Garland Jeffreys: Talking with "The King of In Between"

Wherein a king finds his groove once again.

T he first thing that grabs you when you meet Garland Jeffreys is his 1,000 watt smile.  It just lights up the room.  He has a genuine warmth and affection for people that you becomes contagious.  Garland has plenty of reasons to be happy: The King In Between, his first album in 13 years, is getting some of the strongest reviews of his four decade long career.  That’s saying a lot considering that his previous works – Ghost Writer, Escape Artist, Don’t Call Me Buckwheat are some of the best albums of the so-called rock era.  Co-produced by Larry Campbell (best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Levon Helm), The King Of In Between features appearances by long time friend Lou Reed, Duncan Sheik, Steve Jordan and his daughter Savannah, who, like her father, is also a singer-songwriter.  It has everything you’d expect from a Garland Jeffreys album: Introspective, poignant lyrics; a touch of reggae, doo wop, soul, funk, blues, and of course, rock n roll.  I recently sat down with Garland at his apartment in Stuyvesant Town (over some slamming coffee) to get his thoughts about the new album, tour plans, why he’s a fan of social media and a few other things.

On keeping the album simple and in the moment

Garland Jeffreys: We didn’t linger on these songs.  They were written – that’s where all the hard work went.  And then we recorded it, most of the songs were one take.  One take with a vocal.  Bang!  We rehearsed it, went through it, we had the beat, we had the rhythm, we had the structure, done.  Very little overdubbing.  In the end, before we started recording, I had my batch of songs.  I had about 15 songs, which came from about 30 or 40.  Like ‘Love Is Not A Cliché’.  Very simple song.  Bang!  One take.  Vocal, everything there. That’s the way to go!  You have a song you like and have musicians who can play it.  You got to have musicians who can play it.

The creative process behind the album

GJ: But this album…this is where I spent most of my time working on this album right here on this couch with a guitar and a little cassette… (goes into a drawer and pulls out a bunch of cassette recorders)  I got about six or seven of these cassette machines.  I have my cassette, its on the table and I have my guitar, and I write, you know, put a little piece of a song down, and I like the EQ from the cassette machine.  I have a digital recorder as well, a small one, but I don’t like the sound.  This has a little…there’s energy involved.  And it’s like, you get some kind of echo in the recording that if you like it, it gives you something that you can use in the basic tracks of the album.  So this is where I began that album.  Just working here, working and working, working, working.  Disappointed, unhappy, not getting anywhere, and at the same time, writing a great one, writing a good one, working on that one, making that better. The songwriting process is not this lovely flowing experience a good deal of the time (laughs).

The genesis and message behind “Coney Island Winter,” the album’s stunning opening track and first single:

GJ: I had been playing with the title ‘Coney Island Winter’ and doing it in here and I was wondering about it.  Then I started to come up with these lyrics and the lyrics really made a sense to me.  I had a very dear cousin who lived in Coney Island, a very poor part of it.  Not too long ago, I was in Coney Island in the winter, and I was walking down the street with someone else, and, you know, it’s a dreary place.  It can be a dreary place at time that time of the year.  A friend of mine was also living there that time, you know this is all in the last couple of years.  And then I began to feel like, you know, my feelings about what’s going on in the city when it relates to how people are getting along, how people are getting on with money and lack of.  A couple of people died right here on the corner near me, like a block away because it was so cold outside- they were a couple of drunks – and they died totally frozen. I asked the guy at the shop, ‘Why don’t you do something about this?   This guy is lying between a wooden thing and a window of the store.  He said, ‘Two people died last week in the same place right up the street’.  Some people are just, you know, they’re totally…gone.  So the song really talks about that in its own way.  ‘All the money has been spent.  Hark the angels, can’t pay the rent’.  What is so obvious what we’re seeing on TV across the country how people are really in such bad shape.  America’s not supposed to be that way.  So that’s where the song comes from and there are other songs that connect to it.

On tacking the topic of death on “In God’s Waiting Room”

GJ: To me it became clear that it should be the closing song and my wife and daughter didn’t want that song on the album.  I didn’t realize it at first, but I think that it was the death issue, about death, and I think it kind of upset them.  I try to position the song in terms of the lyric and everything as ‘Laughing at the notion of death/Giddy at the motion of my very last breath’.  I’m trying to create a song where death is an inevitably, but its not  – this is tricky – If you’re going to write a song about death you better find a good way how to do it.  But they didn’t want to hear it at all.  They took it very seriously.

On the value of social media:

GJ: I want to do a concert and send it out to my Facebook fans.  It’s unique, but I’d like to do that.  I’m one of these guys that really likes Facebook.  Some people don’t, but it’s been great for me.  I’ve contacted many, many of my fans over the years, we have a lot of communicated  and I enjoy it man.  I’m for the individual experience that I’m having.  I’m really big in the music thing, people are interested in the music, people that I’ve met at shows, people that come to shows and we have a conversation that’s regular.  Its not a ‘star’ / ‘fan’ thing.  It’s not about bravado.  If somebody asked me for help, I would help them.  I would do it.  If somebody needed something, really needed something and I had it, I would give it to them.  I think people need to think like that more and more.  We’re up against a right wing that is fucked up.  I won’t call them crazy, I’ll call them devious.  They’re so fucking devious, I hate them.  I like the idea of being in touch with people who want to connect.  Just real, just nice.  Good!

His new thing: House concerts

GJ: I think that one of the great movements right now is the house concert.  I think its fantastic.  I’ve done a number of them where I go to someone’s house, An hour and 15 minutes later or something like that, a bunch of songs. . .   You have 50 people in the room.  People love it, they show you the love, they love that you’re at the house.  They’re fans, they’ve driven from all over to catch you.  You finish your show, you hang out, they’ve set up a CD table for you, they put all your stuff out there.  People buy it, you autograph all the stuff, you have a bunch of laughs and you find out some of them follow you to another house concert.  And suddenly you can make some decent money.  Its just a different experience.  It’s fantastic.  Fans love it.  They bring their daughter with them – ‘this is the guy that I’ve listened to all these years’.  Then they want you to take pictures with them.  It’s all ok.  And here’s the deal.  This is the most important thing: You’re fucking lucky to have fans!  You’re lucky to have people come and see you.  You’re lucky that people support you and buy your records. You can never take it for granted.  You have fans who come and they adore you and your music.  Man!  In the end, its about people.

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Earl Douglas is the Executive Director of the Black Rock Coalition (http://www.blackrockcoalition.org). In addition to Bold As Love Magazine, you can read more of his writing at http://earldouglas.wordpress.com

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