Joe New, a name you’d think everyone would remember, has been making tracks, literally, across the boundaries of the music “bidness” for quite a few years. Raised in the High Lonesome Sierra and rural landscapes of Northern Cal-by-God-ifornia, he saw pscyhedelia being hatched all around him as a teen in the suburbs of the EastBay.
He got to play the Fillmore in ’67 with his garage band “The Electric Sandwich”( along with quite a few army bases and Elks clubs), worked construction in four trade unions while taking Film and Anthropology classes in the State College System. Music called him back in the early ’70s to pick around the Bay with the “Rockabilly Rythym Boys” leading to a fateful excursion to Nashville and a position with Almo/Irving under the tutorial wing of Troy Seals, CMA songwriter of the year in 1987. He went “indy” in 1980 with SmokinJoeMusic/Bug/BMI while still raising kids and building refineries — the latter pursuits he is now semi-retired from. He is a leftneck, politically.
Along the route of his “long strange trip” as the Deadheads say, he has had songs recorded or performed by Kiki Dee, John Mellencamp, Levon Helm, Nancy Sinatra, Jerry Reed, NRPS, Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun, Bobby Neuwirth, Johnny Rivers, The Moonlighters,Tommy “Tutone ” Heath, Davy Pattison, Paul Carrick Nick Lowe and Squeeze, among others.
The Del McCoury Band has four Joe New songs spaced among their recent CDs and there is a rumour of an Eric Clapton ringtone (!). Joe has opened for and played on showcase stages with countless heavies and name brand acts across the country — so why the hell aren’t you a big fan?
He has roadied for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Rockin’ Ron Rogers, writes with legends as diverse as Grammy winner Jeff Silbar, the elusive Kevin Blackie Farrell and mighty soul man Mike Duke. Three CDs — “Street Tarot”, “West of the West” and “Cat Tracks on a Blue Mountain.” More, as always, are in “the works.”
What inspires you to write original music?
My Dad was a seat of the pants guitar player and the AM radio was always on if we were close enough to the signal. As a kid living in a fairly isolated part of rural California, I had a hunger for the bright lights of social interaction so I was drawn to Music at an early age.
It was always part of the “good times” and I wanted to get in the middle of that kind of action. Being of a certain class of recent immigrants known generically as Okies – most of what I heard was typically regional, but hardly qualified as “folk” music except in the very broadest sense — that motor didn’t have much of a governor on it.
Nonetheless, I must have some of the Bardic Tradition in my makeup, though it didn’t manifest itself until after we moved to the suburbs and I fell under the spell of the sainted Mr. Zimmerman and his ilk. I doubt I had the cultural background to make the same connection with the more legit and musically educated pros of Tin Pan Alley.
When it occurred to me that you didn’t need money to create a reality for yourself (and hopefully, an audience) in a song, it was divine revelation.
What, in your opinion, are the essential components of a good song?
That’s cosmic… what do you look for in a friend?
Do clothes make the man? It would be easy to say the issue is a purely subjective one and I have been known to advocate for this position. There are plenty of perfectly adequate “good” songs that a great artist or producer can work into a triumph, but for a piece to stand on its own as a personal butt kicker it must do just that in some way, shape or form.
I get bugged when the lyric does not scan or the melody jars more than most people but that goes with the territory of being hyper-critical as a so-called professional.
If one is sticking to the task in the well-ordered form of verse, chorus, bridge, release and it is obvious that the composer has slid by with a cheesy rhyme or the hook is unsupported by its back story — it’s usually a red flag.
But , hey, it’s art as well as craft and rules are meant to be broken. The time honored Nashville curse of “song by committee” has sunk many a great idea before it sailed. Advertizing jingles are powerful entities but are still evil spirits in the main.
We all know that Rock is supposed to be youthful, Country truthful and Blues funky, but Irony rules us all, wouldn’t you agree?
Sample Joe’s Music
Do your songs tend to be born of spontaneous combustion or percolated on the back burner for a while?
