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DAVID BAERWALD

The Sound and the Fury
Hearsay #20 / 1999 / Email interview with Ewen and Neil

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"I hated making Joni Mitchell feel all creepy-crawly"
 

In which we catch up with one of our songwriting heroes, Mr David Baerwald, and get the opportunity to discuss life and art with him. From Boomtown to bust, David’s seen it all (‘bust’ being a brief stint as contributor to Hustler magazine, of course). But it’s not all about personal obsessions: Baerwald is one of the few American songwriters who isn’t made uncomfortable by politics. His world is certainly a personal one, but his key concern is the individual in the context of power, money and bigger craziness which surrounds us all. He’s also one of the current crop of Hearsay-style songwriters drifiting towards film scores, as if the contours of the pop world can’t quite compare with the more genuinely subversive world of film. We’ve enjoyed his work with Susanna Hoffs, Shawn Colvin and Jill Sobule, but it’s his own releases (the implosive Bedtime Stories, the explosive Triage) that have garnered him is reputation. Could any more songwriter’s path be more conclusively random, yet so filled with an unwavering solidity of vision? We don’t think so. Let’s explore.

HEARSAY: Triage, Bedtime Stories and Boomtown are very personal visions yet these days a lot of your work is for extra­curricular assignments. How does writing songs alone differ from writing as part of a team for more overtly commercial projects like your work with Susanna Hoffs, Sheryl Crow and Jill Sobule, say?
DAVID BAERWALD:
Well, when you're writing for an artist... put it this way, if you're designing a house to be constructed on a rocky cliff, then the cliff has to be a part of the design. With Su, for instance, the challenge was to show her personal growth as a human being. That required rather extensive interrogation about her past, her present, her feelings on childbirth, on ex-boyfriends, on marriage, the Holocaust, whatever, and then to try to use her experiences and growth as a kind of lens through which the audience could view their own growth in the years following the Bangle/ Reagan/ GoGo Eighties. It was a technique I'd sort of arrived at with Bill Bottrell and the Tuesday Night Music Club, the idea of simply asking questions of a singer, finding a rhyme scheme and a back beat, putting the answers into the form of a lyric, and toddling onward.

Your writing's always had a very visual quality and now that seems to have found its natural outlet in film whether contributing (in different fields) to Grace of my Heart, Hurlyburly and The Crossing Guard. When you provide music for cinema, do you find the integral considerations of direction, editing, cinematography and character a stimulus or a straitjacket?
Oh, the film's the thing, absolutely. Randy Newman said that he runs for cover when he hears a director talking about an equal exchange of ideas, because there is no equality whatsoever in that relationship. Again, it's more like being an architect or a tailor than a pure artist, although there is a lot of pure art that goes into the creation of the music. I would assume that it's very like the old days of commissioned works by classical composers. If the Duke of Whatsit wants a march for his coronation, you'd damn well better not give him a dirge, and vice versa, no matter your own feelings on his ascendance. It's an absolutely fascinating job, and a wonderful and enviable thing to be able to do, but it is still a job, and if you forget that, then Jerry Goldsmith or Danny Elfman will surely remind you of that fact.

Which film composers have inspired you?
Ennio Morricone, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, and Brian Eno. Of course you have to include Erik Satie in there somewhere.

Where did Triage come from? Was it an immediate impulse or did it have a long period of gestation and development? Was it always lurking at the back of your mind, even as you were making Bedtime Stories, say?
Well, the first song on Triage, A Secret Silken World was written about the same time that I was doing Bedtime Stories. I played it for Joni Mitchell and she was absolutely horrified by the whole thing—she felt that I was merely unleashing more malevolent energy into an already malevolent world, and as we had too many songs anyway for that album, I just put it away. (After all, it was Joni, and I hated making her feel all creepy crawly.) But the subject matter continued to interest me, the absolute seductiveness of power, and the nasty cocktail you concoct when you mix it with abject fear and loneliness. I saw signs of it everywhere, in hip hop culture, gangster worship, the whole 'Greed is Good' thing, the overall embracing of corporate values, the political culture, academia, everywhere. I started feeling like we were in some variation of pre-Hitler Germany (minus the intellectuals, of course), and that the only way this thing could possibly end was in either a massive revolutionary bloodbath, or more likely, the false intimations of a revolutionary bloodbath, followed immediately by a hardcore military/police clampdown. We finished mixing Triage the day the LA Riots broke out. (I still feel that way, by the way.)

Triage is highly (and very effectively) structure with the scene-setting opener, proceeding through anger, resignation and — eventually — hope. Do you think the album has a linear narrative? Was the ordering of the songs an integral part of the vision?
Well, yes, it has a linear structure of sorts. You have the protagonist's eyes opening to a certain extent to the kind of 'silver or lead' rules of the game we all play in this culture, to the human holocaust that's enacted everyday in service of our entertainment and comfort, and to the grim feeling that one day, he'll find himself in front of a firing squad with the rest of the malcontents. Which leads him to his only hope for even temporal happiness, which is, rather facilely, in the arms of a woman he loves. So, yes, the ordering was important, even as I admit that it was facile.

