When you study music for any amount of time, you realize that it’s not just “rock stars” that contribute to making music that’s recognizable. Jim Keller may not have the name recognition of Mick Jagger, but as a co-writer of “867-5309,” he has put his stamp on music. By phone, he discussed how the pandemic has affected creative process, the making of his latest album By No Means, and the importance of the right producer. Beneath the interview, Americana Highways is also exclusively premiering Jim Keller’s video today for “Laying on the Tracks.”
Americana Highways: How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
Jim Keller: When it first, hit, it stalled completely. I was in the studio on Thursday, March 12 with a wonderful group of players in Brooklyn. I remember, as a halfhearted stab at humor, when they came in the door, I spritzed them with sanitizer. At that point, it seemed charming. The energy in the room that night – because it was clear that something major was about to happen – was really tense. I’ve spoken to all those guys. It was an amazing session. When I walked out the door, I went to my car and turned on the radio, it was so apparent that that was it. That was the end of it. There were a number of shows in New York that night. There was a benefit at The Beacon that I was invited to, not to play, but to hang around. Larry Campbell and Jackson Browne were both there and they both got sick. That was D-Day. March 12 and 13. I left town with my wife, and we went to our country place. That was it. It’s been so weird the whole time. I just stopped writing. I couldn’t figure out what to do. Slowly I started writing again. The flip side of all the negative stuff was that there was all this time to dig into stuff. Consequently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing since then. That doesn’t make up for being in a room and playing with other musicians, whether it’s a studio or a live performance.
AH: A lot of artists have found themselves in the same boat. At first, they took a break, but found it’s not the same after getting back to it.
JK: I took a break because what did I want to write about at that point? Everything was so freaky. I co-write a lot with a guy named Byron Isaacs. Byron was Levon Helm’s bass player for years. Now he’s in The Lumineers. He and I have been writing together for about 15 years. He lives around the corner. He would come over in the morning, and we would sit in my little music room. We couldn’t do that, so we had to FaceTime. As much as I’m not a huge fan of most of what the internet has done for my world, having FaceTime works with writing. You can’t play together, but you can work on stuff together. It also brought a little of that social stuff back in. That was OK. Now, I’m just starting to do studio stuff. Even in the studio, when you play in a room with people wearing masks, you can’t see their facial expressions. It’s like “Is everyone having fun or is somebody miserable?” It’s just weird.
AH: It takes away the non-verbal communication.
JK: Which is basically most of the communication you’re having anyway with the music. I’ll take it. And everybody’s happy to be there, but until I can get back into playing a stinky club that’s packed from wall to wall with 12 musicians on the stage, I’m not going to be truly happy.
AH: What makes your new album different from previous albums?
JK: If I can start from the beginning. Do you know Mitchell (Froom)?
JK: I’ve known Mitchell for a while. He and I have never worked on my music together. On a whim, I said, “I’ve got some stuff. Would you be interested in hearing it?” He said, “Totally. Send me some stuff.” I didn’t really expect much. He heard something right away in the stuff that I sent him that he was excited about. What he latched onto instantly was, I write where I’m sitting right now with an iPhone and my acoustic guitar. I write in the mornings primarily. I walk in here and I don’t even use a pick. I just strum with my thumb very quietly and write whatever comes out. Then I’ll record on my iPhone. They’re workshop tapes or whatever you want to call them. All of that stuff is in a low range, the same sort of low range I’m talking in. Very simple. For me as a songwriter, the goal is to be able to put something across in that way. If it comes across with just me and my acoustic guitar, then I know I have something that I can take into a room with players and see what happens. I sent Mitchell a bunch of stuff. Half of it was me playing with rhythm sections in rehearsal rooms or gigs. Half of it was just me with these morning demos. He immediately said, “It’s all about these simple things that you have and the intimacy that comes across.” We basically set out to do a whole record like that based on my vocal and acoustic guitar strummings with my thumb. The whole record is built around the core of that. We got together a handful of times out in LA and put together songs that worked in that form so the album had some consistency to it. There are other songs that are really good songs that just didn’t fit that thing. Even though there are elements of that on my other records, most of those are primarily band records. There isn’t a Hammond on this or a piano of note. There are very few guitar players. It’s really simple. That is very different from the other records. And that was very long-winded.
AH: You had 25 or 30 songs that you brought to Mitchell. How did you decide which ones to include on the album?
JK: There’s always a lot of songs because I write all the time. A lot doesn’t mean a lot of good ones, believe me. You have to write a lot of bad songs to get a couple good ones. It had to work with me and the acoustic guitar. It had to work from there. A lot of it is just what songs are really working. A lot of songs that in my mind were good but weren’t quite done. Or they were more of a rock song in some capacity. We went through them and whittled it down. A lot of them are on the editing floor. Mitchell had this idea. I didn’t get into it quite as much as he did. He saw a character – me – in these songs. He was looking for a thread of this character. It was a little hard for me to see that because I’m the guy. There was this thread of consistency with the same person singing all those songs.
AH: What did Mitchell bring to the album that it wouldn’t have had otherwise?
JK: For starters, he had that clear vision of going for simplicity. One thing that I’m a fan of is that to make something good that is simple is not simple. It’s really hard to do something that works and have it be simple. It may seem simple. That’s the magic: to put something across that seems simple but isn’t. Some of the amazing songs to me, it’s like three chords. How does that guy do that? What Mitchell brought to the table for me is that craft and the vision to be able to do that. We picked the players we wanted. Bob Glaub works with Mitchell a lot and he’s a brilliant bass player. We wanted Bob. I’ve worked with David Hidalgo on a couple of my records. He’s brilliant. Mitchell brought in Mike Urbano from the Bay Area. The reason he brought in Michael is that he can play quietly with a groove. This was the whole thing of getting players who can listen and play quietly with a groove. It’s challenging. Mitchell has all of this stuff in his head. When I sat down to do the sessions, it was easy to make this record. Things aren’t easy by accident. Usually, you’ve done the work and you have some really talented people involved. He’s very specific and very clear in his head what he’s hearing. When you go into the studio, there’s a clear vision of what he wants, and you have the players that can get that for you. We kept recording and I would say, “Is that it? Should I put more stuff on this?” Mitchell would say, “No. It’s done.” There’s one song where David wrapped a dollar bill around his guitar and played a percussion part. That’s it. It wasn’t even a guitar part. It was a percussion part. He was strumming a rhythm. Mitchell heard it for the simplicity, and there’s a beauty in that. I really appreciate it. I appreciate it in other people’s music as well. You get a little insecure and you think “I should throw more stuff on.” Mitchell saw his vision very clearly from the beginning, and it was not going to be like that.
AH: Is that refreshing when you hear that it’s done and you don’t need anything more?
JK: For me it is. Totally. It’s easier for me to be who I am in that space. You gotta be able to put it across so people believe you. That’s a whole process of writing stuff that you believe and being able to project that. For me because that’s the root of where these songs came from, it registered. Singing in that range was really gratifying because it’s real. There were no flourishes and it’s all straightforward. At first, it was a little unnerving because it’s so bare. John Lennon always made everybody double his voice and put a bunch of crap on it because he was insecure. If you can believe John Lennon was insecure about his voice, Oh my God! He did all that stuff to it. To not do any of those things, if I was in somebody else’s hands, I probably would have fought it. I have so much respect for Mitchell. We totally went for it. It was gratifying. There’s a realness to it.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
JK: I don’t have an answer. That’s a painful thought. I can’t think of anything.
By No Means was released on February 12 and is available everywhere now. For more information, visit https://www.jimkellermusic.com/. Musicians on the record include producer Mitchell Froom (Randy Newman, Crowded House), Los Lobos legend David Hidalgo on guitar and a rhythm section of Michael Urbano (Todd Rundgren, John Hiatt) and Bob Glaub (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon). By No Means is Keller’s first album in seven years. The album rocks in exactly the right easy way, with groove spaces that build up to glory. And the songwriting is perfectly memorable. Enjoy our exclusive premiere of “Laying on the Tracks” right here: