“Aren’t I lucky?”
Van Dyke Parks is on the phone from his home in California. He qualifies the good fortune: “I have a cousin who was a big football player – he’s just massive, huge! We come from the same litter and he got to be on the champion team three times. But he can’t work anymore at age 60, whereas I can. I’ve chosen a profession that has supported me and my wife in a modest but wonderful way - a rich life we lead.”
An understatement in terms – Van Dyke Parks has played a major role in modern music since the mid-1960s, contributing his production skills, unique lyrics and rich orchestral arrangements for everyone from the Beach Boys to the Shortwave Set – not to mention his own solo work and acting career.
This is the man who famously angered frontman Mike Love during the writing of the Beach Boys’ famous lost album, ‘Smile’. Parks’ eccentric lyrical approach, so far removed from the car and girl songs of before, once caused Brian Wilson’s fiery cousin to implore him not to “fuck with the formula” with his “acid alliteration”.
Now in his 65th year, Van Dyke is set to play a one-off show at London’s Jazz Café with his protégée and lifelong friend Inara George, singer with The Bird And The Bee and daughter of blues-rock legend Lowell George. The concert will showcase material from Inara and Van Dyke’s new album, ‘An Invitation’. Clash had the opportunity to catch a few moments with Van Dyke, who was friendly and enthusiastic, speaking at length about his recent work and his feelings towards modern music.
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Hello Van Dyke, how are you?
I’m fine and dandy. Thank you very much for your call and your interest. What’s the name of your magazine?
It’s called Clash.
(Laughs) As in the imperative?
I’m not entirely sure. I think it’s just something that suits the general rock/pop idiom I suppose.
Is it a successful magazine?
It has a fairly high circulation in the UK and internationally, yes.
Well, numbers mean nothing to me of course, as evidenced by my career.
Van Dyke, you’re going to hear a beep every so often, but don’t let that put you off. It’s just the phone letting us know the conversation’s being recorded for transcription purposes.
That’s good, at my age things like that keep me awake.
Great. I’m going to ask you a few questions about the new album with Inara George – is that pronounced In-ara, or I-nara?
In-ara. I’ve heard the name used elsewhere, but I’m still astonished it’s an actual name. You see, Frank Zappa, for whom both Lowell and I worked, he named his daughter Moon Unit. So you know, it was also the time that Inara came to be.
You’ve known Inara for quite a long time, haven’t you?
The whole time it seems!
And what made you decide to collaborate with her on ‘An Invitation’, the new album?
I think it came from a need to avoid collaboration. It came from the certainty that I wouldn’t have to collaborate - that she would trust me, and that I would fear her! For me, that was a slam-dunk, as they say in basketball. It was a googly. That’s the truth - I’m not trying to be glib, that was just the nature of the relationship. I feel that we had seen so many things together and that I would implicitly agree with her. Politically, as a fashionista, she cannot be challenged. I appreciate her taste and the decisions she makes. I’ve watched her over a period of years and have come to the conclusion she’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met, and I wanted to be with someone like that in an endeavour.
She’s worked with a lot of different people, Idlewild, The Bird And The Bee – but this is quite a different project from what she’s done before, isn’t it?
Yes, but I would tell you that it’s truly her project. I’ve thought about this and it’s troubled me that I might have been making myself felt too much, which of course is not an arranger’s objective. An arranger’s job is to try to clothe himself in the raiment of the singer. That’s the way it’s supposed to be – that her feelings and character are being shown clearly. I honestly think that there is so much in the final product that gives evidence of that. For example, she chose not to use her rhythm guitar, which is her most persuasive and able physicality. It’s the very physics of the record – all the stuff that you hear in the arrangements are just responses to her rhythms… no kidding! And I said, “That’s dangerous, I don’t know if you can trust your audience to be able to handle that.” But she made that decision. She’d just come out of the Edith Piaf biopic ‘La Vie En Rose’, and she said to me, “Edith didn’t have to lug her guitar around and flail it while she was trying to remember what was in her heart - she was surrounded by an orchestra – can you do that for me?” Of course I agreed, and that’s how it happened.
