PM: It makes me wonder when you say that Mitchell turned down some tunes that he didn't wanna work on--how many tunes did you write on your way to picking these eleven?
RJ: I think fourteen.
PM: Not so many more.
RJ: Yeah. Not as many as I used to have. I'm getting older. [laughs] It starts to get a lot dryer. The dry spells last longer, so you don't have all that extra material that you have in earlier records.
PM: And also, you probably get busier and busier.
RJ: You get busier and busier, but the reaction that it had for me on this record was, it made me really focus on the ones that I did have--try to make them better. I hope it doesn't sound like it, but I did a lot of work on the tunes. Sasha has this yoga class she does at 5:30, so I'd wake up with her, 'cause we live in kind of a rough neighborhood, so I'd wanna see her out. That would kind of wake me up and I couldn't get back to sleep, so I started thinking, maybe this is the time to start writing the record. So just every morning--just wake up and maybe pick the bridge of one of the tunes and inspect it, like a song inspector, you know?
RJ: Does this work, or is this good? Did I settle for less than the most I felt I could get out of it? If the answer was yes, then you just try to find something else or maybe it just needs a tweak to give it some personality--a chord change, a passing chord--maybe it needs to be overhauled all the way. I just kind of worked on the same tunes a lot.
PM: I believe in that, and I believe in the early morning hours, too. I'm a 5:30 guy and that's my best stuff.
RJ: Yeah, definitely. What's the first thought, you know?
RJ: Did a lot of good guitar stuff like that--just wake up, pick up your guitar. It's crazy. Your hands--they'll just play something, and you haven't played it before. You don't know why it's there. So I think it's good to try to keep a record of some of that stuff. It doesn't always work out, but you can always get interesting stuff if you just get your head out of it and let the consciousness flow.
PM: Yeah, you wake up out of a dream and you forget that you can't hardly play, and you start playing some crazy shit.
RJ: That's it, basically. Yeah.
PM: "Brooklyn in the Morning" I dig a lot. On top of being a great song, it's a very sharp guitar number. Is that an altered tuning?
RJ: No, it's standard tuning. I'm capoed up on the fifth--well, on the sixth on my guitar 'cause I tune down a half step for certain songs.
PM: That's what I like, too--standard tuning--or maybe just dropped D.
RJ: Usually, the chord progression starts a certain way, so you're moving the tune through a chord progression. But those chords--it has an augmented chord and a minor nine, and some of those chords can get real clumsy in the wrong positioning, or they'll just sound sort of wrong, even though mathematically they work with the bass leading and everything. So on guitar, you're just always trying to find the spot where those chords can open up the open resonance of the guitar. It's like, well, if I position it up here and I don't bar, how many open strings can I get into this chord without sounding like Yanni or something?
RJ: Not that Yanni plays guitar, but you know what I mean. That stuff can start to sound too new-agey and stuff, too. But regular tuning I think really helps it from getting too new-agey, because it's always gonna create these sort of odd configurations that you're not gonna come up with on your own. You're kind of asking the guitar where it wants to play it to make it interesting and to give you something to play. The more complicated you make the part--in the case of "Brooklyn," which is a difficult part to play--it's better when you're performing because it keeps you from thinking about shit when you're performing. [laughs] You're just hoping you can make it through the tune. It takes away all that neurotic baggage that comes along with being in front of people. All you can think is, I just wanna hit this note--make sure I hit it--as opposed to, why did I wear this shirt, or why is that person looking at me like that or whatever else goes on in your mind.
PM: Brother Billy wanted me to ask about your writing process. You've already mentioned that Sasha's yoga schedule may be making an earlier riser out of you. [BTW, I just caught a set of Sasha Dobson at Barbe's in Brooklyn recently, and she's great--check her out.]
RJ: Yeah, it just depends, 'cause I go hear music a lot, too. I'm kind of all over the place. I don't have a schedule when I'm home. This last January I finally got a good chunk of time off--January, February. I taught myself how to cook a lot more, and I did kind of get into a real domestic scene for a minute, which was nice. But even still, you go hear music and then you run into friends, and then the next thing you know, you're waking up at noon or one. But then you get tired from that. Next thing you know, you're waking up at six or seven 'cause you've gone to bed early. It just depends. I love waking up early in the morning. I love it when it happens. I just don't have the discipline to make it happen. Sasha does. She just sets her alarm and goes into the city to do yoga. She teaches, too. She's like a yogi.
PM: Oh, wow. Well, lets take the segue opportunity to talk a little about two of your cohorts, Sasha Dobson and Jesse Harris.
PM: Educate the readers a little bit, if you will, about the great Sasha Dobson.
RJ: Sasha is a singer from Santa Cruz. She sang jazz primarily for several years in New York after she moved here. She moved here really young--seventeen or something. She comes from a jazz family. Her dad was Smith Dobson, who's an amazing jazz pianist that worked with Bobby Hutcherson, people like that.
RJ: Her mom's a singer too, and her brother's a really great drummer in the Bay area--an incredibly musical family that got raised on music. We met up about three years ago and I think she was just getting kind of tired of singing jazz. She'd done it since she was eight. They'd had a family band, too.
So we kind of hooked up and she started doing some of my tunes. Then she did some of Jesse's [Harris, the celebrated songwriter that wrote the Norah Jones hits] tunes, too, and some original sounding covers. She did that tune "Modern Romance" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs--great song. She's just kind of been branching out. Now she's killing it on guitar. She's been working at that for the last three years, and now she's accompanying herself mostly and she sounds great--writing a lot of new stuff, a lot of really cutting edge stuff.
PM: Wow. Playing electric or playing acoustic?
RJ: Playing both, actually. When she plays electric, she plays it the same way she plays acoustic. It's not like she's wailing like Jim Campilongo or something like that. [laughs] But she has become a really, really good accompanist. Really solid time. You talk about practicing, man--she plays more than anybody I know, and plays to a metronome, too, and everything.
PM: Wow. Talk about a lost art.
RJ: I think it's ingrained in her from her upbringing. I think her family--in some kind of haphazard Santa Cruz way, they were still conservatorial.
PM: Right. Wow. What about Jesse Harris? I saw him on McDougal the other day in front of my favorite pizza joint. I talked with him for a couple of minutes--
RJ: He told me he went there. He said the pizza was good. Over at Arturo's.
PM: Yeah. I like that joint.
RJ: You ever been out to Difara's in Coney Island?
PM: No. But I'm keen to check it out.
RJ: It's great, but it's a long wait. I can't tell you that it's worth the wait. You have to go out there, put in your pizza and then go around the corner and have a drink for a couple hours. By the time you get it, you're wasted. Only one guy makes the pizzas, and he's been there since 1960. This dude just makes unbelievable pizzas, and there's nothing kitschy about it. He just makes these awesome pizzas with fresh tomato, and he cuts this basil across the top of them at the end. It's a little old guy, man. He just sits there making pizza after pizza all day long. The place is never not jammed.
PM: Wow. And I sure like Stromboli's down on St. Mark's and 1st, too.
RJ: I've never had that.
PM: That's a good one. So are you seeing much of Jesse Harris? Do you guys do stuff together? Are you still good pals?
RJ: We're playing tonight together, and we're producing a project starting tomorrow with this Japanese artist that opened for us when we were in Japan last time. He's coming to the states. So yeah, we do stuff together lots.
PM: What's the Japanese artist's name?
RJ: His name is Yuichi Ohata.
PM: Is he kind of in your area musically? What's he do?
RJ: Yeah. It was amazing. The first night of the tour, we're in Kyoto or something, I heard this guitar downstairs. I'm like, man, who's playing that? I went down and this guy was really great. He plays lap steel, guitar, all of it--kind of Kona guitar. Next thing you know, we had him sitting in all the time.
PM: He plays Kona guitar? Boy, he's a real hipster, this guy.
RJ: Oh, yeah. He is, actually. He doesn't speak hardly any English. He came to the states a couple months ago and it was so good to see him, but it was like, well, hey man--and that's about it.
PM: [laughs] Yeah, right.
RJ: Go out to eat and just kind of stare at each other and sort of experience each other's good vibe--try to throw off a couple sentences here and there.
PM: It's hard.
RJ: He'll have an interpreter with him, and hopefully we're doing the right thing. It's gonna be a really interesting record in terms of just the blend of culture that's happening on it. He's from Japan and kind of brings this sensibility to it, and then we're gonna have the percussionist Maura Refosco from the Brazilian band Forro in the Dark on the session, too.
RJ: And then Jesse and I will be playing a lot, too. He wants Sasha to sing on something, too, but I don't know exactly how that's going to happen with the language thing. I guess we're gonna figure it out when he gets here.
PM: Hey, what's that beautiful little black archtop in the liner notes? What is that guitar?
RJ: That was my grandfather's guitar--he passed away about a year and a half ago and left it to me. He was a lefty, so I got it switched over. It's just a boxy-sounding little thing, but I write on it a lot. I wrote a lot of the tunes on this record on it. Big thick neck--it's from the 20s. He bought it used in 1935 for forty bucks or something like that.
RJ: I've taken it to a few guys and tried to figure out what it is, and nobody knows what it is. Even over at Mandolin Brothers, although he guessed that it was a Montgomery Ward assembly line. But it's called a Bronin or something like that. The only guess that's been put out there so far is that it's Montgomery Ward.
PM: Excellent. Last time we talked in this particular way, you'd just had the two Norah Jones cuts. Did that end up changing your life much, one way or the other?
RJ: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I own a house now.
PM: That's beautiful.
RJ: I own part of the house. I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn because of that, and I staved off the day jobs long enough to at least get a foothold in my touring potential. I was able to go out and lose money and not sweat the consequences as much. So yeah, it was a big help. The Norah thing--my association with her is always a very strong ghost, whether it's good or bad. On the good side, yeah, all of that happened and I toured with her, and of course the community, just on a creative level, the community of musicians here that Norah's kind of a centerpiece of is awesome. But then sometimes it's hard for the press to move you away from that association and create your own thing.
PM: Let you be yourself.
RJ: Yeah, or write about you in your own context without them writing everything through the prism of that. I'm happy to get press at all, or just be doing whatever I'm doing, but sometimes it's just a little weird because I don't feel like my music or my songs has a lot to do with that. That's more Jesse's thing. They did the band together; it wasn't me. It's kind of strange to be shoved into this prism that--it feels like a clunky fit--that's the only thing about it.
PM: Right, exactly. In our case, our association has very little to do with that.
RJ: Yeah. I don't think when people read that stuff that they really get what it is that the music is, is all I'm saying. I don't think it's the right prism to describe what's going on. It's sort of a headline.
PM: So let's say something about the enviable rhythm section of Tim Luntzel and Dan Reiser that continue to do so much more than accompany you.
RJ: Yeah. I've been working with those guys for a long time. They always get the first call. I was working with a quintet before this record, but these songs didn't seem quite as piano/organ friendly.
PM: That's right. I remember seeing you last time with that incredible B3 guy. Who was he?
RJ: John Dryden.
PM: Holy Jeez.
RJ: Yeah, he's a real incredible musician. I still work with him and I still work with Dred Scott, too, but I didn't work with them on this record. It seemed silly to fly a keyboard player all the way out to L.A. if I'm doing the record with Mitchell.
RJ: And of course there's also budgeting--
RJ: --to be concerned about. Mitchell didn't wanna put any keys on it. He was reluctant to even put the stuff that he did in the end. He wanted it to be a straight-up trio record. He wanted to make like a Mose Allison record, basically, is what he kept saying. He thought that that was where the heart of my thing is, is kind of like writing these compact tunes and playing them with these guys. It's not jazz, but these guys have that background, so they can create that type of back and forth.
PM: Yeah, but then the rub is, when you do it like Mose, you get what Mose got.
RJ: Yeah, exactly.
PM: And he never got what he deserved.
RJ: Oh, man--Mose is just--he's one of the very greats.
PM: One of the greatest.
RJ: Absolutely, yeah. When Mitchell was talking about Mose so much, whenever I would say, man, don't you think we should get a horn on here or whatever, he'd be shaking his head and basically saying no. He brought the Mose Allison record out one time--one of the ones from the early 60s, I think. Then it got inside my head to where even when I was singing "Can't Go Back" or tunes like that, I felt like I couldn't get Mose's phrasing out of my head. [laughs] I didn't wanna sing like Mose.
PM: That's funny. continue