Open Invitation
Hearsay #16 / 1997 / Interview with Pete and Ewen

"If you were in a fight, you would want me on your side"
When we heard SYD STRAW (exquisite songstress and sessioneer) was in town to play the 12 Bar Club, Pete decided to phone Hearsay's erudite pal Peter Blegvad to see if he knew anything of her whereabouts. 'Hey, I'll bet you guys want to interview Syd Straw,' observed Mr Blegvad, correctly. 'Do you want to talk to her? She's right here. I'll pass you over...' 'Wow! All my firends are in your magazine,' observed Syd, correctly. 'Why don't we do an interview in the Blegvads' beautiful garden?' Hearsay doesn't need asking twice on occasions like this. Pete 'n' Ewen dropped everything (that should read: 'our respective everythings'; contrary to popular belief, we don't all live in a house with three front doors and one huge living room) and hot-footed it to Shepherd's Bush.

EWEN C. MOORE:  What were the differences between recording your two albums?

SYD STRAW: I was really a girl when I made Surprise, in 1902, and I think by the next one I was indisputably grown-up and it has a different POV because of that. I thought, 'It's been so many years and now I finally have the opportunity to record again - why do it the way I did before? I might as well pick a location and a core group and teach them the songs and see if it has a more cohesive element.' I hope it does. This band, The Skeletons, who I recorded with, are the funniest men on earth. It's like being in a band with your wacky uncles. Driving around America last summer on tour I used to just tell them they were making my stomach hurt all the time, from laughing, not just from the bad food on the road. I've been a fan of theirs for 20 years so I called them up: 'Hey, what if I came to your town and sat on your amplifier and showed you these songs, what would happen?' And they said, 'well you'd better come on down.' I'm living in Chicago these days, so I jumped in my old Saab and showed up and made this record. I don't wanna say it was easy 'cos I think we should suffer somewhat for our art but I really didn't suffer much. It was a sweet town called Springfield, Missouri - where there's just a little main strip and a perfect coffee shop and a bookstore across the street - everything you need right there. I loved making Surprise years ago because I just used it as an excuse to travel and visit people. Virgin were under the impression I was making a record when really I was just getting caught up with my friends, and that's a good way to work too. My goal now is to never never have a period of seven years in between records again.

PETE T. PAWSEY: Was it daunting working with all those great people on Surprise?

SS: I only really got nervous when Ry Cooder was in the studio and we were recording with Van Dyke Parks. You don't really have to say much - 'Oh, er, Ry? You made a mistake, could you try that again?' I don't think so! It was a real pleasure to witness him doing his job, so I got a little more quiet than usual. I've just hooked up with him again after all those years and we did a benefit In Hollywood for gun control and I still was a little quiet around him... un-characteristicallyl So, no, it wasn't too daunting and you know why? Because I only hired people I respect and people I would want to be locked in a studio with - I'm really careful about who I spend my creative time with because it's a respite from the day-to-day elements and it should be as pleasant as humanly possible. I love to record, I love to do shows... the only part that's rough is when you're alone in your room feeling, well, alone in your room, and you're trying to write. This is probably the most important part, but for me the fun part is getting the response and hearing what people think about it. Every time I've written a song I've thought, 'what if I never have another thought?' Because as you've noticed and subtly pointed out, no-one's ever accused me of being prolific. I had a lot of luck getting people to come play with me. Most people, we assume that they're too busy or you couldn't reach them but truly... I met this one man, who plays bass for Mr Peter Gabriel, Tony... Tony...

PTP:  Levin.

SS: You can see how long it's been... Tony: I remember him well! I met him years and years and years ago in a bookstore called Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard and I said to him, 'My name is Syd Straw and one day someone will let me make a record and I'd like to call you and invite you to play bass on it' and he said, 'well, here's my number.' A few years went by till I could sort it out and then I called him and he said, 'Hey! What took you so long? I waited by the 'phone for two years!' We had the best time recording in Woodstock and when he wasn't recording he was riding his motorcycle around the reservoir. Who would've thought that he would have an interest in playing with me? Maybe It was incredibly cheeky to ask but you're not gonna know unless you do ask. I don't think I've seen him since. Now I need to hire people in order to have them in my life.

ECM: What were the differences for you between co-writing and writing alone?

SS: It was very different because I didn't know how to play anything on an instrument when I made Surprise and I would hum lines and parts and find people who weren't horrified when I'd ask them to play what I could only hear in my head. They would translate it for me, and that was one way I would actualise my thoughts. It's very frustrating to hear symphonies in your head and have no way of playing them. Another way is that I had people send me some music and I would find something I really liked and put words and a melody to that, which is a successful way to work when you have no skills as an instrumentalist. On more recent tunes I'm sitting alone in my room, playing the A, D and E, and C and G chords which you'll hear a lot of on War And Peace. Every time I learned a new chord I would write a song using it and that's how those songs came into being. Co-writing's tricky because one doesn't want to insult one's creative, clever, talented friends and sometimes you're in a spot where you think, 'I can't possibly sing those words! They mean nothing to me!' I try to be largely responsible for the lyrics and that's the way it's gone with more recent co-writes. Although I could tell you a nightmare story (but we probably shouldn't), I had a really bad time co-writing with someone — I think they're schizophrenic or cruel or horrible or something — there's a good side and a small side. You notice I'm not naming names! We wrote this song and I really liked it and I wrote to the publisher to put it on my record and did everything official, and when it came out I received this horrible, wicked fax saying 'You have no scruples, you took my song and...' Anyhow this person just went mad and said that my version of the song was really an abomination and not up to their high standards. I still shake when I think of this fax 'cos I try to do right by everyone. It's probably easier in a certain way to write on your own, but I love to knock brains with talented people, I'm really drawn to it. I really admire ingenuity, people who can invent something, anythingl I wish that I had invented Levi's! We would get them for total wholesale prices. I try to be in the orbit of creative people, to me it's a great aphrodisiac. I have lots of really zany friends who come and go and come and go, but I'm sure they think the same thing of me.

I think I should brag about the basketball hoop on the wall. The other day, we were all out here shooting hoops and Viggo, Peter's son who's seven, was just tormenting me and spinning me round in circles and I was just trying to get my shot, and I just went like this over my head with one hand and it went in. Thank God, Peter and Viggo were there to be my witnesses because it was probably my finest moment. It just dropped elegantly right through.

PTP: Is that hoop at regulation height? It seems a bit high to me. Is it fair to say you're basically an impulsive opportunist in life as in basketball?

SS: Definitely! It gets me in trouble sometimes, 'cos I wanna follow all my impulses and sometimes you've gotta edit them. One of my mottoes is: You can't do too many interesting things. So you get quite fractured in your concentration, like I just did when we were talking about songs and suddenly I had to just act out this shot. You see, it was an impulse to come to London on this trip because I've just been to Cologne with Carla Bley and her incredible big band doing this amazing new piece of music called Escalator Over The Hill. That got me over the ocean and I said, 'Wow, it's been seven years since I walked on that water, I've got to go see the Blegvads!' So I called them up and said, 'What if I moved in for a week?' and they've really let me be a part of the family. The idea was to have a holiday in London but we thought we should do a show. I guess I like to travel with a purpose, I'm not accustomed to knowing what to do with myself on holiday, how does one relax? The (12 Bar) club is the size of this bench! I peered through the letter box the other day, it looks like three red stools and that was the entire thing. Peter said that they used to shoe horses there, only small horses, I think, little tiny mini-ponies. So for once I won't panic about trying to fill the place up, I'll just trust that nothing but really interesting people are coming, and then if any louts show up I'll personally show them the door... which won't be far: 'You, drunken Yahoo! Begone!' I've got my pointy-pointy boots on. Tonight at the show I'll play Blegvad's boyhood guitar, a beautiful lurid green Gretsch which he bought when he was fourteen.

PTP: Looks like one of Matthew Sweet's to me...

SS: Y'know, I didn't see him for at least seven years, and I was living in Athens, Georgia for a year and he came to town to play the 40 Watt Club and he didn't even say hello, it was as if no time had passed at all, he just went, 'Syd, do you have a joint?' and I said, 'Hey, I haven't seen you for seven or eight years, could you at least say hello, honey?' And then I had to give him the sad news that no, I wasn't holding. 'You're the rock star with two big tour buses, you're supposed to get me stoned, you null' Some things never change.

PTP: Uncharacteristically, my brother went to see Carla Bley. That was a surprise!

SS: 'You're my brother? Where's my real brother?' Peter and I were talking about my sister Sally in Texas who's ten months older than I am. She's a great singer but she only sings in church. I was her punching bag when we were growing up but now we're thick as thieves. She's very religious and a long time ago she told me that I was going straight to hell in a handbasket because I loved the Beatles, and I said, 'Now sister, you don't remember having cardboard cut-out Rickenbackers and standing on the coffee table doing shows when we were kids? I think I'll see you in hell, sis!' I'm sure they have trouble understanding my life because she has a slew of kids, which I wouldn't mind, so if I ever get the opportunity she  can show me the sisterly ropes... Or is there a manual on how to start a family?

PTP: Benjamin Spock.

SS: Oh yes. That baby doctor with the pointy ears!

ECM: I wanted to ask you about your Disney cover Blue Shadows On The Trail [from Hal Willner’s Stay Awake album]...

SS: I just went to the nicest dinner party at this artist called Pete Smith's house, and his lovely wife Jenny made a sumptuous spread — this is a dinner I will dream of and salivate while I'm dreaming — and during the dessert they had a tape and there I was singing in their kitchen and it was that song Blue Shadows On The Trail. You probably know The Sons Of The Pioneers recorded it a long time ago, and it was so odd to be hearing this song that I recorded quite a while ago and as his wife pointed out I sound about eleven years old. I might sing it in a lower key this year.

Hal Willner produced that record of Disney songs and when I was recording that one in Hollywood, Van Dyke Parks dropped by just for fun with this huge burly mountain of a man and I shook his hand and Van Dyke said, 'Syd Straw, I don't think you've met Harry Nilsson’, and I shook his hand and I looked In his eyes and I said, 'Harry! Are you in there?' He really liked that I accosted him that way and he stayed all night white we made the track. I'm not sure but, I think we had to carry him outta the studio at the end of the evening... 'It's time to go home!'

It was a good record to be on, it was pretty obscure. I didn't have a copy and I was in Seattle, so I borrowed my friend's copy 'cos I wanted to teach it to the band to play that night. That was a couple of years ago and I still have their copy the CD and every once in a while they'll call and go, 'You stole our Disney CD, we want it back)' I stole my own record! I'm not a very good self-archivist, so luckily there's a few people in the world that keep a little library of things I've done for me so I can go borrow theirs and never give 'em back.

PTP: If you've got it ready-soundtracked in your head you don't need it on CD.

SS: Yeah, I've got it in the brain I It's pretty loud right now. I usually have some kind of music spinning around my brain; today it's the Blegvad song called Bee Dream.. 'Bee all that you dream to bee... in the Ar-mee.' Now if only they would use that Blegvad slogan, then he could send me to college, it's never too late. I woke up with those lyrics in my head today and I couldn't get them out, I took a shower and they were still there, I couldn't wash them off.

PTP: It's such a stream of consciousness, how do you remember that one?

SS: Luckily for you, I remember his words better than my own. Some of these songs we haven't attempted In about ten years, and somehow there's still some functioning parts of my mind and it's all physically stored up there. My bones remember his words. See,  he's got a song called The Naked Shakespeare in my tibia, and stored In my clavicle I've got that song How Beautiful You Are. I hope my brain catches up with my body tonight, but I plan to be reading some of the lyrics and cheating, so I'll call those melodic recitations. A girl needs all the help she can get!

The stuff that I think is really stellar, like Blegvad, not enough people agree with me, there's usually room In the audience for more people. I still maintain that people like Blegvad, why doesn't he own the world?

ECM: I think that's why we do this magazine isn't it? To persuade more people that Blegvad ought to own the world.

SS: I think so, because I looked at it the first day I was here, up in his dreamy attic and It's sort of a magazine dedicated to all my friends!

ECM: I spoke to Marshall Crenshaw the other week.

SS: You took a bit like him.

ECM: He said that. I asked, 'Who would play you in the movie of your life?'

SS: And he said, 'You!' See, he's right!

PTP: You do have to answer that one, by the way.

SS: Who would play me? Mama Cass? Her ghost is really talented and hasn't been working much lately. As a girl I'd like to get Peter’s daughter Kaye to play me, and as an adult why couldn't I get Shelley Duvall? Where is she when I need her to be me? The role of a lifetime for Ms Duvall! 'Who? You want me to play who? How can I possibly portray someone I've never heard of?' I tried to slip Robert Altman my phone number years ago at a show. Someone said, 'That's Robert Altman! He'd like you, I know he would!' So I wrote a little note and was trying to think how to get it in his pocket without getting fresh. I don't remember if I succeeded but if I did, he never called! Who do you think should play me?

ECM and PTP [silence]

ECM: How about your acting, as Laurel in Tales Of The City and the maths-obsessed teacher Miss Fingerwood in The Adventures Of Pete And Pete?

SS: How did you know it was me in Tales Of The City? I had friends who saw that and said, 'You were in that?' Of course we're not friends anymore! I was in Hollywood doing some music and they tracked me down and said 'we'd like you to come audition for this thing for PBS.' So I showed up and the director and producer were just stiffly sitting in their chairs and I was terrible, I fell apart. So when I was leaving I said, 'I know I'll never see you again, but I'm glad you thought of me because I don't get to audition very much and I think that if I did maybe I'd get a little bit better at It.' Weeks went by and my doubts were confirmed, then they called and said, 'We want you.' I said, 'You're kidding, I'd totally given up on you people.' But it was really good fun because I made really good friends with Chloe Webb, who had the beautiful long red wig and played Mona. Not often if you're just a minor support character do you have time to forge any true friendships, but we did and that's all because I got that job. The show Pete And Pete isn't ever on in London, I guess. Too bad. It's about these two little redheaded brothers both called Pete. I worked on that show intermittently for over five years and now of course they're not kids anymore and in the awkward stages, so they just cancelled the shawl

ECM: Do you approach your own songs in the same way that you approach singing for other people?

SS and PTP [in unison ]: Good question!

SS: I've made it a point to only do stuff I really believe in, so I'm not embarrassed by any of it. Sometimes you can look back and cringe and shudder, but I've worked with great people on songs I really like. Some of those people have asked me to sing on things and I either wouldn't grasp the song or hear a useful part I could add, I can be a little obstinate like that. It's easier and more liberating to sing on other people's stuff, it's very hard to not take yourself too seriously with your own songs and get nervous that you're exposing too much [Syd demurely mimes the removal of a long glove]. I try never to disappoint. I have no problem editing other people's songs, whereas mine tend to go on and on because I'm a terrible self-editor.

I sometimes find you'll write a song and you may have someone or something in mind and then you'll end up singing it about someone else, or something else. Hopefully it's not such a linear process, more like you captured a mood, and it's not really about him, it's about the feeling of him. I've gone back and sung things and thought, 'now who in the world wrote this? Oh that was me. Hmmm, I wonder what I meant?' If you have a mind to and feel ambitious you can re-invent yourself nightly on stage. I tend to be how I am, I don't go through a huge metamorphosis between sitting in the audience and stepping up on stage. It's just my life, and one leads to the other.

ECM: What draws you to write? What is it that makes it a song rather than a story?

SS: How does a song emerge from the ether? I sometimes feel like a song just falls on my head like a nut from a tree. I take a lot of notes, I've thousands of matchbooks with little scribblings. But why one thing is a song and another thing is a poem and another thing is a garden, that's the difference between cattle and the land. Peter's a prolific genius, I don't know how he does what he does; I have to think that it's a very mysterious process for most people. Butch Hancock told me he writes songs in his sleep, and I've done that, but then I wake up and as it's fading from my memory I don't know how to exactly play the gorgeous tune I heard in my head. Blegvad was telling me that the song Yesterday was written in Paul's sleep. I've written a few heartwreck songs and I don't want to write too many more, but it is much harder to convey bliss and joy and not sound self-satisfied, it's much easier to mine your dark feelings. My mother will get on the phone and say, 'Honey! Write some happy! zippy! up! tunes!' Well, mom, I wish I could, but I'm not feeling very zippy. I'm trying to find happier topics. When I write a song I'm not trying to further my own obscurity, I'm really just trying to be understood. I'm not really here to confuse people any more than they're already confused by existence.

PTP: So is it therapy?

SS: Definitely! In fact, I worked with such good songwriters for so long that I just left it all to them: 'I'll just be the canary! I'll sing what you give me and try to make it sound as if maybe I had written it.' Then I thought, well, I love love love language, I read a lot, I wonder why I'm not writing? In fact, Anton Fier gave me a homework assignment in 1985 and said, 'I'd like you to write a song.' It turned out to be quite a good song called Kind Of True. So because somebody finally thought to ask me to have a little discipline to give it the effort... I'm so glad that he did because I never might've asked myself, and that jump-started this very s-l-o-w s-o-n-g-w-r-i-t-i-n-g p-r-o-c-e-s-s! Hopefully I've got a lot more to write, but they're all coming out fairly long these days.

ECM: Have you got any future recording plans yet?

SS: I'm gonna make a record in late summer! In keeping with not letting the seven years just slip through my fingers, I'm just gonna get right back up on the horse and ride again, and hopefully write again, and hopefully I won't be bucked off. I'm not exactly sure who, where or how yet but my label has given me the green light to make another record, so I feel I should jump on the opportunity.

PTP: How would you like to die?

SS:  I never wanna die. I don't wanna be a vampire or anything but I have real problems with the topic of death. I think about it a lot and I miss people. I really miss my grandparents, to this day I can sob at any given moment just thinking about how much I miss them and they've been gone a long time.

I had a dream last week on my first night in Cologne, my first night in Europe in seven years with my brand new naked passport. I was disturbed by this dream that a friend of mine, a musician, had taken their own life and water was somehow involved. Then my manager called me from Chicago a few nights later and I told him of the dream and he said, 'Oh, have you heard?' and my whole body tensed and I said, 'What? what? what?' and he told me about my little buddy Jeff. I have chills again thinking about it because I didn't know who it was in the dream, and it was before it happened. Then that night I went to the bar and had a few drinks in honour of Jeff Buckley and I went to sleep and had this... I suppose it was a dream but I'm not convinced entirely. There was someone padding around in my hotel room and I heard them open the window and look out and I heard them on the linoleum of the bathroom floor, turn the light on and off, and then they came and sat on the edge of my bed. I couldn't open my eyes but I wasn't at all concerned or alarmed about it, It was a perfectly peaceful happening but I thought, 'Wow! What was that?I

[As if by a prearranged signal, it very spookily begins to rain, prompting much amazement all round]

SS: Jeff Buckley's raining on us!

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