Huffington Post - Q&A with David Bromberg

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A Conversation with David Bromberg

Mike Ragogna: Today we're here with the great folk and blues artist, David Bromberg, discussing his newest album entitled Use Me. David, how are you?

David Bromberg: Doing well, Mike. Yourself?

MR: Same here. Hey David, I want to start out by asking you how your approach on this album differed from earlier releases.

DB: Well, what I did with this album was called people like Keb' Mo', Los Lobos, and Linda Ronstadt and asked them to write songs for me. Then, I asked them to produce me doing it as well, and pretty much everyone said that they would. Linda didn't write a song because she doesn't really write, but she picked one out for me to do. Since I was asking this much of people, I decided to call the album Use Me. The great thing about the process is that they all knew how to use me - in a good way, of course. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) Of course. Despite the fact that Use Me was produced by different artists, there is still a unified feel to this entire album. Do you think that is because of a general love for the project that came from everyone involved?

DB: I guess so. Some of the credit, in my opinion, goes to my engineer Mark Moss. He engineered and mixed all of the sessions except for the very last track, "Use Me" which The Butcher Bros mixed. Some people have actually said that they think it holds together better than any of my other albums - it seems more homogeneous, and it almost shouldn't because of the wide variety of stuff on there. (laughs)

MR: Can you tell us a little about what it was like recording with some of these iconic artists?

DB: With Levon Helm, it was a little different than the others. He wasn't able to speak because he has just had a benign tumor removed from his vocal chords. So, his alter-ego Larry Campbell, who is an old friend of mine and a great producer, came in to produce one of Levon's tunes. But since he couldn't speak, he couldn't give me a tune, so Larry suggested I do one of my songs and I chose the song "Tongue." We went into the studio with a very large band, and recorded "Tongue," but I realized that I wanted to do something that was a little more in Levon's wheelhouse. I mean, the blues was all over that tune, and Levon played his skinny little butt off on it, but I was thinking I wanted something more like his recent recordings, which have been more in the folk music vein. So, I thought of the old jug band tune, "Bring It With You When You Come," and after everyone left and the session was over, I asked the bass player and Levon and Larry if we could record "Bring It With You When You Come" before we finished up and we did. That's how that one came about.

MR: That's great. What's the story behind your duet with Linda Ronstadt called, "It's Just A Matter Of Time"?

DB: Well, Linda and I have been friends for a very long time. I think she may give me more credit than I deserve. For instance, one night, we were together in The Village in New York, and she had just had a hit with the song "Different Drum" but nothing else seemed to catch. So, I brought her back to the apartment I was living in, into my friend Gary White's room, and I called Paul Siebel and had him come up as well. Gary and Paul sang Linda songs all night. When she left, she shared a cab with Jerry Scheff who suggested she listen to The McGarrigle Sisters' "Heart Like A Wheel," but that song came much later. Her next recording was a collection of Gary White and Paul Siebel tunes, and she had a hit with Gary White's "Long, Long Time," which was the hit that revived her career. Anyhow, we've been friends for a long time and she's heard me sing lots of stuff and she really liked the way I sang "...Matter Of Time," so when I asked her to participate in the project, that's the song that she chose. I have to say that she did have another song in mind that I just couldn't get my head around. But "...Matter of Time" was easy for me.

This project, though, took her out of her most comfortable zone. Usually, when she produces, she gets all of the triple scale guys from Los Angeles. Now, she lives in San Francisco and doesn't really enjoy flying, so we recorded there and I asked her that we make the recording really low key. So, we got a bass player, I played guitar, and I asked Linda, my wife Nancy, and Laurie Lewis to sing on the track. She produced the session, but I kind of took her out of her comfort zone by making sure that we did it very simply. You would never have guessed it, though, because she's such a pro and knew exactly what to do.

MR: That's great. Another song on this album that I really enjoy is "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea."

DB: Keb' Mo' actually sent me that tune, and I fell in love with it and learned it. And even though he produced the session--and boy did he do a great job working with me on the guitar and vocals--he was on the road when we finally found a day that we could meet up. So, we met up in Washington, D.C., and I found a studio that I had worked in before and booked some musicians from New York and Woodstock that I had worked with and felt comfortable with. This is the only song where I chose all of the musicians. Linda wanted to work with Laurie Lewis, an old friend of hers, and Laurie chose the bass player. So, we started to record the song at a tempo that I'd set, and Keb' asked if I was sure that I wanted to do it that slow and we all answered in a chorus, "Yes." (laughs) He looked at me and told me that I was a very brave man. (laughs) The reason he said was because it is very difficult to get a slow song on the radio, and that song is not only slow, but the groove to it is actually kind of ominous. When it starts out, the feel is kind of scary and you don't know what the hell is going to happen. Kevin (Keb' Mo') wrote that song with Gary Nicholson and he worked with me very hard on the phrasing of the guitar part and on what kind of a vocal to put on. It was interesting because some people were happy with the vocals on the first take, but some people like Kevin and Tim O'Brien really worked with me line by line on the vocals.

MR: Can you tell us about some of the work you did on the vocals and some of the guitar parts?

DB: Well, the guitar parts, with the exception of "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea," are mostly my first takes. The one on "Tongue," the first track, I re-recorded after the first take because I knew I could do better, and after I did a few takes, Robert told me I was crazy and that I had to come back and listen to the first take. After I listened to it, I couldn't understand why he liked it--there was nothing flashy or special about it. He said, "Oh yes, there is. Follow the melody line. It never goes where you expect it to go." And so I listened again and you can hear it throughout, but it's really obvious on the playing in the intro. It never goes where you expect it to go, and as soon as I heard that, I realized how he must be hearing it, and boy was I proud of that.

MR: You mentioned that you recorded in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for some of these recordings, but you also recorded a bit in Nashville.

DB: Yes, I went to Nashville for three sessions--John Hiatt, Tim O'Brien, and Vince Gill. I also recorded in Los Angeles with Los Lobos. I even did a little in New Orleans and on and on. Wherever people were and whenever they had the time, I went.

MR: How was recording in New Orleans with Dr. John?

DB: It was wonderful. Mac is just such a sweetheart. He's one of the nicest people I know. We recorded at the Piety Street Studio and there's a video on my website of me and him walking around and talking. There's a prize winning videographer who is doing a video on me and she started it shortly after I started recording the album. So, a lot of the process is included in that video. That won't be out until September, though. I know that WHYY, the PBS television station in Philadelphia, is going to air it. I don't know whether or not she's taken it to any other stations yet.

MR: That's very cool. What was the studio experience like with Los Lobos?

DB: It was great. They were wonderful. The tune that we did was a Mexican waltz, and it hadn't been written for me but they picked it for me. They had recorded it before, but not for one of their albums. They even used traditional instruments--David played the squeeze box, and they had some unusual guitars, the names of which I don't have in my head, but they're in the notes of the CD. I mean, it was just a wonderful day. Each one of these tracks was done in a day.

MR: Nice. Were there any tracks that didn't make the album because there were too many?

DB: No, we kind of stopped when we had enough, and then we decided to do one more. (laughs) There were people I would have liked to ask and done things with, but this was already a very expensive record. Back in the day the amount of money it would have cost would have been next to nothing. But in today's terms, recording this one was very expensive.

MR: Did you have to self-fund a little of this album?

DB: A little bit. Well, I had the idea and started recording before I selected the record company and made the agreement, so I only funded that first part. The record company will never pay you for money that's already been spent. (laughs)

MR: John Hill produced your first album with Columbia, is that right? I think the guy's a genius. What was it like working with him?

DB: Well, he was assigned to me by the A&R people at Columbia. He did a lot of work making sure that I could record the way that I wanted to. I don't think I ever really gave him as much credit as he deserved. We worked together and he did a lot of the grunt work while I got to do the more enjoyable stuff. We only did that first record together, though.

MR: Back in 2007, you were nominated for a Grammy Award for your album Try Me One More Time. What was your reaction?

DB: I was just flying--I was so happy. It's a great honor to me and I'm still very proud to be nominated. They even gave me a nice medal.

MR: You've worked on so many great projects with some really great people, one of them being George Harrison on the Hold Up album. In what ways do you feel like you've grown since that time?

DB: Well, I've learned to sing a lot better. (laughs) You know, I stopped performing and playing almost completely for 22 years. During that time, when I would pick up my guitar, I would remember things that several people, especially Phoebe Snow, had told me about singing. I used to think that nothing could help my voice, but I started to remember some of the things that Phoebe said to me and they worked. My singing got a lot richer and a lot better. So, that's one major difference. Another is the fact that I now like to have less notes and more feeling in a song. I'm very much into the idea of a groove and a tasteful guitar part--I don't care whether people are out of their chairs during a song, I just want it to be musical.

MR: Phoebe Snow was such a great performer. Are there any stories about your experiences with her that you'd like to share?

DB: Sure. I knew Phoebe when she was just starting to sing and long before she got those five octaves. I met her when I was leaving a club on Bleecker Street in New York City, and I was with a friend of mine and Phoebe came running up behind me and said "Mr. Bromberg, Mr. Bromberg! I write songs and sing and play the guitar and I want to do that for you." So, I turned to her and sang a little--"Let [you] entertain [me]." (laughs) I had forgotten about this completely until she reminded me on a video we did together. It was a long time ago, but that's my favorite Phoebe story.

MR: Thanks for sharing that. Man, she had such an amazing voice, it's quite a loss.

DB: Not only did she have an amazing voice, but she was an amazing singer--there is a difference and they don't necessarily go together.

MR: True. Now, you've been a little hard on yourself with regards to your own vocal capabilities, but you have had some beautiful recordings over the years including your cover of "What A Wonderful World" among so many others.

DB: That was something that kind of happened because I wasn't happy with the other elements of my singing. I wasn't happy with the quality of my voice or the pitch accuracy, so I decided to develop a way to bring through the lyrics. I learned I can actually sing. (laughs)

MR: You've also played with some incredible artists like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Link Wray, and The Eagles among others. Is there ever a temptation to think of yourself only as a guitar player when you're baking them up?

DB: I did think of myself solely as an accompanist, but it was actually a brilliant guitar player who passed on a few years ago by the name of Steve Berg, who said he wanted to accompany me playing my music. He even said that to do that, he would give up guitar and take up bass. He was my first band. I used to introduce him as my backup band The Torpedoes. (laughs)

MR: You also worked with Jay Unger.

DB: Yeah, Jay was in my band for quite a while, and we still play together sometimes. I just did a gig where Jay just appeared on stage; I had no idea he was around and all of a sudden, there he was. Jay and I first played together about 40 years ago in the village. The only person I've played with longer than Jay is possibly Peter Ecklund.

MR: Can you tell us any interesting stories about some of the people you've accompanied in the past? For instance, what was it like working with Bob Dylan?

DB: Well I produced some tracks for him, two of which appeared on The Basement Tapes album. I remember when we were in the studio one time, Bob had dropped a pick into his guitar so he was holding it over his head and shaking it, and, of course, I know what that's like so I offered him a pick and he said that he had one. So, he held the guitar back over his head and continued violently shaking his guitar for quite a while. It was funny at the time, maybe you had to have been there. (laughs)

MR: And you've also worked with Carly Simon, right?

DB: Yeah, actually. A lot of people may not know this, but I produced her demo. I also played a little bit on her first solo album.

MR: She's another incredible artist. So, having worked in the industry for so long and with so many people, are there certain artists whose albums you rush out to get when they're released?

DB: Well, I'm a big fan of Ollabelle. Anything they do, I buy immediately. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but you should be. The band has a fantastic rhythm section--the drummer Ted Leone is the same guy that played drums for the Keb' Mo' session on my new album. The bass player is Byron Isaacs, and he's an incredible bass player and singer, and also sometimes plays his bass as a slide bass...very interesting musician. Then there's Glenn Patscha, who played keys for me on "Digging In The Deep Blue Sea," and is an incredibly creative musician. So, the band is made up of those three guys and two women--Fiona, who is Tony Leone's wife, and Amy Helm. Amy is Levon Helm's daughter, and she is a gorgeous singer and is very much influenced by Mavis Staples. Fiona is from Australia and her singing is more from that kind of school. They're just a wonderful roots based group. An interesting story about Amy is the first time that I played Levon's Midnight Ramble, Levon decided that he wanted to play mandolin so Amy got behind the drums and played just like her father. (laughs) There's another musician who I recently discovered that I really enjoy and his name is Jon Herington. He's done a lot of work with Steely Dan, both on the road and on the records. He, by himself, is not only a fantastic guitar player, but a really great singer and writes some great songs.

MR: Uh-oh, here comes the desert island questions. If you could only have one of your albums on said desert island, which would it be?

DB: You know, I don't know. I don't usually listen to them once I complete them. I think maybe I would chose the Live in New York recording. You can't really find that one anywhere but my website, but that one is a very interesting recording.

MR: Nice. And how about a guitar? Which guitar would you chose to have with you?

DB: Probably the 1953 Esquire that I bought used, and I would play through a 1938 Electar amp that I can put into the overhead when I fly because it's that small. That's pretty much all I use is that guitar and that amp. Of course, that would mean that there would have to be electricity on the desert island. (laughs) If there were none, I would handle it Gilligan's Island-style with a bicycle and coconuts. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) With your wealth of knowledge and experience in this industry, do you have any advice that you'd like to give to new artists?

DB: Yeah, move to a big city. Either move to Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville - no place else in the United States counts. I say that only because it takes a certain amount of time to get known in any city that you're in, and once you're known in Ames, Iowa, that fame only spreads to the city limits of Ames, Iowa. But if you are in any one of those three cities, the national press is there and what's written about you is read all over the country.

MR: David, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule. It's been great.

DB: Thanks so much, Mike. Great talking to you!

Tracks:
1. Tongue - with Levon Helm
2. Ride On Out A Ways - with John Hiatt
3. Bring It With You When You Come - with Levon Helm
4. Blue Is Fallin' - with Tim O'Brien
5. You Don't Wanna Make Me Mad - with Dr. John
6. Diggin' In The Deep Blue Sea - with Keb' Mo'
7. The Long Goodbye - with Los Lobos
8. Old Neighborhood - with Widespread Panic
9. It's Just A Matter Of Time - with Linda Ronstadt
10. Lookout Mountain Girl - with Vince Gill
11. Use Me

Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin

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