The Long Way Around:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Jackson Browne is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s been a successful musician and songwriter since he moved to Greenwich Village, New York, and hooked up with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966. His songwriting skills earned him the attention of many popular artists of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s including Nico, The NGDB, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Tom Rush and many others. Though these artists achieved different levels of success with Jackson’s songs, his first year of massive success came in ’72 when he scored his own hit with “Doctor My Eyes” and The Eagles had their first major single with “Take It Easy,” which Jackson had co-written with Eagles member Glenn Frey. From that point forward, Jackson has achieved both commercial and critical success that has taken him from clubs to arenas and everything in between. His name is synonymous with quality songcraft and integrity. He has continued to go from strength to strength over the years, including even bigger success with the Running On Empty album and single in 1977. All of his career highlights and accolades are too numerous to mention here, but his well-deserved 2004 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame says a lot more about his importance than written words ever will.
Aside from his own recordings, Jackson has been an avid supporter of many of his lesser known contemporaries throughout the years ranging from up-and-coming songwriters/performers like the late Warren Zevon to immensely talented, but underrated bands such as Venice. As successful as he has been over the last 40+ years, he has avoided the trappings of fame. However, he has used his ‘celebrity’ status sparingly and wisely, bringing much needed attention to political and humanitarian causes close to his heart. Through it all, Jackson has remained a respected and beloved name in the music industry, his name often spoken in the same breath as iconic performers like Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young. In other words, Jackson Browne himself is a Rock icon.
Even with the success he has enjoyed for over four decades, Jackson has a restless musical spirit that is still on a never-ending journey to connect with listeners through words and music. His 2014 album Standing In The Breach is one of his finest, most cohesive, albums to date. The album’s warm production and relaxed vibe allows the songs to breathe and grow, sinking deeper into the listener’s soul with each spin. Eschewing the standard three minute pop song formula, most of the tracks on the album are 5+ minutes in length yet most of them don’t seem long enough. These songs are not here to be listened to – they are meant to be absorbed. Immediate standouts include “Yeah Yeah,” “If I Could Be Anywhere,” and “Here” but those are just the tip of the iceberg. Standing In The Breach is an entirely different beast to albums like Running On Empty, Late For The Sky and The Pretender, yet it also contains some of Jackson Browne’s finest songs. “The Birds Of St. Marks” was written nearly 50 years ago but still sounds as fresh as anything else on the album. It is an inviting and rewarding collection of songs that will stand the test of time – just like those Jackson Browne classics you know and love.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Jackson Browne about the album, his career and much more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Standing In The Breach has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
JACKSON BROWNE: The reaction has been really good. And I like it. It’s different than a lot of records I’ve made that I’ve been unable to hear at the end – I just heard them as a project that still has stuff that I’d like to change. In this case, at the end I’m like, “Oh, this sounds pretty good!” (Laughs). I worked with the engineer that I have been working with for a long time, Paul Dieter, and we decided to mix it ourselves. We spent a lot of time tweaking sounds and the arrangement based on what instruments really sound like. We kind of took the rocket science out of the mixing of the record. Whereas, in the past, we’d hand it to some master mixer who would do his mojo. You don’t know what he did, but it sounded great and different than you ever thought it would sound. That’s not always a good thing. I want it to sound like it’s been sounding the whole time we’ve been working on it. When I used to work with Greg Ladanyi, that’s the way I worked.
SPAZ: I think the album works brilliantly as a whole piece. When you record, do you find yourself thinking about certain tracks in terms of radio play?
JACKSON: Well, I don’t really. There hasn’t been a lot of that kind of radio play with recent releases. I always tried to make something that’s short enough for radio – something that can be edited or something that’s short enough. But I really don’t think like that so much (now). I knew that a song like “The Birds Of St. Marks,” if it sounded like The Byrds, I would want to hear it on the radio. It was a straight-up homage to the Byrds and the kind of music that I loved at the time I wrote the song. That song was written a long time ago. I wrote that song when I was 18. It’s just the idea of even doing that song along with my newer songs was more a product of having the kind of shows I’ve had in recent years where people want to hear deep cuts – they want to hear something that goes way back. And I thought, “Well, let’s give them this one.” This really never got recorded the way I imagined it should be recorded when I wrote it, because I didn’t know how to do that then. I wouldn’t have known how to call the players.
