One of the most fascinating things about interviewing Ray Davies is how interested the legendary British songwriter and former frontman of The Kinks is in you.
He’ll ask where you are calling from, what it’s like where you live, how your day has been and, if he’s spoken to you before, what you’ve been up to since you last spoke. While it certainly may be a clever way for Davies to set some boundaries, it always seems sincere, and also gives him some time to warm up. That’s because Davies comes across as almost painfully shy – “I’m much more comfortable being an observer,” he explains – and, unlike so many of his contemporaries, who seem to bang out interview after interview with almost conveyor belt-like precision, Davies always seems keen to help you get the story you’re trying to get, not to mention the story he’s trying to tell.
It also helps that the occasion for our interview is to discuss Davies’ new album Americana. It’s his first in nearly a decade, and features Minnesota’s Jayhawks as his backing band. While the pairing might seem unusual, it’s actually a fantastic combination that helps Davies’ tales of his love/hate relationship with America soar. “You can’t make records unless you have the right players,” Davies explains. “And the Jayhawks were perfect for this.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Americana has had a long gestation. Your book came out in 2013, and it seems as though every time we’ve spoken over the past few years you’ve been working on it in, one way or another.
You said then that you either like to work very quickly or otherwise take a long time to let things gestate a bit, but that both ways seem to work out for you.
How did the time it took for you to make Americana help the project in your estimation?
Ray Davies: Well, when I finally came to record I wanted to find a band rather than using session musicians. I talked with my record company and they suggested the Jayhawks. They’re a touring band rather than session guys. Session guys have to play perfect. I wanted a band that had interactions and made happy mistakes.
The Jayhawks are great musicians, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I wanted a band that has a unique dynamic and would bring that to the music.
Relative to your most recent solo albums, Other People’s Lives or Working Man’s Café, this album has a very different sound and feel. It surprised me at first, but it’s grown on me because it does have that organic, breathing, push and pull of people who have an intimate knowledge of each other’s playing.
Ray Davies: That’s because I came from The Kinks, with a very intimate knowledge of pushing and pulling at each other. Sometime The Kinks was a bit too intimate, so I went for a band that had that feel to it, with happy errors and without the obsession to say, “Stop, I want to play it again to get it right.” That’s where the poetry comes out in the playing. But you’re right, it suited the material: the landscape the band creates with their playing, the pedals, the effects; it was definitely what I wanted to achieve in the studio.
It’s funny how there’s this dichotomy of their American flavor, and the America-themed songs, with your very English sensibility. But it seems as though they almost took on some of your language in their music, because there’s an English flavor in it.
Ray Davies: Well, to their credit, they did adapt to what I was trying to achieve, especially on some of the vocals. Look, I don’t want to speak to soon, but the second album is sensational. This record is great, but it’s a work in progress, like so many things I’ve done over the years. Originally, when I included bits of lyrics in my book, they weren’t finished songs. They were there to help the storytelling process. Coming from working on The Kinks musical, I then spent a lot of time on developing the storytelling and fixing the narratives. I tend to approach my songs that way to stay focused, anyway. But let’s just say the ending isn’t shot yet.
I remember you saying last time we talked that you were considering making it two volumes. What’s different about this volume, thematically, to the second part, from a storytelling standpoint?
Ray Davies: The first is an assembly of tracks and the second one is filling the emotional gaps. The storytelling in the first record works very well; it’s about embarrassment at the end. But the deluxe version will have the complete story. I’ve cut this (album) several times, but thankfully the large share of work is over now.
Well, Americana, the first volume, I guess, is virtually a double album. You know, on vinyl it’s a double album. So how much more material are we talking about?
Ray Davies: In total it should be about 30 odd songs. I don’t call them songs anymore, though, I call them events.
Well, let’s stick with the first record, because we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s certainly an enormous amount of storytelling in this album, and it certainly does fill in many of the gaps – the emotional gaps, I suppose – in your book. When we last talked it sounded as though a lot of the songs were still works in progress or ideas. How much of the album came together in the last year or so?
