sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention
Two decades into his solo career, Chuck Prophet still tends to be defined by his time spent with LA-based roustabouts Green on Red, Which must be galling because he's a sparky songwriter worthy of greater attention. A snarling Sonny Liston's Blues and American Man's tongue-in-cheek Tom Petty-isms help bring ¡Let Freedom Ring! well up to par.
Let Freedom Ring
Following his part in fellow roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo's cracking Real Animal, the Green On Red man designs a fine blend of rebel bar rock, soft country musings and songs that resolve life lessons with a personal touch.
an energized shot across the bows of the American dream
Cult longevity can often be as much a curse as it is a blessing. While the existence of an audience means an artist can continue to make his or her presence felt, opportunities for gleaning new listeners tend to be scant. That doesn’t mean that the product has to be irrelevant – something former Green on Red man Chuck Prophet proves to mighty effect on this incendiary new offering. Recorded with luminaries such as Kelley Stoltz and former E Street Band drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter in Mexico City at the height of the swine-flu panic, Let Freedom Ring is an energised shot across the bows of the American dream. Prophet’s playing and singing burns with righteous ire throughout from the Clash-like Telecaster thrusts of opener Sonny Liston’s Blues to the disgusted denouement of the title track where he laments the fact that ‘the hawk always cripples the dove’. Lovers of unfettered rock and roll and impassioned and politicised songwriting chops will find much to cherish.
Sharp-dressed Man How Chuck Prophet Learned To Dress For Success By Brian Baker Singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet's reticence in the wake of his excellent 2007 album Soap and Water isn't unusual. "It's appallingly unfashionable to make records that hold together as an album, but I keep doing them - it's like hitting your dick with a hammer," says Prophet with a laugh. "People I talk to in the business say, 'Chuck, we really commend you for that. You go, man.' I still think that way, and I was pretty encouraged by the album I collaborated on with Alejandro [Escovedo] last year. That's how I go about making a record, from the outside in or from the inside out. If I can get three or four songs that take me somewhere I haven't been, then that's enough to keep me going." Prophet got more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling from his work on Escovedo's Real Animal last year. Escovedo advised Prophet to be more aggressive with promoters when setting his asking price for gigs. Prophet left their meeting with more than advice. "We're sitting in his kitchen and with musicians, it always goes right to the business," recalls Prophet. "Al's like, 'How's your agent doing for you?' And I'm like, 'I'm doing OK.' And he goes, 'Seriously, what do you get paid like in Chicago?' 'I don't know. I don't want to talk about it.' Eventually I told him, and he was like, 'Bro, bro, bro, you gotta be doing better than that.' He got up and went upstairs, and I heard him walking around, and I'm thinking, 'What the fuck is he doing up there?' He finally comes down 10 minutes later with three suits on hangers. He goes, 'Here, bro, take these with you. Sharpen up your act a little bit. Your fees will go up.' I started dressing nicer and they went up." As for a new album, Prophet seems to have three or four songs to get him going, so a new full-length in 2009 is a possibility. He's beginning to frame it up mentally. "When I got into music, I signed up for the adventure," he jokes. "Maybe I'll go to Mexico City and make an emo record. I haven't really formed it in my mind, but I'm kind of working on an uninhibited, quasi-political record for non-political people like myself. We're living in an anxious time, and I think it's a good time to let the world in a little bit." Prophet will likely debut at least a couple of new songs on his current tour, and based on his description, they seem like worthy additions to his already impressive catalog. "They're a little less boy/girl and more reflective of the times we're living in," says Prophet. "I've got a song called 'Paying My Respects to the Train' which might surface. I've got another one called 'Jesus Was a Social Drinker' that I like to play solo. I've got a song called 'Let Freedom Ring' which is a fun new song I'm excited about, so there's a cluster of things." For his appearance at the Beachland Tavern this week, Prophet will fly solo and acoustic, which allows him the freedom to perform songs that don't normally wind up in his set list. It also forces him to rethink songs that are typically muscled through by his touring band. "'Singer-songwriter' is a ghetto," says Prophet. "People stand back and squint, and we're indistinguishable from one another. It's rough out there. But it gives me an opportunity to try out new songs and different kinds of songs, like some of the more narrative, storytelling stuff that I don't have to get above the band. To be perfectly honest, it's not why I got into music - to play solo. I prefer to have a drummer to lean back on and get ahead and behind the beat and spar like that. But playing solo has its own thing. It's freer in a way. But it can be crushing when you suck."
Soap And Water
Soap and Water is the latest album from Chuck Prophet. It's a burst of unrestrained creativity from a man who enjoys confounding people's expectations. "When I get some kind of inspirational virus, I follow it through to its conclusion. The virus starts with two or three songs that take me someplace I haven't been. It's like writing a play; the songs are characters, inhabited by their own needs or whatever. This time there's probably more devil-may-care spirit to it. It's more spontaneous, less introspective. I sang a lot of it live and the musicians played it on the floor, live."
