Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings On Townes Van Zandt's "Sunshine Boy"

Collectors of rare and unearthed recordings know Omnivore Records well. The label has released remarkably crisp and clear sounding editions of never-before heard material and rare recordings, which are often thoughtfully packaged in stellar deluxe editions.

Omnivore has released a 2-CD/LP edition of new, unheard Townes Van Zandt recordings called Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972. I am excited to share a conversation that I had with label founder and producer Cheryl Pawelski of the Omnivore label, to discuss both the evolution of the label itself, as well as how these new Townes Van Zandt recordings surfaced and came together as Sunshine Boy.

Before we dig into Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972, I'd like to ask you if you can share some of the history of Omnivore label. How/ how was the label founded?

Cheryl: I founded the label with my partners in January of 2010. After 20+ years in the business for all four of us, coupled with the direction in which the business is heading, we felt it was time for us to exercise our own vision.

Around Thanksgiving of 2009, I left my position as the head of A&R for Rhino. I had already been talking with Greg Allen (a designer, photographer and friend whom I’d worked with for many years) about starting a catalog label, but we weren’t going to do it without a sales/ numbers person because we’d seen that mistake made too many times. So over the holidays that year we shared our concept with Dutch Cramblitt, who had also just left Rhino as the head of sales, and invited him to join us. He did.

A couple of months later, we were joined by our other friend, Brad Rosenberger, who’d had a long career in publishing, and that was the fourth corner of the building foundation, so to speak. So now we had four industry veterans with complementary areas of expertise who could all contribute to a multi-faceted entertainment company. We started releasing records on a regular basis in August of 2011, and we’re just starting to get wind in our sails.

Can you describe the label's philosophy, citing some specific examples of Omnivore's discography that may provide readers with some insights behind your work?

Cheryl: We’re interested in working with repertoire and artists that have great stories, and our goal is to release material that’s not just recycled, rehashed or revisited without purpose. For example, for the most part, we stay away from just standard reissues. Either the records we release have been out of print and we feel that they deserve to be back in print (see Richard Thompson’s Strict Tempo), they’ve never been on a certain configuration (see the Jellyfish or Spain albums, first time on LP), or some combination of out of print and previously unissued (see Bert Jansch’s Heartbreak), or entirely previously unreleased altogether (like the Townes Van Zandt release, Sunshine Boy).

We’re very interested in extending the discography of an artist by issuing previously unreleased material to give fans a new angle or a deeper understanding of the artist they already love, or telling a story that’s not been told already. I think that because all of us at Omnivore have been big fans for so long, we’re always digging a little deeper and striving to be more creative.

What have been some of the most exciting projects for you to have been a part of developing?

Cheryl: I will always look back with fondness on the work I did on all The Band reissues and the boxed set, A Musical History. More recently, I’m very proud of the Big Star boxed set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, and in general, I’ve been thrilled to work on projects with or by Richard Thompson, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, Miles Davis, Emmylou Harris, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Chicago, Crowded House, Otis Redding, Warren Zevon, Stephen Stills, Nils Lofgren, Fred Neil, John Coltrane, Linda Ronstadt, The Smithereens, Bette Midler and so many others. It’s just an ongoing journey!

Let's dig more into your history with Townes and Sunshine Boy:

Can you talk about your personal history with the music and legacy of Townes Van Zandt? When did you discover his work, and how has your appreciation for his music deepened?

Cheryl: It seems like I’ve always known Townes Van Zandt songs. Just as a fan of music in general, whether it was Emmylou Harris or Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, Doc & Merle Watson, New Grass Revival, Nanci Griffith or Bobby Bare, his songs just kept coming at me. So it was inevitable that I found my way to his records just by pulling the thread, so to speak.

As far as appreciation deepening, well, songs are great gifts; you get to take them with you as you go, and they reveal more to you over time by changing meaning as you change. Townes Van Zandt songs are great travelers.


What were your favorite recordings (and why) before going into the project?

Cheryl: Well, it’s funny that I wound up working on the material from High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt as they were the first records of his I found (due to the songs being covered and leading me there), and they certainly remain my favorites.

I know the earlier stuff gets a little pushed aside due to the over-production or production flaws, as some may say, but the songs are there, and so I’m drawn to the early period as well. I guess I think of the Sandy Denny records that are a little heavy on the production “goo” but there’s no mistaking the voice or the songs. I can be pretty forgiving of that sort of thing.

When did this project present itself and how do you get started on Sunshine Boy?

Cheryl: I actually started the project in the mid-90s when I worked at EMI. Because I was a fan, I went looking for the session tapes. At the time, there were some legal issues that prohibited me from releasing this as a project before I left EMI in 2002. It’s been bugging me ever since, and at various times, through various companies I’ve worked at, I’ve revisited the project, and tried to bring it to completion, but it just didn’t work out until I started Omnivore.

