Dec 4, 2013
12:19 PM
Arts & Entertainment

Tom Rush, 1960s Godfather of New England Folk Music, Comes to StageOne in Fairfield Dec. 8

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It's cool to see that “The Remember Song” has more than 6 million hits on You Tube . . . I imagine that was a surprise.

It was! My web guy was putting up some stuff on YouTube, and I said, “Why don’t you put up that ‘Remember Song’ clip? Somebody might like it.”

Does writing come easily to you?

That’s a difficult question, because if the writing’s difficult, the song probably isn’t going to be very good. The best songs flow pretty easily. The more you think about them, the worse they get. I guess it was Kurt Vonnegut who had a sign posted over his desk, “Don’t think.”

So that’s a good mantra for a songwriter.

Yeah, I think so. You’re connecting with the subconscious, and the more you try to be rational, the harder that becomes. Songs, paintings, sculpture: They’re all basically emotional communication. They don’t appeal to our logical minds. When I write a song, I feel like I’m trying to tune in some sort of distant radio station. I’m trying to  capture the words and the melody that already exist. I’m not creating them, I’m just trying to transcribe them accurately.

What was the story behind “No Regrets”?

“No Regrets” was actually, in some ways, a flight of fantasy. A girl, Jill Lumpkin, had come up from New York City to Cambridge to spend a weekend with me. She was later to become my girlfriend; she’s the girl on the cover of The Circle Game album. But she spent the weekend, then she went back to New York; I took her to Logan Airport and put her on a plane. Up to that point, I’d never spent three or four days consecutively with a woman. So when she went away, it felt strange to be alone. That’s where that song came from—projecting that feeling into the end of a long relationship, which I’d never had at that point in my life.

When you play that song now, can you still connect with those feelings?

Yeah, I can. It’s much more relevant to me at this point in my life than it was when I wrote it. But that’s one of the reasons I rotate my repertoire—if a song no longer connects with me, I feel I should stop doing it for awhile. And I guess the upside of being onstage for 50 years is that I have enough of a repertoire that I can do that, and occasionally add a new song.

Do you have a songwriting routine?

I should. And thank you for making me feel guilty for not sticking to it! What works for me is to get up in the morning and get a cup of coffee and sit and stare at the guitar for a couple of hours. When I do that, ideas start to arrive and some of them stick together; clumps stick to other clumps and gradually you have the beginnings of a song. I find I’ll actually be working on three or four songs at once. Once I get them rolling, if I stick to my routine I’ll get up in the morning and work on song No. 1, and I’ll make some progress—I’ll come up with a line or two or figure out what the chords in the chorus should be. Then I might run out of steam, so I’ll put that aside and work on song No. 2. After a couple of hours I won’t feel like writing anymore, so I’ll get up and pay some bills or do something exciting.

Even with the kind of writing I do, I find when I get stuck the best thing is to walk away from it. The minute I’m involved in something else, I suddenly have clarity on how to get unstuck.

And with writing, it’s never too late. In performing you can’t go back and go, “What I should say here is . . .” That’s why studio musicians don’t make good sidemen onstage, because they’re so used to, “We’ll fix it in the mix.” Or the next take.

That’s why I think newspaper writers don’t make good magazine writers, and vice-versa.

Well, you get used to a certain style. I know that in my case onstage, I’m quite used to doing two 50-minute sets with a 20-minute intermission. If I’m in a group show with a lot of artists and only have 20 minutes, it’s very difficult for me to calibrate my energy to a different time frame.

We are creatures of habit, I guess.

We get good at doing a particular thing. A tennis player wouldn’t make a good ping-pong player, necessarily. They’d probably make a much better ping-pong player than I would ever make, but you get used to doing your one thing.

This is going off the rails even further in this interview, but I had a talk with someone the other day about whether humans are more catlike or doglike. As a cat owner, I’ve decided we’re closer to them, as cats are the ultimate creatures of habit.

There’s a book called The Power of Habit. It’s fascinating. It’s partly about bad habits, gambling addiction and so forth. But it’s also about why you buy the same brand of toothpaste all the time. There’s no rationale to that, but there is a science to it, and marketers have it down pat. The guys who design the pinball machines and gambling machines—the one-armed bandits—are extremely scientific about how they get your attention, keep your attention and keep shooting you those little doses of dopamine that keep you engaged.

And the people designing foods are very deliberate and calculating. There’s a certain ratio of oil to other stuff that feels good in your mouth. Fritos has it down—it has the right amount of salt, right amount of fat. There’s even a word for it that I can’t remember, for that perfect balance of sensations and flavors.

This discussion makes me wonder if the music business has that kind of formula for addicting people to certain artists and songs.

No, it’s amazing how disorganized the music business is. I mean, I’m glad in a way. They had encounter groups at one point; the labels would play a new song for a supposedly representative bunch of teenagers to see what they thought. Dick Clark, actually, was doing this. So that’s a kind of market research. But then somebody like Bob Dylan comes along and doesn’t do anything right, and is hugely influential.

Ford Motor Co. once did a huge amount of research on what kind of car consumers would like. Thousands of surveys.  In response to that, they came up with the Edsel, designed point-for-point to satisfy the needs of their consumers. At the same time the Edsel came out, the Volkswagen Beetle also came out, and basically ate the Edsel’s lunch. But people had no way of knowing they wanted the Beetle, they couldn’t describe it  because they’d never seen anything like it. Once they saw it they loved it. And so the Beatles, Dylan, Presley, all these artists come along and don’t follow the rules, and they’re hugely successful.

Tom Rush, 1960s Godfather of New England Folk Music, Comes to StageOne in Fairfield Dec. 8

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