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."