Phoenix-based Richard Hart donated a wonderful version of “Go Back to Your Woods” to our most recent covers project, Salivate. You’ll know that Richard is a gifted musician, but he also writes and composes his own music. We chatted with Richard about his music, and Bruce’s influence. It’s an enjoyable and at times moving read, for sure.
What is your musical background, Richard?
Well, my mother’s side of the family were all musicians of some note. They had it in their blood. They were all fabulous musicians–violinists, pianists, cellists–all classically trained, of course. My mother gave her first violin recital when she was seven–an experience that was her undoing. She unraveled, never overcame it, never played the violin again. But she was a great pianist too, and she could sit down at the piano and play Bach or Liszt or Tchaikovsky; and for me, as a kid, it was just spellbinding. But it never lasted long.
My father was not an uncouth primitive, or anything–he was brilliant–but his side of the family was the mirror opposite of my mother’s. And he was the dominant figure. Took my mom away from the world of arts and out to a truly rugged and austere life on a farm. But because of all the negative things my mom had associated with the world she had grown up in–that recital, of course, but even moreso her three sisters all dying at a very young age–she was more than willing to be taken away from one world and thrust into the other, though she didn’t belong in this other world. It was a world absent of culture and arts and, inexplicably, music. But it would build up in her–this need to play the piano again. And it would build and build and build and build until she wouldn’t be able to resist the notion of owning another piano–and a short time later, without telling my father, she would purchase a piano–never anything great (we didn’t have money), but a piano–and she’d have it delivered to our house. It was always a big surprise. And if you were lucky, you’d be there when she was going to sit down and play it for the first time after its having been delivered. And the music would be just gorgeous. Really, just spellbinding. But ten minutes or so later the piano playing would stop and my mom would burst into the most soulwrenching tears. The next week, when you came home from school, the piano would be gone. And, again, there would be no music in the house. At all. For another year or two. And then there would be a piano. And then the piano would be gone. And then there would be another piano. And then the piano would be gone. And that same scenario played itself out over and over and over again.
And that’s my musical background. Born into a family of excellent musicians, my mother the most outstanding of them, and no music at all in the house.
What set-up do you have? Where do you record?
I’d have to say that my setup is pretty primitive. I’ve stolen a small corner of space from my rather small townhouse and I do the recording, armed with an iMac, Logic Express, and a few horribly inadequate microphones; and I do my best to capture–you know, it’s a musician’s cliche, but I do–I try to capture that sound I’m hearing in my head and my heart. My setup really is laughable, though, considering what is available now for musicians who want to record in home studios. But I’ve never been flush with cash, you know, so I’ve always “made do.” And, anyway, I remember recording stuff on a four-track cassette machine, a Yamaha MT-44 (you’d have to put a piece of foil tape on the cassette window so that the machine would go into four-track mode). I was out of my father’s house by then. Lived in a trailer. And the winters were so cold. And I’d have to turn off the oil furnace when I was recording because, when the blower would kick on or off, there would be a very brief electrical spike that would translate to an audible click on the tape. And there’d be no way, of course–no ProTools or Logic Express or Ableton Lite–to go in and carve the click out. So the furnace would be off, and I would have to wear a snowmobile suit while recording. It truly was that cold. A snowmobile suit.
And oh, I almost forgot–I had a black Sigma acoustic guitar with some kind of pickup installed. It scares me to think it, but I think it was an old DeArmond pickup, a model 210. And that thing would buzz like hell. There was no way to stop it from buzzing. No way to ground it. Except, finally, I figured out what I could do: I took a few unwound guitar strings and linked them together by way of threading one string through another string’s ball end and then I wrapped one end of that string around the volume knob for the DeArmond and wrapped the other end around my big toe. And then I put my work boot on over that. So there I was–furnace off when it was below zero–Fahrenheit, you know–outside, dressed in a snowmobile suit, playing a black Sigma guitar with a wire running from the guitar down to and wrapped around my big toe, recording songs with a four-track cassette..
But, still, those are all happy memories. I had the most wonderful dog ever, and he would stay with me while I was recording, and he would wait patiently until I got what I wanted on tape or decided to throw in the towel.
And I almost got a publishing deal with the songs from those “snowmobile suit sessions.” But, you know how it goes–showbiz: the publishing deal talk led nowhere.
But that’s why I hesitate to say that an iMac with Logic Express and a couple of inadequate microphones is primitive. That would be like that Louis CK routine about everything being amazing and nobody being happy. Believe me–I know full well that an iMac and Logic and a couple of inadequate microphones is pretty damn amazing.
What instruments are you playing on your current setup?
As of late, it’s been mostly just guitar with just a bit of keyboards thrown in–most notably “And the Word Goodbye” and “Sundown Reunion.” The instrumental guitar tracks at the website were performed with various Danelectro guitars. “Siren Song,” for example, is a 56-U2, “What Gives” is a Danelectro 56-U1, and “Funkelectro” is a Danelectro Baritone. On the new RAW. collection, all of the guitar work is either a ModShop Custom Cabronita-style Tele with TV Jones Powertrons and an Evertune bridge, or the guitar I refer to as “The Guitar That Saved My Life,” my Yamaha Pacifica 302s.
