Justin Richmond On the Particular Brilliance of EW&F's "Keep Your Head to the Sky"

Justin Richmond with Ozzy Osbourne
Justin Richmond with Ozzy Osbourne Photo by Zach McMinimy, courtesy of Pushkin Industries

Justin Richmond has interviewed some of the world’s finest songwriters, so he’s got a lot to draw from when considering one particularly brilliant song to discuss with us. As host and lead producer of the popular Pushkin Industries podcast Broken Record, Richmond’s recently been privy to the creative processes employed by legendary artists like Bruce Springsteen, Pharrell Williams and Carlos Santana, as well as legends in the making, such as Brandi Carlile and Flying Lotus and rising stars with Houston and Texas ties like Khruangbin and Black Pumas.

Richmond isn’t only a music journalist, he’s a lifelong fan of the recorded arts and a musician, too. Those interests have grown increasingly since joining Broken Record and the trio of cultural icons who masterminded the podcast into existence in 2018, writer Malcolm Gladwell, music producer Rick Rubin and former New York Times editor Bruce Headlam. All four conduct interviews with the show’s renowned guests.

So, with his background in music and all he’s learned from his co-hosts and the artists he’s interviewed, what painstakingly involved formula did Richmond devise to select one particularly brilliant song to share here?

“I decided to just sort of wake up and see how I was feeling,” he admitted. He said when he got our request to focus on one song only, “I instantly went into overload, I started short-circuiting almost.”

“It’s really hard to pick a song. I know it’s not supposed to be my favorite, so that takes some pressure off, but still, man, there are so many brilliant songs. It’s really hard to pick one,” he said. “So, I decided to just sort of wake up and see how I was feeling. I woke up and was thinking about it and was kind of playing my favorite songs. So, I wanted to talk about Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Keep Your Head to the Sky.’ We have Verdine White, the bass player of the band, coming on in the new year, we just taped something with him recently, he’s such a lovely guy.

“On a rainy day in Los Angeles, where it rarely rains, and in the middle of a pandemic, where things seem to only be getting worse, especially here in L.A., it just felt like keeping your head to the sky is the right thing to do at the moment.”

Before we learn about Richmond’s song selection, we learn more about him.

“Coming to Pushkin to work on Broken Record was really like marrying my two loves or passions,” he began. “First of all, music has sort of been the driving force of my life my entire life. I’ve always thought of my life by songs, I can feel particular periods of my life just based on what type of music I was listening to or what was in the air or what my mom was listening to or my uncle or whatever. It’s just been a big part of my sense memory."

He also plays, mostly guitar now, which he picked up at age 12.

“I wanted to do drums but my mom wasn’t really having that,” he recalled. “She put me in piano then eventually I got into guitar, started playing in bands and I really loved it. I don’t play as often as I’d like to, but I try to get around to playing.”

Richmond deejayed in college, he said, taking paying gigs at restaurants, lounges and other “places that would let me sort of explore a wide range of music, from funk and soul to rock, or whatever. Simultaneously, when I was in college, I got a college radio show and I realized I really liked radio. I realized I kind of wanted to do storytelling around the same time.”

Richmond completed his BA in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, then a master’s from the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He found his way to NPR and was producer of its flagship program Morning Edition when an email from a friend of a friend sent his career sailing towards Pushkin, the audio production empire founded by Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg.

“Once I got the call to do Broken Record, it was incredible because I’m thinking about music all the time and I’m thinking about audio journalism all the time. So, it’s been a lot of fun, man.”

He wasn’t surprised to learn Pushkin wanted a music-oriented show for its burgeoning roster.

click to enlarge ALBUM COVER
Album cover

“Well, Malcolm loves music and he’s always enjoyed storytelling around music. With his writing he’s done some great stuff about musicians - the Beatles stuff in Outliers, he did a great New Yorker piece about sampling and it was pretty heavy on the Beastie Boys back in the day, I think it was about 10 years ago. But then also he realized he particularly loved doing it with Revisionist History, is kind of what I heard from him. Every season, ‘til this past season, has at least one music story, he’s just always loved it.”

The timing was right for Gladwell to start a music-based podcast. He and longtime friend Headlam learned that Rubin was looking to launch a show of his own. They’re all busy titans of their respective industries so pooling their resources and time seemed like a winning idea. We asked Richmond what it was like joining such heavy hitters for the upstart program.

“Yeah, it was pretty intimidating,” he laughed. “I met with all three guys, I met with Bruce first and then Malcolm and then Rick before I came on and they were great guys. What I realized, just hanging with them, is they’re just fans of music, fans of interesting people and interesting stories. Pretty quickly, all three of them put me at ease and I realized, ‘Oh, I can do this job. This job doesn’t require me to be Rick Rubin or Malcolm Gladwell or Bruce Headlam, it just requires me to be a fan of music and do what I was doing at NPR already.’”

So, that’s what he’s done, to both acclaim and success. Edging back towards his song choice, we ask what he’s learned about songwriting from the program’s guests.

“I feel like the thing that I’ve learned from more or less all of the guests, and then also from Rick, Malcolm and Bruce, is just write a lot. Write a lot. It’s not always going to work but just keep writing and you’ll eventually get something you like. It’s not necessarily going to be the greatest thing of all time that anyone’s ever heard, but it might be the greatest thing of all time that you’ve written. Just keep writing, keep working at it, keep the flame lit is the thing that I’ve learned working on this and I think it translates to everything. Whatever you do, do more of it and you’re bound to get better.”

That sounded familiar. Something about 10,000 hours bounced around our brains as Richmond spoke.

“I think we think of songwriting as mystical and I think it is, in the sense that songs are pretty magical, what they emotionally do to us is magical,” he said. He understands other art forms create a sense of wonder, too, movies for instance, but he noted that they are often “all hands on deck” efforts, whereas a good song is “often conjured from one person, you know? I think that does feel pretty magical to us. So, there is this sort of mystical element to it, but at the end of the day it’s like anything else - the more you practice, the better you are.”

click to enlarge Richmond's song selection encourages listeners to keep the faith and stay the course. - PHOTO BY ZACH MCMINIMY, COURTESY OF PUSHKIN INDUSTRIES
Richmond's song selection encourages listeners to keep the faith and stay the course.
Photo by Zach McMinimy, courtesy of Pushkin Industries

The turn of the calendar is a good opportunity to discuss what Broken Record listeners can look forward to in 2021.

“We have some really great people coming up,” Richmond teased. “We have Nas coming up. We have someone I’m really excited about, Joan Baez, who is just a legendary singer-songwriter who’s had a hell of a career and recently retired from the road. I’m really excited to hear from her what it’s like to leave the road after all these years and hear some of the stories of her life, which has been quite incredible. I would say she’s as legendary as a Bob Dylan, a Joni Mitchell, a Neil Young. She’s up there with all those people. I’m always happy we can highlight someone like her who is absolutely brilliant and doesn’t do a ton of interviews.”

Richmond said a dream show would feature Mick Jagger and Keith Richards interviewed together. He said he’d take a seat as a delighted observer if the podcast could wrangle a sit-down between Rubin and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack De La Rocha. For now, he said, he’s glad the podcast will soon be showcasing Earth, Wind & Fire. We turned back to “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” from the band’s 1973 album Head to the Sky, and how it seems to surface at notable times in Richmond’s life.

“It not only mystifies me when I listen to it, just because of how amazing everything on it is, but the message has always sort of helped me when I’m feeling stressed or when anything seems to be kind of going wrong in life. I can put that song on and it’s like a balm for whatever’s going on,” he said.

We wondered if a one-time philosophy major instinctively looks to lyrics first in music and he said not necessarily.

“I’m a big jazz fan, most of my listening is to jazz music,” he shared. “Not vocal jazz, but bebop, hard bop, that’s my thing. Even with no words there’s a message being gotten across. So, I’m not listening explicitly for lyrics or even for a particular message or an uplifting message, but I certainly want to feel the soul of a song.

“This happens to be a song where the soul of the song fits the lyrics and there is a message, there’s a message in the music and a message in the lyrics and they’re totally in sync and it’s just beautiful,” he said. “It’s easy for songs that have a message, especially an uplifting one, to be particularly corny or saccharine and this doesn’t feel like any of those things. This feels deep, it feels resonant, it’s beautiful and it just moves mountains in my life.”

“Earth, Wind & Fire in general does that, all of their music speaks to me,” he continued. “First of all, the reason this song is the perfect Earth, Wind & Fire song is all of them working together. Maurice White, who is the leader of the band, wrote it. Philip Bailey, who is the co-singer of the band with Maurice White, is taking the lead on it and he’s the one who sang ‘Reasons’ and hits all those insanely high notes, so you’ve got him bringing his beautiful, gorgeous, celestial voice to it. Then you have Verdine White, who never sounds like he’s overplaying and just keeps a crazy groove going, but when you really listen to it, it’s like the craziest, sickest bass playing you’ve ever heard. Then you have Ralph (Johnson) on drums, who simultaneously can keep things loose but is like a metronome and is super dynamic.”

Richmond went on this way for a couple of minutes, listing each player on the track and hailing their contributions to this particularly brilliant song.

“There’s nothing this band can’t do. It’s musical gumbo, they throw everything in the pot and it just comes out brilliant. I don’t know man, that song, the orchestration is beautiful, the dynamics are gorgeous and, oh, I would be remiss, I have to add Jessica Cleaves, who was a member of the band at that time and went on to join Parliament-Funkadelic later in the decade. The song ends with Phillip Bailey repeating, ‘Keep your head to the sky,’ twice, really high. Just when you think it can’t go higher, he fades out and Jessica Cleaves comes in and I don’t even know what she would be singing, how high of a Middle C, but then she takes over and sings ‘Keep your head to the sky,’ and it’s like an angel singing.”

If that enthusiastic description has sent you in search of the track then you’ve joined the ranks of artists like Jay Z, Guru, Mary J. Blige, Kirk Franklin and Raphael Saadiq, who have all nodded to the track over the years. Richmond might be its biggest fan of them all.

“There are a lot of references to ‘the Master,’ clearly they’re talking about God, but I don’t even think you have to be a particularly religious person to relate to what they’re saying because you can boil it down to just really talking about faith, telling everyone to keep the faith, whether that’s faith in God, faith in yourself, faith in what you’re doing. I think that translates.

“It doesn’t have to be faith in a higher power I think it can be faith in yourself, faith in what you’re doing, stay on track, keep moving forward. I don’t know a person who doesn’t need that sort of message right now.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.