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jacksonbrowne1We attach ourselves to songs because they evoke some kind of feeling. Sometimes a tune will signpost a time in our lives, reminding us of significant people, places or events. The great songwriters tap into our emotions because they are willing to tap into their own. They also know how to perfectly construct a story and condense it into poetic verses, catchy choruses and a bridge. American Music Hall of Famer Jackson Browne is one of those classic songwriters whose music will live on well after he’s gone because he constantly makes that connection with so many music fans worldwide. He’s still doing it! His latest album Standing in the Breach offers ten deeply personal and political tunes, all finessed in the same meticulous manner as his previous releases. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips was honoured to chat with Jackson prior to his Bluesfest appearance this year and get such a fascinating insight into his mind and the way he composes and records his songs.

Jackson Browne emerged at a time in music which provided an incredibly talented pool of session musicians. A few of them; Jim Keltner , Greg Leisz, and Bob Glaub were there with Browne back in the 70s and not surprisingly, are still around today and appear on his latest album. There’s a track on Standing In The Breach called If I Could Be Anywhere, a song with origins going back several years but it took some of those aforementioned musicians and a touch of studio magic to bring it to fruition. With so much musical pedigree and such familiarity in the room, I wondered how much of what happened in the studio was pure intuition.
“Well Keltner (drums) is all intuition,” states Browne emphatically. “He is the most intuitive player and I’d say Greg is too.  As a matter of fact, I think that‘s a good thing to focus on because Keltner doesn’t really play the same thing twice, he keeps moving and he knows the song will coalesce, when it coalesces.  It’s the opposite of what I need on the road where I need someone who will stick to an arrangement and can really hold a song down. In a studio you need a kind of sense of adventure and you need a sense of discovery.  Keltner only played that song about eight times and I knew we got it. I didn’t want to do it any more times.”

Jackson-Browne-Standing-In-the-BreachIn purely lyrically terms, If I Could Be Anywhere is in one way about the health of our oceans and in another, about feeling present in our world. Musically, the final recorded version is a seven minute epic with a wonderfully evocative, atmospheric jam kicking in at around 4:05 and rounding the song out.
“Yes that just happened in the studio,” says Browne of the song’s tasteful musical outro. “That’s what made it the take! It was one of the last couple of takes and this was such a great bunch of players. Tal Wilkenfeld (Australian bassist) played on that too.  She was playing with us that night and it was the first night she ever played with Jim. It was the drums and the piano that really led the charge there as far as defining the song. At one point I stopped playing and Jim said, well ‘don’t do that, don’t stop playing, we need to really hear what you’re doing, we need to play with you.’ Then he reminded me that all those Beatles records were made with John and Ringo doing the basic tracks with drums and acoustic guitar and that’s what would happen.  Paul would then spend a long time overdubbing the bass to get the bass to be everything he wanted. But what Keltner was doing with his toms, was very much like the ocean, it sounded like the ocean to me.  For some reason I’m one of these people that, you know that old joke how many musicians in the band – you say five and a drummer. The joke is that drummers don’t know much about what’s going on right?  The drummer knows everything! You’re using them more than anybody and this song, without telling him what the song was about; he really gravitated to what the song was saying, especially the urgency. So the whole thing at the end with the toms and the piano part, it was like a call to arms for me, it was like the last take of the night and it did that thing and I thought that’s it, that’s the song. It was a surprise to me. I shouldn’t be surprised but the drummer was the guy who was most in touch with what the lyrics were saying.”

It’s always interesting to hear how a songwriter deals with a song which isn’t working for them. Do they just ditch it completely or is it banished to the spare parts file, waiting for a line or a chord progression from it to be used at a later date? Again Browne comes back to If I Could Be Anywhere to illustrate his point.
“I’ve done all of the above, ” he admits. “I’ve recycled a song with the parts that were good, into another song. I did that with a song on The Late Show, it was a whole bridge from another song.  When you say spare parts, they just remain parts, pieces of stuff that you want and they can be used in another song sometimes or maybe the whole song suddenly comes to life because you’ve got a different band playing it.  As a matter of fact, If I Could be Anywhere was a song I was going to cut with my band who had been on the record before, which was Kevin McCormick on bass, Fritz Lewak on drums, Mark Goldenberg on guitar and Jeff Young on piano and organ.  Some of the parts that are in the song, that you’re hearing on this record, I took from what they played when I tried recording it with them.  What was wrong with that version was the time signature. It didn’t have that cadence or force on the bottom, that was something that came up later when we re-cut it with Keltner and Tal and Benmont Tench. All the organ parts and the guitar parts came from that original recording with Mark Goldberg and Jeff Young playing. They’re not on the record but their parts made it onto the record.  It’s almost like a writing workshop where we have a play and some of the things that might get written in a workshop, are the bones of the play. What I loved that Keltner did on the track was his tom fill with an echo, it was so orchestral. At the same time I have to say, he also played something with his foot all the way through the choruses which I didn’t want. I didn’t want what he was doing to be happening but I didn’t have time to perfect a way of playing the song. When I say there wasn’t time, I just didn’t allow us to go along with it and work on an arrangement. It took the pieces I wanted and later I muted his part. I began grooming the drum mix and creating an arrangement afterwards. At one point I began listening to Pet Sounds towards the end of making that record. It was a long haul, I had to make that arrangement out of that recording.  So I got myself a kind of inspiration or a permission  to do something a little out of the ordinary with the arrangement of that song.  We play it now but it’s a hard song to learn, we go against the normal intuition to play that song.”


