MUSIC WRITER IN JAPAN
5th Sept 2013
A Good Road To Follow
Q: You’ve done with A Good Road To Follow what I’ve been advising bands to do for the last two years: release digital singles periodically rather than an album. Where did you come up with the idea to release a batch of songs that way?
JO: (laughs) I don’t know. I would like to say it was a divine inspiration but I was actually in the studio with Taylor Chapman who is Taylor Swift’s ex-producer who is a very good friend of mine and he and I did one of the songs together. We were talking about things and he mentioned that a young indie artist that he had worked with was thinking about doing something like that and I said ‘well that’s a good idea, maybe I should do something like that.’ So I knew that at the time I wasn’t ready to put out an album and I thought that if I do singles, then I can explore all the different styles of music that I like. I can reach out to people and ask for a commitment that wasn’t too long. It’s hard to get people who are busy, well known and have their own careers to commit to a big album project but I thought if I asked for a day or two in a very co-operative kind of style, writing a song together, recording it together and sharing the song on the business side as well, I thought that would appeal to people and as it turned out, it did. So that’s really where the project began and now I’m on my fourth single in the US and it’s funny that it’s having an interesting reaction. I’m getting very good reaction from the younger section of the audience and not a negative but a disappointed reaction from the older audience. They are saying ’We love these songs but we want the whole album.’ So now that I’ve been doing it for four months, I’m going to continue through December and then in February I’m putting out an album: a compilation of these songs plus more. I think in the end, now that I’ve done it, it seems to me that the end result is that it’s a six month pre-promotion for the album which is not so bad either so either way it works. I’m very lucky as I have an independent record label in America – my own label – and I’m distributed through Warner Elektra in Nashville and John Esposito who is the president is very music orientated and a great guy – very open minded and when I went to him with the idea he said ‘It can’t hurt to try so let’s try it and see what happens.’
Q: They hang together as an album as well as standing on their own; did you approach the writing process differently in any way because you effectively wrote twelve singles rather than two singles and ten album tracks.
JO: The fact that you said it hangs together as an album as well, I’m happy about that because of course it wasn’t intended that way. I have twenty songs and I chose twelve for this particular project so there was some thought behind that. There are some songs that definitely do not fit on this album but they will fit on another album in the future. There is some stuff which is much more acoustic, Americana, artsy that didn’t work for this album so I chose songs that were a little more aggressive and what I assume to be more suitable for the Japanese fans but at the same time, I wanted to give them an idea of the scope because there is some unusual stuff; everything from Pop to Blues to Rock. The writing process was dictated by the collaborators. Each one of the people I worked with, I tried not to direct them, I wanted to enter into their world. The concept with almost everyone was ‘I want work with you and do what you want to do in the way you do it.’ Going back to Nathan, he is the perfect example. I said I wanted to record an album exactly the same way that he recorded the early Taylor Swift songs. He recorded those songs in his house, with her sitting there on the couch. I sat on the same couch. I even peed in the same bathroom as Taylor Swift! The difference was that I came to him with an R&B idea which is something he never would have done and it appealed to him because it was something new for him musically. I didn’t get in the way, I played acoustic guitar and sang and I let him do all the programming and stuff. That was one of the more programmed songs on the record even though it sounds very natural. We added a bass at the end but the drums are actually a program, it’s the only song on the album where the drums are programmed but they don’t sound like it. The same thing happened with Hot Chelle Rae. I said I wanted to make a modern Pop record the way they make their Pop records and from their point of view they were saying that they wanted to make an old school one like Hall & Oates. So I said “Ok, let’s do both. I’ll throw my two-cents in but I’m going to follow your lead.” It was cool. I said “We’ll do something that sounds like an old 80’s Hall & Oates sax” and they had no idea how to do that. I bought in a sax player and put it through some gear that we used in the 80’s – the actual same harmonizer we used in the 80’s – and they loved it because they didn’t know how we did that. At the same time, they did their vocals in a very modern way that I would never have done vocals with auto-tuning being part of the recording process as opposed to something after the fact. The auto-tune was not used to make the vocals sound better but as the vocal effect. They did it live and I was fascinated by that because I don’t use those effects. So it was a cool meeting of the two generations.