But now that I’ve got the RAW. recordings completed, my plan is to record some acoustic stuff, for I think I’ve finally made piece with the acoustic guitar. It’s sort of like my mother and the piano, maybe–except I’m not, quite unfortunately, as a good a guitarist as my mother was a pianist, and, you know, I really don’t break down in tears–but I’ve had a great deal of emotional baggage weighing down on me in regard to the acoustic guitar, so I would buy acoustic guitars and then I would set them in the corner and eventually sell them. But thanks to an endorsement deal with Babicz Guitars, to whom I am quite grateful, and thanks to players like Cody Kilby, who are just awe-inspiring, I’ve worked my way back–I think. We’ll see, I guess.
Do you play locally anywhere? (and where is “local”?)
Local is Phoenix Metro. Love it here. But I’m kind of on hiatus. I’ve been really focused on the RAW. collection of songs. I just wanted to get those songs recorded instead of doing what I normally do: write songs and then let them fade out into the stratosphere. And, with RAW., I wanted to try to capture that joy one feels when one is falling in love with playing an instrument, before one gets completely obsessed with finding the ultimate tone and wanting to be the best player in the entire world. In a way, the RAW. songs are my, as Bruce would say, “nod to the punk aesthetic.” I just really wanted these songs to be rough cuts. You know, not even worry about clipping, though that’s a bit like sacrilege. I wanted to try to get a saturated tape sound, record everything hot, one take, embrace the imperfections. But the thing is, if I were to play those songs out, I wouldn’t want to do it without a really tight but joyful band, and there’s no band right now, and I just cut ties with my former management, so it’s a bit up in the air, as they say.
Do you write your own songs? What’s your approach to songwriting – based on experience, inspiration from afar, music first…?
Yes, I do. I write all the songs. Those are good questions, though, because, you know, really, there’s no place to hide in the arts. Dylan once said that a poem is a naked person and that he was a poet; and Dylan knows better than anyone probably that there’s no place to hide. Like “Idiot Wind,” from Blood on the Tracks: Dylan thought he could put some stuff in there about shooting a man named Gray and that would be enough to throw everybody off the trail. But no one was put off any trail. When someone writes something–or creates any kind of art, really–they can do everything they want to remove themselves from what they are painting or writing, but they’re still going to be there. The essence of who the artist is is always going to reveal itself in the art. That being said, there are definitely degrees to all of that. The songs at the website, for example: “Long Distance Love” is based completely on experience; “Crazy About Me” is a fictional piece, a too-universal story born from the story of a childhood friend who, in real life, wasn’t murdered, but did–somehow–managed to survive an absolutely savage beating by her husband; and “The First Time” is a song I wrote one night after watching a girl perform at an open mic. I had been sitting at the side of the stage, and as I studied her, the story of “The First Time” just starting coming. And I’ve never seen that girl before, and I’ve never seen her again, and I’ve never spoken with her, but I feel almost certain that that song is her story. But–and it’s that “there’s no place to hide thing”–because, to some degree, I suppose, it’s also my story–just as it is the story of every kid who has ever discovered the magic of an electric guitar.
On Salivate you chose the lesser-known Go Back To Your Woods. Any reason for choosing that song?
Well, the problem with trying to cover Bruce is that, when Bruce records something, that recording becomes the definitive version of that song. He’s just too good. So that’s a quandary. But I thought there was a little room to move with “Go Back to Your Woods,” not because Bruce’s version is not definitive–it is–but because Robbie Robertson had already done something so different with it. You know, Robbie had this whole swampy, bluesy, life-in-the-shadows, voodoo Delta thing going–which, at one point in my life, I might have preferred–but Bruce’s version was cleaner, more vibrant, and no less powerful, even though it wasn’t necessarily working overtime to be profound. But to me, Bruce’s version was more profound. I mean, that was my story–the story of that kid in his snowmobile suit, a guitar string wrapped around his toe, writing and recording the biggest part of the night after having worked the entire day, dreaming that the music he recorded would take him somewhere, give him a better life, allow him to be with the woman who, like the young woman in “Go Back to Your Woods,” loved the poor boy when there was no one else around, but was ashamed of him and his lack of wealth whenever her family and friends were near. That was my story. And that’s why I decided, though I knew in some ways it would be futile, to cover, to bring something different to “Go Back to Your Woods.”
Where can people hear more of you?
Well, right now the web site (www.richard-hart.com) is the main thing, at least until the performing (or lack of same) status quo changes. But I do hope people will check out the site and that they will find a piece of music there that moves them in some way. Then, who knows, maybe, soon, I’ll see them when I’m back on the road. And if they let me know ahead of time they’ll be in the audience…who knows, i might even put on a snowmobile suit and wrap a guitar string around my toe.
We’d like to thank Richard for such a wonderful interview… you can hear and read more at Richard-Hart.com. Thanks, Richard!