By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
Jonathan Richman was scheduled to perform at the Carnegie Music Hall on Wednesday, March 25. Like everything in the upcoming weeks, the show has been cancelled. But prior to that turn of events, Richman engaged in an interview via email in anticipation of the show. It’s always a shame to let a good interview go to waste, especially when the subject is a perpetually youthful and enthusiastic character like him. We at Pittsburgh Current thought we’d present his thoughts to you anyway, and maybe inspire some Jonathan playlists at home.
The original Modern Lovers only recorded a few demos sessions before they disbanded and frontman/guitarist Richman revamped his musical approach. But when those sessions were released in 1976, songs like “Roadrunner,” “Pablo Picasso,” and “Hospital” inspired legions of musicians, in much the same way Richman himself had been inspired by the Velvet Underground. (VU member John Cale produced what became the Modern Lovers album, and the band included future Talking Head Jerry Harrison on keyboards.)
Since then, Richman has continued playing songs that can be deeply romantic, literary or childlike. Along with albums like Jonathan Sings, Back In Your Life and Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild, several albums have translated his unique outlook into other languages, leaving all the power of his delivery intact. In 2018, SA! found him dabbling with Indian music, and bringing Harrison back into the studio with him.
What follows is Richman’s description of his new musical experiments, a look back at his career, and the explanation for why the seemingly loquacious Richman would rather speak via the printed word rather than by phone.
Tell me about SA. What inspired the songs and the arrangements on that album and how did the album come together?
SA, the root note in Indian ragas, was what Ramakrishna, the much beloved mystic, told his spiritual students to search for underneath all things of this world.
One night when I put my arm around the waist of my certain someone…I felt the “vibe” underneath the usual mental one. This “vibe” was so soothing and so all-encompassing that I made up the song “SA” right there. Shortly after this song came to me, four of us went into a studio in Chico, California, sat down on a rug on the floor and recorded it. I soon started making up more verses after this so we have two versions on this record. The Chico one starts it, the other one ends it.
In the recording that followed the Chico SA sessions, one of the studios was Coyote Hearing in Oakland. There was a Mellotron there — a big white electronic thing like the Beatles used on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Well, I thought Jerry Harrison, my old band mate, might sound good on it so he came down. And later he brought a harmonium to the next sessions, both keyboards sounding good with Nicole [Montalbano]’s tambura and the record changed a lot from how it had been into something else: me and Nicole sitting next to each other with the sound of the guitar and the tambura making this whining twang, and Jerry across the room with all these low midrange tones and then, on the left, [drummer] Tommy Larkins being the other force. Or, at other times, he was next to Jerry with percussionist Pat Spurgeon.
How do you approach songwriting these days? Do you have a notebook of lyrics that you write down and put to music later? Do you sit down with the guitar and bang out and come up with melodies?
I never saw myself as a songwriter so much as a singer who makes up songs to give himself something to sing. For me, a guitar is not part of the song. It’s part of the arrangement.
How does this approach compare to the way you’ve written throughout the years that you’ve been performing?
I haven’t changed much. An idea comes to me, I might write it out and might not, and then I’ll pick up the guitar to accompany it. There have been a few exceptions over the years, especially when I was starting out, the guitar part “was” the song – (like “Roadrunner,” “Affection,” “Pablo Picasso.” …
Onstage, I’ve seen you put down the guitar and even step away from the microphone to dance to the song, singing the whole time. It seems like the music really possesses you. What goes through your mind while you’re performing?
Ever see Ladysmith Black Mambazo? They sing and dance to the song and never even picked up a guitar in the first place.
Do you plan your setlist prior to a show or do you figure it out as you go?
No set list.
How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? What helped you come to that conclusion?
I didn’t choose it. It chose me.
What was the first song you heard that really knocked your socks off?
Probably Bizet’s “Carmen” when I was about 3.
There are stories that have become legend about the early Modern Lovers sessions (the ones that John Cale produced in 1972) and about how you wanted to move away from more of a rock sound – for lack of a better description – toward something that was more gentle. Is that really how things happened? Why did you feel that way? Was this something you felt all along, which the band was getting away from?
I’ve changed my idea of sound all the time. I still do. Back at the time you mean, I was thinking about acoustic sound, also reggae, also ’50s vocal groups like Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and Dion and The Belmonts, and also Little Richard and Bo Diddley and especially Buddy Holly. Also, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon.
Your songs have inspired a lot of people and your fans are pretty enthusiastic. What is like being approached by such enthusiastic fans?
My fans are usually really nice and real sincere. (But put a few drinks in the same person and you’d be surprised.)
How do you maintain such a bright, optimistic outlook these days?
I don’t much try to maintain anything.
Why do you prefer written interviews to person-to-person ones?
I have to do written ones! When I did the other kind, I’d read what got published and sometimes it would have nothing to do at all with what I’d said. Fabrication!
Anything else that we didn’t touch on?
Anything else? Yah, we don’t play too loud and don’t expect old songs and don’t bring your cell phone; it’s not that kind of show.