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JULES SHEAR

Not Averse to a Chorus
Hearsay #12 / 1996 / Interview with Ewen and Neil

jules_michaelhalsband
"It's always shocking to hear someone else's idea of how one of my songs should go"
 

When we heard that JULES SHEAR, whom we unequivocally proclaimed the world's greatest living songwriter wayyyy back in  issue 4, was visiting the UK for a few days, we couldn't pass up the chance to pursue the opportunity for an interview. Among Jules's many credits are not only collaborations with many of the artists on our A-list (Matthew Sweet, Pal Shazar, The Band, The Pursuit of Happiness, Til Tuesday and Chuck Prophet to name but six) but an outstanding array of eclectic solo works. Indeed, songwriting guru Paul Zollo of SongTalk maga­zine recently pronounced Jules's 1983 record Watch Dog ‘one of the world's most enjoyable albums.’ So, the scene is a hotel in South Kensington, the weather is mildly chilly post-summer and this is what we discussed…

HEARSAY: On your last two records (The Great Puzzle, 1992 and Healing Bones, 1994), after a career of very eclectic albums with very different styles, you seem to have settled into a distinct band style of folk-rock. Do you feel you've now found a comfortable sound you're happy with or was this just another avenue you were exploring before moving on to something else?
JULES SHEAR
: Davitt Sigerson signed me originally to Polydor. I knew he'd produced some records and I liked them, so when he signed me he said, ‘it's gonna be great but I have one thing to ask of you. You go off on all these tangents all the time but I want you to make really Jules Shear records, I want you to try to make them consistently 'Jules Shear' records. Don't tell me you want to go off and record with this Brazilian guy or whatever… don't do any of that. I envision us having this series of records and they'll all be of a piece.’ And I thought, that's okay - I don't do these other things because I think 'what can I do that's really eclectic now?', I just think, 'what would be fun to do?' I have other ways to have fun within the context of what I'm doing. So I did the first one like that and I thought it turned out really good, but because The Great Puzzle didn't sell a zillion copies, as I suppose he'd hoped, we had to try something different on Healing Bones which I didn't really want to do. I said if we're gonna make them all of a piece then let's just make more of what we did. But that's the typical record business wisdom - if you didn't sell a lot of copies of your last thing, you have to change something. It can't be their fault, it has to be something you did. So I changed producers and tried a different way but still tried to keep the songs the same. Instead of trying to do something I'd never done before, I was writing songs in a vein that I knew well. The production wasn't really that different on the two albums but it was different in ways that I would know from being there.

Right now there's a number of things I want to do. I do want to make another record in that vein again but there's other stuff I want to do - I'm going to do all of the weird stuff, too. I want to do it all. I'm going to find a record company that will let me do the things that I'm more known for and also whatever else I want to do. It's not going to be easy but I'm going to try.

Do you consciously aim to make an album in a certain style or do you write all the songs on an acoustic guitar and then let the style come from the producer and the individual musicians?
Oh, the second thing. I don't really think about it while I'm writing the music. Recently that's been the case.

But how aware you are of trends? The Eternal Return, say, is very much in the typical mid-80s vein.
That had to do with the guy I was working with. He had done Rick Springfield records so that was his trip, which I went along with: ‘Okay, sure, let's make one of those.’ I'd come from the Todd Rundgren experience before that which I'd thought would be a lot more bombastic and huge but it just turned out to be Todd's funky little studio and funky little Todd. This other guy [Bill Drescher] had all the new technology so I thought, let's have a look at that! But as far as the songs go, they were probably written in the same vein, so the sound was strictly to do with who I worked with.

When you come to record an album, do you have many excess songs left over and if so how do you whittle them down?
Yes, there's more songs left over than what goes on the record. I think on the last record there's probably 35 or 37. The other thing I'm trying to achieve now with finding a new recording situation is to find somebody who's going to let me make a record every year, because when you get into this major label thing you're on the same schedule as Annie Lennox and Don Henley - you put out a record every two and a half years and that's all they're ready to accept from you. There's no way to push them to make it any quicker, they just don't understand. And then you have to go on a long producer search which is a long drawn out thing so when it was time to make the record I had three times as many songs as I needed. It's not that every song that I write is great and deserves to be heard by a wide audience but certainly there are enough out of 37 that more than 12 should get heard. I'm trying to find a label that's set up to accept an album a year. People work on different schedules; some people call themselves songwriters and they write three or four songs a year. I have to write a lot of songs - three or four songs a year wouldn't make me happy. But when the time comes to make the next record, I don't even want to hear those songs from the last one that didn't go on that record. So they just sit on a shelf somewhere and maybe they'll get sent out to some other artist, but usually they won't. When there's lots of songs, there'll be a manager person, a record company person, several people who have to put in their two cents' worth as to what songs should go on the record.

The three extra tracks on the Trap Door CD single...
Oh, those weren't the best ones. I asked my manager's right hand person to pick three of the left over demos and stick them on there. And to my mind there didn't seem any reason for those that were chosen. But it was really good that that thing came out because people played those songs and didn't really discern that they were any different from anything that was on the album.

They sound as good as anything on The Great Puzzle.
Yeah, that's good to know; that's what I think because sometimes demos are like that. What people call demos or records is such a fine line. People 'in the business' make a big distinction about it, but I don't. There were a bunch more like those done in that style. Some are drum-machiney, some are done with players - all sorts of different ways. It's weird that nothing will ever be done with those songs. It's not really upsetting because I figure as long as I get to do what I want to do, there's going to be songs that are not the ultimate song you're looking for but you have to write it to get to the next one, and if you'd skipped that one, it wouldn't really be right. I know songwriters who, when it's time to do the record, get under enormous pressure because they're thinking 'I'm working on this song which is going to be on my next record and everybody's going to think it's an important song'. It's not good to put such importance on songs - especially when you're writing them. If you write a lot of songs, you can think 'this may be on the record or it may end up on the shelf’. You start treating it like it's just music, it's not anything more important. Songs become important to people but while you're writing them you shouldn't be so precious. That's a good way to keep from being precious about it - to write a lot of songs.

Considering it's such a well-known song and you've never recorded a cover version before, why include The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore on Healing Bones?
I did a tour in America with four other songwriters. We went out without bands and sat on the stage together, went around and sang songs. For the last song of the night we were supposed to sing a song you didn't write but you wished you'd written. There were lots of different ones but certain ones would come up time and time again. I'd written a song with Marshall Crenshaw and we had certain songs we'd sing together when it came to that time of the night. One of the songs we did was The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore and people would go crazy but afterwards they'd say, 'Who did that song? I sort of remember that song...’ and I'd say, ‘what are you talking about?!’ I thought it was part of a standard repertoire and that everybody knew the Walker Brothers did it. It's insane to think that other people are as into music as we are! [laughs] People had forgotten it, and the Walker Brothers were never huge in America. They had The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore and one more hit, Make It Easy On Yourself. People who are just peripherally involved with music don't really know about the Walker Brothers. When I realised that, I thought maybe it'd be interesting to do a version. But I didn't want to do a Phil Spector production because they've already done that. Peter Van Hooke, one of the co-producers, is a drummer - he'd played with Van Morrison for a while - and he made a bunch of drum loops for me. He thought it'd be fun for me to write with some drum loops. I started messing about with them and thought maybe it'd be a good drum loop to do The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore - it'd be a whole different kind of version. I asked Elliot Easton what he thought and he said it'd be great to do with a drum loop and lots of acoustic guitars so it wasn't like a techno thing. It was really fun to make a 60s record updated. Especially with Elliot who's a total 60s fanatic, and Rod [Argent] who's an actual 60s guy! It was really fun to make it. Maybe it was a weird thing to put on one of my records but I liked it and we had a good time doing it.

Talking of covers, is it true that Nana Mouskouri covered one of yours?!
Yeah, she did All Through The Night. But it would be in a different language. She sang it in… what does she sing in?

