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J.D. Souther: A 'Natural History' Of Songwriting

Aug 30, 2011
Originally published on August 30, 2011 5:11 pm

As part of the thriving 1970s country-rock scene in Southern California, J.D. Souther collaborated on many of The Eagles' hits, including "New Kid in Town." Souther has jazz in his background — his father was a big-band crooner — and his new album, titled Natural History, does have a stripped-down jazz feel. Souther wrote all of these songs, many of which became classics for other artists. Now he's gone back and reclaimed them.

"It all turned out to be this nice, moody, kind of ... if it was a movie, you'd call it 'film noir,' probably," Souther says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "It's all sort of smoky and rainy."

For his new album, Souther got some advice from Linda Ronstadt, for whom he used to write songs.

"Very pointedly, she said, 'Don't try to rewrite the songs.' I mean, she encouraged me to do the record because I defer to her advice quite often," Souther says. "She really has just practically infallible taste in songs. She's got what jazz players call 'big ears.' So I just kind of sat back and approached it as though the songs had been chosen for me by someone else. It's a real crooner album. I know my dad's grinnin' about it somewhere. It's all so pretty and kinda seductive and sweet."

When Ronstadt gave that advice, she meant not to change the songs — or "Don't trim them down."

"Sing the essence of the song and let it go at that," Souther says. "Trust the fact that they're well-written. It was a huge load off, because ... I already know people like these songs. They sort of have already found their place."

A Guitar And A Motorcycle

Picture this: In the early days of his career, Souther shared an apartment with future Eagles member Glenn Frey in Los Angeles. Downstairs was Jackson Browne. Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and many others from that scene hung around, too.

"Looking back, we were pretty lucky," Souther says. "It was a pretty great time. We were all scuffling, just trying to get by. I had a Triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle and a strap on my guitar so I could actually get to a gig with my guitar on a motorcycle. But we didn't have any money. We were all playing open mic nights for free."

In such a tight-knit community, ideas and songs were inevitably shared. Souther could actually hear Jackson Browne writing and rehearsing through the floor.

"There were many times I wish [Browne] would stop playing," Souther says. "I heard 'Doctor My Eyes' so many times that I could hear it in my sleep. He was relentless. I'll tell you, I learned a lot about patience in songwriting from Jackson Browne. He would work one phrase for hours and toss it and turn it and mold it. [It] gave me a lot more patience, because my instinct was just to just throw something down and move on."

What Makes The Song

"You're Only Lonely" was originally released in 1979, and was No. 1 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart. Souther reprises the song on Natural History. Now, it's a little bit lower and whole lot slower.

"It still sounds like me. I mean, no matter what I do, I'm not gonna sound like Sam Cooke," Souther says. "I gave that up at about age 19."

Souther says he's thankful that he gave up smoking 20 years ago, and that he has taken a step back in volume. He also sees a voice and throat doctor who encourages his patients to sing with their mouth instead of their throat.

Given that Souther has written many popular songs for other musicians, Block asks what gives a song legs.

"Someone asked me that once before, and I said, 'If I knew that, I'd write 'Faithless Love' every morning.' But it's hard to pin down," Souther says. "Obviously, it has to sound good. It has to do a certain thing to people emotionally when they hear it. Past that, I don't think there are any rules, because some of my songs are just pure sentiment, and some are obviously letters to myself, cautionary tales to myself. Some are clearly politically driven. I think the main thing is that it just has to sound good to people. It has to hit somebody's ear in a way that makes them want to start it over again when they get to the end. I'm with Duke Ellington. I think there's two kinds of music: Good music and the other kind."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW KID IN TOWN")

THE EAGLES: (Singing) There's talk on the street. It sounds so familiar.

BLOCK: The Eagles from 1976, a number one song. And now, a new version from the co-writer, J.D. Souther.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW KID IN TOWN")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Johnny come lately, the new kid in town. Will she still love you when you're not around?

BLOCK: J.D. Souther collaborated on many of The Eagles' hits as part of a thriving country rock scene in Southern California in the '70s. Souther has jazz in his background - his father was a big-band crooner - and this CD, titled "Natural History," does have a stripped-down jazz feel. These are all songs J.D. Souther wrote, many of which became classics for other artists. Now, he's gone back and reclaimed them.

SOUTHER: It all turned out to be this nice, moody - I don't know - if it was a movie, you'd call it film noir, probably. You know, it's all sort of smoky and rainy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER BLUE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Silver Blue said goodbye to no one, thought it through.

BLOCK: You got some advice, I think, for the new CD from Linda Ronstadt, who you partnered with a long time ago. You wrote a lot of songs for her. What did she tell you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: Very pointedly, she said, don't try to rewrite the songs. I mean, she encouraged me to do the record because I defer to her advice quite often. Musically, she really has just practically infallible taste in songs, and she's got what jazz players call big ears. So I just sort of sat back and approached it as though the songs had been chosen for me by someone else. It's a real crooner album. I know my dad's grinning about it somewhere because it's all so pretty and kind of seductive and sweet and...

