Streaming audio of Barry's answers can be
Barry Reynolds long and distinguished career as songwriter, producer and guitarist at the edgier end of music started in the late sixties and includes work with Grace Jones, John Martyn, Joe Cocker, Bette Midler, Toots & The Maytals and Black Uhuru. His work in the studio and on the road with Marianne Faithfull spans 20 years.
His blunt and outspoken comments were in interview with Mike Thorne at the Stereo Society on Tuesday May 22 2001.
Youre often associated with musical mayhem with the high-wire artists youve been working with. Is this a conscious direction?
Probably. Looking back on my career, it's funny to see that Ive mainly worked with women. Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones, Bette Midler -- you know -- all these Divas. I dont know why. After I worked with Marianne, the record companies thought, "Well, he could work with anyone whos difficult." And, so, I finished working with Bette Midler and then Grace Jones. The only male artist Ive really worked with was John Martyn, who is the biggest Diva of all.
Youre also overlooking Joe Cocker, another mild mannered person.
Right. Joe was a joy to work with. The reason he was a joy to work with he let the musicians do what they wanted to do. As for the musical arrangements, he would come in, listen, give us the key, and Joe would sing over it. Hes a beautiful singer -- a little like Marianne and Grace Jones. At times, he was very extreme in either being straight or completely blasted. It was just a matter of finding him right in the middle when he could do it. And when he did it, he was wonderful.
You speak about working with women a lot, but you work with a particular subsection of women who are extremely intense. You have co-written with a lot of those people. Do you think that madness and intensity leads to a more exciting result?
It can sometimes. The best things Ive written with someone like Marianne Faithfull never got down on tape. It was all in the moment. We would just play, and it turned out to be wonderful. No one would have it together enough to say, "Lets record this." Id love to catch Marianne when shes really on a roll.
I was speaking to Chris Blackwell [founder of Island Records] about Noel Coward. He knew Noel and says hes incredibly funny around a dinner table. Very smart, very witty, and just an amazing storyteller, but, as soon as he put it down on paper, he didnt find it that funny. I mean: its like nice and bitchy and everything, but its not as funny as he really was in person. Moreover, I dont think Marianne has done anything worth calling her masterpiece. Whether she will or not -- I really dont know. Capturing the moment and getting something down on tape is very difficult.
achieved it a few times. What are the fine moments you remember?
With anybody. In addition, how was it possible to catch those fine moments?
With Marianne, probably one of the best things we ever put down was Why D'Ya Do It? a lyric by Heathcote Williams. She came in and read it, and it was so outrageous. The band just sat around listening to these "Why do you suck my dick?" Why do you...? At that point, we had a guitarist in the band that was a Jimi Hendrix fan, and he started playing All Along the Watchtower. I changed it a bit by adding a reggae-feel around it. Marianne just started narrating this thing, and it was amazing. I knew that it was working as soon as she started talking over that rhythm, and then it came to the chorus--Whyd you do it, she said. Whyd you do what you did? Whyd you do it? It was perfect. That was the closest shes got, in my eyes anyway to writing something truly amazing.
That song is in many ways the polar opposite of Broken English which is a classic. Broken English is much more objective, much more presented and considered. How did that arise?
Marianne was reading a lot about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and she wrote these lyrics about them. Then Steve Winwood came into the session, and started playing a bassline, soon after we joined in over it. Although Im credited with writing, (I still changed the chords and everything else), I think its the bass line that made that particular song. I actually cant listen to Broken English now. To me it sounds as though maybe the producer (Mark Miller Mundy) said, "Okay, we need something kind of disco on the album." In the song, you hear a certain sound, whereas, now I could hear something really nice there instead of straight disco beat. Mariannes voice sounds so strange on it compared to her voice now. Now, she sounds a bit like a blown speaker. Before, she sounded like a very high-pitched blown speaker. She had this amazing vibrato when she started singing. She sounded almost angelic and now it has gone into this.... How can I put it? Shes a bit like that alcoholic writer, Dorothy Parker. Shes a bit like that alcoholic writer, Dorothy Parker. She's a bit like a Dorothy Parker from hell. In fact, that should be the title of her next album -- Dorothy Parker from Hell -- High Hits. Or possibly Lotte Lenya.