Greek? German? French?
It seemed kind of German. I remember hearing it. I think I have it on vinyl somewhere. It's called something-something-die Nacht! There was a Swedish version, a French version, Nana's version there were lots of versions. But they never tried to copy my version, always Cyndi's! Yeah, Nana.... I've never met her or anything.

Obviously you're happy that people cover your songs but does it ever feel frustrating that, say, Alison Moyet can have a hit with Whispering Your Name when nobody really knows your original version of it?
No, it's okay cos if she hadn't done it then nobody would ever have heard it. Well, not nobody , but people in general. It exposes it to so many more people, even if they only get a percentage of what I'd originally wanted them to get. She actually did a good job.

I first heard her version on the radio once and thought, ‘hang on, that's Whispering Your Name!’ I was sitting on a coach in the snow and this version just came over the radio.
Somebody wrote a letter into Musician magazine in the States recently and said something like, ‘Dear Musician, I was in an elevator the other day and I heard a Jules Shear song on the Muzak. Is this one of the signs of the apocalypse?’ [laughs]. I have a Muzak version of If She Knew What She Wants. Somebody sent it to me and I keep thinking I should put it on my answering machine. If somebody knew me they'd just hear [hums Muzak simulation] and they'd think ‘where did that come from?! Could Jules have recorded that?!’

But. no, when anyone else records something that's cool with me. I've never heard one when I've wished they hadn't recorded it. I've heard them when I've thought they weren't good. I usually think they're not good, probably. That's because when I write them I have a way in mind that I think they should be recorded so it's always shocking to hear someone else's idea of the way the song should go coz I've had only my own idea. From growing up, most of my listening involved people who sang songs that they wrote. That was always the most interesting thing to me – that the person who sang it was also the person who made it up. I always think the songwriter's version is the actual version.

I recently did a show in front of 1000 people in Boulder, Colorado; it was a syndicated radio show going directly to DAT. There was me and Emmylou Harris with Daniel Lanois. At the end of the show I had to do a song with Emmylou and we had to sort out what we'd do between us. I'd been through the MTV Unplugged experience of trying to get people to play together and I know what a pain it is and how some people take to it immediately but others have never had the experience and aren't willing to bend. I figured she's sung with lots of people and the most polite thing would be to ask her what she wanted to do. She said, ‘Do you know You Don't Miss Your Water?’ So I said, ‘You Don't Miss Your Water Till Your Well Runs Dry, right? Yeah, it's a William Bell song. He's a great soul songwriter.’ I started talking about some of the songs he'd written that I thought were really great and she was going, ‘oh, well, the band knows it coz we've done it before.’ I said. ‘No problem. I know it, it'll be easy.’ We got there for soundcheck and they started playing this song and I didn't know it at all! I just thought what is that? And they said, ‘OK, here comes the second verse: Jules, sing it!!’ It was different chords and everything. I tried to fit in the song as I knew it over the chords they were playing. I said, ‘how do you know this song, where did you learn it?’ Apparently – and this is something I missed in my musical education – the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers did a version and Emmylou must have had a relationship with it, maybe coz of the Gram Parsons thing. I knew the William Bell version and my feeling was that I knew the right version coz it was the version of the guy who wrote it! I tried to get into the way they were doing it, but I do in my heart believe they were doing the wrong version. It's like the game of Telephone where people tell stories and it keeps changing as it goes along. Even the soul guys, I preferred the guys who wrote their own songs. That's why I'm such a great Joe Tex fan. The stuff he wrote was amazing. A great songwriter who was also a singer –that's what I always wanted to be.

