Monday, July 6, 2009
Joan Baez's new album was produced by Steve Earle and nominated for a Grammy. It's her 24th studio album and last year marked Baez's 50th year as a performer. She performs at Humphreys By the Bay on Friday, July 10th.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Singer Joan Baez just keeps on going. Politicians change, entertainers come and go, even some political causes have disappeared, but the woman with the soaring soprano voice who began her career in a coffeehouse in Boston some 50 years ago stays with us. Her career has spanned the days of protest in the sixties, to the days of personal discovery in the seventies, and she continued her singing and activism during the eighties and nineties when many others had gone silent. Now, as she celebrates more than 50 years performing, Joan Baez is on tour to promote her 24th studio album and is traveling the country supporting the causes that are dear to her heart. And it's my pleasure to welcome Joan Baez to These Days. Joan, welcome.
JOAN BAEZ (Entertainer): Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: Now let me start off, if I may, by talking about your latest album. It's called "Day After Tomorrow," and on it you sing the work of other artists. How do you go about selecting which music you want to sing?
BAEZ: Well, I guess in the end, the songs themselves kind of choose me because I've never figured out how to answer the question of how I choose a song. I guess sometime it's the words, sometimes it's just the feeling, sometimes it's the melody or a combination. The songs themselves really are presented to me by different people and then I go through this mass of music and pick out the ones that call to me. This time, I think the album, as we were putting it together, it turned out it was seeming to be a bookend to the very beginning, which is 50 years ago. So it's a kind of reminiscent feeling of the old ballads but it was made into a contemporary album.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting you should say that because people have described the "Day After Tomorrow" as a return to your roots. Was there any conscious effort to do that?
BAEZ: I don't think so. I think it was just kind of unfolding that way and then choosing Steve Earle to produce it, it was kind of written, you know, because he is – he is rough and unplugged.
BAEZ: You know? And I'm smooth and unplugged. And when you put us together, that's pretty much what happened. It was very simple and he records the way I do, which is fast. I mean, he came up with these brilliant Nashville musicians and we'd walk into the studio in Nashville and they'd bake biscuits and we'd have coffee and then we'd just go in the studio and have at it. And it was easy and it was fast and it was beautiful.
CAVANAUGH: Now you refer to Steve Earle, who is the multi-talented songwriter, musician, actor. He produced the record. How did that association come about?
BAEZ: Well, I've known him over the years. I never worked directly with him like that, but I've known him. He opened for me once, and we worked together a couple of times. And I've given him awards at different functions and I just have known him to be extremely bright and, as you said, multi-talented, and knowledgeable about just about everything. I mean, I finally learned to keep my mouth shut and just listen because he knows a lot and is really interesting. And it was just kind of a no-brainer when, I think, he and my manager had lunch or something and I don't know who suggested it first but when it was presented to me as an idea for him to produce an album, I just said, yeah. You know?
CAVANAUGH: Well, it's funny that you should mention that you just listen to him because I know the first track on the album, called "God is God" actually was written by Steve Earle. And what I understand is you didn't quite get the song at first.
BAEZ: I said I'm not -- You know, because in Sunday school it's God is within us and God is us and so on. And I said, I don't understand God is God, and he said, oh, it's recovery speak. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, you know, a power greater than ourselves. And I said, oh, I get it. You know, when you're in rehab, God is a power greater than ourselves, which could be a doorknob by the time we hit rock bottom, you know. But he's saying that the power greater than ourselves is God and so with his magnificent understatements, that's what he was saying. And a beautiful song, I mean, with this album, there's something about it. And, again, I know it has to do with the material and with Steve, the songs are ones that I can sing and the audience absorbs, you know, with no struggle. I mean, they're just – they are somehow – that you don't – there's nothing they have to think about, they just seep in automatically.
CAVANAUGH: Let's hear "God Is God." Let's hear a little from it at least, written by Steve Earle, and on Joan Baez's new album.
(audio of Joan Baez singing "God Is God" from her album "Day After Tomorrow")
CAVANAUGH: That's a song called "God Is God." It's the first track on Joan Baez's new album called "Day After Tomorrow." It's written by Steve Earle, and Steve Earle singing some harmony on that track with you, Joan. Now you've said you consider yourself an interpreter rather than a songwriter, although you've written a lot of songs. Can you explain why?
