Joan Baez – There’s always something mysterious about a song
II. I DON’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING MORE IN MY LIFE THAT’S DIFFICULT
ND: Are you doing any writing now?
JB: Actually, at the moment I’m not, for about ten years I guess. It suddenly became hard. I do lots of poetry.
ND: I saw some on your website. “Jade”.
JB: Oh, “Jade”? That’s about my drummer [George Javori]. By the way, my drummer and my bass player [Byron Isaacs] probably expanded my musical horizons enormously. They’re very young. The drummer has a Hungarian — I think it’s fair enough to say Gypsy — background. His father is a drummer; his grandmother was a drummer, and so that’s really what the poem is about. But his drumming to me is so brilliant and so inspiring that there are a lot of songs that maybe I wouldn’t have thought about or wouldn’t have done for a number of years, and he changes all of that. He’ll hear something from one of my older albums and take out the drums and play the way he would have played it, and it’s just totally different. I adore the two of them.
ND: What were some of their particular contributions to this record?
JB: They just did it! There were no arrangements. They just sat down and did them. [Javori] actually became musical director. As he went along, Mark and I decided it was appropriate. He’s only 30.
ND: What led you down this path, to seek out songwriters like these?
JB: I said to Mark, it was about ten years ago, I don’t want to write now. I don’t want to do anything any more in my life that’s difficult. So you have to do that part; you go and find the songs. So he kind of went out on this quest, which began sort of a networking process of finding songwriters, and most of them were younger. And I liked the fact that it was music that initially, I’d have to kind of scratch my head, because it didn’t fall into the basin where Baez had lived for forty years. It was just outside of that. It’s in some funny margin, and I liked that very much.
And a quirky song can become a classic for me. I don’t know the reason. Like “Welcome Me” from the Indigo Girls. I couldn’t even really tell you much what it’s about, and at the beginning I heard it and scratched my head. Then I began doing it, and something in the doing it, and seeing through their eyes and hanging out with them and singing onstage with them — that’s kind of what I’ve done for the last ten or twelve years.
ND: Have you met any of the people whose songs you sing on Dark Chords?
JB: I met Greg just at one concert. Gillian I’ve sung with. Josh opened for me a couple times on the last tour; that’s how and when I met him. I haven’t met [Steve Earle] yet, but I’m gonna go to England with him and Emmylou [Harris] and I think somebody else for that landmine thing [a pair of “Concerts For A Landmine Free World” benefits that were held on August 9-10 in Edinburgh, Scotland and Leicester, England].
ND: Was it hard to choose from among all the artists making music in this vein?
JB: [Mark] has to do the initial reaching out because I won’t. Right now I’m playing the hostess in a circus and I don’t have the time. I’m playing a role in a circus dinner club [Teatro ZinZanni, San Francisco] and that is absolutely, totally time consuming, and I would not be out trying to find songs at the same time. And he has the knack. If he finds a hundred songs and he sends me 20, usually 18 of them ring a bell for me. Over the last few years he’s sent me probably only about 40.
III. THEY ARE GOOD SONGS…BECAUSE THEY’RE UNDERSTATEMENTS
ND: How did these songs rise to the top, do you think?
JB: Part of it’s talent, like Gillian. That’s easy enough to see. Greg Brown, his images….What I also went and did [in preparation for the interview], I tried to pick out a line from the songs that jumped into my head. “Life is a thump ripe melon,” in “Rexroth” — that would be the line. “Fifteen dollars hid above the stove” [from Ryan Adams’ “In My Time Of Need”] — the farms are all running dry but this particular couple is very touching, because they’ve known each other for a long time. I see calico. I see made-up stuff in my head when I see them. Frail, having worked too hard, I still see them as young.
(“Sleeper”) I wanted to make a woman’s song because I could — because I could see it that way. The line about “your drunken face,” he was singing it about a woman; I saw it much more clearly as a man….In “Rexroth’s Daughter”, there’s another line: “What is real but compassion, as we move from birth to death.” I always wait for that line because I like singing it.
“Caleb Meyer” is just old as hell. And it’s a shocker. The images are very clear to me. The guy shows up drunk at her back door and smashes a bottle and tries to rape her. And she’s not having any of it. I just love “Elvis Presley Blues.” It’s a beautiful song; it takes you from being in that shirt his mother made. I don’t think I understand the middle verse, about “took it all out of black and white/placed one hand on the other/and held on tight.” I’m not sure what that means, whether they’re referring to [the fact that] he sang black music, but a thought that I had was that he was on the Ed Sullivan Show, which was black and white, but I don’t think so.
ND: What about “Motherland”?
JB: The beginning of it seems very clear to me. Where is there left to go? Everything’s getting covered with concrete. The image I have is very bizarre. You know how in The Lord Of The Rings, the second one, when the elves are leaving elf land? That’s the image I have. “Where in hell can you go?/Far from the place that you know.” And it’s a trudging away from home. Then, obviously, I don’t know what she means by a lot of it. Certainly not the “shotgun bride”; I don’t know what that means.