Jackson Browne, an old pro with a fresh perspective
On a recent evening at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, Jackson Browne was leading his band through his song “About My Imagination” when he raised his hand to halt the musicians. The ensemble included some new members, and though Browne had loved the energy they’d brought to the tune earlier in the practice (during their initial crack at it), now the veteran singer-songwriter feared the freshness had worn off. The music, he said to the players as he peered over his eyeglasses, was beginning to feel too familiar.
“I want to sidestep the pitfall of getting involved in doing something we’ve done before,” he told them.
That sentiment goes some way toward capturing Browne’s broader outlook, more than 40 years after he established a foothold in the record business, first with songs he wrote or co-wrote for acts such as Nico (“These Days”) and the Eagles (“Take It Easy”), then as a solo artist in Los Angeles alongside James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. The 65-year-old peppers his concerts — like those making up the fall tour he was preparing for this month — with the hits that turned him into a soft-rock superstar: “Doctor My Eyes,” “The Pretender,” “Running on Empty.”
But Browne is still creating.
On Oct. 7 he’ll release a strong new studio album called “Standing in the Breach,” with sensitive yet crafty meditations on romance, mortality and what he views as the greed and apathy threatening the environment and the lives of impoverished people in places like Haiti, whose devastating 2010 earthquake served as the basis for the disc’s moving title track.
And at a point in his career when many stars have settled into comfortable routines — same songs, same collaborators, same audiences — Browne has found a spot in a busy community of youthful L.A. roots-music types, some of whom he’ll appear with next weekend at the Way Over Yonder festival on the Santa Monica Pier. Performers scheduled to play the second annual event include Local Natives and Moses Sumney, acts with fan bases far younger than Browne’s baby-boomer core.
“Jackson is just as curious about music as he’s ever been, and that’s so lacking with artists of his generation,” said Jay Sweet, who produces Way Over Yonder as well as the long-running Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, which Browne headlined in 2012. “I remember at Newport he was checking everything out — like, ‘These guys are incredible!’ His thirst is unquenchable.”
Seated in a studio lounge after his rehearsal, Browne gave a nonchalant laugh when asked how he came to spend so much of his time jamming around town with up-and-comers such as Jonathan Wilson, Jenny Lewis and the folk-rock band Dawes.
“You mean why don’t I spend it on golf?” he replied. “I’m a musician — it’s what I do.”
Yet his voice quickened when he began running down the small rooms he’s taken to dropping into lately: not just well-known venues like McCabe’s and Largo (where he played a memorable four-hour gig in 2012 with Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek) but also the Venice surf shop Mollusk and Rafa’s Lounge, a gritty Echo Park dive where Browne said the stage offers only “enough room for your feet and a mike stand.”
The singer described these shows, many featuring impromptu renditions of whatever songs happen to strike the players’ fancy, as a result of dwindling record sales in the age of digital streaming services such as Spotify. “Nobody’s getting paid much anymore, so people are just getting together for the love of it,” he said, adding that the esprit de corps rivals — and maybe surpasses — that of the vaunted Laurel Canyon scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
But he admitted that the low-key performances also provide a welcome opportunity to shake off his stardom — to move, however briefly, beyond his reputation as the aging golden boy of Southern California pop.
“He disappears in a sense,” said Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, who added that Browne, the father of two musicians in sons Ethan and Ryan, is “so open to what people are giving off. It’s never like, ‘You kids, I have a thing or two to show you.’”
You can hear that openness on “Standing in the Breach,” where Browne’s worries about “drilling and fracking” and “successions of empire repeating its course” ultimately give way to the guarded optimism he’s nurtured for decades.
Wilson, who sings harmony vocals in the new album’s delicate closer, “Here,” described Browne’s song “Before the Deluge” (from 1974’s “Late for the Sky”) as “one of the first green anthems” and said he’d been inspired by “the wisdom you find in what his songs say.” Wilson added that he admires Browne’s “unwavering commitment to quality in all stages of the game,” including his continued obsession with securing the right gear and the right instrumentalists.
With contributions by an expansive cast of musicians — new-schoolers such as Goldsmith and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld along with old hands like organist Benmont Tench and drummer Jim Keltner — the album reflects Browne’s recent adventures even as it affirms the durability of his style. “It’s about exploring the chemistries between these players,” he said, “and about not going to a kind of default setting.”
Indeed, the record’s opener, “The Birds of St. Marks,” is actually a song Browne wrote in 1967 about the period he spent living in New York after graduating from high school in Orange County. But though he’d performed it live over the years, he saw no reason to record it until he thought recently of having Greg Leisz, an experienced L.A. session guitarist, play the song’s central riff on a 12-string Rickenbacker.
“Jackson’s got quite a brain — he remembers things,” said Leisz, now a member of Browne’s touring band. The guitarist explained that he’d played something on Browne’s 2002 album “The Naked Ride Home” that suggested the Byrds, whose jangly mid-'60s sound Browne had originally envisioned for “The Birds of St. Marks.” “And it was like he filed that away and then recalled it all these years later.”
Browne said that’s exactly what he did. “I knew I wanted it to feel like the Byrds, but I couldn’t have imagined the melody that Greg would play in the solo,” he said. “The goal is some combination of what you plan and then what happens.”
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