“Soap And Water”

Because It’s Nashville


One minute they're crawling across the carpet slobbering themselves, the next thing you know they're singing on a Chuck Prophet record. As soon as you realize that it's all insane; It all makes sense. Some sessions you remember and some session you don't. There's song's on this record, I don't remember writing...

This session however, will stay with me.

The thing about kids is that they just SING. Instead of trying to SOUND like they're singing. They don't need anything. Don't need a chart or their own headphone mixes. (Maybe a slice of pizza and few M and M's is all). They don't worry about the price of car insurance or avocados, or lose sleep over leaky roof's. They don't Jaywalk. Not one of them ever got a ticket for having one headlight, and spent the night in the Martinez jail. They don't stand in line for a four buck cup of designer coffee. They've got it. They've got it all. And you can hear it in their voices.

I'm in Nashville working on new record at Alex the Great; it's a studio out past the industrial park side of town. Not far from the Caribbean chicken joint. Yep, Nashville, all green sunshine and bless-his-heart's. "Soap and Water" is the working title of the latest opus. Today is the day we over-dub the Vine Street Kids. 25 Christian kids tween the ages of 7 and 10 who sing in local church choir. Miss Andra their choir teacher conducted. 

It got off to a rocky start. One little girl was listening to the first song we pumped through big speakers out into the studio, with concerned look, she asked Miss Andra, "When is he going to start singing? He's just talking." That's not talking kid, that's IT. Another announced right away his "dad has two grammy's" (Walk Like an Egyptian and Purple Rain). We placed that boy up front close to the mic's for good luck.

Because it's Nashville, one of the four parents who came along said, "Oh yes, I was about this age when I did my first session; it was a Porter Wagoner session."

The minister's wife who sat next to me in the control room was very impressed. She turned to me and said, "Is that YOU singing?" Oh my, that's a beautiful song." And, "I like your hat."

It started coming together. The kids barnacled on the melody in unison. 

Here's a fun fact: Kids are cloud experts. They know more about clouds than scientists. They study them. The drama, the ephemeral beauty, the mystery. None of it's lost of kids. Six year olds are about the best shape spotters. Scientists say that's the peak age for cloud spotting. As we get older life distracts us, we've less time for clouds, until the logic runs in reverse... clouds become negatived things: "There's a cloud on the horizon, oh, I've got a cloud hanging over me...."

As soon as you realize that it's all insane; It all makes sense. Mark Twain said that BTW not me.

PS: I read somewhere Bob Ezrin hired a school choir of children for Pink Floyd or some such. To ensure maximum emoting, he told the kids, "Now, you're probably wondering why we gathered all here. We hate to tell you this but all your died in a plane crash this morning." We thought about pulling that out, but thought better. Wouldn't want people to take it the wrong way. It's hard out here for a pimp. Just ask Don Imus in the morning.


[ Check It Out: Soap And Water ]

Love Away The Pain

Love Away The Pain (Paying tribute to Rainer at Wavelab Studios).

Rainer's widow Patti Keating does what she can to keep Rainer's back catalog in print. She's dusting off a tribute record from some years back and adding songs. I was honored when she asked me to come out to Tucson to contribute. Tommy Larkins was the contractor for the gig. He gathered Van Christian, Rudy (Rainer's boy), Chris, Craig Shumaker, Nick and Nick. (Rainer's long time bass player) for a session at Wavelab Studios. Howe was there in spirit. We saved him an open track.

Now WHO'S Rainer you ask? Let's go back, shall we? 

In 1988, while staying in Tucson, doing the Green On Red song and dance, I stumbled hung-over down the stairs of the Hotel Congress, bee-lining for the Tap Room bar, when I was stopped dead in my tracks by this music spilling out from the next room. This cat was sitting atop a Fender Bassman amp perched on the bar playing and singing with a beer can wrapped around his shoe. Sounding like a one man Chess record. I was in love. It was immediate.

Obscure? You betcha. Maybe it's because Rainer didn't trade in all that necessary mingle mingle; none of that puffed up hucksterism the glossy mag's gobbled up like raw meat. He was the living embodiment of everything we longed to be; Rainer was cool. Stone cool. Too cool for this world it turns out.