Being on the Mental Song Channel is a wondrous experience and when and if an entire song comes through it will have you believing in the paranormal.
It can happen — to some more than others — but I prefer to trust in my editing ability to be consistent and concise in the short term.
I am notoriously lax in my work ethic although there are certain individuals and circumstances that bring out the best in my somewhat mercurial nature. Flailing away over the corpse of a dead horse is a sure way to become one yourself. That said, I have a number of song ideas that seem to “stick around” like Brer Rabbit’s Tar Baby.
If you think at all about your writing process, there is a great deal to be learned but it can be painful. I’m sure there are others more qualified to articulate their angst than I. Self-absorbed obsessing over details is not my philosophy, but I’m willing to confront my shortcomings. OK… I’m a whining, lazy prima dona, but I do have periods of clarity.
Your original songs have been recorded or performed by artists such as John Mellencamp, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Johnny Rivers, The Moonlighters and, most recently, the Del McCoury Band. What’s the back story on how you originally got your songs in front of this level of talent?
Faith, Hope and Charity.
This is the part of the interview wherein I shrug and say “Little old me? I was just lucky and anyone can be in the right place at the right time… it must have been a small part of God’s Great Plan.”
Too true, I suppose, but it sure seemed like Blood, Sweat and Tears a lot of the time. Show Business looks like a sure thing when you are young and full of yourself. I was once green enough to think I was Hot Shit and that my voice would melt the heart of a checkered demon. A few friends aided and abetted this fantasy on the local level… my wife actually had enough faith to suggest moving to Nashville when I was hardly generating enough heat in the Bay Area to microwave a burrito.
Out of the chaos of the ensuing cultural dislocation I did manage to hone certain of my skills out of sheer financial necessity (although self promotion remains a sort of mysterious undertaking to this day) and starved only half to death.
Nash Vegas was then (’70s) still a small town and I was able to meet some true gems among the delusional and possessed hordes of would-be Willies, may-be Merles and let-me-be Lorettas. The best among us turn “the stories we could tell” into hit songs.
Before I turn this into “Joe New Sails Around the World,” I got used to thinking of myself as part of the publishing game and the art of the “pitch” was fascinating stuff. A quivering jellyfish doesn’t stand much chance against the clout and reputation of the established order with real money at stake, so the small songwriter frog in the pond is well advised to go like Mohammed to the Mountain and try to meet the artists you wish to impress on as equal terms as your own personal mojo will allow — with respect instead of an arrogance born of frustration or insecurity. No small undertaking, this.
I still get the creeps when meeting most of the truly celebrated for the first time because I am far from being a perfected being and get as intimidated as the next guy, maybe more so because I know the odds. I can still be a huge fan and the true blessing is that the vast majority of those who have honored me with recording my songs are my personal heroes and fully deserve any break they may have enjoyed and so say I.
Allow me to add that I usually make great demos… LOL.
When writing a song for a performer other than yourself in mind, how does that influence how you go about writing the song?
As a staff writer, or song whore ( as you may be affectionately referred to by your “friends”), it is a simple matter of imagination and research to write for a specific project but , unless you have the very rare inside track, it is certainly no guarantee of success.
It can be a great way to go in the same direction while co-writing (“let’s write a George Jones song “) but, even if you can nail down a distinctive style, most competitive artists think of themselves as “free birds,” if you will, and may resent being given the same stuff that made them successful in the past.
In my somewhat limited experience in writing for a specific person I once sat down with two friends to write for an upcoming Eddie Money record because I knew I would get a shot at having something heard from a mutual friend.
We did a great job — although I was still shocked when he called from Mexico to say that he was down all the way with our little tune “Don’t Come Crying.” I did think (and still do) that it was perfect for him.
