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Photo: Richard Cuccaro

I would say that it’s been a long time since I took a situation that I was involved in and wrote about it. A really long time.

I have it hanging up on my refrigerator. I was looking at it and said, wow, I have a fan letter, and then looked at the bottom and said, “Janis Ian!”

    Cliff Eberhardt
    Interviewed by Roberta B. Schwartz

[This interview first appreared in Issue 12 of the Music Matters Review.]

Cliff Eberhardt is one of the best songwriters of his generation. His work features timeless tunes with the kind of hooks that grab you, and lyrics worthy of poets and sometimes great thinkers. But I love his guitar playing. He’s played lead guitar for Melanie and Richie Havens, among others. And he plays the dobro like no one else I know. Cliff is the real deal. There’s nothing phony about the man or his music. This interview found him home on a late April evening in western Massachusetts.
Roberta: Borders and also your last recording were self-produced. Was that part of your deal with Red House Records—to produce your own work?
Cliff: No, at first they didn’t want me to produce. But they let me. Now they’re happy they did.
Is it everything you wanted it to be?
Everything! Yes, it made me happier than I’ve ever been in the music business. Especially the last album.
You got to work with people you’ve known and worked with for a long time.
I actually did ninety percent of it myself. I played all the bass, and a lot of the piano, all the guitars, and the percussion. I worked with Seth [Farber] one afternoon on piano, and an afternoon with Carol Sharar on fiddle, and one with the drummer. Except for that, I did everything myself. So, yeah, being a control freak, it was really nice.
So, you admit it, huh?
Well, it was the first album that sounded like I wanted it to sound.
What kind of sound were you trying to achieve?
Well, I wanted the songs to stand out more than the production. What happens when you hire studio people is, of course, they’re going to play to their ability. Sometimes that means that they overplay. And you get these albums that are more instrumentally-based than song-based. And I think that’s what’s wrong with most singer-songwriter albums. They’re just awash with production, with these songs stuck in them. I’d rather have the songs be the big thing and the production do something to support the songs.
Did you feel that way about your previous recordings?
No, not at all. I mean I like the albums, but I always thought that they were over-produced, that the songs got lost.
Tell me a little bit about the theme you address in Borders, and the issue of boundaries and the kinds of things that separate people from one another.
I like doing theme albums. The album before this one was a theme album, too. It’s an interesting thing to try to write about one thing from all different angles. I was thinking a lot about it—how the world is set up in such a way that where you’re born really destines what happens to you your whole life. We end up putting up the same kinds of boundaries between love and hate, and success, and all kinds of things. So our fate is really controlled by these boundaries.
When you sat down to write, did you have this theme in mind? That you were going to make this recording and produce “x” number of songs?
Is it hard to do?
Um, no. Because it was interesting, I found it easier. Instead of twelve latest songs about a broken heart, you know, I said, well, I have a physical border in “The Wrong Side Of The Line.” And then I could have the physical and the emotional borders in “The Land Of The Free.” So I got to experiment with a lot of different sides of that.
Where did the story you tell in “The Wrong Side Of The Line” come from?
From my little head. I just started playing it one day. It was really weird. Well, I was actually thinking about what was happening in Europe and Bosnia at the time. I was trying to write something about that and it seemed pretentious. I wanted to write more about America, which I know more about being an American. I think it would be very pretentious for me to take a side over what was happening there. And so, I just started writing about the Civil War—about how people on both sides were caught on the wrong side. Plus I added the fact that the guy was rather apathetic. He never really was involved with either side. And what he does is blame God in the end.
I was curious why you chose to re-record “Your Face” for this CD.
Well, it fit the theme. And The Long Road is out of print. I get requests for that song constantly. And I didn’t like the production on The Long Road, so I figured it was a good time to put that song on a record.
Talk to me a little bit about the dobro. You certainly play it better than anyone I know on the acoustic scene. Does it give you a certain kind of sound?
Yes, I was looking for an interesting, rootsy sound. What I do all the time on projects is to try to pick up a new instrument. Like on this one I play bass and there’s a Tacoma Papoose guitar, which is like a mandolin. I try to pick up different instruments to inspire me to do certain types of songs. I was able to do songs that most people would have taken in a different light had I not played it on the dobro. The dobro added more of an Americana feel to it.
What is the history of that instrument if there’s a brief history to it?
It was invented as a blues instrument. They started being mass-produced in 1928. But they were originally made by National out of steel. It was played by blues people to project above the rest of the band. It has a resonator in it. It was before they had electric guitars. The steel ones are used by blues players and the wooden ones are mostly used by country players. So I kind of bridged a gap between the two.
I don’t understand why it doesn’t get mentioned often enough that you are a phenomenal guitar player
I don’t either. I have no idea. I’ve played lead for people for years and I never get written up as a guitar player.
I’ve watched you play “My Father’s Shoes” I don’t know how many times, and I’m hoping that one day you don’t collapse!
I’m hoping one day I don’t either [laughs].
Where and from whom did you learn to play guitar?
I taught myself.
So why do you think people don’t mention the guitar enough? Are they simply mesmerized by your songwriting and your voice?
I don’t get a whole lot of press, period. It’s beyond belief. I’ve never had a record company that really pushed me.
I’m certainly old enough to remember your “Heartbeat of America” Chevrolet campaign jingle, so your voice is out there. Are there any more jingles in your future, or have you had it with that?
Well, they had it with me! It’s a very temporary thing. As soon as you do a couple nobody wants to have that voice become so familiar.
Which songwriters do you draw influence from?
I don’t draw influence, really, from too many people. I listen to everything. I just read and look at everything. What comes out, comes out. Everybody likes to think that you are influenced by one person or another person. But, I listen to everything.
Somehow you’ve got this appellation, I think it came from Christine Lavin, that you are the “bad boy of folk.” Where did that come from?
That was a joke that the public took so wrong, and we never got rid of it. It actually hurt my career. These venues would say we don’t want to hire Cliff because we hear that he has a real bad attitude. Then, finally they’d hire me and say, you don’t have a bad attitude. I was doing a “Winter’s Night” show when Christine used to do it, and my position on the show is usually to play the uptempo songs because everyone else is more ballad oriented. So I’d play these rock oriented songs and Christine would say “that’s the bad boy of folk” because I was playing rock and roll. And she was making a joke about how folk fans are so scared of anything rock, you know. The next thing you knew, it was I did bad things.
I think it’s quite funny myself.
Me, too. People who know me crack up about it. I’m a very conservative person you know [laughs].
Since we’re talking about Christine, I’ve read that she played a role in helping you with your career. What does she mean to you?
She’s one of my closest friends in the whole world. I love her to death. I’m playing with her Sunday night in Minneapolis. She’s unselfish. She’s very humble. She’s the only person in this business that I completely trust to be non-competitive.
You lived in New York City for quite a long time.
Eighteen years.
What brought you out to western Massachusetts? Those two places are almost polar opposites.
Well, I was never happy in New York. Although by personality people think of me as a New Yorker. But I didn’t grow up in a city. I finally got my record deal, and a publishing deal, and an agent, and the whole nine yards. I was visiting Bill Morrissey, who used to live in Northampton. He said, “Why don’t you just move here? Why do you have to stay in the city?” The next day I rented a house here.
Are you connected with all of the folks who are out there?
Oh, yeah. In fact I just had coffee with Katryna Nields and Dar Williams this afternoon. So, we all get together constantly. It’s a very healthy thing.
There should be a project for all of you—some kind of Northampton-based collection that comes out.
Um…there was one. Live From the Iron Horse. I wasn’t on it, though. I think what we like is that when we are together, we’re not doing business stuff. That’s the one safe thing. And it’s really made the music scene so much healthier that we’re all in one town.
This might be a silly question, but do you really all like each other?
There isn’t one person that everyone dislikes?
There is, but they don’t live here. There are one or two people that people generally don’t like, yeah, but they don’t live in Northampton. I mean the Nields, and Dar, and Salamander Crossing, and Erica Wheeler, Brooks Williams, Martin Sexton and all those people live here, and we’re all really good friends.
You’ve written quite a few cynical or unhappy love songs. Are you really that unsuccessful at love?
No, I’m not very successful at love at all.
Oh, you want to treat that one seriously! Are unhappy songs easier to write than happy songs?
Well, I think for one, happy songs usually come out sounding silly. You don’t hear a lot of them that are pleasurable. You laugh for three seconds, but you can cry for three hours. I think it’s easier to pinpoint…it’s easier to move an audience emotionally by having something that touches them rather than tickling their funny bone.
Is it a “Sylvia Hotel” [Cheryl Wheeler’s song] kind of deal where something really sad happens and you’re moved to write a song about it?
I don’t necessarily write about me in those songs.
It’s easy to assume that it’s about the songwriter.
I would say that it’s been a long time since I took a situation that I was involved in and wrote about it. A really long time.
Well, you do joke about that one person where you both were in love with her.
Yes, true. But that was my younger life.
You have to live that one down, Cliff.
I don’t care about what the public thinks of me. I offer my songs, and if they think I’m one way and I’m not, that’s their problem, not mine.
You speak your mind, and so does Cheryl Wheeler.
Yes. Life is short. I don’t want to play a game. I want people to know who I am and…when you start pretending, you have to pretend all the time and it becomes confusing.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the process of songwriting? How do you go about it?
It goes about me [laughs].
Do melodies or lyrics just pop into your head?
Yes, it just happens. The ones I’ve tried to write and tried to think about are terrible.
So you sat down and said to yourself that I want to write about this theme about borders….
