Peter Himmelman on Best Shows and Never Losing the Fish
I view Peter Himmelman as one of America’s best, yet unsung, songwriters, so I ask him his views about the unsung part.
“I’m smiling at this question, and it’s a good one,” he says. “It unlocks a lot of things for me. Let me take a whack at it. I believe that while mankind has ultimate free will, we are all, paradoxically, still part of a much larger system, still playing out roles that were meant for us.
“They are roles that place us in the environments and situations where we can best utilize our resources for the betterment of the world,” continues Himmelman, who released a fantastic new album, There is No Calamity, last August. “In other words, it’s a way of saying ‘I am here — even now, answering these questions for a purpose.’ To complain too much about my station in life would be to say that my plan is a better one than God’s.
“But here’s where things get tricky and circular. What if I don’t like where I am? What if I’m in a terrible place? Then I believe it is incumbent upon me to take action to change those circumstances. Getting back to how I view being unsung, as you put it, let’s just say I wrestle with it.”
Himmelman needed Kickstarter support to bring There is No Calamity to life, and the campaign resulted in 235 backers pledging $18,391. I ask him why he chose that title, and about his lyrical aims on the album.
“Oftentimes, when the moment comes for giving one of my records a title, I’ll have a read through some of the album’s lyrics,” he responds. “There’s usually a line that sort of calls out to me as a potential title. The line ‘There is no calamity’ comes in the chorus of a piano ballad called ‘I Pity You Poor Spirits.’ The odd thing about my lyrical ideas — and this is a kind of general statement — is I find that the ones that affect me the most, or those that seem like they will be the most enduring, are those that come with a lot of ambiguity.
“After they emerge, I sit and wonder about them, and they might appear later in random thoughts or dreams — as if they have something in them that demands my attention. That doesn’t happen with lyrics that are overly intellectualized. It happens with things that are, in some ways, culled from a dream. The title line is clearly one of those. Of course, for people who feel like it was a political or social commentary, by all means, go for it. It might well be. But I wrote the song about two years ago, so go figure.”
There Is No Calamity, Himmelman says, differs from most albums in his catalog. It was recorded with his Chicago-based touring band and some musical friends and produced by Los Lobos band member Steve Berlin.
“An obvious difference is that this is one of the few recordings of mine that I let someone from outside my circle have such a large say over the way it was produced,” he says. “The short story is that my producer, Steve Berlin, who’s a friend of Scott Tipping, the guitarist on this project, was able to articulate in one conversation the manner in which a new album of mine could be made — from the economics to the studio, the city, which ultimately was Portland, Oregon, to the kind of sounds he thought we would be able to achieve.
“This created a feeling of, ‘Yeah, let’s move ahead with this.’ Prior to our phone call. I’d been sitting on the idea of recording, rather than actively pursuing it. You could say Steve’s got a knack for communicating a vision.”
The vision turned into Himmelman’s 15th album — one full of insightful lyrics, driving rock and roll, and inspired vocals that sometimes bring to mind Elvis Costello and Randy Newman and are supplemented by fine backup singing.
Himmelman has also has released five albums of music for children, a few live compilations, and about 10 records of outtakes and rarities called From The Himmelvaults.
“Since I have kids, I won’t deign to say something stupid like ‘My records are like my children, and I’m proud of all of them,’” he says. “No, record albums are not children. But somehow I do feel a bit bad picking favorites. If I had to choose I’d say some of the highlights are: From Strength to Strength, Flown This Acid World, The Mystery and the Hum, The Boat That Carries Us, and Are You There. Maybe the new record will fit in that category too, but it’s too soon to tell.”
Himmelman, who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and now lives in Los Angeles, has a unique description of the style of music he plays.
“Just the other day I described it like this for an Iranian immigrant: My music is sort of like Bruce Springsteen meets Bob Dylan, meets Bob Marley, meets Tom Waits, meets Howlin’ Wolf, meets Jimi Hendrix, meets Don Williams, meets Gregg Allman.”
Okay, so who are your favorite songwriters? I ask.
“I think I just named them,” Himmelman replies. “Why are they my favorites? Describing attraction is like describing will or desire; it’s complicated. A record producer friend of mine named Kenny Vance, who was a member of the early ’60s band Jay and the Americans, once described listening to music as being drawn in — hypnotized. It’s like reeling in a fish on a line. One false note, or one poorly phrased lyric or clichéd line, would release the fish from the hook. I think about the artists I love the most, and I can tell they never lose the fish.”
Bob Dylan has hooked so many people with numerous great songs, so I ask Himmelman whether it’s an albatross or cool during interviews when music writers bring up Dylan’s name. Himmelman is married to Dylan’s daughter, Maria.
“It’s neither,” he replies. “As you well know, being a music writer or a journalist of any kind is a tough business these days; it always was. Bob Dylan is one of the most famous names in the world, and fame sells. Fame or the promise of fame is more alluring than any idea or creative work. It’s no coincidence that people want to have the search-engine-optimization power of a Bob Dylan connected with their piece. I don’t mention this with any cynicism or derision — it’s the way things are. And I get it. It’s a cool story, young up-and- coming rock musician marries Bob Dylan’s daughter.”
Thirty years ago, Rolling Stone wanted to do a story about the wedding, “maybe have a photo of me in a tux and my new bride in a wedding dress,” Himmelman recalls. “I know for a fact that a few folks at Island Records were incredulous when I basically said “No fucking way.” Who, they asked, would turn down a huge press opportunity like that? I would, and I did. As much as I always wanted to be famous, whatever that might have meant at the time, I still had the clarity of mind to know there were things that superseded fame. They were basic things like honor, respect, love, fidelity, integrity, and self-respect.”
Himmelman says he’s been “pretty productive,” but the most important thing he’s accomplished in life is his marriage of nearly 30 years.
“The understanding I’ve been blessed with through that union, and the children we’ve raised, are what gives my music its weight,” he says. “And here’s the simple reason why I never talk about my esteemed father-in-law in interviews: I respect and honor him and his privacy.”
Himmelman performed once with Dylan, joined by the late actor Harry Dean Stanton, at a Chabad telethon in 1989. They played three songs, including a version of the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila.”
At his own live shows, Himmelman has covered a few Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, and he says he “used to do a rousing cover of Like a Rolling Stone.”
“I do ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ (a blues song first recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern and later popularized by Muddy Waters) once in a while, and, occasionally, I’ll sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ They’re songs that fit in somehow with what I’m trying to do on a given night — and they’re things I think I won’t butcher.”
Himmelman says the best concert he attended as a spectator was a reggae show by a very famous artist.
“My favorite concert ever was seeing Bob Marley at a small theater on the University of Minnesota campus,” he says. “I was 17. It must have been 1979, and I was playing with a Caribbean band called Shangoya. They were the ones who took me to the show. The first three minutes of that show were the most indelibly electric moments of stagecraft I’ve ever seen. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, from Trenchtown, Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Wailers.’ And they were off and skankin’!”
I ask Himmelman what musical aims remain for him.
“I’m studying with a brilliant Argentinian guitarist named Martin Morretto whom my wife and I met recently in New Orleans,” he says. “We get together every week over Skype to learn some Wes Montgomery-style jazz chord melodies. It deepens my pool of harmonic ideas and challenges the way I look at guitar. Where that takes me, I can only imagine.”