I watched and listened in awe that night. Listened as he sang in that high lonesome Bob Dylan doing Robert Johnson circa Blood on the Tracks whine. And just as I'd fallen into a diddly bo trance; a left hook. Rainer pulls a Replacements song from his trick bag. The album Pleased to Meet Me had just come out. Rainer knew what time it was, he'd already worked up "I Can't Hardly Wait" recognizing it as the soon to be classic that it was. I stood transfixed as he sang Westerbergs's own ode to the "DT Blues". "I'll write you a letter tomorrow/Tonight I can't hold a pen..."

"fuck.... FUCK!" Fucking perfect. I almost forgot to breath.

From that night on, I always went out of my way to hear Rainer. In a Pizza Parlor out on the east side. (Is that possible? Does anyone remember that gig?). At an outdoor fern bar somewhere. We once even played together in my little room at the Congress neath the swamp cooler fan.

Can I way this? He was impossibly handsome. Like Gregory Peck charismatic. The Atticus Finch of the slide guitar. Chew on that analogy for a while.

Rainer was born in East Germany in 1951. Before there was a wall. At the age of five, something pulled his family west (The Wolf? Sleepy John Estes, Hubert Sumlin? Muddy Waters? I suspect) and they settled on the South Side of Chicago. In the 70's, Rainer headed for the deserts of Tucson. This is where he met his wife Patti, raised his kids and made music until his untimely death by brain tumor in 1996. 

I never thought Rainer would die. After he fell off his bike coming home from work, and they patched him up only to find that inoperable tumor buried in his skull, I always thought he'd somehow just BE THERE like he always was. Until Van Christian, who's own father had succumbed to cancer back in `88 or so, turned to me—all but shook me and said, "Prophet, Rainer's DYING man... he's gonna DIE."

I never really got that close to Rainer per se. On occasion, like when my guitar was in emergency need of repair after some airlines mishap, I went down into the shadowy basement of the Chicago Store and sat there while he patiently repaired it for an hour at his bench. Charged me like 5 bucks or something stupid. We really didn't talk much. Truth is, I was a little shy around Rainer. Sitting there watching him work with his hands was powerful. A powerful memory today, like that scene in On The Waterfront—Terry and Edie sitting on a park swing, exchanging small words, Edie drops her glove and Brando absently picks it up, slips it onto his own hand, or the memory of my dear sweet mother making me cinnamon toast on a quiet afternoon when I stayed home from school sick.

It's impossible to capture in words Rainer's presence. People use words like "mystical" and tired phrases like "he was on a journey" "deeply spiritual" "presence of the divine". Yes, it's all true. A man could drown in a sea of non sequiturs—in their own piss, trying to capture Rainer's thing in words. Yes, his THING. Rainer had THAT THING in every sense. What's also true is that it's damn near impossible to make a record on Rainer. A definitive recording doesn't and won't ever exist. His spirit wouldn't be bottled. His spirit refused. It's like canning sunshine. Show me the guy who can do that and I'll go down on him. 

So we kicked his music around with his old friends and put Van on lead guitar and Rudy on drums and stopped worrying about making sense of the music and just played. Of course it was ragged, but this time it was ragged and right and we even broke bread at some fancy ass bistro they opened a couple blocks away in the old train station. Check out Lilly attempting navigate that texas toast grilled cheese into her belly! A sight! If Rainer could see us now he'd fall off his bike—this time laughing his tits off.

Kelly Willis sessions

Kelly? We got together months back, sat knee to knee going through songs. She had her list and I had a longer one. We agreed on exactly one song. And she attached a "maybe" to that one. Ouch!

We got there eventually. Wrote of mess of songs. Cooked up a cool record. We got all "housewife goth" with it. Gingham aprons and bad blood. We got 60's, 70's Husbands and Wives with it. Elvis, Sammi Smith, Bobbie and Glen, If-your-child-needs-a-daddy stuff. Got everything in there but "the kid-pissed-the-bed-again" references. Cut an Iggy song. An Adam Green song, too. Pretty goddamn kinky stuff.

As for the Adam Green song: I was touring in Germany last year and kept seeing this kid on TV. I'd already had his Moldy Peaches CD - proudly purchased it at the Sidewalk Café in fact. I bought his CD at a German truck stop. It has this song "Teddy Boy's" on it. It's "Jailhouse Rock" stuff, It's PRISONER: CELLBLOCK H stuff, it's damn weird. Kelly dug it. She opted to not change the gender. She took it like a man. It goes from Sun studio to Soamn and Gommeranta and back. It's pretty interesting, just pay attention kids.

