Q: What was it like trying to carve space in your life for this project? And what did your family think?
A: Well, luckily my wife works outside the house three days a week, so I was able to actually play during the day. And when I really started to be serious about it, I didn’t say it right away. It took awhile. It was more of a confession. “Well, there hasn’t been a lot of work coming in and by the way I’m doing this.” At which point my wife could have said, “You’re what?” And she didn’t, and that’s to her eternal credit. She was incredibly supportive. Of course to have her say, “You should do this because life is short and this knocking your head against the wall in the realm of journalism is not productive for anybody,” didn’t enable me to flip a switch and become a full-time dead-beat musician and leave behind the rest of my life. I was much more doing it in the margins. Only really in the last year have I gone out to play like three or four nights a week.
Q: That’s what your week is like?
A: Yeah. There are jam sessions of some sort of other every night of the week in Philadelphia right now. Kind of unbelievable.
Q: Are these are in public venues or someone’s house? And who are you playing with?
A: Well, it’s both. I started at this little coffee shop called Milkboy Coffee, where the guy who plays keyboards on the record, Mike Frank, runs a jam session. He teaches music at Temple in the music program there and has developed this cult of students that come every week. So within two or three weeks I was plugged into this world of college juniors and seniors mostly who do nothing but play music all the time. They’ve called me up at 10:30 and said, “We’re playing, come by.” He had me play on his senior recital and stuff. I mean, to be welcomed into a community of 21-year-olds –
Q: Do you feel self-conscious because of your age?
A: Well, I feel very old all the time, all the time. I don’t know whether that’s a positive or negative. I actually think it’s kind of a blessing. What often happens with us as listeners is that after a certain point we shut down. You know, at a certain point you’re more worried about if your kid is going to get through kindergarten.
Q: Right. So you might as well just keep listening to Traffic.
A: And nothing wrong with that. That’s the way it goes. To answer your question, part of it, it’s sort of terrifying to decide, “Alright, I might look pathetic to these 20-year-olds, as a player I may not be at their level at all, but I’m going to see what I can make out of this minute.”
Q: That’s a courageous stance.
A: It’s what you said before about growth. In order to bust yourself out of whatever groove you’re in, you have to do something like this.
Q: But a lot of people never do.
A: I guess that’s true. But all the people that we talk to, all the recording artists that we love, have done this on some level, in some fashion, to do what they do. Even if it’s just exiling themselves to a cabin in Wisconsin to write a record, whatever. So for me it was more about if I’m going to do this on any level, whether we’re talking about playing in front of live people or sharing tunes that I’ve written, or anything, I need to be able to play well enough to melt down the very understandable resistance that someone is going to have to someone like me doing what I’m trying to do. The only way to do that, the only way to get better, is to play a lot. And that’s been my enterprise.
Q: How much do you play?
A: I try to play an hour to two hours a day. I study once every other week with a teacher, via Skype. He’s a wonderful teacher and the only sadness about Skype is the time delay makes it impossible to play together.
Q: Did you worry about how critics and musicians would receive your music?
A: I think anybody does to a degree. Even if I hadn’t had this background of having written about music for so long, I would have felt very self-conscious about doing anything like that. And a lot of different kinds of people and their experiences helped push me over the edge. I mean, watching Stephin Merritt write about records for Time Out New York. He’s an enormous inspiration as a songwriter, and at the same time to read him on somebody whose work he obviously studies, it’s not that it added extra gravitas or I paid more attention because it’s Stephin Merritt, the great songwriter, it was more that this guy is imparting a perspective that there hasn’t been much of in the discourse about music.
Q: Did you read every review of your album?
A: I did read a bunch of reviews.
Q: That must have been surreal.
A: Well, let me go back to this idea of how I decided to share this, because when we finished recording I was out of money and there was no way to mix it. We just had the raw tracks. It took six more months to get the money together to spend the time in the studio to mix. In the course of that I became really enamored with the idea of, “Alright, I don’t care what anybody says, I am now at the point where I can live with this as music. I think this is real music. I think it does say something. And I’m going to have to be ready to take whatever comes back.” So it was a process of really warming up to the idea of taking your lumps.
Q: And I imagine you have to road test your psychology.
A: That’s exactly right. And that’s what that period was. It was very much a gut check before it went any further, and it wasn’t just financial concerns. It was also the idea of, yes, on one level anyone can put out a record, and the distribution is easy, and all this is easy, but on another level it is an act of some arrogance to say here is what I made, pay attention to this. And there has to be something on the back end of that, you have to actually bring something. I was pretty convinced by the end that we were bringing something. So then it was like, alright, let’s hire a publicist. Let’s do this at a level where we’re not running away from anything. And that meant also some negative reviews. Once you buy into the idea of putting it out there, you have a different attitude about negative reviews. You almost want them. And there were a couple that really said some very good, smart things, identifying flaws, identifying things that they didn’t think worked. I was like, “Yeah, good, you’re listening.”
Q: It can be useful for you.