Over at the Okkervil River online store, you can order a hand-made letterpress version of the above image, which is my interpretation of William Schaff’s cover art for Black Sheep Boy. Also on the online store we have a downloadable album entitled Black Sheep Boy: Early Drafts on the Road, 2004. This is what it sounds like – the very earliest recorded versions of Black Sheep Boy songs, done in green rooms and guest bedrooms and on people’s front lawns, and interspersed with audio diaries where I discuss the songs and discuss what was happening on tour at the time.
Over at the Secretly Distribution website you can now pre-order the Black Sheep Boy Anniversary Editon, a three-LP set that combines Okkervil River’s 2005 album Black Sheep Boy and its companion release Black Sheep Boy Appendix with a full album of traditional (and modern) covers that we recorded around the same time, entitled There Swims a Swan.
When musicians have unshakeable faith, it can give their work an unparalleled color and vibrancy. You can lean against it and it will hold you up. Think of the Staple Singers and how real their message feels, how much you believe it, even if only for the three minutes one of their songs lasts. Think of Alice Coltrane’s sublime devotional recordings at the Shanti Anantam Ashram, of the way Buddhism has deepened Leonard Cohen’s insight, of the moral vision Kendrick Lamar’s Christianity brings to his work, of the aching spiritual yearning of early Bob Marley. Even John Lennon’s atheist proselytizing has something like that effect — you feel like he believed in something intensely, and that belief was like a kind of devotion, and that devotion was more important to him, as a musician, than making money or getting laid or impressing you. And because of that you trusted him not to lie to you, and then the music became something more than entertainment — it became something that could help and even heal. That’s what Bill Fay has. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a contemporary musician who has more of it than he does.
…After half a century, who really cares about what it was like to date Edie Sedgwick or Joan Baez? What’s fun about “Queen Jane Approximately” is that you get to pretend to be Dylan, jet-setting around the New York celebrity scene of the late ’60s. But that’s a limited kind of fun, and it’s not very helpful. Meanwhile, the best Sinatra songs…are about the ordinary pain of ordinary people in love with other ordinary people. You can relate to them, almost uncomfortably so. As Dylan says, “I’ve felt every word in that song… It’s like I wrote it.” Yeah, it’s like I wrote it too. It’s like everyone wrote it.
Carl “A.C.” Newman and I became friends when Okkervil River toured with his band the New Pornographers, and since then we’ve remained close and worked together on a number of different occasions, both on his records and in some of my live performances. He’s one of the nicest and most down-to-earth musicians I’ve ever met, with a work ethic that should shame most other artists. This podcast was taped last year, when I had just released The Silver Gymnasium and Carl was midway through working on the album that turned into the just-released New Pornographers record Brill Bruisers. Carl and I talk about how the work is going and about the recording process in general, about how writing changes as you get older, about his memories of the early days of the New Pornographers’ success, and about how its preferable to have a long steady career in music over a short supernova.
Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World was released twenty years ago last week, i.e. June 28, 1994. It’s nice to be able to track dates like this down on the internet because then I’m able to take a quick leap back through time and stick a time-stamp on a certain memory that previously had been jangling around in my pocket like loose change. The memory isn’t anything dramatic, it’s just one of those things you weirdly remember for an unclear reason, and it’s of sitting in my family kitchen reading my parents’ copy of Newsweek and coming across a Freedy Johnston review.
I’ve been thinking recently about the French singer Françoise Hardy, and specifically thinking about the first Hardy song I ever heard, which did nothing for me. The song was “All Over the World,” one of Hardy’s songs in English. I remember feeling that there was something vaguely silly about it, that it felt kind of lightweight. The melody and backing track were pretty enough, but they also felt kind of clunky and conventional, with Hardy’s accent awkwardly distracting from the emotional pull of a lyric that felt generic to begin with. I kind of discounted the song, and even, at first, the singer. Then, about six months later, I was listening to another Hardy record and was struck by a beautiful, stately ballad; Hardy’s voice was gorgeous and whisper-quiet over an almost funereally solemn classically-derived piano arpeggio, and the lyrics, in French, seemed profoundly meaningful even though I didn’t know what they were about. I realized, when I looked at the title of the song, that it was “All Over the World” – the exact same recording, in fact, but with Hardy singing in French instead of English.
I had a band. So far we’d played about three shows. We’d done a show at a downtown Austin blues bar that on Monday nights would take pretty much any new band so long as they’d promise to pack the club with their friends who would buy drinks. We’d done a show at an “alternative bookstore” on the college drag that one month later had closed to make way for a chain store that sold fake-vintage pre-faded jeans. We’d done a show above the grease vents on the roof of a hamburger bar. One day, in the late summer of 1998, I got an e-mail from a band called The Eyesores.
Here’s the deal, guys: somewhere around Birmingham my computer went down. I switched it on and there was this weird squiggly low-res pattern happening on there and then nothing, just a grey screen that popped up and wouldn’t go away. I tried “zapping the P-RAM,” which they tell you to do. I tried mashing the various combinations of keys they tell you to while you boot up – nothing worked.
Okay so do you remember the part in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis is down in the basement of the fire station with a spazzed-out and spirit-possessed Rick Moranis and suddenly Annie Potts comes down the stairs with that pissed off EPA guy pushing in front of her (William Atherton) and she says, “Egon, I tried to stop him! He says they have a warrant,” and then Egon says, “Excuse me, this is private property,” and the EPA guy says “Shut this off. Shut these all off” in this teeth-gritted, intense, red-faced way, pointing around the Ghostbusters’ HQ basement, at all the gadgets and gizmos and containment units we’ve been enjoying for 45 minutes or so by now, determined to ruin everything, to definitively end all the fun? And can you, like me, lipsyc basically the entire scene that follows because you have seen this movie so many times it might as well be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids?