On his recent UK tour, American singer song-writer David Rovics was good enough to speak with Books, Pics and Blues about his new album, how Woody Guthrie should have edited his songs and why he's historically in the mainstream.
I’m basically just a singer songwriter but it’s just that most of the songs I write are about current events and historical events. Because of the influence of the music industry over the past century or so we think of the bardic tradition as being a novelty now and the tradition of writing songs about nothing but love and partying and sex as being normal. So people tend to call what I do ‘protest music’ but I prefer to turn it around and say I’m just a singer songwriter and the music industry is promoting sex music. Because that’s what the situation is if you look at it in the broader historical context.
The music industry has only been around for a century but music has been around for much, much longer. So what I’m doing is actually in the mainstream of the tradition of songwriting. Around the world there is this tradition of writing songs and singing songs about current events. In Europe in the middle ages they were called the troubadours but they have different names in different places and it’s a long, long tradition all over the world.
Is that division between ‘ordinary music’ and politically engaged singer-songwriters true everywhere or is it a geographical phenomenon?
Pretty much everywhere in the world there is this dichotomy between the industry and political types. In places like Latin America and the Arab world where you have a lot more discontent than you have in Europe or North America and you have a mass movement tradition of various kinds then there’s a blending there. There’s a big Arabic pop music industry for example, and in the pop music industry it’s all about “habibi” which is like “my darling”, same as in Europe or north America. But then there’re other musicians, like Sheikh Imam, and these people are gods and goddesses and are known by anybody who speaks Arabic.
The same’s true in Latin America, they have a pop music industry where they emphasise the same party songs but everybody also knows Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanez and Mercedez Sousa , these people are totally political and insanely popular. I don’t know if they go to the same award ceremonies as the pop musicians but they’re hugely popular and they sell a lot of records.
Even here in Britain you get people like Billy Bragg who are quite well known and very political. I don’t know if anyone in Europe has the same status as Silvio Rodriguez but I think that’s because the conditions in Europe are a lot more comfortable.
Do you have a favourite place to perform?
It’s always wherever there’s a big protest, that’s my favourite place to perform.
Aside from that I don’t really have a favourite place, there are a lot of great places to play. My less favourite places to play are where the audiences don’t speak fluent English because there’s nothing quite like your audience understanding you.
I used to enjoy performing in front of American audiences because they’d get all of the little cultural references I’d make but after years of touring in Europe I don’t feel that way anymore. I wouldn’t say I understand British humour but over the years I’ve come to understand it more. I can now make jokes that Americans wouldn’t understand but British people would laugh at and that’s a neat thing.
How has Obama changed things in the US?
Definitely for most people in the US, Obama’s election was seen as a very therapeutic thing. I think that one little event had a tremendous impact in terms of healing of the divide of the legacy of slavery. For black Americans to know tens of millions of white Americans voted for a black man helped a lot of people realise that white people are not all racists. But it didn’t solve the problem of the division of class in the US, there is still a massive illiterate underclass that is the continued legacy of slavery and hasn’t been addressed by any government since the abolition of slavery.
Is it harder to write songs about him than it was about Bush?
Yeah, because there are so many complicated factors, mainly the fact that he’s eloquent. His eloquence is a kind of vague eloquence where he doesn’t like to get too specific about things with good reason, because he’s not going to deliver any of the things he talks about and he knows it. It was easier to write songs about Bush because he was such an idiot. Somebody in his administration actually called the war in Iraq ‘Operation Iraqi Liberation, O.I.L.’ without realising the acronym they had just spelled. That’s the sort of thing you couldn’t imagine the Obama administration doing. Bush wrote the satire for you, you just had to make it rhyme.
When you’re songwriting do you begin with an idea and look for a tune or the other way around?
It’s always about the concept first. If there’s something I want to write about then I’ll be thinking about it, reading about it. Usually it will require reading about it because it’s not like I’m often writing about something I’ve just witnessed, it’s usually happened somewhere I’m not. So then I’ll think about what will be a good angle for this song, what will represent the essence here in a line or two? Often I create a chorus around that and once there’s a chorus or a concept then the words just fall into place.
The hardest part is coming up with a concept because there’s so many different ways you can tell a story. But it’s not going to work as a song unless you have a really fitting melody that makes it come alive because usually songs are not poems and they don’t work as poems, you have to have good music to go along with it. I’ve written a lot of lyrics that I’ve never come up with music that I was satisfied with. Sometimes you just know when you’ve got the music, it just clicks, and other times I never really know when it’s done.
Do you see your politics and your music as separate?
I’d definitely write about things I don’t believe in because it makes a good story. But then some songs I’m writing from a perspective of somebody who did something and people can think I’m condoning everything that person did or not condoning it. I don’t say so in the song, that’s not for me to do because what I’m doing when I’m writing a song from a certain perspective is trying to be true to that person and that perspective without bringing in my own moral judgement on the person I’m writing about. I think it’s better to just write from someone’s perspective and let people draw the conclusions they want to from that.
I’ve written a couple of songs from the point of view of suicide bombers and I think it would ruin the song if I added a verse at the end saying I don’t condone suicide bombing but I understand why somebody would do it. Woody Guthrie did that a lot. I think Woody Guthrie’s brilliant but I think a lot of his songs would be better without the last verse because the last verse is when he gets all moralising.
I guess my perspective comes through when I’m writing based on what I choose to emphasise or not. I would write a song from the perspective of a fascist but I think in the course of the song it would become clear that this guy is very damaged and that’s why he’s acting that way. The important thing is for people to understand each other not necessarily to agree with each other.
What does the new album sound like?
A lot of it is pretty rock n roll, like rock ballads. Most of the songs involve drums, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals so it’s a real full sound. We’ve got great musicians, oh and there’s some fiddle and keyboard in there.
If your sound is a solo guitar and voice thing there’s a lot of power and urgency to that arrangement and that works especially well in concert. But on a CD when people are talking and listening, they won’t hear the guitar and I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you’re listening to a singer songwriter in the car and it sounds shit because you can’t really hear the voice and maybe you can hear the top string of the guitar and the rest of him blends in with the engine noise. With a band you can listen to it and really listen to it or as background noise.
I just love the arrangement; we went for almost cliché sounds for different songs. I’m a better anarchist than you is punk rock, easily recognisable old school punk rock. We were trying to emulate that 1980s London sound. Then on Burn it down we were trying to emulate that South African band that played with Paul Simon on Graceland.
Why is it a web-only release?
It’s certainly one of the best studio recordings I’ve ever done and it was expensive. Normally if you’re spending thousands of dollars on a studio and great musicians you put it out on a CD but I thought I’d put it up on the web, but not where I put the rest of my stuff.
Most of my stuff is up on soundclick and people can just click and download anything they want but this one is up only through my website. So in order to get to it people have to fill out a little form and the form involves required fields, such as their email address. Basically anyone who wants to get my CD for free has to get onto my email list. I hope that’s not too annoying, hopefully anyone who wants to download an album from me doesn’t mind hearing from me every few weeks.
The main thing was that I have millions of songs downloaded and streamed but only 8000 people on my email list and I think I could have bigger audiences if people knew where I was playing. Also people have to pledge something for the album. They can donate zero but I’ve found people that would normally download songs for free, when faced with that zero think “actually I can probably afford $5 or whatever” and that adds up. I wouldn’t say this will replace CDs but I think there’s real value in having a web only release like this because there’s various way you can use that to your advantage as a musician.
What’s the biggest political problem in the world?
There are so many problems you could point to that are kind of obvious for a lot of people, like climate change or the danger of nuclear power. But ultimately the biggest problem for humanity is, and you can put it two ways, either ‘a lack of democracy’ or ‘the class divide’. I think they go hand in hand because any society that has done away with the class divide is highly democratic.
It’s a very insidious thing capitalism, it does provide a lot of wealth and it’s not like a dictatorship where only a few benefit, there is a lot of meritocracy in capitalism and people can work their way up because it’s a fluid system and it’s very productive. It also has these massive downsides, like if you’re too poor to fit into the economic system then you don’t matter, also there’s no way of taking into account the environmental costs of what you’re doing so the system is designed to make everybody kill themselves. If we continue on the capitalist model that’s where we’re all headed, we’ll just destroy everything.
It’s like being a speed addict and only thinking about speed as something that will cause you to not fall asleep at the wheel and get where you’re going. If you think of it that way it’s an entirely positive thing but if you don’t factor in the cost of your health then that’s a big problem. I think capitalism is our biggest problem and we need some form of democratic socialism, that’s the solution: grassroots control of our lives and an economic model that takes into account reality rather than this stock market fantasy.
So what’s the opposite, what gives you the most hope?
What gives me immense, immense hope for the future of humanity is seeing the way the movements built and overthrew two governments in Tunisia and Egypt in the last few weeks. Also the really very, very significant revolutions and other developments that have been happening in Latin America, especially over the last 13 years.
A lot of what I learned about the world came from reading Noam Chomsky and he was writing, long before it was popular, about the IMF and the World Bank and the kind of impact they had on Latin America and other countries in the world. Coming out of that background and the anti-capitalist movement of the late 90s, the power of the IMF and the World Bank was immense. Now they’re powerless in terms of Latin America. They have no influence. That’s tremendous.
All these protests we had about hauling the IMF out of Latin America, we didn’t succeed necessarily but the people of Latin America succeeded. They’re sovereign for the first time in 500 years, they’re deciding their own fate for the first time in 500 years, and it’s just in the past decade that these movements have actually come to power: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, that’s what gives me a lot of hope.