Late last year we sent moody troubadour Ed Harcourt to meet and talk with legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb about the release of his new album 'Still Within The Sound Of My Voice'.
Here's what happened next...
Preparing for a one on one with Jimmy Webb is a fairly daunting experience, especially when you never really conducted an interview before. Perhaps akin to that first day of school, you’re with the big boys now, time to man up Edward.
Let’s put one thing straight, lest I nosedive like some hysterical sputtering sycophant; he’s the songwriter’s songwriter, the Great American chronicler, writer of some of the most sublime and beautiful songs in the last 100 years, the only artist to have received Grammy awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. He also wrote what I believe to be the most perfect song ever written, 'Wichita Lineman'.
So...Jimmy arrives with his wife and PR and we make a cup of tea and I follow him into a rehearsal room with my scribbled notes and here’s what we talked about, I have a gift for Jimmy to break the ice:
Jimmy Webb: Let’s get things done.
EH: I have a present for you. I read in the liner notes for your new album when you were talking about MacArthur Park, that you played the ocarina with Brian Wilson. My wife’s father is the main ocarina maker in the world, he’s the only guy who makes them in concert pitch. I tried to find you an ocarina but they were out of stock so I bought you a harmonica in D minor, it’s my favourite of minor keys.
Jimmy Webb: Really? Do you know where I could get some? Yeah ceramic ones are the ones [Jimmy then plays the harmonica] I hear it. It’s beautiful. It’s definitely something to play around with. Cooler than major, way cooler. Thanks man. Yeah I bought Brian Wilson an ocarina.
EH: I’ll get some ceramic ocarinas delivered to you. You live in Long Island right?
Jimmy Webb: Oh thanks! Would love to have them. The ones I have are replicas of Native American ones so they’re very primitive.
EH: I read they found the shards of an ocarina in a cave from thousands of years ago..
Jimmy: In Germany. 40 thousand years ago. So they were sitting around the campfire playing ocarinas. That changes your picture of who we are. We’re painters. we’re painting, we’re playing ocarinas, we’re doing all this stuff not just going ‘UGH UGH!’.
EH: Ha! Yeah not just putting two rocks together. OOGA SHAKA OOGA OOGA OOGA SHAKA!
Jimmy Webb: [laughs] Exactly! It’s a little more sophisticated than that.
EH: Do you know that song? What were going through their heads when they did that?
Jimmy Webb: I think they were referencing 50’s music like doo-wop….
EH: So...Forgive me I’m a bit new to this. I want to start with the new album which I’ve been listening to today and enjoying very much. What I felt from reading the notes and listening to the songs and production, was a sense of peace and the pleasure of hanging out with old friends, there’s something quite poignant about it. I also read that it took a while to make, was it hard to pin everyone down? There’s a lot of big names on there.
Jimmy: A lot of the work was done by Freddie Mollin. I was in the studio, I spent the day with Lyle Lovett, spent the day with Joe Cocker, there were certain ones I was able to do. But Keith Urban, that’s Australia so we sent tracks down there. Carly Simon was very pleased to be asked to be on the album and would love to do it but after I talked to her a couple of times I realised she didn’t want me to come anywhere near her!
EH: Is that because in the notes about your duet with her, you talked about how you first met? You were quite honest about your drinking and had your sunglasses on.
Jimmy: Yes, when I first met Carly, I was ‘in the bag’ as we say. She made me tea and looked after me.
EH: I can imagine being married to James Taylor back in the day she knew how to deal with that!
Jimmy: [laughs] I’m not gonna comment on that. I set the tapes up, she did a fantastic job, nobody has to tell her what to do. Talking about James Taylor, that one record they made together, Mockingbird, is such a masterpiece. So you could trust her, you know ‘go do your thing I don’t care and don’t get nervous because I’ll just stay away’. She gave us fabulous tracks to choose from and of course then all those tracks have to filtered through, this album is really a labour of love.
EH: It sounds like it. It’s got quite a Nashville country feel in the production.
