By John Borack
With a 40-plus-year musical track record that includes leading power-pop icons Raspberries (“Go All the Way” and “I Wanna Be With You”) and achieving million-selling status as a solo artist (the timeless ballad “All By Myself” and the 1988 mega-hit “Hungry Eyes”), Eric Carmen is a well-respected and versatile songwriter and performer.
Arista/Legacy Recordings has released “The Essential Eric Carmen,” a 30-track, career-spanning retrospective that includes Carmen’s first new song in more than 15 years, the sweet, hopeful “Brand New Year.” Carmen spoke with Goldmine about the collection, his thoughts on power pop, what his musical future might hold and the process of recording the new tune with a little help from his friends.
GOLDMINE: You seem thrilled with “The Essential Eric Carmen.” Tell us more about it.
ERIC CARMEN: When [Legacy Recordings’ producer] Tim Smith contacted me and said that Legacy was planning a retrospective compilation and asked me if I’d like to be involved, I said, “Definitely.” During the process of putting the new collection together, Tim decided that 15 tracks weren’t enough and approached his boss and told him he needed 30 tracks. Tim got the go-ahead and began choosing more material. Fortunately, his song selections were, for the most part, the same songs I would have chosen. We debated the merits of some of the choices, and eventually we had 29 of the 30 tracks in place. It has been an absolute joy working with Tim and the whole Legacy team, and bringing [Grammy award-winning engineer] Mark Wilder in to re-master made about a 300 percent difference in how every song sounds. Mark is nothing short of a genius. I have never plugged any compilation — Raspberries or solo — before because, truth be told, they never sounded that much different than the original recordings to me. Thanks to Mark Wilder, listeners are going to hear things that they’ve never heard before. Everything is crystal clear, and Mark knows every frequency that’s flattering to each instrument and pleasant to your ears. His re-mastering was a revelation.
GM: It’s been a long while since we’ve heard any new Eric Carmen music. Tell us about “Brand New Year.”
EC: In October 2013, Tim suggested that it would be great if I could write something new to “bookend” the collection. I had not attempted to write anything in [many] years, but I started to think about it again. I knew what I didn’t want to write, and that was anything that sounded remotely like “All By Myself” or “Go All The Way,” because I didn’t want anyone to hear a new song from me and think, “Oh, he’s just rehashing stuff he’s written before.” I didn’t know what I wanted to write, but all I knew is I wanted to write something unlike anything I’d written before.
During the first big snowstorm of the season (during a complete power outage), I was reading a book by flashlight in my living room, next to a roaring fire. My piano is in that room, and I put my book down, and for the first time in years, walked over to the piano. I sat down, put my fingers on the keys, and started to play the rolling, hypnotic intro of “Brand New Year.” Within an hour I had written the music for the verses, the “B” section and the choruses. It just fell out of my head. A few days later, the first few lines of the lyric came to me, and within a few days, the lyric was done. A couple of days after that, I added the bridge and demoed the song.
GM: The tune has a beautiful Beach Boys-styled feel, particularly on the chorus. How did you come to choose members of Brian Wilson’s band to perform on the recording?
EC: The Brian Wilson/Jeff Beck tour came to Ohio, and I went to the show and said hello to my friends in [Brian’s] band. I mentioned the new retrospective and Darian Sahanaja, Nicky Walusko, Michael D’Amico [all members of Wondermints] and Jeffrey Foskett all said they’d love to work with me some time.
I sent the demo to Tim in New York, and he played it for the Legacy staff, and the consensus was “Wow!” We began to talk about finishing the record, and I told Tim that my friends from Brian’s band would be perfect. A few days later, I flew to California and went into the studio with Darian, Nick, Mikey and Jeffrey. Over the next week, Darian sent me mixes, and I would listen and write suggestions and shoot them back to him, and finally, mix No. 19 was “the one.”
GM: What can we expect from Eric Carmen in the future?