So did she play you the songs on the guitar and you took those compositions and arranged the orchestra around that?
She sent me the songs through ‘cyberspace’ (laughs). So I received these songs through a simplistic tool on the computer, I believe it’s called GarageBand. So you sit there in front of your computer and you play the guitar and sing the songs and that’s what I received. Of course the voice and guitar were married, being monophonic, but I kept the original copies because I always want to remind myself that that was the persuasive material I was given before I insisted myself upon her.
I feel I had a great opportunity to arrange for somebody who is a very close range and intimate artist. There’s a quality in the wit and humour of the lyrics. The quiet aspect of her humour was reminiscent of her father, who of course she hardly knew. It’s amazing, it’s not just gestures – it’s the imprint of humour for me that I could think of her father so clearly when I saw her working. For example, she begins a song with the words “Oh and the...”. Now that is taboo. That’s something that Lowell George, the man who wrote ‘Fat Man In The Bathtub’, would refer to as ‘droit gauche’ – the right to be wrong! There’s a certain kind of cartoon character in her music that I like.
Somebody referred to her record as “the urban female dilemma”. I kind of get that whole zeitgeist thing - that whole ‘loves lost’ thing. I think it’s a companionable record, not a navel-gazer or a whiner like so many things that I don’t like in show-business with all these big pop stars who complain about not having enough as a young white male, for example. This woman has just entered her thirty-fourth year and her experiences show in her lyrics.
Was it a very different experience to working with Joanna Newsom on ‘Ys’?
Well it’s exactly the same orchestration; it’s the signature group I use for my arrangements. I like having a body of strings. You put some woodwind there and get a French horn so you’ve got a piece of brass to hold it together and some light percussion. There was that similarity, but they’re dissimilar in the way Joanna’s lyrics are thick with thought whereas Inara brings her case in point to an irreducible minimum. It can’t be said in any fewer words with Inara.
Did you like ‘Ys’?
I loved what Joanna did there and I hasten to say that both those young ladies are courageous in that these are both highly personal albums. It can be so invasive and I don’t think it’s anything that anybody expects until they’ve been through it and seen what it’s like - mandible trauma, a major fist to the face. Every time you put out an album, people will climb on it for the right or wrong reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. Just cruelty - stuff that happens in a rowdy mob – that can happen to any artist who is highly confessional. So you have to keep your defences up – keep that veil between yourself and the ‘vulgar public gaze’, but I don’t think you can do that when you’re making a record. You’re stripped and bleeding and you have to be open.
I’ve been fortunate enough to decorate, often unnecessarily, some pretty wonderful and personal confessionals in the past, but these are two absolutely remarkable girls.
Do you listen to much contemporary pop and rock, other than the people you work with?
I don’t like the music that comes out of the hamburger connection. I don’t like ‘our’ music, I like ‘their’ music, I always have. I’m not an athlete, but I just run as fast as I can from anything like that stuff. You take Randy Newman, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Hall & Oates, or any frick ’n’ frack. You put all of those boys on one side of a fine scale and on the other put just one Paolo Conte. You bring me one artist of that weight and he outdoes the rest of those lads, absolutely no question about it. Lyrically, in his piano playing and in his raw talent without the support of the industry to make him look like a recording artiste – this man from Italy has a vice-like grip on the blues! Now an American from the inner workings of showbiz or Pop Idol will resent that I’m not impressed because it’s such a crass distinction on my part. But I’m tired of the well fed. I guess that’s why I’m glad to be an American at a time when I had lost all but the primitive will. I was so distressed by our very nature at the White House and beyond. So the music I want to hear comes from somewhere else and this is as far as I can get when I work with people like Inara George or Joanna Newsom because I get to work out of the box every time.
I have a mantra. I made it up and it stuck. It was one of those things you flip off your wrist and it sticks to the wall. I’m sure it can’t be original – nothing about me is – but it goes “my best work is ahead of me,” and that’s how I am able to get up in the morning.
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Inara George & Van Dyke Parks play the London Jazz Café on Sunday 23rd November. Tickets: 08700 603 777, Restaurant Bookings: 0207 688 8899, Book Online HERE