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Singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys has worked with a litany of artists that represent a wide musical spectrum: Sonny Rollins, John Cale, Phoebe Snow, James Taylor, U2 and Bruce Springsteen comprise the short-list. He has been endorsed as a major contributor to reggae by Bob Marley himself. The native New Yorker’s enthusiasm and willingness to continually stretch his musical boundaries speak volumes.
Local awards include his induction into the Long Island Hall of Fame (2016) as well as the NY Blues Hall of Fame Award. He has also been heralded internationally in Germany and Italy and has frequented the festival circuit (Montreux Jazz, Ottawa Folk, etc.) to critical acclaim.
2017 is shaping up already to be an exciting year. A detailed documentary about his life is in the works and he is set to release the James Maddock-produced ’14 Steps to Harlem’ (April 28, 2017, Luna Records), his third album in six years, on which he has compiled primarily original songs that reflect, not surprisingly, a variegated blend of genres.
On the new release, band members Mark Bosch, Charly Roth, Brian Stanley and Tom Curiano are joined by guests Brian Mitchell and Ben Stivers, but in his second Pennyblackmusic interview with Lisa Torem, Jeffreys fills us in on a few additional surprise appearances. And don’t be surprised if some strong, social messages bleed their way into his raw, passionate vocals — Jeffreys has built a strong reputation on speaking his mind, even when controversy ensues, all in an effort to improve human relations and honour the underappreciated.
To support ’14 Steps to Harlem', Jeffreys and his band will embark on a much-anticipated European Tour beginning on March 30, 2017, that will include cultural capitals in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, France and the Netherlands, whilst back in the US, he will be making an appearance at the popular Austin fest, SXSW,in mid-March.
PB: Hi Garland. How’s everything going?
GF: Everything is going pretty well in life these days.
PB: Congratulations on your new album. Before we talk about it, though, let’s talk about some of your earliest musical memories when growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
GF: My musical memories started very early because I grew up with a lot of music in the house. My family played a lot of jazz - all of the great jazz singers and jazz music that I heard, that’s what my parents liked and it was a different era. I’m so thankful for that because that’s the core and spirit of music in general. I just love all of that music. Any of that music that I learned back then is part of my music today.
PB; You later wrote a song about John Lee Hooker. Was he another influence?
GF: Definitely. How could he not be? Anybody who was listening to music, certainly the blues… Look at someone like Bonnie Raitt, who’s been a great friend of mine for years. She was totally influenced by John Lee Hooker. We didn’t invent anything. A lot of these wonderful things that we love are from people who came before us.
PB: You attended Syracuse University, which you have described as a great experience, and it also was where you chose to redirect your career plans.
GF: I still love all that happened at Syracuse. I met a wonderful professor there, Dr. Fleming, and he really took a liking to me. He really persuaded me to investigate things, such as going to Italy; going to Florence. I lived and spent a lot of time in Florence.
My daughter, Savannah, who is a fantastic artist in her own right, and is still in college and a young girl, went to Florence and visited some of my people from back in the past and that was great. She didn’t even tell me she was doing it, she just went.
She’s quite a talent herself. She’s a very strong songwriter and performer.
PB: On your self-titled debut of 1973, on which you enjoyed the talents of Dr. John and multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg, you also recorded the widely-covered ‘Wild in The Streets’. What did you learn from writing and collaborating on that project?
GJ: I was ready to go from the beginning because I loved music for so long. My idol, growing up, was Frankie Lymon. He was my hero. I thought I could be like him. I was the same size. ‘I’m Not A Know It All’— what a great, great song. It’s funny. I hear it in Van Morrison’s new work, he has similar influences like John Lee Hooker; those types of artists. If you hear Van’s new album, you’ll hear a little of the Frankie Lymon style in there.
PB: In 1982, you wrote about the Central American country, El Salvador, on ‘Guts for Love’. The song and the accompanying video were very moving. What prompted the idea?
GJ: I’m always writing songs about people in certain circumstances; people who go through enormous difficulty. You might say that that’s where I came from, those life challenges.
My father worked really hard to make a living. He travelled up to Harlem every day to go to work and back. That was a long train ride and I think about my father a lot these days because he gave me so much: his fortitude, his incredible focus. And he was a great father, tough at times, but a great dad, you know? And he did the same for my younger brother. He was really special.
PB: You took a break from recording so that you and your wife, Claire, could raise Savannah. When you went back into the studio to record ‘King of In-Between’ did you find that becoming a father had influenced your writing?
GJ: My kid is an incredible young lady. She’s in school. She’s finishing up college in another year. She goes to Wesleyan University. She’s a terrific academic, tenacious and very bright. She must get that from my wife because I don’t have that. (Laughs). I’m just a guy from the neighbourhood. But I’m proud of my family; proud of my wife. She’s fantastic, and Savannah.
PB: Critics called ‘Truth Serum’ a very personal and reflective album. Are the themes just as contemporary now?
GJ: Yes, definitely. It’s a very simple although a complicated story. That’s what we want. We want the truth. We want to be told the truth. We know that we don’t always get told the truth. And I think we are left to ourselves to find the truth; to find the truth as to who we are, how we’re behaving, because we really have to take our own inventory in the end.
We’re not perfect and we have to improve. Some people don’t improve and don’t try to, but I’m from the school of people that want to make it better for myself, for my family, for my friends, and I can’t help but do that. That’s a part of me.
PB: And you are known for being vocal, even when issues are controversial and tough to talk about. Sometimes making those choices affects one’s career.
GJ: It is difficult. When I was new, it was more difficult, but then I began to understand that this is who I am. You discover this as you grow up, what do I stand for? This is what I stand for. I have some black friends in my life who are not very open-minded, but I’m interested in mixing up the races. You can’t help it, it’s right there in front of you. What are you going to do? Avoid it? And not only that, you might find some beauty and some wonder in it.
I found this out very early because I grew up on a very mixed street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. It’s a great town. In fact, I’m in touch with a couple of my big friends and they’re also tall, much taller than me (Laughs).
I would walk down the street, the guy in the middle who was very short. I’m just so grateful to have followed in this line, to become a musician and to learn from what’s going on in the world and incorporate it into my songwriting.
PB: Your latest album, ‘Fourteen Steps to Harlem’, is going to be released shortly. Did a pattern emerge in the writing? Did you create the lyrics or melodies first?
GJ: For me, I have to get into a place. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and I’m actually writing songs for a new recording now. I like to write songs. It’s my number one way of expression, not to mention performing. I’m always wanting to write songs that express exactly what I think. I’m not afraid to say what I feel. If I have the ability and fearlessness to do so, well, why not?
Because what I feel I’m doing is, I’m doing something positive. I’m doing something that has value. People that are my fans, people that I know around the world, expect that from me and that’s a great thing.
I don’t mind that kind of burden, as you might call it, or some people might call it, and I’m very grateful for it all.
PB: ‘Waiting for the Man’ has a unique sound.
GJ: Well, it’s about my buddy, Lou (LT: Lou Reed). He would be very pleased to know, he knew that I performed it at times, but he was a great and dear friend of mine. I miss him to this day.
PB: And Laurie Anderson guests on the album.
GJ: Yes, Laurie’s a great friend of mine. I love Laurie. Laurie’s one of the great people.
PB: You did a cover of ‘Help’ on the new album, too. I heard that John Lennon had once slipped you the sheet music for that song and now you have brought his request to fruition.
GJ: Yes, I have the sheet music. It’s in the garage and we’re going to take that garage apart very, very shortly. I’m pissed off that it’s still here, but we’re going to do it. When he gave me that sheet music, it was so great.
I met him for the first time at the Record Plant. Not only did I meet him, but I met the fantastic engineer and mixer, Roy Cicala (Cicala worked with Jeffreys on ‘The King of In Between', 2011). Roy was very tight with John as well. (Cicala worked with Lennon on seven albums). When I was at the Record Plant one day, Roy said, “I’ll be right back.” He was a prankster, by the way. He was a funny guy and he did a lot of funny things. He did that to loosen up the musicians and everything.
He and John were very close and one day he said, “Look, I want you to come out to the studio for a second." He takes me to see Yoko and John and introduces me to John. And John then sang on something that I did. And I would see John from time to time and, of course, eventually I got to know Yoko a little bit. Yoko asked me to write a whole, big piece in the book that she wrote about Lennon and I was, of course, very pleased, flattered and moved.
But the limited time I met John was a few times. He was a prankster. He was a joker. He was a teaser and a playful guy and he never meant any harm toward anybody. He wanted to be one of the boys and that would have been pretty hard for him, I think.
PB: You did a duet with Savannah on the new album called ‘Time Goes Away’.
GJ: Yes, she’s a very talented girl. She’s got her head in a lot of places. I hope that she proceeds on as a musician because she is very talented and I think she has an intelligence, so that intelligence can easily be applied to songwriting. She’s going to have some good ideas in her songwriting. She already does.
PB: Did you write the song for her?
GJ: You might say that. Sometimes you write something and in the case of her, she was in the studio and I think she did one take and it sounded fantastic. It was as simple as that. Her voice really soars. You hear a maturity even though she’s young.
PB: What was it like working with producer James Maddock? He is a multi-instrumentalist so I assume that worked in your favour.
GJ: James is a great friend of mine. We’re very close. I’ve been to his house in the UK. He’s from Leicester. I met his mom and his dad and I hung out with his boys. James and I have a friendship that’s not just an ordinary one. We’re really pals and friends. He did some solid things on this album and I would do the same for him.
We did a show at Joe’s Pub. We do it every New Year’s Eve and this time John joined us with my band members and Savannah. Savannah has done this New Year’s Eve thing a few times and this time she really blew the house off. She upstaged me a little bit (Laughs). She had her crew there, so she was feeling confident. It was so great to see that she could be confident and really put it across. Nobody in her crew has that kind of thing going.
PB: You’re going to be going on tour to support the new album. What are you most excited about?
GJ: I love performing and I love my audience and my audience knows that so they can be sure that I give them everything that I have, like when I was playing in Holland — we played a big festival there. We’re playing in Berlin and I love to play there. You know, I’m an American from Brooklyn, who had the amazing experience of going to Europe and embracing Europe. I know people who have never been out of the city.
PB: Thank you.
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The legendary Garland Jeffreys and his band will soon release his third album in six years. He chats to Lisa Torem about the songs, the guests and his early influences.
Lisa Torem speaks to acclaimed singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys about his long musical career, latest album 'Truth Serum' and forthcoming tour of Europe
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