Garland Jeffreys isn’t known for pulling his punches. The Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter, who’s been recording since the late ’60s, made a name for himself by painting honest, and sometimes bleak, portraits of the world around him. From the anthemic Wild in the Streets to the intimate and personal Spanish Town, Jeffreys has sung about murder, racial segregation, romance, family dynamics and the history of rock’n’roll. Crossing through many styles – blues, rock, reggae, funk and folk – his music is both sophisticated and relatable.
Jeffreys is currently touring in support of his first album in 13 years, The King of In Between, which has songs in all the aforementioned styles. Before heading off to perform at the Grammy Museum in L.A., Garland took a few minutes to talk to Roverarts.
Rover You dedicated your 1978 album, One-Eyed Jack, to Jackie Robinson, who played for the Montreal Royals. How was he an influence on you?
Garland Jeffreys When I was growing up, all the players were white. I wasborn in ’43 and Jackie Robinson played his first [major league] game on April 15, 1947. The game was so important that my father and my mother and my grandfather all went to that game at Ebbets Field. If you look at the [Don’t Call Me Buckwheat] cover, in addition to the back of One-Eyed Jack, you see prominent forces there. And it was cause for tremendous celebration when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. I was only four, but I later began to understand what that all meant. In the early ’50s, Willy Mays was the first Giants player. Several black players came into the baseball leagues. When a kid is very young he’s not intellectually savvy by any means, but he can see certain things and he can feel the feelings of his family around him and how people are celebrating, in a certain sense. All kinds of feelings like, “It’s about time.” There’s a certain amount of disturbance in all that, but at the same time it’s like Obama becoming president.
Rover Race is a recurring theme in your music. Is this a reflection of your personal experiences or a conscious effort to increase social awareness?
Jeffreys It’s a combination of the two. My own personal liberation as time has gone on in my life coupled with the idea that I found a resistance as a human being, as many many people of colour felt. For me it was such a natural way to express myself. So I did, as one aspect of my songwriting.
Rover Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll lists some early rock’n’roll artists: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Also Elvis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis. Some would accuse the second half of that list of stealing from the first half. Do you view things differently?
Jeffreys It’s the way the world works. You think about those great, great black artists, like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Fats Domino – they were fantastic. Elvis is a very good example. Elvis had a certain prolific style, but it was his interpretation that was seen as more commercial. Because that was all about race. White radio stations. You know, Pat Boone is a good example of an artist who I wouldn’t say didn’t have a great amount of talent, but do you want the Pat Boone version or the rock’n’roll version?
Rover Does music have the power to bring about change?
Jeffreys I think it does. I think it always has. I think jazz was very powerful as a mouthpiece for the black community in the ’40s. People like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. So many. Louis Armstrong is a great example. He was seen by some in the black community as being an Uncle Tom, which I think was not accurate. I think that he was a tremendous musical force. I love it.
Rover How long did it take you to write and record the new album?
Jeffreys It’s a question of self-finance. It would be put together in pieces, the arrangements, recording some of the demos. You wanna make demos ’cause you don’t want to waste valuable expensive time in the studio. You want to keep it simple and learn from the demos so that you eventually have the real recording work done quickly and, of course, with the best musicians you can find. No budget from the record company. You don’t have that luxury. It’s a good thing, too. This proved to be very good for me because I became very careful in making some good decisions. In the end, working with a guy like Larry Campbell, who’s not only a guitar player, in the process of making the album he came along as a co-producer at a certain point. Working with someone like Larry was a great experience. He’s got very good decision-making abilities. He’s very simple, so you’re not overly experimenting. It’s great to experiment, but you gotta pay for that. This is a time where you don’t have that luxury.
Rover On this album, and on previous ones, you explore many genres and styles of music. Lyrically, you cite a lot of musicians that have influenced you. Do you consider yourself to be a musicologist?
Jeffreys No. I’m a musician who loves to write songs. I think it’s great when you can take the fan on a journey by not doing the same style on each song. To have some variation. Not to mention that the songwriting itself, to me, requires different treatment. Different approach. Not always, but a good deal of the time, I find some recordings to be not that exciting because they’re very much in the same place in each song. The same key. I really like the fun and experimentation and challenge of making an album like The King of In Between that showcase the songs. It’s not style for style’s sake. It’s style that I find to be the best suited for the song.
Rover You’ve known Lou Reed for a very long time. How did the collaboration on this album come about?
Jeffreys Very simple: Lou is a friend of mine. For 50 years. A question of saying, “Hey, come on over,” as I’ve done with albums of his.
Rover You’ve recorded with some other pretty big names: John Cale, Stan Getz, Dr. John, David Sanborn, just to name a few. Is there anyone else you’d like to work with?
Jeffreys Well, you know I worked with Sonny Rollins and that was a tremendous experience. I appeared on the Soundstage show in Chicago. I had a choice of people to work with, with my band. So I chose Sonny to play on Nothing Big in Sight. Check it out on YouTube, the performance and the song. It’s never been on an album. At the same time I had a show with Carmen McRae. She happened to be a relative of mine which we found out at the time. She was one of the greats. I would love to go back and work with Sonny again – I think I may have a chance.
Rover Thanks for talking with us. I’m looking forward to your show on Sunday night.
Jeffreys I’m really looking forward to Montreal. I love the town.
Garland Jeffreys at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent Blvd.), Nov. 20, at 8 pm
Photo by Danny Clinch