The thing that struck me in talking to Jackson Browne, as the 40 minutes I'd been promised passed the 90 minute mark, was how much he cares; not just about the state of the world we live in, but the details of the songs he writes and the records he makes. Browne recently released his 14th studio album, Standing in the Breach, and it's on par with any of the classics in his canon. Backed by the band he's had for over a decade, and recorded at Browne's own Groove Masters studio, the album mixes the political with his gift for melody and intimate, yet universal, truths about loving, losing, as well as struggling in and with the world. I caught up with Browne as he wrapped up a series of summer shows before heading back out on the road in support of Standing in the Breach.
I know that you took production credits very early on in your career. How did you know that that was so important?
I wasn't conscious of that when I started making records. I guess the first sessions I ever attended were ones where they were recording my songs. At the very first one, they were trying to cut three songs in three hours. I could see that these guys were an incredible team. At one point I was trying to tell the drummer to adjust something that he was playing. Don Randi, the piano player, said, "Come over here, kid. Come sit down next to me." There was a way that people in the studios did these arrangements. I realized that any one guy could make the thing really come alive. The next session I went to, Jim Keltner was the drummer. I got to meet and know some of these people, and I realized that they all have their singular gifts. It was like being in a candy store. "Who should we get to play on this? Ooh, let's get this guy." Those early records were made that way. I had the good fortune of getting to make my first record with Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar. I later got them to be my band for Running on Empty. I'd been calling them for sessions for individual songs. There were a bunch of players around, and I wanted to try them all.
These are the people you would want to play with; not just because they're great players, but because you'd also want to be around them.
Yeah, I know. It's true! When I was young, when Keltner was playing on one of my songs that Johnny Rivers was recording, he was like, "You wrote this song? No kidding? It's cool!" He was very friendly. Jim's always been that way. Not just to me. I've seen him do it with lots of other people. He's a special player. He's like Yoda in the studio. You can't get him to do anything twice. You could try, but it wouldn't work. It wouldn't happen. I felt really lucky to play with him. I began to feel extremely fortunate when I started putting together a "best of" a few years back and looked at the credits. It's like a pantheon of the best players.
From your first record [Jackson Browne] you were essentially saying, "Let's do it again," or "I didn't like that," to these amazing players. You're essentially telling Jim Keltner, "This is what I want." Was that intimidating?
No, because he's such a great presence. The first session I did with Jim Keltner was for the song "These Days." He had taught drums in the same music store that David Lindley taught banjo at in Pasadena. They were old friends. David Lindley had not only played on that second album [For Everyman], but we'd already been on the road for a year together. I decided not to bring a band out on that tour, because everybody I tried was not really up to the level of David. We went out, the two of us. When it came time to make a record, we knew we had to add something complementary to what we were already doing. That's my way into songs and producing, knowing that, under certain conditions, things can happen when you get the right people together. David played lap steel on "These Days." The original track sounds like an organ. He's playing these pads on lap steel. For the solo, we first mic'd the neck of the lap steel and put him in an iso booth away from the amp. I thought I'd be getting more of the acoustic sound. It was a National lap steel, so there wasn't much going on, but you ended up hearing a lot of extra sound. He only did one pass, but it was incredibly solid, and at the end it was a very triumphant moment. Then I knew what I wanted, but very often you don't know what you want. But really, my becoming a producer had more to do with me not wanting to produce. I wanted to find it myself, because I'd been around sessions where there was somebody trying to influence things. I kept telling my manager that I was afraid of guys coming in to supplant my ideas and emotional truths with ones of their own. I didn't want to be a passenger! So that's how that happened.
It seems very insightful for a young guy to know that he needs that control. Are you a control freak?
A little bit. But I also like things to just happen. I have definite preferences. I'll rule out certain things. I have a keyboardist [Jeff Young] who's a really great pianist, but I might not want that on the record. I sometimes prefer the simplicity of the way I play something, even though the guy is the most soaring and beautiful organ player. Sometimes I don't know until I hear it. I may sound like a control freak, but I want a certain emotional truth to be brought to bear. I'm not so much of a control freak that I need to dictate what other people do, but I need something from them that is a genuine performance. Only certain players will be able to bring this about. Danny Kortchmar and I have become really good friends. At the very beginning, I had him playing on a song and he was playing a bunch of licks and whatnot. I wasn't ready to hear that kind of playing. I like that on all kinds of songs, but I didn't hear it there. I knew I didn't want somebody else to make those choices for me. I knew that the key to getting to do this was a manager and record company that let me take my time. I listened to my second record [For Everyman] when one guy mixed it and it didn't sound quite right, so I had to go back. "If you don't know, nobody knows." That was the basic axiom. David Geffen [Asylum Records] was great. He'd let me turn down some of the most famous producers that he wanted me to work with and simply allow me to go after it myself. It took me a long time to learn certain things, but at least I learned it in my time.
A lot of producers can get the best arrangements and the best hooks; but you knew, in your songwriter brain, where you wanted to take them and what you wanted it to sound like when it was done.
Yeah, I think you're right. I think that's a part of it. The songwriter was ascendant in those days. Maybe it's been that way for a long time, but at the time it was a new deal. A lot of people were singing; but if they'd written the song, they had the mandate to sing the song. That carried over to how I wanted to treat it, and how I wanted it done.
Your fifth album, Running on Empty, was tracked live, as well as on buses, hotel rooms, and such. What was the impetus for this?
Some of the songs were about being on the road. There were so many great takes I'd hear on the road and think, "Holy cow, why didn't they put that on the record?" I thought that I could do it because I could record everything on cassettes. I thought I'd make the whole thing and master the cassette. I'm not the only one who'd ever thought of doing it that way. Bruce [Springsteen] and Little Steven Van Zandt did it around that same time for the Gary Bonds record [Dedication]. They figured out that they had the sound they wanted on the record, right there. The cassettes had a compression on them. My idea was to simply try to capture the road experience. Just record everything. I'd even record conversations and hilarious things that people said to each other. I'd have people walking around with cassette machines. Various players would put a stop to it and tell us to stop chasing them around. They wanted whatever happened on the road to stay on the road. I was going to do a bunch of songs that had already been recorded that I thought needed to be redeemed and played a bit better. I thought we could update the songs. Right away, we listened back to some of them and realized that we should just do the new songs. They were fantastic. To do a bunch of new songs on a live album hadn't been done before, really. Most live albums were a celebration of an artist's popularity, like a "best of" collection.
Now you've got your studio, Groove Masters. I interviewed Graham Nash and David Crosby recently, and they talked about it like it was this secret clubhouse. When, and why, did you start Groove Masters, and why do you keep private?
We didn't want to put out ads, mainly because no one wants to work that hard. [laughter] It's like a project room. You can get in there if you only have one day's work, but it helps if you know what needs to get done. It's not a mill, where people are in for three hours and then out. There's not an hourly rate, and not even really a daily rate. So it's private. Some people really need a private place to work, where they're not going to run into a random assortment of other bands or people. Although, I hear about people running into each other at Ocean Way [Recording], and I think, "Shit, that's not happening enough." For me, I get to see people coming in and out. But I don't hang around in sessions. I make myself scarce, unless I'm invited.
What do you have in there?
We've got several 24-track machines. We've got Pro Tools. All the new digital equipment, as well as the coolest old gear. I started buying stuff right away because I wanted to be able to do what I was doing in the studio on the road. The first thing I bought was a couple of [Universal Audio] LA-2A [compressors]. I started buying mics when they would come up. We tried to apply everything we were doing in the studio in the '70s and '80s to the road. Working with Greg Ladanyi on Running on Empty was the first time that I had a recording engineer in the front of house. I've done that for a long time now, where the front of house mixer is also my recording engineer.
Let's talk about the new record. It's been a while since Time the Conqueror  and you have a studio at your disposal. Why so long between the last record and Standing in the Breach?
My relationships, my family, and things took me away. I've been more or less productive at different times in my life. I had to become more industrious to get this album made. I started writing it in the Galapagos on a trip — I went there with a bunch of oceanographers. It took me a while to finish this song, but it started being about ocean pollution. I put as much into the writing of the songs as I ever have with anything else, but not in the context of record making. More in the context of living and trying to find out an approach to certain topics that I figured were important to me and, I think, important to life. It's not easy to write a song about plastic pollution. Like who wants to hear that? Nobody! Then again, if you go surfing, and I do occasionally, you get in the water and there's all this plastic shit floating by you, and you realize that the ocean is filling up with plastic. Finding a way into a subject like that for me was really worthwhile but involved a task. I don't want to preach to, or harangue, people. I want to catch their interest. It's the same with "Standing in the Breach." It's really about an earthquake, but right away it turns into a song about poverty and endemic inequity. But I'm not really trying to write a rock essay — I want to write a song.
One of the challenges for a lot of artists is trying to find creative ways to write about getting older, and to relate to an audience that's getting older. It seems that you've always had an old soul. Your songs do seem to have a timelessness about them.
Well, I grew up listening to old people singing. I grew up listening to Mississippi John Hurt, Louis Armstrong, and Mose Allison. Even Bob Dylan, when he was really young, sounded like an old man. He was channeling a lot of these older players and cultivating [their sound]. These days, people think it's an old person's perspective — a weary perspective — but I think it's him emulating the people he grew up listening to. If you grow up listening to those old people, well, that's the great thing about folk music. Many of the great artists are old men. But hopefully you're gravitating toward what you know, too.
You seem to be talking about the same things with the same set of eyes, but from the perspective of 2014, which is obviously very different to 1974.
I was reflecting on that the other day. I remember a very world weary business guy asked me in 1994 if I was surprised by the corruption in the world. I told him I was. I really was. He was probably a fairly corrupt guy. But I've realized that so much of what we're encountering has been endemic in the world, and that things have been that way for a long time. When you start reading history, you realize that the forces really at play in the world are business forces. There are many examples of the kinds of corruption that we encounter in daily political life. It's been there all the time. We're being disabused that it can't happen here, that it wouldn't happen in our country, that it's not really the case in our country, that our country escapes it, or that it's just other countries where business is done in this way. I think what's killing the world, and what's killing our future, is the way we do business. There's a business empire at play in the world. The world is very old and we're kind of a new country. We may have a great deal to offer the world because of our own belief in ourselves, our belief in our freedoms, and ability to invent new solutions and pathways. Yet, despite all that, the forces that rule our business practices and our political approaches are very old. They've been in place for centuries. Like the song "Standing in the Breach," I wanted to make reference to Haiti, a country that started out as a colony that threw off the yoke of slavery and became the first free country. They did it by accepting a debt, and they still owe that debt. What's really going on in that country is the perpetuation of the inequities that gave rise to slavery in the first place. The song tries to refer to that in a way that would help people take it into consideration. The more we wake up, the more we're still in a dream. I want to write songs that are thoughtful and consider the problems that we face. I'm not trying to have a song offer the solutions. The solutions lie in our individual choices, the way we live our lives, and what we decide to do in the world. When I look at the reports coming from Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine — if I were a doctor, maybe I would be able to go work with Doctors Without Borders. We have to do something. I never really felt like I was a musician that didn't ever have a stake in the world. Sometimes I try to talk myself into that, like, "Nobody's going to fault you if you just write your songs, play your shows, and treat this like it's a job." But I guess that's the music that's always meant the most to me. Paul McCartney was incredibly insightful as a young man to write "Eleanor Rigby." It was incredible to suddenly thrust that view of life and of death into a pop environment that had never had that kind of topic talked about. I grew up with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones, and all the folk music and Appalachian music as my heroes and teachers. I started taking a longer and longer time to finish songs. I like simple songs too, so there's something of a paradox in trying to write a simple song about something that requires a lot of engagement with a subject. But there's so much more humanity in music that comes from people who are singing about the truth of their situation.
How long do you allow yourself for these things to gestate, both in the writing and in the studio? Are you writing right up to the last minute when you do the vocal, or at some point are you just done?
I'm always arguing with myself about the song during the production of the record. I change things around, or try other things. I do that during recording a lot of the time. Sometimes on the record there are older versions of the lyrics that are slightly different. On this record, the songs got written and they may have evolved as the songs got tracked; but, as a producer, it's about getting the record to reflect that the meaning is really in the way it's played. There's a Woody Guthrie song that addresses a bunch of political stuff there that's beneath the surface. Sometimes I don't know how to bring it out. "Walls and Doors" was written by a Cuban friend of mine named Carlos Varela. It's a very well known song in Cuba. He's always been a critic of the Cuban situation; and, at the same time, he's not like a dissident or anything. There's a whole political context that song takes place in. I wrote the English version and I think it speaks very strongly to people in the United States. There can be freedom only when nobody owns it, but we do act like we own it. We do act like we've got to dispense our freedom, like it's a product that we manufacture and we're going to make it available to the people of Afghanistan. The reality is a little bit tougher and harder to take. The problem lies in our proprietary attitude towards it, like it's something that we invented. We didn't invent it, and we often don't even practice it. There's a lot of political context behind some of these songs.
There are many things that the listener can take from these songs about the state of the world. And, for some, maybe it will spur them to act, or at least think.
Yeah, I think it corresponds to your own understanding. I've written songs that were more polemic or overtly political in the past. I still sing those songs, but there's so much more nuanced information that I have about [these issues]. And it doesn't really apply exactly to the situation. I'm not trying to write another broadside or polemic. I'm trying to refer to these things that everybody's going through, and to refer to them in a way that, at the heart of it, is the idea that I'm glad to be alive now when these problems need to be solved. If I could be anywhere, I'd want to be right here. Talking with you about this is interesting. It's a part of my process that I generally don't get to talk with anyone about. It's a decision not to be too overt on the political side. But I have my moments where my point of view or my beliefs are pretty pointed.
I'm curious how you listen to music these days. Do you still like vinyl? As an artist you must have a strong opinion about it.
Well, I like vinyl. In the recent years I've taken the trouble to try to get my record player and vinyl system going. I got my vinyl together, and I like listening to music that way very much. It's hard to get a good vinyl pressing the way that we used to do it. There used to be a system of getting references and approving them that's basically not even in place [anymore]. I don't know how anybody's getting vinyl done now. It used to start in analog and stay in analog, but now nobody does that. I like vinyl a lot, but at the same time I do like the really high-res audio. I like CDs. You can't even find a CD player; nobody sells them. I listen to CDs in my car, and I listen to vinyl. I know that high resolution has rendered the digital domain almost as good as analog. I got a demonstration of the high-res audio and I'm so glad that people will have an alternative to MP3s. That sound makes things go down the tubes. I found somebody in a high-end record store who sold me a really beautiful Marantz CD player. It's kind of an antique at this point, but it's one of the best sounding things in the world.