Richard Shindell: Guardian of the Word
In a sense, Richard Shindell is a painter of words, emotions and worldly situations.
He’s a poet, a philosopher, a teacher, a spiritual being.
Shindell is a weaver of poetry and melody, the fabric of which is much brighter and stronger than the individual threads.
Any label for the New Jersey born, Long Island, NY raised singer-songwriter could never capture all of Shindell’s talents.
Those talents will be on display when he performs in venues across New England, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.
Shindell, now an expatriot living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is more than a folk singer. Like his protagonist in the WWI sad snapshot “Courier”, he’s the guardian of word.
His songs capture life’s big picture through the eyes and voices of characters of all sorts. There’s the Civil War widow waiting for her husband’s return in “Reunion Hill,” the immigration officer and his Latino charge who find common ground in “Fishing,” the nun who gets a flat tire on her way to a prison choir performance in “Transit.” He poses the big questions and lets the listeners decide on the answers.
Some cite Shindell’s music as social commentary, but he disagrees with the over-simplification.
“I don’t really think about it as social commentary at all. I think about it more as trying to inhabit a character almost as if I was an actor, writing from their point of view. It’s very much like a role,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Argentina.
“I just try to empathize how I think that person might talk, they might think, or what they might be concerned about or how they might say it. I don’t think it’s social commentary, it’s just observing people. Get into their skin, into their shoes and let them speak.”
Shindell has the rare ability to connect listeners with songs that put into words what many feel but can’t articulate. His songs are passionate, profound, clever and perfectly honed. His talent to glean and offer up emotions that bring tears to the listener’s eye is remarkable.
Shindell only tours occasionally and when he does, New England seems to get a lion’s share of his appearances.
His mother now lives in Massachusetts, but New England offers much more than just family – it’s comfortable.
“It’s just because it’s the highest concentration of gigs and fans and infrastructure. It’s just the kind of culture, the appreciation of this particular branch of American music that I happen to inhabit. It’s just a comfortable place for me,” he said.
“I’m a New Yorker, but this is my base.”
So it’s not unusual for him to play the nooks-and-crannies of New England, such musical meccas as Tunbridge, Vt., Old Saybrook and Norfolk, Conn., Fall River and Haverhill, Mass. All will be stops on this March tour.
With his talent and skills, Shindell could be playing arena rock before thousands. Instead, he revels in keeping true to his music and his vision of success.
“I have a really, really great life. I have a beautiful family here and a career that not a lot of people get to have,” he said.
“There’s not a lot I’d want to change about that. Maybe I could sell a few more records. I am very wary of being in the public eye. I’m very much a homebody, I go out and play and I make records once in a while, and I do tours and I enjoy it all. I love touring. I love my fans. I love recording records and I love my family. And that balance between those things is just about perfect. So making a push to sell a bazillion records and play arenas just doesn’t look right.”
When Shindell talks about his yet-to-be-released new album and pop, he’s not referring to the AM radio megahits or easy listening anthems.
He’s talking about that a-ha moment when the proverbial light bulb shatters the darkness with its brilliant shine.
“It’s pretty much done. I have about 10 songs mixed. I keep thinking to myself that it needs something else. I’m having a little bit of a hard time letting go. We’re really, really close, it’s difficult. I want it to be out, I wanted it have to been out last year. It ain’t ready ’til it’s ready. I’m not going to put it out because it’s been a while – I don’t need to do that. It can’t really happen until this little switch goes off in my head.”
Writing the songs and recording them is just a part of the process, he said.
“From the point of view of a mix, you have a bunch of tracks that you like. Okay, that’s done, but then you have got to mix it. That’s an infinite process, you can take that as long as you want to – you can take forever. Some people do. I stop mixing when a little switch goes off in my mind. It’s like some little pop music switch – like when you hear a good pop song on the radio when you were a kid. You immediately know it’s right. I’m not necessarily talking about being the greatest song ever written, or the most meaningful, just hearing it and going ‘that’s right.'”
Then there’s the real “pop” he seeks in his musical efforts.
“It’s a very subtle, intangible thing that happens when someone listens to a song. It’s something that happens when I listen to my own mixes. It’s that immediate pop, and I don’t mean that in the popular sense. I mean in a way that a phrase, a piece of copy pops on a poster. Those endorphins have to fire. There has to be a visceral sense of satisfaction.”
The unreleased album still doesn’t have a formal title, he said.
“I don’t know, I have some ideas. I’ve been thinking about “Same River Once.”
It’s a play on the statement by Heraclitus of Epshesus, “You can’t step twice into the same river.”
That’s how deep Shindell’s music can be – a title playing off the words of a Greek philosopher who lived between 535 and 475 BC.
“The process of making a record where it’s a constant moving target – it’s like stepping into a river of songs (with) words, different chords, mixes, musicians and sounds. It’s like stepping into a river and at a certain moment you freeze the river. So I’ve been thinking about that as a title but I don’t know.”
A dozen questions for Richard Shindell
Q&A with Richard Shindell by Joel Barrett
1. What were some of your earlier influences musically? “My first favorite song was “Daydream Believer,” the Monkees’ version. How’s that for guilty pleasure? I loved that song when I was eight or nine years old and I still love it. Of course, there was Dylan, we always had Dylan in the house all the time. We had Gilbert & Sullivan. We had the Beatles. Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger. For me, it was mostly the Monkees and the Beatles. Shortly thereafter, the Allman Brothers, and then shortly thereafter Genesis and then shortly thereafter Bruce Springsteen, which caused a horrible riff between me and my ‘art rock-prog’ friends. They couldn’t understand Springsteen. The early stuff really is probably Dylan and the Beatles.”
