At 63, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne retains the lanky brown hair and honey singing tones of his youth. But what becomes of a folk poet in his sixth decade? The composer of “The Pretender,” “Doctor My Eyes,” “Take It Easy” and many other soulful hits now spends much of his time giving back to the causes close to his heart – arts education, the environment and anti-nuclear activism.
On June 9 he will perform a benefit at the Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A. to support Success Through the Arts Foundation with jazz musician Wayne Shorter and Lizz Wright. He sat down for a rare interview with Wrap editor in chief Sharon Waxman to talk about creativity, politics and a body of work that has permanently marked American music. (Video excerpts below.)
More information about the concert here.
Do you feel like you’re in your 60s? You look like you’ve hardly aged, and I saw you on stage recently — you were playing with 20 year olds.
I’m lucky. I have fun. I think that I look young — that’s the joke of it. People don’t tell young people that they look young. If you ever get told that you look young, it’s because you’re old.
But don’t you also feel that you’ve lived through a particular age of creativity?
There was a certain time when a certain thing was happening, and that is obviously still happening. I meet all these younger players who are very much in tune to all the great music conceived. If you try real hard, you can hear a lot of it.
Were you able to write the music you made because you were surrounded by people who were all working at such a high level? The Laurel Canyon community?
I was welcomed by some really formidable, talented people. And I was nurtured. It had nothing to do with marketing or being made famous. At a certain point, I also had the benefit of being managed by David (Geffen), who would say, “Look, if you don’t know, nobody knows.”
About anything. “You know all you need to know about what you’re doing, you just go in and do it. You can do it.”
ON COMPOSING AND SINGING
One of the things I’d heard about you is that your singing voice is something that you weren’t happy with.
It’s true. I always wanted to be a singer, and I’m still working on it. I think that on that subject I’ll just say that I’ve learned how to present what I do well and keep out of sight — for the most part — the stuff that isn’t ready. Don’t show 'em what you can’t do; show 'em what you can do.
Also read: Jackson Browne Folks Up Occupy Wall Street
On these songs that are so enduring — “The Pretender,” “Doctor My Eyes,” and I can go down the list — which came first: the words or the music?
A little bit of the words, a little bit of the music. Then two more words, a bunch more music. Eventually you’ve got a verse and a structure that you’d written that you now need to write the rest of the words to. So you can write words to music that exists because that’s what you do every time you write the second, third, fourth and fifth verses of the song. But in the beginning you’re constructing.
One of them has to come first; they can’t come together.
They come both ways. But it’s harder to write words to music that exists. It’s easier to have a thought come to mind and start to see this idea and it starts taking form because of the way it sounds when you sing it. It really happens a lot that you get a line and then you start singing music to that line or you have a thought — you have an idea, like a phrase in your head — like “Late for the Sky.”
That started with that phrase?
It was a two-minute conversation. I was saying to someone I was late for my flight, and I said: “I’m late for my flight, I’m late for the sky.” I was remembering it later and went: “That’s a cool line; that could be a song.” You really even have that imagery of that being the end of the song, you’re saying that “running for that morning flight, through the whispered promises and the changing light of the bed where we both lie. Late for the sky.”
How long does that take you?
(Chuckles) It took a long time. My wife said: “This is pretty, what’s this called?” And I only had the first half, and I said: “It’s called ‘Late for the Sky.’” She said: “’Late for the sky’? What does that mean?” And I said: “I don’t know, you’re gonna have to wait.” And she said: “Oh, really? This better be good.”
She’s great that way.
There's another beautiful song, “Fountain of Sorrow”
That started with, “Looking through some photographs of friends inside a drawer. I was taken by a photograph of you.”
I could show you the photograph. It was a great photograph of someone that I knew. What the story tells is exactly how that happened. I just started writing from the beginning and wrote it to the end.
Just the words?
No, I made up a verse. But, you see, all those songs — they’re very long songs and the structure is long and the lines are long and there are lots of verses. There are a bunch of different movements; there’s a chorus, and then there’s a way in which the chorus becomes something else. I really changed that way I worked during “The Pretender” because I worked with a producer. I learned a lot from that producer.
How did you change?
Well, I learned how to adapt to what was being played in the studio while it was being played and changing the songs as you learn more about the music — instead of finishing it before you got to the studio. Before, they wouldn’t even let you go into the studio unless the song’s finished.