It’s not that clear. You put the ingredients in your brain and see what soup comes out. Subconsciously, you process it and you start writing a song and you go, “Oh, this can fit in there.”
Do you sit down when this happens or can you be in the shower, driving or walking?
Well, I’ve written some songs in the car. I wrote “Joey’s Arms” in the car. And I don’t even know why I wrote that. I have no idea. I just started singing it. It’s like they’re written before, or something.
So you don’t even know where they come from sometimes.
No, not at all.
How did you feel when your song “Memphis” was covered by Cry, Cry, Cry?
It felt unbelievable! I got to do a bunch of shows with them. We’re all good friends, so, that was an enjoyable tour. You know, anytime someone does one of my songs I’m happier than when I do it.
I’ve heard Richard Shindell cover “Memphis” solo as well.
He’s a good man that Richard Shindell.
So, what’s next for you?
I’m probably going to do an album of standards with Nina Gerber.
For example?
You know, “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” things like that.
What’s the one you talk about at some shows that you go over when you are teaching about songwriting? The melody is dark but the lyrics are light.
Oh, that’s “Blue Skies.” No, we’re not doing that one. It’s going to be a pretty serious album.
So, you’re going to stick with Red House?
Yes! The question is whether they’ll stick with me [laughs].
Why? Because you’re the bad boy of folk?
No, we get along great, but there’s always the chance that you’re not going to sell enough records.
What else would you like our readers to know about Borders?
I’d like people to listen to it with an open mind. And not to try to pinpoint this work as my personality, or as just questions and answers to things. I think folk has become so identified with us having these personalities on stage. I’d rather be looked at as a writer.
I think you’re right. I think sometimes it’s tough to do that. Especially those who know you from the “On a Winter’s Night” tours.
People can have predetermined views on things and they don’t like to give them up. Which is sad because, hopefully, as artists, we can change drastically from album to album and it’s so hard to do because the public doesn’t want to accept the fact that you might be growing in a certain way as an artist.
Have you ever collaborated with anyone in terms of songwriting?
Yes, David Wilcox and I wrote “Voodoo Morning.” I write with Don Henry a lot, too. He’s a Nashville songwriter.
How did you connect up with him?
I heard a song of his. He was playing The Bottom Line at one of those “Nashville Nights” about ten years ago. And I heard a song and went backstage because it moved me so much. And I went back and told him just how much I loved it. And…I told him my name and he pulled my CD out of his guitar case. He said I’m a huge fan of yours. So, we write together.
I know that Cheryl Wheeler doesn’t collaborate, but I’d love to see the two of you do a song together.
Never would happen. Those folkies are tight buds about that stuff. It’s just songwriting, it’s not the Bible! It’s just writing songs.
So what is it?
Egos. What do you think? People are very protective of their space.
I asked Cheryl Wheeler about her collaboration with Janis Ian and she said that she happened to be there and wrote a few of the lyrics.
Well, Janis Ian is kind of like having God say he or she wants to write with you. I think Janis Ian is one of the most talented songwriters alive. She’s a dear friend of mine. The way I met her is she sent me a fan letter. I have it hanging up on my refrigerator. I was looking at it and said, wow, I have a fan letter, and then looked at the bottom and said, “Janis Ian!” Then she called me and said, “Let’s have dinner.” I went, “Oh yeah, okay!” We’ve become really good friends.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
I would like to produce other artists. That’s what I’d like to do. I like that process a lot.
What is it about the process that you like?
I think that I could help people make their songs sound like songs. I think that we’re so muddled into having these overly produced records that hide the songs. We can celebrate these people’s voices and their songs. There’s an art to it, but I don’t think may people know how to do it. I think they’re scared. They think they won’t be played on radio. My last two albums got a lot more airplay than the other ones of mine, so there’s proof that it works.
Anyone in particular you’d dream of producing?
Anybody whose songwriting I like. There isn’t a particular artist that I’d love to work with.
Who do you think are among the best songwriters?
I think Cheryl’s a great songwriter. And I think Greg Brown’s a great songwriter. That’s about it. There’s nobody else who’s knocking me out right now.
When I asked Cheryl Wheeler what she’d like to do that she’s never done, she said play drums.
Oh, wow. Good for her. I’m sure she’d play them great. She’s a very musical person. The thing about Cheryl that’s different from a lot of folk musicians, and it’s the same with Patty [Larkin] is that they’re incredibly musical. They can play anything; they think music, they breathe music. Not just I’m going to write little songs about myself. And that’s why I have such huge respect for them.
I’ve read that your family has been a big influence on you. You performed with your brother and you’ve written a couple of songs about your dad. Can you speak a little bit about your family and where you come from, and perhaps how that’s influenced you?
Well, I think that a hard childhood leads to good songwriting. I think that’s true of a lot of songwriters that I know. That’s why you sat in that room and learned how to play the guitar and write. You tried to express yourself in a world that wouldn’t listen.
Was it an escape as well, do you think?
Oh, definitely. It is.
So, if you’re having a hard day, you’ll sit down with the guitar?
Absolutely. It’s my best friend.

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