The situation was finally right, and with the kind help of the estate and the persistence of two champions at EMI, we were able to complete what I started…17 years or so ago!


Knowing that certain expectations by fans were going to be high by unearthing a collection of new, unheard Townes recordings, what were your goals for the set?

Cheryl: Just to offer another window into the two brilliant albums, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. There was enough variation in the session alternates and outtakes, and such a stark beauty to the demos, that I felt fans like me would be thrilled to get to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall in the studio for just a little while during the making of the two albums.

What has changed for you as you listen to Townes' music (both Sunshine Boy as well as his previously released discography) now that the set is finished?

Cheryl: If it’s possible, I probably listen even a little closer, a little harder to Townes’ music than I did before. Having spent so much time critically listening, comparing and contrasting different takes and mixes, I feel very aware of the nuances.

A great number of artists worked with and have been influenced by Townes' life and work. As a music fan yourself (as well as a collector, archivist, producer), can you discuss some of your favorite artists who may have collaborated and/ or have been influenced by Townes' music over the years?

Cheryl: That’s a large, large question! Well, I started out being most attracted to songs in general from a lyrical standpoint, so you can imagine that songs by everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, to Roger Miller and Dolly Parton, to Wilco and Jenny Lewis among hundreds of others that roll around in my head all the time. Regardless of their era and whether or not they crossed paths with Townes, they were either inspired by him or drank from the same pool of songwriting magic as he did.

It’s always seemed to me that the best songwriters have a turn of phrase that’s perfect in some way, or a wink and a nod up their sleeve that somehow describes our world a little more clearly than you’ve perhaps thought of before. I have so many favorite artists and so many favorite songs/records. It is like asking me to explain my appreciation for breathing.

But if push came to shove, artists at the top of my list that have been influenced by or worked with Townes that are my favorites are Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Nanci Griffith, Merle Haggard, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, New Grass Revival, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Willie Nelson, the list could go on for days, too!

What would you say are the particularly timeless aspects of Townes' life and music that continues to connect to artists, as well as listeners, to his work today?

Cheryl: I call it the ‘magic fairy dust’ of writing. It’s that killer line working with a piece of music that perfectly accentuates the words. It makes you stop what you’re doing the first time you hear it, then moves into your head and lives with you the rest of your life.

The songs that give us such moments are timeless because they crystalize and capture a thought or an emotion not expressed before in the same manner. Some writers give us only a few of these, Townes gave us so many, and this is why his songs will continue to inspire.

How would you say Sunshine Boy enriches, connects, and/ or distinguishes itself from this context of?

Cheryl: I think Sunshine Boy gives us an additional window into these great songs by Townes. It’s always a treat to visit a song from another angle or in its infancy as a demo. This is what I think Sunshine Boy brings to the Townes discography. It is a picture of the artist at work with the songs in development, and an opportunity for the listener to find things previously undiscovered because we get to listen to the songs in an unfinished form.

How would you say Sunshine Boy most connects to Townes' discography?

Cheryl: As a snapshot of Townes at work in 1971-72, and it is a companion piece to two of his arguably greatest albums, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

The Townes’ catalog really hasn’t been afforded a proper reassessment and remastering with all the bells, whistles and bonus tracks that other artists of his stature have been given. That’s partly due to different entities controlling various parts of the catalog, so a full-on reissue campaign is an unlikely prospect.

The latter part of his career is well-documented, and there are demo recordings available from very early on as well, but the two-year period this set covers has been largely unexplored. Our hope is that Sunshine Boy and our subsequent reissues of High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt will give this period of his career proper treatment of the highest quality. It is what this music deserves!

What were the most rewarding, memorable, and lasting aspects for you from putting Sunshine Boy together?

Cheryl: The most rewarding is just how thrilling it is to present new, unheard Townes Van Zandt recordings from one of the best phases of his career. I know lifelong fans will be glad, but perhaps some new folks will discover Townes as a result of this set being released, and that could be the best and most lasting outcome.

The most memorable aspect of the project will be just how long it took to realize this set from start to release. It is the longest project I’ve worked on in those terms, and I would have abandoned it long ago had I not been so passionate about the subject and songs. As it turns out, it’s a perfect example of the kinds of records that have been fascinating to me since I started intently listening to music when I was a kid. It’s the peek behind the curtain into the craft and the process.

And even though I’ve been working on this record for a long time, I still recall how it felt to hear the alternate tracks and demos the first time around, and to realize what treasures they were, and how much they deserved to be heard by a wider audience of fans.

What's next for you?

Cheryl: Continuing to build Omnivore and putting together our next releases. We’re still just getting started, so we have much, much more to do!

What's coming up in 2013 for Omnivore?

Cheryl: In the short term, we’re enjoying a little country binge here at the beginning of 2013 with releases by Buck Owens, Don Rich, Wanda Jackson, Merle Haggard and George Jones. Right around the corner, we’ll have some pretty great surprises that’ll be announced soon!

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