My affection for Freedy Johnston is no secret. Back in March, through his Facebook or e-mail list or some other modern convenience, I learned that he was a contributor to a new podcast project, the Radio Free Song Club. I tend to follow Freedy wherever he goes, so off I went.
What I discovered was a special creative project, the brainchild of musician Kate Jacobs, enlisting veteran songwriters to submit one song per month for an audio podcast. Contributors include Peter Holsapple, Laura Cantrell and Victoria Williams, with special guests such as Beth Orton and Syd Straw. The final product is a mix of submitted songs and live performances, hosted by Nicholas Hill, whose 15-year background in radio includes stints at WFMU and Sirius.
Six shows in, it’s obvious that there are only two priorities at hand: songwriting and friendship. It’s a refreshing and inspiring sense of focus. Sure, they could easily start video recording performances to put on YouTube, put on a concert or release a compilation of songs. But they’re not worried about that. There’s a deadline to hit, after all, and music to share with friends. That’s all that matters.
For the listener, this is a sneak peek into a musicians’ dinner party. And it functions as a great and entertaining gateway to musicians with whom you may be less familiar.
The seventh podcast, which came out toward the end of last month, featured the addition of a personal longtime fave, Amy Rigby (along with her husband, Wreckless Eric) to the cast. Just one more reason to stay tuned.
I recently spoke with Hill and Jacobs about the project:
How did you begin assembling the talent behind Radio Free Song Club? Was there a rubric you had in mind when assembling the cast of characters?
Kate: You know, there was. I started it and put it together mostly with some help from Nicholas. I wanted to find a way to use the Internet that would be fun, that would be collegial and involve friends of mine and also be creative but not be so hype-y and self-promoting like individual websites are or like some of the social networks are. I wanted it to be small and clubby so it would be fun. The people we ended up asking were people I’ve known over the past 20 years I’ve been doing this. There wasn’t any real plan to it. Dave Schram is someone I’ve worked with for years, he’s worked a lot with Pete [Holsapple] and Peter [Blegvad]. They’re such amazing songwriters. Freedy, I’ve known for many years, I’ve been a big fan of his writing. Nicholas is a big fan of Victoria [Williams].
A lot of us are at home with children, with less touring and band activity. You get so tied up in other aspects of life. It’s a particular generation of writers, people who’ve been doing it for a while and are in different phases of their careers but have a lot of skill. We wanted it to stay very small, people with a certain attitude, sort of brainy and smart without being super mainstream. We wanted it to be a little loose.
Nicholas: We were looking specifically for people who were not necessarily at the peak of their career but sort of had careers of varying strengths and characteristics and were apt to have a new outlook as songwriters. The audience has gotten extremely dissipated with the advent of the internet and record labels turning into non functioning entities. It becomes necessary for artists to seek out new outlets for their work. People are getting creative about it. Touring and selling CDs on your own has become more successful as a way to reach an audience than putting a record out.
Everyone is looking for a way to put their songs into the world. Songs are like children, you write them and some are nurtured and cared for and go to the best schools. Songs are unique entities that really have a life of their own and come back to haunt you many years later. Not that I’m a songwriter but I’m aware of that and I’m familiar with a lot of writers
Part of the structure of Radio Free Song Club is a monthly deadline for this array of songwriters. How has deadline-driven songwriting shaped the character of this project?
Nicholas: Completely. As a DJ I’m used to playing whatever I feel like. But oddly, in this particular guise, I can’t do that. I play only the songs that I’m given that night. The show is really unique in that it’s put together, it’s produced by everyone involved. It has a character of the moment as opposed to reflecting my tastes or reflecting the tastes of any one artist. It’s more like it’s a flavor of the moment. It was really remarkable when Vic Chesnutt died after we did our first show, and all the sudden, everyone was inspired to write something about him (“Four Songs for Vic Chesnutt” [MP3]). It wasn’t planned, it was just that a number of the people were moved by his death and were friends of his and it was disturbing. Death was ever present that season, a lot of people we knew died.
That’s really a unique thing, doing radio that is not programmed. I’m really proud to be a part of it. It’s been inspirational to me. I’ve never done much singing, and all of the sudden I find myself inspired to do songs with these people. That’s been interesting, too.
Kate: It’s been very inspirational for everyone involved. Having a deadline has meant that they‘ve really been forced to finish songs they may not otherwise or come up with a song. I talked to Victoria Williams today and told her about the people who will be in studio next week. She’s never been in the studio with us and we were discussing the people in the studios available to back her up to overdub over her recording, whatever she sent us, some really wonderful people, many of her close friends, people who’ve been in her band. I think Calexico may be our guests next session, so that will be fun. And they’ve both played with Victoria in their bands over the years. That right there is an inspiration to her to go finish her song so she has something for those folks to play on.
People have been surprised that it’s been very motivating. Initially, people thought, “I can’t do that, it’ll be too much pressure.” It’s had a motivating effect. People like the deadline. We have a lot of things coming in under the wire, people e-mailing things during the show. It gives it a certain energy. And it’s only one song so it’s not like you’re trying to complete a record. It’s very doable. To write and record one song is not that big of a deal. It’s also inspired people. Peter Blegvad is a really interesting writer and artist, but he hadn’t been writing songs for years, and this has pulled him out of retirement. He’s the first one in every month. He’s been writing a lot of interesting things. It’s been a motivator. and I think for Holsapple, too. He talked about being in a writer’s block. It’s been a good kick in the pants. I wanted a place to bring finished material so it didn’t sit around.
What is your favorite song to come out of the Radio Free Song Club?
Kate: One of my favorites is “A Little Bit of Something Wrong,” [MP3] a Freedy song, which is a stunning song, just beautiful. The melody and the words. Classic Freedy Johnston. There’s one in the last show, the seventh show, by Peter Blegvad, “Golden Helmet,” which is really beautiful. I love Victoria, she’s the one who shares the most raw material and really lets you into her rough drafts. That’s really wonderful. She’s very willing to work it out on the air.
Nicholas: In a selfish way, I’m really excited about the ones I’ve sung on, but in terms of the other ones, I’d say the first show, Peter [Holsapple]’s song that opens the first show (“Oh My I Gotta Write a New Song” [MP3]) really blew my mind. It took what the show was about and put it in this emotional true story and out came a song about breaking through writer’s block to write a song. That was pretty great. Also, Victoria’s song for the first show (“Fall Experience” [MP3] was really fabulous for me. Blegvad’s songs every time blow my mind. I love Kate’s song (“Tell It To the Marines” [MP3]), the third show, written in the style of an old pop tune, about the financial crash. A metaphor for a breakup with a bank.
I feel like Radio Free Song Club is as much about friendship and camaraderie as it is about music, could you talk about that?
Kate: That kind of camaraderie is a real gift for musicians. It’s such a collaborative form. You have a band you have other people. It has a very social aspect to it I was missing because I was at home and writing and recording and occasionally playing a gig but I was not really seeing people that much. I wanted to have a more active engagement with my friends who play music and see what they’re doing and share what I’m doing.
Nicholas: I don’t necessarily wonder why someone writes a song about a certain subject. Songs speak for themselves one way or another and don’t need a lot of extra digging. It’s more about casual conversation and getting the artists comfortable with how their songs are being presented and getting the artist comfortable enough to perform live in the studio. … I am just hoping to have that experience be fun and pleasant for people, as opposed to tearing into the songwriter about what their story is. That’s usually not the best time to ask somebody. They’ve already bared their soul, they don’t want to bare it any more.
What is special, in this video-centric era, about an audio-centric experience?
Kate: We don’t want to have any video on the show. Nicholas was a DJ for many years and has produced a lot of radio in his day. It’s a completely different space when you’re listening to the radio and you don’t have the images. I really prefer it. I don’t have the patience to watch video, music video. It doesn’t appeal to me. I like to listen to things. It takes too much time and attention to watch a little video. We wanted it to be a radio-like experience, something you could listen to in the car, while taking a walk, that wouldn’t be tethered to the screen.
Nicholas: I think that video takes away from experience. When we first started the show, someone said “We’ve got to videotape this,” and I said “Absolutely not.” This is a radio experience. If you’re videotaping it, one, who’s gonna watch it, and two, they’re watching something be produced for audio. It takes away from the power of the event. This allows the listener to imagine what’s happening and it allows us to pretend a little bit if we want to and bring more imaginative ideas to the fore.
I find the act of sitting and watching music in video format really uncomfortable, where if you’re listening to a song, it’s not taking energy; it’s giving you energy. If you’re watching a song on video, your time is completely taken over by the image whether it’s good or not. You’ll sit there and watch an image even if it’s bad just because it’s a song. … You’re not collaborating with the material. You’re purely a victim of it, in a way. If you’re listening to music, you’re collaborating. You’re sharing in the experience. Your experience of listening is adding to the experience, whereas with video it’s all given to you in a way that makes it not as satisfying.
Who would be your dream contributor to Radio Free Song Club, alive or since passed?
Kate: The other day, I thought, “We need someone like Tom Lehrer on this show. I’m gonna write him a letter. We need someone consistently funny.” Every show we’ve had at least a few strong songs. Not a lot of them are really funny. I thought it’d be good to have someone who always sent something topical, funny, upbeat, smart. Maybe Tom Lehrer would be my answer. Apparently when you ask him if he’s going to write any new songs, he asks, “Oh, has hell frozen over?” so I don’t think he’s going to respond. But I think it would be great. He doesn’t take it too seriously and he’s always funny.
Nicholas: I’d love to have Ron Sexsmith. I interviewed him once and it was really beautiful. He was such a gracious guest and a real intelligent writer. His songs are spectacular. Another Matthew Caws. I think his writing is so brilliant. His songs are really personal but also sort of universal. Those are two people we’ve asked but haven’t been available. Both I think would be really great contributors. Moreso than Bob Dylan, who probably wouldn’t be interested. Maybe they’re both too successful or something like that to get pinned down to something of this nature. It takes a unique person to want to do it.