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Jackson Browne, ‘Standing in the Breach’ – The Interview
Standing in the Breach, the new Jackson Browne album out October 7th on Inside Recordings, is full of the sort of ruminations on love and loss and the state of the world that fans of his remarkable early 70s work will find familiar, with songs of longing about the space between us ultimately giving way to reflections on peace and hope.
Jackson Browne has released three excellent live acoustic-based albums since 2005, but Standing In The Breach is his first studio album since 2008’s Time the Conqueror. It opens with “The Birds of St. Marks,” a song he wrote in 1967 but never captured on tape the way he originally intended.
“I wrote it when I was playing guitar for Nico in New York in the Sixties,” Browne told me recently. “She loved the Byrds, and so did I, and she would often say, ‘Play something like McGuinn.’ So that definitely inspired the writing. But I always imagined it this way, the way it is on the new album.”
Longtime collaborator Greg Leisz plays a McGuinn-like 12-string guitar part on The Birds of St. Marks, a rollicking kick-off for Standing In The Breach.
“If I could be anywhere right now, I would want to be here,” Jackson Browne says to me as we discuss the making of the album over a couple of lengthy, energized chats.
He’s imparting a sentiment that runs through the album, but it’s also a key line in the excellent song If I Could Be Anywhere.
“I started writing that song in the Galapagos on a trip,” he confides. “I went there with a bunch of oceanographers. It took me a while to finish the song, but it started being about ocean pollution. I put as much into the writing of the songs as I did as I ever have with anything else, but not in the context of record-making. It was more in the context of living and trying to find an approach to certain topics that I figured were important to me and, I think, important to life.”
“It’s not easy to write a song about plastic pollution. Who wants to hear that? Nobody!”
“Then again, if you go surfing, and I do occasionally, you get in the water and there’s all this plastic shit floating by you, and you realize that the ocean is filling up with plastic. Finding a way into a subject like that for me was a really worthwhile but involved kind of task.”
As we talk it’s clear that the political heart that Browne wore so proudly in the late-70s and 80s beats as strongly as ever. While it may have turned off some fans at the time, Browne seems not to have mellowed but instead developed an empathy in his writing that allows him to speak his truth without turning off listeners who might disagree with his politics.
“There are some things I don’t want to do,” he says flatly of his approach to songwriting. “I don’t want to preach to or harangue people. I want to catch their interest. The song Standing in the Breach is me really writing about an earthquake, and then right away it turns into a song about poverty and endemic inequity. But I’m not really trying to write a rock essay with these things. I want to write a good song.”
“So I wanted to make reference to the earthquake in Haiti, a country that started out as a colony that threw off the yoke of slavery. They became a country by accepting a debt, and they still owe that debt. What’s really going on in that country is the perpetuation of the inequities that gave rise to slavery in the first place. The song tries to refer to that in a way that I hope leads the listener to take that into consideration, because the more we wake up, the more we’re still in a dream.”
“I want to write songs that are thoughtful and consider the problems that we face. I’m not trying to have a song offer the solutions.”
“The solutions lie in our individual choices, the way we live our lives, and what we decide to do in the world. But I think that corresponds to each person’s own understanding. I’m not trying to just write another broadside or polemic. I’m just trying to refer to these things that everybody’s going through, and to refer to them in a way that show that at the heart of it is the idea that I’m glad to be alive now when these problems need to be solved. I’m glad to be here now when I’m needed and when we’re all needed. I’m glad to be engaged with these problems and not living through some escapist idea of wishing I lived a thousand years ago or at some point in the future.”
“So yeah, if I could be anywhere I’d want to be right here.”
Jackson Browne wrote the song “Leaving Winslow,” he says, as a nod to the Arizona town mentioned in Take It Easy, the Eagles hit he wrote with Glenn Frey. And in “Which Side Are You On?“ – a song he debuted at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2012 – he calls out the “personal allegiances to the forces at play in our society.”
“The Long Way Around” continues that political vein of songwriting, Browne tackling an English version of a beloved Cuban song.
“‘Walls and Doors‘ was written by a Cuban friend of mine named Carlos Varela,” Browne tells me. “It’s a very well-known song in Cuba. He’s very well known there for speaking to the Cuban experience. People love and admire his ability to tell the truth about how they really feel. He’s very popular among the youth, even though he’s not a kid anymore. He’s always been a critic of the Cuban situation, and at the same time, he’s not a dissident.”
“That’s a song that I love because I met him in Cuba, and we became good friends, and there’s a whole political context that song takes place in. I wrote the English version and I think it speaks very strongly to people in the United States. There can be freedom only when nobody owns it, but we do act like we own it. We do act like we’ve got to dispense our freedom, like it’s a product that we manufacture and we’re going to make it available to the people of Afghanistan.”
“The reality is a little bit tougher, and a little bit harder to take. The problem lies in our proprietary attitude toward it, like it’s something that we invented.”
“But we didn’t invent it, and we often don’t even practice it. So there’s a lot of political context behind some of these songs. I don’t really know any way of making the songs contain all of that political information, but maybe they will move people to find out more about what I’m writing about, or even to spend some more time thinking about it. Ultimately that would be great, but I’m not trying to write a polemic.”
Browne also completed a lyric by Woody Guthrie, given to him by the late folk legend’s daughter Nora. It was easier, Browne confides, because he’s constantly changing lyrics, writing and re-writing until the 11th hour.
“I’m always arguing with myself about certain things in each song,” he says about his peerless lyric abilities. “I’ll change things around or try other things. I do that during recording a lot of the time. Sometimes on the record there are older versions of the lyrics that are just slightly different than what I might do live as the song develops. I’ve realized that a lot of the time when a song first gets recorded, it’s almost like the last installment in writing the song.”
“Then you go out on the road and there’s something that happens, beyond that. So even though I’ve recorded the song that doesn’t mean that’s the only way of playing it. On this record, the songs got written and they evolved as they got tracked, because it was also about getting the recordings to reflect the meaning. A lot of that meaning is really in the way the songs are played. The Woody Guthrie song, for instance. There’s a lot of political stuff in there that’s really beneath the surface and I don’t know how to bring it out, but we do in the performance, I think.”
It’s no wonder that Jackson Browne is able to capture such intimacy and depth in his recordings. He was one of the first artists to insist on producing his own material, and on his debut album. How did he know that was so important?
“I wasn’t conscious of that when I started making records,” Browne confesses. “I guess the first sessions I ever attended were sessions where they were recording my songs. At the very first one, they were trying to cut three songs in three hours. I could see that these guys were an incredible team.”
“Don Randi was a piano player on this gig. At one point I was trying to tell the drummer to adjust something that he was playing. Don Randi said, ‘Come over here, kid. Come sit down next to me.’ There was a way that people in the studios did these arrangements. I realized that any one guy could make the thing really come alive. The next sessions I went to, Jim Keltner was the drummer. So Keltner was playing on one of my songs that Jerry Rivers was recording, and he was like, ‘You wrote this song? No kidding? It’s cool!’ So he was very friendly.”
“But Jim’s always been that way. Not just to me. I’ve seen him do it with lots of other people. He’s a special player. He’s sort of like Yoda in the studio. The first session I did with Jim Keltner on one of my songs was These Days. He had taught drums in the same music store that David Lindley taught banjo in Pasadena. They were old friends. David Lindley had not only played on that second album, we’d already been on the road for a year together. I decided not to bring a band out on that tour, because everybody I tried was not really up to the level of David.”
“So we just went out, the two of us. When it came time to make a record, we knew we had to add something complementary to what we were already doing. That’s my way into songs and producing, knowing that, under certain conditions, things can happen when you get the right people together. When he played, he played lap steel on These Days. The original track sounds like an organ. He’s just playing these pads on lap steel. For the solo, we first mic’ed the neck of the lap steel and put him in an iso booth away from the amp. I thought I’d be getting more of the acoustic sound. It was a National lap steel, so there wasn’t much going on, but you ended up hearing a lot of extra stuff.”
“He only did one pass, but it was incredibly solid and at the end it was a very kind of triumphant moment. Then I knew what I wanted, but very often you don’t know what you want. But really my becoming a producer had more to do with me not wanting to produce. I wanted to find it myself, because I’d been around sessions where there was somebody just trying to influence things. I kept telling my manager that I was afraid of guys coming in to supplant my ideas and emotional truths with ones of their own. I didn’t want to be a passenger!”
“So that’s how that happened.”
‘The songwriter was sort of ascendant in those days,” Browne continues. “Maybe it’s been that way for a long time, but at the time it was a new deal. It was a new sort of way of going about things. A lot of people were singing, but if they’d written the song they had the mandate to sing the song. That carried over to how you wanted to treat it, how you wanted it done. But as a producer I also like stuff to just happen. I have definite preferences, but I also want things to just happen. And I’ll rule out certain things. I have a keyboardist who’s a really great pianist, but I might not want that on the record.”
“I sometimes prefer the simplicity of the way I play something maybe, even though the guy is the most soaring and beautiful organ player. And sometimes I don’t know until I hear it.”
“I may sound like a control freak, but I just want a certain emotional truth to be brought to bear.”
“I’m not so much of a control freak that I need to dictate what other people do, but I need something from them that is a genuine performance. Only certain players will be able to bring this about. Danny Kortchmar and I have become really good friends. At the very beginning, I had him playing on a song, like he did a single version, and he was playing a bunch of licks and stuff. I just wasn’t ready to hear that kind of playing. I like that on all kinds of songs, but I didn’t hear it there. I knew I didn’t want somebody else to make those choices for me. I knew that the key to getting to do this was a manager and record company that let me take my time.”
“I listened to my second record when one guy mixed it, and it didn’t sound quite right, so I had to go back. ‘If you don’t know, nobody knows.’ That was the basic axiom. David Geffen was great. He’d let me turn down some of the most famous producers that he wanted me to work with and simply go after it myself. It took me a long time to learn certain things, but at least I learned it in my time.”
As for his ahead-of-its time idea to record a clutch of new songs on the road, Jackson Browne credits it to the times and his backing band as much as anything else.
“My idea with Running On Empty was to simply try to capture the road experience,” Browne recalls. “That’s what some of the songs were about, being on the road. There were so many great takes you’d hear on the road and think, ‘Holy cow, why didn’t they put that on the record?’ So I thought that I could do it because I could record everything on cassettes. I thought I’d make the whole thing and master the cassette. I’m not the only one who’d ever thought of doing it that way. Bruce and Little Stevie Van Zandt did it around that time for the Gary Bonds record.”
“They wanted to master the cassette. They figured out that they had the sound they wanted on the record right there. The cassettes had a kind of compression on them. My idea was really simple: Just record everything. I’d even record conversations and hilarious things that people said to each other. I’d have people walking around with cassette machines. Various players would put a stop to it and tell us to stop chasing them around. They wanted whatever happened on the road to stay on the road. The other thing that we were going to do was that I was going to do a bunch of songs that had already been recorded along with it that I thought needed to be redeemed and played a bit better. I thought we could just sort of update the songs.”
“Right away, we listened back to some of them and realized that we should just do the new songs. They were fantastic. We didn’t even bother with the older ones. We just zoomed in on the new ones. To do a bunch of new songs on a live album hadn’t been done before, really. Most live albums were a celebration of an artist’s popularity, kind of like a best-of collection. But these were also a bunch of great players. I began to feel extremely fortunate when I started putting together a best-of a few years back and looked at the credits.”
“It was like a pantheon of the best players. So I got to meet and know them and I realized that they all have their singular gifts. It was like being in a candy store, too. ‘Who should we get to play on this? Ooh, let’s get this guy.’
“My early records were made that way. I had the good fortune of getting to make my first record with Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar, and then I later got them to be my band for Running on Empty. I’d been calling them for sessions for individual songs. There were just a bunch of players around, and I wanted to try them all.”
Standing In The Breach was recorded at Jackson Browne’s infamous Groove Masters recording studio, affording him the luxury of time and a familiar environment to develop and hone the songs.
“It’s kind of like a project room,” he says of the studio, which has also been used by Jonathan Wilson, Dawes and Crosby, Stills and Nash. “You can get in there if you only had one day’s work, but it helps if you know what needs to get done. It’s not a mill, where people are in for three hours and then out. There’s not an hourly rate, and not even really a daily rate. So it’s private. Some people really need a private place to work, where they’re not going to run into a random assortment of other bands or people. Although, I hear about people running into each other at Oceanway and think, ‘Shit, that’s not happening enough.’
“For me, I get to see people coming in and out. But I don’t hang around in sessions, because I don’t want them to think that if they book a session at my studio I’m going to be hanging around and looking at them, or watching what they do. I make myself scarce unless I’m invited, like everybody else, but I do get to see how they work.”
“So we’ve got several 24-track machines. We’ve got Pro Tools, all the new digital stuff as well as all the coolest old stuff. I started buying stuff right away in the early days, because I wanted to be able get what I was hearing in the studio on the road. I bought an LA-2A. I bought a couple of those and took them out. Then I started buying mics when they would come up. We tried to apply everything we were doing in the studio in the ’70s and ’80s to the road.”
“We wanted to make the road sound like that. Working with Greg Ladanyi on Running on Empty was the first time that I had a recording engineer in the front of house. I’ve done that for a long time now over the years where the front of house mixer is also my recording engineer.”
The album wraps up with “Here.” Like “Yeah Yeah” earlier on the album, it’s the sort of intimate song with an instantly engaging melody and universally identifiable lyrics that is Browne’s trademark.
“It’s about accepting a world that has changed in a fundamental way that you almost cannot accept,” Jackson Browne says. “In the end, it’s about finding your way of being in the world.”
Starting off with The Birds of St. Marks, venturing through songs of a deeply personal and political nature along the way, Standing In The Breach ends on a hopeful, if plaintive and almost private note.
“It’s a good place to finish up,” Browne tells me as we wrap up. “Deep inside. Internal.”
September 10, 2020