical differences; the lyrics, almost in every case, were what they were and it was the musical setting that changed. There was one song “All Wide Open” which began as me playing along to a drum loop, and then, from that, we built it into a large recording with lots of tracks and lots of drums and bass, a very ambitious kind of thing. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time until I start mixing it. I could never get a good mix to it. After a while, if you can’t get a good mix to a song you start to wonder if maybe the mix is not the problem, and so I thought, let’s just start subtracting things.

We subtracted things all the way down to a couple of very minimalist electric guitar motifs that barely voiced the harmony, the chord progression, took it almost down to zero, and then basically built it back up from there. That made it much sparser, more open, and, I think, a much more effective recording. So that’s an example of how in a studio you can go down a certain path with a song thinking that’s the way it should go and then find out later that it’s just not working, and that actually, less is more.

There’s another song where I knew what I wanted to do with the music but had no idea what to do with the lyrics. I recorded the entire thing knowing quite precisely how I wanted the music to sound, but having no idea what the song was about or what possible lyric I could put to it. That became “Infared”. I knew I wanted that music to be exactly as it is, and yet, not only did I not have words, when I was attempting to write words to it, it seemed like any words I used were kind of a distraction or beside the point. It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t like singing over the track, although I did like the melody. So that song caused me a lot of anxiety, and finally I ended up doing this very strange thing lyrically with the song.

It is strange to hear that “Infrared” was such a struggle because the finished product has some of your most precise and unusual language use regarding the biological functions of the dreaming figure at its center.

Yes and the etymological information about how a mosquito finds its host. I had this crazy idea of a mosquito honing in on its prey and just found myself doing the research on how exactly this happens. And wanting to put it into language, very precisely, using the actual scientific terms in such a way that it would sing. Because things have to sing. Lyrics have to sound great rhythmically, the syncopation, the vowels and the consonants. And I actually found myself writing this strange song about mosquitos. It doesn’t really go anywhere; that was another issue I had with it. My songs usually are very narrative. They have a certain arc to them, a certain denouement at the end. A narrative arc. This song just rides off into the sunset; it’s not really clear what happens at the end. That was a stretch for me, to allow that to happen, to not tie things up with a bow at the end.

That brings to mind “Atlas Choking” as well because I see a relationship, at least sonically, between the two songs. “Atlas Choking” has a very driving, almost music hall or old Hollywood kind of melody. The lyrics, too, if I can use the word, are busier, and it’s one that seems to be making a much more direct political statement than usual for you.

Yes. Those two songs, “Infared and “Atlas Choking”, I don’t think they were written in close temporal proximity to each other but they do very much share a certain kind of musical mood. Yeah, that one is more political than I’m used to being, but I found myself at one point reading about objectivism and just finding it to be a sort of horrible little ideology. It is incredibly influential, and I was digging around the web reading about it, trying to figure it out, and I ended up with a lot of language, the kind of language you don’t usually put in a song, and that melody and chord progression, to me, it’s slightly more polemical than I’m comfortable being. But I like the song. To me the end of the song, the way that it falls apart, it was a milestone for me to allow that to happen as well.

When I referenced music hall I was thinking specifically of that piano part. It really does amplify the song’s sense of things crashing down.

Bob Telson recorded that in my dining room in Buenos Aires on my upright piano. Everything you hear on that piano part is one take, and it was his first. He is a very, very great musician. He deconstructed the chord progression of the song on his own. He just did that at the end of the song not anticipating that I would be recording it, much less anticipating that I would actually use it. But when we were making the mix and trying to figure how to end it I found that part there and decided in the context of what the song is talking about, which is a kind of unravelling politically, that it made sense for the song to also sort of unravel. So that’s what we did. I had to sort of give myself permission to do that because I’m used to ending songs. This was more like deconstructing a song and having it collapse.

Even you vocal on “Atlas Choking” stands out from the rest of the album. You’re really pushing your voice there.

I sang it with full blown bronchitis. [laughs] All of a sudden I found myself with bronchitis and in need of a vocal track for that song. I just started singing it because I knew that it was called “Atlas Choking” and I felt like I was choking because I was very sick, and I thought I wonder what would happen if I just sang this with bronchitis, and it actually just turned out to be just the right time and effect on my voice. So that combined with the piano deconstruction yielded the end of that song and I’m very happy about that one.

Probably the song that’s stuck deepest in my head is “Deer on the Parkway”, because I hear that as a very American song because we are so automobile based. I hear an anxiety between humanity and the natural world in the song. That line, “will the deer on the parkway let me pass by?”, I think it encapsulates the dangers implicit in our detachment from the natural world and that sense of dread when nature’s randomness and unpredictability is made plain to us.

That’s a good interpretation. I like it. I was thinking of the song more as a kind of metaphor. I was imagining a kind of deer park, you know, in England where the only person who actually had the right to hunt there was the king or some sort of nobleman, and the deer were therefore protected from poachers but not really because there was a price to pay for that protection. They could be shot by one of the king’s hunters or by the king himself [at any time].

So you’re portraying a sort of blind social contract?

Exactly. So I started working in that area with the song, then it sort of moves to the highway, the encounter that you just described of nature and humanity and technology in which there is this sort of dystopian situation with the lines “down through the county, neither heaven nor hell, where if you don’t kill me, friend I won’t kill you.” And the last line about the muttering king is from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning”, which I’ve lifted lines from throughout my entire career. Here and there, you’ll find them. That muttering king, in other words the king in whose deer park the deer were both protected and prey, is gone in my song and now we are all in some kind of Hobbesian state. So there is both me on the highway with all the other drivers and the deer. So there is a sort of ruefulness about the previous state of affairs which might not have been particularly, well certainly wasn’t, utopian, but which did have a certain kind of stability to it.

I think the song expresses a kind of ambivalence about the loss of a certain kind of balance. For example, the nightly news as we used to know it back in the ’70s and ’60s sort of adopted a central position that everyone saw, or the newspapers, the way they used to establish a kind of discourse that pretty much everyone could, to one extent or another, identify with. I think we are talking about a center not holding kind of situation, and that’s kind of what I’m going for in the song. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about that, because the king was probably a bastard. But, at the same time, the antipode, the other side of that, is Leonard Cohen’s line, “Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions.” So those are the two poles in which I’m working in that song.

Is there a sense, because a lot of the political discourses in America right now expresses the kind of “Make America Great Again” rhetoric that creates nostalgia for a vision of a period in America when social structures were clearly defined and stable, but which, of course, overlooks the king’s arrow, that is, those systems of inequality and oppression that were masked from the status quo’s awareness?

Exactly. It’s a nostalgia for something that has never existed. That’s what this is, too, in this song. I wrote this way before Trump appeared so this is not in any way a direct commentary on that. You could just as easily look at it as a sort of nostalgia for God, for authority.

Might we call it the comfort of unexamined authority?

Perhaps. Yeah, but at the same time one does not want to go back to living in a deer park.

Quite true. To turn to a more functioning kind of democracy, another unusual aspect of this album is the number of accompanists and the breadth of instrumentation. By my count there are 17 different musicians performing on the record, and you play at least as many instruments. On top of that, this album seems more centered around the electric guitar than any of your previous records. Can you talk about how this sort of expansiveness shaped the songs in the album?

All of those things you just mentioned — the number of musicians, the instruments I’m playing, and my use of the electric guitar — are all reflections of an attitude or a posture I took in the studio which has to do with reveling in the music itself and the sonic possibilities offered by the instruments I found in the studio, by surrounding myself with really good musicians, and also by returning to the electric guitar in a way I haven’t before. I have played the electric guitar in previous records but it really wasn’t quite as prominent and important to the sonic palate as it was on this one. On those records the acoustic guitar was the primary instrument and if I added an electric it was as ornamentation, but on this record I use the electric frequently as the base track.

All of that reflects a certain sort of pleasure and abandon when it came to making sounds, and hearing sounds, and imagining sounds, and allowing things to happen without really worrying about anything. For example, the issue of “authenticity” as far as the recording representing how I “actually sound.” Some sort of one-to-one correspondence as to how I sound, and what you hear.

