John McCutcheon on The Importance of Perspective and Leap!
Continuing to celebrate over 50 years in music, Folk songwriter, mulit-instrumentalist, and instructor John McCutcheon has recently unleashed his newest collection, Leap!, following on from 2021’s Bucket List. For those keeping score, this brings his songwriting total from the start of the pandemic to this release to 54 new songs. That doesn’t include songs he’s written in Zoom workshops collaborating with other writers like Tom Paxton, but it does, on the whole suggest something of a new focus in daily life for McCutcheon. It’s during this period that he’s finally embraced what no one else has ever doubted, that songwriting is just as much his “job” as performance.
With Leap!, McCutcheon takes on a number of storytelling perspectives and subjects, an eclecticism audiences have long celebrated, but the idea of Leap!, and the song “The Ride” that the word is taken from, do suggest a certain trend. McCutcheon seems to leave a little wiggle room in these songs for interpretation and for possibility, and that increases that need for audience participation. I spoke with John McCutcheon about the value of different perspectives in songwriting and in life, and this new phase of his “job” when it comes to songwriting.
AH: We’ve spoken before about your previous album, Bucket List, so I’m aware of how the whole pandemic experience has actually led into a period of renewed songwriting for you, being off the road. But as far as I can see, that’s actually increased, and one of the results is Leap!
John McCutcheon: It has been a bit overwhelming, I have to say, because in addition to the things that I’m writing, every week I write with Tom Paxton, Carrie Newcomer, and Zoe Mulford. We’re in such a stride now that we end up with something good almost every week. In this age when nobody is buying CDs and streaming is nothing short of larceny, the question is: How do you get that out there? I guess I’m enough of a luddite to continue putting out CDs.
AH: I’m glad you’re doing the CDs, because the booklet to the CD has such great notes in it. You include the lyrics, but you also include information about the songs, including often the date and time when they were written or if they relate to other songs.
JMcC: Some of the stuff requires backstory, but I also learned that from Woody Guthrie. He dated and located where his songs were written, so I thought, “If it was good enough for Woodie, I’ll do it.”
AH: It makes sense, especially where there are geographical connections, like there are on this album.
JMcC: Otherwise, your point of contact with listeners can be so anonymous. You want to give enough information to be as meaningful as possible. I know after 50 years of doing this that everyone is going to bring their own lens and filter to songs. It’s not my job to say, “Here’s what I mean by this.” When songs are happening like this, so quickly, it’s not always our job to know everything a song is about. You kind of surrender yourself to the writing process, which allows it to happen so quickly, but you’re also letting it go. You’re saying, “This is what the song means to me, but your life is going to tell you an entirely different story.”
AH: That’s a great comparison. Regarding the Zoom songwriting, when did you all start doing that?
JMcC: I think once everyone understood the difficulties and the possibilities that presented, it was something we figured out early on. Tom and I have been friends for 40 years, and we just like hanging out together. A songwriting session with him is jokes, stories, sports, and then, “Oh yeah, let’s write a song.” It’s like going out for a beer with someone and then taking out a napkin and writing a song on it.
I actually approached Carrie and Zoe. Carrie’s been a friend for many years, and she and I share an interest in the spiritual, and there aren’t many people in the Folk music world who write from that perspective. We just both love beautiful language, too, and that’s been a joy. With Zoe, I ended up doing an online Greenwich Village Folk Festival with her, and I thought her stuff was really interesting. I don’t think she’d ever co-written before and it was a really fun process to figure out. You can sense when someone is one a roll.
Yesterday, Tom and I wrote a song about the only pitcher in baseball history who struck out every batter in nine innings. He did this on one day in the minor leagues, became famous, had a six week professional career, went to Korea, came back with a bum shoulder, and that was it. He still gets letters now and again and he’s famous for a day again. Tom and I have written a lot about baseball but it was a new and interesting idea. With all three of these people, we dump ideas on the table and say, “What do you think?” I love the fact that they show up on my computer screen.
AH: This is very intentional and directed songwriting that you’re doing through collaboration, and then there’s also the songwriting that you’re doing on your own. All of that together must be quite a lot!
JMcC: The thing that occurred to me during the pandemic was, “Maybe this is my job.” Tom’s 85 years old, and he’s still writing songs. It’s an inspiration and also a comfort to know that this is work that you can do when all the avenues of musical expression aren’t possible. Do I really want to keep pounding the boards as long and as hard as I have, or is there still a way to get this stuff out of me and out into the world? I think that writing is occupying a much greater portion of my thought process and time right now. It’s a relief to feel like I don’t have to get up in front of people to do my job.
AH: That really sums it up. Your job reality isn’t tied to that live practice only. And a songwriter should feel like writing is their job.
JMcC: I used to say that I felt the most like I was doing my job during performances, but now I’m leaving breadcrumbs, hopefully. During the pandemic, this was my only job. Thankfully I like it!
AH: Are you surprised by anything that’s happening with your songwriting now that you’ve been so immersed in it? Is stuff coming up that seems like a development?
JMcC: Well, there’s stuff on Leap! that’s surprising to me. There’s the song, “You Used To Be,” about domestic violence and it’s written in the second person. That’s something I haven’t done a lot, and that song also scared the shit out of me when I wrote it. I wondered if this was going to be too much. At the time when there was the flood of refugees into Europe, there was the horrifying picture of a little baby lying on the beach, and the whole world saw it. I wrote a song about that, but I thought, “What do I do with this? Who can stand to hear it?”
But, in general, I’m surprised by things a lot in songwriting. I think what’s really happened during the pandemic is the sense that I can surrender to the process, and stuff just comes out. Sometimes it’s really fun, sometimes it’s perplexing, sometimes you get inside a character.
AH: It must change you, as a person, when you experience writing these songs.
JMcC: When you write from the perspective of someone that you are not, just like when you read a book or see a movie, you are inevitably changed. It softens you up and makes you realize things. The song, “Nobody Knows” began as a musing about what it would be like to see someone wearing your old clothes because they went to the Goodwill. Until we are seen, we are all just John Does. It’s the great thing that fiction does, and I put my songs kind of in that territory.
AH: It seems really key to good mental health to be able to see human life and often from other perspectives, whether that’s in novels, songs, films, or other forms. It might help you feel differently about your own experiences.
JMcC: Just after Nicaragua’s revolution in 1979, I spent some time down there and one of the things they did that seemed really brilliant was that they invested in 105 community art centers and people could go there. They’d learn how to write songs and poetry and do traditional dances. The government didn’t have a lot of money, but they invested in this because they knew people had been through a lot of trauma and this gave them a way to get that out. It’s so brilliant, but we’re not doing that here. You need to give people the tools to work their shit out. I feel really lucky. I can invent characters who can do all the ranting and raving that it would be too weird for me to do.
AH: That’s like a kind of role-play, taking on those characters.
JMcC: Most of the stuff is not autobiographical, but some of it is. I always tell my songwriting students, “Don’t forget that the personal is also the most universal.” You just don’t know.
AH: The song that’s kind of the title track, “The Ride,” which the word “leap” is taken from, is really interesting. It’s very philosophical, but it’s not definitive. You don’t actually say, “If you jump off that cliff, this is going to have a good outcome.”
JMcC: Because you don’t know!
AH: You really don’t know.
JMcC: I wrote that after hearing a wonderful radio show called On Being. The woman who was the host is a conversationalist rather than just an interviewer. That episode of the show contained the core philosophy of the song. There’s a process through which you make a decision. Then between that moment of decision, and the moment of discovering whether it was a good or a bad decision, there’s the process by which you can affect the outcome by whether you really go “all-in.” Are you falling or are you flying? You might as well be flying. All the tough decisions actually happen prior to you jumping, just go all-in.
AH: This song packs in a lot of thought and information because it contains multiple perspectives. Was it difficult to place all these pieces together in one song?
JMcC: I’ve always loved the distillation of language that is poetry or lyric writing where you pack a lot into a small space. It also encourages the listener to really pay attention and engage. I think that’s satisfying for the listener, and it’s certainly satisfying for the writer. I assume the listener is smart and leave a lot of stuff unsaid.
AH: Another song on the album that may be on the funnier side, but I think has a lot to it, is “Song When You Are Dead.” I know a little bit about the context, because “The Night John Prine Died” is another song of yours. I feel like the first half of the song doesn’t actually have to be funny. It’s relatively meditative. But the song does turn, and then it goes to logical extremes, that are quite funny. Did you intend to include some serious aspects here?
JMcC: I really enjoy writing humorous songs, but I think the most powerful kind of humor has some heart, and sometimes it has some teeth. I’m here to make you laugh, but also maybe make you think. The whole song was inspired by an old friend of mine, and as the song says, he raved about the song about John Prine, and then flippantly said, “I hope we’re good enough friends that you’ll have one for me.” I thought, “That was ballsy.” I just sat down and wrote this in one long string.
AH: Wow! Well, I think the heart is there. You’re not exactly annoyed with this person.
JMcC: He was earnest. He wasn’t kidding.
AH: You can tell that the speaker has some feeling for this other person and isn’t talking down to them. It’s just a frank discussion. I often critique what happens at funerals, and what people say to each other under such strange circumstances, and some of this funniness in the song feels real to those situations. You don’t want to glorify the person who has passed, but you do want to celebrate them.
JMcC: We recently lost an older aunt of my wife’s, and at the church everyone knew she was kind-hearted and helped people. She had been a refugee. But everyone also knew that she had some really quirky things about her and being able to say those things at the funeral was a tremendous relief. People carry grief in different ways. I have also written songs where I have realized that the arc of the song is such that I need to throw a life-line out there so I know what to perform next.
You have to pay attention to things like that. I’m actually not an art-for-art’s-sake kind of guy. My first songbook was by Woody Guthrie and I could see that this was someone who was writing for a purpose and cared about how he was heard. That was my early schooling on songwriting.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, John McCutcheon!
Enjoy our earlier coverage of John McCutcheon, here: Interview: Dive Into a “Bucket List” of 18 New Songs with John McCutcheon