Like a good novel, the narrative thrust of Richard Shindell's power folk songs emerges from characters' personalities. Unlike confessional songwriters, who can't seem to get out of the way, even for one line, Shindell creates characters, gives them voices and trusts the listener to empathize with their inner lives.
Take the main character from "You Stay Here," a song from Shindell's upcoming album, Somewhere Near Paterson, due in early February from the Signature Sounds label out of Whately, Massachusetts. Shindell began writing the song during the Kosovo war, when it appeared as if the conflict would last into winter. The line "you stay here" hooks together verses in which the character leaves a shelter to look first for bread, then for a coat to keep his kids warm, then for guns to arm himself "if the tiger comes one night" and finally for God: "It's not so hard 'cause I know where He's not / I will bring Him back with me / Make Him listen, make Him see."
Says Shindell, who studied two years at Union Theological Seminary before deciding he wasn't cut out for the clergy: "I think the person in the song is a faithful person, but he's mad, like Job. I don't think to be faithful is not to have a brain, [but] to wonder, to question. He wants to give God a piece of his mind without being unfaithful."
It is out of such tiny lines that Shindell's great songs emerge. Maybe it's because Shindell isn't afraid to let the song go where it's supposed to go. Some songwriters are too controlling, working each line to perfection or forcing a character into a situation not of his choosing. In contrast, Shindell lets his songs happen.
His approach works, not only artistically but, to an extent, commercially. His last solo release, Reunion Hill, won the Association for Independent Music (AFIM) award for Best Folk Contemporary album in 1998. And Shindell's 1999 release with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky, Cry Cry Cry, won the Crossroads Contemporary Folk Album of the Year award. Shindell makes his first Houston appearance this week at McGonigel's Mucky Duck.
But songwriting to Shindell is not as easy as he makes it look and sound. Sometimes, he says, it takes a while to figure out a song's true intention. Shindell began the original version of "Waiting for the Storm," another tune from Paterson, during the hurricane season. It began as a song about someone waiting for the big one, refusing to leave home. But it seemed cliché once Shindell reached the middle of the composition. "In order to get to the other side and be comfortable with it, I had to make the character do something crazy so that the song wouldn't be predictable," he says. "Sometimes I get into the middle of a song and I find myself in a place I don't want to be. Where do you go without throwing out the song? It's a fertile place to be. It forces you to be creative."
Paterson's "Transit," for example, took three months to figure out. The scene: gridlock on a Friday afternoon in New Jersey. The narrative at first was out of control, Shindell says, until he made some small adjustments, such as bringing back a minor character from the beginning. "That's an example of a song having a mind of its own."
If Shindell were going down the music business highway, this is the point in his career where he would jump into the fast lane: three solid albums and widespread recognition for his Cry Cry Cry tour. In fact, his recent tour was one of the 50 top grossing music caravans of 1999. Not bad for an acoustic act with no major-label promotion or mainstream recognition.
Shindell also bucks industry standards when dealing with record companies. Somewhere Near Paterson, unlike most record deals, is a cooperative effort. Signature Sounds didn't have to cough up the cash for a recording budget. Shindell paid for that. In turn, Signature Sounds handles all the marketing, distribution and publicity. Shindell keeps ownership of the masters. Profits are split equally between Shindell and the label. Contrast that with the usual record deal, in which the artist has to pay off the exorbitant recording costs before seeing even a tiny fraction of profit, which rarely materializes.
"Everybody feels comfortable," says Shindell. "The risk is spread around, and yet we have all these wonderful people who are good at what they do.We probably won't sell a million records. You give that up to get total creative control. There's a whole network of people who will support this kind of music. You don't need a high-powered infrastructure. It's incredibly liberating. You won't get stinking rich, but you don't need to."
Shindell plans to move to Argentina in June after the tour is over. His Argentinean wife has been offered a job there. That means Shindell will live and write on foreign soil for most of the year before returning to the United States to tour. "Being on the outside of things has always been the way I see things. That's landed me my writing career," says Shindell. "Moving to Argentina is another degree or step in that direction. I'm anticipating that I'll be very creative because of being cut loose, functioning as an island of English. I don't speak English with anyone there, and the only English I hear is in my head.
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"English takes on a greater weight [on foreign soil]. The words become more real or more solid. When I write songs there, I make an island for myself. Maybe I just relish wallowing in English more when I'm down there."
Until then, Shindell plans to be "a guitar-strumming, ballad-singing fool," he says.
"I want to push things as far as I can before we go."
Richard Shindell performs Tuesday, January 18, at 8:30 p.m. at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, with Kate Campbell. For more information, call (713)528-5999.