Lotte Lenya, yeah, also. She was very much influenced by her. The thing is with Marianne -- she is such an amazing performer. At one point, we went out on the road, and it was acoustic guitar and her. It was a little like a poetry reading, you know. I would play a very minimalist kind of guitar part behind her, and sometimes I would just stop, and she would just continue the song so, when I came in, it would sound like an orchestra swell even though it was an acoustic set. We really played with the dynamics, and she could really pull it off. It didnt happen during every gig, but when it did, it was a magical experience to pull everything out and just bring it in very slowly. Thats the kind of power Marianne has on stage. You know, when shes on stage, you cannot not watch her. Shes a great performer overall.
Seems like youre back to playing more electric now.
Yeah. I always liked electric guitar. I never really considered myself an acoustic guitar player, anyway. I was a strummer and played like a bastard. I certainly wasnt a Richard Thompson or anything, but Ive always considered myself a rhythm guitarist. Im not a great soloist because I like to be right in there with the bass and the drums.
with the song.
When Marianne and I listen back to the song, I close my eyes and just think of Marianne, playing that song on guitar, and singing. It sounded like one whole person doing the song -- like Bob Dylan or whoever. Then what we did, which I found interesting, was to bring in the drummer. Brian Blade, a wonderful drummer, would then play with me. There was no click track. I wasnt playing to a click track but he would swell with me, as well. He would kind of go up and then come down. As my timing slowed, he would follow me. It was a wonderful way of recording because it definitely had a great feel. Almost as if the band was backing the singer and really backing the singer. It wasnt like the band was this entity running through this song and the singer was on top of it. Mariannes voice and my guitar served as the foundation for the whole piece.That causes me to question the way a typical Rock n Roll lineup records. When you hear a recording, its the singer thats leading. In practice, the way the style is recorded, the singer is often trailing along behind during the sessions.
Thats right. Steve Cropper was talking about when he was writing with Otis Redding. Theyd get Otis Redding in the studio singing with him. He said the band would always speed up. Its such a natural thing to do when you have somebody like Otis Redding, and youre backing a singer whos screaming at the end--its all part of the excitement. Its so natural to speed up and why not? Its great. Click tracks are fine for a certain kind of music, but I think Rock n Roll is not really about strict timing. Its definitely about a little havoc in there --things going off and not being right. I kind of miss that in a lot of music these days.
What would you do to correct it?
Kill many people. Theres nothing I can do to correct it. This is where its going. Its all very strange. Theres too much music out there, too much of everything at the moment. I remember the times in England when Orson Welles' Citizen Kane would come on TV, and it would be a real event. It would be like, "Wow, Citizen Kanes on!" Now its on cable TV twice a month on Bravo or AMC and it has ceased to be an event. Its the same with todays music. Its all just so accessible, like having too many sweets.
Youre speaking as if you think that music should be a social participation, an event rather than something you listen to on your headphones.
You seem to
be approaching a nice curmudgeonly elder statesman.
You are "Establishment" now like it or not, because you have a large respected body of work with people who are well established, well known and well loved. But what do you think is different now? If somebody was in a position now that you were, say, twenty-five years ago, how do you cope with this wash of music everywhere?
Its probably harder now. When I was getting into the business, The Beatles were all of a sudden writing songs. In addition, people were signing bands -- but you need to write your own material, and it was dreadful because many people couldnt write. When people talk about going back to the sixties, theyre talking about a time when there was some awful stuff. Nevertheless, I come from a musical family. My father was a pianist, my mother played the piano, my sisters sang, and my brothers played. Writing music for me was easy so I got involved with bands in the Manchester area. When I was fifteen, I was in London, and there were record companies dying to sign me. It was easy back then. These days, its not that easy because people arent looking for writers anymore.
But you imply that writers are absolutely essential.
Yes, especially for the kind of music that I like. I love instrumental and classical music, but I also like a really good song. Recently, I was listening to an artist named Jake Zachary. You know, lyrically; hes like the Yorkshire Jacques Brel. Theres a song called The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker, and its about a blacksmith and a toffee maker, and the blacksmith is this real kind of burly, sweaty blacksmith, and this toffee maker is this little skinny lady and not very pretty. In addition, theres a line at the end of it, and I just think its so beautiful. He says, This is as much a romance of some of the others that you get / Not so much a song and a dance as your Romeo and Juliet. I love it. Its beautiful, you know. I really miss humor in music. Id love to do an album with Jake Zachary. We should get him, Mike. You know, get him over here.....
You mentioned earlier about the tricks in songwriting. Does songwriting get easier as you get older?
No, I dont think it gets easier. In fact, I think it gets harder, but what happens is you learn more tricks. Its easier to write a song, but not easier to write a good song. I could write ten songs today -- ten mediocre songs. For me theres nothing to writing a song. Writing a good song is difficult and also if youre editing your own songs. Now Im in a stage where I dont know whats good and whats bad. Ive just come out of a period of having writers block, and writers block can be a few things. Personally, I feel its a lack of confidence because, when youre confident and youre writing, youll put something down, and you will go with it. If you dont have that confidence in everything youre putting down, you start to question it. Things arent jumping out at you. For me, thats when I know its not working. Its an awful predicament to be in because at that time Id go to other people and say, "what do you think of this?" For example, if I turn around to my lady, Carolyn, shell go, "Thats wonderful! Thats amazing!" I dont trust that. Ill end up giving it to someone else, another friend of mine, and theyll go, "Eh, its not the best youve done." I will go along with that.
Arguably, a song isnt complete until its expressed fully through a collection of musicians.
It doesnt always require musicians. I got my publishing deal with Chris Blackwell (admittedly he knew what Id written before) through a piano and a voice, or an acoustic guitar and a voice, and it was my voice, and I dont have a great voice. Sometimes, in a certain kind of songwriting, if a song stands up with an acoustic guitar or a piano, then you probably have a good song, as I say in these uncertain times of songwriting. Thats what I do because its easy to get a fairly mediocre song written down. With a little bit of arrangement, we put a horn section in here, put tambourines through here and a nice piano in here. Its all about making something that will sound presentable. However, as far as having a certain depth, its not necessarily a great song.
Its so easy with the technology we have now to go and press a button and cut instant canned energy. Do you think this is detrimental to songwriting because the energy void is already partly filled?
Its wonderful where the musics going. The great thing is that its completely out of control right now and theres some great things coming out. But, talking about the kind of music I do, Ive been inspired by a listening to a drum track or a bassline, and thats a non-organic thing. I really love some stuff coming out now at the moment. Yet it's very different from the kind of music I listened to while growing up like Cole Porter. I love to sit down and create a mood through chord structures and with lyrics. I love the sound of lyrics and what they have to say. That's why I hate Sting.
to expand on it? Without being bitchy. It can be a case study of
what you care for in a song and what you dont care for in
a song--without getting personal about it.
Do you think everybody can, ultimately?
I really dont know. I remember one time trying to write a song for Madonna, and it came out incredibly contrived, yet I think I did everything right. I had the right rhythm, the lyrics were kind of Madonna-type lyrics, and the chord changes were Madonna. In the end, it reeked of insincerity and, to me, whatever Madonna does, she believes in it, at least. I think people can tell. I hope they can tell because people are fooled a lot.
Before, you said that knowing too much could lead to writers block. How did you get through the writers block?
I started writing. I mean physically writing in a book. I would write all my ideas down. Apparently, theres a book called The Artists Way, which Ive never read, but I was speaking to a friend of mine whos a novelist, and he said, "Just going through the motions of writing really helps." Because then youre just writing anything. I tried that, and what happened with me, is I stopped worrying about it, and thats when it started kind of coming back. Its not fully back at the moment, but, hopefully, it will keep growing.
professionals, we always have to worry about it, though.
Its hard to find where theres a middle line.
Yeah. And, is there a middle way? Thats what rather worries me. I know that my best writing came from extreme of emotions -- either incredibly sad or incredibly happy. I dont know if Ive written anything in the middle. Therefore, having something like Prozac, for me, would be a nightmare just being in that middle line. Im certainly not making comparisons, but the best art, be it from Beethoven or Van Gogh, comes from a certain type of character. They were extreme people. And particularly in Rock n Roll, extreme is always good!
That brings us back to the original question, and we confirm your answer that a little craziness is necessary.
I think it is. Speaking for myself, I know that all my life Ive really tried so hard to be normal. I always had the feeling that if I really was me, I would be arrested or Id be in jail or whatever. Ive always tried to contain myself somehow. However, that craziness is definitely there and I think most people in the business have it. People that I think have something to say are usually quite mad.
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