Restless from the cradle

UNCHAINED - Jude Johnstone 

Before the internet, there were three main ways to discover new music. 

Radio was the primary source due to the amount of time spent listening, but playlists were always limited and geared toward very commercial songs unless you were lucky enough to live near a station that gave DJs a lot of latitude.  

Friends and family were useful, but limited in how much they could discover that you didn't already know.  

The third way source was record stores. A handful of albums I encountered while browsing LPs struck me so hard at first listen that I still recall the time and place I discovered them.

In late 1996 on a cold, grey day I entered a record shop in Washington, DC; the store was playing a CD with a cold, grey cover photo: Johnny Cash's "Unchained."  "What is this sound," I asked myself? I loved Cash's classic songs but it been a long time since I'd heard anything new and memorable from the Man in Black. What I was hearing on the speakers was magic. I grabbed a copy, paid, and went home to play the album over and over again.  It's still a favorite.

Johnny Cash's "Unchained" LP cover
"Unchained"

Somehow, I had missed his comeback album "American Recordings" two years earlier, just Johnny and his guitar soloing on an eclectic collection of superb songs.

"Unchained," which went on to win the Grammy for Country Album of the Year, likewise featured a diverse set of amazing songs, this time sung with full backing, including members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.

Many of the songs were written famous musicians - Petty, Beck, Hal David, Chris Cornell, the Carter Family, and three by Cash himself. But the two songs at the heart of this masterpiece were written by lesser-known individuals: "Spiritual," by Josh Haden, and the title track, "Unchained," by Jude Johnstone. Both songs concern human weakness and suffering while pleading for divine assistance. Haden's is a slow burn to a howl, Johnstone's more contemplative, a reckoning of one's shortcomings. Cash, needless to say, embodies both songs with breathtaking emotion. 


Johnstone has written terrific songs for a number of artists, winning the BMI Songwriter's Award in 1993 for Trish Yearwood's #1 country hit, "The Woman Before Me." Her songs have been used on various television series and she is a talented vocalist and keyboard player, having released eight albums of her own.

Portrait of Jude Johnstone
Jude Johnstone

I recently reached out to her and truly enjoyed hearing her thoughts about the history and legacy of "Unchained."  As you will read, I did have to start out with a confession...

1 - I'll be honest; I hadn't looked at the credits on the Cash's "Unchained" LP since I bought the CD when it came out; over the years I came to think of it as a song that Johnny wrote for himself because the song suits him as perfectly as any song ever has. My apologies! I recently read the credits again and saw your name, thankfully. Did you write it specifically for him or was it something you were already working on?

Jude Johnstone: No, no. I write the songs for myself and then sometimes other people record them. I actually wrote Unchained quite awhile before Johnny did it. I just didn’t have a record deal to put my own version out until a few years later. Was still just a label that me and my manager made up to release my own records on. That’s why it came out after John’s recording. He was actually listening to my demo of it when he recorded it, which was a much more raucous, gospel version like the one on my debut CD, "Coming Of Age." He just heard it like a hymn in his own head. And sung it that way.

2 - How did you find out that the album itself would be titled after your song, which must have been a thrill?

JJ: I heard that Johnny Cash was playing a show at the Fox theater in Bakersfield. I lived on the Central Coast of California about two hours from there. I had heard that he had recorded a song of mine for his new project but I didn’t invest in that emotionally 'cause I knew that he would probably record 20 or 30 songs and the odds of my actually making the record were probably pretty slim. But I wanted to meet him, so I called his management and told them he had recorded my song and asked if I could come and meet him briefly before the show? I got the word that my name would be on a list, so my husband and I and our two small kids drove to Bakersfield. My husband was originally from there and his folks still lived there so we dropped off the 5-year-old, Emma, with her grandma and took the 4-month-old, Ray, with us. She was still nursing and hadn’t spent any time away from me so my plan was to have my husband walk her around in the parking lot outside the club while I dashed in to meet John. And then we would meet in the balcony afterward where we were to be seated so I could nurse her to sleep and we could watch the show. 
 
So, I went up to the manager and said, “Hi, I’m Jude Johnstone, here to meet Johnny; I wrote a song that he’s recorded?” The manager just looked at me and said “And?”
Worried, I stuttered, “I... I called ahead, I think he’s expecting me..” He sighed and said, “Wait here.” And disappeared behind the stage. 
 
The audience was just starting to filter in. The bus was parked directly off the stage as usual and he came back after a few minutes and said “Okay, follow me.” He took me across the stage, over the cables and onto the bus. There was John and June who graciously greeted me. We exchanged warm hugs and conversation and then June says, “Where’s your husband?” And I explain that he is out in the parking lot with the baby so I can meet them. June says, completely seriously, “Babies love me. Do you want me to go out in the parking lot and find them? I can take the baby so he can come meet John.” For a half a second, I imagined how PRICELESS this scene would be and said, “No, that’s quite all right.” After a few minutes, it was time for Johnny to go on so I went up into the balcony, as planned, nursed my daughter to sleep and settled down to watch the show. 
 
About halfway through the set, Johnny says, “I wanna introduce you to my California songwriter friend Jude Johnstone!" And the spotlight starts searching for me! I have a sleeping baby on my breast! In a moment, I quickly pull her off me praying she doesn’t wake up. Just then, the light finds me and I stand halfway up, wave to the audience and sit back down again. Then Johnny says, “I wanna play you Jude’s song. It’s called UNCHAINED. It’s the title track of my new album.”

3 - Your version, released five years after Cash's, has more of a bluesy, gospel feel with Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar. You've mentioned that you had someone else play piano on the record. Since you are a very good pianist yourself, what did you want that person to bring to the performance?

JJ: Yes, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes are singing the backup vocals on my recording and Bonnie is on the slide guitar. (Producer) Garth Fundis and I had John Hobbs play the piano on it cause the song has a real churchy, gospel feel on the piano that you have to be really well versed in that style to play. And he just killed it like we knew he would.

 

4 - "Old man swearing at the sidewalk and I am overcome." That image and emotion really sticks with me. Was it based on an actual person you saw or is it fictional?

JJ: Yes, it was an actual person. I was just walking on Hollywood and Vine to my publisher Bug Music’s office, back when I lived in Hollywood (1979-92). The old man was just a typical sight on the corner of a city like Los Angeles, and he was swearing and carrying on about the government and what have you and it just occurred to me that there wasn’t that much of a difference between HIS lost and MY lost, on a spiritual level. So I started the song way back then. And I didn’t finish it till about '92, when my friend Valerie Carter came up to Cambria, where we had moved to, to visit me. I played her the start of it and she said, “You gotta finish this thing.” So I did. She did a really sweet version of it herself with me accompanying her, that was never released before John did it. I still have a copy of it, of course.


5 - You conduct songwriting workshops. Do you use "Unchained" while teaching and, if so, what lessons can it teach aspiring writers?

JJ: Hmm, workshops. I mainly listen to what the students are working on and I might get out something of mine to illustrate a point but mostly I focus on their work and how to make it the best that it can be. Now in college lectures, I like to stretch out more, tell some stories, like the Cash story or a Bonnie Raitt or Dr. John story, and answer questions they have about how I got a certain song to this one or that one cause they are usually interested in that. And sometimes a lesson on initiative and courage.

6 - You have a 1926 Mason & Hamlin parlor grand piano. Is that what you wrote "Unchained" on?

JJ: No, I got that piano sometime later. It was given to me by my cello player Bob Liepman’s mom, Nanette, when she moved into an assisted living place. She had a boyfriend who liked to dabble on the piano occasionally so I traded my Baldwin upright, just a sort of schoolhouse piano I had for years, (which I did write Unchained on and many others) for him to tinker on, in exchange for this priceless 1926 Mason & Hamlin parlor grand that is a songwriter’s dream. My kids called it ‘the great piano trade of ‘04.’

Jude's piano
Jude's piano

7 - For years I thought Cash sang "Oh, have I seen an angel OR have I seen a ghost" and was a little saddened when I realized that he actually sings "OH have I seen a ghost." So when I listened to your version, I was pleased to hear you sang "or." Do you believe you have ever seen an angel or a ghost - and which it was?

JJ: I believe that grace comes to us in the form of human beings when you least expect it, as in the ‘old man swearin’ at the sidewalk.’ I believe he was put there for me to see; perhaps an angel, perhaps a ghost. In either case, to teach me or startle me in some way. To shake me out of my sleep at the time. Which he did.

And Your Voice Like Chimes

SAD EYED LADY OF THE LOWLANDS - Emma Swift


There are two types of people: those who think Bob Dylan can't sing worth a damn and those who know that he's a fantastic vocalist. Needless to say, I am in the latter camp.

I think both camps will agree, however, that Nashvillian-by-way-of Australia Emma Swift can sing very well. She has referred to herself as the anti-Paul McCartney - able to “take a sad song and make it sadder.” Her most recent project is ambitious: an album of Bob Dylan covers, cleverly titled "Blonde on the Tracks."


