Do you consider yourself primarily a songwriter, a singer, a player, or a teacher?
“I'm a writer first and foremost, so songwriting and novel writing are my main motivations. Singing is something I've done all my life but I don't consider myself 'a singer.' As a player, I love improvising on the piano: I get to hear what comes out of me from some place other than me. And I've always enjoyed teaching. But I'd say the times I feel the most excited artistically, when I feel the most connected, are when I'm writing, or recording my songs with the band.”
How do you come up with some of the odd chord voicings you use in your songs?
“Discovering them isn’t a mental or a theoretical thing; it’s improvisational. I like to use tactile and visual patterns to explore, and then let the rhythm and my voice move things along. Most of those kinds of voicings can only be named in context, so there’s no use trying to name them ahead of time.”
Why don’t you like to play live or tour anymore?
“I actually like playing live, for about 5-10 people at time, when I can see faces, and we can all hang out together afterwards. Clubs aren’t enjoyable for me because it’s really hard to control the technical environment. Concert halls are better for that, but they are so big it becomes impersonal, and the travel involved is very hard -- being away from friends and family. So I’ve come full circle, to mostly playing for 5-10 people at a time at my house. Or playing for a small crowd with the band at a studio somewhere.”
How do you reconcile your family life with your writing?
“It’s not exactly reconcilable. I’d probably write a lot more songs if I were living alone. But I don’t like the trade-off because I also love my wife and kids! Besides, writing is about recording the changes in your life, not changing your life so that you can write.
So instead, I try to get to the piano and the guitar most every day and keep growing on some level, then one day I go into this ‘other space’ for reasons unknown and write a bunch of songs in 48 hours with no sleep, or something like that – a whirlwind thing where it seems like nothing can go wrong and I’m just kind of plugged in. Then I call the band, and during the rehearsals I’m back to being a full-time musician again instead of just a rock ‘n roll dad. I learn and re-learn not to force things to happen. Everything has its cycle.”
Who has been your favorite musician to play with?
“I’ve been really fortunate to play with virtuoso level players like John Scofield, Art Lande, Paul McCandless, David Samuels -- these guys are among the best in the world on their instruments, and also brilliant creative minds.”
How do you choose your band members?
“The most important thing is that they need to be better players than I am. Because for me the goal is to make each of my songs come alive like a good movie, and tell each song’s story. That kind of story-telling takes really special players, really creative players, and players that are not hung up technically when trying to convey a unique harmonic or rhythmic idea. So for the sake of my songs I find the best players I can.
Do you have a favorite song of yours?
“If a song I’m about to record is not a favorite of mine I throw it out instead. So, honestly, the songs on my CDs are all my favorites.
Your “sound” keeps changing over the years -- from folk to jazz to rock. What makes you want to change your style?
“Well, I think most writers evolve and change naturally when they are not interfered with, or don’t get in their own way. In my case, I guess I have devolved from writing really complex jazz-based harmonies with asymmetric meters and wild solos in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, back to my harmonic and rhythmic roots – rock. . . .Jazz was an amazing learning experience. It helped me learn the art-form of music; it allowed me to understand piano and music theory on a deep level. So many of the best players on earth are jazz players. I wanted to see and know what they did and how they did it. But I never had a desire to play a book of standards. And fortunately my teachers when I was in my twenties, Michael Cochrane and Art Lande, didn’t set that as a goal for me. They were very unique teachers who also saw my uniqueness, and liked my songs enough to even want to play on my records. John Scofield talked me out of going to Berkeley School of Music, for instance. They all got it that I was a songwriter first and foremost, and that I wasn’t wanting to fit into a jazz format, or any format.
After years of studying, and writing songs from those studies, I decided to just play and write the music that made me feel the most like me. Rock is that for me. I grew up with The Beatles, Dylan’s Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde, Ray Charles, Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bob Marley, The Stones. But I also still love Art Lande’s music, and Keith Jarrett’s music, and Oregon, and Scofield. So I suppose my studies and my roots just keep taking me on a long spirally trip through all those places.”