A Conversation With Dean Friedman (Continued)
It was 40 years ago this month....
Where We Last Left Off: I was asking Dean to reflect upon the current "politically correct" atmosphere, and the chaos it has wrecked on songwriters - more specifically: Should artists self-censor if the subject matter might be considered offensive, even if (as in the case of Randy Newman) that language is actually being used to make a salient, sociopolitical commentary?
DG: Speaking of Randy Newman, I wonder if he dares sing his classic tune "Rednecks" in concert anymore - does he perform it unapologetically, does he exclude it from his setlist, and if not, how does he get around the fact that his song's refrain is "we're keeping the niggers down"?
DF: I think in the case of Randy Newman, anyone who's familiar with his history and all his writing, and can grasp where he's coming from there, would give him a pass on that - on the other hand, I can see there might be certain situations where....not necessarily that he'd be afraid to "touch that wire" so to speak, but that he might consider it appropriate to avoid possibly encouraging those who might sympathize with the protagonist's point of view.
DG: That was quite the diplomatic answer, Deano.....
DF: I don't know how else to put it. I mean, he's written several 'controversial' songs in that vein: "Yellow Man" and "In America" (aka: "Sail Away") come to mind as two other examples. It's scary territory to broach as a songwriter, but I admire Randy's artistic bravery. You have no control over how an audience will react, however - so you just have to decide whether or not to put it out there.
Squirrels In The Attic features a song called "Arab Man" - filled with satirical, clichéd observations that made me wonder: is this politically incorrect, offensive, or just plain funny?
DG: Like Ray Stevens's tune "Ahab The Arab".....
DF: The thing that gave me the courage to write and record the song was Randy Newman - his view is if you're being honest with your expression, and not harboring any ill intent, you're allowed to do it - and you should do it.
DG: Now let's talk about your latest release, 12 Songs - how did the process begin for that album?
DF: Well, it started because I was short on cash! I've been crowdfunding my albums since 2002 - that's six years before Kickstarter even existed. So I started a 'new album campaign': I raised about five or six thousand dollars, though at that point I'd only written a couple of songs for it. I find there's no greater motivator than guilt.....once I had people's money, I really felt compelled to deliver the goods. Not just the financial impetus to get it done, but the emotional impetus to embark on such an ambitious project. It's a big deal to embark on recording and producing a full-length release - especially if you are taking it on alone, without record company support or someone else putting the money upfront for you to do so. Realizing it was about seven years since I'd released any material, I thought "you know, maybe it's time to get 'back to work' on something.
DG: Have you been happy with the results of using crowdfunding to bankroll your albums?
DF: I couldn't do what I do otherwise. Granted, it's not as if I make a lot of money by crowdfunding my albums - in truth, the crowdfunding itself doesn't completely pay for everything involved in making the record. But it does give me the financial incentive to get started, and the support of so many fans wanting to hear new music by me is an emotional incentive to take that leap of faith, and make it happen. In terms of creativity, it can be very restrictive, as folks will be gauging whatever you produce now against your back catalog. But I have gotten great feedback from both fans and critics, and I think it's some of the best work I've ever done as a songwriter.
DG: As someone who's been recording commercially for the past 14 years, I know what you mean: I am always walking that tightrope between being true to my 'signature style', but also, always wondering in the back of my mind if my newer compositions are comparable to earlier work.
DF: Inevitably, people will always have a fondness for your earlier releases because it hit them at an impressionable time - I still have a strong emotional connection to them as well. As time has gone on though, I have matured as a songwriter and gotten more adept at my craft. In some ways, the tunes on 12 Songs exceed my earlier albums; my singing in particular has certainly improved over the years - it's taken me forty years to figure that out, but I finally know how to really sing. The songwriting itself is a learning process, as is the engineering aspect of it - I've sorta become an engineer by default, but it's all part of the process.
DG: Some reviews of 12 Songs that I've read noted the 'stripped down' feel of the arrangements, in comparison to previous albums. Is that a fair assessment?
DF: I can't argue with that - a lot of it had to do with budgets and time. If I had the money to hire an orchestra and a full band, and be able to explore those elements arrangement-wise, I probably would have. Because of a basically non-existent budget and time constraints, not to mention the fact that being in the studio takes me from the road, where I actually make my money, I have to work quickly and judiciously to get an album out. And that makes the recording conducive to being a more intimate affair - although I love working with other musicians, it's just quicker and easier for me to record as many parts as I can by myself. Now if I want to have a cello overdub, for example, things get more complicated: to bring in a string section would run about five thousand dollars per day, which is prohibitive at this point in my career.
In terms of production elements, that would certainly explain the difference between my first two albums and this one - in terms of the songs themselves, I'd say I gave myself permission to write more personalized sketches with intimate detail. I mean, it's still me using the vocabulary that's become my calling card, and I still take the visual cues of being 'the observer."
DG: One of my favorite tunes on the album is "My Guitar", which certainly feels like an intimate portrait, and a very introspective number...
DF: "My Guitar" definitely hearkens to my early days as a performer, writing and singing songs with just me and my guitar. In that regard I think it's reminiscent of what I was doing on my debut for Lifesong - the kind of storytelling that made that album so special, for a number of reasons. Yet, the guitar is a metaphor to this 'old troubadour', and things breaking down, and parts missing and out of shape. It's reflecting on the passage of time, and the bittersweet reminiscences of the journey that guitar has taken me on.
DG: Speaking of reminiscences, just how old were you when the first album came out?
DF: I started recording the demos when I was twenty, and I turned twenty-one the year Dean Friedman was released. Some of the songs on the album were written even earlier - "Woman of Mine" for example, was written when I just sixteen. Actually, I'd say half of the album's songs were written in my late teens.
DG: Is your songwriting process basically the same now as it was then - either sitting at the piano or picking up the guitar?
DF: Sometimes I'll start on the guitar, sometimes I'll start on the keyboard.....every song's different. Now, with the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW), the home studio environment becomes the instrument itself: it could be a sampled loop, some vocal lines I've recorded, or a bassline. And I still use a word processor when lyrical inspiration strikes.
DG: Makes sense if you're a self-produced artist to utilize a DAW - I do all my stuff in Ableton Live. What's your modus operandi?
DF: I like Sonar, by Cakewalk. I began self-recording/producing with Opcode System's Vision, but the company folded in 1999, so I was forced to look for an alternative.
DG: Personally, I haven't stopped working with a hardware digital multi-track recorder for some projects, as well as sketching out musical ideas - that said, I credit Ableton Live with allowing me to be much more prolific in terms of my musical output than I would have been going the traditional route - particularly dealing with a studio environment where you are paying by the hour, and the clock is ticking. Of course, the criticism that I often hear in this digital recording age is that talent is no longer a prerequisite - that you can be mediocre and still be a 'pop star' thanks to the latest technology. Do you concur?
DF: First of all, 'talent' was never a prerequisite for being a pop star, so I don't think that dynamic has changed in any way. I think work of any quality requires true talent, regardless of the method used to produce it. As far as technology goes, there will always be the risk of the technology driving the talent, instead of the other way around. I think it poses a genuine dilemma for the artist to consider: is the technology taking the song in the direction that it should go or needs to go, or is the song itself taking a back seat to the technology? I think it is the artist's responsibility to be wary of the implications there, and be sure they are injecting their individual vision into the work itself. Working with sampled loops can be inspiring in the right hands, but it can also lead to repetition and a homogeneousness that undermines the creative vision of whoever's utilizing them.
DG: I think we are bearing witness to that homogeneousness as we speak. One of the things I do regularly is, I will visit the Billboard Top 100 songs for a particular week, listen to samples of those songs, then compare them with the Top 100 songs for that week fifty years prior. When I listen to the contemporary charts, I find that regardless of whether the performer is a country artist, or a pop artist, or a hip-hop artist or a dance artist, the lines have blurred so significantly, it's nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other. By contrast, when I listen to the Billboard charts of 1968, the eclecticism lacking in today's music shines through, and I am blown away!
DF: I know what you mean, David - the sounds are more diverse. And that goes back to what I was saying - when you let either the tools or musical convention of the day dictate what you are creating, everything will have a tendency to sound homogenized. Which is why when approaching a tune like "The Hummingbird Effect" from my latest album, I look upon it as a fragile art song, a delicate piece of poetry set to a very sparse arrangement. It's not the kind of tune you'd likely hear on the radio today, and if all you're listening to is contemporary radio, you'll never hear it. But that tune has a personal affinity for me because of its delicate beauty.
When I was in college back in the 70's, I listened to all kinds of music, across many different genres. And especially listening to college radio, which tended to be outside the lines of commercial, mainstream market stations, those kinds of songs and arrangements excited me the most. I try to bring that sensibility to my own songwriting, even within the parameters of the pop/rock category my work falls into. I think another upshot of what I do now, having more creative control than I ever had on a major label, is that I can experiment and try these ideas if I choose to.
DG: And has the digital age actually devalued the music? I mean, folks are pirating/illegally downloading new music all the time. The mentality is, "Why should I have to buy your CD, when I just stream it on Spotify or Google Play?" In essence, has music become little more than a disposable commodity?
DF: The only difference I see is the people who are raping the musicians are coming from another industry. Back in the day, you had the record companies screwing the musicians over, and now it's the digital companies - the Youtubes, the Spotifies, the Google Plays. However, music has always been a 'loss leader' to sell appliances: that was true from the day I first started out in this business, to today. Artists have never been fairly compensated for their work - except for the very rarified one-percenters out there. When someone streams of my songs on Youtube, I as the recording artist get all of .0001 of a cent, and all that money really adds up!
DG: And yet, should Kanye West ever sample like 10 seconds of one of your songs, and it became a hit, wouldn't that cause folks to say, "Who is this Dean guy Kanye's working with?", and wouldn't the record label then be obliged to provide songwriting credit, and give you a cut of the royalties?
DF: If that ever happened, it would still serve as the exception to the rule. The majority of major-label artists are still beholden to the gatekeepers. Instead of there being a bunch of A&R guys present to grease the wheels, the gatekeepers now look for talent that's been incubating on The Voice, X-Factor and American Idol. I find those reality competition shows to be very emotionally abusive programs - the are responsible for crushing the spirits of 90% of those who dare participate. They have no problem humiliating and abusing those contestants for the sake of finding one or two artists whom they can market and exploit for commercial gain.
The methodology hasn't changed, just the players in the game. But I would agree with you that the democratization of the process, the freedom of access to easily affordable tools to write and record one's individual work is certainly worth championing. When I started out, if you wanted to build a professional recording studio, it would run you about two million dollars. Now you can achieve the same end for about a grand. Before, distribution of your music required making factory pressings, and having trucks and planes at your disposal to ship your music - today, all you need is an internet connection. But the challenge of actually getting your music into as many people's computers and iPhones still requires the pull and marketing resources only the big gatekeepers can provide. Let's hope that as the whole media environment becomes more decentralized, those 'exceptions to the rule' will grow in number. And that can only be a positive thing for all us artists who continue to do what we do - even the touring aspect of my business would not be possible if not for the democratization of the Internet.