Jeremy Dean talks with the 'trucker' turned blues balladeer...
When you hear a Johnny Dowd album, the first things that may strike you about the songs are the originality of the sound - how the instruments are used and recorded - and the voice that sings them - honest, strangely expressive, and at times, raucously off-key... On further listenings, the stories and characters will begin to reveal themselves and prove that this intriguing musical soundscape is a perfect backdrop for those stories, and also, that Dowd's voice is the perfect vehicle to convey them. Of this, you will soon be certain.
Most of Dowd's songs follow the blues tradition of storytelling. They can be deceptively simple, surprisingly subtle, over- or under-stated, heartrending or humorous - often both! The lyric writing is well-crafted and suggests a rich literary background, occasionally dropping a reference in homage to influences and inspirations, such as the line, "Your love is a dog from hell," recognisable to any fellow reader of Charles Bukowski. This is no coincidence, Dowd seems pleased to have this homage picked-up on and reminisces...
"I went to live in Southern California, for seven or eight years after I got out of the army. That was back when Bukowski was living in Los Angeles, so I saw him read a couple of times. Even had chance to go out and drink a couple of beers with him one night. I was at a table where he was drinking - not like we were big buddies...
"He was really a good reader, I mean he was a good poet, but he was a really good reader of his poems."
Again, any fellow fan of Bukowski who has heard the recordings of his readings, or been lucky enough to have seen him live, will admit that after you have heard his voice, it really informs the way you read his work - you can hear his voice coming off the page...
"The first time I saw him read was strange... Southern California is such a strange setting for him anyway... It was the middle of the day, noon, in a giant cafeteria. He had a big thermos of - whatever it was - something alcoholic? I don't know if it was or not... He sat there sweating away, reading these poems surrounded by all these Californian beach bunnies. An incredibly bizarre scene...
"He was great."
So, you are a 'bit of a reader', what are you reading at the moment?
"The book I'm reading now is called, 'The Woman Hater', by Charles Willeford. I've only just started it, but I think I'm gonna enjoy it because I've read other books by him that I liked."
Is there a favourite book or author, a book that you keep coming back to?
"A bunch of times I've bought a book, started reading and about half way through realised I already read it and forgotten about it - that happens a lot. I think the only book I ever knowingly read more than once was Huckleberry Finn - which I haven't read in years and years. I read it three or four times back in high school days. That's one of the greatest books. It works on every level, entertaining as can be but also really profound. A kid can read it, an adult can read it and it works on both levels. I guess that's the mark of really great literature..."
How do you approach your own writing?
"A lot of different ways. At this point, sort of 'on demand' - what I need for the record. Sometimes I'll just write a lyric, or sometimes maybe I will have stolen a chord progression off somebody else's record and start putting lyrics together for that. Maybe you hear a song and wish you had written that song, so you kinda write an imitation of it... Sometimes I'm just writing poems and stuff... but no I don't have any kind of regime.
"A lot of times, for me, it's just a phrase... an overheard phrase or cliché. Like I heard one the other night in a movie or something - I don't know if you have the expression, 'He never met a stranger', meaning anybody he met would be a friend. That was pretty evocative, when you think about it. 'Never met a stranger', you could turn it on its head and everybody is a stranger, 'he never met a stranger' - until he met you. I was gonna take it like a reversed love poem... with a country tune...
"A lot of stuff just comes to me from overhearing a conversation and someone says something clever, or a phrase sticks in your head and you just go with it from there."
Dave Graney has said he 'kinda hunts down' his songs, across the 'spectral sunlit savannah like hunting down the great white buffalo'. Then you have Tom Waits who says that his songs already exist and he adopts them, and they become like his children. So, do you hunt your songs down, or do they just came to you and eat out of your hand?
"Too lazy to hunt 'em down. They either come to, or they don't get written.
You covered a Hank Williams track, so you must admire Hank Williams as a song writer, and there seems to be a flavour of Lee Hazelwood in there too, especially on the duets...
"There's a tribute album coming out, in England, of Lee Hazelwood songs, and we did one for that. Came out really good too, surprisingly. We did this song off his album called The Cowboy And The Lady, a duet with him and Anne Margaret, a song called 'Sleeping In The Grass'. A really strange little tune... we did a version of that."
"I really wasn't that aware of Lee Hazelwood except for the Nancy Sinatra stuff, until I got involved in this project, then I got all of his records. His songs start off like normal conventional tunes and then you listen and there's this odd little twist on 'em. Some strange arrangements with strings and oboes. He reminds me of a country version of Brian Wilson. He was a great lyric writer..."
What I find interesting about that area of music - that blues-country-rock-fusion genre, whatever it's called - is that it is very traditional, but people like yourself are being very experimental, musically, as well. How do you think that comes about? Do you listen to a lot of experimental rock music?
"When I was growing up, Jimmy Reid had songs on popular radio. On normal radio, you would hear blues and pop stuff. Radio was a lot more varied than it is now, so the boundaries between, blues, rock'n'roll, pop were a lot 'blurry-er' when I was growing up. So, the jump between Jimmy Reid and Captain Beefheart, to me doesn't seem too big. If you listen to those Jimmy Reid recording as far as strange lyrics and strange production values, you couldn't get much stranger. People are spending millions of dollars trying to make their records sound weird, he was doing it with one mike, just him and his wife - and a fifth of whiskey, probably."
