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JD Souther Finds Inspiration In Many Literary Sources

12/04/2015 10:32 EST | Updated 12/04/2016 05:12 EST

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John David (JD) Souther co-wrote some of the biggest hits for the Eagles including Best of My Love, Victim of Love, Heartache Tonight and New Kid In Town. He has written for Linda Ronstadt, and collaborated with many including James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson and Bonnie Raitt. He has a number of solo albums and was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2013. 2015 saw the release of a new album, Tenderness and an accompanying tour.

Howard: Throughout your career, your songs have told such beautiful stories. I can see the characters move through the storylines as if I am watching them on film. The pictures are so well painted.

JD: I love story telling. My family are Mark Twain addicts. I grew up listening to all of my aunts, my sister and all of her siblings quoting Twain.

Howard: Are there particular writers you turn to for inspiration?

JD: At every point in my life, when I've needed some comfort, inspiration or just some sustenance, I have so many places to go. I usually go first to my friends' writing. People like Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I have some pretty heavy weight characters that I know personally and sometimes, without even grabbing a book, I can think of something they've written and it's very sustaining to me.

And Lawrence in particular.

When Lawrence was turning ninety we took our dogs for a long walk on the beach at Point Reyes above San Francisco and we didn't talk really about anything. We just watched the waves.

And Lawrence said,

"I'm not really ready to go back to the city yet" and I said "Let's just stop at Point Reyes Station and get a beer and talk about bad poetry."

And he just lit up like a light bulb and said, "Great." I mean the man was still writing great poetry!

Howard: What is it about Lawrence's work that affects you so much?

JD: Even in his 90's it just pours out of him like a child. He is like William Stafford, he revises things. He really works at making things perfect and coming out the way he wants them to look. And he has a wonderful creative process.

He put out this book called How to Paint Sunlight and it was just this beautiful...

There's this house called the Tin House on my friend's ranch and she lets writers come and write there. That's really the purpose of the house. Lawrence writes there, I write there, so does Michael Ondaatje.

I came in once after Lawrence had been there for a month and there were these weird sort of water colours everywhere. I realized he loves painting because it opens him up when he wants an idea. If you can do some physical movement that results in something tangible that you can see, it helps.

It was so inspirational to come in off a flight, shoulders all hunched up, carrying my guitar case... and you have to go through a bunch of cattle gates, this house is way up on this ranch, and it's dark and you need to light all the lamps, and run the mice out.

And then I wake up the next morning and the sunlight's draining through and Mojo, this big brown Swiss bull that I like, is right outside the window and Lawrence's desk has got all these fantastic pieces of paper with these big yellow single swaths of colour on them.

And it just opens my day up so beautifully.

All I could think of is something that I heard years ago of his called "New Beginnings: Challenges to Young Poets."

One line that completely caught my eye is,

Think Subjectively, Write Objectively.

And what an impossible task you know? A beautiful, impossible task. There's a bunch of other stuff like that in there.

Resist Much, Obey Less.

And,

Think Long Thoughts In Short Sentences.

("New Beginnings: Challenges to Young Poets." Lawrence Ferlinghetti. From San Francisco Poems. San Francisco Poet Laureate Series No. 1. 2001)

What you want to have happen when you're creating is that you want it to be tickled out of you. If you grind down on it, it just becomes pedantic. So the one thing you have to have, especially if you're like me, serious and precious, is a little bit of tickling, a feather somewhere in there to make the stuff light enough to work and you can still throw down something heavy in it.

It's got to be pleasant, even if it ends in tears. And a lot of great poems of course do that. I'm thinking of the William Stafford poem "Traveling Through The Dark" where he finds a dead deer on the side of the road and after touching its' stomach, realizes there's a live faun inside it.

And he says,

"I thought hard for us all."

And then pushes her off the road into the river because she couldn't survive without her mom. But it's just a startling thing to come upon in the middle of all this beauty. You're driving along and there's a dead deer and there's life inside.

Howard: Is there anything that you created where you were just getting to the point that you felt stuck and something happened that gave you back "your lightness" in order to be able to get back into it?

JD: When I was working on Faithless Love, I had the first two verses written and I was just going into that strange little modulation at the bridge. Linda (Ronstadt) and I were together then, and I had a room at the back of our house with a baby grand piano in it. I hear her get up and start paddling barefoot down the hall. She walks in and says,

"Hi, what are you working on? It's so beautiful!" and I said, "It is?"

I was just lost. I knew the story was full of dark lines. The line before the bridge is,

"Faithless love will find you, and the misery entwine you."

And I just love that sort of biblical, exalted language. I told her I really didn't know where I was going to go with this.

And it continues, "Well, I guess I'm standing in the hall of broken dreams. That's the way it sometimes goes."

And she said,

"What is that chord? What are you doing there?"

And I hadn't really thought about it and I said I guess for most people it would be an A minor 7, but I'm actually playing a C6 over an A and then a D7 with a 9, and I sort of thought about it,

And she said, "Oh it's not neat, it's beautiful! Please finish it and I'll sing it if you won't."

And that sort of pushed me through the rest of the song.

Howard: When you write, is it based on a desire to get stuff out that is in your soul or is it sometimes just for the sake of accessing your creative energy? So I guess I am asking "Why do you continue to write?"

JD: It's so I don't kill myself. I can't paint, I can't even draw a circle. A piece of paper is worth less after I draw on it. So that's not going to be my form of expression, and writing seems to work fine for me. I am going to venture into a book of poetry soon too. You know I've been writing it for years, but if your friends are Jim Harrison and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, you'd be a bit shy about putting out poetry too.

Howard: If someone were to ask you, "Are you a poet or a songwriter first" how would you respond?

JD: I'd say I'm a musician first.

Howard: When you write, is it more reflective of what's around you today or a stirring of long lived thoughts and feelings?

JD: I'm not sure I'm able to draw a sharp line between them. I feel like on the one hand I'm trying to delineate the two, possibly the way some of the older writers do like Mark Twain. He has a way of writing himself into the story of the world, or the world into the story of himself, so they are the same but definitely different things.

I really like when he said,

"...I have studied the human race with diligence and strong interest all these years in my own person; in myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race." (Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events).

Now granted that's more than 100 years old. It has great humour. A very stylized, formalized humour that separates the present from the past. And even though he's talking about himself as an example of the human race it is very separate.

Or take Jim (Harrison) who is modern in a sense but my favourite book of his is After Ikkyū and Other Poems which is a book of Haiku-length poems. It's a great challenge for him to take on. They're wonderful poems, moving and so short. When there's a shocker at the end it just tears your heart out. It happens so fast because you only have these short little poems to deal with.

Jim's work has influences that go back thousands of years but even include pop references that are close to us because we've all become so used to this parade of information from the deepest past to this frankly completely fantastic, imaginary, immediate future that we're surrounded by from all the news outlets and all this bullshit that rolls around.

So I tend to turn more to these guys that are living through the same stuff I'm living through now.

As a kid I read the classics all the time. I was very keen on the insights of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev. Actually, all the Russian authors. I don't know why I was so taken. Maybe because they were so dark.

Howard: So is this when you were a teen?

JD: No way before that.

Howard: Really? That's heavy reading to get into at such a young age.

JD: Well my grandma and mother taught me to read learning the poems of Lewis Carroll. So before I went to school and heard them say "See Spot Run," I already knew,

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!"

(Jabberwocky. Lewis Carroll. From Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

Howard: I want to turn to your new album Tenderness which was released earlier this year. It has been described as nod to the earliest influences on you, "The Geniuses of the 20th Century Great American Songbook."

Love plays a big role, a thread shall we say, throughout. Has love been in the forefront of your mind recently?

JD: What exactly is love, how exactly is happiness maintained, what's the fullness of individuality as a component? I think these are questions I have asked in not just these but in many of my songs.

Howard: The incredible pain love can create was beautifully told in This House. I found myself back in my past and sad after listening.

JD: When I wrote This House I had been separated a couple years and I couldn't sing it without crying. I really had to fight my way through the second verse.

If you've been there than you know you ask yourself "how could I possibly have let that go, what were the reasons I couldn't get it back, is it just plain gone, what was my part in it?" Before you can figure out what happened, there is just a sense of loss.

The relationships in my life that have dissolved mutually and amicably don't hurt less. It seems like there is a common sense of loss and inexplicable torture, even if you saw it coming and participated in it.

Howard: I really was motivated by your sense of hope and the understanding of how moments are so important not just to wade through but to capture and enjoy in songs like Let's Take A Walk and Dance Real Slow.

Some of the moments you create strike me as so innocent. Walking, holding hands, talking. A beautiful, quiet slow dance. It takes me back to the times when I was falling in love. Exhilarating and scary!

JD: The reason we use the word falling (in love) is because that's what it is like -- falling! One of the delightful things about it is you allow yourself to be more helpless, more available and more vulnerable. But there is another part of love as well and that's trust and respect and holding onto things that are important to you. It's about both not betraying your partner and not betraying yourself.

In Dance Real Slow someone who is alone sees someone else who is obviously alone and says let's do what we can with this moment, we won't have forever but what we do have is right now. I can see you, you can see me so let me offer you my hand.

Howard: I am often guilty of missing the "right now" so thanks for reminding me!

With these stories, the way you used your voice, the horns and the strings, it was so slow in the presentation -- in a good way -- that I could actually create all the imagery you were trying to put out because you gave me time to do that.

JD: Thank you. That's the nicest thing you could say, the greatest compliment you could give me. I was really trying to make a little movie and when you only have forty or fifty minutes to do that, and you don't have the benefit of visuals, you have to scatter little bits of information in there that will situate people, do what a scene does. I think letting things evolve slowly like that and not rushing into things gives people the chance to sort of breathe in the scene.

JD Souther is currently on tour. For more information on dates, his new CD Tenderness which is also out on vinyl, click here.