The first time I saw Chuck Prophet in person, he was off to the side on the Cat's Cradle stage in the mid '90s, supporting the Silos' Walter Salas-Humara. That night, he was the paradoxical "unassuming guitar hero." Belying his location, Prophet had already spent plenty of time center stage. He had joined Green On Red at a young age, becoming a perfect foil for Dan Stuart just as that band was trading its psychedelic, desert-ized Nuggets sound for a Neil Young/ Stones hybrid. He had released a couple of solo records also: His first, Brother Aldo, came off like "Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, and John Fogerty swapping songs," wrote Trouser Press' Ira Robbins.
Since that night, Prophet has been even busier hanging out in and around the spotlight. There have been more solo records, each one more adventurous than the last. Prophet remains the mad scientist trying to create the perfect mix of roots rock, beat-heavy pop and country-soul San Fran style. He served as a member of the semi-mysterious, semi-super group Raisins in the Sun (alongside Jim Dickinson and Jules Shear), and he's a sought-after producer, with last year's Translated from Love by Kelly Willis at the top of his credits list.
But songwriting remains Prophet's bread and butter, and collaboration is the specialty. With Southern-soul legend Dan Penn, he's co-written songs for Willis and Solomon Burke, and he's teamed up with at least a dozen other writers over his career. Most recently, he cowrote all the songs on Alejandro Escovedo's Real Animal.
In honor of such versatility, we present two Songs of the Week. We spoke with him about "Freckle Song," which led off last year's Yep Roc-released Soap and Water, and "Always a Friend," the opening cut on Real Animal.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You once said, "That's the beauty of songwriting: You get to be whoever you want to be." Can you elaborate on that? And when writing a song, do you ever turn out to be somebody you don't like?
CHUCK PROPHET: Sure, all the time. But I must like something about them, find them interesting enough to give voice to them. If they're not too obvious, I get excited. They'll keep my interest, and that's what's most important, in a way.
I guess the conventional singer/ songwriter approach is that the singer is the guy in the song. And that's cool, but filmmakers don't work like that. Or don't have to, anyway. So we get a lot of singer/ songwriter songs full of poetry about coffee getting cold and unfeeling men or whatever. Writing with characters in mind is liberating. I imagine if you asked David Mamet the same thing about his films or plays or whatever, god knows what he'd say.
At the risk of getting all Dr. Phil on you, I guess there's a little of me in all those characters that end up in my songs. Hardly profound, I know, but there's things we don't like about ourselves, and seeing those defects of character or whatever you want to call them in other people can be unpleasant. Then again, I've written songs in the first person that might make me sound suave, confident, cool or whatever, and that's not really how I see myself at all.
Elmore Leonard encourages writers to avoid describing characters with what they look like and what they're wearing; his advice is to just let them talk. If their dialogue sounds believable, the rest will emerge in the readers' minds. I hope that the characters in my songs sound the way they would talk—even when the character is me—and not just a guy trying to sound, uh, like poetic or whatever.
"Freckle Song" is such a tangle of emotions—confusion and doubt, love and lust chief among them. Who did you get to be when writing that one?
I just consider that song a blues. It spins in all kinds of directions. I don't know what it's about per se. I thought it was real loose. But now that I look at it, I can see how my narrative instincts always guide me along even when I'm in the most devil-may-care head space.
"I like the way you freckle" is such a great opening line for a song—and, as it turned out, for a record. Do you remember when and how that line came to you?
The first line just came out of my mouth. It was married to the music. Just pulled it out of the ground in one go, like a weed. I really didn't think much of it. It's mostly the cadence of the words that drive this particular song along. I was listening to a lot of Peaches at the time, and I hear some of her in there. She's a brilliant songwriter.
And what made you decide that "Freckle Song" should open Soap and Water?
All my records open up with a kind of short, brash song, and then I tend to follow up with the left hook in the form of the more ballad-y, emotional, introspective stuff. I think my set lists are often like that as well. It's like the eye warmers before a movie. Or that stuff you eat between bites of sushi. Ginger?
Later in the song, you talk about the freckled girl's brother ("couldn't stand that little bugger") and her father at the factory ("always had it in for me"). Why bring her family into this?
I really don't know. Just following that first line to its logical conclusion. Who is this guy? Where is he? On summer vacation? If you've been to these small towns in England, they take that week in the sun on a Greek island very serious. After that, it's back to gray skies, back to baked beans, the factory, the pub and the grind. This guy doesn't sound in any hurry to go back home. Why would he? Go back and work for her old man? Screw that.
So, that's where the freckles in the sun took me. It's all made up. Summer's over. "It's been a long September..." Time to go back to work. I can't shake my narrative instincts. Come to think of it, working for your girlfriend's or spouse's dad must really be tough. After all these years, when I take my wife to visit her folks, I can see her dad out the window kicking the tires on my car. I've always been tempted to tell him, "Get away from there, old man. Mind your own business," but I'm much too much of a gentleman for that. Anyway, much as I love him, I can't imagine having the hell of having to work for the guy.
As for "couldn't stand that little bugger": I had been singing "fucker" for the longest time. And when it occurred to me to get Anglo with it—hence, "bugger"—I got really happy for like a minute when I discovered that.
A songwriter told me one time that he couldn't co-write because, to him, that'd be like co-painting. You obviously have no qualms about writing with someone else. What are the benefits of co-writing? And is there a downside?
Well, I can appreciate both schools of thought. But I'm lazy, and sometimes you just feel like dragging someone into the room with you to help you perform the miracle. Plus, I'm a performer. Seeing someone's eyes light up when you tap into a vein of an idea can keep you going.
I mean, it's not hard to do. It's not that hard to find a chord progression and extract a kind of familiar melody and come up with words that are "Dylanesque," but does it really connect with anyone in a meaningful way? I don't know. There's certainly enough songs out there, and the self-doubt can creep in. It's nice to have a co-writer sometimes to bounce off of. Co-writing is also an extent of my social life. I've always been in bands since I was 11 years old. We used to invent songs almost out of necessity. Dan Stuart and I used to book a week at the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Ariz., and hammer out material for a record. Those were some of my happiest times.
Yeah, there's a downside for sure, in that not everything should be explained away. Not everything should make sense. And if you catch a song coming in through the window, it might be years before you make sense of it. And that's the personal stuff I guess. Sometimes, I'll have a song idea that I don't unlock for years. And I just kind of carry it with me. But I try not to be precious.
You've written with, just off the top of my head, Kim Richey, Jules Shear, Kelly Willis, Dan Stuart, the truly legendary Dan Penn, and most recently Alejandro Escovedo. Do you take the same basic approach when co-writing, or does it depend on the other writer or even the song?
I guess it depends. If I'm with a great singer like Dan Penn, I tend to follow him when it comes to carving out that initial melody. I just love to hear him sing. Some people are more riff instigators, so you follow them. I guess you just try to complement each other and keep things moving along. It's like dancing. You just feel where you're going. Both Al and myself are what you might call raconteurs. We like to tell stories, and we relate on that level. That's where the songs we wrote came from. We melt down the stories into lines and rhymes and chords, and, well, that's it really.
I suspect that you've known Alejandro a long time, probably even dating back to his Nuns days, but I think this is the first time you've written with him. What led to you work with him on his new record?
He had an idea that it would work. And he was right. He asked me to come out to his place in Wimberly, Texas. We then spent a year splitting time between my little office space in San Francisco and his garage-cum-manspace in Wimberly. It took us a while to get up to speed. But Al has this incredible faith and patience. He's very patient. I'm like, "What's with the whole patience thing?" He tells me, "Bro, that's the Mayan thing." There were days of us just laying around talking. We spent a lot of time laying on the carpet in the dark talking. And listening to Mott the Hoople records. And naps. Lots of naps. But when we got worked up into a lather, it would flow through us. I often thought that if someone were to see us—if someone were to look in the window at us when we're in the throes of it—they might be tempted to call the cops.
A song such as "Always a Friend" seems so personal. How do two people write a song that feels so singular?
It seems pretty universal to me. The song goes on 'bout something a lot of people can relate to, I'd like to think. I don't think it requires an owner's manual to understand. I guess any good song has a point of view, but in this case, it's one that Al and I both share.
In "Always a Friend," the lines "Well, I could be an astronaut on the wrong side of the moon/ Or wrapped up like a baby on a bus home to you" sum up a certain kind of relationship so vividly. Do you remember how those lines came about?
As for the lines ... Well, there's another line of the record that says, "The past is gone but it still lives inside of me." It's an extension of that. The first line of the song just appeared: "Wasn't I always a friend to you?" I guess it's about unconditional love. In that no matter how far way we might be from our loved ones in the physical sense (hence: on the wrong side of the moon), we still carry them in our hearts. And nothing can change that.
But Al and I were having fun, too. It's not a maudlin kind of thing. I think the fun we had writing it comes off. And when I came up with the guitar figure that Al calls the "Barefootin'" lick, it all just glued together. Al told me that Bruce Springsteen really digs the song and told Al, "Man, those are the hardest ones to write."
We wrote that late in the day one day and never really thought that much of it initially. But we revisited it a couple of times to patch some of the holes, and it started to sound like something. I have to credit Al and his band with really speeding the song up dramatically. I just didn't feel it like that and resisted speeding it up, but now I think it came out great.
One non-songwriting question: You're a guy who definitely knows his way around a beat. Any comments on the passing of Bo Diddley?
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog." —Socrates
Chuck Prophet and his band play Berkeley Cafe Tuesday, June 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12.