Jonathan Richman: Music and Smells

Richman doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body, or if he does, he keeps it out of his music.


Jonathan Richman is one of those guys people mean when they say someone “has a cult following.” His fans adore him, even though Richman is hardly a household name. But he’s an energetic, prolific artist who truly sounds like no one else. He loves playing live, and can be counted on to make an appearance in St. Louis every year without fail. And Richman seems to get as much out of each show as his fans do.

“I’m more of a live stage person than anything else,” Richman said during a quick phone chat recently. “You get a certain feeling on a good night. Making records is fun too, but being on stage is just a different feel.”

Richman doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body, or if he does, he keeps it out of his music. His latest Vapor album, Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow, is the same sweetly affecting travelogue and shared romantic (in the broadest sense) diary that the Boston-bred singer has been charming his sizable following with for years. It can be a bit of a surprise to encounter Richman’s music for the first time. He’ll sing songs about the ice cream man, a shopping center, a new neighborhood, or how “that summer feeling is gonna haunt you for the rest of your life” (from one of his most endearing tunes.). Richman writes plenty of love songs, but they’re love songs to life itself as often as they are about women.

On the latest record’s “Springtime in New York,” a typical breezy Richman shuffle which is strongly reminiscent of the ’60s Young Rascals hit “Groovin,” he sings, “On Canal Street in April when it’s 60, and the snow is melting fast/It’s still shady in the morning when you’re laughing in your t-shirt running past/In Tompkin Square Park, a couple is meeting/Say what you want, but I feel my heart beating/’Cause I love springtime in New York/Springtime in New York, I do.” It’s the observed and felt details of the commonplace—and the everyday times in life—that are always inspiring to Richman, and always leading to songs.

And that’s the thing about him—he loves to capture those little moments, whether it’s about “Everyday Clothes,” or “A Lonely Little Thrift Store,” or dancing in a lesbian bar, or the simple reality (on his new album) that “couples must fight/couples must argue/From time to time/Must clear the air…” Richman talks to the listener like they are always privy to the subject at hand, and he gets right to the simple heart of the matter in a way that can startle or even embarrass at times, but only because it’s always undeniably real. This, and his boyish, no-frills singing style have probably kept him off radio and away from mainstream success, but Richman has always had a strong enough following to keep his career bicycle spokes turning. I asked him if he always felt as exuberant and optimistic as his music seems to be.

“It’s real easy for me to just feel about a lot of things,” he said. “Maybe I can’t tell if it’s optimistic, since the songs are mine. I mean, there’s joy and sadness and everything in my music at the same time…but you know, I’m always happy to be alive.”

I tell Richman he captures the innocence and magic of childhood better than any artist I can think of, and wonder how he taps into that so consistently.

“Do you run?” he asks. I said that I used to, a little bit.

“You know that feeling when you’ve run a long distance, and then you stop? What do you think about? I’ll be out running, and I just…I smell things more. I stop and just look around. And it’ll bring me back to a certain moment. Music and smells, they often go together for me.”

And do songs get inspired by these moments of heightened awareness? Certainly a song like “Springtime in New York” from the new album would seem to arise from that sense of atmosphere and immediacy.

“Sometimes if I get a really strong feeling, then I’ll try to capture it in a song,” said Richman. “And sometimes I make things up right on the stage…On ‘Springtime in New York,’ I was just really remembering that feeling, of being in New York at that time. When I sing it and you hear it, I’m trying to give you that same feeling, you know?”

In terms of subject matter, Jonathan Richman has written songs on a greater variety of topics than anyone else I can think of. He’s been doing it since the early ’70s, when a set of demos he recorded with future Talking Head Jerry Harrison and future Cars drummer David Robinson (and fourth member Ernie Brooks) became the first Modern Lovers album. The disc wasn’t released until 1976 (after John Cale worked on much of it), but it’s regarded as a legendary recording of the early “new wave” days, with classic tunes like “Roadrunner,” “Pablo Picasso,” and “Old World.” Despite my fondness for those sessions, I was reluctant to ask Richman about them, since his style has changed so much…and it was a long time ago, after all. But he was surprisingly open. Richman explained that he doesn’t mind talking about the early Modern Lovers work, but he was still learning his way in the recording studio at the time, and these sessions were not intended as an album.

“Those were just demos; I never thought they would be released,” said Richman. “They were recorded four years before they came out. I like some of it…‘Hospital,’ that was a great version. And I like the version of ‘Pablo Picasso.’ It had John Cale playing piano on it. But if you want to hear what it [the band] sounded like really, you gotta hear the live record on Rounder.” (He’s referring to Precise Modern Lovers Order.)

The early Modern Lovers work was strongly influenced by the Velvet Underground, and I was curious if Richman enjoyed working with the Velvets’ John Cale.

“Ah, I didn’t get along well with anyone,” he said matter of factly. “I was 20…forget it! I didn’t want to do another take of anything. I was like, ‘You mean you didn’t get it the first time?’ I couldn’t handle it.”

Richman says that Alan Mason was the producer on about half that first recording, a name obviously not as well known to most people as Cale. A third person, Stuart Love, worked on “Hospital,” the first song on the album, and according to Richman, it was a session that dates all the way back to 1971, “one of the first things we recorded for anyone. That was the demo that got John Cale interested.” Richman had little input over the record company’s release of The Modern Lovers, but it became an underground classic anyway. Richman said that he considers his next effort, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (which contained the whimsical “Here Comes the Martian Martians” and other oddities stylistically quite different from the previous work) to be his first real record. The dark edges of the previous work were replaced by a certain brighter energy, and perhaps a greater feeling of freedom for its maker. That disc also featured a version of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” which is one of my all-time favorite Berry covers. Richman loves Berry and referred to him as “the man.”

His next outing, Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers, was even more stripped-down, and performed mostly on acoustic instruments. Its mix of boyish playfulness, sparse arrangements, and even an instrumental or two is fairly representative of the style he’s more or less adhered to ever since. Richman became a prolific artist, recording a series of well-received efforts that included Back in Your Life, I’m So Confused, Having a Party With Jonathan Richman, and I, Jonathan. His style has endured and remains instantly recognizable, a testament to Richman’s singular creative vision. Sometimes the records are a little folksier, sometimes they’re more rockin’, and increasingly they display the Spanish influence Richman has cultivated in recent years (he performs a lot in Spain, and has a strong following there; he’s also sung a number of tunes in Spanish). But whatever he does is always uniquely, distinctively Jonathan.

A bit of extra recognition occurred a few years ago when Richman was amusingly cast as a random singing “narrator” in the hit film, “There’s Something About Mary.” There have been no Rolling Stone covers, however. Just album after album of pure, no-nonsense (okay, some songs here and there get a little goofy) Jonathan. His latest is one of the most simple and direct.

“I’m proud of this record,” said Richman. “With this one, I got very close to the sounds I was looking for. I did a lot of the production myself, along with Niko Bolas” (who’s previously done production work with Neil Young, Melissa Etheridge, and Mike Scott, among others).

Richman is known for spontaneity, and Her Mystery sounds like much of it was captured in one take. Was that the actual case?

“A lot of this album was recorded live, and some of it was not only done in one take, some of it was made up right there. Like on the song, ‘Tonight,’ we just rolled the tape. The guy helping me produce, Niko Bolas said, ‘What are you doing, rolling tape?’ ‘And I said just, ‘Will you roll it?’ So we just made up stuff for about 10 or 15 minutes, me and Tommy Larkins and Steve Hodges on percussion. I made up a few things I didn’t like, then I made up something I liked. And the first real full take of it all the way through is the one that’s on the record. We also did that on some of the instrumentals.”

One of Richman’s more interesting departures was Jonathan Goes Country, on which he worked with Springfield’s The Skeletons, even touring with them. He has high praise for Lou Whitney and company (now of The Morells), who also produced.

“It was so cool working with those guys,” he said. “I just wanted to hear country arrangements of my songs, to get that certain twang.” He laughs. “We just played the stuff like that. Bobby Lloyd Hicks, D. Clinton Thompson, Ron Gremp, Joe Terry, those guys are fabulous.”

He’s also fond of the man who is indirectly his boss on Vapor Records. That would be a certain eccentric named Neil Young, whose manager, Elliot Roberts, started the Vapor label that Richman signed to.

“Now there’s a guy…what a soulful man!” Richman exclaimed. “Great guitar player. Have you heard his new album? You know that song, ‘Mr. Disappointment?’ It’s beautiful, gorgeous. This guy is one of the best we’ve got.” Richman has not had the opportunity to meet Young as of yet, but signed to Vapor when a friend of his informed him the label was interested. It was a fortuitous circumstance, and there seem to be many of those in Richman’s life. Although he acknowledges that he feels the same pain and heartache as everyone else at times, he loves what music does for him, and for his audiences. Inspiration can come from anywhere, anything.

“This morning, I was listening to an African tape, some various artists collection,” said Richman. “And one of the songs grabbed me, it just put me in a certain feeling. It reminded me of when I was 18 years old.”

That’s what many of Richman’s songs do for listeners, also. What he said of Young could just as easily be said of him: he’s a soulful man. In a world of airs and expensive image-making, Jonathan Richman has managed to remain simply and charmingly himself. No overdubs needed…

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