One of the threads in my book Street Song is my love for the world of music and my attempt to find a place within it. I used to read a lot of musician biographies and would invariably get frustrated by passages in which an author describes a recording that I’d never heard. You can’t recreate a musical performance with words, and in those days, the only way to hear a specific song was to go out and buy the record. Remembering that as I wrote about my own music, I decided to record a few songs as a supplement to the book—just me and my guitar, the way I used to play on the street. One of my readers of the manuscript-in-progress, Bruce Kaphan, owns a recording studio, so I talked to him about my idea, and he agreed to take it on. Once the recording got started, I discovered that I couldn’t sing the way I used to. I’d played very little over the decades since giving it up, and I no longer had the drive, focus, and vocal range I used to have. Nor did I find the one-voice-and-a-guitar thing musically interesting. I asked Bruce if I could add an electric piano to one of the tracks and loved the result. The temptation to explore the possibilities of a real recording studio—something I’d always been deeply curious about—was overwhelming. So, I kept pushing for more. We eventually ended up using electric guitar, pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, bass, drums, percussion, dulcimer, various keyboards, harmonica, shakuhachi, cellos, horns, and backup singers.
Street Songs became more than a supplement to the book; it’s integral to it. I think of it as the book’s soundtrack album. I’d never played most of the songs before. Some are songs I’d written about in the book as having affected the course of my life. Some showed up in stories. One distinctive thing about the collection is its eclecticism. They’re not done in any particular style. The instrumentation has elements of folk, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, pop, gospel, and psychedelia. The recordings were spread out over a period of five years. During that time I put hours and hours into getting myself back in shape musically—singing scales (something I’d never done), working on my vocal range, and studying guitar. I think people will be surprised by how well it turned out. It’s more than a vanity project. The reason for that is Bruce Kaphan. His help has been an enormous blessing. He’s a pro and an all-rounder. He engineered the recordings, mixed them, played on them, coached my singing, came up with ideas, orchestrated my ideas, wrote a cello arrangement, and put me in touch with some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard. I’ve always had difficulty dealing with musicians. I’m a writer first and often feel like a fish out of water in situations where I have to deal with musicians. But I’ve been comfortable working with Bruce.
Here’s the current running order for the album: