|The Performing Songwriter, May-June 1994|
"In Concert" With Leo Kottke
by James Jensen
Did you have fears that your career was over?
Oh yeah! And I couldn't sit up on stage and say "I know this sucks and I don't like it any more than you do but my arm's all screwed up." You have to pretend that you like it which makes you feel and probably look like a real moron.
What did you do to come out of that?
I had to throw away my picks. A few years before this happened a guy named Stanley Watson told me if I didn't stop using the fingerpicks I was going to hurt something, and not just because of the picks but because of how hard I was playing with them -- and he was right. There isn't really a treatment and most people solve their problems by changing their technique, which is what I did. But it takes a long time and it's really, really tough. You turn into an instant wimp as far as tone and volume are concerned.
After that period of rehabilitation you resurfaced on Private Music with the all instrumental A Shout Toward Noon, but you had a new tone and I think caught even your most loyal fans by surprise.
I have always been a tone freak and that's what hooked me on the guitar to begin with, and I think it's the primary thrill before the music. We spent a lot of time on that record with the sound. We recorded it on the Paramount sound stage which is this huge room where the sound is reflected, but the reflection is so late and comes from so far away that it doesn't blur the music and gives you a room nonetheless.
Your record My Father's Face featured the song "Jack Gets Up," which really elicited a strong response from your audience and even got a surprising amount of FM airplay. Did the success of that song catch you off guard?
Yeah it did, and it seems silly now, but I thought I was revealing way too much of myself in that song.
What prompted it?
Mainly a cigar. Joe Pass put me onto cigars while we did a short tour of Australia several years ago and by the time I left I was so sick of them that I gave them up. I woke up one morning in a Howard Johnson's and one of these cigars had made it back from Australia, and I just lit it before I got out of bed and started writing the lyric. I already had a music track, and as I started the cigar I had one mood which was kind of delighted. But the lyric is real sour at that point, and then the cigar took hold -- which means the nausea started creeping in -- and right about then the character in the songs finds the lint in his pocket. But the tune takes an optimistic turn there. Once I had finished it I felt I might have exposed myself too much. It was an important song for me because it told me I could write lyrics a little bit differently than I had been.
When you write lyrics, are you writing from your own experiences or do you like to approach it as a fiction?
What I used to do was to take a deliberate interest like you would if you were writing a poem or a story, but with that song I found out that if I could be patient enough while it was going on that it would take care of itself. But it would be gibberish unless I felt I was scaring myself and putting too much of me in there. It is a little like a faux pas or having an enormous belch in the middle of somebody's funeral or something. They can make me feel that way while I'm writing them, and if I'm feeling that way I know I'm on the right track.
Your first all-vocal album, Great Big Boy, was a big critical success and very well-received by your fans. Are you going to try something like that again?
I'd like to do at least another record with Steve Berlin [the producer] because he had a lot to do with that. He is a great arranger but more than anything else he remembers what the tune was the first time he heard it. I think it's about recognition. You know you have a tune when you recognize it as a tune, not when you decide if it's good or bad. It just stands up and waves at you. When you go to record those things, they can kind of change or disappear because of the time involved, [but] Steve remembers.
That record featured the chilling song "The Driver." Would you tell us about how that came about?
That's one of the few tunes I've got where the geography go me. I almost never have something I can point to as a trigger, but I do have the cigar in "Jack Gets Up" and in "The Driver" I have the geography. I was on Highway 10 which runs along the south of Texas and into New Mexico, and I was writing it on my knee while I was driving. I almost stopped writing it because in the first couple of verses, which came very fast, I thought it was kind of corny and I was writing just another "dead refugee song." I started to think that there is enough of these songs, and I generally don't like being that specific, but it was giving me that feeling that I was exposing myself and giving myself the creeps -- and it wasn't in the way I usually get that feeling. It was like I was going against my own taste in songs and I didn't stop it. And let me interject something here since this is a songwriter interview. If you have an idea and you don't see it through to the end of to what it thinks the end is and you stop it, you won't get any ideas for a long time. You will be punished for snubbing it, whatever that process is. So because of that and the creepy feeling I was getting, I continued, and something happened where it took that turn that I really like. And it is another refugee song in some fashion, but it's [sic] sympathies are a little unexplored and I really like the thing. I had a really tough time finding out what to do with that lyric musically, and that record is unique for me in that sense because most all of the lyrics preceded any melody or guitar which is maybe why some of them are spoken.
Where did you get the inspiration for the spoken word style you've developed so well on several new songs?
I'm probably unique in that when I was a little boy of five or six, instead of having a ball-player or ninja-turtle as a hero, it was an announcer, a guy named Martin Agronksi. So at six years old I was listening to the radio to hear some guy's voice, which is strange. And I still remember his sponsor which was Butternut Coffee, and he read his own copy and I was mesmerized by his voice and I didn't know what coffee or butternuts were but I did know it involved cans.
It is easier for you to compose instrumentals or write songs?
There is a difference between them but I don't think it lies in how difficult they are to do. I think it's in where your attention is. I think if you are writing an instrumental you are dealing with more of an aesthetic, in a sense. But a lyric is more of a putting yourself on the line and a much more expensive exercise.
Do a lot of your tunes just come out of noodling around on the instrument until something happens that you want to pursue?
That's exactly what I do. I have written things on paper where I don't even pick up a guitar and I've only done that twice because it was really horrifying.
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