I don’t really want the song to be finished before I go in. The last time I tried to finish a song and then take it into the studio — it was probably about 10 years ago — I was writing songs in Spain and came back. And right away, as soon as I started playing with my band I thought: “Oh, no! I don’t want to hear that in this order.”
And I couldn’t. I had to hear the chorus sooner. But it’s too hard to write words that you care about, then start throwing them out. (Chuckles) I don’t like that! It’s a lot of work.
So what did you do?
I threw away the second verse and rewrote the whole song based on what I wanted to hear from the music group.
So “The Pretender,” which is a magnum opus — you wrote that in the studio?
No. “The Pretender” was written over the period of about a year or longer, and when I was recording it, somebody started playing something that would necessitate changing it. Fortunately, I only had to add some lyrics. It was like this great musical thing that, if they played it with this particular rhythm, needed to be sung.
ON THE STORIES — AND WOMEN — BEHIND THE SONGS
Can you tell me what was behind this one song that I sing to myself when I’m having a really hard day — “Jamaica”?
This is a perfect demonstration of how songs work. I made up a little fable; I wrote this song for a girl that I was seeing. She worked for an organic farmer near the ocean.
I really liked this girl, but I barely knew her — there was nothing really to say. And I realized that I was really telling the story of a relationship that I’d just ended that had gone on for three or four years, about a girl who was going full sail and moving out into her life.
She and I were lovers in this little cocoon of our relationship. She busted out of this, and she was going out with people who I admired. She was going out with really accomplished men. That’s what’s going on in the song. And I didn’t know that until I wrote the song. I thought I was writing about this girl who I'd just met, who I barely knew, but I was really kind of mourning this other woman.
The one who sailed away?
Yeah. One of the things that you get pleasure out of a song is the way that language gets used. And like you were saying, “and we would sail until our waters have run dry,” we’re talking about sailing in an ocean and of the water and the fact that we’re made out of water.
There’s something really lovely and sexual about the song, especially because we’re hiding from the children. This playground of your sexuality and the way the world is somehow a threat to that. And yet, you move out into the world and you do the best you can.
One of the problems with the girl that I was so in love with was when she went to go live with me, we lived in the very poor part of town, and she was a real target. It was hard for her to get to and from our house. She took a ride from someone that was dangerous. Sometimes she got picked up by a really scary guy, because you could still hitchhike up to a point in L.A. and Orange County and parts of the country.
Were you living in Laurel Canyon?
No, I was living in Echo Park. I’m 20, and she was 19 and gorgeous. It was dangerous for her. Plus, I was hiding in her. You do that sometimes. Sometimes you decide you’ll take refuge in the good, gracious enthusiasm that another person has for you and the love and the nurturing that somebody gives you. She was a fantastic girlfriend, and I still love her.
Do you want to say who she is?
No, but I’ll tell you the other song I wrote for her was “My Opening Farewell.” And that’s also about … it was a long breakup (laughs). Sometimes there are people in life that you write more than one song about, or for. For that matter you might write a song 10 years later and not realize who it was for and then you realize: “Oh, I’m still talking about that. I’m still talking to that thing.”
Songwriting is a way of excavating your understanding. It’s one way of talking about what matters, and eventually you can see what it is that’s coming up.
Are you involved in the presidential campaign?
No, I’m not. Actually I sort of turned a corner and decided that one of the problems in our political system is the money. However, I’m involved politically, and I’m very interested in the Occupy (Wall Street) movement.
I’m very interested in what people do individually and in groups, and it wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a fucking surprise to anybody that I’m going to vote for Obama — but honestly Obama once again has joined the ranks of the lesser of two evils. The great parade of people that the progressives get to vote for who are the lesser of two evils and who don’t really represent what I believe in any overwhelming balance.
But you’re not gonna –
No, I’m not going to raise money for people who don’t really… Look, Obama told me in a personal conversation that he wasn’t up for any new (nuclear) plants. Obviously, he changed his mind at some point. But what a surprise that one of his main supporters is the energy company, Exelon — which has nuclear plants — and that he would suddenly change his policy.
I don’t know what we would expect. He’s just as a beholden to the people who put him in office as any of the Republicans would be. But what’s a mystery to me is how he installed pretty much the exact same infrastructure in his administration that deals with finances as the administration that we thought we voted out. That’s really a shocker.
It's a game of chicken. So I’m not going to participate. Every day it’s like a fever. Like, "Oh my God, if we don’t have $27,000 by tonight the DCC won’t think we’re being effective." I mean I’m sorry, I can’t.
You supported John Edwards on the last campaign?
Actually I supported Obama, then John Edwards. His issues and his approach, his policies seemed to be better on poverty and on nuclear power; he published a pamphlet about what exactly he would do. Obama didn’t tell anyone what he would do or what he wouldn’t do, basically. He played that very close to the chest.
But apart from John Edwards’s suitability — his presumed suitability — as a leader, his policy made more sense to me, and he was willing to say what he would do. And I did campaign for him. And when he wasn’t the candidate I went back to supporting Obama.
Were you angry at John Edwards?
No. It’s not for me to be angry at him. And I don’t like your question, actually. It’s not the issue. I’m certainly disappointed but it’s really kind of a moot point. He wasn’t the candidate. He wasn’t selected to run because of improprieties in his personal life or in his campaign. His ideas were not selected to run.
Do you read a lot of political news — newspapers?
I read the New York Times, I read the Nation, and I read the New Yorker. I like Harper’s. There are a whole bunch of smaller journals, like the Washington Spectator — stuff like that.
But you’re not an online junkie?
I don’t like that as much, no. Because it’s just analysts, and it’s a big time drain.
ON ARTS PHILANTHROPY
Let’s talk about this benefit. Why have you devoted so much of your life to causes that may seem impossible, like nukes, and even more obscure causes, like the arts?
Well I don’t think it’s obscure at all because every community in America is struggling to keep arts education alive. I’ve done benefits for the arts in Oregon, Arizona, California and New York. People want their children to study music and drama and the arts. But it’s the first thing that’s cut.
Now, why have I done these things? I think I gravitated there because I met some people about 20 years ago that were struggling to get the same resources that the more affluent side of town was experiencing without any trouble. In the meantime, the affluent side of town was also having cuts in their budget. But people in South Central (L.A.) were already struggling to provide instruments and have plays. So I was working in South Central before I worked in Santa Monica.
I was paired with a bandleader from South Central by a mentoring organization called the Fulfillment Fund, and what they really do is they pair business professionals with promising students who live in at-risk communities. But you can’t put that on stage at a fundraiser, so they needed someone to exemplify the principle.
So they got somebody who wanted to play with a high-school band, and I meet Fernando Pullum (the bandleader) — that was about 18 years ago — and I also met a man named Fred Martin who had a choir in another school. It was a black jazz band orchestra and a black gospel choir singing all my songs and we were supposed to be mentoring, but I’m the one that got mentored.
Some of these kids would come to my gigs in Boston because now they’re going to the Berklee College of Music. And they actually knew the singers in my band because they came from the gospel choir and they went to school with those girls, so there was a lot of cross-pollination going on.
You’ve been doing it for so many years now.
Well every time I see Fernando’s students play, they’re completely different individuals. His record is astounding: 100 percent of his students go to college. And they go on to be professionals.
And when you meet them, they probably have no idea of who you are.
They don’t know my music.
Is that weird?
No, not at all. It’s what you would expect. For one thing, they’re studying jazz. For another thing, my music was more popular 20-30 years ago. And they’re also black.
ON THE ENVIRONMENT
You’ve also been involved in the environment, in energy …
That’s typical of my generation, I think.
How do you feel when you look back at the nuclear movement and how you might have impacted that and you see where we’re at today?
Well, the anti-nuclear movement is still alive because they haven’t solved any of the problems that are posed by nuclear power — and the fact that there were no plants built over a 30-year period is a testament to the fact that it’s so dangerous.
We have a different perspective today than in 1975. We’re at a point where we need a lot of energy on the planet. We’re spewing dirty oil and gas and subsidizing these oil-rich countries.
The idea that nuclear power is clean and safe has been revived. But it’s not clean if you count in the costs of mining the uranium and transporting the waste and the fact that these plants raise the temperature in every one of the rivers that they operate in. It’s not actually what they say it is. Flat out.
I’ve got this great Jules Pfeiffer pin that simply says, “They lie.” They do, they lie. In 50 years, the nuclear industry has not been able to pay for itself in the marketplace. Nor has it figured out a way to dispose of the waste. In 50 years of operation.