The Sodajerker team catch up with a truly unique songwriter who’s worked with everyone from the Beach Boys to Skrillex
e’s probably best known for his collaboration with the Beach Boys on Smile, but there’s a lot more to Van Dyke Parks’ songwriting career than that. Born in Mississippi in 1943, he was involved in music from an early age, studying the clarinet from the age of four and singing as a boy soprano with New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the early 1950s.
A spell as a child actor followed, then a degree in music from Carnegie-Mellon University, after which a young Van Dyke upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles, drawn by the burgeoning beatnik scene. After his song High Coins was recorded by The Charlatans (not to be confused with the 80s/90s British band of the same name), he began to find regular employment as a session musician, songwriter and arranger, working with the likes of Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, David Crosby, Harry Nilsson and The Byrds.
Then followed the infamous Smile sessions, which have gone down in rock history even though Parks and the Wilson brothers didn’t entirely see eye-to-eye on all matters musical. A solo album entitled Song Cycle came next in 1967, while early 70s albums Discover America and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper saw Parks exploring calypso music. During this period he was also working at Warner Brothers producing artist promotional films – prototype music videos – and for the latter part of the 70s and most of the 80s, he would concentrate on film and TV work, though he did release a couple of concept albums, Jump! and Tokyo Rose.
In the 90s, Parks returned more wholeheartedly to the music world, recording the 1995 album Orange Crate Art with his old partner-in-crime Brian Wilson. Since then he hasn’t looked back: joining Wilson for 2003’s live performances of Smile, working extensively with Australian rock band Silverchair and doing orchestral arrangements for US EDM/dubstep phenomenon Skrillex.
Now aged 71, he is still making music every single day – and here are some of his thoughts on that process…
You began playing music at a very early age… do you recall your first attempts to write songs?
“Yes… I was four and it was called Brown Dog. It had four words… ‘brown dog’ repeated and then ‘amen’. And I was rather disappointed with the result, so I stopped writing songs until 1964. I’d had about a year to reflect on Bob Dylan coming out with his first record. A lot of people when they heard that record, they thought, ‘Well if he can sing, I can too. If he can write songs, I can too.’ So I decided to start writing songs, and the first song I wrote was called High Coin. Do you want to hear that story?
“Well, I was working for a group called the Brandywine Singers, playing guitar, and I was earning £3,000 a week playing at this casino in Reno, Nevada. That was a lot of money then… it’d be a lot of money now! And we had a two-week job there, and I got in a Mustang convertible with Hal Brown, the bass player – who went on to become the Supreme Court justice of Alaska – and we drove to this almost ghost town, an old wild west town with a few dozen people left living there, and we got out of the car and walked into the saloon. Hal had his double bass and I had my guitar, and in the saloon there were four guys in the corner, in a crowd of smoke that smelt funny.
“They all looked like Neil Young on a bad day”
“They were the house band, The Charlatans, and they all looked like Neil Young on a bad day! One of them was Dan Hicks. And we asked if we could play a song or two, and they were derisive because I looked like a little square, but I got on and I sang High Coin and they fell on the floor and asked if I’d mind if they recorded it. I was just delighted. They took the song, I went back to Los Angeles, and I was broke… but then I got the news that High Coin was on the radio in San Francisco. And that established me with the counter-culture.”
Can you describe a typical songwriting process for you? Do you normally start with a lyric, or a melody, or what?
“That’s a great question because the real answer is, I don’t know! There is no formula for songwriting, we know that. I find it interesting that Elton John makes music to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, because I have a very hard time looking at words and then getting an idea for music. Right now, I’m hustling a lyric that has to be ready for tomorrow’s recording session. And that song certainly came melody first… melody is supreme to me.
“When you speak about the most famous event of my life in music – not that fame is necessarily a litmus for excellence – it’s Smile. Now in the case of Smile, every single word was built on a pre-existing note. Melodies came first; not once did I ask a musician to change a single note. So naturally, because of the irregularity of the melodies, the words found an irregular place as well, a departure from the Joe Average song of the times. Songs then were still all about girls and cars, and Smile railed against that… but the melodies made Smile what it is, in my view. Words second.”
We find that surprising, because when you speak it’s like a great American novel… did you always have a facility for language?
