Joan Baez – There’s always something mysterious about a song
Joan Baez’s clear soprano served as a clarion in the 1960s wars on injustice. Her music provided inspiration, succor and validation to the legions battling racial and gender inequity, not to mention the seemingly endless carnage in Southeast Asia. A heady period both personally and professionally, it was the equivalent of landing on the moon.
By comparison, the balance of her career seemed lost for a hill worthy of the taking. Baez’s influence continues to be formidable on behalf of issues that inspire her considerable passion, but she seems to have taken, as well, to the satisfaction of simply doing only what she enjoys when it pleases her. You can tell because she laughs a lot.
It was with some humility, then, that we learned she had taken great care to prepare for this interview. She revisited her release Dark Chords On A Big Guitar (Koch) and wrote down her thoughts about recording a set of songs that likely are well-known by most No Depression readers — tunes written by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Greg Brown, Steve Earle, Joe Henry, Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary and Josh Ritter.
“I don’t usually talk about music,” she explained. “I don’t talk about the songs on a record because it’s always been a mystery to me why I pick them. Then I thought, you know, if someone’s going to talk to me for an hour, I’ll have to pay attention!”
It turns out that, to Baez, a lot of it is, and will remain, a mystery. Her voice is the Big Guitar, and it is her pleasure to have allowed her producer (Mark Spector), her young bandmates (George Javori and Byron Isaacs), and particularly these “fresh” songwriters to provide the Dark Chords.
I. THE OPPOSITE OF STANDING UP AND SHOUTING
NO DEPRESSION: Your vocals on this record are not the soaring kind of anthemic, vibrato-laden things that we’ve heard from you in the past. They’re really intimate.
JOAN BAEZ: My vocal coach isn’t very happy about it. He prides himself in keeping my upper range, but he’s classical, and this is not classical. What happened was, I asked Mark Spector to produce it. He was searching to try to find the perfect producer and I finally said, “You’re it! You know me; you know the music; you know what you want to hear.” I think he’s been storing up ideas for the last ten years and he had a very definite feeling. When it kept staying in the lower range, and I was taking note to be a little bit forceful, he would ask me to pull it back.
It was fascinating how it began to go really dark. I think that we reflect the times no matter what we do, and the times were getting very very dark. It isn’t a protest album, you know? But the songs stayed low and very intimate, and it was almost like talking to people instead of singing to them. These are dark times. Maybe it calls for being intimate. Maybe it’s just the opposite of standing up and shouting and trying to be heard.
The same thing [was true] in choosing songs. I don’t know how it happened, but what I just [now] did was bury myself in the CD — I purposely didn’t listen for a while — to see what the links are to me. Because I’m the one who decides which ones I’ll sing. There’s always something mysterious about a song, about why I choose it, so I tried to figure some of that out. Usually I can’t.
For the first 25 years, certainly, of my career, I could understand why I picked a protest song. That was very clear to me. And a lot of songs are like “Yellow Coat” [a Steve Goodman song Baez recorded on her 1977 release Blowin’ Away] — for instance, why would I [have chosen] that? Sometimes just because it’s a beautiful song. Sometimes because it has some kind of message that’s subterranean — like “Caleb Meyer” [a Welch/Rawlings contribution to Dark Chords]. And people will say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and they think it’s cool until they realize she slits his throat at the end of it.
ND: Do you see any common thread in the songs that wound up on the record?
JB: I do. I think they’re old. I was listening purposely the other day to a standard, you know, regular radio station? (laughs) It’s a riot! The songs don’t…say…anything. There’s not anything that has any meaning. [Another thread] is there’s a lot of “female-ness” on it that I hadn’t noticed or paid any attention to. In [Greg Brown’s] “Rexroth’s Daughter”, he’s looking for this elusive woman. Wonderful images somehow or another connect you with this daughter. And [Natalie Merchant’s] “Motherland” is motherland, and “Caleb Meyer”, because Gillian slits his throat, I guess.
“Rosemary Moore” [a Caitlin Cary song] — I kind of picture ex-hippies. But she’s saying, “Don’t bother mourning, you were never that happy anyway.” It kind of smashes icons. My sister Pauline lives deep in a valley. She’s not a social being particularly. She has a friend who fit this song so perfectly, it’s almost as if this song was dedicated to her. Her husband died and, yes, she loved him and whatever. But now it’s time for her to have her life.
“Sleeper” [another Brown tune], I turned it into a woman’s song. In [Josh Ritter’s] “Wings”, I get the feeling that Ann is doing some of the directives. I left out a “she says” because it was too many words in a sentence, but [as written] she, Ann, says, “It’s the closest thing to rain.” And that’s it. “Elvis (Presley Blues)” is just written by a woman [Welch]. And [Joe Henry’s] “King’s Highway” — who knows? That’s the weirdest one of all.
When I was poking around and kind of finding things out as I went along — there’s boldness in the songs. “King’s Highway” is a bold song; if anyone listens all the way through, you’re left scratching your head. I mean, the guy murders somebody — I think he’s thinking, “Should I do this? A lot of people talk about it, but am I going to do it, or am I just going to be a phony?” Then he knocks the guy off, but feels compassionate about him, as if he feels something so the guy won’t thing he killed him for nothing! If that doesn’t come out of slightly dark times, I don’t know what does.
ND: Murder ballads are often so complex like that, especially the ones about a person killing someone they love.
JB: That’s the old folk stuff, and that’s the first ten years of my life when I used to sing only what was from ancient music. And then there was like a middle period for me when I did a lot of my own writing and did songs that people wrote about the world around us that people wanted to hear, i.e., the “We Shall Overcome” time period and the Vietnam War time period.