The blues-country heritage tends to inspire quite bleak songs and subjects. How much of your writing is a product of your environment, how much of it is biographical? Obviously, you haven't served that much time in prison, or murdered that many people, and you're certainly not dead...
"I'd have to go song by song, really... But it's emotionally true. Like method acting. In every song there are specific little details that, in a sense are unimportant to the listener, but may sound real to the person who wrote it. For example, you might write a song about this guy, who cuts his wife's head off... and he was wearing a red shirt. The autobiographical detail was that you have a red shirt... You put yourself in there.
"Then there are song songs that are as autobiographical as anything can be. For any writing, particularly song writing, once you put music behind any lyric... I mean if I put music behind this interview, it becomes totally fiction because life doesn't have a beat."
You do visit a lot of dark places in your lyrics, is that just following the tradition of the murder ballad and the blues bleakness...
"Yeah. A lot of that. Subjects that influence me. In a lot of it there is a sort of 'over-the-top-ness' to stuff that makes it funny, in a dark way."
I was going to say that I found some of your really bleak stuff very funny and I was wondering if it was intentional humour?
"It's not intentional at the time, but if you look at times in your life when maybe, god forgive, that your girlfriend or wife cheated on you, and you're going outta your mind, and you want to kill yourself, or kill someone - whatever your outrageous emotions... From your point of view it's tragic, but take a step back and you're comical. Since I am writing about it, then I do have a distance from it. But I am not condescending, I'm sympathetic. I'm not laughing at the character, the humour is just the whole situation of life."
Tragedy plus time equals comedy?
"Yes, definitely. Otherwise your life is just tragic and you never get past it." While we're talking about biographical details, how did your military service affect you, artistically - because hard military life is often seen as an antithesis to the creative life. How did you survive it, or did it really inspire you in some way?
"Well, it was a weird time, during the Vietnam era. It was a scary time for me, I was fortunate that I didn't go to Vietnam... It was in a period when everything was going on in America. People were getting assassinated, hippies, drugs and the draft. It was a whole crazy time.
"It wasn't a bad experience... if I'd have been killed, then it would have been a bad experience. But to have survived, to have gone through it and made a lot of friends... I was in Berlin for a year and a half, so I pretty much spent my military service under the influence of various hallucinogens. So my military experience was sort of military plus some bizarre LSD things. It was an interesting time and I do pull a lot of stuff out of that time. It was that time of your life that, had I been here (back in the USA), a lot of stuff would have happened. When you're nineteen-, twenty-, years old, shit's gonna be happening always. So, my 'military experience' was not military in many ways."
You are older than a lot of people in the genre at present, so what where you doing before 'Wrong Side Of Memphis' - had you always been in bands, just plugging away at it?
"I didn't really start doing anything musically until I was thirty-something, and by then I was already pretty deeply entrenched in my trucking business. So until 'Wrong Side Of Memphis' came out, and I got a record deal, I had some bands and played locally, but it was something I'd do on weekends. I was working - driving a truck, moving furniture.
"I was always a big music fan, buying records, interested in music, had ambition of doing something in the greater arena in the world, but at the same time, working ten hours day, it's hard. I couldn't see how to make that step out. I felt like I was too old to just jump in a van and abandon all responsibilities. I could have, maybe I should have, but I didn't have the nerve or the confidence to do it. So it was a fluke how things happened."
So how's it working out - given up the day job yet?
"No. But I have a partner and he basically runs it and I help out when he needs help. I'm gone a fair amount, touring and right now I'm working on making my new record ['The Pawn Broker's Wife'] all day every day."
Anything you can tell us about it?
"It's called 'The Pawn Broker's Wife'. In my eyes, it's more poppy than my other stuff - in so far as it's as close to The Carpenters as I can get [laughs]. I like it - to me it's fun tunes, and short tunes. I think there's like fourteen tunes in forty minutes or something. My last album had a bunch of long slow songs, so to have a lot of short fast songs... I don't know what the message is there.
"Hopefully people will like it. It's got some real pretty stuff, a couple of real conventional pretty tunes and a couple of more upbeat, abrasive rock songs. One tune called 'I Love You' and one tune called 'I Hate You', trying to cover the spectrum. Maybe I should have one song called 'I'm Indifferent To You'..."
If you have already listened to Johnny Dowd, then you will have formed an opinion which is anything but indifferent! If you did not 'get it', then carry on spending your cash on easy pop - how about an early Britney LP? ...or perhaps some safer MOR singer-songwriter product... like Coldplay... If you are looking for something a little less emotionally bankrupt, then be enthralled and entertained by Johnny Dowd's four albums to date, 'Wrong Side Of Memphis', 'Pictures From Life's Other Side', 'Temporary Shelter', 'The Pawn Broker's Wife'... and go see Johnny and his Band play live. Otherwise, you'll just regret it in later life...
interview-feature by Jeremy Dean
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