Suzanne Vega's Interview of Jack Hardy

Suzanne Vega: This is Suzanne Vega and I'm here interviewing Jack Hardy, who I've known for many years, and we're going to talk about songwriting.

Jack Hardy: I think the last time we talked about songwriting was probably about nineteen years ago.

SV: (Laughs.) Well, there's no reason to date anybody that way, but I know what you mean.

JH: This being the night of winter solstice and a full moon, I think it's a good day to talk about songwriting.

SV: OK. Most of the time when I think about you and about songwriting, I think about your rather well known statement that the song is more important than the singer and that's what creates a folk song. That was, I believe, something we'd all talked about in terms of the definition of folk music. Would you say that's still true in terms of any kind of song?

JH: I still feel that that's important in terms of the song, that if the song is any good it means that a hundred years from now they'll still be singing it, long after they've forgotten who wrote it. I know that's virtual heresy in this pop culture where everything is based on everything but the substance, but much more on the promotion, performance, and all the trappings.

SV: But I'm curious to know in your own songwriting how much of it is autobiographical, or do you have sort of a rule of thumb... What are your own private rules for songwriting? I had asked Leonard Cohen one time whether his songs were confessional and did he feel that he confessed, and he said basically that he confessed or he lied or he did whatever he had to to make the song work, which I thought was interesting.

JH: Of course there's a thin line and all songs are going to be somehow out of your own experience. Even if you're observing what someone else is doing, you're the one who's chosen to pick that to observe. I feel strongly that songs shouldn't be confessional in that the way of somebody's journal. I hear so many songs that are just somebody's journal set to music and they're so personal as to exclude the audience. Songwriting got very indulgent for a while, built on the cult of stardom, where everyone was so interested in what some superstar had for breakfast that morning that anything they wrote became "important" but not necessarily songs that other people can relate to. There are no steadfast rules to where that line is, and sometimes you have to push it or pull back. Sometimes something that's very personal ends up universal just because that's what makes the song believable.

SV: Right. And does the element of entertainment ever come into it when you're writing a song? Do you ever think about how it will be perceived by your audience?

JH: I think entertainment, which has always been my short suit, humor specifically...

SV: I don't mean that all entertainment has to be humorous, but there is an element of writing for an audience.

JH: If I might add another element, the element of drama, which I find is entertaining.

SV: Yeah.

JH: If we define entertainment as drama, I think that every song is potentially almost like a play.

SV: Especially in your songs I'd say there's a larger element of drama than humor. (Both laugh.)

JH: In some of your songs too. I heard a version of your "The Queen and the Soldier" by Kate Rusby, the British singer, recently [on Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts' self-titled album]. It's beautiful. There's certainly a play in that song.

SV: Thank you. But I was curious to know what happens in your own mind, as you're sitting in your own room, fashioning a song. Do you ever think about an audience, even if it's an audience of one, or even if it's someone outside whom you fashion a song for?

JH: Oh yeah. I feel that a song is a two-way street. Once again I think that's a weakness of a lot of modern songwriters; they're writing it just for what they want to express or it's all about them. And they forget that someone has to listen to the song. The song, being a metaphysical art form, only exists at that moment that someone is singing it and someone is listening to it. That's the only time the song truly exists.

SV: Can you define "metaphysical"?

JH: In the way that you can lock up the singer but you can't lock up the song. You can lock up Victor Jara and cut off his hands and kill him, but you can't kill his songs. You can burn all the books and burn the CDs but you can't burn the songs.

SV: So you say "metaphysical" meaning it exists in a form above the physical realm.

JH: Right. More than the novel or the painting or the sculpture, all which have a physical presence. A song...

SV: ...exists in time.

JH: Only at that moment. Which is what I find truly intriguing about it and very magical.

SV: Yeah. Speaking about the topic of magic, is there anything incantational about your work, or do you feel it's connected to that element in the world?

JH: I feel that it's connected with that element and I try to connect it. Somewhere back in the '80s or even the late '70s I started to get into Celtic mythology and the older mythology that is much more based on the earth and the cycles of the year and the cycles of the moon.

SV: So is there any element of spells, or even prayers?

JH: Ancient bards had three powers: the power of enchantment, basically the love song which we all know and love; the second was the power of invocation, which is a little harder to define and I'll come back to; and the third is the power of the curse, which would be your political diatribe.

SV: Excellent! (Laughs.)

JH: The power of invocation is harder to define because, once again, it's more metaphysical, but it's the power of adding an importance and a drama and an overlay to a situation or a process, and I feel it's one of the purposes of folk song. For instance, being asked to write a song for a wedding or for a baptism or for a funeral.

SV: I see what you mean.

JH: That's when we turn to that form. It's a different type of song that adds a certain formality to those situations.

SV: Almost an element of ritual...

JH: "Ritual" is a good word.

SV: ...or connecting with a history. When you say "invocation" I think you must be calling forth something, a spirit of some kind of either celebration for a wedding or...

JH: Or a blessing of some kind or a presence of some kind or just saying, "This is important."

SV: And it's also connected with a sense of history, of what's gone on before.

JH: I feel that to be a good songwriter, you have to develop all three of those powers, but they're sort of interrelated. It doesn't mean that you write a song that's only-this or only-that. One of the songs on my new album [Omens] called "Eclipse" is the first song I feel that I'm really interweaving all three of those powers in the same song.

SV: That must be difficult, though. How would you do that without having three separate subjects for a song? Would you want to write a love song for someone that you're also cursing and invoking? (Laughs.)

JH: Well, it might not be that person that you're cursing.

SV: Maybe have two different subjects in the same song.

JH: It might be cursing somebody involved with that person and invoking the powers of the mystical elements of the moon in terms of the moon being eclipsed by the earth, the mundane, blocking out the rays of the male-dominant sun.

SV: I see. (Both laugh.) Thanks for explaining that!

JH: That's all in relating the story of this person.

SV: It obviously must be a song with many facets to it.

JH: I've tried in recent years to have my writing, at least on one level, a little more accessible.

SV: I think we're all grateful for that! (Both laugh.)

JH: For a while I was out on a few limbs and too many saws were busy sawing.

SV: Obviously you must read poetry. At least a while back when we were all talking about songwriting I know that you were reading quite a few, especially the Irish poets. I was wondering what role does poetry play in your songwriting or do you feel they're connected? And what do you feel is the difference between a poem and a song?

JH: First off, I feel songwriting is poetry. And, and at the risk of offending all the quote-unquote "poets" out there, I feel that it's the real poetry. What is modernly known as poetry is a recent affectation of the printing press, which is only four hundred years old. We now have poetry readings. Originally poetry was always sung. Even dating back to Homer's age, poetry was sung. It had melody. It was meant to be performed. It was meant to be shared. The importance is in the sounds of the words. That's where I got into the Irish poets, specifically the Gaelic poets. It was really those poets-[James Clarence] Mangan, who reintroduced Gaelic poetry to the likes of Yeats and Joyce-that saved us from iambic pentameter and this sort of British view of poetry that was locked on the printed page, where you could rhyme "grain" with "again." The sounds of the words, the internal rhymes, the assonance and consonance, were important. Long before they had names for those [techniques], poets were doing them, but they were sung.

SV: Yeah.

JH: So I don't see a delineation between poetry and song. Yeats in his later years bemoaned the fact that he'd never learned an instrument. He realized later that this stuff should be sung and ran around trying to get people to set his poems to music. SV. Right, I guess James Joyce did also. I don't know if he sang but I think he was musical and that comes through in his work. What about modern poetry or music? What do you think about T. S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath or any of the poets of this century? Do any of them ring true for you?

JH: "Ring true" on a level that I think reaches me. I've definitely read them and read them often, some more than others.

SV: Are there any that resonate for you the same way that the older Gaelic poets did?

JH: I still feel-and this is maybe where I'm getting myself into deep water-but I want this stuff to be more accessible to a general audience.

SV: You're talking about your own work? Or anybody's?

JH: Poetry in general, poetry or song, should be accessible to a more general audience and shouldn't be exclusionary, which I feel a lot of the printed poets are. Of course I've been accused of those same things! (Both laugh.) That's why I said I'm getting into deep water.

SV: Well, it really depends on your perspective. That's the one thing I found about your work in particular, that you are very influenced by the older styles because of your deep beliefs in terms of where the song comes from. But I was also wondering whether any part of the songwriting that could be called modern or any part of the poetry that could be called modern is interesting to you. And I don't mean that just as a movement or what you're talking about [in terms of] the current poets being exclusionary; I'm talking about the vocabulary, or the style of writing, the tone.

JH: It's certainly interesting. I pay attention to it. I think everyone would be foolish not to. I mean, I'm aware of it; it's not like I'm living in an ivory tower somewhere. (Both laugh.) I went through a period about the time of my Mirror of My Madness album where I was steeping myself in urban imagery, in a much more urban base, but I'm much more into how images and words affect the subconscious of the listener, and if you deal with human beings as having been on this planet for five to potentially ten million years, this little drop-in- the-bucket of urbanization, which is the last three thousand years, is nothing compared to what has formed the subconscious of the listener. So, even if you're playing to an audience in the city, what's going to affect their subconscious is the more rural, pastoral imagery, not the urban imagery. I'm not talking their rational self; I'm talking their subconscious, emotional self.

SV: That's an interesting premise. I don't know that I agree with it. I don't think modern poetry has to be urban necessarily. I think it can be modern and still write about the ocean and still write using metaphors in a certain way.

JH: Right, but I've heard very little of it that does.

SV: Yeah, that's fair enough.

JH: If you take the song as... Like when you're telling a child a bedtime story, they're not listening to you tell a story. They're in that story. They become the princess. Everything that's happening to the princess is happening to them. And to me, a song, when it's good, does that same thing, places the listener in the song. Because when you move the listener physically into the song, their emotions follow. As long as they're still stuck in their cerebral self, you don't have their emotions; they're still thinking about it. They might think that this is a good song, but you're still in the ego level of "this is good/bad"; you don't really have their emotions.

SV: Their deep involvement, yeah.

JH: So that's what I strive for in a song, to try to physically move the listener into that song. And then you bring their emotions and their subconscious with them. I don't always achieve that, but that's at least what I'm aiming for.

(This is the end of the recorded interview that is included on Omens.)

SV: What you're talking about is bringing the listener into the world of the song that's created. In your own work, would you say that that world is constant? Is there one world that you write from, that you describe? And I'm not talking about a physical one necessarily. What world is it that you are trying to take your listener into?

JH: Hmmm.

SV: I can sense what it might be, but I wanted to hear it in your own words.

JH: A lot of my work is experimental. I certainly push the limits of my own horizons at times and then back off. But that constant world, I'm not sure whether I could actually describe it. The answer is "yes, there is one" and it's a world that is different from this current world and different from this culture even, where individuals are more valued and life-cycles and natural cycles are more valued.

SV: So is it almost a timeless sort of place?

JH: I like to think it's timeless. And whether we'll ever see it in the physical world again, probably we wouldn't unless there's some drastic change of heart of this materialistic culture or the aftermath of World War III or something. We might be back there again. But it's much more of a metaphysical world. I find it a safe world to habit.

SV: My sense of the world that you write about is timeless and also spiritual in a sense. It's not nostalgic particularly.

JH: I don't like to write nostalgic. Sitting around the campfire at Kerrville [Folk Festival in Texas] I heard too many songs about "my grandfather's farm." Everybody seems to be waxing nostalgic. I think metaphysical is much more key. But I often find, even if I'm writing about something that happens right now, or relatively recently, I often set that in a far-ago time to add that kind of power of invocation to it. Once again, the song "Eclipse" I was talking about, but that would be the same as your "The Queen and the Soldier." It's set at a[n earlier] time, even though the events you might be talking about were a little more modern than when there were castles or tapestries. I find that that also adds a certain importance to those individuals and a certain drama to it.

SV: What you're after is depth, I think.

JH: And also the archetypes of the characters. Sometimes I find us even in these days acting out these roles that were acted out years ago.

SV: Is there anything you'd like to talk about in terms of instrumentation or the actual music itself?

JH: I've still been recording live and my new album is recorded live. My compromise with Dave Seitz [president of Prime CD and producer of the album] was to do it live to 24-track. My last three albums I did live to two-track, no overdubs, no fix-it-in-the-mix. We still have no overdubs on this but we did at least mix it, so I met him halfway on that. (Laughs.) But I still feel strongly that a recording is a moment in time. I like the urgency and the immediacy that everything on this album was recorded, most of it on one night and a few songs on another night. We set up on one night, started recording, and then finished up the next night. My last one before this, The Passing, I did in seven hours in the studio, direct to two-track, so it was all done.

SV: So you don't believe that the recording is something like a work in itself? There are some people who believe that the recording itself is something to play with like you would a canvass.

JH: Well, that has become an art-form in itself, and I'll give credit where credit is due. And I still think recording is a different art- form than the actual writing, but I'm trying to capture that immediacy that a song would have...

SV: Of a live performance. JH. Of a live performance. Without the audience, because I think live recordings with audience get old in a hurry. You listen to them once and you don't listen to them again.

SV: I agree with that.

JH: Recording will never be the same thing as live performance and I tend to record, but I [also] tend to perform now, with a full group. [On] this new one I'm using electric lead guitar instead of acoustic lead guitar.

SV: Is that your first time doing that?

JH: No, I used electric guitar last time on the Through album which is maybe '89, so ten years ago I did. Since then I've been using acoustic. I go back and forth. I'm using a fiddle on this new one and drums, or the Irish bodhrán, and I'm using three-part male harmony. The last few I've used female harmony. But it's still basically the general gestalt that my recordings have always had, which is that moment of where I am at that point, songs culled from the last couple of years. And I'm still trying to write a song a week with the songwriters' meeting. Still meeting weekly!

SV: (Laughs.) You are? That's pretty cool.

JH: I throw out more than I keep.

SV: That's good, though. Let me ask you something: Are you involved in anything right now technically? Is there some sort of technical aspect of writing a song that's fascinating to you right now? Are there any aspects of melody or composition that you're after?

JH: My current line of investigation in terms of melody... I'm doing an in-depth study of the sean-nós singers-the old-style Gaelic singers that sang a cappella; very interesting uses of melody in the way they played with vowels-and trying to incorporate that into some of my melodic writing.

SV: And who was this?

JH: They call them the sean-nós singers; they're old-style singers. Most of them are gone now. There's recordings of them. There's a few people still singing in that style but this is a style of singing that goes back thousands of years. And I'm still pursuing my studies of the Irish Gaelic language and trying to incorporate that into my own writing. I'm doing the odd chorus or phrases in Gaelic now, because once again, even though I'm well aware that even though the listener isn't going to understand it cerebrally, they're going to hopefully understand it emotionally from the sounds of the words.

SV: That's very ambitious.

JH: The good thing about not being famous is that I'm not tied to anybody's expectations. I don't have to sound like anything. If I drastically want to change what I'm doing tomorrow, I'm free to do that. I can pursue any line...

SV: I suppose if you wanted to do an opera in Sanskrit, you could do that as well.

JH: Right! Nobody's expecting me to have another hit like my last one or have more of a rock-'n'-roll sound. If I'm using an electric guitar it's because I want to explore the textures of that, not because I'm trying to be more accessible to a teenage crowd. I'm sort of leaving the technology to others. I still don't have a computer although I have a fan [Ron Mura] who keeps a nice web site for me. That's actually now, which is frightening. I'm lucky enough to have friends who can deal with the technical sides of this.

SV: Ultimately I think the technical side is a vehicle and a tool for the more soulful aspects of our life.

JH: The one aspect I would love to get into which I have not had the opportunity yet is the visual side of it. A lot of music now is delivered on MTV or variations of that theme. It's a video format. And to me the folk song is much more suited to that vehicle, because you have characters, you have layers of archetypes, you have images, you have symbols. You could make great videos of this medium.

SV: Yeah, it can be very film-like.

JH: I have done plays and dabbled in that. I've written eight plays that have been produced and used all sorts of masks and experimented greatly with the concept of the folk song in that form. And that's also a visual art-form, but I have yet to try to bring something like that to video. I know you've done some movie soundtrack stuff and that I would also find interesting too. I've seen some of these recent Irish films and boy I wish someone had called me to do the soundtrack. (Both laugh.)

SV: That would be great. Like what? What film?

JH: There were a couple. The great one, Into the West—did you see that one?-about the kid and the horses and the tinkers and traveling people. And the other one, The Secret of Roan Inish, and The Field. There've been a bunch of great Irish films lately.

SV: I haven't been to a movie in about two years.

JH: I go through spurts where I see a lot of them.

SV: Well, have we exhausted our subject or is there more to be covered? (To David Seitz, who is recording the interview:) Do you have any suggestions, over there? David Seitz: The songwriting process stuff, the actual process of writing the song might be interesting to people. You kind of touched on it at the beginning but then we sort of jumped.

SV: I tried to get back to it recently with the technique of songwriting and then [Jack] said he's putting Gaelic into his songs lately and that's the thing he's concerned with right now technically. It's not quite what you would want to hear necessarily. David Seitz: Maybe more what inspires it to happen than the actual technical side of it.

SV: So, Jack, tell me: What inspires you to write a song? I'm sure this is a question you have been asked before.

JH: I figure someday I will write a very libelous book entitled The Music and Muses of Jack Hardy. (Both laugh.) Which I'll immediately get sued for. There's numerous different things. The muse factor is definitely important to my work. People who shall remain nameless at various periods of time have been my muse for great bodies of songs. Also the concept of social commentary I feel is a great inspiration for work. The song on my current album "I Ought to Know" is definitely social commentary of just everything we're supposed to know of this culture, juxtaposing images of things that we really ought to know and things that people think they ought to know, going back and forth in this barrage of sound-bites and video bites. It would make a great video. Once again-back to the three powers of the bards-the invocation, the various cycles of the year inspire me greatly to write on, whether it's the solstice that's tonight, or Christmas, or...

SV: Where did your interest in the natural world come from? Is this something that you had as a kid?

JH: Very early, when I was a kid and my family was living in New York City and we were going to Connecticut on weekends. At that point I hated the city; I just hated everything about the city and I lived for the weekends when I could go outside and I was outside before anyone else even woke up, running through fields and woods. I think at that stage I just completely bonded with nature, in the same way a parent bonds with a child. If you read the book Magical Child [by Joseph Chilton Pearce], it talks about that stage of a child's development where they're supposed to bond with nature.

SV: As though you were the child and nature was the parent?

JH: Right, or that it's a physical bonding, of getting your fingers into the earth and the leaves and the smells and the tastes and the cycles and the different elements, and I feel that at that point I completely bonded with it. So it's always been a part of me.

SV: Well, it must speak to you in a certain way. I find that's one thing that's difficult in my own songwriting. If I try to write about nature, I find it difficult.

JH: But you grew up in the city...

SV: I did grow up the city; I had very little contact with nature. I love certain writers like Annie Dillard, who writes about nature in such a way that makes you really inspired and makes you want to go out and go into a forest or go look at insects or trees. And then when I actually go out I see bugs and I see trees. (Laughs.) And I go back inside and I want to read some more. I feel things when I see the ocean and I respond to that, but it's a part of the world I never really thought to draw from in terms of writing.

JH: And to me it's the whole world to draw from. (Both laugh.) Even if I'm in the urban environment, I'm looking at it from that perspective. It's such a grounding feeling to me.

SV: I think that's one of the definitions of the word "romantic," an individual who feels that kind of identification with nature.

JH: Hmmm... That may be true, although I'm not that much into defining things. It's more a question of feeling them, once again the difference between the cerebral approach and the emotional approach. That's one of the reasons I feel very drawn to the west coast of Ireland, where I keep returning to. It's just so locked into those cycles and the ocean and...

SV: When you say "cycles," there must be more to it than just things changing. We must be drawn to cycles of renewing themselves, and the idea of something going underground and then being renewed.

JH: Just being aware of the power, the different phases of the moon and how it affects us.

SV: Mmmm.

