By Carol Anne Szel
As an exclusive, Goldmine spoke with Jackson Browne some 40 years after he first graced the cover of this magazine. His newest release, Downhill From Everywhere, is a wonderful gift to his ravenous and devoted fan base who have waited a long seven years since his last studio album. Downhill From Everywhere contains sparkling gems such as the touching “Love Is Love,” the poignant “The Dreamer” and the ode “A Song for Barcelona,” which takes the listener on a personal journey of Browne’s second home. His love for Barcelona is evident in the song’s lyrics:
City that gave me back my fire and returned my appetite/For the streets that gave me refuge in my escape from rock and roll.
Embarking on a late summer tour alongside James Taylor, Browne reveals that he will mix in his classics like “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes” and “The Pretender” with new songs along the way, and that a solo tour will then take him further out on the road until late autumn.
GOLDMINE: How old were you when you started writing, or knowing that you wanted to be a songwriter?
JACKSON BROWNE: I don’t know that. I thought I wanted to be a writer; that I just wanted to try writing a song. But I think I was probably about 14 or 15. I had some friends, my sister’s friends, they were older than me, and they were really good. Yeah, that’s around the time I’d written about four or five songs. I started looking at them. That was probably about 15 or 16. And I thought, maybe I could do this, you know, for what I do. You also find that you’re in a classroom. You know, you’re not really so interested … like I wasn’t very interested in biology. And I was working on a song, you know, you’re working on something a little dreamier then dissecting frogs. (laughs)
GM: And what were you like in high school?
JB: I had a teacher that was … really loved her. I had a couple of teachers that I really liked quite a bit, and one was an English teacher and she was, you know, like older. She had white hair. Yeah, you can see that she loved literature. She was able to communicate and she expressed a lot of enthusiasm for her students’ work. My mother was just that kind of a teacher, too.
GM: Your mom was a teacher?
JB: Yes. Although she wasn’t teaching school when I was in high school. She wasn’t really a high school teacher yet. Around the time I got to high school, she became a teacher. But it was later. I began meeting her students because I was well known enough. They would come see me and they would come say hello and say, “You know, I had your mother in high school, she was my creative writing teacher.” She taught for a long time. She taught the whole time. Let’s see, from the time I was in… I’m sure she taught for about 30 years or something. She also worked in a hospital for a while. She was a substitute teacher. I think she really liked teaching. She was really terrific. And she just thought the world was so interesting and she was able to pass on that enthusiasm.
GM: That’s wonderful. What about your dad?
JB: My father also taught. Well, he taught journalism in college. And he also, sometimes, taught like a sort of remedial English to problem kids in Compton. He taught high school in Compton when we lived in Orange County. So, you know he was good for them because he was a jazz musician. And he had a lot of black friends, you know, and made a lot of music in a very egalitarian art form.
GM: Maybe that’s part of the reason why you’re so incredibly open-minded, your parents?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. My dad was racially open-minded. But he also saw, besides the racism and endemic injustice, what their particular problems were.
GM: You’ve done so much good in this world with your humanitarian causes, like the huge No Nukes campaigns (Musicians United for Safe Energy — MUSE — and NukeFree.org, to name only two) as well as Ocean Elders and a huge drive against plastic waste. Because of your heartfelt and giving back charitable ways, you must get a lot of philanthropic organizations reaching out to you. What makes you passionate about the people who you help out and the things that you get involved with?
JB: Well, it’s when I think I’m grateful for the work that they’re doing and I see the need for it. I see that the work they’re doing is on behalf of the greater good. And I want to help that, you know, aid and abet that to whatever degree I can. And I also recognize that I don’t think we necessarily have the skills or to be the year-in, year-out activists that they are. But if there’s something I can do to help, you know, attract attention to what they’re doing and the issues that they’re working on.
GM: Tell me about some of the new songs on Downhill From Everywhere.
JB: Well, “A Song for Barcelona” is like this song that I wanted to write for the longest time and I’ve sat there in Barcelona, like so many different trips, trying to get a handle on why I loved it. There’s so much in it. And it’s finally cracked open. This song had to be really, really real. It had to be. A tribute to the city of Barcelona written from where I actually live in L.A.
And because for a long time I thought when I get lots of friends in Barcelona, I could have recorded there, matter of fact. I had a plan to record there twice and I had to change those plans once because there was incredible conflict and turmoil of their independence movement. It made it really hard to go there right when I was going to and I thought I should go there. I’ll learn something and I’ll put it in the song, and I thought, you know, they don’t really need me no matter how much I love this. They don’t need me like they don’t need an American showing up and talking about what’s going on. And I thought this song really is from my countrymen, you know, my people, as much as I want to show off what I know and love about Catalan culture.
GM: Yeah. And you recorded in LA.
JB: Really, I’m a rock musician from L.A. and I should do it here with my band. And so, we did. And my musician friends in Barcelona helped me. I thought I want to write it in a Rumba, which there’s a thing called Rumba Catalana. Rumba Catalana is a kind of a style of playing that is very, very much something that is a thing that they own, and a thing that they really care deeply, but they also love rock. They love rock and roll like incredibly passionately.
JB: One of the things about Barcelona, they’re on top of all the music from all of the world. I mean, first time I went there I was amazed because the Wailers were playing or some dance troupe was playing or there are people playing jazz out in the plaza. And it’ll be like ’30s jazz. They really embrace culture from around the world.
GM: Tell me about “Love Is Love.” That song is just so moving.
JB: That was part of this Haiti project and, yeah, it really came along really nicely. Yeah, just dimensionally it really grew and grew and grew. I love that song so much.
GM: How did it grow?
JB: Well, I had the essence of it; I had the guitar lick. And just the “Love is love,” and it was all in English, of course. And what I really liked about it going down is, like, “Love is love. Love is love. Love is love.” And it was the way the last “love is love” sat in the track was different than the way the first three were. So, it’s a very subtle thing. And now if I play it back that way, I think it’s really like nothing. I wound up talking with my friend about how to say it and just turn it into, like, saying it in Haitian Creole. So “c’est l’amour, c’est l’amour” wound up being actually put in there, and the other thing is actually adding something rhythmically to the chorus that I listened to before. You know, I wasn’t thinking, I’ll go down there and write stuff in Haitian. But when I got there, it just evolved so naturally.
You know, this guy was talking to us about showing us these houses that had been completed, that they’re going to move people in from this kind of shanty community, shanty housing, which needed to be better. You know, a long time ago, the housing that had been made where we ... and I don’t know how much background to give you, but…
GM: As much as you want.
JB: We were down there with a group called Artists for Peace and Justice (apjnow.org), who built a school and we’re also building this housing for a whole community of people who live in basically just, you know, dirt floors, which in the rainy season becomes a mud floor. You know, everything’s sort of up on bricks, so ... and I don’t even know how they live, when it rains so much down there.
We went into it, and so they were showing us the new housing that they had created. And, one by one, building a new house and moving a family into the new house is this very long-term, painstaking — but also just very steady — housing project. Anyway, the guy who was showing us one of these new houses, and the women who were living in it ... he was speaking English to us and he said something (to them). They all laughed. And I said, “What did you say to them?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You know, they just laughed.” He said, “Oh well.” I said, “You know you have too many kids already, don’t make anymore.” And then, of course, it is funny. What are you supposed to do? You know, Stop … stop being in love. Stop! Stop making love. Stop. Stop making children. Really the problems are so fundamental. You know, the poverty is so deep in Haiti and so historically ever-present everywhere. The idea that you would stop making babies, you know, it’s kind of what would stop the world, right? But that is the problem. It’s overpopulated. You make no money. So, anyway, I love that inherent riddle in that equation. The other thing is, just to say, “l’amour c’est l’amour,” like, right away.
This was maybe the second or third song we started to record and the chorus was there and I had worked on it a little bit. We didn’t have all the words, but they were coming along. But students were there where we were, where we were recording; the recording studio it’s a school, and they’re teaching these kids engineering. And walking you’d overhear one of the kids walking down the hallway singing, you know, “Love is love, l’amour c’est l’amour.” It was like there was a song in there that had words in their own language, it was a real connection, you know, real warm. A connection made. They were happy to have us there. They don’t need anybody to show them how to make music. It was just that we were there to kind of show them the way we use the studio and demonstrate. It was a great project.
GM: I know your fans, old and new, will love this release.
JB: I’m really happy that you like this new record. Somebody pointed out to me that all these songs are in the present tense. And I went, “They are?” Because, really, I’m used to writing songs that are — really a lot of them — in the past tense. Even if they are not, really. Like for instance, “Before the Deluge,” it’s in the past tense, but it’s really about what’s happening in the present. And it’s like a trick of perspective where you’re speaking as if you’re speaking about it from the future. So, it’s really the present. But with that, that’s exceptional.
What the hell? That requires a lot of self-examination. But that didn’t happen on any of these songs, because I think some — I think most of them — were about some current thing and something that I really wanted to be that I was at present involved in, in the present. And I think about them. They’re all at present.
GM: Yeah. I never thought about that. They are. Wow.
JB: And that was just startling. I wouldn’t have thought of it myself. I didn’t do it intentionally. It just happened. But another thing I’ll say is that these songs are usually involved in some act of involvement. Like the song, “The Dreamer.” I had the beginnings of that song musically and thematically a long time ago.
But it was my idea to talk about the vigilantes on the border. So my way into the song was about what I considered this sort of very striking and somewhat... uh, what’s the word I want? The idea that that these people were going outside the law claiming that they were preserving the law. In other words, they’re going to enforce; vigilantes are going to enforce the law, because the government’s not doing a good enough job on the border.
GM: I read that the band, when you took the music actually into the studio, got some new ideas and rearranged some things, and hearing it live kind of made it come alive for you.
JB: Yeah. Well, yeah, of course that’s what happens. You know, you arrange things in the studio. But I think what I was saying, too, was I leave songs unwritten. I leave ’em half written a lot. And not everybody — I don’t think — not everybody would. I just got used to doing it, because I kept finding out stuff that would change the song. I’d write a song acoustically by myself when I bring it in. I realize now I don’t want to hear that many verses before I get to the chorus or the structure of things. It’s really influenced by how people play and what it sounds like with a band. And so I like to find out more as much as I can. I don’t mind cutting things over several times, because it’s just you basically growing and learning the song. You’re learning what’s there before you conclude things. So, yeah, like “Downhill From Everywhere,” we played that in sound checks. We cut it a couple of times, maybe two other times, before we made that version.
GM: What do you think about when you’re onstage?
JB: That’s a whole different thing. I tell you what I want to think about: The things that the songs make you think about. You think about the song, and in a funny way, you don’t think the same thing every time. You know, you actually get in a state of mind when actually hearing the song. You think about the town you’re in and you think about the people that you’re looking at. And sometimes I make up little stories about (them). I imagine things about them, you know. About couples.
GM: Like what?
JB: Like, oh, you think, this is a guy, this is his first time, you know, “she insisted we come.” She insisted that they come to the show and he’s hearing it for you. It depends on what they look like, you know. Or this is a brother and sister. Or you think this guy, this guy with the vodka Slurpee in the front row, he’s just here ’cause it’s Las Vegas, it’s got nothing to do with me. He’d be here even if it was, you know, anybody. So the main thing is that the band I have makes you hear everything. It’s (that) they treat everything with such deep feeling and that there are things we have arranged and there are things that you can’t arrange for that to just happen. And it happens differently. Every performance.