2. When did you know that music could really be your career? “It was in Hartford, Conn., right after my first record came out. I still had some doubts if this could happen as an actual career. I went to a gig at WWUH and afterwards I sold $325 worth of CDs which to me at that time was a ridiculous amount of money. After the gig they said this is the money for your CDs. I just could not believe that they’d give me $325 for 22 CDs. I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened. Right then and there, a little switch went off in my head ‘aha. I like this.'”
3. If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be? “An editor.”
4. For those who don’t know your music, which one song would you recommend? “‘There Goes Mavis.’ It’s the one I most enjoy playing in a live situation. I just have a really soft spot for that song. I think it ends hopefully, which is not something that happens in a lot of my songs … It’s a good story and I think it’s a kind of interestingly weird story. It’s a song that took a little leap lyrically. And I particularly enjoy that leap.”
5. It seems that each tour you mix it up. Some are solo, some duos, some featuring a full band. How come? “A lot of it’s economics but sometimes you just want to play solo. It’s something that I have to do once in a while. If I’ve been playing in a band for a whole tour, it’s really good for the next tour to pare it down and keep myself honest on what it’s like to play solo. You don’t want to get too used to playing with good musicians all the time.”
6. What’s in your CD player right now? “Elizabeth and the Catapult’s ‘The Other Side of Zero.’ It’s pop but complex, filled with layers of information that your brain can follow. It’s a very pleasurable record to listen to and very well recorded.”
7. You have several trucker songs such as “Kenworth of My Dreams” and “Next Best Western.” You say you’ve never even been in a truck? “‘The Next Best Western’ isn’t necessarily a trucker song. It can be anybody who is driving a long distance. It’s actually quite autobiographical. That can be any folk singer or anybody who travels for a living in a car.”
8. On “Last Fare of the Day” you sing about a taxi driver picking up a couple outside a hospital in New York City. Is that about 911? “That definitely is about 911. You wouldn’t know it unless I said it. It’s just a little vignette about a couple of people after 911.”
9. “You Stay Here,” is a song about refugees fleeing Sarajevo. What prompted that jewel to come to fruition? “It’s a mysterious process. I wrote that lyric ‘You stay here and I’ll go look for wood,’ one night when I was here in Buenos Aires. I was going to sleep and left a piece of paper and a pen on the night table as is my custom and just as I was going to sleep, I was thinking in my head “you stay here, and I’ll go look for wood.” I turned the light back on and wrote it down and then went to sleep. Woke up the next morning and found this thing and there was no context for it at all. No idea who “you” or “I” were, or what the wood was about or where they really were. No context, just a phrase – a bunch of words strung together. I think I had been reading something about the Sarajevo situation and the refugees in the hills around Sarajevo and the two things just came together. All of sudden these words were put into the mouths of somebody who was fleeing the violence. Once I realized who was talking, it was really easy to write the song. That’s the thing about writing songs, when you get a voice, when you find out who is singing, you get a very clear idea of their identity, the song writes itself.”
10. The new album will have “Your Guitar” on it, a song about an instrument you bought that once belonged to the legendary Texas musician Stephen Bruton. You say that song jumped out of the guitar and wrote itself in about an hour? “Yes, that’s one that’s completely done and will be on the new album. Certain songs were easier to figure out. In the case of “Your Guitar,” that pretty much recorded itself. I did not know the man, I only found about him after I bought the guitar. You know, he had a good life and it seemed like he did good work.”
11. You took a year off from touring. What did you do during that period? “Quit drinking, went on a diet, got in shape, practiced my guitar, worked on my record, worked in my vegetable garden, hung out with my family, traveled to the Philippines, read Dickens books. Yeah, it really was no rest. I just did not do a lot of gigs, that’s all.”
12. You spent a couple of years in seminary school and studied Zen Buddhism. What’s your understanding of God today? “It’d be just the miraculous, crazy random fact that there’s something rather than nothing that never ceases to amaze me. But I don’t attribute it to any kind of supernatural being. I just look at the fact that there’s something rather than nothing. I can look out my window and see the tops of a bunch of trees, a motorcycle going by, a guy crossing the street talking on the phone. How is any of it possible? That sense of wonder is all the religion I need anymore.”
- Born 1960 in Lakehurst, NJ.
- Raised in Port Washington, NY, and Baltimore.
- Attended Hobart College, Moravian College and Union Theological Seminary.
- Lived in Paris for a while, busking for money in the city’s underground metro stations.
- Was a member of Cry Cry Cry, an acoustic trio with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky.
- Had Joan Baez cover and record three of his songs “Reunion Hill”, “Fishing” and “Money for Floods” on her “Gone From Danger” release.
- Toured with Joan Baez
- “Reunion Hill” LP won the AFIM “Best Contemporary Folk Album” in 1998.
- Sparrows Point, 1992
- Blue Divide, 1994
- Reunion Hill, 1997
- Razor & Tie, (Cry Cry Cry), 1998
- Somewhere Near Paterson, 2000
- Courier, 2002
- Vuelta, 2004
- South of Delia, 2007
- Live at the Chandler Music Hall, 2007
- Not Far Now, 2009
- 12 Songs You May or May Not Have Heard Before, 2011
(Joel Barrett is an award-winning journalist, editor, designer and photographer who lives in Lexington, Mass.)