EC: Right now, I am entertaining the idea of playing live again, primarily because Darian, Nick, Jeffrey and Mikey are my “dream band.” We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but I’m not ruling anything out. As for writing new material, I’m kind of psyched because “Brand New Year” turned out so well, and writing it was very organic. It wasn’t months of hard work. Having said that, the “new” music business is a very strange landscape. Artists, for the most part, don’t make money selling records anymore. There are a few that do, but they are in the minority, so I have to figure out a way to navigate the new paradigm.
GM: A lot of folks were thrilled when Raspberries reunited for a few years, beginning in 2005. What’s your feeling about those shows, and was there ever any consideration given to recording new music with the group?
EC: I’m glad the Raspberries reunion tour went as well as it did, but I don’t foresee making any new recordings with the group. There are just too many problems associated with it, and I have no desire to plunge myself into a nightmare. There are reasons groups break up, and, unfortunately, by the time we finished the dates that were booked, those reasons were pretty apparent.
GM: Songwriters generally consider their songs to be their children, but if you were forced to choose one Raspberries tune and one solo tune as the two that you feel best represent your career thus far, what would they be and why?
EC: The obvious choices, “Go All The Way” and “All By Myself,” have been extraordinarily successful, but I don’t think any two songs could tell the story. “Brand New Year” is as important to me as “Boats Against The Current” was when I wrote it. And I’ve always loved “Tonight,” but then there’s “Overnight Sensation.” It would be far easier to represent my career with two discs, in which case the two discs that comprise “The Essential Eric Carmen” is about as close as you’re ever going to get.
GM: Raspberries are generally recognized as being one of the progenitors of power pop. Did you see yourselves as sort of the flag wavers for the genre at the time the band was originally active in the early ’70s, or were you simply doing what came naturally, based on your musical influences?
EC: Back in 1970, when Jim Bonfanti and I formed the band, “power pop” wasn’t a genre; it was a phrase Pete Townshend coined to describe the music of The Who.
As a writer, I’ve always been the sum total of my influences, and those are all over the spectrum: Rachmaninoff, The Who, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Burt Bacharach and Leonard Bernstein, The Rolling Stones and The Small Faces. Progressive rock had taken over the pot-addled airwaves of FM radio, and to me, long, boring flute solos and endless jamming had replaced the great songs I grew up listening to. Instead of The Beatles, we got Jethro Tull and Traffic and the like. I hated prog rock; to me, it was the ultimate expression of a bloated sense of self-importance and mindless self-indulgence. I wanted to have a band that could rock as hard as The Who and sing like The Beatles and The Beach Boys; a band that could play concise, three-and-a-half minute songs with power and elegance. Apparently, there were a few other guys that had similar ideas. Alex Chilton comes to mind, although we went after things in different ways. It wasn’t until after Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger came to exist that power pop became a genre. In each case, I suspect Pete Ham, Alex Chilton and I all felt the same void after The Beatles broke up, and somehow we were all trying to fill it.
GM: One of your solo tunes that I’ve always felt has been unjustly overlooked is the Phil Spector-influenced “It Hurts Too Much.” It’s nice to see it appear on the new compilation.
EC: Wait until you hear it re-mastered. The first time I played “It Hurts Too Much” from the new comp, I sat back in my car and thought, “How could [Arista Records’ founder] Clive Davis have thought this wasn’t a hit?” I have no idea.
GM: I’m sure you’re justifiably proud of “All By Myself,” as it’s become your signature song, but do you ever feel as if it’s undeservedly painted you into a corner as a balladeer?
EC: I’ve never felt “painted into a corner” by the success of “All By Myself.” What did paint me into a corner was my record label wanting “Son Of All By Myself” every time I made a record. One of Tim Smith’s reasons for wanting to produce this retrospective was to show people I didn’t stop rockin’ after “All By Myself.” My label didn’t believe that I could ever be taken seriously doing anything else, but meanwhile, over at Columbia, Billy Joel was following “Just The Way You Are” with “You May Be Right” and Elton John didn’t seem to have any problem balancing ballads and up-tempo rockers. Truthfully, that’s what makes a “career,” not doing the same thing over and over again. GM