Ray Davies: They weren’t finished songs. They got finished as part of the storytelling process, because along the way I changed the lyrics here and there, to make the arc better. It’s an almost cinematic approach. Someone heard the album recently and told me, “I just enjoyed watching your record.”
Well, that has to be very flattering, I would imagine. But it’s an interesting comment because it does have a very cinematic quality to it. You’re writing does anyway. but love of American movies as a child and American storytelling is probably more obvious here. Talk a little bit about how that permeates your songwriting.
Ray Davies: The quest, the yearning for something better that’s at the heart of America has always fascinated me, even as a little kid watching cowboy movies. The reality is that people must find a decent place in the world and in many ways this record is about how you have to settle. It’s about a loss of identity as well. I can’t write a song about that, but the lyrics can express that to give you the information so you can create your own story, almost. I’m making an audio movie, with mistakes and all and meanwhile throwing in a lot of clues for the listener here and there.
When you first described it to me, I thought it would be more directly autobiographical. They’re certainly autobiographical things that connect to the book, but really it’s fifty years – a lifetime’s worth – of observations of America.
Ray Davies: You know, as a child I was fascinated by America. I became disillusioned later, after The Kinks were banned from touring, but later I was able to live in America, and I found myself doing normal things: Shopping in little stores and stopping on the street to talk to people. You find out more about the culture that way than just watching movies or whatever.
Because America is a funny place, you think you know it and then you find something out and it’s a whole new place again.
You’ve said to me before that you live this almost anonymous life. Do you think that you do that consciously, as a writer? Have you ever wondered if that’s how you really prefer to live, or that you choose to live that way because it helps you as a writer to be an observer? Or perhaps it’s a little of both?
Ray Davies: It helps me write to be anonymous, because I always find something to write about by watching other people. In New York, for instance, there’s always something going on any time you just stop in a coffee shop. You want to find out about people’s lives and it’s remarkably easy to do that in America, whereas in London, I’ve lived there most of my life and everybody knows who I am, so it’s much harder.
I was listening to Working Man’s Cafe the other day and I was thinking that that album and Paul Weller’s Wake Up The Nation – from around that same time – were bemoaning the loss of the small town working man, and working men’s clubs, and the people on the corner selling fruit and knock-off jeans or whatever, and the connection that created. Now we’re in the midst of Brexit and Trump, the dark side of that longing and that yearning. Your take was based more on a longing or nostalgia for the things we’ve lost, rather than anger, but it seems as though the value we all see in that era and those jobs and things that have been lost have been turned on its head by the politicians?
Ray Davies: I hate to ruin the illusion but, Working Man’s Cafe could have taken place in a shopping mall. There’s a song on Americana called “Poetry” that alludes to that, though.
A man meets his girlfriend and gets himself headed to another life, but gets lost in a shopping mall. It talks about the poetry of somebody who is constantly in conflict with our culture. The street where I grew up had four stores where you could buy everything you needed. Now you have to have a car to go anywhere and to get what you need. And, of course, what we think we need has changed, too. I’m not bemoaning it. What I’m doing is Writing about the lost community.
Because especially with all the online shopping, it’s de-personalized. The depersonalization of people in shopping online has had a huge effect on us, I think. My elder sister emigrated to Canada in the 1960s and she used to write home letters about the joys of shopping at the supermarket. That was an immense change to what I knew, and this is again an immense change. So I think down the line it will affect us in ways we really can’t predict. The politicians are just preying on that at the moment.
You talked a little bit about how you had everything you needed in that one area where you grew up: Butcher, baker, so forth. None of those things are what people today think of as shopping. Shopping has become conspicuous consumption: Jeans and televisions and iPhones. They’re not thinking about going to the butcher or going to the bakery to get their bread, they’re thinking about going to the mall for things they don’t really need.
