Garland Jeffreys Applies His 'Truth Serum'

Jeffreys has gone as long as 13 years between releases, but now he's back in full force and recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Guest host Don Gonyea talks with New York rocker Garland Jeffreys about his new album, Truth Serum.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD IN THE STREETS")

GARLAND JEFFREYS: (Singing) In the heat of the summer, better call up the plumber and turn on the...

DON GONYEA, HOST:

It has been 40 years since singer-songwriter-performer Garland Jeffreys landed on FM radio with a song that became an anthem of sorts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD IN THE STREETS")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) 'Cause it's wild in the streets, wild in the streets...

GONYEA: Turns out, that was just the beginning for Garland Jeffreys. Some 13 albums followed full of rock 'n' roll and blues and reggae and more. Mr. Jeffreys turned 70 this year. He has a new CD out called "Truth Serum." And his voice is as soulful as ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUTH SERUM")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Truth serum, pour that liquid down a man's throat...

GONYEA: And he joins us from station KUOW in Seattle. Greetings.

JEFFREYS: Greetings. Very sweet to be here.

GONYEA: In the mid-1990s, you did step away from the business for really better than a decade, and it was prompted by the birth of your daughter. Her name's Savannah?

JEFFREYS: Savannah Rae, yeah.

GONYEA: You scaled your career way back to be home.

JEFFREYS: Yes, that's exactly what happened. My wife said let's have a baby. I said, yes. She was 38 at the time - or maybe 37 at the time - and Savannah was born; we almost lost her. But it worked out really well. And, you know, I didn't have the best of upbringings, by any means. And here we had this child and suddenly I was taking her to the nursery school every day and enjoying everything about it, singing on the way as she got a little older. We would sing on the way to nursery school, and it was just delicious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS THIS THE REAL WORLD")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) New day, come and choose your (unintelligible). Count your (unintelligible), who knows where and who knows when? Is this the real world? Is this the real world? Is this the real world?

GONYEA: So, throughout your career and on this CD, you've written songs about race and about your own racial identity. Can you give us your own quick history, your lineage?

JEFFREYS: Yeah. It's - from what I understand, it's this: my grandmother was from Puerto Rico - Rafaela. My mother's the daughter of Rafaela and David. David, my grandfather, was black and Indian. My father was a black man from the South. And I'm very light-skinned. My family is pretty much a light-skinned family. I guess that comes from my grandmother, Rafaela.

GONYEA: So, as you're growing up, is your mixed racial identity a source of pride or confusion or insecurity or strength or all of the above or...?

JEFFREYS: It's a lot of confusion. I was raised a Catholic. We were the only family of color in the Catholic church that I went to. It was a pretty big church. It was unusual. And down the street was the Baptist church, the black church. A lot of the black kids looked at me with, like, what is this? Who is this? I got that a lot because of my light skin. And a lot of black kids liked dark-skinned kids. So, I struggled with that - my skin lightness. So, I grew up in a mixed world very early on.

And as time went on, as I went to the high school, in the cafeteria, all the black kids would sit together. I didn't like that. I did not like that, and I rebelled against that. My best friends were Jews that I grew up with. I had some black friends - Eugene Floyd and a couple of other people that I played basketball with. By the way, I'm a very short guy so my basketball playing is not really stellar or anything like that. I've never been one to want to stick with one kind of group. I like people for people. I love people for people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, IT'S WHAT I AM")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Too white to be black, too black to be white. I'm one of them. That's what I am. It's what I am. I'll say it again...

GONYEA: On one song, you sing about being too white to be black, too black to be white. Describe your approach when writing about race. How do you try to say it? What do you feel is important to say?

JEFFREYS: Well, like this song, "Don't Call Me Buckwheat."

GONYEA: Is that about 20 years ago now or thereabouts?

JEFFREYS: I guess so, yeah. (Singing) Don't call me Buckwheat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T CALL ME BUCKWHEAT")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Don't call me Buckwheat...

(Singing) Don't call me nig, nig, nig, nig, what's that word?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T CALL ME BUCKWHEAT")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Don't call me nig, nig, nig, what's that word? Don't call me...

It's, the way that song came about - and that's a good example - that's me telling a story with very serious information about race and abusing people with words. And the song - I do this often with songs about race - I write these songs in a palatable kind of musical backdrop. So, I let people get into the song before they've even heard it yet. You know, I'm not looking to scare anybody off; I'm not looking to put anybody off. My idea, when it comes to race, is let's join. We all have something to give to one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T CALL ME BUCKWHEAT")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Don't call me Buckwheat, Buckwheat, Buckwheat...

GONYEA: I understand that while you work, while you write, you're in a chair, you've got your guitar, and then you've got one of those old portable cassette recorders. Is that true?

JEFFREYS: Sometimes more than one.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Talk about the process. How do you create a new song?

JEFFREYS: It's a very amazing technical process. I go out and buy these little recorders. You can't get them anymore, so I have several. And I, you know, I got used to doing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFFREYS: Three, four...

Having the little machine there and the guitar nearby and then pick it up and just lay down a line or two - a vocal - and play a rhythm part there, you know, and then I've got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFFREYS: (Singing) You come here and steal my problems...

I have, like, many, many, many cassettes with all kinds of songs on them.

GONYEA: Are they organized? Are they labeled? Are they...

JEFFREYS: No. That's the unfortunate thing - they're not labeled and they're not organized. I've fought with my wife many times over this, and I'm not going to fight with you.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: You should see my basement. Radio people collect cassettes too.

JEFFREYS: There you go.

GONYEA: But then what do you do? I mean, the song is one there. A treasure is on there. How do you then go back and rediscover it?

JEFFREYS: Some of them I know where they are, you know. But sometimes, you know, I put some parts down and I just put it to the side. You know, I'm not ready to go further.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAR FAR AWAY")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Far away, far, far, far away...

GONYEA: I've heard the cassette tape version of your song "Far Far Away," which then shows up on this new disc in finished form.

JEFFREYS: Well, that, "Far Far Away," that's one of the songs where I completed the whole song on the tape and when we went and looked - I had my wife look for it actually - when she looked for it, she found it and she said you've got the whole song on the tape. We wound up making a very good rendition of it and we used it on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAR FAR AWAY")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Far away, far, far, far away, and just like it's the real deal, forever and a day...

GONYEA: That's singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys. His new CD is called "Truth Serum." Thank you, sir.

JEFFREYS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAR FAR AWAY")

JEFFREYS: (Singing) Far, far, far away.

GONYEA: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

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