BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
He’s written some of the most beloved songs for some of the biggest acts in the world, but now supreme songwriter Jack Tempchin has decided to hold on to a new batch of terrific tunes for his own recently released EP, Room to Run, and forthcoming full-length album, Learning to Dance (available August 21). Perhaps best known for providing The Eagles with smash hits “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone” and sharing “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong to the City” with Glenn Frey, Tempchin is less known as an artist in his own right, even though the new EP and CD will be his ninth and tenth releases, respectively.
Tempchin recently inked his first recording contract in decades, signing with Blue Élan Records, a label that actually puts the music and musicians ahead of money and metrics. “The story of my record deal is just like a fantasy,” Tempchin told me during our recent conversation, adding that he practically fell off his chair when the label executives revealed that his contract also included (GASP!) tour support. So with a supportive stable of handlers handling the business Tempchin was given room to run and tasked with doing what he does best: write riveting songs as an artist in his own write. Mission accomplished.
Before we start getting real deep into all the running and dancing going on across your new Room to Run EP and forthcoming album Learning to Dance, let me get this out of the way; almost every article and interview I read in prepping for our conversation today has used this quote: “I’m looking at myself as a new artist. These are all new songs and I’d like to be accepted based on them.” Why is it so important for you to wipe your songwriting slate clean, as it were?
Ah, that’s a good question. I don’t want to wipe the slate clean. Everybody can still enjoy those songs and I love it that they [fans] know songs that I’ve written, you know, but as a human being I happen to be alive right now today (laughs), you know what I mean? My brain is bursting with songs and I’m still writing songs and I enjoy the process, I enjoy everything about it. So basically just from my point of view I’d like somebody to listen to the new stuff, to enjoy that and look at me for that instead of, well, otherwise why would they buy my album if they’re only interested in the songs I’ve written before. And I just feel like, wow, I’m making really good records of good songs and I hope somebody will listen to me on that basis.
And just to clarify, Jack, I used the term wipe the songwriting slate clean just because it sounds good, but I don’t mean it literally of course and I’m sure you know that. You said you have this great set of new songs that you want people to focus on and that’s what our conversation is gonna be about, so…
I could also add that people know a lot of my songs, but as an artist, yes, I’m pretty much a new artist. I’ve had a few record deals, I’ve had one song on the charts many, many years ago, but you know for all intents and purposes as an artist, I would be a new artist.
Now as a new artist you’ve signed with this label Blue Élan Records, a label that certainly touts sort of old school methods of working with its artists.
Yeah, how it happened was my manager saw an ad in the trades that Blue Élan was looking for artists and they are a label with integrity. Frankly he was intrigued by the words “label” and “integrity” being in the same sentence. So he called them and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we know who Jack Tempchin is. We’d like to have a meeting.’ So they started telling me about the deal and by the time we were halfway thru we were arguing with the [label] guy because he was giving us too much! He said, ‘If you recorded the album and you decide, after you recorded the album and we paid for it, and you decide you wanna leave the company, you can just go ahead and take the album with you to another company if you want and we won’t take any of the profits.’ And me and my manager are looking at each other, going, no, that doesn’t seem right. So it was like a dream deal…and when I got home I wrote an email to my manager; I said: ‘Thank you for renting that office space and hiring those actors! So at least once in my life I could get the feeling of somebody offering me a giant deal (laughs).’ So that’s the story of how the album happened.
Well I go to Nashville about once a year and I look for different writers and write with them and I ran into a friend of mine, Carey Ott, and he’s one of these guys who plays every instrument, plus the computer. If you sit and write a song with him, by the time you’re done writing the song the record is also done; he’s doing it as you go. So I really enjoyed working with him and we sorta had an idea for “Room to Run.” It’s a song about your father, you know, it’s a dad song about him giving you room to run in life. So we sat down and wrote it one day and it kinda just sat there for a long time until I got the opportunity to do this album
It’s a beautiful story, and of course it passes down to yet another generation in the lyric.
Yes. I was very happy with that song.
The second song on the four-song EP is, uh, well I’ll ask the question this way: it’s no secret that far too many wars are fought over religion. What was the catalyst for you to compose the conversation between “Jesus and Mohammed?”