The twelve tunes on Soap and Water run the gamut from lavishly arranged tunes featuring a string section and Nashville's Methodist Church Children's Choir to minimal late night meditations caught on the fly in one take.
Prophet recorded the album in San Francisco at Closer Studios and Nashville at Alex the Great with co-producer Brad Jones (Yo La Tengo, Josh Rouse, Dolly Parton) who helped keep Prophet on point. Prophet explains, "When I produce myself, I inevitably get to a place where I wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat with bats coming out of my head. It was nice to work with someone who had my back. Brad was able, in his own gentle way, to keep me between lanes.
"The musicians involved are all friends. We approached this record differently. We gave all the musicians and engineers a stake in the masters. I think the traditional system doesn't work anymore. These talented, difficult people all played their hearts out. You can hear it."
Soap and Water kicks off with "Freckle Song," "I set out to write a one-chord classic like 'Electric Avenue' by Eddy Grant, but when we got into the studio I wussed out and came up with a chord change for the bridge to play my guitar over." The lyrics? "When I say 'Let me please help you out of that dress, before you catch a cold,' it makes me laugh now. It's all so very suave. Like Gregory Peck or someone. That's the beauty of songwriting, you get to be whoever you want to be."
"Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)" is a kind of electro-punk blues produced with digital keyboard, drum machine and a couple guitars plugged directly into the board. "I love guys like Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, Mink DeVille...guys who've been able to take classic Brill Building pop and deconstruct it."
"Every time you blink, every time you rest your eyes, there's another new crop of tragedies off the bus," Prophet laughs about the inspiration for "Small Town Girl." With a simple choogin' Bo Diddley guitar, heartrending female vocal from his wife Stephanie Finch, percussion tapped out on the top of a guitar case and Stygian guitar and organ accents. Prophet delivers this tale of innocence, in a gentle, mournful tone.
"Let's Do Something Wrong" starts out quiet and meditative. Prophet's half-spoken, half-sung vocal with lyrics repeating like a sick mantra ("Let's do something wrong, let's do something stupid") accented by his sparse, single-coil guitar and a marching drumbeat. The bridge ramps up into full bi-polar glory with Prophet pleading at the top of his lungs, "I always did the right thing, what did it get me?" Prophet's closing solo weaves through a rush of strings and a mocking children's chorus.
The album also includes the surrealistic poetry of "A Woman's Voice"; "Would You Love Me?," a folk ballad full of eerie sounds; "I Can Feel Your Heartbeat," a stuttering bit of Southern rock cha-cha; "Downtime," an off the cuff in the studio ode to the pleasures of isolation; and the title track, a gloves-off, back-and-forth duet with his wife Stephanie.
The album closes quietly with "Happy Ending," a breezy meditation on loss and limitation that slowly builds to a climax with a hint of hope and a glimmer of light. Prophet's quiet finger-picking and weary vocal portray the uncertainty one feels when a relationship comes to an ambivalent conclusion.
Chuck Prophet was born and raised in Whittier, California, President Richard M. Nixon's hometown. "If you shook a tree in my neighborhood, five guitar players would fall out," Prophet recalls. "My sister had a lot of records, Stones, Bowie; the music was magical to me. Everyone I knew had picked up a guitar at some point. It was natural to start playing, but I never thought of it as a vocation."
"I moved up to San Francisco to go to college, majoring in financial aid. I saw the Dead Kennedys at the Mabuhay Gardens (the legendary punk venue) and all the early Slash Records bands like Rank and File." Prophet soon hooked up with Green on Red, a groundbreaking, hard to pigeonhole band that would act as a catalyst for the Paisley Underground and alt-country sounds of subsequent years. "Green on Red were the first band I'd met with a van and a gas card, so I joined up. It was summer, I figured I'd get in the van and go back to school in the fall."
That summer vacation turned into eight years and as many albums with Green on Red - a band many people, including Prophet himself, are still trying to make sense of - burning through more than one major label deal. "Some people thought we were the saviors of rock 'n' roll; other people thought we were pathetic knuckleheads. I think they're both right. It was like being in a motorcycle gang; we lived out all the excesses."
When Green on Red disintegrated, Prophet launched a solo career with Brother Aldo (1990), an album that fused his love of blues, rock, Waylon Jennings and Richard and Linda Thompson. His jagged guitar lines, gritty baritone and stellar songwriting soon made him a cult figure in Europe, while stateside he won fans like Lucinda Williams, Stephen King, Ryan Adams, songwriting legend Dan Penn (a song they co-wrote, "I Need A Holiday" was covered by the mighty Solomon Burke) and Kim Richey with whom he co-wrote Cyndi Thompson's Top 40 hit "I'm Gone."
