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Peter Holsapple talks the staying power of songs

Sundays in July at Motorco

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For a little over a year, the monthly online radio show Radio Free Song Club has incorporated new songs written on deadline by a dozen of America's premier songwriters into a long-form podcast, complete with interviews and thoughts on the songs. The listening has been a fascinating journey of hits and misses, ideas and execution, another study in how the Internet can offer revealing platforms for artistic development.

One of those songwriters is Peter Holsapple, who has lived in Durham with his family since moving back north from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city five years ago. Holsapple is no stranger to North Carolina, of course; he moved here with his family in the '60s, soon enough joining Rittenhouse Square with Mitch Easter and then the dB's with Chris Stamey. Holsapple's played in several other bands, from Hootie & The Blowfish to the Continental Drifters, but his relationship with Stamey remains his most credible calling card, in large part because their focus on and efficacy with the song—three or four minutes of words and music, perfectly bearing some feeling—has long been so high.

We spoke with Holsapple about the idea of the song from his Durham home.

VITALITY

I'm a 55-year-old singer-songwriter with small children. [Laughs.] My kids keep me young and strong. Love does, and family. Just being able to say I'm here and alive is a pleasure. Music helps vitality for me. It still provides a lot of excitement and adrenaline rushes. I feel as though I go into an entirely different zone. It's not like I'm blacking out on stage, but my communicative ability is far greater onstage than it is talking on the phone. I feel more natural and apt, somehow.

CAREER

I've had a career for almost 40 years as a professional musician that has basically been sabotaged by my lack of ambition. Somehow, I didn't get the ambition part early on. A lot of people have climbed and clawed their way into the public eye with their music, or they've marketed themselves with extras that have been really important. I've always hoped that the reward of hearing a good song would possibly be enough. That's completely naïve on my part, even after all these years, but I do hope the lyrics or the melody will have some sort of impact on people. For years, I would do these shows, and I have nothing to sell. People would say, "Where's your merch? Where's your T-shirts? Where's your CDs?" I would say that you had to remember the songs. That puts a lot of pressure on the audience to have to do that. If the songs are there, maybe they will be singing them the next day. But it's made it a tougher row to hoe. It doesn't seem to matter, because the songs exist, and people still seem to like them.

CRAFTSMANSHIP

I come from a great school of songcraft, with my buddies Chris [Stamey], Mitch [Easter] and [Don] Dixon. They've really put a lot of effort into trying to make the song stand on its own. I've always tried to look at each song as a complete little package and make it interesting for the listener and interesting for anyone that will play it with me. I don't always adhere to the established tenets of writing the song. I will shorten things or lengthen things where they need to be. Mitch, a long time ago, advised me that songs should try to have three parts if they can, which, in the back of my mind, I've always stuck with it. But different songs require different things of me as a writer.

KINDRED SPIRITS

For as different a bunch of people as we all are, Chris, Mitch, Don and I really do hold the sanctity of the song very high, and the sound of the way things come out. All three of them have been a lot more directed to the studio end in a lot of ways, and I just didn't have the technical prowess to be able to absorb things like echo return rates and compression knees and releases. I feel a little bit like Nick Lowe, who, when he first started producing, said he just imitated what Dave Edmunds did in the studio and got the engineer to do what he would have done. I have these people in my life who have been around since I was a young teen who I've looked up to and respected and have accepted me as a peer. That's great. We all talk the same language. We all know the same stuff from having grown up together. We have similar record collections. I could still play you songs of Mitch's from Rittenhouse Square days that never got recorded, just because I know how to play them. For me, it's like having a bunch of really great big brothers who didn't treat me like the kid brother.

COVERS

I used to think you could tell a lot about a person from their record collection and what they listen to. I think that's probably still true, although these days it's harder to tell with MP3s. If I was to do a set of all covers, you would basically be hearing my own internal iPod. I'm not afraid of showing people what led me down this primrose path and what songs mean a lot to me. I try to do covers that are personally involving. A lot of songs that I cover are things I wish I'd written myself, but since I didn't, I will take a crack at it and try not to effectively destroy it in the process. I do a song called "On Obsession," by Peter Blegvad. Peter is the closest thing to a Renaissance man that I know. It's a beautiful tune, and it's full of love and emotion and suggestion. That's all very appealing to me. But who out there has a Peter Blegvad record? A lot of what I've done in music is to help other people hear more good music. There's so much good music out there, from the past and the present. If I can winnow through the things I really love, and if I sell a Peter Blegvad record or two along the way, then that's part of what I'm doing this for. That's the pay-it-forward aspect of music: These are great songs, and people should have a broader knowledge of it. I'm a missionary that way.

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