BLOCK: So when Linda Ronstadt was talking about not - she was warning you not to rewrite the songs, she meant...

SOUTHER: Yes. Just don't change them...

BLOCK: ...don't fancy them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: ...or don't trim them down, either. Just don't change them, you know? Sing the essence of the song and let it go at that. Trust the fact that they're well-written. And it was really a relief. It was a huge load off, because I thought to myself, well, wow, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for this album. I already know people like these songs. They had sort of already found their place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITHLESS LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Faithless love like a river flows. Like raindrops falling on a broken rose.

BLOCK: When you think back to the early days of your career, out in Southern California, Los Angeles, I'm trying to picture this. You were sharing an apartment with Glenn Frey before The Eagles. Downstairs was Jackson Browne. And all around you, I guess, would have been Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, any number of other people.

SOUTHER: Well, you know, looking back, it was - we were pretty lucky. It was a pretty great time. We were all just scuffling, trying to get by. I had a Triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle and a strap on my guitar, so I could actually get to a gig with my guitar on a motorcycle. But we didn't have any money. We were all playing open mic nights for free.

BLOCK: Would you guys be swapping songs? Would Jackson Browne come up and say, you know, I've been working on this lyric, let me play it for you?

SOUTHER: God, he didn't have to. I could hear him through the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: It's true. There were many times I wish he would stop playing. I heard "Doctor My Eyes" so many times that I could hear it in my sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOCTOR MY EYES")

JACKSON BROWNE: (Singing) Doctor, my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of fears...

SOUTHER: He was relentless. I'll tell you, I learned a lot about patience in songwriting from Jackson Browne - more than from anyone - because he would work one phrase for hours and turn it and toss and mold it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOCTOR MY EYES")

BROWNE: (Singing) ...to see the evil and the good...

SOUTHER: Gave me a lot more patience, because my instinct was just to just throw something down and move on.

BLOCK: Well, let's go ahead and listen to one of your songs, "You're Only Lonely," which was a top 10 hit for you back in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) When the world is ready to fall on your little shoulders and when you're feeling lonely and small...

BLOCK: So that's in 1979. And let's listen to you now with "You're Only Lonely."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) When you're feeling lonely and small, you need somebody there to hold you. You can call out my name when you're only lonely.

BLOCK: So it's a little bit lower. It's a whole lot slower. What do you hear in your voice now compared with back in the '70s?

SOUTHER: It sounds good.

BLOCK: I think it sounds good. And you're...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: That's about it. It still just sounds like me. I mean, no matter what I do, I'm not going to sound like Sam Cooke, so I gave that up at about age 19.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: So I'm just going to sound like me no matter what.

BLOCK: You do get way up there, though. At the end there, those wonderful notes that kind of float up in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ONLY LONELY")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Darling, I get lonely too.

BLOCK: I just love that.

SOUTHER: Thank you. I'm very grateful that I have the genetics, that my voice has stayed in good shape. I'm also thrilled that I quit smoking 20 years ago, but also just taking a step back in volume. I have a wonderful voice and throat doctor here who has a great vocal coach in his practice, Dr. Cleveland, who encourages people to sing with their mouth rather than their throat. And I haven't lost my voice on the road once since I've been out this time.

BLOCK: That's interesting. Does it mean you're not pushing in a certain way?

SOUTHER: It means you're not pushing too hard.

BLOCK: Yeah.

SOUTHER: I mean, you have to still propel it with something. But if you got plenty in your diaphragm, your throat really doesn't have to do too much work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Every night, I'm lying in bed, holding you close in my dreams.

BLOCK: What do you think it is that makes a song last? What gives it legs?

SOUTHER: Somebody asked me that once before, and I said, if I knew that, I'd write "Faithless Love" every morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SOUTHER: But it's hard to pin down. Obviously, it has to sound good. It has to do a certain thing to people emotionally when they hear it. Past that, I don't think there are any rules, because some of my songs are just pure sentiment and some are obviously letters to myself, cautionary tales to myself. Some are clearly politically driven. But I think the main thing is that it just has to sound good to people. It has to hit somebody's ear in a way that makes them want to start it over again when they get to the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) But here in my heart...

SIEGEL: good music and the other kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Which speaks for itself.

SOUTHER: I think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Oh, sweet darling...

BLOCK: Well, J.D. Souther, it's been fun talking to you. Thank you.

SOUTHER: Melissa, it's been great talking to you. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) Oh, sweet darling...

BLOCK: J.D. Souther, his new CD is "Natural History."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST OF MY LOVE")

SOUTHER: (Singing) ...you get the best of my love. Oh, sweet darling.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.