“Well, my family always had a long wall filled with books… Gray’s Anatomy, Latin, Greek, Shakespeare. Big stuff… ideas. You see, books to me are what our lives are. There’s a difference between living and simply existing, and if you want to live, you have to read. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people’. And she was right. I try to discuss ideas, without hitting them with a hammer. I try to use language to make life more beautiful, to change hearts, to soften the blow that society delivers. People can be petulant and surly and cruel… the idea to me, in all that I do, is to make language a sharp definition of a better world. To me, writing a song is a high-minded adventure.
“It’s certainly something I’ve gotten more recognition for than money! Music to me has been an uncertain life economically, not one that I’d recommend to anyone else. And it’s even less secure now than it’s ever been, which is why I think we need to do everything we can to support the arts. That’s why I never criticise anyone’s music: I’m just relieved that they’re making music, not bombs. I’m heartened that they want to make the world more beautiful with music.”
Can we talk some more about the Smile sessions, and the writing of songs like Heroes And Villains?
“We can talk about it in passing but it’s so long ago, I just don’t want to get any of it wrong! A lot of the nuance of those events has been lost. But I can tell you Heroes And Villains was the first song that got written… and that it was finished in a day, which was amazing. I just stated the obvious: that I’d come to California, and looked on it as a frontier. And the melody, that was very Marty Robbins-inspired, like an old English or Celtic ballad. That’s what we were trying to do with Heroes And Villains – tell a story.”
Brian Wilson was also involved with your album Orange Crate Art, wasn’t he?
“Yes. That was at a time when Brian was totally disinvolved from the industry, and I thought that was just unspeakable. So when I had the opportunity to do a record, I wanted to hear Brian sing Orange. And I did it, and that record represents the Rubicon to me. It’s the moment Brian Wilson got back into the business of making music in a studio. It gave him a great deal of confidence, although he didn’t really get involved with the making of the record… I’d hoped it would lead to us really collaborating but he kind of just hung back and he’d ask me what I wanted him to sing next, phrase-by-phrase. But it was a gateway for him. And then we finished the record, and of course it sank without trace! But you can’t do things to get noticed; you have to be true to yourself.”
You’ve said that a lot of Orange Crate Art was born out of piano exercises… is songwriting sort of like puzzle-solving to you?
“Well, I think songwriting is basically self-revelation. You reveal yourself in a song, and I think that’s good. It’s a painful process sometimes, but I think that’s what you do. That’s an over-riding reality: you reveal yourself, even if you pretend you’re making up another character. You become your work, whether you like it or not.”
Is having a routine an important part of the process – do you have a daily writing schedule or anything like that?
“Well, I’m a light sleeper and I get up early, and I pursue music every day. Not because I have to – although I think there is a certain inborn, involuntary necessity to it all – but because I want to. Because a day without music to me is a barren day. A day without Bach is a barren day. So I like to play a little piano every day.
“Last year I was playing a concert in Berlin and my hand froze – it’s what you call trigger finger. And then the same thing happened at a concert in Australia, so I had to have an operation on my hand in the middle of 2013. And of course, this was the year I finally coughed up a record, and I had to go out and promote it, and I couldn’t because I’d just had surgery! But then my timing never was very good.”
How much of songwriting is craftsmanship, in your view?
“I don’t really understand that completely, but I do think the best analogy is looking at a slab of granite, and chipping away everything that doesn’t look like David or Venus. Don’t chip too much, though, or you might end up with a statue with no arms. It’s finding the proportion of ideas. But of course there are no rules to songwriting, really – it’s a defiant form of individual expression, and people keep reinventing what the song is. Kids today are doing stuff that I think makes me look pretty tame as youngster, in the songwriting methods I took.
“The song form has really matured… I’m still always learning”
“I think the song form has really matured, and songwriting is all over the place now. I’m still always learning. The other night I went to see a group called Haim, because I’ve known the drummer since he was a baby – his father was in Three Dog Night. They’re a very disciplined and talented ensemble, and it was wonderful for me to see how energetic and deceptively novel this music was, it went places I wouldn’t have expected music could go. So I wish I could say I know stuff, but I seem to know less and less. I remain more interested than interesting.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn and Suzanne Vega among many others.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 65-minute interview with Van Dyke Parks – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.