Jonathan Richman is an unparalleled musical icon. It’s not very often that an artist emerges with a wholly unique musical sound, persona, and worldview. In fact, it’s rarely happened as dramatically as when Jonathan Richman burst into the consciousness of millions of music listeners in the 1970s as a member of the Modern Lovers, and he’s been an entertainer of the highest order in all the decades since. He’s a godfather of punk, the direct antecedent of the 80s and 90s indie rock explosion in America, and a musical poet whose work deals in the beauty of the world as he sees it. These days, Richman is still a singularly wise and wide-eyed artist with a guitar and a distinctive voice. His new record SA finds him playing his acoustic with the backing of his longtime drummer Tommy Larkins (among others) in the same amazing way he has been doing for many years, but with the notable influence of classical Indian music.
Even though Richman famously does not use the internet in any capacity, I was able to arrange a rare interview with him through his publicist in advance of his performances in Cambridge. Here are some choice brief responses from the legendary singer-songwriter about his new album, his writing process, and his diverse list of favorite artists:
Charlie: Can you describe the influence of South Asian (particularly Indian) culture on the record? There are some interesting drone tones throughout the songs, especially on the title track and “O Mind! Let Us Go Home,” among others: were those songs influenced by Indian classical music like ragas?
Jonathan: I didn’t work in ragas specifically. Much of the poetry is of Kabir and Mirabai and others from India.
C: The new record feels very much in line with what you do on your duo tours. Did you consciously try to replicate the fun, acoustic setting of your shows on this record? I really like how this record mixes some songs (like “My Love “And I Do No Other Thing” and “¡Alegre Soy!” that remind me of many previous solo recordings you’ve released, but also songs with new elements or new styles (the first “Sa”) and “My Love She Is From Somewhere Else,” which deftly mixes tambura into a tune that sounds just like your very best cuts!
J: The use of a tambura does tend to affect the singing: makes it less strictly major key or minor key – encourages different ‘open’ pitches
C: This new record has a really relaxed, lived-in feel. How long do you usually work on writing your songs? Do you have one major songwriting process for a new record, or do you write many different songs and then put them together for an album?
J: I don’t write ‘em: I just write ‘em down.
C: You have a unique style of music, so I am curious about what music you enjoy listening to. Do you have a favorite era of music beyond mid-20th-century rock’n’roll? Do you see your own influence in music since you started playing? Do you keep up with new music? Do you have a favorite new artist?
J: Lots of people: Debussy, Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Julian Bream, Stevie Wonder, Christopher Parkening, Raimundo Amador, Mavis Staples, Xylouris White….many new people too I forget all the names.
Check out Jonathan Richman playing from 10/15 – 10/18 at the Middle East Upstairs (doors at 7pm each night)!