A video and film enthusiast, Prophet along with Teddi Bennet makes his own no-budget videos and is always ready to collaborate as musician, producer or sideman to other projects. He's done sessions with Warren Zevon and Cake and produced Kelly Willis's latest Rykodisc album, Translated from Love, co-writing some of that album's songs as well. He's also writing and editing Road Song for the San Francisco Chronicle's book division. "I'm putting together a collection with lots of pictures and ephemera that will explain how you can go from city to city and maintain some sort of sanity. Or not. The road brings out the best and worst in people so I thought I'd ask other road warriors to let me edit their diaries.
For the rest of the year, Prophet will be on the road himself, doing what he does best. "I must be one of the last musicians that still enjoys touring," Prophet says. "When people see us live they're going to get involved. We wiggle and we wobble but we don't fall down."
Riding the riff to its logical conclusion
Chuck Prophet finds more than one way to make music
"He came to San Francisco and we spent about a year writing -- a lot of talking, a lot of laying around listening to Mott the Hoople records in the dark and long, long naps but eventually we wrote an album's worth of material and recorded it around Christmas."
The 13 songs on Real Animal document Escovedo's life and times with a narrative flourish. Ideas went back and forth to get the right approach, says Prophet. "Often times Alejandro would tell me a story and I would say something like, 'Well it would be great to capture some of that Chelsea Hotel mythology in a song. You get a riff and you ride on the back of it and you just kind of follow it through to its logical conclusion."
The album was produced by Tony Visconti giving Prophet a chance to watch firsthand the man responsible for some of David Bowie and T. Rex's early successes. "Tony has a real gift for using a fine brush," he says. "When we were tracking it was one thing to get the groove together but later when it came to the strings and things like that I could really see Tony's gift for getting in there. He's been doing it for a long time. We used to watch him put his hands on the faders and kind of massage the console. He can take a seemingly uninspired mix and with just a few moves make it sound like a record. He's like a master painter in that respect."
Soap and Water takes a similar storytelling approach but that's where the similarities end. "For me it's really liberating to try and make records that work outside of the singer/songwriter box," says Prophet. "There's probably enough songs out there about people's coffee getting cold. For me, if I can pick a character and breathe life into him and capture the way they talk that's a lot of fun for me. But there must be some of me in there as well, even if some of these characters I don't really like that much."
Traditionally Prophet and his band have played more in Europe than in the U.S. but North American audiences are starting to come around. When Prophet is asked where they most like to perform he responds: "I think the British audiences are some of my favourite audiences. We spent so many years just ignoring North America hoping it would go away. We toured in Europe and it didn't go away. Seattle, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas were some of the early beachheads -- we've got a place in our hearts for those towns."
Working with Warren Zevon:
"He used to drink so much Mountain Dew halfway through the day he would get these migraines. He could really be a contentious guy, almost in a perverse way -- so funny and so smart you didn't want to miss anything. I did a lot of sitting around but I tell people it was the best internship I ever had."
Writing with Escovedo:
"We wrote a song called Nun's Song where we talk about our first groups and just the thrill of being in a band. Al started playing the 96 Tears riff on his guitar and I just started shouting and screaming until I was hoarse and I recorded it all on a handheld cassette. We listened to it back and took the best parts, typed it out and that was it."
We spoke to Chuck Prophet about "Always a Friend," the opening cut on Real Animal:
I suspect that you've known Alejandro a long time, probably even dating back to his Nuns days, but I think this is the first time you've written with him. What led to you work with him on his new record?
He had an idea that it would work. And he was right. He asked me to come out to his place in Wimberly, Texas. We then spent a year splitting time between my little office space in San Francisco and his garage-cum-manspace in Wimberly. It took us a while to get up to speed. But Al has this incredible faith and patience. He's very patient. I'm like, "What's with the whole patience thing?" He tells me, "Bro, that's the Mayan thing." There were days of us just laying around talking. We spent a lot of time laying on the carpet in the dark talking. And listening to Mott the Hoople records. And naps. Lots of naps. But when we got worked up into a lather, it would flow through us. I often thought that if someone were to see us-if someone were to look in the window at us when we're in the throes of it-they might be tempted to call the cops.
The full interview is here:
The Austin American Statesman has a feature on Alejandro Escovedo, and the songs (all co-written with Chuck Prophet) on his new album Real Animal.
The entire article is online here:
Chuck Prophet covers outlaw Waylon Jennings, and it works beautifully
Chuck Prophet is a Californian born and bred, so it’s only natural he takes a few liberties with the lyrics to "Waymore’s Blues," one of the songs he covers on his latest full-length-a weird, loving re-creation of Waylon Jennings’ classic 1975 country album Dreaming My Dreams. "Well, I gotta leave San Francisco / I gotta spread the news," Prophet sings. "Women up in this piece / They don’t wear no shoes." On Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, the singer and songwriter respects the running order of the original work as well as its emotional core, but Prophet is in the line of subversive American pop artists whose afﬁnities are shifty by design.