BAEZ: I guess at the beginning, well, the very beginning, I sang rhythm and blues, and with that I had to be an interpreter. I certainly didn't write rhythm and blues. And then I moved on to Pete Seeger and then Odetta and directly into the folk world and then, for me, it was falling in love with the ballads. And I was an interpretess, a very strict one, of long, sad European and American ballads. And it didn't even occur to me to write anything until I was about ten years into it, so I didn't write anything until the end of the sixties and I'd started at the end of the fifties with the folk music. And somebody said, you ought to write something. And I think sort of, oh, okay. And that's when I started writing. But generally, mostly, I sang other people's music or old ballads. And then I went to sort of a flush of writing songs and I liked them. You know, I liked the writing and it always – but still it was always kind of supplementing a repertoire. And then I guess about fifteen years ago, I stopped again and I haven't written anything for a long time. If it came up, you know, if it just started, I certainly would be happy to write again but I don't feel like forcing it.
CAVANAUGH: I'm just wondering, when you interpret a song, is it more important for you to find your own personal truth in it or the original intent of the person who wrote it?
BAEZ: My own – my own interpretation, my own truth or whatever you want to call it. But, you know, it's really interesting, is when people hear a song, they hear whatever they're going to hear. I remember interpreting one of the Dar Williams' songs and all puffed up, I was explaining to the public all about it, blah-blah-blah, you know, we sang blah-blah-blah a lot. And I explained the whole thing. Well, it turns she was in the audience and I saw her afterward and she said she was just delighted that I sang it and loved the way I sang. And she said, of course, your explanation had nothing to do with the song. I said, you're kidding, it was so clear to me. And she laughed. She said, no, and then she explained it to me and, of course, I don't remember the explanation but – And then I realized that everybody in that hall had divined their own meaning of what the song was. And that taught me a lot. You know, it doesn't mean that we can't figure out exactly what we think it is but that's what we do.
CAVANAUGH: You know, another female singer/songwriter whose music you've championed is Eliza Gilkyson, and I – Tell us a little bit about her.
BAEZ: I don't know very much about her at all.
BAEZ: I just know those two songs that are on the album just knocked me out.
CAVANAUGH: So that's why you included her song "Rose of Sharon," is just the power of it?
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's listen to a little bit of it. That's "Rose of Sharon," by Eliza Gilkyson and it's from the – Joan Baez's new album "Day After Tomorrow."
(audio of Joan Baez singing "Rose of Sharon" from her album "Day After Tomorrow")
CAVANAUGH: That's "Rose of Sharon" from the new album "Day After Tomorrow" by Joan Baez, and it was written by Eliza Gilkyson. And I'm wondering, Joan, what was it besides its beauty that struck you about this song?
BAEZ: Oh, it sounds like a 200 year old folk song.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it does, doesn't it?
BAEZ: Yeah, more so than anything else on the album, it just gives that amazing feeling of being ancient. But it isn't and it's put to this treatment and I guess I – It's one of my favorites on there and it's for that reason. You really wouldn't guess that it was a new song.
CAVANAUGH: No, you wouldn't. It has that old, old feeling. Now I want to let everyone know, Joan, that you are performing – Joan Baez is performing at Humphrey's by the Bay this Friday night, July 10th. But the larger question I think, is that you've been performing for 50 years now and how has performing changed over that time. I would imagine it's changed in a lot of significant ways.
BAEZ: Well, for me it's gotten easier. I mean, it could've gotten worse. And people say, oh, my God, what's it like after all these years and is it awful? You know, it takes this long to get to have fun. It was so difficult in the early years and then it was laborious for a lot of reasons for a long time, and, you know, I never took myself that seriously but I've taken things and causes very serious for a whole lifetime. And I still do, but I don't burden myself in the same way. I mean, I take my family very seriously now. My mom, who's 96, and my family, my son and daughter-in-law and my grandchild, and with all of that has come more choices in my life instead of sort of adopting burdens. And so the business of walking out on the stage has become a different kind of pleasure, I mean, a real pleasure. Sort of realizing that I can just walk out there and sing, and I have these delicious musicians. Now I have three musicians I've been working with for I guess this'll be the fifth tour now, and now we've added my son as percussionist, which adds another piece of joy to it. We have a no-maintenance tour bus now. Maybe it takes until your 68, I guess, you know. So we just love each other, take walks, ride bikes, we eat together. The bass player's a cook, you know, so when I get a giant size suite, which is enough for, you know, five families of eight, then we put it to use and cook a dinner and all eat together, so it's that kind of family. So that's what it's like. You know, it's really – So I love being at home and there's this little pang when I leave, and then I love being on tour, and there's a pang when I leave.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with singer Joan Baez, and we're talking about her touring and the new album she has out called "Day After Tomorrow." The title track was written by Tom Waits. Let's hear a little of it before we talk about it.
(audio of Joan Baez singing the title track from her latest album "Day After Tomorrow")
CAVANAUGH: That's the title track "Day After Tomorrow" of Joan Baez's new album, and the song was written by Tom Waits. And, Joan, you've sung a lot of anti-war ballads in your day, what is it that you particularly like about this one?
