Prophet's wisdom: On songwriting, recording and happiness
Soundbites from the performer, on the road, doing what he loves
As he makes his way across Germany—specifically, from Berlin to Hanover—Chuck Prophet is offering cell phone snippets of life on the road abroad.
His conversation isn't intended to seem like a scrapbook. It's just that the miracle of telecommunication technology isn't on anyone's side this day, regardless of which side of the Atlantic they happen to sit. One moment, Prophet is jubilantly deconstructing the songs—or, more specifically, the inspirations behind them—that make up his fine new album, Soap and Water. The next, the phone line goes dead, to be replaced by a severe recitation in German.
"It's a brave new world, my friend," Prophet says when conversation resumes.
The acclaimed San Francisco producer, writer, guitarist and concert artist began forging a devout indie following more than two decades ago in the Los Angeles garage-psychedelic-Americana band Green on Red. But through a solo recording career that began in 1990, Prophet developed an even more expansive pop sound that was as literate as it was lyrical.
In short, he sang a little like Tom Petty, wrote a lot like Tom Waits and rocked with an onstage abandon all his own, as evidenced generously by a string of Lexington concerts after the release in 2000 of his album The Hurting Business.
"It's my job, as a songwriter, to have my antenna up so I can look around for the right details," Prophet said. "And to be perfectly honest, I'm not always in the right head-space to wrestle every idea that floats by to the ground. I don't have that kind of energy."
Prophet compared the process of crafting an album from the ideas he does wrestle with to "honking your horn in a tunnel until you get bored."
"It's like you're spending your life chasing after this thrill," he said. "There's a buzz that comes from writing a song you get really excited about. But the buzz never lasts long. You're always left wondering where the next song will come from."
Kelly Willis, the veteran country-Americana artist whose newest album, Translated From Love, was produced by Prophet, says, "Chuck has always been involved when it comes to music. I have always really, really loved and connected with his instincts for songs. He is one of these people that live and breathes music and just instinctively knows what to do with a song."
Rather than elaborate further on the general discourse of songwriting, Prophet said he'd talk about specific songs he has penned, to offer more exact examples of how his pop smarts take on a tune.
What a great idea. Then the phone goes dead again and a recorded German scolding returns. A third call is placed, and renewed conversation accelerates. After all, another foreign tongue-lashing could break in at any moment.
The first tune Prophet detailed was Doubter Out of Jesus, a Soap and Water song that is a study of conversion more social than religious. It struts to an electric drum groove and swells with, of all things, the support singing of a Nashville children's choir.
"We were near the end of a recording session," he said. "Everybody had packed up the drums and basses and everything. A bunch of us were in the control room talking about what the album was missing. So I went through my notebook and pulled this song out. We just jammed on a riff using a drum machine. The whole thing was a freak accident. But when we brought in the children later on, everything went to another level."
Prophet also was asked to discuss Soap and Water's finale, Happy Ending.
"I was just fingerpicking around on the guitar on that one," he said. "I started thinking of it as the closing credits for a movie. I thought, `This is great. I have the last song for the album. Now all I need is the first one."
As varied and curious as the creative process can be in crafting a song, designing a new life for his music every night onstage can be equally exciting. For Prophet, though, the rewards are numerous. Life on the road offers a chance to hook up with a combustible performance persona that his records seldom reveal in full. But there is a personal bonus as well. Prophet's longtime keyboardist, Stephanie Finch, is also his wife.
"Performance is kind of my addiction, I suppose. But in terms of addictions, it's the healthiest one I've ever had. I'm lucky to travel and hammer things out onstage with Stephanie. There's always something going on out on the bandstand.
"You know, people are always talking about the (music) industry being in the doldrums, that nobody is buying records anymore. For me, I feel like I'm just getting the hang of this. In that respect, I've never been happier."