We always enjoy your arrangement of sound... do you dream songs whole, or is it 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration?
Like just about everybody else I know, I'm always playing with sound... tape speeds, analogue synthesis, effects, blowing into things, toys, etc. It's pretty much trial and error, for the most part though, and a hell of a lot of fun. I started studying audio engineering about two years ago, and that's given me a little more control over what I do.

Your dedication on Triage speaks volumes ('to George Bush in the sincere hope that there is a God and that He is vengeful beyond all comprehension'). Have things changed significantly since 1993? Do you think society is fundamentally flawed and that any change in the political colours of the leaders is purely cosmetic?
Well, the machinery for this whole abomination was written in stone in 1947, with the signing of the National Security Act. Having had their taste for economic dictatorship whetted by World War II, the newly triumphant world leadership found ways of making sure that it would never be able to be genuinely challenged by a viable alternative. The significant players remain as they have since then, not men, or ideologues, but the dollar, deutschmark, yen, and pound (or euro, as we now have it). The American political system as we know it now is little more than a vast, multifaceted shell-game designed for the specific purpose of entertaining and distracting the electorate as their pockets are picked and their children packed off to wars and wage slavery. It's unfortunate, but there you have it.

Whatever did the FBI have to say about your father [the Triage artwork incorporates elements of confidential files on Baerwald Sr.]?
[He] offended his superiors at G-2 by suggesting that perhaps the "Soviet Threat" was grossly overestimated and was overheard saying that he wondered if greed may have something to do with it.

Can music ever make a difference?
Well, when it does, it's usually in the form of propaganda, easily my least favourite art form. But let me amend that... it can make an individual difference, in that it can help a frightened and lonely child to understand that these complex and alien feelings that they experience are not theirs alone, that there are others who feel and have felt as they do. And it can make you want to dance.

We've kind of focused on your political writing but a lot of our favourite DB songs are the breathtakingly intimate pieces like Hello Mary, A Boat on the Sea and Born For Love. Does the act of writing songs about personal relationships help you resolve them?
Nothing seems to help me resolve my personal relationships except for exhausting conversation after exhausting conversation. But writing about them, or allowing myself to write unconsciously about them can help me to clarify my own feelings... I can read something I wrote and can help me to realise that I need to (a) marry the girl, or (b) run like hell.

Tell us about your relationship with LA; what do you find so compulsive about it? Boomtown, Sirens in the City and A Secret Silken World are colourfully ambivalent! Do you think city life is the apogee of civilisation or closer to its nadir?
Well, firstly, it's my home; where my friends are, my studio, my family, etc. That doesn't change the fact that it is a genuine nightmare of a city. It's ugly, violent, mean-spirited, dominated by nouveau riche, and maintained by a notoriously brutal and corrupt police force. Its impact on the world is literally immeasurable. Its language has become a global language, through the television, through the movies... It's a boomtown, as it always has been, and attracts the kinds of people that are attracted to easy money and all that goes with it. Its princes are whores and its kings are their pimps. But of course everyone knows that.

As far as civilisation goes, I think its apogee was probably Jefferson's gentlemen farmers: spiritual, educated folk with a direct connection to the land. But cities provide a home for the wayward, and a fractious environment for them to populate, and out of friction comes heat, and out of heat, art, along with anything else people can see their way to create. Ambivalent enough for you?

Grace of my Heart is both one of our favourite films of recent years and one of the most rewarding soundtracks we've heard. What can you tell us about the project? How did you attempt to get into the mindset of 60s songwriters (or the teenage lesbians of My Secret Love for that matter) when writing the songs?
Oh that's another of the little tricks of my trade. I spent about a year or two just immersing myself in one thing or another; The Bible, Baroque music, Hank Williams, whatever, and as an exercise, tried to 'channel' whatever little tributary I was swimming in. I just learned to embrace the mindset of whatever I was trying to impersonate, or channel, and simply write that way.

If you'd been the right age in the 60s could you see yourself as a Brill Building songwriter?
I think I would have gone insane in the
Brill Building, but I bet I'd have been really good at it.

Tell us about working with Larry Klein — he seems to have been a creative foil for your work for a long time. What qualities do you bring out in one another?
He sort of contains me — my bile, viciousness, sarcasm, whatever — and I provide him with a little more edge, and of course, lyrics.

Can we expect a new solo album from you before long or is film work taking your work in different directions?
Well, I've started a band, The New Folk Underground, with Will Sexton and some other friends and conspirators, and we're starting to play around LA a little bit. it's taken front and centre space in my attention, as it's easily the best music I've ever been involved with. I'll do the odd film thing as it comes up, but my primary focus is this band and its myriad possibilities. It's not really 'folk music', as I'm sure you can believe, but more our interpretation of what "folk" should be: humanist, melodic, groovy fun music with content and spirit. I love it. We're playing tonight, in fact.

Do you have any favourite quotations which have impacted upon your life?
If you make an enemy of the world, so it shall of you.

What makes you happy?
My little boy, Beker (14 months old).

 
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