Q: Did you do it on analogue tape or digital?
JO: Everything was Pro Tools.
Q: I would imagine it takes a lot of pressure off you in some ways because you don’t have to come up with an album’s worth of songs at one time: would it be true to say that?
JO: Well just collaborating - there was only one song I wrote by myself – took some pressure off me as a writer because they always bring something different to the table, something that takes me, as a writer, to another place. I found the song writing process to be very easy and similar with almost every collaboration. Everyone seemed to approach it the same way but basically, over the years, I tend to find that song writers write in a very similar way; I have yet to meet someone who writes differently. It was just stimulating. I got on a roll where my creative juices were really flowing because every day I walked into a new situation with a new person who had new thoughts and new techniques. It was exciting for me and I was never bored. What I did was I front-loaded the recording process because I knew that I was going to be on tour with Daryl and be doing a lot of other things so I spent between the end of 2011 and the entire 2012 recording all the songs. This meant that the moment I went on tour I didn’t need to worry about a song to get out this month, I had it all pre-done.
Q: That’s a lot of planning.
JO: Yes it was a lot of planning but it worked well.
Q: Can we go back a few years?
Q: You saw Bill Haley. Given that you were only four years old and therefore I’m not expecting much for the answer, what is your memory of that event? It was obviously a big impression on you.
JO: Well even though I was that young, I was singing already. I wasn’t playing an instrument but I was singing and I was always musical from the time when I was a little baby so the music attracted me so what I did, and I remember this distinctly, I ran to the front of the stage. It was show that was in a very small amusement park in Pennsylvania and what I remember most about the whole night was that the upright bass player rode his bass like a horse in that Rockabilly style. I think that what’s interesting about the fact that I saw Bill Haley is that more importantly to me, my life coincides with the end of the Big Band era and the beginning of rock and roll. I was fortunate enough to be born at a time where I could see the entire evolution of rock and roll. My life also coincides with the recording industry evolution from analogue tapes through the early digital era all up through to today so I feel very fortunate that I had this opportunity to be born at the right time.
Q: You grew up in Pennsylvania; did you see any other of the big names that came through in the 60’s?
JO: Everybody. I moved from New York to Pennsylvania when I was three or four and then to Philadelphia as the 60’s came in. I would go to the Uptown Theatre all the time and see all the great R&B acts. I saw Stevie Wonder when he was twelve doing Fingertips, I saw Smokey Robinson, James Brown, all the great Philadelphia vocal groups, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Marvin Gaye and a bunch of obscure people that you would never know. At the same time I saw the early days of Rock. I saw the first Rolling Stones tour when they played with Tina Turner and to me, what was even more important and I think less obvious to a lot of people was that Philadelphia had this incredible Folk tradition. The Philadelphia Folk Festival is the oldest in America next to Newport: I think they just had their 52nd year. I was going to that as well seeing all the traditional American performers while they were being discovered starting with Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and then the more authentic players like Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and all the early Folk revivalists. This was all happening at the same time and you think about it now and think ‘Wow!’ but there I was in the right place at the right time. All that stuff had a huge effect on me and affects the way I am as a musician.
Hall & Oates
Q: Signing to Atlantic in 1972 and being alongside Led Zep, Yes, Roberta Flack, Stephen Stills and the Rolling Stones must have been a great moment. How do you remember it?
JO: Here again, right place at the right time! We signed to Atlantic because Arif Mardin wanted to produce us and of course Arif was the greatest thing to ever happen to us. I remember distinctly that Arif was on a roll. When we were doing the Abandoned Luncheonette album he was doing The Divine Miss M, an album with Doug Sahm and he was also doing Yusef Lateef, all at the same time and they would be coming in the studio as we were going out or we would be going in as they were going out and it was just an amazing period of time. We would record in the same studio that a lot of the Aretha stuff was cut in using a lot of the same New York session musicians who were also a part of our band. It was an amazing to be to be at Atlantic and we felt that we belonged there – that it was our destiny. It was part of the tradition that we grew up with so it felt very good.
Q: Your relationship with Daryl is one of the longest, most successful and strongest in popular music; to what do you attribute that?
JO: It’s very complicated…(laughs) way too complicated I think for now; you could spend the interview on this. We are very different as people in terms of our personalities but we are very similar in terms of our work ethic and our roots. We share a common musical vocabulary that we can draw upon and at the same time we think differently. It’s a very subtle thing to talk about. I think it’s more like being a brother rather than a friend. You know, if we were two strangers, we never would be friends if there wasn’t the common ground of music but because that is there, rather than being best friends, we’re brothers. Like all brothers, they can have their differences and can separate for a long time but when you come back together, it’s like nothing has changed.
Q: How does the song writing partnership between Daryle and you work?
JO: Well it hasn’t worked in a long time (smiles). We haven’t written a song since 2000 but here again, I am sure if we went into a room nothing will have changed. We would function in multiple ways in different circumstances. By that I mean we would co-write almost from scratch and then the extreme on the other side would be that one of us would write a song that was almost completely finished and the other would come in almost like an editor and say ‘What about if we do this here?’ or ‘Just change that there – just change that one chord.’ That was the two extremes and then every shade in between them.
Q: How hard did you have to work on lyrics?
JO: Daryl and I have always been very conscious of lyric quality. I’m very proud of a lot of the lyrics we have written; I think they’re pretty clever and very unique. However, I did have a very pleasant awakening when I moved to Nashville about four years ago and started writing with a lot of Nashville writers. I realised how important lyrics are structurally and story-wise it was to them because Country music is all about the story. A lot of it is not that musically adventurous so the lyric department is where they are so well crafted. I went into a lot of writing sessions and wrote some things, co-wrote some things thinking that the lyrics were ok and getting a ‘No it’s not. We can do better than this’ response and I saw where they were coming from and really appreciated that so I’ve taken that approach with my current lyrics and on this project now I think the lyrics are pretty darn good.
Q: There were never any sensational headlines of you two guys or your band members trashing hotel rooms or getting into other trouble. Coming through the seventies and eighties it’s hard to believe that there were not crazy times. Was that band policy, the nature of the group or were you exploits just over-shadowed by The Who and everyone else?
JO: Oh it went on! (smiles), you just didn’t hear about it. We were smarter than the average Rock band I think. We had our share of crazy things but one thing we didn’t do was we never got involved in ‘celebrity’. We never went to big Hollywood parties or did that kind of thing. We were always working, very hard workers. The one thing that Daryl and I believed in from the very beginning, to our credit early on, we realised that it was more important to us to have a long career playing music than it was to be popular or a big star. We realised early on that being a star, making money and having success would be by-product of the hard work so we focused on that and were fortunate that we did light up. Even during our down time – we had a series of hits in the mid-70s - in the late 70’s, that was probably more important than the hits because it was during that down period where we developed a band and a much more lean operation to enable to take advantage of the hits we had. There are lots of ebbs and flows in a long career and some people panic during the ebbs thinking that it’s all over but I’ve never judged the value of my life based on out chart position. Some people do but I think that’s just a trap that is bound to get you.
Q: What do you remember of Live Aid?
JO: I remember a lot. I was very aware of it. I realised it was coming at a point when Daryl and I were getting ready to stop. We did Live Aid, We Are The World and we did Live At The Apollo with Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin which was the culmination of our teenage fantasies. All of this was within a month or two and it seemed like we had looked at each other and said what more can we really do. If we release a song and it’s not a No. 1, we’ve failed and we thought that maybe it was a good time to step back, find out what it’s going to take for us to keep doing this because we knew being 80’s pop stars was going to end and it did. The world moved on very quickly into grunge and anti-pop so to speak and had we still been in that 80’s mentality we would have been dinosaurs immediately and to our credit again, I believe that was a very important moment. So to answer your question, going into Live Aid, I was very aware that this was a special moment in time. Of course it was the biggest concert ever up to that date and we were headlining with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner and our band was about as smoking hot as it could possibly be so we were ready for that moment. I remember looking out and realising that it’s being broadcast around the world and I remember thinking ‘Don’t forget about this’. You know I think that was a good lesson for me because even today, when I go onstage with Daryl and our current band, I look around - the only original member is Charlie DeChant the sax player who has been with us since 1974, the rest of the guys are quite new - and with the song we’re playing, I think this may never happen again and I like to think like that. I think like that no matter what I do because it’s important to realise it’s something very special. I’m very blessed and fortunate so I don’t take it for granted.
Q: Over the years, your guitar playing has been somewhat overlooked but that’s doing a disservice to you…
JO: I know. It shouldn’t be, thank you You’re my new best friend!
Q: Your style is quite distinctive. Where does your style come from and who were your influences?
JO: It comes from all those people I mentioned earlier: it really is. If I had to make it really simple, I would say if you took Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Chuck Berry and Curtis Mayfield and put them together, I would be some weird hybrid of that.
Q: Are you a guitar collector?
JO: I’m a workman like guitar collector and by that I mean I have guitars that I play. I don’t have museum pieces that I have just because they are rare or the right particular model or year. I do have some great guitars and there are some I would never sell and some that are not as important to me so if I find I’m not playing it, I’ll make a trade. That’s fun to do too because it’s like a little game you can play. You’ve been playing a guitar for a while and it’s not so great but someone comes along and wants to make a deal. That happened to me just a few months ago with a Gibson 335.
Q: Like being back at school with trading cards.
Q: Nashville is your second home now.
JO: It is. My family and I are spending about 50% of our year there once my son stopped touring with us. He has been around the world with us and been to Japan many times (he’s actually quite angry with me now because the day he went back to school, I came to Japan and he loves it here) but once he went to boarding school, that’s when we got the place in Nashville and that’s when a lot of things changed for me and a lot of doors opened. Nashville is like an exclusive club which you can visit over and over again but you are not a member of the club. You have to be there and live there and become part of the music community and then a lot of good things happen. I think almost all of the music on this album would not have been possible had I not been present and made a home in Nashville.
Q: That’s quite a statement.
JO: It is. It’s a great city for all sorts of reasons, not just Country music.
New Japanese album - Stand Strong
Q: This is the first time around the world the songs are being released on a CD.
JO: Well it’s unique because in the past, whether it was just myself or with Hall & Oates, we would have always released an album in the USA first and Japan second. This is the first time I’ve released in Japan ahead of a US release and I think it’s great because there are no rules anymore in the music business. It was just a lucky circumstance really that I was invited to come and play the Tokyo Jazz Festival and when I knew I was coming, that’s when I reached out to JVC and said ‘I have all this music and coming to Japan, let’s do something’ and that was the first time I began to think of these series of singles as an album.
Q: You mentioned before you had twenty songs…
JO: Eighteen now but I’ll have twenty by the end of October.
Q: …ok so this twelve that are on the Japanese album, will that be exclusive to Japan? Will the US release have a different selection of songs?
JO: Maybe, slightly but I don’t think it will be too different. I think people really like these twelve (tracks). I’ve played the Japanese album for the American record company and they love it so obviously I picked a good selection. There may be one or two songs I will substitute but it won’t be substantially different.
Q: I think it’s great. You can get different things out of it with repeated listening.
JO: Oh good because that’s very important on an album.
Q: You can also put it on and do other stuff to but it’s also an album you can sit down and listen to which is quite rare these days.
JO: Well you know I am old school and I did come from that era when you tried to make an album full of good songs. What a concept! (laughs)
Q: It is isn’t it? You mentioned Hot Chelle Rae earlier and that you learnt things from them; could you define that a little bit more? Were there any specific instances?
JO: Well let me go back and give you some background on the band. When I first went to Nashville in 1991, one of the first songwriters I ever wrote with was a guy called Keith Follesé who is very well known and has written numerous No.1 records. Martna McBride, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and two of the principles of Hot Celle Rae are his sons: Ryan is the singer and Jamie is the drummer. I knew them when they were six and Keith would always tell me that his sons were really talented and that they were going to be a big band some day and I was like ‘Yeah, sure Keith’ but as it turned out, he was right. The other two in the band, Ian Keaggy is the son of Phil Keaggy who Eroc Clapton claims is one of his favourite guitar players and Nash Overstreet, the lead guitar player is the son of Paul Overstreet who was BMI’s song writer of the year for many years.
Q: Good stock.