From Whittier, Calif., Prophet ﬁrst gained notice as guitarist for Green on Red, a band whose whacked-out Americana updated the time-honored trash aesthetic in the ’80s. After their breakup, he released a series of well-received solo records, worked with Dan Penn and Jim Dickinson and produced country-pop singer Kelly Willis. Last year he released the ﬁne Soap and Water, on which he came across like the chameleonic Alex Chilton with fewer misgivings about pop’s elusive soul.
Cut in San Francisco and in Nashville with producer Brad Jones at Alex the Great studio, Soap and Water took Chilton’s insouciant, good-boy-itching-to-be-bad charm as its template. "I met Alex at the 688 Club in Atlanta," Prophet remembers. "He pulled out of that Buick Skylark that he had, with a Super Reverb amp and his clothes in the back, and that was it, you know? Alex sang the blues the way Mose Allison sang it-he had a great, cool way of doin’ it."
Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams came about as a result of Prophet’s longtime admiration of Jennings’ masterpiece, and turned on a bit of self-aggrandizement. "We cut it in California over a weekend, and it was really kind of done on a dare," Prophet says. "I think I started braggin’, and said, ‘I could do that whole record from memory, right now.’ Three or four songs in, we were starting to get punchy, you know, and we were bringing the words down off the Internet."
The result is a loose, lively document that sounds neither country nor pop. Prophet’s humorous baritone holds notes and inﬂects lines with a sort of pathos that never gets out of hand. "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" stomps along in hard, concentrated fashion, with atmospheric guitars. "Waymore’s Blues" (itself a reworking of Furry Lewis’ 1928 "Kassie Jones") joins the list of inspired readings of the venerable tune by Memphis producer and pianist Jim Dickinson.
"We played it with Dickinson in 1991," Prophet says. "We did a brief tour with him and my band backed him up. Every time I would quote anything from the Waylon version, he would kinda snarl at me. He’d say, ‘Man, I don’t even acknowledge that version.’ "
However ﬁnely tuned one’s historical sense might be, Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams works beautifully. It turns a Nashville record (Jack Clement produced the original) into something close to the Bluff City in spirit. If Chilton’s work triangulates Memphis, New Orleans and Brian Wilson’s California, Prophet’s vision includes Music City.
"In the late ’90s, Nashville kind of saved me," Prophet says. He came to town to write with the likes of Kim Richey, with whom he penned a 2002 Top 40 country hit for Cyndi Thomson, "I’m Gone." A ﬁrst-rate songwriter with a ﬁne sense of pop classicism, Prophet might seem an unlikely cowboy standing in line to sing the blues. To paraphrase Jack Clement himself, Prophet might be a fake, but Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams proves he’s no phony.
It's still a stellar decade for Chuck Prophet-partly because he keeps working through the ordeal of the 15 years that came before. His white-boy blues predated Americana, and he was too sensitive to be a garage rocker. That's how he got stuck being a country-psych sideman in Green On Red. By the time Prophet matured into white-man blues, Americana was too much of a niche market to contain him. His recent string of impressive albums has depended on whatever audience finds him between the cracks.
A lot of that audience is in Europe, and Prophet could be coasting as an intellectual hillbilly. They love that kind of thing over there. Instead, last year's Soap and Water is almost a typical collection of ambitious ramblings. He's playing a little more R&B, and there are some ragged, faster songs that finally get him close to garage rock-but only because Prophet's hung around long enough for the genre to get sensitive. You could compare the record to Dylan or Costello, but that praise is a little faint nowadays.
Folkster finds inspiration in music’s margins
INDIANAPOLIS - Chuck Prophet has touched many an itinerant soul with his quirky, loosely-compact folk music. But to call him an influential genius is to get an opposite response from him.
"I don’t know what any of that means," Prophet said of that description. "I think I’ve gotten away with murder. I can’t believe I sell as many records as I do."
He’s no household name, but Prophet did provide a blueprint for the alt-country movement, starting with his Bay Area exercise-in-excess, the band Green on Red in the 1980s. It’s continued with numerous solo albums, the most recent being last year’s "Soap and Water." The release features more of Prophet’s signature mood swings - the loutish rollick of "Freckle Song" to the spectral chill of "Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)." That essentially defines Prophet, an artist as comfortable writing simple chord progressions as he is elaborate sound collages.
"Some songs just don’t want to behave," he said of the latter. "Some songs become so married to a certain arrangement that you’ve gotta take ‘em out and rotate the tires. It’s elusive about what people respond to. That’s really the greatest part about any art form. You can be the greatest craftsman in the world, but you don’t know what people are really going to respond to."
