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J.D. Souther: A 'Natural History' Of Songwriting

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J.D. Souther: A 'Natural History' Of Songwriting

J.D. Souther: A 'Natural History' Of Songwriting

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW KID IN TOWN")

THE EAGLES: (Singing) There's talk on the street. It sounds so familiar.

BLOCK: The Eagles from 1976, a number one song. And now, a new version from the co-writer, J.D. Souther.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW KID IN TOWN")

J.D. SOUTHER: (Singing) Johnny come lately, the new kid in town. Will she still love you when you're not around?

BLOCK: J.D. Souther collaborated on many of The Eagles' hits as part of a thriving country rock scene in Southern California in the '70s. Souther has jazz in his background - his father was a big-band crooner - and this CD, titled "Natural History," does have a stripped-down jazz feel. These are all songs J.D. Souther wrote, many of which became classics for other artists. Now, he's gone back and reclaimed them.

SOUTHER: It all turned out to be this nice, moody - I don't know - if it was a movie, you'd call it film noir, probably. You know, it's all sort of smoky and rainy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER BLUE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Silver Blue said goodbye to no one, thought it through.

BLOCK: You got some advice, I think, for the new CD from Linda Ronstadt, who you partnered with a long time ago. You wrote a lot of songs for her. What did she tell you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: Very pointedly, she said, don't try to rewrite the songs. I mean, she encouraged me to do the record because I defer to her advice quite often. Musically, she really has just practically infallible taste in songs, and she's got what jazz players call big ears. So I just sort of sat back and approached it as though the songs had been chosen for me by someone else. It's a real crooner album. I know my dad's grinning about it somewhere because it's all so pretty and kind of seductive and sweet and...

BLOCK: So when Linda Ronstadt was talking about not - she was warning you not to rewrite the songs, she meant...

SOUTHER: Yes. Just don't change them...

BLOCK: ...don't fancy them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: ...or don't trim them down, either. Just don't change them, you know? Sing the essence of the song and let it go at that. Trust the fact that they're well-written. And it was really a relief. It was a huge load off, because I thought to myself, well, wow, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for this album. I already know people like these songs. They had sort of already found their place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITHLESS LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Faithless love like a river flows. Like raindrops falling on a broken rose.

BLOCK: When you think back to the early days of your career, out in Southern California, Los Angeles, I'm trying to picture this. You were sharing an apartment with Glenn Frey before The Eagles. Downstairs was Jackson Browne. And all around you, I guess, would have been Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, any number of other people.

SOUTHER: Well, you know, looking back, it was - we were pretty lucky. It was a pretty great time. We were all just scuffling, trying to get by. I had a Triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle and a strap on my guitar, so I could actually get to a gig with my guitar on a motorcycle. But we didn't have any money. We were all playing open mic nights for free.

BLOCK: Would you guys be swapping songs? Would Jackson Browne come up and say, you know, I've been working on this lyric, let me play it for you?

SOUTHER: God, he didn't have to. I could hear him through the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: It's true. There were many times I wish he would stop playing. I heard "Doctor My Eyes" so many times that I could hear it in my sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOCTOR MY EYES")

JACKSON BROWNE: (Singing) Doctor, my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of fears...

SOUTHER: He was relentless. I'll tell you, I learned a lot about patience in songwriting from Jackson Browne - more than from anyone - because he would work one phrase for hours and turn it and toss and mold it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOCTOR MY EYES")

BROWNE: (Singing) ...to see the evil and the good...

SOUTHER: Gave me a lot more patience, because my instinct was just to just throw something down and move on.

BLOCK: Well, let's go ahead and listen to one of your songs, "You're Only Lonely," which was a top 10 hit for you back in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) When the world is ready to fall on your little shoulders and when you're feeling lonely and small...

BLOCK: So that's in 1979. And let's listen to you now with "You're Only Lonely."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) When you're feeling lonely and small, you need somebody there to hold you. You can call out my name when you're only lonely.

BLOCK: So it's a little bit lower. It's a whole lot slower. What do you hear in your voice now compared with back in the '70s?

SOUTHER: It sounds good.

BLOCK: I think it sounds good. And you're...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: That's about it. It still just sounds like me. I mean, no matter what I do, I'm not going to sound like Sam Cooke, so I gave that up at about age 19.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: So I'm just going to sound like me no matter what.

BLOCK: You do get way up there, though. At the end there, those wonderful notes that kind of float up in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Darling, I get lonely too.

BLOCK: I just love that.

SOUTHER: Thank you. I'm very grateful that I have the genetics, that my voice has stayed in good shape. I'm also thrilled that I quit smoking 20 years ago, but also just taking a step back in volume. I have a wonderful voice and throat doctor here who has a great vocal coach in his practice, Dr. Cleveland, who encourages people to sing with their mouth rather than their throat. And I haven't lost my voice on the road once since I've been out this time.

BLOCK: That's interesting. Does it mean you're not pushing in a certain way?

SOUTHER: It means you're not pushing too hard.

BLOCK: Yeah.

SOUTHER: I mean, you have to still propel it with something. But if you got plenty in your diaphragm, your throat really doesn't have to do too much work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Every night, I'm lying in bed, holding you close in my dreams.

BLOCK: What do you think it is that makes a song last? What gives it legs?

SOUTHER: Somebody asked me that once before, and I said, if I knew that, I'd write "Faithless Love" every morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: But it's hard to pin down. Obviously, it has to sound good. It has to do a certain thing to people emotionally when they hear it. Past that, I don't think there are any rules, because some of my songs are just pure sentiment and some are obviously letters to myself, cautionary tales to myself. Some are clearly politically driven. But I think the main thing is that it just has to sound good to people. It has to hit somebody's ear in a way that makes them want to start it over again when they get to the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) But here in my heart...

I'm with Duke Ellington. I think there's two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Which speaks for itself.

SOUTHER: I think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Oh, sweet darling...

BLOCK: Well, J.D. Souther, it's been fun talking to you. Thank you.

SOUTHER: Melissa, it's been great talking to you. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Oh, sweet darling...

BLOCK: J.D. Souther, his new CD is "Natural History."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) ...you get the best of my love. Oh, sweet darling.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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