JO: Good stock, that’s right. So how it happened was, there was an amfAR compilation album being made and the theme was the 80’s. They reached out to me and said they wanted to re-cut You Make My Dreams Come True and that they wanted me to be a part of it. I said ‘Sure, I’ll do you one better. I’ll bring the guitar that I played on the original recording, play the original guitar part, sing the backgrounds, etc’ and they loved it. So while I was in the studio with them, I explained my project and said one good turn deserves another, let’s do a song together and they said ‘Let’s do it.’ So we went into the studio and sat around. They booked a room which was more of what I would call a pre-production or editing room. It didn’t have much of a live recording space, it was mostly control room but that’s how they record. Nash is their Pro Tools wizard, Ryan and Ian were more about lyrics and melody and vibe and I had an acoustic guitar and we just started fooling around. They had just come back from Hollywood and they were talking about their girlfriends. Obviously being a married man for over twenty years, it’s not something I’m thinking about but that is their world and they were talking about all the Hollywood chicks who are high maintenance which I sad was a great title. We started with that title and I just let them come up with things and what I learned from them is that a modern Pop song, every element of it, needs to be a hook. Back on an old school Pop song, we focused on the hook and then the verse was the vehicle to get there whereas they see a Pop song as every element needs to be hook and that’s how they approached it. That’s what I took from them.
Q: There used to be light and shade in a Pop song but there isn’t any more.
JO: Yes. There’s no time in the world any more for filler. Every moment has to be engaging, for better or worse, I don’t know if that is always good and that’s why I think that if you hear a lot of Pop songs, regardless of the artist, they have ‘Oh ohs’ and ‘Yeah yeahs’, there are always ‘things’ happening that don’t necessarily really matter to the song but they create this constant attention-getting element that is always in there somehow or another.
Q: So are your songs going to move more that way?
JO: No, (smiles) but it worked great in High Maintenance. It was fun and it’s getting radio play in America.
Q: You’re here with Larry Carlton for the Jazz festival; how did that come about?
JO: Larry’s best friend and manager is a guy named Robert Williams who put out an album I did a year and a half ago called Bluesville Sessions which was a live version of Mississippi Mile. Robert put that out on his label – 335 – and Larry does various theme shows and he wanted to do a Blues show so Robert said ‘You should ask John’ and played him some of the stuff that I was doing with Mississippi Mile which is lots more Blues orientated. Larry liked it I guess and called me, asked me to be special guest and said we would do some of my Blues stuff. So we are going to do a few of the new songs and a few of the older ones and then just some Rock and Roll, some R&B.
Q: Any other shows in Japan on the horizon either solo or with Daryl?
JO: Daryl and I tend to come back when we have a product. Last time we came back with the box set and you’d have to ask Victor but I think it’s better if we come back when we have something to sell and right now, we have nothing to sell so I think you’re going to have to be satisfied with me. (laughs)
Q: Who is in your touring band these days?
JO: Nobody right now; I don’t have one. I had a great band on the last tour who were really good guys who played well but I spent a year and a half recording this project and during that period of time they all went their separate ways.
Q: John, thank you very much in deed.
JO: Thank you. It’s been a good interview.
Q: I must ask…the big day when you shaved off your moustache…
JO: You know I shaved it off in Japan?
Q: You should have auctioned it!
JO: In those days they didn’t have ebay. (smiles) I would have today. Daryl and I were invited to come over for a concert that Yoko Ono did in Tokyo for John Lennon’s 10th anniversary (1990) with Miles Davis and Lenny Kravitz. We did that show and it was at a point, Daryl and I were not really working a lot and I was changing a lot, some personal things I was going through and I remember it was the night after the show, leaving the following morning and I was looking at myself in the mirror in the hotel and the moustache just looked wrong. I don’t know why or what it was but I took one of those hotel razors and shaved it off. I showed up at the airport the next day and Daryl looked at me like (feigns shock) and what was really funny was Miles Davis. He came up to me, came right up to my face and this is what he did, I’ll never forget it, he said nothing and went (mimes moving a finger across his upper lip quickly) and then said “Now lovin’s gonna be better”. Then he went up to Daryl and said “I used to tell my hairdresser, I want my hair to look just like Daryl’s” you know ‘cause Darly used to have that pompadour hairstyle but that’s all he ever said to me but at least he talked to me (laughs).
Q: Again, thank you very much.