There’s an Eagles documentary currently playing on Netflix in which Jackson’s recently departed good friend, Glenn Frey explains how he used to sit downstairs from Browne’s room and listen to the way he’d construct songs and learn from it.
“I don’t think Glenn was saying that he was caught up in the way I constructed songs,” reflects Browne. “I think he was just saying he realised how much time songwriters sometime spend, repeating and playing things over and over again, trying to extract the best out of the moment.  When I heard that interview I was glad I didn’t know he was listening because I would have felt self-conscious.  You have to try and make sense out of a certain line and you sing the song over and over again to get to a point.  I also write out the songs over and over again rather than just scratch things out. Sometimes writing might help me with the linear sense-making of the song but a lot of artists do that by singing the song.  I’ve spoken about it with a lot of people I’ve worked with like Tal Wilkenfeld about her songwriting.  I said what you want to do is stop writing this out. You’ve got three alternate lines sitting there, you can’t read three things at once and if you read them one after the other, you’ve interrupted the flow of the song. You have to actually play the song from the top and try that one line, when you get to that, try idea number one.  Sing it from the top and then try idea number two and then you can see which one works.  More than any other form, with songwriting, you encounter these things in real time, they have to be played in real time. I mean it must happen in filmmaking also, where you have to see how the thing works, the length and breadth of the story.”

Much like Frey learning a thing or two from Browne about songwriting, Jackson too has borrowed concepts and methods from other composers.
“I’ve always taken stuff from other people, always tried to do things I heard other people doing.  I used to love Little Feat and I use to listen to Lowell George working with his band. One thing I took from him was, he would get them to come way out of their comfort zone and get them to try stuff, go out on a limb and try stuff. Once I saw him editing a cassette, you know how small a cassette tape is? It was almost impossible to edit but he wanted this band to hear the parts of the song in the order that he wanted to hear them but with them playing it.  He would play them back something they had played but in a slightly different order or he’d assemble the parts that they played right.  When I saw him doing that, I realised that I should always have the tape playing and play it back to the band. Have you ever heard of the Troggs Tape? It’s a tape of an argument that was recorded in a studio. It’s hilarious, it’s really funny.  It goes on for about fifteen minutes. One of the tape operators just ran a tape and they’re arguing about the song. One of them is saying look it goes dubba, dubba, chuck and the guy playing it and goes Yeah! …. Noooo! It’s become a cult classic of this band coming apart at the seams in the studio. I learnt a long time ago not to sit there in recording sessions talking about what I want, you have to very sparingly give that kind of direction. I want it to be kinda like this and now you go do it. And you find stuff. A lot of songs are composed that way, musically they almost get written in the studio.”

Speaking about Pet Sounds earlier, I tell Jackson about an interview I did with Darian Sahanaja, Brian Wilson’s musical director and the guy who was entrusted to piece together the legendary Smile tapes so that the album could be rerecorded. I asked Darian what Wilson was like to work with in the studio and how he communicated ideas to him. Darian said that Brian would ask a part to be ‘happier’ or ‘jumpier’, using very simple terms to demonstrate the feeling he required. Of course, Browne had some Brian Wilson studio stories of his own and was happy to relate one back to me.
“Yeah there are some funny stories about him in the studio, where he’s telling a sax player what he wants,” explains Browne. “He’d say to the guy, look it’s six in the morning and you’re in your backyard, the sun is coming up and there’s a train going by, try that! He’d go away and play it and then say how was that Brian? Ok, it’s six in the morning, the sun’s coming up and a train’s going by and dogs are barking, try that!  It goes on and on like this and then ends with and now you’ve got an orange in your hand and he’d play the thing that Brian wants and he’d go, that’s it … it was the orange! I mean his band is so great, the guys that play with him now are so good.”

Like any guitar player who has played for so long and has had a degree of success, Jackson Browne has accumulated a lot of guitars. I wondered if there was one guitar in particular which has generated the most songs?
“No,” he says. “I’ve got so many guitars.  However, it is very often the guitar that makes you play what you come up with.  I try to keep track of which one and sometimes I’ve got these tapes I’ll be running and I can’t figure which guitar I’m playing because it takes that very guitar to do that thing again. I’ve got a wonderful guitar that I’m playing with right now, a total one-off. It’s a Luthier, handmade thing that was made out of parts by a friend of mine that I’ve got with me now. It’s funny, some things play really well on it. I learnt a whole new way of playing by playing it on this guitar. I finally figured out how to play an F#.  I mean what a quest! I finally realised that I can wrap my hand around the neck a certain way, so I can now play this thing like it should be played.”

“I had a song that I wrote in a hotel room in Spain,” he continues.  “These friends of mine were travelling in Spain and they had to go to a family event and they said what do you want to do? Do you want  to come with us? I’d just smoked a joint and I’d go, oh I think I’m going to play in my room.  I played this one guitar that I was travelling with and I played very quietly because the hotel was filled with people this old hotel had thin walls.  I played some stuff that I’d never have played on any other guitar.  It later turned into this song Sergio Leone. Now I can play the song on any guitar but it was the way the guitar made me play that made me write the song.  That was an old Gibson J185, a fairly new one and I just happened to be travelling with it and it uncovered a special way of thinking and playing. There are other songs too where that happened. I was sitting in bed the other night – I’ve got more than one flamingo guitar.  I was watching a movie and I was playing all my nylon string guitars. I played something on one of them that I couldn’t play on the other. I thought this is great.  This is set up especially for that. I went and got the other one again and started playing and thought, that’s right, I can play THIS THING on this guitar but it doesn’t sound at all right if I try to play it on the other guitar. It was just the way the action was set up and the way the guitar responded in your hands.  Sometimes it’s a very tactile thing.  It’s really about the comfort with your body and what your hands feel good doing and the sound that comes out from doing that rather than something cerebral you know.”

Standing In The Breach is out now.


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