Have you ever heard Kelly and the Fireballs? Her original guitar player was Michael Hardwick who now plays with John Dee Graham. I think there was some bad blood between Kelly and Michael, but I couldn't help but drag him in to play on the song Lucky (or something like it).

Her husband Bruce's studio is retro nuevo ranchero la musica heaven. Bruce had Jack Clement's architects drawings when he built his echo chamber. Toss up a fader and it gets all "Ring Of Fire on you. He's a tall son of a bitch. Jack Clement without the old man's Marine stripes.

We did a lot of takes. Sometime as many as 30. What you hear on this record is mostly live, except for the strings and such. We got grandiose. We got regal. We were penniless royalty with nothing but intent. Pure intent. All the while we kept it down home.

We did a lot of takes. The run-downs could be really magical (as run-down's can). Then it'd get worse for a while and eventually it would come back, all relaxed and comfortable, like it had taken itself for a walk in the brush. The track, especially the vocal would get tougher and tougher and we'd come out the other end. But with intent. Besides, it was mostly all focused around the vocal settling into something. We avoid overdubs like they were trying to sell us subscriptions to the local newspaper outside the grocery store. I tried to get the band and Kelly in the same room playing off each other, waiting for those beautiful mistakes that are truly what recording is all about. I also sincerely tried to avoid the dreaded leaning over the talkback mic saying "once-more-with-feeling" at all cost.

The musicians (Greg Leisz, Michael Ramo's, Marc Pisappia, John "Lunch meat" Ludwick), all of them sensitive difficult people. But they all dig playing with Kelly and were on their best behavior. I did have some trouble with one player who wasn't exactly punctual. I had to pull him aside and tell him, "you know, you weren't Kelly's first choice." Who doesn't want to be Kelly Willis' first choice?

There's a sadness below Kelly, as if she's been touched by fire a time too many. You can hear it in her voice. What the hell do you expect? It shouldn't come as any surprise considering she used to call her father "Colonel" with no hint of irony.

When you're working on a record, you create this kind of surrogate family. Because we started this thing with no material to speak of—we just went into a room and worked it out. It can get strange. Things can get psychological. Some days you can feel the dramatic heat rising and walls closing in, the air feels staler than the day before and the claustrophobia can settle in. Personally, I dig it. It's fun making records. Kelly's got that quiet intensity. A quiet authority. We're kind of opposites in that regard. I feared we might end up canceling out each other's attributes. Ya know: how two positives make a negative.

Kelly's entirely without pretense. One day she was sporting these hopelessly outdated stone washed jeans with flip flops and I said, "Kelly when you gonna start wearing straight leg's - ya know, like the kids", and without missing a beat, she said: "Oh, about the time they make it to Old Navy, I suppose."

Kelly's life got progressively more chaotic with each kid she had from the time we did the last record until we began work on this one. She's up to four of them now. That's a lot of chaos. All of `em under the age of six. She's focused on her family when she's not in the studio or the road. When she's in the studio, she's focused on singing. You can hear it. You can feel it.

She's one of those singers that can make an ordinary sounding track come alive. She's got that kind of charisma. The musicians feel it as soon as she puts on her headphones and steps to the mic. You can feel the heat rise when she opens her mouth. You can hear the voice of a woman that is alive; heart pumping and soul suffering.

We sat down and wrote a few of those songs in one sitting. Jules Shear came and joined in for a couple of days. We did some minimal rewrites, in fact, Jules said, "yeah rewrites are okay, I guess—if you want to make the songs worse" Mostly what you hear is what we came up with right there in the moment.

Kelly and I first met on a train in Norway in 1991 or so. We were the only Americans on a train from Bergen to Stockholm. That was, as Kelly says, "three lifetimes ago"

This time around, she was originally threatening to do a record of covers. She played me some stuff, and I played her some records. Some pretty outside shit, like that Berkeley Laptop mutant coalition called: "Why?". A couple great songs off that album "Elephant Eyelash". A classic! A Captain Beefheart song called "Too Much Time". Anyway, God knows what she thought.

I think after the first day pitching 30 or 40 ideas to each other we agreed on exactly one. And, as I said before, she attached a "maybe" to that one. I was running out of ideas and eventually began running on the fumes of frustration, I just started playing songs on acoustic and singing bits of `em. She lit up when she heard that Iggy song ("Success"), not really knowing where it came from. Especially when it came to that line: "Here comes my face, it's plain bizarre." Besides, compared to Elephant Eyelash it was starting to sound pretty normal.

That first day was kind of a disaster. Her husband took me out that night and give me a little if-it ain't-broke-don't-fix-it talk. You know, Kelly does her thing and leave it be kinda stuff. Bruce Robison is a sharp guy. Like a fucking pen-knife. An artist himself. A big ol' bastard and I was sitting down. Shit, man, what do you do? I dunno. Back at the hotel that night, I was left alone to contemplate it all. What are you gonna do? Well, I wasn't about to unpack my clothes and put them in the nice mahogany drawers the hotel provides for longer stays.

There were a couple missteps. A couple songs where I thought I heard strings and later took them off. Michael Ramo's did some beautiful arrangements. It was hard taking them off. Nothing like throwing thousands of dollars out the window. Kelly just shrugged and was like, "Hell, that's what it's for".

We ended up writing songs after all. She had some ideas laying around that put the hammer down, made the flash pan explode, and we got to moving fast.

Kelly was briefly managed by Jewel's-then- manager who had arranged a San Francisco session. I got a call at the last minute to play. ( They probably couldn't get who they wanted). At the time, Kelly was in record co. limbo, no deal, nursing the mother-load of all hangover's. The kind of hangover that comes from getting tossed out by the major's—sitting on the couch for a year watching daytime TV, strung out on a two bag a day Doritos's habit. I'm not a clinical psychologist, but I got the impression she might be mildly depressed, or "dysthymic" as the DSM says. It occurred to me.

We cut a Nick Drake song that day (Time Will Tell Me). It was brilliant. Pretty powerful. I was smitten. Those sessions didn't work out in the long run, but a few songs did come together. The producer was a blow hard, and Kelly understandably bailed. Later, she took the reigns, borrowed some money from Rough Trade honcho Geoff Travis, and pulled together a session in Austin and invited me along. I went out there and ended up playing on most of the "What I Deserve" record. Since then, she's gone on to raise a family and fulfill her own dreams in her life as well as her music. Pretty cool, right?

There's chords and guitars and tones and timing, tuning, drum sounds and room sounds and analog and all that. But beyond that stuff, there's a crazy combination of personalities that make records pop. I think if you're lucky enough to get some of those psycho dynamics to stick to the tape, you've got a record that will resonate for a long time. Isn't that what recording is? A desperate need to catalog this fleeting life?

I was talking to my friend Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience about whether he felt it was harder than ever to make rock and roll that's relevant this late in the game. The good Dr. said, "Well if it's fun, it's relevant, right?" I think this record sounds like people having fun.

“Soap And Water”

“Soap And Water” Sessions

We've been back in the studio making a new record!

What can I say? It rained a lot the last couple weeks. We got it on our face and on our hair. We holed up. We ordered out. We gave it up for the songs, for each other. We prayed for our mayor, let the rain wash him clean. We exhausted our nine volt battery supply. We bought more. We goofed on some agitated single coil cubist junk, got serious with the spring reverb on mournful ballads. We took it to parts unknown. Together we kept time. Together we kept each other laughing. We fought the good fight into the wee hours. We shared new bruises every morning. We bought more tape and chewed right through the reels. We cut a mess of songs. Some of which are up and running and fending for themselves, others demanding more care.

Anyway, stay tuned, I'll try to keep you updated in the coming weeks with pictures and words and maybe even some 16 mm motion (for real(!) Danny Plotnick shot hours of footage) film soon as we raise the dough to get it developed.

[ Check It Out: Soap And Water ]

Kevin’s Live / Work Joint

I swung by Kevin Ink's live/work space also known as: "The Studio That Time Forgot" today to pick up my Sonny Smith master. After a couple pupusa's at Balompi's, I was treated to the 10 cent tour. I was already pretty familiar with the joint, although I'd never scene the quilted bedspread depicting the original home of the SF Seals baseball team that one of Kevin's ex's quilted for him. Suh-weeet!

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