It was the ‘80s punk movement that Prophet and his friends were enamored with. Though Prophet may not have translated the buzzsaw guitars and truculent speed, the iconoclastic spirit remains intact.
"The goal was just to have a band," he said of those early days. "We didn’t do much, just sat around fantasizing."
It could be said that’s what Prophet continues to do. He still frequently tours ("I’m probably one of five people who doesn’t complain about it"), produces others’ records, and runs his own label, (((belle sound))). Yet he still won’t fully admit to being a professional musician. He’s never had a business plan. Rather than measuring success by any economic indicators, Prophet’s reason for performing has always been for his own amusement.
"I just have a dark need to write songs and wrestle them to the ground in the form of records and play," he said. "That’s what I do. You’re really only competing with yourself. The goal is to do something that keeps you interested in what you’re doing."
Review: Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express, Fibbers, York, Monday
"HEY, can anyone tell me the last time we were at Fibbers?" asks Chuck Prophet, his Californian rasp convivial from the start.
No one answers, despite Prophet being an American roots rock icon to (mainly) men of a certain vintage in the crowd, fans since his Eighties junkie days in Green On Red. One had seen him no fewer than six times.
"Are you sure?" he teases, in the silence. Chuck thinks it must have been 30 years ago - pre-Fibbers in reality - but the truth is June 20, 2003, and it is hard to believe that anyone could forget a Prophet gig.
The humour, with the droll delivery of a story-telling comic and an always apt phrase, sets him apart from tongue-tied British front man, making each preamble a joyful surprise as he banters with audience wags while tuning or trying to tame the misbehaving sound system.
"Is that a speech impediment?" he inquires, when encountering a particularly persistent Geordie voice. Prophet has a swagger, from his pinstriped waistcoat to the way he holds his Fender Stratocaster high to his side.
Fronting a cool five-piece, he has good cause for that swagger: his songbook of worn country rock, sun-dried blues and mournful ballads has been bolstered anew by last year's Soap And Water.
His seventh solo album elicited the night's high points - in the company of Cake drummer Todd Roper and keyboard-playing co-vocalist Stephanie Finch - from Something Stupid to Would You Love Me. Unforgettable!
Best Single Set:
Chuck Prophet at the Ale House, 11 p.m. Friday. That the room was about two sizes too small for the crowd -- and for the increasingly ambitous scale and scope of Prophet's music -- only served to amplify and intensify the glorious performance turned in by Prophet and his four-piece band. While he's always been a compelling live performer, Prophet seems to be stretching beyond himself these days, reaching heights he's never quite hit before. The vocal balance between him and keyboardist Stephanie Finch is precisely on target, while the rest of the crew just keeps driving all the dramatics and dynamics and grooves of Prophet's songs to tighter and trippier end-results. The peak moment: "Let's Do Something Wrong", a mission-statement for breaking the daily grind that had the crowd chanting along by song's end: "Let's do something wrong, let's do something stupid!"
The lead singer of this San Francisco band was born a Prophet. "Hell, if I was going to pick my name, I wouldn't have picked Prophet, that's for sure," Chuck Prophet says of his surname. "As for the Mission Express, no one remembers." When it comes to being a musical visionary, Prophet also had no choice. He was born with the gift of a golden voice. His tower of songs goes back to his Orange County childhood, when he inherited his sister's acoustic guitar and learned to play "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young. "I've been trying to find a guitar that stays in tune ever since," says Prophet, who played in punk rock band Green on Red before going on to collaborate with folks such as Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman and Cake. In 1990, Prophet released his first solo record, "Brother Aldo," on the British label Fire Records. "They gave me 500 British pounds (about $800). I couldn't believe it." Prophet more recently has played the talk show tour (including Letterman and Carson Daly) for his newest album, "Soap and Water." Now he is stoked to get back on a San Francisco stage. "I do still get a kick out of playing," he says. "I call my mom every week and say my prayers every night. I still love traveling around and meeting people - to wake up interested in what you're doing is really a blessing. Music is the healthiest addiction I've ever had. And I've had a few."
Lineup: Chuck Prophet, vocals, guitar; Stephie Finch, singing, Farfisa organ; Kevin White, bass guitar; Todd Roper, drums, vocals; James DePrado, guitar, sweater vest.
1. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express' music should be filed between:
You mean alphabetically, right? All roads lead to Dylan, I suppose. To be filed between Bach and Dylan would be a real honor. That's where you'll find the Beach Boys ... and the Beatles, too, come to think of it.
2. The soundtrack to what movie would your music best match?
You mean like "Easy Rider" or "Sunset Boulevard"? Inspiration is in everything, in everyone. ... How about "Midnight Cowboy"? Boy, that's a great soundtrack. I'd be a fool to put myself next to that soundtrack. I could only aspire to such greatness.
3. If you could collaborate on a song with any person, living or dead, who would that be?
4. If a junior high school asked you to play a cover song at the next talent show, what song and school would you choose?
Washington Junior High, La Habra (Orange County). "Louie, Louie" - that song should be the national anthem. In a way, it already is.
5. What is the meaning of life?
Still searching. You can't see me right now, but if you could you'd see that I'm deep in thought. Deep, deep thought. I'd be happy just to get bumped up to first class on a transatlantic flight once more before I die. It happened a few years ago on Virgin. I was convinced if the plane went down, all the passengers in first class would somehow float away unscathed. It was a glorious flight; I almost didn't want it to end. I thought I saw God in my fresh squeezed orange juice. It was brief, but intense.
Alejandro Escovedo's "Lust for Life": Real Animal
Austin, Texas isn’t known as the "live music capital of the world" for nothing, and you don't need a SxSW wristband to partake. On any given weeknight, a live music addict wandering 6th Street or South Congress can step through the nearest pub door and find a quick fix of blistering rock and roll-- one-off live shows that would shame more anticipated and choreographed productions taking place only on weekends in other cities.
Even by Austin’s standards, though, Tuesday nights in particular must seem a bit special of late. Beginning last year and continuing through January, Austin's Alejandro Escovedo (link) took up a Tuesday night residency at the famed Continental Club. In listening to the concerts, Escovedo and his band (his frequent mix of string quartet and buzz-saw guitars) sound muscular, confident, and ready to take to the road.
Of all of the residency shows, however, none were more anticipated than a special show last Friday night, when Escovedo and singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet debuted material from their highly-anticipated release, Real Animal. Real Animal, an album of songs reflecting on Escovedo’s life, including the title track, a tribute to one of his biggest influences, Iggy Pop, is slated for release in June. In fact, last Tuesday's show not only "debuted material," but, following a set by Prophet and his band (touring behind Prophet’s 2007 release Soap and Water), Escovedo, Prophet, and band roared through through Real Animal in its entirety, track-by-track, in order...
High praise for a musician's musician
Relatively unknown singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet gathers kudos from artists, critics
Chuck Prophet's been playing music for a good 30 years.
Maybe you've heard of him?
He picked up a guitar as a child and started out in punk as a teenager in Southern California. There were about eight years in Green on Red, the country/rock/Americana band of the 1980s that inspired acclaim from critics and fans in the know. Then he went solo and created eight albums including his most recent, Soap and Water.
Nothing? No bells going off?
How about Lucinda Williams, heard of her? He toured with her. Kelly Willis? He produced her last album, Translated From Love, and has collaborated with her, writing songs and performing on her albums.
He's worked with Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richman and Alejandro Escovedo and the band Cake.
In other words, Chuck Prophet's a man with the kind of insider résumé that has earned him praise from musicians and listeners - the ones who are listening, that is.
"I think he's brilliant," said Willis, who has worked with Prophet since 1998, when she was working on her album What I Deserve.
"I think he's one of those few people who is really and truly a musical person. It isn't hard for him. It's instinctual and natural."
For committed fans and the curious, Prophet, 43, will perform tonight at the Continental Club as part of his tour for Soap and Water.
Like Willis' assessment of Prophet, the tunes on Soap and Water sound anything but hard. They feature sly and sexy lyrics set to music that surprises as it slides between amusing and moving.
Take the opening track, Freckle.
I like the way you freckle
I like the way you peel
I love to see your hair in a mess
It's been a long September
It's gonna to be a longer winter
Let me help you out of that dress.
Before you catch a cold.
Or the children's choir singing, "You could make a doubter out of Jesus" on a rock 'n' roll song with a large dose of vulnerability.
But even with a career that boasts longevity in a burn-bright, burnout kind of business, Prophet says he's still not convinced he's making a living as a musician.
"Especially when I do my taxes at the end of the year," Prophet said in a telephone interview from a van on its way out of Denver after a show.
But he's been playing since he first traveled from his home in Orange County, Calif., to Los Angeles to hear punk bands and figured he and his friends could do that. He was 13.
Nearly seven years later he "was blown away" by Green on Red at a club in Berkeley, and asked to sit in with the band.
"Not only did they have a van, but they had a gas card," he said. "In the punk-rock economic strata, I thought that was positively bourgeois."
He joined up and performed with them for about eight years. That union produced some MTV airtime and eight albums.
"If I stand back far enough and squint, some of them are pretty good," Prophet said.
The group was "a groundbreaking thing, combining elements of country music with harder rock-roots stuff in a way that seemed kind of fresh and new," said Willis, who first became acquainted with Prophet's music when he played with Green on Red. "It was aggressive and country-ish at the same time."
After the band "just disintegrated," Prophet said, he started a solo career with his now wife, Stephanie Finch. From a home base in San Francisco, he also performed and wrote songs with other musicians.
He came in to Willis' music as a hired gun to play guitar on What I Deserve, she said. But he proved an attentive, professional and sensitive writing collaborator.
Since then, he has performed, produced or written on her albums.
"The key is he has a lot of respect for other people," Willis said. " ... He doesn't have the huge ego where it has to be all about him."
Critics have provided good buzz for Soap and Water.
Earlier this month, he and his band performed Doubter Out of Jesus on the Late Show With David Letterman.
For Prophet, this album "wasn't nearly as difficult to midwife as the others," he said. He chalks that up to years of experience teaching him how to write songs suited for his voice.
The result was an ease that comes across on the album and a "devil-may-care spirit to it," he said.
"I think," he said, "that boxing in the dark with your demons and assuming that is going to be interesting to people, that is a young man's game."
Interview With a Prophet
Thinking man’s rocker Chuck Prophet rolls into the Continental Club Friday with Alejandro Escovedo, and I caught up with him Monday night as the van was traveling down I-10 near Fort Stockton, on its way toward Central Texas. We spoke about his latest disc, the indefinable Soap and Water (Yep Roc); his recent appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman; and the new album of songs he’s written with Escovedo.
Geezerville: I saw you on Letterman a week or so ago. What was that experience like? Had you appeared on that show before?
Chuck Prophet: We’d never done the show before. It was a cool experience for a number of reasons. We’re kind of a blues band. I don’t mean that we play the blues, but we travel in a van, and if your amp's too heavy [and] you can’t carry your own shit, don’t bring it. So we ended staying at a hotel around the corner, coming in the night before. We were in the studio at 10:45am. Loaded in the gear. Right around that time there was a guy loading in the tubular bells, and I watched five union guys arguing over where to put it. Then they argued over how to mic the thing. That was really kind of funny.
G: That version of the song you did, "Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)," was pretty different from what’s on the record. Is that the way you’re doing it live?
CP: It’s hard to get a definitive version of any song on a record. But that song has been one of the sleepers in our set. It’s the song from the record that just ended up asserting itself. It never got left off the set list, and we’ve been on the road for a few months. I thought it would be cool to have some horns on it. That was Tom "Bones" Malone who did the horn charts, who you might remember from the Blues Brothers, so that was kind of a thrill.
G: You had kind of a dazed look in your eyes when the song was over and Dave came over to shake your hand.
CP: Yeah, I didn’t know if I was allowed to engage [laughs]. "Dave there are a few things I’ve been meaning to ask you …"
G: It’s been three years since the last record. Was there a dry period, or did you just want to take your time?
CP: I kind of burnt myself out touring behind Age of Miracles. The tour probably went on for two or three weeks too long, I think, and that was a crucial two or three weeks. After that I fell out with New West. Being on New West was a bit like, after a while, like driving with the brakes on. They dropped me, and I spent the next year just goofing off and finding other stuff to do, which I think was great in the end.
G: Did that help you with this record?
CP: Dan Stuart from Green on Red and I used to say, whenever we were asked what came first, the music or the lyrics, "The advance came first." It wasn’t like anyone was waving an advance at me, you know. But I didn’t know if I would make another record. I never really do know if I’m going to make another record.
G: How much of this record was made in the studio?
CP: It was made in the studio just the way a film is made on a film set, I suppose.
G: The arrangements and sounds, are they something you had in your head when you were writing the song, or was it something you came upon when you were recording?
CP: Sometimes when I’m writing, I can hear the full arrangement in my head, and I get excited about it. But once you get on the film set and you’re making the movie, I have to be prepared to let go and take advantage of whatever gift you get from being there. It had a spine to it, but a lot of it was spontaneous. Brad Jones, who co-produced the record with me, and I would take a day to record one song and then spend two weeks arguing about what the one overdub should be. I was like, "I’ll get an all-boys Methodist choir in here tomorrow." That’s pretty typical of the way it was.
G: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of the choir on "Let’s Do Something Wrong." It’s a pretty funny moment when they join in.
CP: I’ve been listening to a group called the English Congregation, the Godspell soundtrack, things like that. The English Congregation made a couple of albums in the 1970s with a lot of group singing. I was playing some of that for Brad, and we were talking about choirs, and he said that when we got to Nashville, there were a lot of gospel choirs, and I said I was looking for people who could sing, but I don’t want people that sound like they’re singing. It was his suggestion to get the children’s choir, and it really added to the song in a way I didn’t see coming, because "Let’s do something wrong, let’s do something stupid" is so much more perverse when the kids are singing it. Kids don’t know that their actions have repercussions. They don’t have things like regret. You’ll find very few kids in recovery. They’re just pure. So I thought that was pretty fun.
G: How important are the lyrics? Some of the songs seem inscrutable to me; I’m not sure what you’re singing about, and I’m wondering if that’s intentional.
CP: I always have some kind of context, I think, even if only I know what it is. I guess that’s a struggle for anybody, whether it's lyrics or writing or painting. You want things to make sense; you just don’t want them to make too much sense.
G: The combination of the different ways you arrange instruments and the lyrics is what makes the album attractive. You were trying to do something different or trying to stretch from what you’ve done in the past. Would you agree with that?
CP: Sure, the songs have their own needs, and if you cast each one of them as a movie, you can’t help but think it’d be great to have Wilford Brimley walking in right about now. You also try to mix it up in a way that keeps you interested in what you're doing. So if I sort of tap into something that I haven’t done before, then I get more excited about it.
G: You recently wrote a bunch of songs with Alejandro Escovedo.
CP: We wrote an entire album together over the last year or so. We recorded over the holidays in Lexington, Kentucky, with Tony Visconti producing. It’s Al’s record, but I think he had me around as an insurance policy to make sure that everybody got the chords right.
G: Did he invite you to write with him?
CP: We’ve known each other for years, and we played a gig together. He said, "I’m going to make a new record, and I thought that maybe you and I could get together and write some songs." So I went out to Wimberley, Texas, for three or four days, and after three days, we hadn’t written one note. Then Al decided he wanted to go into town, and he stopped in this little antique store, and he was buying baskets and scarves. I was starting to get a little nervous. After we got in his pickup truck and started it up, he looked at me and said, "Hey brother, don’t worry about it; it’s all part of it." He’s got a lot of faith. I think that’s one of his biggest gifts. He’s got this enormous faith that we will pull something out of the air. And he was right; we always do. If we don’t, we just lie on the carpet and listen to Mott the Hoople records. That generally gets us through it. It’s going to be a great record, because the songs are pretty concrete. We name a lot of names.
G: It’s the story of his life, right?
CP: Well, we immediately found out we had things in common. We both grew up in Orange County. We both surfed the Huntington Pier. We both saw our first shows at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. It’s sort of an exploration of song through geography, love, life, death, loss, and whatever.
G: Are you going to be playing with him at the Continental Club on Friday?
CP: We haven’t spoken about it, but I’m hoping to. I have the feeling that’s the idea. I’m hoping that he’s up for as many of his new songs as possible.
Lately, former Green on Red guitar hero Chuck Prophet has been getting as many props for his producing talents as his own music. That's both good and bad. Prophet, lately working on a new album with Alejandro Escovedo, produced Kelly Willis's Translated from Love, a departure for her that made numerous 2007 best-of lists. Prophet's own very smart Soap and Water, meanwhile, received much less ballyhoo from the press - a real shame, because for my money Prophet continues to make some of the smartest, relentlessly thoughtful and aggressive music on the scene. It only takes one look at the amateur YouTube video of his recent performance at the Americana Music Association convention in Nashville to realize few compare to Prophet or his crack band when it comes to live energy and revitalization of the rock idiom.
Late-Night Follies: Chuck Prophet's Christian Rock
WHO: Chuck Prophet
WHAT: "Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over You)" (The Late Show With David Letterman)
WHY: Another 2007 album unceremoniously and undeservedly ignored by both normal people and - surprisingly - many critics was Chuck Prophet's wide screen roots-rock epic Soap and Water. The record found the journeyman songwriter expanding his sonic palette, slyly adding a children's choir to songs about casual sex and employing machine-made beats. On the album, this song is an ominous oddity full of chiming bells, chintzy drum blurts and Prophet's cryptic and wary words about a certain female who holds a god-like power over him: "You could make a doubter out of Jesus," he repeats, eventually accompanied by the evil-sounding kid choir. On Letterman, the song's creepy strings are replaced with boisterous horns as it's transformed from a writhing warning into a full-fledged rocker. Prophet is a scarily solid old-fashioned songwriter - he's the type of artist the Grammys should love. Unfortunately, Soap and Water was released one week after the Grammy deadline last year. Maybe next time.
After interviewing Chuck yesterday and then last night and this morning capturing and compressing a whole show's worth of video, I'm satisfied that he's one of the few great original characters and knucklehead geniuses playing rock and roll today.
A quick trip to iTunes and the 150 great songs that are there to audition and dutifully buy relieves you of any excuse you have that resembles or begins, "Oh yeah, I've heard of him, but..." Because if you're sick of all the crap that's just a bunch of morons imitating each other imitating somebody great, listen to somebody great instead.
He's really funny, too, both onstage and in conversation. Between questions, sometimes the pause would be so long that I wondered if he'd hung up on me or was doing something unmentionable with the receiver. But when he'd finally return, it was almost always something good, sometimes something funny. I laughed a lot, loudly.
The interview is online here: