PZ: So it seems you have quite a history as collaborating as a singer and covering material, what's the story around one of your best known hits early on, "One of Us". Was that written in collaboration with Prince? How did that come about?
JO: No actually that was a song written by Eric Bazilian who was a musician and a co-writer on that first album, "Relish". We were in the studio writing and recording that album and he brought the song in as something he had written for himself. He had made a demo of it and played it for us and was like "What do you guys think of this?". It was kind of a Leonard Cohen sort of thing; it was very dark, almost morose in a way.
The producer heard the song and said "Wow that's a very beautiful song. Why don't you try singing it Joan?" I was like "alright, but I certainly can't do it in the way he had done it", but in the writing process we were doing a lot of things in that moment that were coming from sort of an Appalachian, "hillbilly" kind of place. So I tried to bring a little bit of that flavor to it and we worked on it and gave it a lighter touch that was pretty in a high register. It kind of worked itself into this gentler version of the song which ended up being on the record. I almost thought about it as if a child were asking this question, "What if God was one of us?" in that way children will ask questions that there really are no answers to, but they make you think a lot about what they just asked.
Prince was someone who just heard the song and liked it and decided to do it in his own concerts. It wasn't anything that he and I worked on together, but subsequently I got a chance to meet him. I didn't actually work with him when I met him but that was a big thrill to me because I'm a big fan of his.
PZ: Wow, I think there's a lot of mystery around the development of that song. I thought it was the other way around that he brought it to you.
JO: No, he didn't write it. It's a guy named Eric Bazilion who wrote that song.
PZ: Great song, and a great album.
JO: Thank you.
PZ: You became a big pop success after that album. It's always interesting I think in the Grateful Dead community to hear how a popular artist might perceive the approach of the Grateful Dead or Phil as compared to what you might be used to in that world. Now that you've been on both sides of the looking glass, has it affected your approach to music or performance as a solo artist?
JO: I think it might a little bit more with this next round of touring that I am getting ready to do. I have a record that I wrote and recorded with the same guy I did the "Relish" album with and that's coming out in September and of course I'll be doing a lot of touring either right before or right after that. I think that kind of a long tour you get into when you're promoting a new record is the kind of place where those kinds of ideas can get worked out; when you're working with the same musicians and playing the same songs night after night after night.
I've always been somebody who wants to be spontaneous and to allow the material to grow and change from night to night and I think that sort of just happens, unless you're playing to backing tracks or lip synching or something. It just automatically happens as a musician if you're spontaneous at all.
So that's always been something I've done but not to the extent as Phil and the Grateful Dead have done it and not including these lengthy interludes that happen between songs where you just have this kind of free space where anybody can do anything in this very loose framework. I have not tried that yet but I think it's something that I might try on this next tour. It's a very interesting way to approach it as opposed to just stopping a song, the audience applauds, and you start the next song - you can go on this little musical journey to get you from point A to point B without knowing how you're going to get there.
PZ: Watching you with Phil's band ; some of the nights you would experiment with those interludes, those journeys, maybe with some vocal chanting you would do sometimes or even taking a sit at the drum set once in a while. How did that come about?
JO: Like I said you don't know how you're going to get to point A to point B and I'm a singer, and usually people think of the singer as the person who sings the words to the song, but you can also use your voice as an instrument in a more abstract way. That's one of the most fun things for me to do on the Phil gig is to take advantage of his openness and the audience's openness to those kind of ideas and just start whaling or doing some Qawwali chanting or sit down behind the drums if I feel like it. Whatever musical idea occurs to me to just go ahead and put it out there.
It's been interesting to work with Larry Campbell on these shows because he says it's a very interesting way to check yourself out when you're thrown into these situations where it's completely up to you what you play or sing and what are you going to do from night after night. It's a great way to check yourself out; you know, "who are you" as a musician. You really end up asking yourself and showing yourself these very deep things about your artistry and yourself as a person.
PZ: Out of the last tour - which was really phenomenal by the way; you did an amazing job - was there any show or run of shows which made a really big impression on you?
JO: I think all the shows were great and all the shows had great moments in them. I think the shows at the Hammerstein were, for me; I think I did some of my better singing at those shows. I felt like I was connecting with the material and with the other musicians as a unit in the best way that you would want to connect with each other. I felt like that was happening with me most successfully those nights at the Hammerstein.
But it happened in many places with all the nights that we did. That's the great thing about it. You never know which one of the nights is going to be fabulous or even which one of the moments in a not so great night is going to suddenly become magic. Well you know all that (laughs). I don't have to tell you that story!
PZ: (Laughs) Yeah, that's part of the life, part of the community. But Hammerstein did seem like things started to gel and take shape. I have to say one of the highlights was "Cats Under the Stars" at Hammerstein. I think you really delivered that with perfection!
JO: Thank you.
PZ: A lot of people have been wondering how come we didn't get to hear some original Joan material during those shows. Was that ever discussed with Phil? I'd have to personally say that there's a handful of songs off of "Relish" which I think would go over really well with the band. Has this ever been discussed?
JO: Really? Which ones do you think would go well?
PZ: I personally think: "Pensacola", "St. Theresa", "Right Hand Man', and/or "Long Black Coat" - any one of those would go over well with the band.
JO: That's interesting. I didn't really bring it up so much. There's a few songs on this new record that's coming out in September that I thought might be appropriate. I approached Phil real briefly about it but we never really picked up that thread. It is something I would like to do; you know, I'm not sure if that's going to happen on this next run of shows. Again, it's his band and it's up to him, so I can certainly suggest things but it's up to him to make the decision about whether he thinks that's appropriate or not.
PZ: What was your take on doing the breadth of Ryan Adams material?
JO: Well that's been really great for me because I am a big fan of his and have become an even bigger fan of his in the last few months since being able to sing with him and get a little closer and get to know him a little bit. I just think he's a really breath-taking talent and has a real knack for taking a lot of ingredients that we all know and that we've all heard a million times and recombining them in a way that sounds totally fresh, immediate, emotional, soulful and real. I just think he's a very beautiful artist. That's been great to be able to perform those songs and learn them.
I'm getting ready to go down to Nashville this month to do a country record so I'm probably going to include one or maybe more of his songs on that album; at least I hope to. It's been great. Every once in a while when you're a musician you hit these places where you just feel like "Ugh, I don't want to listen to anything. I don't like anybody anymore. All I want to do is hear my old records that I've always loved and I don't hear anything new that's exciting me." And you come across new artists who get you out of that funk and excite you again. There's another artist, Neko Case, that I've really been excited by lately. It's great to get inspired again by somebody new.
PZ: Do you write material or lyrics, or do you prefer to cover material?
JO: Oh yeah, I write stuff and I co-wrote a lot of things and have co-written a lot of things on my albums. I think writing is sometimes the biggest challenge for me. I wouldn't say that I have as great a natural knack for it as some people do. It's more like hard work for me. But when you get something that you really like, it's a very satisfying feeling. I feel like that's something that I will always try to do. Again, I love doing other songs as well. I don't want to limit myself to only things I can produce as a writer. There are so many amazing people's songs out there that I would love to sing so I like doing both. Luckily I've been able to have a career where I'm allowed to do both.
PZ: Phil's talked a little about this "Chance" music concept. Have you heard him discuss this at all or do you anticipate being involved with any of those projects?
JO: "Chance" music? No, I don't know anything about that. What is this?
PZ: Chance music is a concept of John Cage, where some element of the composition is left to chance or some primary element of a composed work's realization is left to the determination of its performer(s). I think Phil has an idea that it would be more adventurous where a band gets together and goes out on stage and interprets material in a new and improvisational way, not sticking to any predefined notion with the material.
JO: You mean take songs and deconstruct them even more than they get deconstructed in a normal Phil or Dead environment? Or do you think it's not even songs; everybody stands up there and starts playing and who knows what happens?
PZ: Maybe a little bit of both!
JO: Sounds very Phil! (Laughs). I don't know if that's what he's got planned for these upcoming shows or if that's something separate, I really don't know. You may have to ask him about that!
PZ: (Laughs) It's Phil continuing to follow his weird. So that's good, we'll be seeing you this summer?
JO: Yeah I think we're going to do some stuff from mid-June, starting at Bonnaroo, and then go through July.
JO: I will be going to down to Nashville at the end of May and recording a country album with Steve Buckingham as producer. He's worked a lot with Allison Kraus and done the last couple of Dolly Parton bluegrass records. I believe he even won a Grammy with Dolly for those records.
That's the material I've been previewing in these last recent gigs that I did this week. So that's been really interesting to kind of dip into that country music tradition. In particular, kind of old school country and classic country. I've been listening to a lot of stuff from the '50's and '60's, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Willy Nelson, all that kind of stuff. Getting inspiration from that trying to write things on my own that have that simplicity to them. That's what I am working on now and this record that I've finished a year and a half ago is coming out in September.
Also, down the line I've also got some things together for a Lullaby record which I've always wanted to make. Now that I have my daughter I've been singing a lot to her and collecting these little things I make up for her hoping to shape those into a Lullaby album.
PZ: Wow that sounds like a great project!
JO: Yeah, it's nice and very soothing.
PZ: Well THANK YOU Joan. Everyone here at Philzone.com appreciates you taking the time to speak with us and we look forward to hearing more news from the JOAN ZONE!
JO: Well thanks! And thank you guys and all the Phil Phans out there for being so supportive and so welcoming to me in all of these shows. I've really felt very welcomed and very appreciated; it's really wonderful so I want to thank everybody as well.
PZ: Great, we look forward to seeing more of you this summer!
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