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Van Dyke Parks reflects on making music on his terms and investing in himself

At age 4, Van Dyke Parks committed himself to music. Now 73, the eclectic pianist-songwriter-arranger is just as dedicated, in spite of many articles.

By Chris M. Junior

At age 4, Van Dyke Parks committed himself to music. Parks, who turned 73 on Jan. 3, 2014, remains dedicated, but it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the eclectic pianist-songwriter-arranger in recent years.

One lingering obstacle: The lack of outside financial backing for a new studio project. With no record-label resources at his disposal — and the recognition that he is in the latter stage of his life — Parks decided to invest in himself. He personally funded the recording costs for a series of singles that he began to roll out in 2011. The singles were the first new studio recordings issued under Parks’ name since “Orange Crate Art,” his 1995 album with Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson.

Van Dyke Parks Songs Cycled

“My wife and my family were so loyal,” Parks recalls. “They watched me toss this money away for a roomful of string players or saxophones or percussionists — to delight the ear and to try and create something of durable value.”

Parks’ singles got a second wind of sorts in 2013, when the London-based Bella Union label released them in the United States as the album “Songs Cycled.” Soon after, Parks was facing yet another obstacle: recovering from major hand surgery and dealing with the related uncertainty about his future as a performing musician.

Despite that dark cloud looming over him, Parks was engaging and eloquent in a conversation that focused on “Songs Cycled,” as well as his work with Wilson on The Beach Boys’ “Smile” and what he hopes lies ahead.

GOLDMINE: The recordings on “Songs Cycled” were originally released as a series of singles, and the packaging featured illustrations by contemporary American artists. At that time, did you envision them as a unified album or merely as standalone singles?
VAN DYKE PARKS: That’s a good question, and a good answer is I never have any plans, one way or another. I don’t give thought to coherence of tunes. I always follow what I think is the inevitable result — that songs borne of the same period will reflect a point of view that sometimes a reviewer or a casual observer will think suggests a concept. So it was not on my mind that these songs would relate to one another or not relate. I was immersed in the individual challenge of each song and blinded to any other possibilities.

I had hoped that one day somebody would call me and ask me to record an album. I hate to sound narcissistic, but I thought perhaps someone would think I deserve some patronage. But it didn’t happen. So knowing that time was the enemy, and that I was moving right along toward the endgame, I decided to invest in myself. And that’s why I did the singles. I started with one; that’s all I could afford.

I love the relationship between sights and sounds. It’s always occurred to me that it’s where I would always find my greatest satisfaction, and that’s something I think you see in the pattern of the jobs I’ve had in my life.

For Van Dyke Parks, quality has always outweighed quantity. He has collaborated on a variety of projects with other artists, but his own catalog is a relatively small one, given his 45-year recording career: “Song Cycle” (1968); “Discover America” (1972); “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” (1976); “Jump!” (1984); “Tokyo Rose” (1989); Fisherman & His Wife” (1991); “Orange Crate Art” (1995); “Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove” (1998); and “Songs Cycled “2013). Roman Cho photo.

For Van Dyke Parks, quality has always outweighed quantity. He has collaborated on a variety of projects with other artists, but his own catalog is a relatively small one, given his 45-year recording career: “Song Cycle” (1968); “Discover America” (1972); “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” (1976); “Jump!” (1984); “Tokyo Rose” (1989); Fisherman & His Wife” (1991); “Orange Crate Art” (1995); “Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove” (1998); and “Songs Cycled" (2013). Roman Cho photo.

GM: “Hold Back Time” and “The All Golden” are new recordings of songs you’ve done before. What made you want to re-record those particular songs?
VDP: You know, I think that there’s an overemphasis on the idea of “re-recording.” Everyone thinks perhaps that smacks of unoriginality. I’m an arranger; that’s how I have supported my family, by arranging music … Arranging is a central thesis for my very being as a participant in recording. When I take a song, whether it’s on record or in a performance, and arrange it for a group of musicians that was never collected before, there’s nothing repetitive about it. So I kind of shy away from the term “re-recording” (laughs).

“The All Golden” deserved to be readdressed … “Hold Back Time,” quite frankly, lacked what I felt was an intimacy or an understanding as a vocal performance on “Orange Crate Art.” And I felt the tune deserved my attention, and in fact, it is a highly personal autobiographical statement.

GM: Do you have a typical approach or workflow when it comes to arranging a song?
VDP: Yeah, I do. I’m all ears; that’s how I do my work. I know that sounds like an attempt to be clever in defense of my creative process, but I start with the powers of observation. Arranging a song very much puts a man in crisis. I think of it as I would think of a Buster Keaton movie — a man painting himself into a corner or hanging from a clock above a crowded city street. It is “man in crisis.” It is creating a series of defenses that protect and serve both the singer and the song. Arranging is to enunciate and articulate a song — to make it more, rather than less, available to a casual observer.

I have made all of the mistakes anybody could make in arranging songs. You can hear it in my first album, “Song Cycle” [released in 1968]. It’s an antique that shows how many mistakes can be made in obfuscation.

I believe that I’ve reached the point in my life where I think I found a greater ability at clarity and a successful adaptation to the very idea that I might be available and the work might be available. I think I’ve improved with age.

GM: Now that you’re in your 70s, what’s easier — and harder — about being a musician, both physically and mentally?
VDP: Arranging to me has been a pianistic approach … [What rock and folk of the 1960s did] was promote the idea that singers should hold guitars and that they would be the perfect vehicle for the portability of the song. As everyone rushed to the steel-string guitar, I [stuck] with nylon strings. And you know, I realized that steel strings hurt my fingers, and I wasn’t really interested in that, so I ran back to the piano, where I had started. And so my arrangements come through, basically, keyboard configurations. The piano has been a means by which I can understand a song.

This is a time of great uncertainty to me, whether or not I’ll be able to go out and play again. And that’s due to tendinitis and trigger finger and carpal tunnel, with my hands freezing as I play 40 minutes into a set. That is very frightening to a person who pays his rent with performance fees. So that’s the physical challenge.

Did you want to know what the mental challenge is? (Laughs.)

GM: Well, that was part of my question, if you choose to answer it.
VDP: OK, all right: The mental challenge is trying to find a place in the world with gray matter such as I have to be acceptable in a musical world that is dominated by similitude. Everything must be somehow brandable, merchandisable, generically identifiable — something that is put into a category of music. Something tells me I’ve learned so much and heard so many things that I am difficult to brand, and it’s because I think we’ve reached a point where individuality is intolerable … I’ve got to work on finding a niche that is marketable.

GM: The Beach Boys’ “Smile” is widely revered, but where do you rank your contributions to it among your own body of work?
VDP: Well, as I look back on it, I feel vindicated in the work. I always did, because I contributed as I felt I should; to do the right thing is all that matters to me, regardless of how it might be interpreted. And I feel I did the right thing.

When Brian Wilson sought to migrate into the counter-revolution, he needed to break the habit of excess that was in the feel-good sleepwalk of the Eisenhower era. He found a solution in my lyrics — which were, as a matter of fact, only a reaction to the imaginative musical work that he was doing.

I’ve never felt it had the epic importance in my own experience that the public eventually accorded it. I think that the public went nuts over it because the backstory was probably more of a sympathetic nature than the front story. Perhaps the work itself could not be understood, and yet Wilson’s psychological afflictions were something that deserved a lot of sympathy. He got a lot of sympathy, and I got a lot of heartache from that project.
I did everything I could to run from [“Smile”], and when it became convenient to Brian and [his wife] to revisit that [in 2004] because of the clamor of the interactive audience that “Smile” created, I went right back into the fold and just picked up where I’d left off and filled in a few gaps that had been left in the work. It was like getting on a bicycle after years of commuting in an automobile. It was so easy for me; it was like second nature. And the reason for that is because “Smile” hit on something that I could understand, and that was the American dream gone awry.

GM: At this stage of your career, do you have any unfinished business or maybe a wish list of people you’d like to collaborate with?
VDP: Yeah. First of all, I have always thought that arranging was a process of bringing the heat of the street — the deprivation of the human spirit, the people who are disenfranchised — to the elite. I’d like to continue to sharpen that focus and bring orchestrated events to summer symphony series and orchestras that are still looking for some connection to the real world that lies beyond the elitism of serious music.

I’d like to take unserious music into some serious places. That’s where I want to find my collaborative force. Recently, I went to Australia, and my background singers — there were two of them; one of them was Daniel Johns of Silverchair; I lured him back onto the stage with Kimbra, who had the single of the year in 2012 [“Somebody That I Used to Know,” with Gotye] — these two kids sang backgrounds for me. I had the same experience with Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes in London. It all proved to me that my work has had the good fortune to migrate from one generation to another … My aim is to do much more of that: to collaborate with people who are younger than my own offspring. GM