Jimmy: The first record I did like that was called Just Across The River and that was the same guys, Jay Douglas, John Hobbs who’s Vince Gill’s MD so we were really insisting on the best musicians, which was the hardest thing to do, get all these guys in the same room at the same time; so the first album did pretty well, we had Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams and it turned out pretty well, so the record company asked us for another. This time it was just like the heavens opened and rained talent. We had Joe Cocker, Graham Nash & David Crosby. Most of the people on this record I know pretty well although I haven’t met Justin (Currie from Del Amitri) so I’m meeting him for the first time today. I did know his voice and his work so I said to Freddie, we have to have this guy. If we can get him we have to have him. I thought it would make a great duet.
EH: I was just thinking that someone like Harry Nilsson would’ve been a great person for you to sing with.
Jimmy: I sang with him actually, it was a Boudleaux Bryant song called ‘Love Hurts’ it’s a bonus track, it’s somewhere. It’s definitely on this new RCA box set somewhere. It’s definitely on my box set, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: Jimmy Webb & the 70’s.
EH: Which you’ve also sung with Joe Cocker on the new album.
Jimmy: Yeah, he did that years ago, he had kind of a hit with it.
EH: As a songwriter it can be quite hard to dissect and analyse your own songs, they seem to materialise out of thin air, so where do they all come from? Your songs are like chronicles of America and its landmarks, the places you grew up with or passed by. I also feel that the subtlety in your songs says so much more than if you were being blatantly obvious.
Jimmy: Well the landscape has a lot to do with it. I grew up with landscapes that I suppose you could only describe as desolate. I was raised in west Texas and then Oklahoma and then later the Oklahoma pan handle which is the definition of desolate. And very simple surroundings, very rudimentary, no money, father was a minister, he made $100 a week that had to pay for everything. It wasn’t the American dream exactly, but it was interesting in one respect as it was what was left of America’s beginnings, it’s kind of colonial and agricultural.
EH: And a country that was catching up with itself, such a new country. It was progressing so quickly.
Jimmy: Yeah, just getting to know itself and with no history to speak of. So it was kind of a blank canvas. And in that sense maybe it’s easier to understand 'Wichita Lineman' because you put a pole up there and you put a lineman on it and it sort of goes out to the horizon and it disappears. It doesn’t have to go anywhere.
EH: Which by the way, the couplet, ‘and I want you more than need you, and I need you for all time’ is for me the most wonderful lyric I’ve ever heard and I actually worked out the song by ear as I covered at a gig last Christmas and I thought to myself ‘ these chord progressions are seriously difficult to work out by ear!’
Jimmy: Thank you. I was talking to James Taylor one night on the phone and he said ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve saying this song is in F. I thought, no of course it’s in F. And James said’ It never goes to F’.
EH: It is in F right? I just want to check I was playing it in the right key [I play a little bit of 'Wichita Lineman' to Jimmy which suddenly seems really weird...]
Jimmy: Yeah, you got it. But if you look it goes B flat over C. [Jimmy then plays a little bit of 'Wichita Lineman' and makes my playing look like Mickey Mouse...]
EH: Ah, you see once I’d worked it out the progression seemed totally obvious. But getting there was hard. But yeah, it never goes to the F!
Jimmy: Well, James actually called my attention to that. I don’t think about those kind of things. I’m not that subtle, I’m really just instinctive.
EH: I feel you’re pretty subtle with the message you get across in the story.
Jimmy: I would never sit down and go ‘I’m gonna construct this chord progression’.
EH: But it comes from somewhere right? Because I hear the influence of country, gospel, classical, show tunes, jazz. I hear Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter in the way that you play. I hear that the way you move across the keys and how your chords travel through the song.
Jimmy: I love Skylark by Hoagy Carmichael.
EH: And Stardust. Just the line 'haunt’s my reverie’ really gets me. Nice to get that word ‘reverie’ in a song. I got the word ‘obligatory’ in a song once. Was quite proud of that one.
Jimmy: I’m proud of you too [laughs] You know Glenn Tilbrook? He writes very ambitious, grammatically ambitious lyrics, with lots of very literate things in them.
EH: If you can get away with it, why not? I mean in this day and age where pop music is even more disposable than ever, a lot of people feel the need to dumb down to the lowest common denominator, fair enough but I’m guessing there’s also lots of songwriters who would rather do something more cerebral. I have a feeling this applies to you.