BAEZ: Oh, I guess it's that it's universal. I guess any really good song is universal. The business of kids dying on behalf of what, on behalf of people who've chosen their lives for them, and I guess I really just want to say something briefly about what has moved me so much in the last – I guess it's just the last month, and that is that Iran showed us something we haven't seen for a long time, which is the bravery and the imagination of, literally, millions of people walking on the streets in face of danger and have done it in nonviolence and were crushed in the end but in the meantime showed us something that we haven't seen for a long time. That is, first of all, showed us what the Iranian people are. They're people and professors and students and housewives and all of these things that we have forgotten, you know, or didn't see the Iranian people as. And then sat down in the face of terror, really, and so that's really – those things are – still move me enormously. And those are the things which I still support unanimously.
CAVANAUGH: Well, and you recently showed your support for the people of Iran by singing "We Shall Overcome" with a line in Farsi and you posted the video on YouTube. Why did you do that? What led to you doing that?
BAEZ: Those are the things for me that are so immediate, the response, I mean, is so immediate that when I saw the first video of the people marching in the streets in silence, I was so moved. I go, what do I do? What do I do? And first I just sent a little statement of support and then I started receiving these beautiful responses and one of them said, thank you for the support, how about a song?
BAEZ: So it was – I mean, my assistant came over with her little itty-bitty phone thing, whatever it was, and she held it up and I sang the song. Her friend – she got ahold of somebody, some Iranian guy, who translated it into Farsi, so I sang that one word – that one verse in Farsi and then we got a huge response to that, so I know that, you know, we sent through every possible way to get it into Iran and did as much as possible before the government clamped down. And, you know, whatever's happened there, it'll never be the same in Iran. It'll never be the same again. Iran has this history of everything going back underground and then it'll come up in another form at some point. But, you know, I mean, prayers and everything that's needed for the people who really sacrificed this enormous amount to have brought about that change.
CAVANAUGH: You know, Joan, you've been involved in social activism for your entire career. I'm wondering if you think technology, the internet, YouTube, mobile communication, has it really changed the scope of activism that you can see in any way?
BAEZ: Absolutely and totally. I mean, that's how, for example, and probably the newest and freshest example is Iran. I mean, that was run by, started by, the students, but then moved to the entire population and then worldwide. You couldn't stop it. And eventually it was dragged to a halt. And, you know what, not entirely a halt. That's the – You know, that's the key thing in a way. You can't stop something like this. But that's how it started and that's how it moved. And also, in this country, I think it's the first kind of spark for a lot of young people in this country who took over, in a way, with their own technology because they were moved by what was coming out of Iran. And it may be the first we've seen of that kind of response from younger generation in this country.
CAVANAUGH: And, Joan, I was surprised actually to read that President Obama is the first politician that you've endorsed in your entire life.
BAEZ: Yeah, he is.
CAVANAUGH: How do you feel about his presidency so far?
BAEZ: You know, he's just walking so delicately and doing things, I think, for the most part really cleverly. I think that it must be just an endless strain to him because I think there are things that he would really rather do a different way but he has to, you know, he has to walk carefully. And some of the things, I'm really pleased with, and some of the things are difficult for me to handle, but I wouldn't, you know, I certainly don't go back on my feelings that we have elected a statesman and an intelligent human being. And any president who's got the life of Gandhi in his top ten choice of books, we can't be going that far wrong.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that you live with your mother, your mother lives with you.
CAVANAUGH: She's 96. You dedicated this album to your mother. And you mentioned just a little bit about how you put down the burden of social activism, that burden part of it, and adopted more of a feeling about family. In other words, changed the priorities just a little bit. Tell us what your family means to your music now.
BAEZ: Well, it's what it means to my life, that I just – I was so active, so much activism in the seventies and even the eighties, that I just missed out on a lot. I missed out – I was talking to my son, it was probably a couple of years ago, and I said, you know, I felt badly for not having been around for so much of his childhood. And he said, you know what, Mom, you were there at a time in history when you were doing some of the things that no other human being could've been doing, by the nature of what you did and the times, he said, you know what, don't worry about it. It was so nice he said that. And, you know, and I thought, okay. Took a big load off my shoulders. But, you know, but now I have the chance, I mean, he's on tour with me. How many moms get to spend time with their married sons? Married daughters maybe, you can get to go buy curtains with them but sons, not like this. I mean, this is really amazing and wonderful.
CAVANAUGH: Joan Baez, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAEZ: My pleasure. Thank you. And I get to go back to Humphrey's and watch the ducks.
CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. Joan Baez's new album "Day After Tomorrow." She will be performing at Humphrey's by the Bay this Friday night, July 10th. And we will go out with another song on that album, the a cappella version of "Jericho Road."
(audio of clip of Joan Baez singing "Jericho Road" from her latest album "Day After Tomorrow")