Well my buddy who I’ve known since high school, we were sitting around talking and man, it’s the same old conversation; everybody knows it, everybody’s always fighting over religion and he said to me, well you know, Mohammed and Jesus, they both believe in Heaven and if they’re dead they’re up there, and what if they’re up there sitting under a tree, what do they think? It’s so simple but I just thought, well that’s just something that should be said. Many people who believe in Jesus don’t want Mohammad in a song with Jesus and many people who believe in Mohammad don’t want Jesus in a song with Mohammad. But that’s the problem! That is the problem, so I just thought, well I’ll say this as clearly as we can and it’s just something that should be said. Maybe it’ll kind of remind somebody somewhere that our only hope is to somehow get along with each other.
Well all I can say to that is Amen! The next song on the EP is “The High Cost of Hate (Let’s Make Some Lawyers Rich).” Correct me if I’m wrong but I would think that the late great Warren Zevon would have had a field day with that spot-on song. What do you think?
(Laughs) I knew Warren and we spent some time together and I love all his records. I’ll tell you what happened with that song. I went to Nashville and I wanted to write with some people who had huge hits in the last couple of years. As I’m talking to a lot of people, a couple people had the same story; they had made millions of dollars on these hits but they had no money because they blew it all with custody battles with their ex-wives. A very common story. When I got back from Nashville one morning I’m just sitting there at the kitchen table and I got this yellow pad and the song just came out; I couldn’t help it. It has explicit lyrics that I never use in a song, you know, I’m just not that kind of guy, but there was no other way to say it. So then I got a gig and it turned out the gig was for the top 200 divorce lawyers in California. They were having a special dinner, so I thought, I’m gonna play this song (laughs). So I played it and I got a standing ovation halfway through the song. Plus I’m very nice to the lawyers in the end of the song; I kinda go, you know they’re just in it like everybody else.
I was gonna ask you this: are these litigious lyrics aimed at the former lovebirds or the legal eagles?
They’re basically [aimed] at the lovebirds who are just kind of going, look, we can’t make this work so we’re just gonna have to give everything we’ve ever earned in our lives to these lawyers just to sort this out because we can no longer talk to each other. And then at the end of the song the lawyer has his alimony payment that he has to make. They’re not exempt, either.
I wanna jump over to your upcoming full-length album, Learning to Dance, which is scheduled to arrive on August 21, and I’d like to use the great singer-songwriter Joel Rafael as a bridge because you both co-wrote the song “Love’s First Lesson” which he has a version of on his current album, Baladista, which I talked to him about back in March. When we spoke he told me the story of how you two wrote that song and now I’d like your version of how the collaboration came about.
I had known Joel for many, many years but I hadn’t sat down to write a song with him so I just thought it was about time. So I called him out of the blue one day and said, ‘Hey, you stay up late so come over (laughs).’ He reminded me we were gonna write something about the 60’s; we were gonna sum up the 60’s. Well we didn’t get to that but we started writing this other song and man we had to struggle to wrestle it down to say exactly what we wanted to say but I think it just came out so great. We really nailed what we were trying to say. He did a beautiful version and then I did a much different version, a sort of more orchestrated, on my record.
I’m pleased that they were very different versions – both beautiful. And by the way, the story you told of the collaboration is spot-on with what Joel told me. He did say to me that you mentioned to him you were looking for someone who stayed up late and then said ‘come on over, let’s write a song.’
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s true.
The sax at the top of the title track to Learning to Dance certainly sets a mood, dare I say, a dirty dancing mood, and then the strings add to the amorous atmosphere. Tell me about composing that one.
It was very strange the way the sax came about. I had demoed the song and used the sax. I listened to the demo then we recorded the song and used the same tempo. And then I thought let’s go to the 24-track of the demo and maybe we can use parts of the sax. So we took the sax part from the demo and when my producer plopped it in, the whole sax track for the entire song just plopped right in and fit perfectly. And I just thought it made the whole thing magic and it was really great.
So let me say this, Jack; I’m known as a bit of a punster so you will pardon this one pun, but there’s a point to it here so stick with me for a second. So many of the songs on Learning to Dance envelope the listener in a, well, peaceful easy feeling, yet you recruited a young electronic music producer/DJ/artist Joel Piper to produce the record. What made you believe this seemingly Grand Canyon-sized musical divide could be conquered to create such a sensitive set of songs with this, using air quotes here, kid?
It’s a good question. I was doing another project called Go Write One where I give short lectures on songwriting and I just posted that project on Patreon.com. Joel is also a photographer and videographer and he was working with me on that project. And then at that time I got the record deal and he said ‘well I’d like to produce your record, too.’ I didn’t even know he really did that. He’s 28. His musical background is so different than mine. All the people that I ever knew, all the acts that we know, he didn’t really know anything about them. He’d heard of The Rolling Stones but he didn’t really know the song “Satisfaction.” I am totally clueless to all the music he knows and vice versa but one time we sat down and thought if we could do something together it would be so amazing and interesting with our completely different musical backgrounds. The overriding thing is the guy is so awesomely talented, but the main thing is he can listen to my song and he can understand my song and express it musically. I thought by now that kids that age – having all the computer stuff – that they wouldn’t play instruments anymore. But I was wrong. There are a lot of guys like him and they play every instrument.
Jim, I am super good buddies with Tim Jones…
…and I know all the guys in Truth & Salvage Co. A few years ago at The Hotel Café (in Los Angeles) I hired them to be my backup band a couple of times.
Oh, man. Well you just made my point for me, Jack. Talent is talent and you’d be surprised how many younger acts actually play instruments these days and are going back to the, what they kind of throw under the Americana umbrella. But again, talent is talent and music is music. Tim is a great guy.
Yeah, [Truth & Salvage Co. songs] “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Player Piano.”
Yeah, exactly. Two great tracks. I say this all the time; our kids are the first generation that grew up with all of the classic rock that we love – songs that you’ve written of course – The Eagles, The Stones and all the artists we’ve mentioned and so our kids through osmosis I think The Stones and bands of that ilk are their Frank Sinatra, in that my parents had Frank Sinatra around and now I love him.
I love him now but I didn’t love him back then. That was my parents music and we were cooler and hipper, but then we all went back and started looking back a few years and went ‘oh,’ and that’s what kids do now, you know, they look at their stuff and then look back a few years and go ‘wow!’
That’s it. That’s exactly the point that I was getting to. They didn’t like it when they were in their teens, but now they do. Anyway, that’s why I try to do is bridge that so-called musical divide by playing a Truth & Salvage Co. song into a, well, Jack Tempchin tune.
I see what you’re saying, yeah.
Anyway, you mentioned your Go Write One project and I was gonna ask you about that so why don’t you just expand a little bit more on that and tell everyone what that involves.
Everyone always says oh you should write a book on songwriting, you should teach songwriting which I’ve tried a few times and I don’t really enjoy it. With this Go Write One, I made these little videos and they don’t tell you how to write a song and they don’t tell you the structure, the mechanics of writing, they don’t talk about how to place your songs in the music business – none of that. All I talk about is how to get in the mood to write a song. Sort of the magical aspects [of writing] like, you got an idea inside you and how to pull it out and make it into a song; how to get excited about writing a song. They’re like little pep talks and at the end I say ‘so go write one!’ I shot enough of them that I’m gonna put one up every two weeks. Just type in GoWriteOne.com and that will take you right there.
Final question for you, Jack. I’d like to end our conversation by taking you back to the beginning – your beginning. What was the spark? What was your proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? Did you have one? Can you give me a great story about the first time you fell in love with music? Maybe a song that came on the radio or you’re your concert or perhaps something you heard that your parents had around the house?
When I was a kid we had Harry Belafonte records and musicals, you know, My Fair Lady and those musicals. Then when I was in high school I went to a party and somebody played the first Bob Dylan record. And they said oh that guy can’t sing but I was just entranced, I thought wow that’s just the greatest. And then I was going to the coffee houses with folk musicians playing and I saw people who really moved me like Hoyt Axton and Lightnin’ Hopkins and some people like that and that just set me on the path. I had a friend who was into blues and he schooled me; he had a thousand blues records and we would just sit and listen to that, and then it was too late for me; that just spoiled me for any other thing in life. I couldn’t play that well or sing that well so I started writing songs cuz I wasn’t able to pull off other people’s songs. And then people started saying ‘hey, can I sing that song?’ And then after that happened to me about 10 times I went, well maybe I can be a songwriter.
Fantastic, sir. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure and I hope to talk to you again. It’s been great talking to you.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Jack Tempchin, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.
***All photos courtesy of Joel Piper