Jimmy: Yeah, I can’t get with it. I hear it, I know what you’re doing and there’s something, you know, on a primeval level, it references Elvis Presley or Rick Nelson. ‘be bop belula she’s my baby, be bop belula I don’t mean maybe’ etc. I get it and yet it does nothing for me. It doesn’t do what Joni Mitchell does for me, what Paul Simon did for me when I was a young man and I was looking for a voice. When I wanted to say the things I was desperately trying to say and suddenly there’s Paul Simon with Sounds of Silence and there’s that spark of recognition, of thinking my god there’s someone else out there too. I don’t see where that’s coming from in this day and age. If the communication is just about ‘bonking’, if it’s just about that, then we really haven’t come very far!
EH: Hasn’t it always been about ‘bonking’ …..and drugs?!
Jimmy: Well it’s fairly sophisticated ‘bonking’ [laughs]
EH: That’s a very good point. It’s sophisticated ‘bonking’! Which leads me to why some people have in the past asked you whether the songs are about drugs? I read that someone though 'Wichita Lineman' was about mainlining heroin or 'Up, Up & Away' is about being high. This is obviously ridiculous, it’s just about being carefree right?
Jimmy: Well, part of it may have been the fact that I was such a stoner!
EH: Ah well there we go, you brought it on yourself Jimmy!
Jimmy: But I have to tell you I was surprised about the heroin reference, that was dumbfounding to me, because I thought, I could see that maybe you think it’s about professional football or maybe something about trains or something but heroin? No, I don’t see the connection.
EH: Yeah, truly bizarre. I think it was Billy Joel who described ‘Wichita Lineman’ in a wonderful way, which was ‘an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts’.
Jimmy: Yeah, he broke me up when he said that. He actually made the tears flow down my face. Because I thought, by god, he gets it and if he gets it, there’s hope you know?
EH: That’s all you want really isn’t it? A lot of the time you can ask yourself, why do you write songs, put them out into the world and wait for people to either acknowledge them or not, it’s quite an old question you can ask yourself, why am I doing this again?!
Jimmy: We songwriters need each other. Because we can get each others stuff and we encourage each other and we can give others a reason for going on and it just takes one little spark of hope and you’re gonna keep going. It doesn’t take much because we wanna be songwriters, most of us were born to be songwriters and all we need is a little push in that direction and we’re gonna do it. But THIS environment is now hostile. This environment we’re talking about is completely hostile. We may not get our approbation or our encouragement from the public in the future, we may have to turn to one another.
EH: Because when you first started and you had that little spark, was this perhaps a time when people were, per se, generally recognised as songwriters, more than they are now, given the fact that there are so many cooks in the kitchen?
Jimmy: They were given a little more cred, there was more of a dignity. It’s come from a position of a little dignity which is fine, but it’s come from that position to absolutely no identity. No one mentions the songwriter. I had a song, I’m not gonna go into great detail about this, but I had a song on American Idol, which I really don’t care for, thank you, and I think that really people should struggle all their lives, sacrifice everything they’ve got and suffer in unimaginable ways to become STARS. That’s a legitimate way to become a star, you shouldn’t become a star on TV.
EH: But this is not about celebrating hard work or someone with a born talent, sure there are people who can sang a million notes histrionically in 10 seconds but this is mainly about people’s obsession with becoming famous.
Jimmy: Yeah, well someone went on the show and became famous and they won the contest singing one of my songs which I’m not going to identify. I met that person later and walked up to the artist and someone said, this is Jimmy Webb, he wrote this, this and this, only one of those happened to be the song that won the contest. And the artist says ‘oh… yes’. Never said thank you, never said ‘Wow we really punched it over….there was no camaraderie, no sense of’ yes! we did that together. You’re just not considered as part of the mathematical equation.
EH: That is so odd. I will always view that world in a very alien way. I try not to bother even caring about it too much.
Jimmy: Well that was kind of an eye-opener for me, I thought well if it’s that bad that one doesn’t really seek out….I can’t even find the language to convey what I’m feeling. But I know that I was in my own way equally insular; I can remember Johnny Mercer calling me and saying , ‘hey, it’s Johnny Mercer, listen kid I think your stuff is great, I’ve been asked to pick out a record library for the Nixon White House, I wonder if you’d help me do it? And I said, ‘Listen I’m gonna have to think about that, I’m very flattered that you’ve asked me to do that but can I call you back on it?’ And all I was thinking about was, I can’t pick any records out for Richard Nixon’s White House! I’ll never be able to speak to Derek Taylor (publicist at the time) again if I do that! What I really should’ve been thinking about was, Johnny Mercer just called me! And I should call Johnny back and tell him ‘ Johnny I don’t think I’d be any good at picking out a library of records but can we write a song together, that’s what I should’ve done. But in my own way I was just as oblivious and I should’ve known better. These people were walking around the streets, Louis Armstrong was alive, Judy Garland was alive, Nat King Cole was alive, the Dorsey band and the Glenn Miller band, all those guys were alive and still playing together!
EH: What was the first piece of music that completely blew your mind and made you want to write songs? Your first spark? Where you thought, I can do this. Or did it just happen, did you just sit down at the piano and something came out?
Jimmy: No, I had a technique, if you will, the only instrument I had, and I described a kind of barren landscape earlier, but the one connection I had with the outside world was the radio. I would hear songs on the radio, I would hear the hits and I got hip very early to the fact there were follow-ups. First there was a hit, then there was a record that came along to capitalise on that and it wasn’t exactly the same song but it sounded vaguely similar and of course it was deliberate, try and pick up the same listeners and have as big a record as we did the first time which they rarely ever did but sometimes they did, for instance, Little Anthony and the Imperials, ‘I Think I’m Going Out Of My Head’ was the first record, ‘Hurts So Bad’ was the second record and they were both gigantic. I used to compare those two songs and I would write songs in the cracks, my own songs. I’d write a song for Little Anthony & the Imperials.
EH: So you’d have them in mind when started writing rather than yourself?
Jimmy: I would compare my follow-ups to their follow-ups.
EH: How old were you when you were doing this?
Jimmy: Oh I was starting at 13.
EH: What??! My god.
Jimmy: So when I was 14 or 15 I was writing a lot of songs. I was sort of competing against myself. I was seeing how close I’d get.
EH: But you were thinking of other people so you started out really just writing for other artists?
Jimmy: I wanted to be a commercial songwriter, that’s what I wanted to be. I didn’t understand anything else. It was 1971 when Carole King released the Tapestry album and all of a sudden everybody dropped everything and immediately started making their solo album. When I heard those songs on the radio I felt like I could write songs just as good as these so I latched onto that. I was unstoppable.
EH: Were you competitive with other songwriters in the 60’s, was there a little camaraderie in your various rivalries, with various people you met along the way?
Jimmy: Yeah I think it always existed, in a way though it’s kind of a shameful thing, I think really we’re a core of gentlemen and ladies and really this isn’t a soccer match.
EH: Reminds me of that Bela Bartok quote, ‘competitions are for horses, not artists’.
Jimmy: I think that being said, there was always competition, competition with Harry Nilsson, always competition with Randy Newman. I had a great mentorship, even with all of my talents. I found Joni Mitchell absolutely stupefying, it was like’ how can she write like this?! How can she express this much and choose her words so carefully and how dare she expose so much! She was the first great reveal, where the songwriter wasn’t just trying to be a pretty little bluebird and sing a nice song, no she tore the chest open and said I’m dying in here, you know! And I got a lot of technique from her too, she was a re-writer. She would re-write, re-write, re-write. And finally you’d hear, cos I heard her wrote some of her songs, if I may be so bold, most of the songs on Court & Spark and most of the songs on For The Roses I heard before they were finished. Then I heard her refine them and I heard them come alive and that effortless grace is not effortless. It’s labour intensive so you make something sound so seamless, it’s a really tough difficult job.
EH: I was gonna ask you actually about whether you edit and re-write, work on songs for a long time. I never think there’s a particular way to write a song and it’s very rare when a song just appears fully formed.
Jimmy: It’s the best thing.
EH: When I started I don’t think I edited that much but I’ve found, as I’ve got older, I tend to edit my songs more frequently., spend more time on lyrics.
Jimmy: Yeah and that can be a good thing and a bad thing; because some of those early songs, your chain of consciousness, oh jeez I need a line there and you’ll be surprised how many people say’ I just love that line ‘ I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time’! I think I gave all of 5 seconds to that.
Jimmy: And later on I’m doing the same thing, I’m very hard on myself. I’m with you 100% though, I think the problem with me is that I will re-write a song until we say, down where I’m from, ‘ the cows come home’. So somebody has to step in and say, ‘JIMMY ENOUGH.’ because we’re making this next week.
EH: Yeah, well if you don’t have a deadline it’s can be a nightmare.
Jimmy:Yeah well a song can go on forever!
EH: I feel like I write better under pressure.
Jimmy: Yeah I think it’s a good thing. We like own company though. We like to go at our own speed. And when someone else is there, it changes the dynamic, there’s no question, I go down to Nashville, and I get involved in these writing days, I haven’t done enough of it but enough to know that sometimes, 15/20 minutes in I’m ready to pull my hair out and find a trapdoor. Slip out quietly, ‘maybe you should just finish the song by yourself’…lovely to see you, bye bye now!!
EH: I know what you mean. Do you prefer to write on your own, I’m guessing you’re a more solitary writer…
Jimmy: Yeah, even though I don’t want to put it this way per se, I’m forcing myself, but in a sense I am. I’m going to write a song with Rumer, had a few offers. since I’ve been in town. I’m tempted to take the medicine. Because otherwise, ‘hey’ another great Jimmy Webb song! You know what I mean? The thing is how much of that is real and how do you know at this point after all these years? You I know I want to be better…
EH: I can’t believe you just said that. That’s a wonderful thing to say. That’s the ultimate statement for a songwriter, ‘I want to be better’.
Jimmy: I want to write a Broadway show, not for the splash of having a Broadway show; as much as I want to change the rules because the parameters are completely different but really to become better, you know, more accomplished.
EH: Are you at liberty to divulge?
Jimmy: I don’t know, I don’t have any secret…aaaha! Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea!
EH: Houdini’s right hand man, the Musical!
EH: Let’s talk about ‘Shattered’ your duet with Art Garfunkel, from the new album. I had this image of you & Art walking in silence, just in the woods, not really saying anything, & I thought that would make a great TV series, ‘Jimmy & Art’ walking around in a different place with lots of foliage every time, every now and then someone says something like’ There’s a storm coming’...
Jimmy: He (Art Garfunkel) had the nerve to say to me ‘ Did that really happen’?? He told me it sounded a little fabricated. I said, ‘I beg your pardon’? Every frickin’ word happened exactly the way I said.
EH: Maybe he goes for a lot of walks.
Jimmy: Remember the thing about the birds flying over and building a nest etc? …Oh I’m gonna sneeze.
EH: I’ll get you some tissues. Gesundheit.
EH: So….’Shattered’ has a very hymn-like quality to it.
Jimmy: I wrote it in New Zealand. Under some strange circumstances. I was down there visiting my old friend and kind of hell raiser buddy, David Hemmings who was making a film down there. While we were down there on the south island, it’s such a remote place, there was a monument there that was to Scott, the British explorer, saying something along the lines of ‘If Only I Could Have Lived, If Only To Give Testimony To The Bravery of my Comrades’, one of those incredible British things that stabs you through the heart. Then John Lennon was killed. I was reading a book by his first wife Cynthia called ‘A Twist of Lennon’ for some reason and I was kind of enjoying reading about John’s early days at art school and trying to get a feel about this unfathomable person & I went to the pub with some of the guys from the film and they flipped on the TV it was John Lennon had been shot in New York City, shot in front of the Dakota & nothing ever hurt me quite so bad. I lay in this park where this Obelisk where Scott had written this inscription and I cried. Then I went down to the landing because David had been out doing something else and met him at the boat. It became my sort of duty to say, some bad news from home, John Lennon’s been killed and I think it had the same effect on everybody. Everybody was just completely shattered and it it was like’ well that’s the end of the dream’.
EH: A lot of people have said that the dream died at the tail-end of the 60’s, what with the Stones at Altamont etc but then you have this amazing period of songwriting, which I call the Easy Rider - Raging Bull golden age (in film speak) - this incredible period of songwriters really finding their feet. But perhaps it truly died with John Lennon. So you wrote ‘Shattered’ the next day?
Jimmy: And of course it’s undeniable that Art had been having such trouble with his voice that he thought it was eerily appropriate for him to sing ‘I’m broken but I’m laughing it’s the sound of falling glass’ - because he’d never really made a public statement about it. So that was his statement really…I thought he did a lovely job, vintage Artie!
EH: By the way, I think your voice sounds really great on this record.
Jimmy: Thanks I’ve been working on it!
EH: It’s nice to hear you singing your own songs….last question regarding the new album - I’d like to talk quickly about your rendition of ‘MacArthur Park’. It goes off into this crazy double-time country section - that combined with Brian Wilson’s unmistakeable harmonies, you can totally tell it’s him!
Jimmy: One thing I think it does, all due respect to Richard Harris’s record which’ll always be my favourite, but this version takes it away from that symphonic and hugely orchestrated dramatic thing and nails it to the ground a little bit and puts it more firmly in southern California which is where it was written. MacArthur Park is on Wiltshire Blvd in LA, a stones throw from the beach so to hear Brian Wilson in it all of a sudden makes perfect sense to me. The solo dobro by Jerry Douglas - doesn’t get any better than that..
EH: To you find, going back to the harmonic progressions that you create, do you ever find you get ahead of yourself, i.e. how the hell do I get back to the original key of the song? I feel like your songs sometimes have these jazz-like structures that twist and turn, quite pattern like. Do you ever suddenly go, ‘oh what key is this in again?’ Bit like a labyrinth and you have to find your way back..
Jimmy: I think that’s the story of MacArthur Park!
EH: And of course the ‘bake it’ lyric which Elvis Presley mentions in his comeback special and I read that he wanted to cut one of your songs?
Jimmy: He wanted to do that. He actually would sing it on shows, I’ve heard bootlegs of him singing ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. I’m pretty sure I have a bootleg of Elvis doing MacArthur Park. But Colonel Tom Parker would never let him record anything that HE didn’t have the publishing on. Elvis & I got along swell but Tom Parker & I had an antipathy because he knew I wasn’t going to give up any publishing. I wasn’t in a position where I really had to do that.
EH: He was the shark to end all sharks really.
Jimmy: Neither was Paul McCartney. He wasn’t gonna give Tom Parker half of his publishing to do a Beatles track.
EH: Yeah well Michael Jackson bought it all anyway!
Jimmy: You know the story, the Beatles went and had a jam session with Elvis and everybody was thinking ‘wow there’s gonna be this super-album!’ which there should’ve been and could’ve been, who knows, but it was all about the bottom line with Colonel Tom Parker.
EH: It beggars belief that someone like that could get in the way of making musical history happen.
Jimmy: It is sad because I think that Elvis Presley/Beatles album would’ve been quite something.
EH: So would’ve a Jimmy Webb/Elvis album!
Jimmy: He liked my songs and we were having a musical romance and the same thing happened to Leiber & Stoller, they wrote ‘Hound Dog’ and then they wrote ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and then one day Tom Parker said ‘I don’t think we’re gonna be needing your services anymore’. That’s pretty much what he told me. So he had a way of just pushing people out.
EH: Wasn’t he a carny who used to put chickens on hot stoves?
Jimmy: Yeah he was also in the USA illegally. That’s why Elvis never toured Europe or the UK. It was his idea that Elvis go into the army. The army didn’t even want Elvis! They just wanted him to play some shows for them and Tom Parker said ‘ no no no! Elvis is gonna sign up, get his hair cut off, he’s gonna get a uniform, go to Germany etc’
EH: (Jimmy’s PR comes in to cut me off…) Anyway I think we’re running out of time, I hope the questions have been alright, it’s been a really big deal for me to talk to you and you’ve really inspired so many songwriters of my generation.
Jimmy: Thanks for doing it man and I hope we spend some more time together, surely this is just the beginning, you know my position on that, the doors are open, we should do some writing together.
And with that last grand gesture from Jimmy Webb, I jump onto my bike and ride into the cold, dark night with a grin and a very warm & light heart.
Jimmy Webb's new album Still Within The Sound Of My Voice is out now.