Interview by Joyce Peters
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press
I caught up by phone with Richie Havens to talk about Woodstock, the Dalai Lama, and Sinead O’Conner.
JP: What is the essence of your music?
RH: [Laughs] Oh, boy! That’s a good one. The music played me for a little while! When I heard music in Greenwich Village…there were these guys who wrote these great songs. Their songs really educated me; they politicized me in a way. I never dreamt I’d be on stage with a guitar. So I learned the songs. They very deeply moved me in a way that some religious music might move me. It’s a connection with yourself and everything around you. There’s so much going on and you’re living in the middle of it. The songs made me sing them.
JP: You’ve accomplished so much, including writing books, acting, painting, and over 25 recordings. What are most proud of?
RH: The things that didn’t have anything to do with my music. Working with kids…through an environmental doorway. To be able to be a part of the “Natural Guard.” It’s about children using their own community as the endangered environment. We won the “Point of Light” award for that organization, run by kids.
JP: What do you want to happen next?
RH: I dream about a few films I would like to make, which are teaching tools themselves. It’s something I really want to do. I wrote the scripts and will start there. It deals with everyone on the planet: how close or far we are with each other.
JP: “Grace of the Sun” has an exotic air to it. Where you going for that kind of vibe?
RH: It turned out to be one of the records that I’d written most of the songs that came through me. “Wishing Well” and “Grace of the Sun” could have been a double album; they’re musically attached to each other. Very acoustic. Very simple musically.
JP: You’ve worked with so many talented artists including Badal Roy, Anton Fig, and Peter Gabriel. Who would you love to collaborate with next? Who’s on your wish list?
RH: There are certain voices I love: Celine Dion and Barbara Streisand have the most beautiful voices on this planet to me because of their control and the emotions they allow to come out. I collaborate with a lot of different genres. I’m a rock ‘n roller by nature [laughs]. I’d love to do a duet with Sinead O’Conner. She’s really a trooper for all of us. People like that inspire me. I’d love to turn that into a relationship with a song and pass that on.
JP: What music excites you these days?
RH: Songs really capture me. Even the Foo Fighters get me every once in awhile [laughs]. It’s harmony. I listen to practically everything. Anyone who is out there as a musician, I know it wasn’t easy for them to get there. There’s so much to choose from…so many really incredible voices out there. I just appreciate their abilities to sing and emote the way they do.
JP: Do you hear music in your dreams?
RH: That’s a really good question. In some ways it happens to me when I’m in the idea of recording a disc. The music I have chosen follows me around. When I did the song “Woodstock” on one of my last albums, it was incredible because I so loved hearing that song by Joni [Mitchell] and Crosby, Stills & Nash. I figured no one really needs to do that again. I came to the studio with my list of songs. Three times I heard that song in my head. Three days in a row. I realized I couldn’t get it out of my head and I needed to record it. It really blew my mind. Some of my albums have that sense; I have to let it tell the larger story.
JP: What’s your ideal setting for a performance?
RH: I really feel comfortable with a small audience; that’s the way I came up in the Village.
JP: Can you tell me about a memorable gig?
RH: I remember singing for the Dalai Lama. There was a big festival with a lot of the people engaged with the Dalai Lama, like Richard Gere and Harrison Ford. When I met the Dalai Lama, he grabbed me by the beard with two hands and he was moving my head from side to side. I felt a baby holding onto my beard swinging back and forth. I couldn’t believe the feeling that I had. He hadn’t ever heard me but that evening on stage, he was in the front row and he moved up to the edge of his seat and he was looking at me like, “Oh, who is this person?” [laughs]. It was just so magic. This is a person that I actually read books about. After the performance, he asked me to speak with him the next morning. I was in more awe than he was, but we were both amazed just looking at each other.
JP: How do you find solace while touring?
RH: Solace is my basic nature [laughs]. I went through yoga years and years ago. I am a hyper person but until I put pen to paper or brush to canvas, it subdues me even more. It’s still expression. When I go on stage, I know the first and last song. So what happens to me happens to the audience at the same time.