Jonathan Richman, who headlines Swallow Hill on Saturday, October 19, is one of rock music history’s most original artists, an iconoclastic singer-songwriter whose sense of wonder is inextricably entwined with his often prickly devotion to a muse that means far more to him than money, fame or any of the other reasons most people dare to stand in front of strangers holding a guitar.
Richman has always had a strained relationship with self-promotion, and it shows. In “If You Were a Richman,” published in March 1995, I noted that “of all the major figures in the history of rock and roll, Jonathan Richman may be the one who’s been heard by the fewest people. Fans of the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and other precursors to punk, new-wave and alternative music certainly know his name, and perhaps they own some of the timeless tracks he cut in the early Seventies with his band, the Modern Lovers. But the lion’s share of the world’s citizens remain unaware that Richman is more than a footnote in music-oriented reference guides.”
Why? “Maybe it has something to do with Richman’s legendary reticence to take business advice, be it good, bad or otherwise,” I wrote. “Perhaps it’s linked to his general distrust of the press (he’s granted only a bare handful of interviews during the past quarter-century and is rumored to keep a list of journalists who’ve done him wrong). Or it could be rooted in Richman’s personality, which is not what you’d call cuddly.”
Indeed, Richman spent much of the conversation that followed debating whether he could best be described as “obstreperous” or “cantankerous” before settling on the former.
These days, Richman is so concerned about being misquoted that he will only answer reporters’ questions via email and insists that each response be reprinted precisely. Change a comma, and you’re risking his wrath.
Likewise, he’s not interested in reminiscing about days gone by, and prefers to discuss current projects, such as 2018’s SA, an intriguing offering that finds him moving in directions both fresh and familiar. Musically, the piece is informed by Indian music and instrumentation such as the tambura, played by his wife, Nicole Montalbano. But he’s also accompanied by former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison, another past Westword interview subject; see our 1996 profile, “Heads Down.” Harrison joined the Heads after serving a stint with the Modern Lovers, whose self-titled 1976 debut (largely recorded several years earlier) includes what remain Richman’s best-known tunes: “Roadrunner,” “Astral Plane,” “Pablo Picasso” and “Old World,” whose nostalgic lyrics are given a new spin on “The Fading of an Old World,” an SA highlight.
Whether those who go to see Richman will hear any of these songs is uncertain: As he makes clear below, he approaches each concert spontaneously and plays whatever pleases him at that particular moment. The result is an experience like none other, for him as well as the audience.
Continue to read our latest Q&A.
Jonathan Richman enjoying his time on stage.
Westword: I understand the spark of inspiration that led to SA, your latest album, came from a photo in the Christopher Isherwood book Ramakrishna and His Disciples. What was it about that photo that struck you, and how did it open the door to the new project?
Jonathan Richman: The photo of Ramakrishna: He looked sincere and real down-to-earth, and he didn’t look like a know-it-all. He looked full of wonder.
An important element on SA is the tambura, played by Nicole Montalbano. What is it about the sound of the tambura that interests you, and how have you been using it to learn more about pitch?
The tambura has become one of my favorite instruments. Since its pitches are not adjusted to our Western “equal temperament,” and since the way it resonates gives you many overtones from just a root note an octave lower note and a fifth, you, listening to it, hear musical notes and intervals in a different way. There’s a sort of freedom when you sing a melody; the instrument suggesting many pitches between the notes. Notes that with
Western instrumentation are more fixed.
Also important to the sound of SA is the Mellotron, a tape replay keyboard of the sort that were used in the 1960s by groups such as the Beatles. These days, the Mellotron isn’t heard much. What is it about the instrument that interests you, and do you feel that modern electronic gear can’t capture its warmth and idiosyncrasies?
The Mellotron is cool, isn’t it? It just happened to be there in the studio and I thought Jerry might sound good on it. He did! And what he played on the harmonium was so perfect for the way I heard the songs. It was almost as if we had played together before somewhere.
How long had it been since you recorded with Jerry Harrison prior to his work on the new album, and were there interesting differences in the way you worked together this time around — or was there an immediate connection of the sort that you’d established in the past?
It was immediate.
You’re known as an artist who prefers to concentrate on moving forward as opposed to looking back — but “The Fading of an Old World” can’t help calling to mind “Old World,” one of your most beloved compositions from the 1970s. How would you describe the relationship between the two songs, and do you see the new one as offering a new, fresh angle on the earlier tune?
You got it. The new one is a different approach to an old theme.
On “Yes, Take Me Home,” which is sung from the perspective of a dog, there’s a line about never knowing about his past. Is that an appealing concept to you from a personal standpoint, and if so, why?
No, that’s just part of the song.
Jonathan Richman with drummer Tommy Larkins.
The album as a whole is a fascinating blend of styles that many listeners may not associate with you, and yet it couldn’t possibly have been made by anyone else. Is it important to you that even when you go in a new or unusual direction, there’s still a stylistic core that relates to the work you’ve done over the width and breadth of your career — or does that happen naturally, in a way that you don’t question but simply appreciate?
That stuff just happens (or doesn’t). You just make the music you feel now.
Do you have faith that your fans will follow you where you want to go from a musical standpoint — or is that not part of any calculation, since remaining loyal to your muse is more important to you than how others might react?
You just make the music and everything else takes care of itself.
On your current tour, during which you’re accompanied by drummer Tommy Larkins, how much material from the new album will you be performing, and has it been tricky, fun or a combination of the two to figure out how to perform them in a different format?
You don’t have to figure any of that out. You just make the music you feel that night, and all the rest turns out all right.
Do you plan to include any songs from previous releases in your set, and if so, how would you describe the process by which you make selections from your catalog?
We don’t have a set nor a catalog. You just stand there and sing what you feel right then and the show comes out like it’s gonna come out.
Are there times when you rediscover songs from your vast repertoire that you may have forgotten or that have surprised you in some way — and if so, could you offer an example of that kind of rediscovery?
Yah, last week or so, I remembered a very old song I made up about there being a season for everything including the mosquito. I thought “Hey, that’s a pretty good song!” But I don’t feel like I have a repertoire: Even if
I’ve made up a song, if I don’t feel it then, I don’t have it.
Are there also times when you have a show during which you completely throw out plans and play something entirely different — and if so, are those some of the most enjoyable live performances for you?
Those are the only live performances we do. Even if we know the song, it should feel new.
Jonathan Richman plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 19, at Swallow Hill Music, 71 East Yale Avenue. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the Swallow Hill website.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.