The closest I could come would have been to give it to The Byrds, but by the time I knew them and was actually playing them songs, which was right after my first album, I’d forgotten about this song (laughs). I swear to God! I played them J.D. Souther songs, I played them Jack Tempchin songs. But I had forgotten about this song! I also thought that it wasn’t finished. You know, within a couple of years of writing the song, I thought, “Eh, this song is a little young. It needs to be re-worked,” which is exactly what I felt about some of the other songs like “These Days.” I wound up re-editing it really and taking one verse out and changing words at the ending. I suspected that’s what I needed to do to this song and in the end, when I finally started, when I rediscovered this song, I realized that I liked it because it was young - because it was an artifact of my growing up. This would make it even more reason to make it sound like the songs that I was listening to at the time.
SPAZ: Well, I feel that the whole album itself has this wonderful atmosphere and mood to it. It’s very warm and deep.
JACKSON: You know, I think that’s Val McCallum’s influence that you’re hearing – his guitar playing is so responsive to what I’m singing. I’ve done shows where it’s just he and I. The same thing happens. His solos on this record are so elegant. They’re almost all live solos from the take. Like “Leaving Winslow” – he just played that. That was take eight – that was it. “Standing In The Breach” was an early take, but he played that whole guitar solo all in one take and I said, “I’ve got to have that.” And whatever else needed to be done to make that track work, I was willing to do it because it had to be that track. The thing that I was preserving was the feeling in his playing. So, that’s where it (the warmth) comes from – it comes from the players.
SPAZ: Was most of the album cut live in the studio?
JACKSON: Yeah, almost all of it, but not “The Long Way Around.” “The Long Way Around” was made like a loop. I had this idea of putting sort of a hip hop beat underneath this Chinese finger-picking. How I got that idea was my son used to tell me that people used to sample Nico’s “These Days” and make beats out of it. What I did was I made a loop and then I began playing stuff over it. I was also partly inspired by that great song by Coolio – “I’ll See You When I Get There.” How a song comes together for me is partly the writing of the song, but in this case it was also the way I knew I wanted to hear it played. The next thing I did with the loop was to see if I could sing four verses that I liked to that loop and later I added different drums, and then I went back to having the original drum loop…a lot of revising based on the technology that allows you to do that.
SPAZ: There are so many different things going on in this record, but it’s still very cohesive. My favorites so far have been “Yeah Yeah,” “Here,” “If I Could Be Anywhere” and the title track.
JACKSON: I’m really proud of the fact that three of those that you mentioned were different drummers. Like on “If I Could Be Anywhere,” Jim Keltner played on that one. Every time I mentioned to anybody that has worked with him that Keltner did something really strange – everyone smiles and says, “Oh, Jim Keltner did something strange?” That’s exactly why you call him, you know? It’s like, he is so surprising in his choices and you can’t get him to do the same thing over and over again. He doesn’t really work that way. He doesn’t respond that way. He’s constantly exploring. I wound up having to change the entire drum mix because of the way he was playing the kit and we were literally months behind him. We changed everything – like the way we were monitoring things so that we could hear what he was really doing and then the rest of the song sort of fell in around the drums.
SPAZ: Is there anything that you’re particularly close to on the album so far?
JACKSON: Well, I like them all. I’m really, really happy to hear you say “Here” because that’s my original band playing on that. And the basic track was done before anything else on this record, but then I got Greg Leisz to play on it so that it would really be part of the instrumentation of this record. It’s got a couple players that aren’t anywhere else on the record – Mark Goldenberg and Kevin McCormick. I did think in terms of making the album cohesive, but only because I’d already committed to having it be really varied. I have to say I lucked into having both Val McCallum and Greg Leisz play on these songs. It was my good fortune that they were both available.