How do songwriting collaborations come about? Do you tend to work spontaneously with friends or do you get approached in a professional capacity to co-write?
Both, really. I'm not too into co-writing. Even though I say that, I've made some really good friends co-writing, and if I'm left to my own devices I'd just stay home and never meet anybody. It works as a good way for me to meet people and find out what they're thinking about. It's amazing how everyone hears music differently. You guys may have similar tastes but I'm sure even the two of you hear things differently. Everybody does, it all comes from your frame of reference. Everything that's happened to you before all comes into play when you're listening to something else. So the ways in which other people approach songwriting can be really eye-opening. It's probably a really healthy thing to have a look at that sometimes and not just go and hide in your own little cave and not be interested in what anybody else does. I know a lot of songwriters who never listen to music. I think it's better to hear other stuff and then either ignore it or filter it through your own brain – it's always good to know about it. Co-writing is part of that. It's a therapeutic thing to try once in a while. Although, I am going to the extreme. When I get back to the States I'm doing something I've never done before in my life and may never do again and may be sorry I did – I'm going to go to Nashville! I'm going to write with eight or nine different people I've never met before. Most of them are going to be country people and I never listen to country music, except maybe Hank Williams. I don't know who these people are but I'm told they're all really important, famous country music people. I'm committed to doing this and it's an experience to see what it's like and what they're doing down there. I've said so many bad things about Nashville over the years but I'm going to go check it out. I may come back and say 'those people are so wonderful and they have such a great attitude to their work!' I know a lot of the songwriters are scheduled so it's like, 10 o'clock you start work and at 5 o'clock you knock off and you don't work weekends. It's a song mill and the idea of that is really unappealing to me but for a week I can hack it. I'll see if anything comes out of it.

Writing with my friends is different. Writing with Stephen Hague or someone, we just do it for fun. Writing songs with strangers, well, I've had some terrible experiences but more than half have been good experiences. Maybe once out of eight times a good song will come out of it. It's not great odds so I don't do it a lot. As to how it gets done, I usually just defer to whatever they want to do coz I don't really have a method. It's amazing sometimes how people want to do it. I've had people who definitely must write the words to the song when they're not very good at it. And I just go, 'Why am I here? Why are you here? Why are we here? What's happening?!' I try to get upfront from them whether they've been coerced into it by their record label or whether their manager is a friend of my manager and that's the reason we're together because if it is then I'm not going to do it. But lots of times people just want to do it.

Right before I came here. I had a guy who's made two records and he said, ‘I can't write choruses.’ And I said, ‘But you're a songwriter! How does that work? Are you a verse specialist?!’ He said, ‘I dunno... I try to write them but it just doesn't come out right.’ And I said. ‘Do you hate choruses?’ He said, ‘No, I love them when I hear them in other people's songs.’ So I said, ‘So you're not averse to a chorus?’ He said, ‘No, I'd love it.’ He said he had this musical piece and I said it sounded to me like it started with a chorus so I asked if he'd be averse to starting with a chorus. He said, ‘It'd be like a wet dream to me if it started with a chorus – a song that starts with a chorus! Unbelievable!’ So I was able to help him, I guess, to do something he didn't think he could do, but I really can't figure out why he couldn't do it. I saw what he wanted out of me – he didn't want me to write any words. That can be awkward in the long run, though, if I end up with a song with my name on it when someone else has written the words. Music is such a general thing – you can say a chord change or a melody doesn't really feel like something I would've done, but with words it's obviously something I wouldn't have done, and while a chord change can rarely be embarrassing, words can so often be embarrassing. Sometimes I don't want to put my name on things after they're finished but I don't want the other person to feel like I'm making a comment on them – although I am! I wish them all the best with it, and if it's a hit it's to my advantage financially. I have actually taken my name off songs and used an assumed name so I could still get paid in case the record was a huge record! But I've only done that once and the record didn't do that well because it was terrible. Co-writing is weird. Sometimes I wish I never did it, never had to do it and could just be left alone. But if I'd always done things by my first inclination, I'd never have made a record in my life and would still be very withdrawn and wouldn't have done the things I've done in my career. Sometimes you just have to blast outside of what you'd ordinarily do. It's not a perfect situation but it's the world, and the world is not a perfect situation. You just have to try and fit in with it somehow.

How did the collaboration with The Pursuit of Happiness [A Villa in Portugal] arise?
I knew Moe [Berg] from a band I produced in Canada. I got a call from somebody to say Moe was staying in New York and we spent an afternoon together and we wrote two songs. He wrote the words to one and I wrote the words to one – sometimes that's how it works if you have two songs. Then you get together later and say what you think about each other's words and you get it straight. I wrote the words for A Villa in Portugal, I think, but he might have changed a few. That was a good record. I liked that one. Too long, though. Albums are too long these days. CDs just go on and on and on. I got a copy of that CD and drove from New York to Woodstock, and I was going to just listen to the album as an album thinking I'd just hear my song when it popped up. That was cool for the first 12 or 13 songs but by then I was thinking when is it going to come off? My song was something like fifteenth on a 17-song album. It took forever! When people talk about value for money, they should be thinking about the quality of the song. That's the thing with CDs. I've been listening to vinyl recently. In my home town, Pittsburgh, there's a store there that's all vinyl. This guy who owns CD stores in Pittsburgh took all the old vinyl he'd collected over the years and opened a vinyl-only shop. He spends all his time in the vinyl shop – that's what he loves. I bought a bunch of stuff when I was there. It was really fun to hear four or five songs and have it be over – it seemed like a great listening experience! To sit down and listen to 17 songs in a row... well, I guess it's good for long trips.

Living in Woodstock now as you do, do you feel part of a community of songwriters? Graham Parker was saying recently that Woodstock is full of songwriters who walk around looking at their feet and trying to look inconspicu­ous in case anyone jumps on them and asks them to play a benefit.
That's really funny. There are a lot of benefits! I run into Graham at the health food store from time to time... I don't think there's that many, though. There's a lot of wannabes. I guess because it's just a little town, considering the size there's more than there should be but I don't really feel part of a community. When the Bearsville theatre was in operation it was more of a community. Now that place is out of commission because it didn't make any money. Now there's just little bars to play in and people don't go out as much. There'll always be a level of musician who'll show up in town. As far as the 'artiste' types, they do what Woodstock is really best for which is staying home and doing your work. There are two types of people: those who stay at home and are a recluse, which is how Todd was viewed. Graham and Marshall are viewed that way, and probably me as well. But then there are those who just go and have coffee in each other's kitchens and while away the day. It's very easy to do that there. It's a good way to avoid doing the hard stuff. It's much easier to buy a new piece of equipment than it is to write an actual song. Some people do that but it's a trap really, something to stay away from.

How do you view your career? Do you feel satisfied by it and do you feel you've been a success on your own terms?
I guess I've been successful on my own terms because I do what I want to do. Success, well... I haven't had to do anything else, so I guess that is successful! [laughs] But success as far as knowing that your future is secure and that you'll never have to work again – no, I don't have that kind of success. But that's okay. It seems like if you're really self-consciously eccentric then people will accept you as that crazy guy who does all that stuff. But I've always thought that my taste was really mainstream in a weird sort of way. The things I really like and the things I grew up being attracted to were usually pretty popular. There were definitely obscure bands and artists that I liked growing up but a lot of what I liked was actually on the radio when I was growing up. So I don't feel that what I do is that outside the mainstream. That makes it even more difficult. Over the years people have been tempted to sign me to record labels thinking 'we're gonna have huge hits with this guy' and it just doesn't happen. It seems like it's a little bit off-kilter for everybody or it doesn't feed into what's happening at the time. And when people really try to make me into something that is mainstream, that seems to work even worse. Over the years I realised that rather than try to camouflage what you truly want to do, the best thing is to paint it red, play up the things you want to do and not try to conform to anything. That's definitely something I'm concerned about right now, trying to find where the next home will be for the recordings I'm making. I'm already making them so it's not like anybody will be able to control it, so I've got to find somebody who's into what I'm doing. There's always somebody who digs it enough to want to put it out. That's all I really need to keep me going. There's financial matters to be concerned about from time to time, but mainly I have this really full-hearted belief that if I just do what I want to do, as good as I can, them I'm going to reach some kind of natural level where I'll be able to keep myself going and although I may never get rich I'm convinced that I won't ever starve to death. That's the path I've chosen.

More: Jules Shear: 1998 mini-interview
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