Ray Davies: Yeah, growing up now, knowing nothing else, people enjoy the event of getting in the car and going to the shopping mall. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that people live like that, but they know nothing else. I’m just saying I think those little shops I grew up with were a community. When you get in the car and drive somewhere, you lose that. It’s certainly happening in London. Community isn’t so much falling apart as there’s social disrepair in the respect that community is not forming. But you know, I grew up in different times. People who know nothing else enjoy it. But I think there’s something missing in the interaction with a community. But that’s just my vision.
Of course, New York City, where you are, is slightly different than the rest of America. When I lived in New York there used to be these two little shops. But then the rents went up and those shops closed down. On the west side in particular, when I first stayed there, my next door neighbor was a window cleaner. Now the whole building, I think, is bankers. The whole demographic has changed and we don’t have the little independent stores. In England we have a new property tax coming in and local traders will be put out of business because tax charges on the shops will be so high. We are one of the most expensive countries in the world now and so we’ve lost a lot by local trade going out of business. It’s a big issue.
Well, it is here as well. We’re getting a Target on our corner. That’s replacing probably two dozen shops that have gone out of business because the rents kept going up and up. That entire block has been razed now and there’s a giant building, but no one can afford to live in the apartments except, like you said, bankers and lawyers and accountants.
Ray Davies: There will be foreign investors. The tax money of people buying an apartment in Manhattan who don’t actually live there. They buy to rent and it’s the same here. It’s changing society and the cost of living in America is changing because of it.
Let’s get back to Americana. I have to say, it’s one of the best sounding records I’ve heard in the last couple of years. It’s got a scope and breadth sonically that is missing in many records today. Tell me a little bit about recording in the studio you built with The Kinks, Konk. Do you record digitally, or is it tape, because it does have a very analog feel to it?
Ray Davies: Some of the vocals were done to analog, but most of the tracking was done digitally. You know, Konk’s unique. It’s upbeat. It’s got a great old desk. It’s brilliant and very analog sounding. We spent a lot of time on the record, too. Guy (Massey) and John (Jackson) worked on production with me and we spent a lot of time accessing echoes and lots of things more subtle than most people really notice.
There have to be some old spirits there that you carry with you when you’re making new records. What does Konk mean for you as a creative space? Because obviously there’s a lot of history there for you.
Ray Davies: Well, you know, Konk started out when The Kinks weren’t doing very well with records or doing record deals and we were giving up, because at that time we couldn’t even tour in America. So we invested in an old factory building that was languishing, and bought tape recorders and mixing desks, so we could make records cheaply and spend more time at it. It’s one of the relaxing things I’ve always had that I can make a whole album with virtually no budget.
Let me ask you about your writing process a little bit. Since you have Konk at your disposal, do you make demos at home as well, or do you leave it to your work space – to Konk – or do you do a bit of both, since it’s so easy to make demos at home these days?
Ray Davies: There’s joy and the despair in having a home system. I’ve long been prepping work at home. I have the same system at home as I have at Konk for recording, so a lot of the work gets done there, too. It actually helps gain perspective over songs, I think, because I do a lot of prepping at home and stepping out of the control of the studio gives me a certain amount of flexibility. Of course, it can be a burden sometimes, too, because you never stop working.
But that’s an interesting question in regards to Americana. A lot of time, when I’m making my music, I’ll cut things at home or to a click track and bring them in and have the band play to them.
Did you have the Jayhawks do that? Did they play to any of the demos or did you cut the songs totally live? Or a little of both?
Ray Davies: A bit of both, but mainly they played to the demos. Sometime my vocals were live, but I’m the kind of person who likes to have the vocals down. Like on the track “Americana,” that was a bit of mix and match. We played to the vocal I had done at home already. Also, sometimes there are tempo changes, so you often have to reassess these things. You get home and play them and it’s awful. But whenever I can do pre-production.
Your vocals are some of the best vocals I’ve heard you do in a long time. Your voice has really withstood the test of time and is almost better in some respects and certainly suits the material. Do you ever find yourself writing specifically for your range, in key and structure? Or do you just find that it there and it’s always been there? Or do you even think about it?
