Don’t start doing the math, you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering how Jon Carroll’s music career goes back at least 40 years, yet he still seems as young and vital as ever. Most of us “over a certain age” first remember him as ¼ of The Starland Vocal Band. Their hit, “Afternoon Delight” was the #1 single on July 4th, 1976, the Bicentennial year. They were virtually everywhere that year—first on everyone else’s TV show, then on their own summer replacement variety show.
Later, Carroll wrote the song, “Get Closer,” which Linda Ronstadt had a radio hit with as well (he says it wasn’t a hit, but—dude, a Top 30 Single IS a hit). Later, a, um, “re-arranged” version of the song became the jingle to a ubiquitous toothpaste ad for years. He’ll talk about it in a moment, but you can see one version of it here: http://www.youtube.comINterv/watch?v=L9M0i2QqWW4
And for more than 20 years, Jon has been Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s steady keys man, contributing hugely to the sound of her hits, and a great back-up vocalist for her in live settings, too.
Along the way, Carroll has carved out time for his own solo recordings and performances. His faithful fan base will be happy to hear that he’s performing an intimate solo show this Thursday night, in the beautiful Athenaeum in Old Towne, Alexandria. Get tickets here: http://nvfaa.org/events/evening-jon-carroll
Carroll kindly took some questions about the kind of ride most musicians only dream about. Maybe that’s why he’s so chill—he’s living his dream?
Kyle Osborne: “You have a DC area fan base that has literally grown up with you over the past 4 decades or so. How would you describe your relationship with your fans these days?
Jon Carroll: “I suppose I would characterize my relationship with my fans as “honest.” In a very interesting way, the lines of communication are myriad and manifold. The most direct and desired conversations with an audience are from the stage. And that’s true in a presentational way, as well as representational, so to speak, in that I obviously intend to convey the many messages, journeys and lessons within the songs in an effective and immediate way (and there’s nothing like “live” for immediacy!).
But the more extemporaneous conversations around and between the songs (and shows) always have an air of “stories out of school” to them. I’ve worked with many great artists over the years, and I consider that as much a part of my identity as my songwriting, and as a singer, any great song is enticing. But as any other writer will attest, it’s our own inner voice that best informs our work.
I’ve certainly had high bars against which to measure my own work, and that has been the healthiest challenge: to create one’s own that holds it own in a sea of great work. My songs are the meat and potatoes of my own shows, with a few choice, fairly obscure covers included in the interest of having those songs heard at all. And lastly, since it was so long ago—but still folks remain chronically interested in it--Starland may as well be one of those “other” entities. Even when Starland was together, I had a few other groups on the side. Every now and then I’ll perform a song from those years.
My favorite fans are the folks who are interested in the newer songs that are speaking currently. I know they are showing up to hear what’s happening now, and not something I did 3 or 35 years ago. Bless them every one. I certainly don’t begrudge retrospective affection felt by those people who feel that they’re carrying the torch for a not-to-be-forgotten group, song, or time. I hope that those fine folks realize and accept that since then--and pretty continuously-- I have continued to grow and develop as an artist. If I were to look back as much as they do, I would be useless to my creative responsibilities.
KO: “When you're onstage with Chapin, it's a tight band, of which you are one part. Thursday night, it's all you, right? Is that in any way frightening to have all the attention focused on you? Or is it, like Nils Lofgren, for instance, a chance to show your own musical identity that's quite apart from your worldwide touring gigs?
JC: “Another great question. And yes, it’s more liberating than anything. Surely though, I enjoy playing my part in any ensemble, and that even includes a part in a play or any team. Every character doing its part to build a narrative sum that is greater than its parts is quite an exciting endeavor and a gratifying accomplishment. Live collaboration with others is truly what we’re here to do, I think. Even with my own band, the framework of multiple players abiding by some sort of structure is, in many ways, a secure posture--strength in numbers and all that. There are varying degrees of strictness and rigidity to each outfit--and I won’t name names—but playing solo is, on one hand, very free in that I have so many constant options it’s sometimes scary, which is exhilarating. On the other hand, the utter truth of the matter is that there is one song, one voice and one instrument at a time and--back to the honesty—that will sink or swim depending on my performance. I tend to let the material do the work, which is another way of saying that if the song doesn’t stand on its own, maybe it’s not such a great song, you know? It’s easier to lean on a band than no band, but having nothing but a song to lean on, well…the only crazier people out there are comics. They have a voice and microphone. God love ‘em. Most players take a while to learn that the main task of any accompaniment is to stay out of the way. He’s like the umpire in a baseball game when the batter pops up: get back and let the guy with the glove catch it.”
KO: Do you still love the process as much as ever? Maybe more than ever?
JC: “More than ever. I read a quote by the great jazz and performance artist Alice Coltrane wherein she said that, as an artist, she loved the process more than anything. I know that there are various degrees of this affection, because sometimes writing a song, finishing a song is a total pain in the ass. Like anything that promises a result that you work toward, the journey is sometimes long, sometimes short and more or less challenging than the next or last one.
In the early nineties I had what could be mostly be described as a pause in my output. There were many transitions underway in my life, and I felt for a while that I hadn’t sufficient bearings to venture forth into the songwriting process. I spent a few years studying screenwriting and creative writing, getting better acquainted with the three act structure, which in turn fueled fully everything I’ve written since.
The thing that rewards all artists is the fact that once you’ve completed a work, there before you stands a brand new creation that just slightly earlier did not exist at all. Many writers keep these works dancing teasingly within their imagination and “someday” plans. They do no one any good there, and in fact, no one cares about mere potential. Folks care about what you’ve created. At least you produced something that you can call your own. The discernment and perspective that with which we negotiate along the way can be a bitch, but it’s always worth it. I love it.
Interesting side note: I once heard the famous author Martin Amis sharing a conversation with his father, firstly famous Kingsley Amis wherein elder Amis criticized younger Amis on his inability to write a simple transitional sentence. “Why can’t you just say, ‘He finished his drink and left’?”
To which the younger Amis replied, “Anyone could say that. I’m supposed to be a writer.” I love that story. That’s why it isn’t always fun, and why most of the time it is, it is, it is!
KO: “Silly question from a life-long pop culture junkie:People my age and older will remember the Close-Up toothpaste commercials—as I remember, the jingle vocal was a “fake” Linda Ronstadt? At any rate, is there a great story about how the royalties from that ad lead to a life of leisure for you? “
JC “Ha ha! That deal came about through my good friend, the late Michael Connelly of Cherry Lane Music, (it was Bill Danoff who personally put the cassette tape in Linda Ronstadt’s purse in the first place) who realized that two toiletry companies were interested in an exclusive license to use the song for an ad campaign (the other was Clearasil, I think). That’s always a good thing when there’s vying interest for your song. Linda had only a mild hit with it (it barely broke the Billboard top 30) but it was recognizable, which is the best type of currency to have as a writer, and Mike cut a deal with the Close Up folks. It was for the exclusive use of the song for a year, with an option for additional years. Every year, we waited with baited breath through the holidays to discover whether or not they’ve picked up the option for another year. Each and every year for 5 years they did, and had I known at the outset that they’d use it for that long, I’d have perhaps parlayed it into something more solidly equitable. As it turned out, it was a boon for my son’s education. Get Close-Up!
Somewhat sadly, I suppose, the flip side is when my publisher inquired Linda’s management about sending additional songs during the next few years, we received a cold shoulder which was attributed to the “cheap Linda soundalike” singing the toothpaste commercial. In fact, the ad agency cut at least 12 different versions of the ad, with every sort of voice under the sun, so we were all raising an eyebrow at the whole affair. I know Linda isn’t the type of person to sing commercials, but maybe someone was offended that she wasn’t asked. Maybe she was offended that she was asked, who knows. A song is a song, though, and it had such a primal and none-too-deep message that I personally had absolutely no problem with it getting an ad use. On the contrary, in fact."
"Now ,Lennon’s Revolution as a Nike ad is an entirely different story, eh?”
What: An Evening With Jon Carroll
When: Thursday, January 10th at 7pm.
Where: The Athenaeum, 201 Prince Street, Alexandria, Va 22314 / 703.548.0035
Additional Info: www.joncarroll.org