Interview by Joyce Peters
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press
I spoke with Jeffrey Gaines by telephone from a friend’s home in Pennsylvania just before he heads out on the road in support of his new CD, “Toward the Sun” (Artemis Records).
JP: This is an exciting time with your upcoming CD release/celebration at B.B. King’s. What will that performance be like for you? Will you have family there to support you?
JG: Fans will be there — that’s my family. I’m taking a van to that one and will perform with the musicians from my “Always Be” album. We have chemistry together. It’s hard to pick which songs, how best to satisfy the audience. There will certainly be some from the new album and some of the old favorites.
JP: What was it like recording your latest record in Hollywood?
JG: Hollywood is a great place to do a record. All my albums have been recorded in New York – the city or in the Woodstock area. In Hollywood, we were incorporating the outside elements, the weather. It’s a very optimistic record — a lot of summertime in it. That has a lot to do with the weather. I felt rejuvenated with the sun on my skin. In the city everyone is burrowing in — and you start to tense up. This was such as good experience out there.
JP: What was it like co-producing with Mitchell Froom?
JG: It was great. Mitchell is a mellow guy. No one had any power trips. We just debated things. He was looking out for me. He wasn’t just sitting behind the glass. He got out there and played amazing piano.
JP: On “Falling Apart” you sing, “And someone declares a kingdom must fall/show me the way to resolution/put weapons away and save us all.” These are powerful and relevant lyrics given the recent peace protests.
JG: I hope they are recognized by others. I’ve always tried to be heard like that. All my music has stuff that’s right there in my world.
JP: You said “Over and Over,” the first single from the record, was inspired by email from fans. What music excites you enough to hit rewind over and over?
JG: For real, I’ve been playing one album since 1987 [laughs]. The other night I was driving around enjoying the moonlight and I was blasting Cult and the Electric Interview. Dude, you gotta get over this record! One of my old favorites I can’t get rid of. Wherever I am, I try to find a college station. You have to have a pencil and paper with you. They’re going to be playing music you’ve never heard of and you have to find it a mom and pop music store. I go on musical adventures.
JP: You always seem to connect with your audience. From your unique point of view, how does that happen?
JG: They may feel that it happens or doesn’t happen based on them. They’re very aware of my needing them there. They realize they’re involved. There’s a feeling of ownership; my fans have a real place in the show. With that, you feel sort of at home there. There’s no real separation between stage and audience. It gets me off to be effecting people. Looking folks in the eye and gauging them. Watch it and shape the show. It’s like any kind of lovemaking experience. You have to be present, tailor it to what you see and intuitively feel. Shape it and gauge it and shift it and move it. The right thing is different every night.
JP: Your vocals are often described as wounded, passionate, intimate, vulnerable, honest, intense. Does that resonate with you? How would you like your songwriting to come across?
JG: Any one can come away with whatever they hear. I’m just trying to express myself. I’m sort of really unaware of what it sounds like. I’m just like everyone else. Ugghhh. Is that my voice on the radio? I can’t really tell. I know what I want to hit. I hear it in my head. You open your mouth and you hope to hell you can get what you imagine.
JP: You play guitar, bass and piano. When and how did you first pick up the guitar?
JG: I got a drum set when I was 8. I inherited a couple of things that changed my life. One was the drum kit and another was my cousin Ray’s record collection. A huge red drum kit, see through, red and sparkly! All these rock albums in two crates. Pretty much all the stuff you need — the classic things that explained it all. They were mine until Ray came back and got them. I got acquainted with all the music. I totally became a rock fan. I just started singing along. Nobody told me to shut up [laughs] so I kept on singing. You start off emulating the heroes. Crazy ballads by Elton John. Why are we singing along with these lyrics? How does this make sense to me? We were all just caught up in the emotions in the 70s. Who is Levon? I just loved it. I got into David Bowie. The first time I got in front of an audience was in junior high school. The other kids might have done it for fun but for some of us, it stuck.
As soon as you put out a record, it’s like a beacon. It’s a responsibility. That line of strangers outside the club that you’ve never seen before — they’re waiting for you! This has begun. The comfort is in the music. You just close your eyes and sing.
JP: How important are lyrics?
JG: Sometimes it’s very important, like “Falling Apart.” The song shapes around the words. It’s a craft. My paint box… making a picture. I use different approaches all the time. Sometimes they are from letters to people. Some are intimate and the audience knows exactly what you mean. It’s not about me anymore. They become their songs.
JP: What are you most proud of?
JG: I got a scholarship, The Jeffrey Gaines Award For The Performing Arts, from Harrisburg Area Community College. We’re taking care of somebody’s tuition. I’m really proud of that. I’ve got an award! Mr. “get-kicked-out-of-class” and now I’m taking care of someone’s schooling!
JP: What might you be doing if you didn’t have a music career?
JG: This is the only thing I would really pursue. I would probably be a total slacker kind of guy if I wasn’t making music! Or developing film somewhere at a huge commercial place. I’d be a guy in a dark room that you’d never see. I’d have such an invisible job. I’d have my Walkman on and be listening to rock [laughs].
JP: You sing about winning (“Finally it’s me that’s winning” and “I want so badly to win”). What does it mean to win?
JG: For me, winning is you imagine it in your head and when your aspirations become real. Don’t dream it, be it. When that moment comes together, there’s your winning. I’ve always wanted to be here.
JP: What would surprise people to find out about you?
JG: Although I’m really sensitive, I’m pretty tough. I’ll play a show and then I’ll go out and dance to trip hop music and people would say, “I didn’t know the folk singer/songwriter guy can dance. How can you do both things?” I’d say, “Wait a minute! I’m not serious all the time! I have the whole collection of the Austin Powers films.” People think I have to be on stage all the time — that I have something profound to say every second. I’m so silly and interested in silly, funny things.
JP: Whose praise is most meaningful?
JG: Wow. Well — it used to be my mom, but she’s not here anymore. I’d like praise from people I’ve never gotten it from. I would have enjoyed it if Elton John had taken me under his wings. I’d like David Bowie to realize that if he ever needs a back up singer, it should be me. When’s he gonna call? [laughs] I wish I had more access to mentoring. That’s really distressing that I don’t have more mentoring. In a sense, this career has gone a little too far to ask my best buddies who I grew up with. I appreciate being the best-kept secret, but you start to wonder [laughs].
JP: How do you stay energized?
JG: I guess I get it from the love, from the people. That’s a good question — you start to consider what your motivations are. The first half of your career, you owe it all to arrogance of youth. Well, hell, you’re 20 something and cocky as hell! I see where my energy came from then. “Wait till they get a load of me!” You’re humble now and wonder what makes you get out there. Now, sometimes it’s a little harder. You’re not so arrogant. You open up your mouth and sing and it all comes back.