JH: And most people aren't even aware of it, unless they notice there's a full moon and say, "Boy, everyone's acting crazy tonight." Or the time of year, the sun being lower in the horizon, or the solstice, when the days start getting longer again-these things affect us far more than we'll give them credit for, even if we're in the city.

SV: Right, they affect everyone.

JH: A tree can be a very mystical presence and changes in terms of the cycle of the year, when it has leaves, when it's losing its leaves or when they get brittle in the late-August heat, or when in early March the sun is getting up there and the lichen's turning this phosphorescent glow. They have a presence that I find very powerful. And the different styles of trees, and the use of language itself. The Celtic alphabet came out of the trees. Still the names of letters in Irish are the names of trees. Early on this was an oral tradition-it wasn't a written tradition-so when I'm talking about the letter A, it's not the written letter A but it's the sound of that letter A, aw, that's symbolized by the fir tree, that's symbolized by the time of year-the winter solstice, that's symbolized by a bird and a color. Long before there was the written letter A, these things meant something to the subconscious. So to use the sound of the letter A in your writing is going to evoke these images in the subconscious of the listener. And if you put that together with a second sound-let's say the letter S, which is the willow tree and the hawk bird and the time of year that's right between [spring] and summer-then the possibilities go up geometrically.

SV: Do you really believe that it's a literal as that?

JH: Oh, yeah. And if you put it together with melody, you've now got a three-dimensional image in the subconscious of the brain, and this is where you can move listener physically into your song. These ancient bards were fully aware of all of this. They learned this starting at age seven; for twenty-one years they studied it before they were even allowed to write. And so they would do this naturally, like learning to type or like you feed stuff into your computer now and then you can take it out. If you program all of this nature into your memory bank, then when you write... Recently I found that the more I program into my memory bank, the more it comes out.

SV: So what is your ultimate goal from writing? What's your deepest wish?

JH: Oh...

SV: What do you hope for when you write a song? You worked really hard at it and you have a whole body of work. Is there something that you wish for, in terms of what you could achieve or accomplish in your writing?

JH: I don't think it's on that level. But I feel like I'm part of something much bigger, that it's not about me anymore, it's not about what I hope to achieve, it's more about how my small gifts can fit in with a much bigger picture of something as big as trying to save the world. (Laughs.) I feel that my small gift might do something to that collective unconscious that might alter the state of human direction at this point to maybe move in a steadily different direction, or maybe not. But I don't think in terms of my writing of what I can achieve or what I can hope to gain from it.

SV: No, I didn't mean what do you hope to gain from it. If you spend this amount of time in it and this amount of effort and work and energy doing something, I assume you do it for your own pleasure, but I was thinking there was probably a deeper wish as well. You've already explained what it is. You're going to alter the course of humankind, in your way. You want to have that sort of profound effect.

JH: But it's not about me having that effect; it's about that effect happening. As I said before, if the songs are any good, they're going to survive long after people have forgotten that I wrote them. I'm far more flattered by hearing that someone was singing my song in Ireland or singing my song in California and didn't even know that I wrote the song; they thought it was a traditional folk song. That flatters me more than being on the charts or something. It's not about me.

SV: OK. (Brief pause at the intended end of the interview.) I didn't mean to make you feel defensive at the end.

JH: No, I'm not defensive. These are great questions. I wish I could turn around and ask you all these questions.

SV: Too bad! Not today. (Both laugh.)

JH: Did I come off defensive?

SV: No, at the very end...

JH: I mean, that's a very important question and I feel I've long since transcended where my writing had anything to do about me.

SV: What I meant, I wasn't even talking about chart success or anything like that. Obviously you continue to do it because you have a passion for it, and so I was just wondering if you could define what makes you keep going and what makes you as dedicated as you are. Part of the reason I'm asking that is that I'm finding it difficult to write right now. Even though I want to I find it hard to get myself in a place where I can actually sit down and do that and feel comfortable doing it.

JH: That's, once again, where our songwriters' meeting helps me immensely...

SV: Could you turn off the microphone now? It's recording everything!

JH: Having that deadline helps immensely, because there's any number of excuses not to write a song in a given week.

SV: Oh God, tell me about it.

JH: Not the least of which... (recording ends)

Copyright © 2000 Jack Hardy