Jackson Browne on Lost Loves, Nukes, Composing and Obama v. Edwards (Exclusive)
At 63, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne retains the lanky brown hair and honey singing tones of his youth. But what becomes of a folk poet in his sixth decade? The composer of "The Pretender," "Doctor My Eyes," "Take It Easy" and many other soulful hits now spends much of his time giving back to the causes close to his heart – arts education, the environment and anti-nuclear activism.
On June 9 he will perform a benefit at the Orpheum Theater in downtown L.A. to support Success Through the Arts Foundation with jazz musician Wayne Shorter and Lizz Wright. He sat down for a rare interview with Wrap editor in chief Sharon Waxman to talk about creativity, politics and a body of work that has permanently marked American music. (Video excerpts below.)
More information about the concert here.
Do you feel like you're in your 60s? You look like you've hardly aged, and I saw you on stage recently -- you were playing with 20 year olds. I'm lucky. I have fun. I think that I look young -- that's the joke of it. People don't tell young people that they look young. If you ever get told that you look young, it's because you're old.
But don't you also feel that you've lived through a particular age of creativity? There was a certain time when a certain thing was happening, and that is obviously still happening. I meet all these younger players who are very much in tune to all the great music conceived. If you try real hard, you can hear a lot of it.
Were you able to write the music you made because you were surrounded by people who were all working at such a high level? The Laurel Canyon community? I was welcomed by some really formidable, talented people. And I was nurtured. It had nothing to do with marketing or being made famous. At a certain point, I also had the benefit of being managed by David (Geffen), who would say, "Look, if you don't know, nobody knows."
About what? About anything. "You know all you need to know about what you're doing, you just go in and do it. You can do it."
ON COMPOSING AND SINGING
One of the things I'd heard about you is that your singing voice is something that you weren't happy with. It's true. I always wanted to be a singer, and I'm still working on it. I think that on that subject I'll just say that I've learned how to present what I do well and keep out of sight -- for the most part -- the stuff that isn't ready. Don't show 'em what you can't do; show 'em what you can do.
Also read: Jackson Browne Folks Up Occupy Wall Street
On these songs that are so enduring -- "The Pretender," "Doctor My Eyes," and I can go down the list -- which came first: the words or the music? A little bit of the words, a little bit of the music. Then two more words, a bunch more music. Eventually you've got a verse and a structure that you'd written that you now need to write the rest of the words to. So you can write words to music that exists because that's what you do every time you write the second, third, fourth and fifth verses of the song. But in the beginning you're constructing.
One of them has to come first; they can't come together. They come both ways. But it's harder to write words to music that exists. It's easier to have a thought come to mind and start to see this idea and it starts taking form because of the way it sounds when you sing it. It really happens a lot that you get a line and then you start singing music to that line or you have a thought -- you have an idea, like a phrase in your head -- like "Late for the Sky."
That started with that phrase? It was a two-minute conversation. I was saying to someone I was late for my flight, and I said: "I'm late for my flight, I'm late for the sky." I was remembering it later and went: "That's a cool line; that could be a song." You really even have that imagery of that being the end of the song, you're saying that "running for that morning flight, through the whispered promises and the changing light of the bed where we both lie. Late for the sky."
How long does that take you? (Chuckles) It took a long time. My wife said: "This is pretty, what's this called?" And I only had the first half, and I said: "It's called 'Late for the Sky.'" She said: "'Late for the sky'? What does that mean?" And I said: "I don't know, you're gonna have to wait." And she said: "Oh, really? This better be good."