Interviews : Questions & Answers, gingerly condensed and free of coughing fits.

rickie lee jones

Rickie Lee Jones Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.

Rickie Lee Jones is an original. Always has been. She’s pop and jazz and folk and synthesizers, standards and spirituality, politics and romance. Jones won’t sit still. At 56, she’s just released a career-spanning concert DVD, “Live in Stockholm.”  I interviewed her via email about the pleasures and perils of getting older.

Q: You’ve remained creatively restless over the decades. Does it get harder to stay open to risk and change and new ideas?

A: It has not gotten harder to stay open. In fact, in many ways it comes more naturally. As I have gotten older I am not so concerned with the factors that figured in to my career or my fantasies about my career ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes it’s like you are always having a conversation with someone out there, no matter your age. You are always talking to the playground bully, or the journalist who wrote that mean thing about your dress, or the group of people in the cafe who never quite give it up to you. One day you find out you were someone they thought was fabulous even if they didn’t talk about you publicly. Or you find out they actually like really crappy things, whatever, but you come to peace with the invisible made-up group of disapproving ghosts whose smiles you long to win. Even if you are defiant, you are still talking to them, you know? So when you quit talking to them, and look at your life or your work from a bird’s eye view, you can have a bit more fun doing whatever you want to do. We do have to talk to people, in a way, to have a voice. Talk to an angel, or your mom, but someone who gives shape to your voice. I have a different shape for different people. If I am talking to my daughter in a song, it will be different than if I am talking to an anonymous group. If it’s about some street corner and the guy sleeping there, what I want to say will be different. If I am confessing that I am drowning, that’s more of a flag, a white flag, anyone out there? So I think I understand writing. It may be that I am less motivated in general, at times, but not less open.

Q: Is the way you approach songwriting significantly different now?

A: Yes, it is. The urgency of staying part of pop music is toned down. The practice of writing lyrics, this I don’t do much anymore. I am more immediate in all things. I do want to be part of music, but I know that I AM part of music, and so it’s not like I think anything is at stake other than the quality and meaning of the song. I used to feel that something was at stake, like greater success, recognition, and when one attaches something to a song or performance other than the song or performance, this corruption makes it very hard to have a good time, to be true and authentic. The thing about money is it makes people crazy. If they don’t make as much money on this song as they did on that song, they are somehow less important, less relevant, and that means their old work is being undone, they are in danger of never having been. And you’ve got to finally know that your place in this world is your place. No one can take it, and no one can give it to you. It’s Your stage. It’s Your song. Only you can sing it. It serves no other purpose but the purpose god has given it. It’s not up to you, so relax. And when I say god I don’t mean an old stinky dude with a long beard. I mean the network of life and the glistening of light that leads us in and out of each other’s lives.

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Warren Zanes orange shirt

Warren Zanes Collides With Midlife. Art Ensues.

Warren Zanes is getting a divorce. That would be a crackpot opening line if his new album,“I Want to Move Out in the Daylight,” weren’t a full-tilt explication of the wreckage. It’s also a smart, lean pop record that arrives nearly three decades after Zanes joined his brother Dan for a few glory years in the Del Fuegos. Today he’s a single parent with a PhD and a pair of master’s degrees, the resume of a rock brainiac (former Vice President of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, current Executive Director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation), and an under-the-radar solo career. We spoke on the phone while Zanes was driving to court-ordered parenting class.

Q: How are you, Doctor?

A: I’m okay. Sorry, all hell is breaking loose at the job.

Q: We can reschedule if you’re in a crisis.

A: It’s only a crisis if I allow it to become one.

Q: Okay, I’ll be surgical. Your new record came out yesterday, right?

A: You know, it’s such a different age. It’s almost like an arbitrary point on the calendar as opposed to when boxes ship. The album has been in my life for awhile. I think it might have been released yesterday.

Q: There wasn’t a parade, then.

A: I took my boys up to Maine and did a house party playing solo this weekend. If there was a parade, that was it.

Q: Tell me about the album. I have to say the title blows my mind.

A: I euphemistically call it a midlife record, but really it’s midlife as triggered by divorce. I was unambiguous in letting it all hang out there. There didn’t seem to be any point in hiding behind figurative language. And part of me thought that there’s so many people who go through divorce and given the degree to which it shakes your life up, I’m surprised that there aren’t a greater number of conversations.

Q: I think there’s some kind of stigma, especially in pop music, attached to addressing adult issues.

A: John Prine always felt like somebody who got it, as far back as “Hello in There” [from 1971], a song about saying hello to old people. It struck me when I was younger that it took the pop song into territory that just is not typically associated with it. A more current example that’s really been striking to me is Nick Lowe. Odd to think that he’s a revolutionary just by virtue of the fact that he addresses his current life.

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Tom Moon

A Critic Reboots as a Performer

Tom Moon was the pop music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer for nearly 20 years. He left the newspaper to write a book,  1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, which came out in 2008, but hit a wall when he tried to get back into journalism. Frustrated and rudderless, Moon picked up his long-neglected tenor saxophone and began to practice. What began as a salve during troubled times morphed into a reignited passion. Moon wrote and recorded an album, “Into the Ojala,” as the Moon Hotel Lounge Project, and released it earlier this year.

Q: Did it weigh on you, while making this record, that you would be seen not just as a musician but as a music critic stepping over to the other side?

A: Not much at all.

Q: Really?

A: I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 50. In the days when I was coming into journalism, if you were on the track to work for a place like the one where you worked or where I worked, you immediately and forever forswore doing anything in your discipline. And then I watched the Internet redraw all the lines for recording artists and for arbiters. People were playing both sides of the fence. So somewhere in this recent evolution I finally decided that there’s no reason not to. It was very much not my intention to put it out, though, initially. The acid test was, “Does this actually contribute something that’s not in the conversation already?”

Q: What was your original intention? To just engage in the creative process?

A: That’s right. And to document the music. I’d done that many years before. I made a record before I was hired by The Inquirer and participated in several other records when I lived in Miami. And I always considered the process of just developing music and writing songs and composing and playing with people to be, you know, an incredibly important learning process, whether or not I ever shared it with anyone. And the entire time I was at the Miami Herald and then the Inquirer, I went to jam sessions. I played as much as I could, I continued to write. To me it was more the discipline, in the way that, say, yoga is discipline. You do it because if you don’t then there’s atrophy. Believe me, in the last couple of years I’ve been humbled and have encountered a lot of what could only be described as atrophy and worse. I mean, I’m not the musician that I was when I left the University of Miami’s music program, maybe in some ways for the better but in most ways for the worse. It’s incredible to be around people who are doing it all day, every day and to realize that as much as I was thinking about music all day, every day, because I wasn’t playing, my ears might be good but my fingers are not.

Q: And do you think that that’s largely a function of not doing it daily, not keeping up your chops, or do you think that aging is a factor?

A: Boy, I think about that a lot.  That’s a million-dollar question. When you look at visual artists, we’re trained to see them as having a long arc of a career. In many cases the technique continues to evolve and they don’t lose stuff until well into the twilight of their career. And that’s what you would hope would be the case with music, but what I found was that even though I was able to hear and conceptualize what I wanted to play, it was simply not available. It took a lot of basic playing of scales, very basic practicing, but also a lot of mental stepping back and just sort of accepting the fact that some parts of my musical development were way ahead of others.

Q: So you had to make accommodations.

A: Yeah. They say it’s hard to learn an instrument when you’re over 50, that it’s somewhat like learning a language, and I think that’s true. On the other hand I know people that have started that late and they play beautifully now. I don’t think that you can make an absolute rule about it.

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rob fresco happy

A Late-Blooming Writer on the Complicated Business of Time and Television

Rob Fresco is a writer, producer, and director who has worked on the television shows “Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan,” Judging Amy,” and “Providence.” He was four years ahead of me in school but I’ve managed to transcend little sister status. We spoke in the commissary at Disney Studios in Burbank, CA, where he was working on “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.”

Q: You said that you found your career late. How old were you when you started writing?

A: I feel I did everything late. I mean, I got married late, too.  I started writing when I was 32, but I was a musician, as you may recall, so there was a little bit of groundwork done in terms of the creative process and the discipline. I think I had a little bit of a kick start.

Q: Why did you switch from music to writing?

A: For not very inspired reasons. It was very much out of necessity.

Q: Because writing is such a money-making venture?

A: Well, it turned out to be for me, yeah.

Q: That sounds so funny.

A: I know.

Q: You became a writer out of necessity.

A: Yes. Right. Out of the frying pan. I was just not really happy with my career as a musician. It wasn’t going well, I wasn’t particularly successful, and I had sort of plateaued in the music world. And for whatever reason I just started writing and I started making money.

Q: What was your first job?

A: The first thing I did was write a spec feature. It got optioned right away, and then it kicked around, and then it got made as a low budget feature. And then it actually got sold to Showtime and became Intimate Strangers starring Debbie Harry.

Q: Oh, wow.

A: Yeah. And it wasn’t very good. It was just kind of a generic by-the-numbers thriller.

Q: Still, it’s such a novelty to have that kind of first experience.

A: Right. I mean, it was great after 12 years of knocking around as a musician. It was incredibly positive feedback to have the world say, “Okay.” I mean, there were all these people carrying cables and moving around cameras based on my script. So it was a very literal manifestation of the world saying, “Rob, you can do this now,” as opposed to the musical world where I was just calling out into a echo chamber, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” and there was very little coming back to me.

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Devo_Tiered

Q. Are They Not Men? A: They Are Still Devo

Gerald Casale is a bassist, synth player, vocalist, songwriter, visual designer, and video director for the band Devo, which returned last year after a two-decade hiatus with “Something for Everybody.” He called from the tarmac at LAX.

A: Hi, hold on one second. I’m putting my bag in the overhead compartment. Okay.

Q: Are you on an airplane?

A: Yeah, we’re going to Seattle.

Q: Are you going to have to turn off your cell phone soon?

A: We’ll worry about that when it happens.

Q: Good attitude. I think you know that I want to talk to you about creativity and aging.

A: [Laughter]

Q: I sense something wry in your laugh.

A: [More laughter] Yeah.

Q: Do you want to make a comment before I ask you a question?

A: Oh, no.

Q: OK, then. For a lot of people your band is connected to a musical moment and I wonder if that has posed challenges or been limiting for Devo as the years go by?

A: Okay, say that again. You think we’re attached to a musical moment?

Q: I think in a lot of people’s minds Devo is very much connected to a time and a sound and a look and an idea.

A: Well, that’s true, yeah. You have no control over that, you’re right. People do that.

Q: Has that been challenging for you personally and for the band?

A: Well, as a creative artist, you try to do as good as you can as long as you can and you stick around as long as you have something to say. And at least in Devo’s case, it wasn’t just about style. It wasn’t The Knack, it wasn’t the skinny tie. And it was never cool, you know. It only became cool in retrospect. People are now interested in what we did then, but we’re still able to do it. What’s funny is a lot of bands today sound like they took a few pages from Devo. And that’s because there’s something in what we did that actually went beyond that moment in time you talk about.

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