Ray Davies: That’s a very interesting, because I’m just doing musical projects. I think the secret is to sing to your range. Often times I’ll work with other characters, though. I’ve been working on The Kinks’ musical for a couple of years, and we’ve had to change a lot of the keys for the person singing it. For better voices, actually, because they have trained voices. But they have to do it every night. But I tend to write for the range I can sing. Of course making those records years ago I used to write the song and not think about the range. But for the most part I’m pleased with the vocals on this album.
So when you’re in the studio, and you’re working with a live band – a touring band rather than studio musicians, as you have on the last couple of records – did the material develop or reveal itself to you in ways that you hadn’t expected? And did the Jayhawks bring something to the project that you didn’t expect?
Ray Davies: Oh, yes. I’ll tell you something: We tried a session about ten years ago. They came in off a tour to try cutting some tracks. I had a song from the Americana book called “A Place In Your Heart.” I’d heard Karen singing and I thought she would be perfect, because she sings like a Midwesterner. She’s got this wonderful, wonderful voice. I assessed Karen’s capability and cast that song for Karen to sing in a duet with me, and in the studio it ended up that way. So, there was quite a lot of that. I tend to do that: Work with people who inspire me. “With that voice we could do something incredible.”
Well, it seems the Jayhawks gave you a new palette to work with. When I heard “Poetry,” there’s a Byrds-y 12-string guitar featured very prominently. You know, that’s not a sound I necessarily associate with Ray Davies of The Kinks, and yet there it was big and bold.
Ray Davies: You obviously haven’t heard “See My Friends.”
No, no, no. Of course! But you were also going for more of a Sitar-y sound than that 12-string, jingle jangle sound there.
Ray Davies: Yeah, I see what you mean. With the track “Poetry” it was interesting, because there’s lots of sounds with a 12-string. There we combined it with a six string and it’s quite beautiful. You can take the lyrics out and it’s a beautiful track with just the guitar.
So did you feel having them at your disposal stretched your sonic palette? Because there a lot of sounds on the album that are uniquely American.
Ray Davies: What I liked about them was that they played the song. They’re loyal to the song, and that’s what I was after. But there was not stylistic influence. And I think what they enjoyed was not being in their comfort zone; being stretched. They were stretched and in return that stretched me.
Well there’s certainly many hints of The Kinks in the playing and the sonics. But it’s also more far afield stylistically than your previous proper solo albums, which had a more obvious Kinks-y vibe, I guess. Here there’s Muswell Hillbillies feel, certainly because of the type of songs and the type of playing. But it’s a new, fresh approach for you artistically, too. Did you know you were trying to get away from what you’d done before?
Because even though you’re writing about The Kinks, and what you experienced as a member of that band, you’re reflecting on it and you’re reflecting on a time and a place in America in many of the songs. So were you trying to get away from that sound, your comfort zone, I guess, or was that not conscious at all?
Ray Davies: I think a lot of it had to do with the way I cast the songs. I would sit down with John and discuss how I wanted the song to sound and feel. There’s a song called “Rock and Roll Cowboys” and I recall the casting was really important on that.
It’s interesting, though, because it has no less impact but it’s a softer, more American feel. It’s not that (guitarist) Bill Shanley, on your previous records, was imitating Dave, but Bill’s playing has a crunchy, more in your face, feel. The guitars here seem to act more as a bed for your voice. So Americana has a different sound to it as an album, overall, as much as the tracks do individually. It sounds as though that was something you were doing purposefully, besides casting people, in the mix and the final approach to the project overall.
Ray Davies: Yeah, whenever there’s a guitar, people think slamming. This way you get more perspective. There’s more perspective on this record than in my last attempts. Perspective to focus on making the songs work. I had to find out the psychology of the Jayhawks, though. It was very important, because I know they’re a band, but I needed to find out what the components are of these personalities. That’s the joy of playing with a band: It’s one sound but components of five people. I find that fascinating.
Well, so that begs the question: Since you are now working with a band, will we see you playing live here in America anytime soon?
Ray Davies: I hope so. I’ve got this project – the second part of Americana – to finish. But I’m hoping to. I miss you all over there.