Eldridge on... Everything / by Charlie Christenson

A little over three years ago, I had the opportunity, as a contributor for About.com, to interview my friend, teacher and mentor, Peter Eldridge (founding member of the New York Voices, vocal group MOSS, and Manhattan School of Music and Berklee College of Music faculty member). I happened upon the interview a few days ago and was pleased, and honestly a bit surprised, to see how much of what was covered has withstood the test of time - particularly regarding business. It's safe to say that this conversation, and the many Peter and I have had since, has significantly shaped the trajectory of the work I do in music and education. Good vibes.

I'm happy to share some excerpts from our conversation below.

On Songwriting:

CC: When you're writing a song do you write lyrics or music first?

PE: There's no real rhyme or reason to it. Lately, I generally do music first. A lot of times it will happen at the same time. My favorite moments are in the car or on the subway and something comes out of the blue. It hits you. And that could just be a melody line or a groove. It could be a lyrical phrase that feels really good. And then a song is grown out of that. One little idea can grow into an entire tune. A lot of times I'll sit down at the piano - I try to just have, I think they call it a “beginner's mind” or something. There's a terrific book, it's called If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. It talks about beginner's mind, a place where you're really focused but there's no pressure there. You're just kind of, for lack of a better word, spewing. And a lot of times that's when the best stuff comes. I don't think that I'm saying anything new, but it's just when it feels like it's just happening and it's spontaneous. That's when it feels organic. 

Usually first ideas are good. A lot of times when I'm writing a tune and I get stuck, this can be anywhere from a week after I started writing it to a year, and it just sits around for a while, I'll go back to that original. I record everything. I always have some sort of a recording device nearby. And I'll go back to that original idea and it's the simplest in the best sense, and the structure of it makes the most sense. It's when you start developing it that you can loose your way and start adding too much information or force the issue. So I usually go back and go "okay, what was the original idea of this?" And then you go, "That's right. I don't need all this. This is all peripheral." 

Lately it's music first with some sort of a core lyric that feels good. I have a friend that made me a series of drum grooves. In the world we're in now you have GarageBand and all that stuff. That's really emancipating for me. When that is there and you can bounce off a groove, that's really inspiring and fun. You don't have to worry about the rhythmic component. Then the piano becomes color, and it gives you one less thing to think about. You're bouncing off what's already there.

CC: That self-editing thing is really important. You've been compared to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. For you, and those songwriters, what are the elements of an effective song? 

PE: From a lyrical standpoint, specifically? 

CC: Overall. I would love for you to get into the lyrics, because I think your lyrics are so interesting and unique and funny and sad. 

PE: I think they definitely come from a fairly passionate place. Whether they're sad or funny or whatever, they're coming from a life experience of some sort. The only thing I want to work on more in my own writing is not writing in first person. I always tend to write in first person and I love the songwriters, the Bob Dylan's, who tell a story almost like a character in a movie. I'd love to delve into that a little bit more. 

For me it usually just comes out. I go back to that horrible word, “spewing.” If I'm feeling really passionate about something, or something's hitting me in a certain way, I end up writing a bunch of stuff and trying not to, as I'm doing it, go "oh, that's really stupid," or "that's been said before." And I'll just write a bunch of stuff and at the end of that time, with a more critical eye, go "okay, we don't need any of that." I end up circling the all the lines that either really say something or end up being more imagery or metaphor - that are more visual, more experience. That is wonderful when that happens. It's not just "I hate my mom," or something like that. When it lets the listener interpret the lyrics the way they want to because it can mean a few different things. 

I'll have a page of notes written and I'll just circle two things, five things, maybe if I'm lucky, ten things, and then I'll use just those as a basis, or a blueprint for what the song might become later. I'm really hard on myself lyrically, because I know I've written my share of trite or preachy lyrics, and they come back to haunt you. [Laughter] 

Writing the music is really fun and usually comes easily. Writing the lyrics is truly a challenge and a discipline that I continue to work on, and can be real hit-or-miss. Some days I just get so frustrated with myself. There's this tune I wrote called "Difficult," and I pretty much sat down and wrote the song. It was one of those things, call it a gift. Then writing the lyric for it took forever, and it's two little verses basically, with a coda. And those two little verses and a coda took me weeks. It was so specific that I went out of my mind writing the lyrics for it. I like the way they came out, but there was a lot of frustration along the way, for sure. 

CC: I put in a lot of "La, la, la's" just to finish a song sometimes. [Laughter]

PE: Well, yeah. If you're singing a chorus you make sounds that feel good in that part of your voice. I've certainly done that, and later on a word matches that sound. It's a little magical sometimes. Other times that doesn't work at all. [Laughter] It's just that sound, that feeling of the sound on that high B or that high F. It evokes some sort of an emotion or some sort of a response lyrically too.

On the Music Business:

CC: I'd like to talk a bit about the music business. What's the difference between releasing an album yourself as an independent and collaborating, like you did on Mad Heaven, with a studio like Palmetto?

PE: I would say, unfortunately, there's less and less different than there used to be, because I think everyone is just scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make this work – you know, what the new bottom line is going to be. Is music going to be something you pay for? Or is it going to be free? Is it something you're going to download? Our whole way of living is changing so much, so quickly, that the business side of music is trying to catch up. 