SPAZ: You got drummer Pete Thomas (The Attractions) on there too, right?
JACKSON: Right, that’s Pete Thomas. He’s also in a band with Val McCallum. A band called Jackshit. They have Davey Faragher playing bass.
SPAZ: It’s been six years since the last record. Do you normally stockpile songs over time or do you get this sudden rush of creativity and then say, “Okay, it’s time to record now?”
JACKSON: No, they accumulate very gradually. Nothing happens very suddenly (laughs). On my last record, I wrote a bunch of songs all at once because I could only get my band for the recording time that I needed for about two weeks on one stretch and then about another week on another stretch. I thought, “I’m going to have to track this whole record in this really short window and the songs aren’t exactly finished.” I had to kind of like do things together so we did a lot of tracking of songs that weren’t finished on the album before. And this time I wanted to make sure that I took the time to work on each song as it came up so that I could really just work on one for a period of time and then go work on another. I really wanted to explore the way they played.
SPAZ: I noticed on this record, the song lengths exceed the average 3 to 5 minute standard pop song format. I also noticed that they’re also very powerful in the sense that they pull you in and by the end of the song, you’re going, “Okay, I gotta hit start again on that one.”
JACKSON: That’s quite a compliment. I really like hearing that. That’s really what you want. You want the song to draw you in at the end. Three of them are not short, only by virtue of the fact that they have like a kind of long ride-out – it was just that the song wanted to be played that way. We let it happen instead of cutting it down and fading out – I really don’t like fades very much – to see how long everybody wanted to play it and then find a way to make that work. In a way, it’s like being in a band – almost like the band I’ve been trying to be in all this time. I’m always doing that. I’m always trying to make it like a band as much as possible. Some of my records are like that and some of them aren’t. Like Late For The Sky is all played by five people, unlike The Pretender, which was played by a bunch of different people.
SPAZ: Is there a track from the album that you’re going to take to radio?
JACKSON: They’ve been taking “The Birds Of St. Marks” to radio. That was the one that was ready first and was the right length. But, I actually think both “Yeah Yeah” and “The Long Way Around” would be good on radio, too.
SPAZ: This record has some amazing tracks. You’ve written a huge catalog of memorable and amazing songs. Do you ever find yourself perhaps subconsciously trying to compete with your 27-year-old self? Or do you not even worry about it?
JACKSON: I learned a long time ago that I won’t be writing another “In The Shape of A Heart.” I don’t need to because I already got that one, but it’s kind of a mistake to hold yourself to any level of artistic success at any particular point in time because when you did that thing that is now considered your standard, you weren’t looking in the rear-view mirror at all – you were looking straight forward, you were doing something that you’d never done before.
SPAZ: Contemporaries like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt have had their ‘70s output repackaged into these original album series box sets. Do you think that they’re going to do that with your back catalog?
JACKSON: I don’t think that that’s necessarily an important thing to do at this point. But I actually never thought it was. I fought with my record company to not put out my greatest hits because I always wanted to put out the next album of new songs. I never wanted to succumb to that kind of marketing – that was in the past.
SPAZ: There’s one burning question that has stuck with me for years: is there a studio version of the song “Running on Empty?” The version on the album is a tremendous live version, but I’ve always wondered…
JACKSON: (Pause) No. Come to think of it, there isn’t. What happened was the guys that played on that song were the guys that I was using in the studio. I finally got them out on tour based on the idea that we’d make this recording and they got to play as their band as well as play as my band. That’s why it sounds like a (studio) record because those guys make records every day. Danny Kortchmar and I spent the night before that particular concert going through the song and rearranging it in the sound check before the show. And then David Lindley came vaulting over the top with that solo. He’d play something great every night but he’d never played it that way before.
Thanks to Jackson Browne
Special thanks to Joe Bucklew, Meghan Helsel, Jimmy Brunetti, Dana House, Bob Bell, Craig Swedin, and Nick Kominitsky
STANDING IN THE BREACH