Richard Shindell: Finding character in song

Richard Shindell performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday, October 26


Richard Shindell: Finding character in song

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 20, 2002) – When Richard Shindell first started out in the singer-songwriter business, he had to get over the notion that writing songs was a worthless pursuit and that no one would ever hear the fruits of his labors.

“When I wrote the songs for my first album, I was writing for myself,” said Shindell, who performs at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday night, October 26, at 9, in a recent E-mail interview from his home in Buenos Aires. “The only bar I was trying to get over was the one in my own head.”

Fortunately, Shindell didn’t let that bar get in the way of pursuing his muse. Now, a decade after Sparrows Point was released, Shindell has five albums to his credit and he is a critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter, widely considered to be one of the best of the new-folk generation.

And those bars in his head no longer get in the way. “When I write now,” said Shindell, “I’ve learned that I need to banish from my mind any thoughts of the other bars, the ones in the heads of all those people I’ve never even met. Imagining those bars will send you straight down to the bar.”

The only bars that Shindell faces these days are the ones he plays in. But even these are few and far between, as these days he more customarily fills auditoriums, theaters and concert halls.

In recent years, Shindell has reached a much wider audience as a featured member of Joan Baez’s touring ensemble. As the folksinger did 40 years ago with another then-unknown singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan, Baez recorded several of Shindell’s songs and invited him to tour with her and to open her shows. Shindell was also introduced to new fans several years ago as one-third of the new-folk supergroup, Cry Cry Cry, alongside Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky.

But ultimately it is his own work – his own live performances, captured on the live album, Courier (Signature Sounds), released earlier this year, and his masterful songwriting, represented on albums including Blue Divide, Reunion Hill and Somewhere Near Paterson – that has garnered Shindell the respect and acclaim of critics and fans alike.

Shindell’s songs include vivid dramas of people in challenging or even extreme situations, like “Courier,” “Arrowhead,” “Fishing,” “Reunion Hill,” and latter-day road songs like “Next Best Western” and “The Kenworth of My Dreams.”

Among the elements uniting his best material are precise writing and the inevitable juncture of lyrical meter and melody.

“While poetry has to sing with its own internal music, songs sing with a melody. Good poems are rarely singable. Songs, no matter how ‘poetic’ the lyrics, rarely read well. They don’t stand on their own.

“Song lyrics are often compared to poetry - in my opinion wrongly. They only look similar -- verses, stanzas, meter.

“I was a musician -- playing things that others had written -- long before I ever started writing lyrics. When it occurred to me that I might be able to create something as well, I naturally gravitated toward songs. I tried writing poetry in college, but my poetry was lousy.”

Even though many of his songs capture people in dramatic situations – in battle, in legal trouble, in emotional turmoil – Shindell says that his songs mostly always begin with character.

“I write best, if not exclusively, with a specific, individual perspective in mind. I
usually have no idea when I begin a song either who this person is or what the world looks like through his or her eyes. I might start with a name, or a voice. Sometimes it’s just a line without any context.”

Shindell offers an example from one of his best known tunes. “‘Reunion Hill’ started as two lines that came out of the blue: ‘Must’ve been in late September/When last I climbed Reunion Hill.’

“Nothing to phone home about, but intriguing. So I stare -- for hours, or days, or weeks, or years -- at all of the empty space on the legal pad and I wonder, who is speaking? In what circumstances would someone say this? Where is ‘Reunion Hill’? Why ‘last,’ as if this person hasn’t been there for some time? Why not? What is it about ‘Reunion Hill’ that would make one want to climb it?

“The rest of the process is one of staying with that individual voice while the scenario and context are enlarged. Some songwriters describe writing as ‘finding’ a song, as if it had always ‘been there.’ My experience, on the other hand, is one of ‘finding’ characters.”

A native of Long Island, Shindell attended college in Pennsylvania, where briefly he played in a rock band with another would-be songwriter named John Gorka. After a brief detour in seminary, he fell in with the thriving new-folk scene in New York in the mid-1980s centered around Fast Folk Music Magazine – the same scene that spawned the careers of Gorka, Kaplansky and Shawn Colvin.

For much of the 1990s, Shindell wrote songs, recorded and performed. Two years ago, Shindell moved to Buenos Aires with his Argentine wife, who teaches history at a university there.

At first, he said, the move to Argentina put a brake on his creative life.

“The process -- schlepping a family and all of its belongings to another hemisphere, learning the language, the codes, the street plans -- was utterly absorbing and gratifying,” said Shindell. “So I didn’t write songs for a period of time.

“Also, I think I was expecting myself to be able to write songs directly about this experience -- expatriation, life in Argentina -- to distill it in a way that a North American audience would understand.

“But there was so much that I felt they would not understand, so much explaining to do. I found I could only do it in prose. So I wrote a few essays instead.

“Now that I’m more-or-less up to speed here, I’m writing songs again. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, they’re all about the country I left behind.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 25, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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