By the time the record was released — a year later and I was “broke as a ‘haint” — another producer had come in with tunes from his own Management Company. When the 13 recorded songs were cut to 12, guess whose testicles were on the cutting room floor. The record did very well. Tales from the crypt …
You bring a distinctive voice to your songwriting. Many of your lyrics combine an Americana grittiness and authenticity with humor and modern commentary: “Sunset sinking low behind where that smokin’ 4 lane winds, like a river flowing thru your soul — You must keep up with all your Joneses, mortgages and short term loans. so many ways to lose control.” I also like “He ain’t got no cows or chickens but the hat and boots look cool… He don’t need to borrow nothing ’cause he’s got one of every tool.” How do you approach the process of lyric writing?
I do strive to be distinctive so thanks for the kind words. One of my greatest fears is to be a walking cliche and the Americana thing, to which I seem to have been consigned. It does gather a lot of white people into the fold — most with a certain amount of shared experience and tastes.
I’m something of a traditionalist. I don’t so much try to create a separate reality as try to interpret what I see and feel into something profound enough to matter to those who matter to me — which , I must confess, is not everybody in equal measure.
A film or a novel that has mass appeal may be truly profound or completely lame — only history can judge its ultimate effect.
A song is a much smaller investment of the attention span but, for me, packs a potentially bigger emotional wallop. It’s a very basic and visceral use of language — wow, this is getting “deep.” Someone cue the French Deconstructionists.
For me it’s the words, the story, the characters and descriptive power of the narrative — most of the time. The Disney version, if you get my drift, is fine for most pop music because we aren’t looking for accuracy or authenticity most of the time — it’s the spectacle that we’re after. Do we want to see half time at the Super Bowl restricted to Three Chords and the Truth? Some of us might like it…
So, I “approach the process” very… carefully… and am sometimes amazed that I’m able to write anything at all. As I become more aware of the work of so many powerful songwriters due to the increased perceptions that age and experience provides… it gets scary, indeed.
Over the last 10 hers have you seen a shift in your practice or the practice of others in the kind of technologies you’re using?
I try to stay positive about the many “advances” that the digital world has brought us and not condemn it as the modern equivalent of snake oil. I’m lucky to have a lot of resourceful friends to bolster my knowledge and aptitude.
Simple trumps complex on all fronts as I will never qualify for the geek olympics. I enjoy techno but you will be wasting your time if you try to convince me that it “rocks.”
Performing rights and the process of getting paid may as well be run by the CIA as the myriad of phony collection agencies that prey on, that is cater to, the “indy” market. I never thought I’d miss the old school Jewish gangsters and hillbilly hustlers of my youth …
I am convinced that video and the house concert is the wave of the future.
I won’t be getting by on my looks so , once again , the song is all I hope to depend on.
What’s the most important advice you can offer to aspiring songwriters?
Among your enemies are the Black Dog of Depression, the Dragon of Unrealistic Expectation and the Cult of Questionable Celebrity.
If you are truly obsessed with success and will do anything, and I mean anything, to make it you will have to come to an understanding or workable relationship with your music or it will certainly dine on your soul.
I have no easy platitudes beyond “If it was easy, anyone could do it.”
I don’t have to give any advice to someone who simply enjoys playing or singing or writing because these things will never be a problem. It’s when you go on a jihad to the Stars that problems of your own making will likely surface.
Have fun, kids — and drop my name every chance you get.
Tools of the Trade
What instrument do you use when developing a new song?
Joe: I do like to write on a keyboard but I only have an early ’50s Wurlitzer Electric Piano in the house and it needs restoring!
I could resort to any of the following:
What devices do you use to record your songwriting ideas?
Joe: [easyazon-link asin=”B0000659TX” locale=”us”]Panasonic Portable Cassette Recorder[/easyazon-link] – Takes a licking, keeps on ticking
Do you use any software or apps in your songwriting process?
Joe: I have a Firepod interface that works with my old MacBook Pro but I pretty much hate the Logic software that came with it and never use it. GarageBand gets in my way more often than not. I’ve done a few SCYPE demos and that shows promise…
Are there any other items you consider essential for your songwriting toolkit?
Joe: Notebook, Legal Pad, Pen, Pencil (something sharp and Type O positive blood)
Music by Joe New: