Tom Freund has a new album coming out on Friday, September 7: East of Lincoln (Surf Road Records). His decades-old long time friend and collaborator Ben Harper contributed to a couple of the songs on the album and as soon as I heard that I wanted to talk to them together to find out more about this project, and their history together.
When I called them, Freund said he was in Ocean Beach at Fire Island. Harper is on a tour bus an hour north of Santa Cruz, he is about to play two nights at the Catalyst with Charlie Musselwhite.
You have a long history together. Is working together now different from what it was in the 1990’s?
BH: For me in my heart, it feels exactly the same. Any time we collaborate it feels like we pick up right where we left off.
TF: We have more miles under our belt, and more stories, but it is the same root connection. You can hear it on our first album Pleasure and Pain (1992 Cardas Records). There’s a connection and a language that we’ve always had. Whenever we’re in a room together or on a stage it’s the same thing. That’s cool that you said that, B. Because we’re obviously in very different times but that hasn’t changed.
You’ve both traditionally worked with people who were significantly older. For example, you both thanked Taj Mahal for his support on your Pleasure and Pain album. Ben, you’re working with Charlie Musselwhite right now. What’s your sense of the importance of staying connected to music’s history and legendary musicians?
BH: One thing I noticed about Tom when I first met him was a strong reverence for people, whether it’s women or our elder statesmen. It’s not often that you meet people who truly respect their elders, he knew the history and he revered it. Tom has that in spades. He instantly hit the ground running talking about folk legends and blues legends, like Elizabeth Cotton, and Mississippi John Hurt. I knew right away that it was going to be a long conversation with Tom.
TF: That’s sweet Ben. And I saw it with Ben’s family too. We both came from that good tradition of passing down songs and respecting the history of the people who wrote and performed them. One thing that I instantly vibed with Ben about was his folk music center out in Claremont. [http://www.folkmusiccenter.com/history.html] His family store is a working museum as well as a store. I learned a lot of stuff from Ben, but we had different perspectives too, and I showed him some things too, which made it even better.
BH: When we met back then, we were trading musical influences like kids trade baseball cards. ‘I’ll give you a Blind Willie Johnson for a James Taylor.’ ‘Okay!’
How did you originally meet?
TF: I had moved to California from New York, to go to college at Claremont College. We had a mutual friend, an artist who told us both we had to meet. And it was one of those things where we met and stayed up ’til 4am jamming in the store that same night. The people we told to come by in case we didn’t like each other, we told them to go away.
Are you serious? You both had planned escapes?
TF: Yeah, Ben had his girlfriend call the store! And I had someone knock on the window. We both wanted an out in case we didn’t like each other.
The more things change the more they stay the same! Except nowadays it would be a cellphone faux-emergency.
BH: To your earlier point: Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen — all those guys represent, in the most regal terms, not an ‘arc’, not an ‘arch,’ but a career trajectory. Most of them are still building them.
TF: yeah, yeah…yeah.
On Tom’s album, the song “Dream On (Believe In Yourself)”, which Ben plays on, has lines like: “I took the long road, you went the hard way, but you’ll be better for it at the end of the day.” There are a lot of lyrical elements that sound therapeutic. Friedrich Nietzsche notably said, in Twilight of the Idols, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Life offers a lot of challenges. To what extent to you consider music to be therapeutic and a path to becoming stronger?
TF: Incredibly so. A lot of these songs are “notes to self.” They are affirmations. And while I’m reminding myself to believe in myself, I’m also addressing other people, people on the road. Ben was talking about the trajectory of an artist. I’ve been through a lot of times when I had to tell myself to keep going. And remind myself there’s light at the end of that tunnel.
Music comes from a non-rational place, without a set of fully conscious set of instructions or guidelines. Is it uniquely qualified to be more than personally therapeutic? Is it a way to connect with others? Or even help others?
TF: In writing and making albums and performing we are absolutely creating a shared experience. We are trying to reach people and share the experience of our therapy.
BH: I love the idea of music not necessarily speaking to rationality, but rather it serenades the absurdity that is the rational. And speaks to the quest to have everything aligned in our lives and rational. While “the rational” is just a matter of perspective. I think music takes absurdity and irrationality and converges the two harmonically and somehow it makes that okay and allows us to feel like some emotional progress has taken place.
In the same song, “Dream On,” there are themes of “picking the wrong time to be in the right place.” On one level, it’s a breakup song. But what are some of the other metaphors in this song?
TF: I have a daughter. In having a child, I can see when I get a little short on my maturity level sometimes. She’s always the right thing, but sometimes I’m in the wrong place.
BH: And there’s a question as to how to be responsible for one’s own dream, and the dream of one’s offspring. How wonderful for a parent to see a child dreaming. And as for the parent, they never stop dreaming, regardless of whether the dream looks like they thought it would. Just because the dream may not look like what you thought it would, there’s no excuse to stop dreaming.
TF: It’s important for our kids to see us working toward what we believe in, and to witness the struggles it takes to be there. It’s okay that kids see that their parents falter and then pick themselves up and keep going, it’s okay for them to see there’s damage, and then see how to repair it. The worst thing to be would be to try to hide any of that.
In “Dream On,” Ben plays lap steel guitar. In Americana and alt-country music, there’s the familiar twangy, country lap steel sound, but Ben plays a very distinct lap steel sound in “Dream On.” How would you characterize this sound, and how did it come about?
BH : (laughing) I broke outside my “go to” steel guitar instincts on that song. I had been hearing that sound—I woke up with that sound in my head and I thought “I’m going to have to reach for that!” And then that very same day, Tom called and was describing the sound he wanted on that album. And I told him “Tom, that is so odd. I woke up with the exact sound you’re talking about, in my head today!” So that’s how interconnected we are.
TF: That makes the song extra cosmic.
BH: I just showed up at the studio, and didn’t even bring my amp. I used all their gear and just brought the guitar. That was new sonic terrain for me, which was exciting. As a guitar player who’s been at it for as long as I have, that was an exciting thing to find and get to put out into the world
TF: And he found the sound! I was mesmerized while he was playing, and I snuck a little phone video in there. I couldn’t help myself.
BH: And Tom, you came into the studio and put on headphones and listened to me track. Usually you sit behind the desk! And I was thinking “wow, he’s in here.” I don’t think you’ve ever done that before.
TF: Yeah I wanted to hang with you, man.
BH: I was listening to the song yesterday and I was thinking there’s a little but of “Rocket Man” in there. Not the notes, not the playing, but some element.
“Freezer Burn” is another song on the album with a really unique lyrical metaphor. Ben, you have gone on the record, in your podcast https://youtu.be/UhoafDq2Ww8 saying that the song is about the movie “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie got his tongue stuck to the flagpole. (laughs) What is the subtext of this song?
BH: A cold burn is such a unique burn.
TF: That song is rooted in a deteriorating relationship where there were joking texts when I might say things like “it’s getting chilly in here; haven’t heard back from you.” This was so much of what was going on in my world at the time I wrote this one. It’s all about relationship freezer burn.
In “Abandoning the Ship” Ben lends high harmony vocals. Both vocal tracks are high!
TF: The vocals are high, and Ben had to do the highest parts. I didn’t want to go there myself; I threw him into unchartered waters.
BH: That was a bit of a nervous moment, yeah.
And the song features lyrics like “the extra weight will make you drown” and “there’s no captain, you’re on your own.” Is this song lyrically about looking ahead, throwing off dead weight and making a fresh start?
TF: Yes. This record really feels purposeful. I really have never had a project feel this purposeful. But that’s definitely where I am now.
BF: I like the word “abandon,” too. When you think of the word abandon, you often think of being left, or leaving or isolation. But I like the way you’re defining it to also include “reckless abandon” and a kind of freedom. Doing something with abandon. Because there is no greater freedom than not caring what other people think. This record, and with the line “Homer Simpson’s cloud,” you’re saying “I don’t care.”
I’ve always found reckless abandon comes most often in the early stages of a career when you don’t know what you’re doing. But not knowing what you’re doing isn’t truly doing it with reckless abandon. Knowing what you’re doing and not caring what people think is truly acting with reckless abandon. “Abandoning the Ship,” to me, speaks to abandoning inhibitions.
I would add that you can’t be free until you’ve reached a point of proficiency with your craft. Not just anyone can walk in off the street with no experience and play with abandon. And the same is true of life. Once you know more, it’s liberating to depart from that knowledge base, abandon that base and act with abandon.
TF I like what both of you are saying. I’m feeling it.
BH: When you’re young you’re running through walls. And when you’re older you’re more cautious about running right through walls. When you’re young you have to know what you’re doing to a degree but you also can’t fully know and there’s a beauty in people when they don’t know. But that’s not abandon, that’s just raw youthful power. And it’s easier not to care what people think when you haven’t been anywhere or done anything. But when you’ve been everywhere and done everything, to actually stand up then and be counted and be brave at that point, that is abandon. It’s like Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints album. I hear people at the label didn’t get it. This is an African music. It’s not like LadySmith Black Mombazo albums were flying off the shelves.
TF: Paul Simon had to break stride to do that, and that is really admirable. I see the song in a positive light. “The extra weight will surely make you drown” is urging you to get rid of the people that weigh you down. But it’s also about the literal weight of all the physical objects we accumulate and hold onto. You don’t need to cling to all those physical objects because it’s more about what you’ve accrued in your soul. If you’re playing and performing you don’t need a lot of things for that either, you just need yourself.
BH: Even though we all know it’s about divorce. (all laugh)
TF: And I did bring my favorite Martin to Fire Island with me (more laughter).
The album also features : Rami Jaffee (Foo Fighters) and Chris Joyner, both on keys, both have been with the Wallflowers; Ben Peeler on slide; Michael Jerome Moore (Taj Mahal) and Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley) both on drums. Jessy Greene (Wilco) contributed violin; C. C. White sings and Stevie Black played strings on “Brokedown Jubilee.” It was co-produced with Sejo Navajas. Tom Freund played bass, ukulele, guitar and sang; Ben Harper played lap steel and sang on “Dream On” and “Abandoning the Ship.”
Tom Freund will be playing Friday September 14th at 8pm at ONE in the Cannery Complex at the Americana Music Awards Festival in Nashville. Ben Harper says he has never done an AMA festival. He says he is looking forward to getting there at some point (are you reading this, AMA?) Check out Tom Freund’s new album, here. http://tomfreund.com/ For Ben Harper goings on, look here. http://www.benharper.com/