Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Josh Rosenthal (Tompkins Square Records) Talks The New Michael Chapman Tribute LP

This week the Tompkins Square label is releasing Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman. The collection features an impressive lineup of artists, all paying tribute to the music of Mr. Chapman, while adding their own unique stylistic sensibilities to the source material. Contributors to the project include Meg Baird, Black Twig Pickers, Lucinda Williams, Thurston Moore, Hiss Golden Messenger, D. Charles Speer, William Tyler, and more.

Being a fan of Mr. Chapman's work, many of the artists featured on the album, and numerous releases by Tompkins Square, I decided to reach out to Josh Rosenthal, head of the label, and co-producer of Oh Michael, to discuss the making of the album.

Hi Josh. Thanks for taking the time to discuss the new Michael Chapman tribute that you are releasing. I'd like to begin by asking you about your own personal experiences and relationship with the music of Michael Chapman.

First, when did you first hear Michael Chapman's music? What were your initial responses, and how did that inspire you to pursue his work further?

Josh Rosenthal: I learned about Michael Chapman through Jack Rose, the late guitarist. Jack loved Michael, and they played some shows together in Europe and in the US. I saw them on a bill together at the Knitting Factory in NYC. That was the first time I met Michael. I got a beat up original copy of Fully Qualified Survivor on LP and just wore it out. Jack and I listened to it at my house one time.

What kinds of connections did you make between Michael's work and some of your other favorite artists, recordings, etc?

You think you know everything, then you become aware of someone as good as Michael Chapman, with this whole body of work to delve into. It's really a wonderful thing. The obvious touchpoints are Bert Jansch, John Martyn, and Nick Drake. English songwriters who can also play guitar really well.

Can you discuss the conception and development of putting together Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010 for Tompkins Square?

I wanted to highlight Michael as a guitarist, who is one of the greatest I think. His instrumentals, especially the non-bluesy numbers, really get under my skin unlike any other player.

I am not a great guitarist and I don't really understand technique per se, but I have seen Michael do little things live that just make me shake my head in disbelief. I sometimes have trouble figuring out where he got a sound or little flourish from, because what you see and what you hear don't seem to jive at times. It's almost magic. I don't think he could explain it either, except to say how rooted he is in jazz and old blues.

Let's move onto the story of Oh Michael. What was the initial thinking of putting together this tribute album to Michael Chapman, with his wife Andru, and how did the project begin developing?

Josh: Andru pulled together some of Michael's friends to make a tribute album for him around his 70th birthday. It was a self-released affair, not distributed. So I took some songs from that, asked some others to do it, and that's the album. It was really her idea.

Can you discuss working with Andru on the project? Who were some of the artists and or songs she chose?

It was really an email or two between us and the concept was there. She had roped in Bridget St. John, Rick Kemp, Maddy Prior, Thurston, Black Twig Pickers and D. Charles Speer.

We both sort of agree that Michael's songs should be more widely covered, and hopefully this will encourage that, and demonstrate for folks in a different light what a great, great songwriter Michael is.

Michael told me that he thinks he's passed over because the songs are challenging to play, with unusual changes and tunings. I think this album may actually debunk his own theory, and makes a strong case that if an artist takes on a Michael Chapman song, they can have a great result!

Were there any particular artists that you and Andru wanted to be involved early on in order to make the album happen? 

Josh: Andru met Lucinda Williams through Maddy Prior. Andru is a huge fan of hers, and so I approached Lucinda about it. She just took hold of Michael's "That Time of Night". She just put her soul into that song in a beautiful way. They haven't met but they are kindred spirits in my book. They both mine the interior very very well.

There are a few folks I reached out to who were too busy or whatever, but who are fans and friends like Will Oldham, Bill Callahan and Devandra Banhart. Maybe next time. As someone who's obsessed with the generational connections between artists (see our Imaginational Anthem series), it's fun to have Bridget St. John, Rick Kemp and Maddy Prior alongside Michael's "disciples."

Along similar lines, can you discuss your history with some of the artists involved? Conversely, were there any artists that came to mind during the process that you wanted to approach as things were taking shape?

Josh: A few of the artists have recorded for Tompkins Square. It's really heartening when older and younger artists meet and have a bond.

Hiss Golden Messenger's Michael Taylor just met Michael (Chapman) for the first time in the UK and they played shows together. They are both crowing about the other to me now. Same thing with Nick Davis, Ben Reynolds and Will Tyler.

Thurston Moore's interview in Fretboard Journal in 2009 really helped bring attention to Michael. He's been a great catalyst for Michael creatively, I think. I asked Michael, "I know what you have given them, but what do these younger artists do for you?" He said, "Well, a lot of guys from my generation are dead." These people ARE his contemporaries!

Can you share your impressions of a surprising interpretation of one of Michael's tunes?

Josh: I was really surprised by Hiss Golden Messenger's "Fennario". First of all, it's from Wrecked Again, which is one of my favorite albums. Just tackling that song is daunting as hell I'd think. It's long and taut, with a certain crescendo and swell, there's a lot of tension in it. Michael got the gospelly vocals down, nailed the whole thing. It's very ballsy to choose a song that seems so singularly Michael.

I'm also awed by Meg Baird. I love the way she kept the gender intact in the song, and sings it so beautifully with a gorgeous arrangement. Just haunting and perfect.

How do you feel this tribute album represents Michael's reaching influence to such a diverse cross-section of artists?

Josh: Influence is always slippery. You can revere someone's music but not necessarily bring it into your work. I think Michael is in that category. Can you hear him in anyone's work? I'm not sure. But anyone who comes in contact with him can't help but be inspired.

How do you think this album celebrates Michael's work, and how do you think it may ignite interest of new listeners to dig into Michael's discography?

Josh: That's all I could hope for with the project, for newcomers to get into him. The depth of Michael's capabilities as a songwriter are evident on this album. I think Michael is also a very under-rated and expressive singer. It's an acquired taste, but once you get there, it's very powerful.

Light in the Attic has reissued Rainmaker and Fully Qualified Survivor, which are a couple of his early records on Harvest. Get them! I hope this album will inspire people to dive into the catalog. There's dozens of albums. So much to explore.

How would you say this album maintains the vision, appeal, and characteristics of Michael's work to the uninitiated who may be coming to this material without any, or little prior context?

Josh: I don't care for "tribute" albums. I usually find them really inconsistent. This one isn't. It's all great, and in different ways.

It's a good question you pose though, because sometimes it takes a variety of sounds and musical settings to turn someone on to an artist they have never heard of. As much as I don't like them generally, if a tribute album ropes someone into Harry Nilsson, Judee Sill, Kurt Weill, or Michael Chapman and makes them a fan for life, it's a good thing!

Now that the album is complete and set for release, have you gone back and listened to any of the interpretations side-by-side to Michael's original tunes? Any standouts?

Josh: I have listened to a couple of the original versions that I was less familiar with, "Expressway in the Rain", "The Prospector". It's very interesting to A-B the songs for sure.

What is next for you? Is there another project coming up for 2012 at Tompkins Square that you are particularly excited about?

Josh: I'm really excited about releasing some 1976 home recording from Kentucky-bred 12 string guitarist Mark Fosson, on June 26. And about 10 more releases in 2012!

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