"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is perhaps the most challenging song that she covers. There are people who think that some of Dylan's lyrics (such as those in "Sad Eyed Lady") are nonsense, they're nothing more than words that sound good when strung together. Again, I strongly disagree with this take (though I think there is nothing wrong with lyrics that are pleasing to the ear and have no deeper meaning). Covering a song like Sad Eyed Lady, with its opaque phrases, is not as straightforward as singing a Dylan love song along the lines of "Make You Feel My Love," which is much more direct and - perhaps not coincidentally - notably covered by Adele, Garth Brooks, and Billy Joel.

Oh, and "Sad Eyed Lady" is a very long song, the original version on Blonde On Blonde clocking in at 11:22.


"Sad Eyed Lady" has been covered by some amazing artists: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Steve Howe, Old Crow Medicine Show. While each version is pleasant enough, none of them have worked for me.  I never felt these singers were emotionally connected to the lyrics. Emma's version is the first one that's really resonated.

Head over to Bandcamp to hear (and/or buy) Blonde on the Tracks if you haven't already. The album has been generating tremendous buzz since its release, a tribute not only to Emma's artistry but to her hard work as an independent artist, wearing as many hats as needed to get her album produced, publicized, played, sold, shipped, and so on. 

She kindly took time to answer my questions about "Sad Eyed Lady."

1 - What is it about Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands that compelled you to include it on Blonde on the Tracks, when there are many hundreds of Bob Dylan songs from which to pick? 
 
EMMA SWIFT: There are hundreds of songs, but there’s only one "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." It felt right. It felt honest. It felt essential. When the world gets me down, that song is like going back to the womb. It restores me back to my factory settings. 
 
2 - This is a song dense with poetic imagery which is anything but straightforward or linear. Did you try to figure out what phrases like "The kings of Tyrus with their convict list" meant specifically to you or was it a more intuitive, open ended process of letting the words flow through you while singing? 
 
ES: Everything I do is based on intuition. I’m a Pisces rising, it’s in my astrological DNA. 
 

3 - Maybe it's not hard for you as a professional singer, but how do you get Dylan's very distinctive phrasing out of your mind and sing the words in your own voice? 
 
ES: I love Dylan’s phrasing, but I’m not a mimic. It’s not in my skill set. Some folks are extraordinarily gifted in this way, but I am quite limited. I can only really sing in my own style. So I didn’t have to work hard to get his voice out of my head, the hard work would have been trying to sound more like him. 
 
4 - This is a famously long song and your version is nearly 12 minutes long. Do you have to approach it differently vocally from a typical 3-4 minute cut to pace yourself in the studio, or was it not a concern as you could cut and paste various takes? 
 
ES: I don’t really think of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands being a long song, I think of it more like a meditation or a soliloquy. I approached it the same way I approach the recording of any song I do: with tenderness, depth of feeling, vulnerability, nervousness, fear and wonder. 

Another song from "Blonde on the Tracks"
 
5 - Were you familiar with any other cover version of the song (such as Joan Baez's) and did they influence your take at all? 
 
ES: When I made the album I had to work hard to erase all knowledge of Dylan covers from my mind. There are so many, and the feeling that I might just be needlessly adding to the pile was a worry that my shadow self definitely liked to remind me of from time to time. Negative self-talk and hyper-awareness of what everyone else has done or is doing are the enemy of my creative life force and are to be avoided at all costs! 
 
6 - Did you try doing Sad Eyed Lady at any different tempos/keys/arrangements, or did you go into the recording knowing exactly how you wanted it to sound? 
 
ES: I never go into anything in life knowing exactly how it is going to turn out, I’m just not that kind of soul! Recording music is fun because a studio session can go in all kinds of directions once you’re in there and the band are bouncing off each other. We didn’t do much experimentation, we just played the song. The beauty in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands had already been masterfully laid out by Dylan more than 40 years before, we just had to play it through and see what happened.  

7 - How did you decide where to place it on the album, between "Simple Twist of Fate" and "The Man in Me" as track #5? 
 
ES: It’s the centrepiece of the record, so I put it in the middle. I wanted it to be unavoidable. Something to unclog the arteries and the tear ducts.

Emma is a great Twitter follow. Also find her at YouTubePatreon, Instagram, Facebook and emmaswift.com

Let The World All Think What They Will

NO ONE HAS TO KNOW (from "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel") 

Lyricist Tom Mizer

I interviewed the funny, frank and insightful Thomas Mizer about "No One has to Know," one of the songs he and composer Curtis Moore have written for the Amazon series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Even if you aren't a fan of the show (though why wouldn't you be?), you have to be impressed by the production values.  The art department, costumers, hair stylists and others recreate the late '50s and early '60s in amazing detail.  Perhaps the most difficult challenge in this regard is the creation of original songs, which falls to Mizer and Moore. 

The producers could have used existing songs from that era - say a Johnny Mathis hit - but chose to use new music instead. When a character in the series is a historical figure, such as comedian Lenny Bruce, their actual material can be used.  When a character is fictional, such as the titular Mrs. Maisel, the writers have to come up with an original act authentic enough to make us believe it would have been fresh and funny fifty years ago.
 
So it is with Shy Baldwin, the popular singer who plays a key role in the third season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." While he calls to mind a few vocalists from that era, he is not just a copy or an homage, he is a unique and complex fictional character.  How do you write a song that not only sounds like it's from that time, but also is good enough to have been a hit? On top of that tall order, you also have to use it to advance a major plot point?
 
"No One Has to Know"

The show's creator and executive producer, Amy Sherman-Palladino, wisely turned to Mizer and Moore, the award-winning duo who write songs for stage and screen.  Thomas is the lyricist, Curtis the composer.  Their efforts for the series have been recognized this year with an “Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics” Emmy nomination for another Shy Baldwin song, “One Less Angel.” Let's wish them luck when the award is handed out this month.

To me, one of the most powerful moments in "Maisel" is when Shy pulls up a stool in the middle of his show and slows things down with a beautifully aching ballad filled with subtext.  Getting to talk to Thomas about this song proved to be a very rewarding peek behind the creative curtain.

Note: While "Maisel" is not a show that relies on surprising twists and reveals, some plot points from the most recent season are discussed below, so be forewarned if you have yet to watch it.

Another note: All of these great photos were provided by Thomas Mizer.

Composer Thomas Mizer
Thomas Mizer

1 - When I asked if I could interview you about "No One has to Know," you mentioned that this song is very personal to you. How so?

Tom Mizer: The song means a lot to me for many, many reasons—professionally and personally—but I think there are two in particular that stand out.

First, Shy’s situation is incredible compelling to me. To seemingly have it all as a famous star and yet not be allowed to speak your heart, your truth, except through the disguise of a “pop song” breaks my heart. As a gay man, I can’t help but think of my privilege living in this era where I can have what was unthinkable to Shy; I’m married for goodness sake. I think of the real men and women of his era, particularly those of color, who raised their voices and paved the way for me to live my life without having to hide myself behind coded language in a song. 

But also, those lyrics are me. I was, how shall I say it, not particularly successful in romance as a young man. I would pine for love, be friends with people I couldn’t admit I was infatuated with, but assume it could never be. I tried to be that Tom when I wrote the lyrics. That lost romantic is/was me. I think maybe we’ve all been there, gay or straight, and it brings back that hopeful/hopeless feeling.

2 - Given how important this song is to Shy Baldwin's storyline, did you work from a script or were you just given a general directive about what role "No One" needed to play?

TM: The crazy truth is the very first seeds of the song were written BEFORE we knew Shy’s storyline. Amy Sherman-Palladino had asked us to write some songs for Shy and the Silver Belles and, in those first conversations, she gave us a very clear set of musical inspirations but no story inspirations. 

We were initially just trying to see if we could find the right voice for Shy, if we could write songs that would create a believable musical world for him to help build his character. But, at the same time, I made a very calculated guess that Shy might have a forbidden love during the season, whether interracial or gay, and we wrote an early draft of “No One Has to Know” hoping it would be useful down the line. We included that half-demo with the first round of examples we sent Amy. She said to stick a pin in “No One” and we’d talk more about it later in the season.

Once we did have the talk, we of course learned about what Shy’s story was and where this song would happen, so we finished it and shaped it to truly fit the moment. It was a gift and a challenge to have music be the climax of Shy’s story and we worked very hard to make sure it threaded the needle between being dramatically satisfying for the character and yet still believable as a romantic “hit.” 

In the end, I don’t think we ever saw a single, full script of the show! But we absolutely collaborated and talked and worked with Amy and Dan to make the songs as good as possible and serve the story to the best of our ability.

Set of Mrs. Maisel with Shy Baldwin
Curtis Moore, The Belles, LeRoy McClain, Thomas Mizer

 3 - Do you and Curtis stay in your lanes, so to speak, or did you have any role on the music and/or he on the lyrics?

TM: We absolutely have our specialties, particularly because I don’t play an instrument and I have marginal singing skills. But there aren’t boundaries in our collaboration. Curtis is a very smart editor of my lyrics, asks amazing questions, and often comes up with just the right words when I’m searching for them. I think he would say the same about my contributions to the music. I do know he will often ask me to “sing” what I heard when I wrote a lyric, mainly so he can hear my rhythms, and there are many blackmail-worthy voice recordings that exist of me doing just that.

 "No One Has to Know" sheet music

4 - Doing a song that sounds like it's from 1960 means it needed to have specific musical characteristics. It's not as obvious how to do this with the lyrics - what was your approach?

TM: That’s a really interesting question! And very true. Writing lyrics for a specific era isn’t as obvious a template as music and, honestly, it’s not exactly about being period perfect. 

We spent a lot of time listening to hours and hours of music from the era, just so the feel of it would be in our bones. Lyrically, that research manifested itself differently in different songs. For “One Less Angel,” I had noticed a thread of “mythical meets the everyday” in a lot of songs from the era and so that influenced the subject matter. (I also spent serious time researching to make sure the grammatical “error” in that hook was period and colloquial. Take that, my college English professors!)

For “No One,” I tried to capture the syntax of those just pre-rock romantic songs—elegant American songbook era songs—that have very tight structures but find poetry in the simplest of words. Although those songs are related to golden-age music theater (which plays into my theater background), there were no Sondheim three syllable rhymes allowed!

In the end, it’s a gut check. Curtis and I listen and listen to feel if a word or a phrase takes us out of the moment. If you question a lyric, even if it would technically have been said in the era, then it has to be changed. There’s no place in a song for a footnote justifying the choice. You don’t want anything to ruin the illusion of the drama.

5 - Were you involved with the recording of the vocal by Darius de Haas, giving him guidance or feedback?

TM: One of the best and most unexpected parts of working on Maisel was that we were involved in the whole process from writing to recording to filming. Curtis got to arrange and conduct some of the songs and we were there for every studio session collaborating and honing the work. So many details changed in the studio, as we played with the singers and musicians.

Darius is a dream and actually someone we’d known from the theater world. It was such a bonus to find out he was the singer we’d be working with! The amazing thing to watch and be a part of, though, was the relationship that developed between Darius and LeRoy McClain, the actor who plays Shy. LeRoy was in the booth with Darius during recording. Darius was on set with LeRoy during filming. They became very close and worked tirelessly together to make the performance seamless.

For “No One” in particular, they talked in the recording booth about where Shy was mentally and they charted out when in the song he is aware of the audience and when he is singing for himself. On set, they spent time talking about how having broken ribs (Shy has just been beaten up) might affect the singing and how Shy would have to hold himself to get breath. My getting to have a creative voice with people like LeRoy and Darius, who cared as much as I did about making the moment the best it could be, made the experience very special.

Set of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
On the set for the "No One Has to Know" scene


6 - When you watched the finished episode and saw Shy performing the song during a "stool set," how did it hit you?

TM: Honestly, watching it on screen the first time was more nerve-wracking than anything else, praying that we hadn’t screwed up the whole story.  “Award-winning show canceled because of bad song!”

The more emotional time was being on set when it was filmed. I was hiding in the back of the theater in Miami, nervous about the big moment happening. Curtis had already left for a prior commitment when the schedule got changed so I was alone. I was probably pacing.

Amy found me and barked at me to stop hiding and come join her by the camera. So I was standing right there, right by Amy’s side at the camera, as they filmed those takes of LeRoy giving his heart and soul to the song. It was so intimate and perfect. Amy leaned over during one take and whispered, “You did this.” Now, I know it wasn’t just me; there were so many people on set and beyond who had made it happen, but it was such a generous, kind thing to say. I’m so grateful to her. I may have ruined the next take with some very discreet crying.

7 - If you could have any singer, living or dead, perform their version of "No One has to Know," who would it be?

TM: A bunch of big-voiced, emotional singers leap to mind. Billy Porter. Barbra Streisand. Adele. But the alpha and omega of our search for Shy’s voice were Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke. They are radically different performers and having that huge range to work within allowed us to make Shy his own person. So I’d love to hear what each of them would do with the song, one bringing his silky need, the other bringing his soul-deep pain. Mr. Mathis is still with us and still singing beautifully, so maybe…?

 For more, please check out the Mizer and Moore website and find them on Twitter at @MizerAndMoore