The electric guitar has the possibilities for messing with the sounds, for it being further away from guitarness. It can really be anything. It’s liberating, and so is playing with certain kinds of musicians and letting them do whatever they want, and so is grabbing an instrument that I don’t necessarily know how to play and taking a few hours and trying to cobble together something that sounds musical, and works. These are all steps away from a certain kind of purist way of recording. I’ve done that, too, and it can be beautiful. But I wanted to get away from being true to the way the acoustic guitar sounds, for example, and this is going to be anathema to a certain kind of fan, but the studio itself, is an instrument, and I wanted embrace that in a way I hadn’t before.

So that’s why you see so many musicians, and that’s why you see me “playing” some of the instruments, because most of those things, I don’t play them very well, but you don’t have to in a studio. You don’t have to be an expert bass player. If you know what sounds good, you can work on it until you get it right. That’s what we did — we spent a lot of time, and probably too much money — but it was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life, to record this record, because I reveled in all of that sound and it was so much fun. It was just a pleasure, is what it was.

Connected to that sense of difference, let’s talk about the album cover and insert, which features William Wray’s paintings of street performers dressed as superheroes in mundane poses. What drew you to those as the images for this record?

Originally what I had in mind for the cover was a picture of myself, because, you know, that’s what you do, you put a picture of yourself on the cover and you put some text over it. But I kept looking at it just thinking in the context of this record that kind of approach to a cover seems not right, perhaps not ambitious enough. So, the clock was ticking, we had to have a cover ready, so I sent an email to my old manager, my friend Charlie Hunter, who happens to be an artist himself, and a very good graphic designer as well, and I said, “Charlie, listen to this record. What would you do for a cover?” And, three hours later he sent back the cover you are looking at.

It was such a shock to me. I looked at it, and I laughed out loud because I was not expecting anything like that at all. He just sent it to me with one line. He said, “I don’t know why, but something about this record makes me think of this image by my friend William Wray.” And it’s perfect, because not only is it an arresting and beautiful, funny, sad, and fascinating image, but also it is actually apropos because there is on the record a sort of a duality. There are a couple of perspectives: one is the perspective from here below and the other is a more there above kind of perspective. There is a song from God’s point of view, there is one from a satellite looking down on the earth, there is Ayn Rand with Yul Brenner in the ether up there, and then there are all these songs which are quite terrestrial.

[The album] starts off with a cow standing in a field at night, looking up at all creation, at the dome, and wondering what the hell is going on. Then it ends with a human also under a night sky looking up at all the stars and creation, the dome, also wondering what the hell is going on. So, the idea of having these representations of superheroes, these costumed street performers, it kind of works. In a way they are sort of bodhisattvas, and maybe that’s the wrong word for them, but, it just seemed like these characters on the ground are human incarnate: fallible, mortal, paunchy, smoking, exhausted, it kind of works in the context of the duality that I just described. I like the juxtaposition of it, just putting that cover on and letting people wonder what it means.

One final question: You just mentioned, “The Dome”, the lone solo performance on the Careless and also its lone cover. I’ve been trying to locate a version of the original. Where did you find that one?

I don’t think you are going to find it. I don’t think that record was ever distributed. Jeff Wilkensen is a friend of mine; he lives in Beacon, New York, where I spend a lot of time. Greg Anderson, the co-producer of the record, has worked with Jeff a long time, and I was in Greg’s car heading up to the studio, and Greg put on this thing he had done with Jeff and I heard that song and I said, “What is that?” and immediately recorded it. It just seemed like the perfect way to end the record. As I said before, with the first song being from the point of view of a stray cow out in the field, and then the final song being from the view of another creature. To me it’s a song of praise, a song of wonderment. So it just seemed like the perfect thing to end with.

It’s a song that struck me as well upon hearing it, and it’s a song on which you choose to be unaccompanied, featuring the electric guitar.

Yeah, I was actually bowing. I had a violin bow on my electric guitar, and then it was it is very difficult to voice a chord progression so we added one keyboard line that sounds like an accordion or perhaps a concertina, just to voice the chord changes a little bit better. I wanted a nice opened, unadorned setting for that one. It’s a beautiful song.