The Acoustic Storm Interviews
While J.D. Souther may not be the face of rock and roll, he certainly has formed part of its backbone. Though he has found moderate success as a vocalist, songwriting has been his forte, starting in the early 1970s. He has written or co-written songs for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and other major artists. Included on his resume are mega-hits like “Best Of My Love,” “New Kid In Town,” “Heartache Tonight” and “Heart of the Matter.”
Souther moved from the Los Angeles area to a farm in Tennessee in 2001. The Acoustic Storm spoke with him in March of 2009 via telephone from Nashville while he was in the midst of a tour to promote his CD “If The World Was You.” Released in October of 2008, the album was his first vocal effort in 25 years.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What was the inspiration for “Best of My Love?”
J.D. SOUTHER: Glenn found the tune; the tune I think came from a Fred Neil record. I don’t know who wrote the first lines; we wrote it in London. We were working on that album (“On the Border”) and came to London. The three of us were writing it and were on deadline to get it finished. I don’t know where we got the inspiration. I can rarely tell you where I get inspiration. I’ve been making music since I was 9. When I’m writing music it’s something that’s swirling around in my head or happens to live on scraps of paper or a score paper that’s sitting on my piano. Sometimes it’s something new. Sometimes it’s something that triggers an investigative search into something that’s a little bit old. There’s something on this new album that actually started in 1972. That’s a long non-answer. I have no idea where the inspiration for that song came from.
A.S.: You have written songs with Don Henley and Glenn Frey. How does the dynamic change when three songwriters are working together, as opposed to a solo effort?
JDS: Usually all three of us are writing all lyrics and music. “New Kid in Town” is probably a bit different because I had the chorus done for almost a year before I showed it to Glenn and Don. I don’t know that we had the first line, but I think we had the bridge changed. Glenn was a real proponent and great student of Motown Records and the Philadelphia sound – Gamble and Huff records. So Glenn always had the beat. So, that was mine and Don and Glenn and I sat up a lot of nights and banged on the lyrics. They were at Criteria Studios in Florida and they called me up and said there were still a few holes in the lyrics. So I came down and we finished that and “Victim Of Love.” It’s always a joint effort. I can’t speak for them, but as much music as I had in my background, it was mostly jazz and orchestral music. I wasn’t exposed to country music until I was almost grown. I’m a much better song writer today for having written with Glenn and Don, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. That group of people in southern California in the early ‘70s—we were working as hard as we could to become good writers.
A.S.: Where do you get your inspiration for song writing?
JDS: (Writing as a team) speeds things up a lot. When you’re writing with good writers like Jackson or Warren Zevon or Don and Glenn you’re so critical of each other that you don’t let anything pass that doesn’t feel like it’s A+. I like writing in a group. I don’t do it very often, there aren’t many groups I feel comfortable with. But with that bunch of guys, and that song that James Taylor and Waddy Wachtel and I wrote — there have been a few others. It’s pretty rare that we’re bringing out the best in each other. We were all trying very hard to impress each other in a way, like young guys do. And also we had some pretty phenomenal women around like Joni Mitchell. Linda Ronstadt and I were together and she had the best ear for songs I’ve ever heard. She just was absolutely dead-on when she picked a song. She knew what was good and what wasn’t. And (the late) Judy Sill was a great writer who was pretty far ahead of us at the time. I think she was the first act that David Geffen signed to Asylum Records actually. Jackson was incredibly patient. We used to live in houses across the street from one another, and I would hear him banging on the same phrase for hours, just trying different stuff and making sure it really said what he wanted it to say. And it was inspirational because I’m much more of a – not slipshod – but one who kind of opens up and lets things pour through and kind of goes back later and revises. All those people were an inspiration to me, as well as all of the people ahead of us – kind of the graduating class ahead of us.
A.S.: How did “Heart Of The Matter” come about?
JDS: “Heart Of The Matter” began with Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s guitar player. He’s an extraordinary writer, and he was also the writer on “Boys Of Summer,” and a lot of other stuff , as well, for Petty’s band. The first I heard of that song was Mike Campbell’s demo that Don played for me. And it was perfect. Don and I just banged on it for a long time and Don came up with that “forgiveness” thing. It’s not only the hook but the essential theme of the song. But we were looking for something to tie it together. We kept asking each other, “What’s it about, what’s the point of the song, what’s the central theme, what’s the heart of the matter?” And that was it. That song is very much inhabited by Don. I think it’s one of his greatest vocals. He did stuff in the vocal booth that I had never heard before.
A.S.: How did you get involved as a singer as well as the writer of Ronstadt’s ballad “Prisoner In Disguise?”
JDS: It’s hard to say, it took so long to write. It took about a year because it’s really what they call “through composed,” meaning I never went beyond the next part that was written. I had the first verse and two lines of the second verse for about five months. And I just carried it around and played it for people. I think I finished the second verse, and there was a line in it that I didn’t think was done. I played it for Joni Mitchell, and she said, “That’s great!” And I said, “I know but if I could just get something to go in that spot where it says ‘my my.’” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. And she said, “No, that’s a great part.” So I got myself to the bridge, and that sort of worked its way to the next part. I was looking for a particular chord – something unpredictable that would take it some place. I don’t remember if I was thinking about Linda and I singing it together because I don’t remember singing it without her. She was in the studio making a record, and I had cut it with the Souther (Hillman) Furay Band. I think we missed it and hadn’t got the essence of it. It wasn’t a great band song. Linda and I just sat across from each other in the studio and sang it live. It just worked great – it was just as easy as breathing.
A.S.: Have any of your songs contained autobiographical material?
JDS: Well, Faulkner said all fiction is autobiographical. But I wouldn’t tell you what. I don’t talk about my personal life anyway. There’s a very thin line between my life and fiction, but I’m not going to be one to say where it is.
A.S.: What has the success of the Eagles’ recording of your 1972 song “How Long” done to spark a rebirth of your career?
JDS: Absolutely nothing. My record was done eight months before I knew they had cut it.
A.S.: Is there anything that ties together the songs on “If The World Was You?”
JDS: The simplest answer is the material was there. There was a lot of stuff that sounded like it went together. And I had been sort of lonesome for some horns and piano, which I hadn’t utilized very much on records. I wanted to make a quintet or sextet record that was intimate enough and also that was sonically human enough that it would have that effect that those late ‘50s and early ‘60s Miles Davis records had. They’re quiet enough in the middle sonically that when someone speaks or when there’s a horn, oboe or my voice – there’s room for that musical moment to happen. And there’s enough support for it that everyone’s playing with conviction. There are some really skilled players in this band, so it works as an ensemble. It’s a powerful team. It came together because I was lonesome for that kind of music. I was going out to clubs and listening to jazz trios and quartets and sort of accumulating this little team of exceptional players because I hadn’t really played in these combinations since I was in high school. I just wanted to hear that kind of music, and I wanted to be a good band leader. We did exactly what I intended to do.
A.S.: Was the album designed to be an all-acoustic production?
JDS: Oh, I have no idea. If it is, it was mostly subconscious. There are a couple of songs on there that are pure flights of romantic fantasy. I like every song to have humanity. It’s a point in my life when I wanted to make what to me was a soul album. In all the tracks everybody’s telling the truth. I’m just trying to make it sound good. I don’t have any thoughts about carving out new territory. It’s an unusual sounding record for a songwriter, but I really just wanted to make it sound good.
A.S.: What is working for you in Nashville that wasn’t working in Los Angeles?
JDS: Everything worked fine for me in southern California, there just got to be too many cars. There was too much time spent in the car. I still have a place in California, but I want to live somewhere else for a while. Although, that said, the fact is I really like Nashville. It’s a very friendly town and it’s very easy to live in. There’s lot of musicians here, and we’ve got a gorgeous place in the country. I miss that ocean – I miss the West Coast.
A.S.: What’s on tap after this tour is over?
JDS: Another tour. We’ve got an album to sell. It’s a big world, we’ve got to get around it. I’ve already done most of America and Japan. We’ve still got to go around half of America again. We’ve gotta go to U.K. and Ireland and do some dates in northern Europe, then come back and do the West again, go back to Europe and tour some more. And that’s without having gone around the East Coast twice, Australia and New Zealand or southern Europe. We’ve got a lot left to do, plus there’s the show we did at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville with the whole band, all six of us. It was just a great show. We shot it in HD to be made for DVD. So I have to take a month off to do that at some point. It’s going to be a busy year.
A.S.: Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
JDS: It’s very hard for me to choose. It would probably have to be “House Of Pride.” It’s got a little Aaron Copeland and Dave Brubeck, a little “Turkey In The Straw.” It’s got a little of everything in it, and it’s kind of an apocalyptic story. But, actually, the one I like listening to the best is “The Secret Handshake Of Fate,” which is the last song. It’s where the album leads to. But it’s very long –12 minutes or something. Of the songs that are normal length I think I like “Journey Down The Nile” best.
A.S.: Of all the songs you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
JDS: It also would be hard to pick. You mentioned “Prisoner In Disguise” – of all the songs I’ve written, I thought that musically was the most complete. It had more in it, I thought, than a lot. It’s a big, long looping circle that doesn’t feel like a circle until it gets back to where it started. But, that said, I usually say my favorite is “Simple Man, Simple Dreams.”
A.S.: If you hadn’t been successful as a songwriter or gotten burned out on it, what might you have tried?
JDS: I’ll never get burned out on songwriting. It never occurred to me to be burned out on it. I never stopped doing it. I stopped making records for a while because I didn’t hear what I thought was a really interesting full studio record of new things. I had done enough guitar band records to last a while, even though I had the best of guitar guys like Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar, Lowell George played on one, (Joe) Walsh played on one. I took some time off because I wanted to. I make an album every 20 years or so whether I need to or not.
A.S.: You have had acting roles in movies and TV shows. Could that been a viable career alternative?
JDS: The acting stuff came because someone asked me. I acted when I was a kid. I was an actor when I was in high school and college. I never thought of it much in L.A., although anybody who likes movies fantasizes about being in them. But great people asked me to be in their movies.
Steven Spielberg asked me to be in a movie, Ed Zwick asked me to do this arc of episodes on “thirtysomething” and Mike Nichols asked me to be in “Postcards From The Edge.” There’s absolutely no reason to say no to people of that quality when they ask you to be in their films. I had an agent, but I don’t know that I really read for any of those roles. I may have read for the one in “thirtysomething,” although I think Ed just wanted me to do it. I think I read a page or two. I left and then my agent called and she asked me how I did. I said, “I sucked, it was terrible.” She said, “That’s funny, because just you got the part.” So much for self-evaluation.
A.S.: Since you had a songwriting relationship with Frey and Henley early in your career, did you ever have a chance to join the Eagles?
JDS: Yeah, I had a moment. I think I was in the band for one day. David Geffen thought it that would be “four songwriters, good; five songwriters better.” So we put together a set and played it at the Troubadour in the afternoon for the management team. I just remember them looking down the front line and seeing four of us bashing away at stringed instruments. And, to be frank, they didn’t need me. They were a perfectly well-rounded, self-contained band. I figured we were going to keep writing together anyway, so I think we all got the best of that situation, the best possible outcome. Frankly, when I said, “No, I don’t think I really want to be in the band,” I’ve never seen four guys more relieved. I think they were more delighted than I was.