Much about Chuck Prophet is upside down. He's a rocker who does interviews in the morning. He thinks Golden Globe and Oscar winner Crazy Heart would have been more realistic if, instead of Jeff Bridges, Dwight Yoakam had played Bad Blake. And he feels sorry for artists on independent labels.
"There was this wonderful moment in 2002 when 'Summertime Thing' was getting radio play," says the former Green on Red guitarist from a Chicago hotel room. "We were touring with Lucinda Williams and it felt like we were duking it out with Sheryl Crow and the Wallflowers on the radio every day. That's exhilarating stuff. When things are going good, it's wonderful to have a label and all that comes with that. But the next thing you know, you're arguing about who's paying for stamps.
"I've got to give [former label] New West credit, because we did get 'Summertime Thing' out there and that song alone made it suddenly possible for me to play five or six cities and do really well," Prophet adds. "Before that, the only place I could break even was Europe."
¡Let Freedom Ring!, Prophet's latest project, was recorded in Mexico City and has received critical praise from a broad spectrum. He calls it a "political record for nonpolitical people."
"It was difficult, but I'm so glad we went down there," Prophet says. "We had power outages, the swine flu epidemic, warring drug cartels, corruption at every turn, all the craziness of Mexico City that created some obstacles we wouldn't have had in Nashville or Los Angeles. But we definitely fed off the energy of the place."
Prophet found a studio in Mexico City he describes as state of the art...for 1957.
"We explored studios and vacant buildings for a couple of days. When we walked into Estudio 19 and saw the gear," says Prophet, "I just fell in love with it. I clapped my hands a few times and instantly knew we could make a great-sounding album in there."
Opening with the mysterious "I'm a man of few words baby, and I think by now you've heard them all," the album that emerged is vintage Prophet guitar-heavy rock that swerves from apocalyptic to hopeful. As for the political angle, there really isn't much beyond the title track and "American Man."
The rest of Prophet's commentary is more sociocultural than political, covering subjects ranging from teen parenthood to the tragedy of being an unwanted, unloved child. These are not easy songs.
In the final analysis, rather than dealing with politics, Prophet is dealing with damage, both cultural and social. Several songs illustrate the failure of the American promise, like the kid in "Barely Exist" who never had a chance here in the land of opportunity: "You got to be strong, but when you've got asbestos in your Kool-Aid for breakfast, there's no good way to look alive."
"You and Me" begins with an all-too-familiar modern scene: "Marriage on the skids and the folks ain't doin' well / We're holdin' on, holdin' on / Seems like half the people we know got the same sad story to tell / But we're holdin' on." Even so, Prophet manages to extract rays of hope before he's finished.
As always with Prophet, the album is riddled with samples and signatures. He grew up in the VCR generation, he says, so he tends to think of songs visually.
"When I'm writing or recording, I visualize songs like little movies," Prophet explains. "You want to make songs that speak to people, and those little recognizable pop signatures aid that. It's like when Roger Daltrey stutters in 'My Generation' — they could've edited that out, but that little thing added so much to the song. Things like that speak to me."
Prophet produced Austin country singer Kelly Willis's last album, Translated from Love, an activity that seems to be a love-hate thing with him.
"Producing is upward mobility to engineers," he flippantly remarks. "They see it as their next logical step. With Kelly, the hardest thing was that she had so much going on in her life, so the biggest difficulty was just finding the time to get her in there and do it.
"But when we put on our headphones in the control room and the track is running and she starts to sing, it all becomes worthwhile," he adds. "She can make something ordinary suddenly become amazing."
Prophet, who has been described as a "semi-celebrity sideman" for work with Aimee Mann, Willis, Lucinda Williams, Warren Zevon and Jonathan Richman, also worked with Alejandro Escovedo on 2008's Real Animal, which made numerous year-end best-of lists both in Texas and out of state.
"Al and I wrote songs for a year, but Tony Visconti produced that one," demurs Prophet. "I was just there to play guitar, but I think my other role was just to protect the songs, be a good listener, make sure that we did the songs the most justice."
Prophet, a 25-year road warrior, is philosophical about his next project.
"Every time I finish an album, I think it's the last one I'll ever do, but somehow I manage to do a new one every two years," he says. "But right now what I'm excited about and enjoying is playing live. This current band is so together and so nimble. The chemistry is as good as anything I've ever had."
Keyboardist and harmony singer Stephanie Finch is also Prophet's wife. He notes working together in a hard-touring band can either bring you together or rip you apart.
"Fortunately Stephanie has this great sense of humor, and she needs it to be on the road with me constantly," Prophet laughs. "I told her when we started into this that she was going to see a lot of bizarre stuff.
"We were hanging out after a show when some woman approached me, pulled her top down and asked if I would autograph her chest. I just looked at Stephanie and shrugged and said to the lady, 'Why don't you ask her.'
"That's when I told Stephanie one of the biggest lessons I've learned from years on the road — you don't want to be the last person in the lobby."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.