Danny O’Keefe – The trick as an artist is to figure out how to be continually creative
II. I THOUGHT MAYBE HE WAS HAVING A LITTLE BIT OF FUN WITH ME
ND: Has Dylan ever done “Well Well Well” himself on any of his records? DO: No, I can’t tell you how much I wait on that one. That would make my century, I think.
ND: How exactly did that come about? You mentioned that you were writing for his publishing company.
DO: Yeah. And he sent these — they were sort of demos, you know; they were kind of like jams, really. And Tina Snow, who was running the company at the time, sent one of them up to me and said, you know, “Bob suggested that maybe you could write something.” And there were no words on it. Which is beyond ironic; I thought maybe he was having a little bit of fun with me. You know, because this is obviously the guy who was, in a major way, the poet laureate of my generation, certainly the most affecting lyricist of my generation. And there were only two words on it, which he used as indicators for chord changes, which was, “Well,” “Well.”
I just figured that I might as well have fun with it. So I added the other “Well,” and made it a song about groundwater. So it was sorta throwing the ball back into his court, just to see if I could get a rise out of him. I changed the music in terms of chordal structure, but not so much in intent. But other than those two Wells, the lyrics are all mine.
ND: What other artists have you recently collaborated with musically?
DO: I’ve written with a bunch of different people. There’s a song that we haven’t recorded yet, a song called “We’re All Strangers Here” that I wrote with Michael McDonald, that I can’t wait to put on record — ideally with him playing piano and maybe doing some kind of duet, because he has one of those voices that, in a sense, I’m always envious of. It’s just so effortless, and when you try to imitate or get into the range of it, you realize how extraordinarily difficult it is to sing where he does.
There’s a whole bunch of songs that I’m just trying to figure out how I can commit them some way. Either on the internet or hopefully with a record either later this year or sometime early next year. But the way the industry has changed, and is changing, it’s a strange dance out there to figure out how to get your music heard. This is probably the biggest period of flux in the music industry that’s ever been seen. Will traditional radio last when you can download, or just play, such a huge variety of music? I mean, for me the thing that becomes the greatest complexity problem is figuring out what to listen to. There’s just so damn much of it.
ND: The majority of your new record was recorded in Nashville. Between that and the collaborative and contract writing you’ve done there, did you consider moving there to be more in the midst of the industry?
DO: I was strongly encouraged to do it, and if I’d had great success there writing country songs, maybe I would have considered it. But I’m really not a country writer, as such. And the limitations that are imposed on you — first of all, to produce an enormous amount of work, a lot of which perhaps is not up to your standards, just to create volume, and to write within a very narrow framework — is really discouraging after awhile.
The publishing companies are not generous with you as a writer. They really want volume, and they hope to get lucky in that volume. To trade Tennessee for Washington state or the Northwest in general never seemed like a good bargain. (Laughs) Not without a lot of remuneration in the process. I’m a native, you know, I love this place.
III. IT WAS LIKE A WAKEUP CALL
ND: How long has the Songbird Foundation been going?
DO: I started it about three years ago. But I’d only been involved in the performance aspect of benefit work and had never run an organization, so, from its inception to actually getting the 501(c)3 [nonprofit] status and making it a real organization took me nearly a year. It was an extraordinary education. It still is, on a daily basis. What has been my strength, or my luck really, is that I have a few friends who are artists who have helped me. Otherwise I probably would have not been able to get it off the ground.
Essentially, Jackson [Browne] and Bonnie [Raitt] provided the first year’s fundings for the foundation; that’s what’s given us our support. And doing a benefit concert last May in Philadelphia. And it was perfect timing, because the Specialty Coffee Association was holding their annual conference in Philadelphia, which was why we set it there. So it sent them a big message that, in a sense, I think they probably hadn’t looked at before.
ND: What led you initially to personally get involved with this?
DO: Like a lot of people, I had never made the connection of coffee and environment or habitat. You don’t really know where coffee comes from until you do a little work. There was an article by a Knight-Ridder writer who had been at a conference that the Smithsonian held in ’96 I think, the first Sustainable Coffee Conference. They couldn’t figure out exactly what was the reason behind the declining songbird populations.
And then, when they went into Chiapas and other places in coffee country, they realized that there were nearly as many species of songbirds in the shade, the traditionally grown coffee plantations — and virtually none in the ones that had been converted into essentially row-crop sun-hybrid plantations. And everything pretty much stemmed from that study; it was like a wakeup call….If we can’t save songbirds because we won’t change the kind of coffee that we drink, then we haven’t got a prayer of saving anything.
The beautiful thing about birds and their ability to connect with coffee, is that you’re teaching something that’s deeper, that’s really at the core — which is sustainability. If you keep up open-ended extraction policies, which is what we’ve done for a century or more, eventually you reach an edge that you can no longer sustain. And at that point, a lot of things start crashing.
People say, well, that’s sort of a Chicken Little attitude. But it isn’t. You just look at what you have, in terms of raw data, and it will tell you that there’s a lot of areas that will begin crashing fairly quickly. We’re certainly doing it here in the Northwest with timber and salmon.
ND: So you see the songbird/coffee effort as one step toward a larger environmental understanding?
DO: Yeah. If you can show a turnaround in the songbird populations — granted, there are other things that do affect songbirds. Like the enormous amount of cats, particularly feral cats that people won’t take responsibility for. The fragmentation of habitat is a byproduct of too many of us, and is so destructive of so many things. And I don’t know if we’re capable of dealing with it until we have a crisis. The only way we respond is through some kind of terrible crisis. How do you control population? It’s a Gordian knot that is really gonna be tough to cut.