The benefit is, you can make a really good sounding album for not a lot of money. So, it's sort of the artist's world now. Or the musician's world in a certain respect. 

I think the difference with Palmetto is that I'm getting far more press than I've ever gotten. I scrambled and got nothing for Fool No More. That was a sweet friend's label, but really just an opportunity to record songs. Almost like a production deal or something. Everyone's intentions were good, but ultimately, there was really no PR (public relations). It was just a means for me to make my own record outside of anything the New York Voices does. 

Palmetto is a respected label, it has a lot of great artists, and it’s able to reach people I would not be able to reach on my own. It's just a way of getting out there that I couldn't do by myself. Specifically for press. 

With Decorum I did pretty well, just through gigs, internet sales, and iTunes. I basically made back the money that I spent on the record, which I was thrilled about. And it allowed me to make the next one. It's not like I'm going to become a zillionaire making this album. If I don't lose money doing this album I'll feel great, and it will function as calling card. It is something new, and people like when you do something new, something new to say. That's what it about. 

Does that answer the question?

CC: Well, speaking of breaking even. In my experience doing gigs, I found myself becoming satisfied just paying my band. Is that the reality of playing live?

PE: I would be thrilled if I made as much money as I paid my band. Or if I didn't lose money. As I told a friend the other day: “I did my record release at Rockwood (Music Hall) and I used pretty much everyone that was on the album. There were nine people on stage, and it was a financial bloodbath.” I was not going to not pay people and I wanted to have a fun, splashy, record release. And it was, pound for pound, kind of ridiculous because it was a big financial burden. 

Did I know that going in? Yeah, I knew that. Was it a successful night? Yeah. Palmetto had never seen me perform live, and it got them very excited about my music. So I guess that made it worth it. 

Do I do that all the time? Absolutely not.

CC: Before the business model was to put out an album so you have stuff to sell at your gigs and the gigs are where you make the money. But now it seems like both are some sort of publicity for something else which has yet to be determined. We're making the albums and playing the gigs to get our names out there for something else. 

PE: Yeah, I don't know what that something else is. I still do kind of think you're making the album to get work, to perform live. Whether you're playing clubs, festivals, or house concerts, there’s an opportunity to make a living. You're not going to make a lot of money from a record, but if it helps you get gigs, those are financially valuable. There are some people who do very well with live gigs. It just depends on who you are and what kind of music you play. 

It seems now the game in town is licensing. There's not really radio anymore. With all the satellite radio, they're so corporate and so based on playlists that have been manufactured that now it's getting your song licensed in a movie or a tv show. That seems like the way people get out there now. Perhaps one of the few ways.

CC: So we all have to become film composers?

PE: Kind of, yeah, we all have to get a tune on Grey's Anatomy.

CC: Something on the WB. That's what I'm going for.

PE: Or a movie. You're in Hangover 3. [Laughter] 

There's an instrumental version of "Difficult" that was just licensed for a "live comedy taping" that Zach Galifianakis did. And, unfortunately, there's no mention of the title of the song or who wrote the song, which is really a bummer. But I guess it was licensed through a separate company and it just came from a catalog of non-identifiable music, and that was that. Am I thrilled that it's on that DVD? Yeah. Do I wish that it or I was mentioned? Of course. 

That's kind of how it works now.

On Jazz:

CC: You're teaching jazz singers at the Manhattan School of Music and have been for many years. Jazz started out as popular music embraced by the general public, now it's more art music appreciated by the educated and interested. Do you see it in those terms, and what do you say to students who want to be jazz musicians in the current scene?

PE: The business end of things can be a downer, and it can be strange, but I think it's a particularly interesting and satisfying time to be a musician. With the internet, specifically YouTube, you can see anything. You're exposed to so many kinds of music and you have the opportunity to see old, new, esoteric, straight ahead, accessible, and in-accessible music. I think it's building a fairly sophisticated listener. 

So, jazz being a more sophisticated art form, people are going to get burned out on "stupid pop music." And that's coming from a lover of pop music. The ear candy pop music you hear in the car is easy to get over pretty quickly. And younger people want something original and new and a little more passionate, and I think that's where jazz comes in. 

And with the "Jazz Police" not having the impact they had regarding what's jazz –"that's not jazz because that's not swinging" – jazz is a continuously evolving art form. So that whole side of things is going away too, which I think is great, because that was getting old fast. People were deciding what's jazz and what isn't. Even those people right now are going, "this is original and fresh, and this could very well be jazz. Even though it doesn't sound anything like Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman.” 

Although it's crazy right now, I think it's a pretty exciting time to be a musician. 

There's a lot of other people trying to be jazz musicians too, because there's a lot of people. At the same time, if you're really passionate about what you do, even if it's not something that Bob and Ronda who live on Long Island are going to like, passion resonates with people whether they get it or not. If you need to say it, it gets to people. They may not understand it, but they respect it.


You can find the complete interview here.

Follow Peter on twitter here.

Oh, and here's the two of us (back in 2006) performing one of my original songs at Birdland: