Interview: Nils Lofgren on his powerful new album

Photo credit: Rob DeMartin

After 55 years on the road, music is still Nils Lofgren’s ‘Sacred Weapon’

Ever since contributing to Neil Young’s classic ‘After the Goldrush’ while still a teenager, Nils Lofgren has been wowing audiences with his phenomenal guitar-work and songwriting.  Through his work as a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Lofgren is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.  A gifted and revered multi-instrumentalist and stunning live performer, Lofgren has worked with a veritable musical who’s who: as well as Springsteen and Young, he has collaborated with the likes of Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lou Gramm, Bob Seeger, David Crosby and Stephen Stills.  Earlier in 2023, Lofgren released a superb album, ‘All Roads Lead Home’, with his Crazy Horse bandmates, under the name Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young.  But his devoted fanbase is just as excited about his output with his band Grin in the 1970s and his prolific solo work ever since.  In July, Lofgren’s latest solo record, ‘Mountains’, was released to critical acclaim.  Such is his dedication to music that Lofgren’s approach to writing songs is usually very meticulous, slow and deliberate.  However, this time around, Lofgren was determined to be driven by instinct and feeling, writing and recording what came to him quickly, a much more adventurous process.  AUK’s Andrew Frolish caught up with Nils just after the album’s release to find out more about the process and the inspiration – the story behind ‘Mountains’.

Photo credit: Rob DeMartin
First of all, the last time we spoke it was the autumn of 2020, around the time you were releasing ‘Weathered’.  There was a bit of disenchantment in the world. We talked about that and about music still being the sacred weapon for humanity. So here we are, three years on, supposedly emerging from the pandemic and all the rest of it. Where do you feel we are now? How’s life treating you?

Well, yeah, we probably delved a little bit into politics and the madness of the planet. You know, I think where we are today, of course, the big difference – I mean, the world’s still mad and headed towards a darker place – there’s a lot of beautiful things, people and art and solutions that keep trying to march forward. So, you know, I remember after ‘Weathered’ came out, there was this brief moment before Covid shut the world down, where, with no conflicts of interest, I had a tour planned with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, holidays off with my family, and then the next year a tour planned with the E Street Band and Bruce, which of course was a heavenly booking in my eyes. That all went away.  But more importantly, you know, the jury’s out on all of it, except the big exception is, one of the great bands I’m in, and honoured to be in, E Street. God bless Bruce. He wanted to go out and sing and play, and we’re doing that. I left home January 6th. Of course, I don’t like leaving home. I’ve got my beautiful wife, Amy, our dogs, our son, Dylan, down the road, but, not touring for three and a half years, as much as I loved being home, kind of upset me more than I had hoped it would.

I’d go off for three weeks, try to sing four or five shows a week, get in front of people, 400 seat clubs and sing, play my music, whatever. As long as I love the band and the people, as long as I’m making music, I love that journey of performing. It’s my favourite thing I do. So, being out now all year long with arguably as great a band as there’s ever been, the E Street Band, is a real joy. And, you know, once you’re on stage, I mean, that’s just a thrill, a joy, a gift, a blessing to me. The work is off stage, you know, missing home, missing important events, not being there to help your family out and just dealing with town to town. You know, where are we? What day is it? What’s the currency?  All that is, to me, the job.  Once you walk out to sing and play, that’s just an extraordinary gift.  This September is 55 years on the road. So, I’ve got to feel super blessed to be doing this.  We’ve got shows booked until Christmas.

Once we get back to the States, there’ll be opportunities to get home more often, which makes it even better for me to spend more time with my family and have an incredible job to head out and do. So, everything’s great. I knew way back last year when I got the call, Bruce wanted to tour. I was like, “What a gift.” I’ve got to get my record ‘Mountains’ done before Christmas, and I did. So now it’s out.

All the work’s done. I just get to share it and hope people like it. I feel good about it and just want to spread the word a bit. I worked hard on it, it was a labour of love all last year.  I was playing blues guitar to BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, they were my top four.  I just plugged in and jammed like, you know, karaoke for guitar players.  But, you know, after a while, I thought, you need to do something professionally besides just be home and help your family out. So, I challenged myself to write a record and share it.  Here we are.

Here we are, indeed, and it’s quite a record. One of the first things I really noticed about it, apart from the music, was the cover art for the singles and the album itself – absolutely beautiful. Those are pieces of art in themselves, aren’t they? What’s the, the story behind that?

That’s another great kind of fateful event in my eyes. One of our good friends, Ed Mell, is an extraordinary artist that is based in Phoenix.  I met Amy 27 years ago. Well, I re-met Amy 27 years ago. It was 15 years between our first and second date!  I was lucky to have a second chance, and I got her number. I didn’t blow it this time!  She was already a big fan of Ed Mell’s paintings and she turned me on to Ed. Of course, Ed lived across town. We’d see him regularly and became friends. We’re in this little art community, Cattle Track. Just a funky slice of old Arizona.  Janie Ellis and Mark McDowell are good friends. They run the whole place. It’s her property. There’s just beautiful art and music gatherings; it’s just an incredibly cool little conclave of art, all kinds. And we saw Ed there, a great guy who we got to know.  We’re great admirers of his. He does abstracts and realism. I don’t know the names of it, but his art engaged me. It always made me feel kind of engaged and welcome.  Whatever I was feeling or thinking, his paintings aided it in a way.  I always liked that about his work. Even the abstracts, there was something about it that pulled me in.

Because of the surprising challenges the last few years brought, when I started writing, I realised I was experiencing a form of PTSD that everyone on the planet is in relation to Covid and politics.  Going back to the ‘60s with the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations, the Vietnam draft and so on.  Grin played at the civil rights demonstrations down in Washington DC, which was beautiful and heavy, trying to participate.  At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we lived in Bethesda, Maryland, where they wanted to aim the nuclear warheads 90 miles off of Cuba. And I’m just sitting there watching the black and white TV with my dad, neither of us doing well. So, all these modern throwbacks to those times, and I’m writing this record, and I decided that I’m climbing a lot of mountains that I didn’t envision climbing in my seventies!  Yeah! And I decided then and there to call the album ‘Mountains’. This was quite a while before Ed got involved.  One day we were having lunch or whatever, maybe he called Amy, I can’t remember. But it was really beautiful because he said, “I know you’re working on a record. I’d really like to do the artwork. I’d like you to let me do all the artwork for your album.  I’d just really like to get involved and help you with that.”  And I was blown away. We thought, “Oh my God, what a gift.” Past the fact that I already was going to entitle the record ‘Mountains’, he’s Mr. Mountains!  He came over. I played him some rough mixes of songs just to let him see where the record was headed.  Amy usually does all the artwork and merchandising and oversees all of that for us and does a brilliant job. I just play blues guitar!  I’ve gotten older and realised I don’t have much taste in other fields.  So, I rely on her a lot.  She’s an enormous help with our ‘mom and pop’ Cattle Track Road Records that we have. But, anyway, I played Ed some stuff. He sent us an enormous amount of different types of art to check. Of course, it’s square art because an LP is square, and we were determined to make an LP, vinyl CD download and all that.  Anyway, it was a great journey with a dear friend who, you know, is arguably one of the great artists, who just happened to live in our town and was a good friend. So, it worked out beautifully.

It certainly did. It’s really striking stuff, I can see those LPs on the wall as pieces of art.

I felt as if I was for years just kind of viewing art because I don’t know a lot about it, but Amy turns me onto a lot of art. You know, art to me is just like Neil Young’s old cars – I may not be able to build ’em or fix ’em but it’s like, wow, somebody created this!  I’m still drawing stick figures. I mean, that’s all I can do. I’m amazed. Our son, Dylan, he hasn’t gone to art school or anything, but just naturally, he’s a good artist. He draws, there’s depth, there’s characters. I’m like, come on. Dylan draws another picture. He draws them for us, and we frame them.  He’s really got a natural gift. Ed’s extraordinary and it just was nice to team up with him because I knew, after seeing so much of his art, that whatever people were feeling listening to my music, the art, if it was there to view it, was going to help them get drawn in and validate whatever they’re feeling. That’s the thing with art, it just kind of gave me permission to go with whatever I was feeling, which is what I want people to do with the music and I think the art will enhance that. It certainly has for me over the years.

‘Mountains’ cover art by Ed Mell
Absolutely and it’s why it’s important to still think about music in terms of albums.  These days, there’s a tendency to just release tracks for streaming. People don’t always pay so much attention to the album as a whole piece of art, both musically and visually, so that’s something I’ve really appreciated about ‘Mountains’.

Thanks Andrew. I mean, certainly anyone’s free to say, well, I like these two songs, so I’m going to stream these, you know, and that’s okay. But there’s a lot of people, even if they didn’t grow up in the album era, who might appreciate a giant LP: the artwork’s huge; I can read the liner notes; all the lyrics are there. In the CD package, we say go to the website – www.nilslofgren.com  – where all the lyrics are published because it would just be too bulky a package and too tiny print to have all 10 sets of lyrics. But for the artwork, we added a couple of extra pictures in the cd. Again, I think just having it around to look at, or even just be on the table as you’re listening to the music, might encourage people to take it as a whole package.

Of course the, the album was recorded at home, with you co-producing with Amy. What was that like, working together and doing that at home?

Well, you know, Amy sometimes shies away from that kind of credit, but she did earn it. Amy’s a professional cook – the best cook I’ve ever met. I’ve eaten all over the world and none of them cook as well as my wife. All different kinds of dishes. Just brilliant, organic, soulful food, juicing, all kinds of stuff. That’s just one of the things she’s an expert at.  She’s just got a gift for all art. She’s been planting trees and plants that belong in the desert for 17 years in our home. It’s like a botanical garden now. She’s designed all the rooms in our house, a lot of art. Every corner you go around, like every room is a piece of art. Even people like Ed Mell come to our home and agree. She’s got that gift. She can’t play blues guitar but she could do about everything else!

So, you know, what would happen was, for instance, here’s a good example. I worked for a long time getting the Howard University Gospel choir onto the one cover song, Bruce’s brilliant soul ballad ‘Back in Your Arms’ and we were quite enamoured. Jamison Weddle, a fantastic engineer and friend, has worked with me 20 years. He’d come over with his better equipment and engineer the whole project. We did Covid tests and wore masks unless I was singing. But we finally got the gospel choir. Reggie Golden, the director, had as many ideas as me. They recorded and sent us the tracks and we were thrilled. As we were assembling the song, and I was starting to add parts around it, Timm Biery, a great drummer friend, played drums on it. Kevin McCormick, a brilliant bass player, producer, old friend down the road, having played hundreds of shows, and produced my records – he played great bass. Luis Conte, amazing percussionist, played percussion. So a lot of great people contributed. But I’m sitting there listening to the choir now, quite impressed. And I’m just thinking, “That’s great! Amy, come out, you gotta hear this.” So I sit her in the chair and she listens, and she’s like, “Yeah, that sounds good but you need Cindy Mizelle to add some soul spice vocally inside the choir to take it up a notch.”

And I was like, wow. You know what? What a great idea. Cindy was finishing a tour with Billy Ocean in a casino outside of LA. She was going to come and sing on the record. Amy drove, they’re very good friends, picked Cindy up, brought her to our house for four or five days, sang her ass off on six songs on the record.  But that was one that I hadn’t thought about that much, you know? And Amy was right. The choir’s brilliant but Cindy added a whole other dimension because, it’s a long song and had it grow and breathe more.

‘Nothing’s Easy’, a song I wrote for her, has a more dramatic view of the world.  There’s Armageddon, there’s nothing left. It’s like road warrior time in this bombed out city.  There’s this beautiful tulip blooming and growing and blossoming out of the cement and the charred ruins. And it just was like a metaphor – as the world burns, one thing that happened for me was that I found the love of my life. We’ve been together 27 years and that’s a great gift to focus on as we both are navigating this crazy planet as we are. I asked Neil Young to sing on the song, and he did, which was an incredible gift. I wouldn’t just ask him to sing on anything. I’ve been waiting for the right song for, for many years. And when I wrote this, I thought, well, this is a song I think Neil would really take to another level. He said to send him the rough and he liked it. And he sang beautifully on it.  When I played it for Amy, she noticed just little things, as somebody who loves music who’s not burdened by shouldering production, but just has an innate love of music.

She was like, “Yeah, it’s good but Neil should be louder. I’m having trouble hearing his voice and the brushes on the snare drum, that’s in the way. Why is it that loud?” You know, these are things that Jamie and I, we’re so wrapped up in the inside, but all that’s like an overview that we might not have day to day. Regularly she’d listen to things and just have ideas.  Not every idea, but a lot of ideas were just common sense that came from loving music, without having to sit there for hundreds of hours like me and Jamie from scratch, arranging, creating, checking, experimenting.  You get so deep in it. Sometimes you can’t see the whole picture or step back and try to just be a listener.  So, Amy offers that regularly.  She did that on the ‘Nils Sings Neil’ album.  All my records, I know if I play something for her, I’m going to get a different take than me being down inside it so deep and, so, that was very valuable input.  I feel it warrants a production credit and it’s kind of kind of something we’ve been doing all the time.  I make records at home, which has been a long time. And it’s incredibly helpful.

One more thing. When we first met for the second time, 15 years between the first and second date, we were getting to know each other on the phone talking hours a day because I was on the road. I broached the subject of music because, of course, if I don’t have music in common with a person, then that’s an issue I can’t fix!  Music is my sacred weapon for the planet. But, when I brought up music and asked what kind she liked, she just instantly recited the entire lyric to Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’.  Beautiful.  And the conversation went from there. So that was an incredible thing we have in common. A number of years ago, Peter wasn’t playing in Phoenix, so we treated ourselves to go to the Santa Barbara Bowl to hear Peter Gabriel.   They were doing the ‘So’ album.  It was extraordinary and that’s a great thing Amy and I have in common.  We’re already talking about my old friends The Pretenders from their very first tour in the late seventies. Like, are they playing the States? Yeah, I think they’re in California in October. Am I on tour? Am I off tour? Can we go? Let’s go!  I mean, we don’t drive out of state to see anybody!  But if it’s that kind of performer that, you know, you’re going to be inspired and touched by, then, we have that in common, which is great.

Photo credit: Joey Martinez
Indeed, it is. It’s a wonderful thing.  You mentioned that ‘Nothin’s Easy’ was written for Amy. When a song is as deeply personal as that, does that make it easier to write and for it to flow out of you or is that a harder thing to do?

You know, neither I think, Andrew.  I mean, there are songs that are hard to write for me. This album, I got lucky and a lot of them were done in two or three days because I really made the decision to make an album as an adventure in being a professional. I wasn’t going to go on tour, get ideas on the road and do my traditional way of organising it while on the tour. That’s not happening. You’re going to do it at home, but really do it. I’d wake up early sometimes before the sunrise; it was still dark and our 105 pound dog Rose would come out and keep me company, even though she probably wanted to stay in bed.  She comes out and hangs out with me. And I just wrote.  I didn’t edit it live. I just wrote what came out. But, stay at it. Stay at it and get a record. Learn how to sing it and perform it live because I like to play live in the studio with an instrument and get a core performance. Then producing around that is fun. So, with that in mind, that song, like the others, I was like, oh man, sometimes you know, something that personal and autobiographical, you want to be extra careful. But all the songs at this point in my life need to be right and that was no exception. Of course, you know, I wrote about Amy but it’s meant to be anybody, man or woman, how they feel about their soulmate. Just a deep love for somebody.

We have that love for our animals. They bring this beauty into our life every day. They live on a higher plane than we do. But yeah, maybe something that personal, I took some extra care with. But I have to say in general, I wanted all these songs to just feel great, feel done, go to play and sing them live and perform them as if I’d just done 30 club dates, not like, I’ll fix that line after we get the track done. There was nothing like that. I wanted to sing and play a complete song, which I did as we put this together as the first step in recording.

Yeah, I heard this was a much quicker process. You really changed the approach to recording in the studio.  You used the word ‘adventure’ before.  It was just straight in, a more adventurous approach, recording quickly.

Yeah – just giving myself permission not to sweat it. Like, don’t worry about writing 18 or 20 songs and recording them and deciding which should be the best. Just write an album and see if it feels true to you.  You know, everyone has opinions. Nobody’s going to like everything you do. But if you are true to yourself and you feel attached to these songs, once you get an album, then get down and learn how to play and sing it live and just record it and share it and just stay emotionally involved in it. And that’s what I did.

Our engineer, Jamison Weddle, is great sounding board because he’s an excellent musician too. He understands my musician lingo. I’m not an engineer per se. I make demos, but I can’t talk frequencies.  I just say, “Hey, the mids, the low part of the mids are muddy. Can you fix that?”  Or, “The high part of the bass seems to need more clarity.”  I don’t know what that is and the frequencies, but he does and we work really well together.  It was just a great journey. I needed to take this last year and a half with all the madness of covid, politics, worry, weather, everything, to work.  Amy busted her ass every day, cooking, cleaning, taking care of us.  She kept working. I didn’t. So this was finally something to do to contribute and also psychologically for my musical spirit to take a professional approach at creating.

You mentioned the madness and the politics, which makes me think about the lead single ‘Ain’t the Truth Enough’.  It’s a great song, but that’s a quite a political song, isn’t it? So can you tell me about the story and the inspiration behind that?

I don’t even know if I want to use the word political.  I never set out and it never occurred to me to write about January 6th and that insurrection we had. I didn’t think of that one morning. I woke up early because the night before I had this hook for ‘Ain’t the Truth Enough’. I don’t know where I got it from, but I thought, “Hey, that’s kind of a cool hook.”  I had to remember to write it down because I’ve learned, you know, too many times when I was younger: “Oh, that’s so good – I’ll remember it when I wake up and I wake up and it’s gone!”  So, I just have a pencil and I write ideas down by the bedside and forget about them. I tuned this old, beautiful Martin acoustic guitar, D 35, given to me by James Caan, the great actor that sadly we lost recently.  Rest in peace, Jimmy.  I lived 25 years in LA and got to be friends with Jimmy. And he gifted me this great acoustic guitar. He was a great musician: guitar, sax, a lot of stuff. But he said, “I’m not playing this enough. If I give it to you, you’ll use it. Right?”  And I said, “Of course.”  So, he gifted me this guitar.  I tuned it down to an open G just so everything kind of was ringing. And there was a nice open twang to it. And I just came up with that initial riff and and the song went from there.  I got the chorus and thought, “Yeah, this feels good, but now what am I gonna write about?”  I knew it couldn’t be superficial or like some, you know, rock and roll story between boys and girls.  It had to be something deeper.

Watching Amy on social media, you know, fighting for human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, democracy, you know, just common decency with a lot of people that have lost their minds and been brainwashed, really serious stuff and she’s gotten a lot of respect from a lot of people that are doing that job. And she’s been doing it for years.  I think there’s been a war on women my whole life, probably since the beginning of time.  Sadly, men just can’t seem to grasp the idea in general that just because you’re nervous around asking a girl to dance, because you’re attracted to her doesn’t mean you have to put fucking sheets on her and make her a slave and take away her rights in your country, like in a lot of places in this world.  Deal with it, dude!  They’re human beings that are just as valuable as you. In fact, men have got a pretty bad record of running the world right now. I’d be happy to have women be in charge. I think giving birth gives them an innate, reverence for life that men don’t naturally have to that degree. We’ve lost millions of species of animals extinct. We’re polluting everything left and right for more money. Stop it. No, we can’t. So, with that kind of thing in mind and the war on women picking up now in America and arguably on our planet, I thought about, well, what would happen if a fierce mother, like my wife, was at home dealing with a husband who has just come home from the January 6th insurrection.  What would that be like? You know, for a mother who’s married, she thinks to a guy she loves, how’s that going to go? And I thought, well, that is a much deeper use of the title ‘Ain’t the Truth Enough’.  So I said, “Okay, that’s the story” and I went from there.  Now the song is done, I mean, I have to say still, it’s not a mean-spirited song and I don’t even want to call it a political song. It’s about humanity and truth.  Again, a great line that Amy always says, because she’s been a mother for 32 years with our son Dylan down the road, it’s like, look, if you have a child, you have a contract with the universe to look after that child.  And you either honour it or you don’t. I mean, it’s one or the other. So I thought that was a great, much heavier use of that title. I was really proud the way the song came out. I liked this open tuning thing.  We have a great new vid’ out for ‘Ain’t the Truth Enough’ also.  (Check it out here.)

Years ago, Ringo Starr and Kevin McCormick and I recorded a song called ‘Walkin’ Nerve’ live in the studio in LA.  It was just such an adventure for me and Kevin to stand there, live in a room with a microphone; there’s Ringo on drums, there’s Kevin, no baffles, everything’s leaking into each other, and we recorded this great trio track. I threw a lead on and it was done. I was always talking about, you know, I was blessed to be in Ringo’s first two bands in ‘89 and ‘92.  I was an opening acoustic act for the third one, but I always said during the last few years, even before Covid, I want to come to LA and do that again live. But with Covid, you know, I said, “I’ got this song.”  He said, “Look, why don’t you add some instruments so it’s more like the record you envision and just send it to me and I’ll play drums on it?  You know, instead of trying to organise some covid-related studio and dragging equipment, you know, hundreds of miles and all that.”  Technology allows for that and Ringo does that great. He swings to the click track. So, I sent him the demo, the song in progress because, first of all, of course, I wanted to see if he liked it.  I felt really good about it and he called me back the next day, started singing the chorus to ‘Ain’t the Truth Enough’. So, I knew that was a good sign!  He said, “Look, this is great man. Send it. I’ll play on it, man.”  He killed it. And now Kevin McCormick, dear friend, played bass on it with the caveat that after Ringo plays drums, I get to play bass together. Instead of playing your drum track or a click track, I’m playing to Ringo Starr!  Of course, of course Kevin!  So, all these great people contributed.  Because it’s from a woman’s point of view, I needed a female voice.  We decided that we could get Cindy out. Amy drove and got her from the Billy Ocean tour when it ended in a casino outside of LA.  They’re very good friends. Amy picked her up, brought her over to our house, moved in for five days or so, sang her ass off. And that was a song that needed her because, you know, I’m singing too, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman.  I’m really proud of the song, all these great people on it. And, uh, that’s how it happened, man, me and 105 pound Rose writing the song as the sun came up for a couple mornings and we were done.

It’s a really interesting way of looking at that whole issue – through the eyes of a woman afterwards.  It’s a different angle, a different perspective that it makes it more interesting.

We’re in this climate now where everything is labelled political, but it’s not.  The bottom line is we’re in a country where if you have a difference of opinion, you vote for people that are like-minded that you think will try to enact your views.  You don’t try to overthrow the damn government. Yeah. You don’t do that. That’s illegal.  It doesn’t matter how passionate you’ve been brainwashed into thinking you’re right. Even so, you know that there’s a way to go about changing the laws that reflect your feelings, not by violence or treason or sedition.  So, that’s what this, you know, a mother had to deal with someone she thought she loved, which maybe she did love.  Like Amy said, you got a daughter, you got a kid.  That contract with the universe made this mother have to re-evaluate her whole deal because she had to move on and keep being a mother.  Anyway, I loved how it all came about and came together.

Cattle Track Road Records is a little ‘mom and pop’ record company and we’re really happy with how this journey happened and how the record got done.  We’re our own record company, me and Amy, so it’s very grassroots stuff.

I was going to ask about releasing everything through your own company, Cattle Track Road Records.  What’s that like, doing that for yourself rather than working with a different record label?  I guess in some ways it’s harder but, in other ways, having the control and the freedom makes that a completely different experience. What’s it like doing it through your own label?

Basically, from way back in the early nineties, it’s the only way that I can, emotionally and spiritually, function in the music business. First of all, let me be clear that I do understand record companies want to make money.  If you’re not making the money, then the next thought is, well, how do we change you?  What producer do we get?  Maybe you need to get a co-writer. You’re not enough. That’s like the common thread and it’s understandable. But way back in the early nineties, I was on a label where that started going on.  I’d written a lot. I had like 30 songs and some of them I really thought were strong. An accountant became the head of A and R.  He had no qualifications, but this other guy left so here you take that job. Then he came down like, “Nils, your writing’s very subpar. I just don’t know if I like these songs. I think we may have to recommend someone that you have to write with and your choice of producers is unacceptable.”

I was like, “Oh my God.”  So, I drove up to the record company. One of my buddies was a founding member and I said, “You gotta fire me, man. You just gotta fire me.”  But he said, “I understand what you’re saying and I sympathise, but I’ve also got my partners to deal with.” So, he kind of helped. But it was a year and a half of stress with lawyers to get out.  Once I got my complete release and I got my freedom, the websites were starting to happen and I thought, I haven’t had any giant hit records to make these companies money. I can’t begrudge them that. I need to be free to do what I want and accept the consequences.   So, I got a website, still the same people, Linda and Dick Bangham.  Dick’s great with the videos and all that. Linda runs the website, works with Amy. We have a store there and Amy designs and I just started going my own way. This was like ‘93, ‘94. So, it’s much better. Of course, you finance everything. You pay for everything. And now I’m happy. We’ve got a great PR firm, Missing Pieces, helping us promote the record, get the word out, and they understand that whole digital world and how that all works.  But we have complete freedom and the record’s done. I don’t have to get anyone’s permission. We release it, we share it, we spread the word. And for me, since the early nineties, that’s the only way I can really be creative. Write music, conceive it, record it, finish it, and share it.

Photo credit: Carl Schultz
Another song in the album I found interesting was ‘Won’t Cry No More’ because it speaks to your musical inspiration and what’s influenced you in the music world. Can you tell us a little about that song?

Yeah, you know it was really The Beatles, the Stones and Jimi Hendrix and the whole lot I discovered through them – Motown, Stax Volt, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. That was kind of a lifeline that led to this life. I was playing Beatles medleys on accordion at the 9th Grade variety show. They’re very mythical bands that left a powerful imprint and continue to do so. Enormous inspiration and musical heroes. So, I really wasn’t ready for the news that Charlie Watts had passed.  I was very upset.  Look, I’m 72. I’ve lost people in my family and friends, and that’s what happens when you get older. But this, this threw me for a real loop. I didn’t have any real tools to process it. I started listening to the Stones’ music and really focusing on the drums and just looking for something from beyond, you know.  I believe in the spiritual world and I believe that souls live on.  So, I was kind of looking for Charlie to reach me through his drumming and the music and find some comfort for that loss, which I didn’t have. Anyway, that was helpful. But one morning I just had this riff and I was feeling really deep blues and started writing this song, “Charlie’s Gone still I heard him today.”  You know he’s still around, but, you’re processing the loss. Then the song went on, and it’s just the rage of it all – that’s it, damn it, I’m not gonna cry anymore. But then by the end of the song, I’m crying again. And I was sitting there; Rose was there on the couch with me, and I don’t need chord progressions. I’m too pissed off to write a bridge. It’s just one riff. That’s it. That’s the song. You don’t like it, you don’t like it. I like it. It’s helping me.

I just wrote the whole thing. Another verse came, and another verse came, and back to the refrain. There’s a lot of songs with that title but this was my song and it did kind of help me deal with that loss, which really hit me hard. These are mythical characters and people and mythical bands that really are the reason I’m writing.  Without them, I would not be here talking about my new album. I might be playing top 40 in a Ramada Inn bar on my cordovox accordion!  That’s a very real possibility!  I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.  So, I owe them a great debt of gratitude and the beauty is that music is still inspiring.  There are songs on my little playlist and ‘Connection’ popped off and I was just as excited about it as the first time I heard it!  It’s probably the 8000th time I’ve heard ‘Connection’ and it did the same thing to me emotionally.  And that’s why music is the planet’s sacred weapon, man. It heals, unites and inspires every day for billions of people.

Yeah, it helps people. Listening to it helps people like me but, as you said, playing it and writing those songs, it helps you. In fact, the whole album ‘Mountains’ has that sort of therapeutic feel to it.  I’m guessing that’s what it was like to write it all -was a therapeutic album.

Yeah. It was.  Hey, I love being home with Amy and the dogs. All I’ve done is be a houseboy and help out run errands.  I’ve got two metal hips that work, so I’ll run around and do shit. But then I’m not being a professional musician.  I knew I couldn’t tour safely but I like to write on the road and all that.  I had to forget that – you’ve got to do something professional. Write a record and record at home and share it. And I did it. I kept helping out Amy the best I could because she’s running the ship there.  Here I am. I’m so glad I did it and it was very cathartic and healing in a way that just being home and jamming the blues with BB King wasn’t!  I was doing it as much for me as far as feeling like I was contributing.

Indeed. Can I ask about the new project on the website, ‘Rockality’. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, that’s now on my website. Well, my whole life – 55 years on the road this September – my whole life, I’ve told stories. I’ve been blessed with an enormous amount of great interactions with really cool people. A lot of them funny, hilarious, tragic, silly, dangerous, everything in between.  People have always, in general, liked my stories, “Oh, great stories. You gotta write a book!”  No, I’m not writing a book.  I don’t want to talk about going to Louis Pasteur Elementary School in three feet of snow when I was six years old on the south side of Chicago.  I just thought, well, your friends and strangers seem to enjoy these stories, why don’t you just tell them on your website?  Share them and see what people think?  So there’s my ‘rock reality’, my reality living this rock and roll dream of mine, sometimes real high, sometimes lows.  I talk through the story for 20, 25 minutes, then I’ll play something at the end.  I’ll sing a song or I’ll just do a little jam to just offer something musical at the tail end of the stories. That’s what ‘Rockality’ is. We’re starting with three of them and we’ve got three more that’ll be ready very soon.  I’ll carry on, looking forward to feedback from people. It’s me telling true stories of my pretty colourful life on the road for 55 years and hope people enjoy them and give us some good feedback to continue recording them.  One of the other things I recognise about ‘Rockality’ is there’s a lot of these stories. For decades, there was no internet. There was no video. And it was a different time.  I feel really blessed to have grown up in that era because the internet and everything else, they’re tools but a lot of times they get in the way and they take you away from what’s in your front of your face because you’re always on there interacting. There was a charm to my life as a young professional musician in 1968, you know, bumping into people like Neil Young and sneaking into Muddy Waters’ dressing room and him letting me watch him play cards and stuff that was very pure and raw.  That was a great period of time and I’m hoping people will enjoy the stories. That’s what ‘Rockality’ is all about.

Photo credit: Rob DeMartin
Something to look forward to – so many stories!  A little while ago, I posted on Americana UK my top 10 essential Nils Lofgren songs (check it out here).  It got quite a bit of traction in the Twitter-verse and it created quite a bit of debate.  I was wondering what would be your essential songs?  When you think of Nils Lofgren, musician, what are your essentials?

Well, Andrew, you know, that answer, it requires two days of thought!  What the hell are you doing asking me that now?!  Oh wow, that’s a tough one. I mean, way back to Grin when I just started writing: ‘Like Rain’.  A very powerful song.  Oh boy!  My  solo stuff: ‘Shine Silently’. Very powerful one. ‘Back It Up’ was a cool one and ‘Across the tracks’ was a great one. Kind of like a modern day ‘Down in the Boondocks’, where you’re in love with people you’re not supposed to be in love with because they’re coming from different walks of life, which is insanity. But we’re still doing that as a human race to each other.  The last album ‘Blue with Lou’. Some of the songs with Lou Reed, especially ‘City Lights’, a story about Charlie Chaplin. He wrote, used my chorus, Branford Marsalis played sax on it. I’d really like to look at that.  There’s about 300 titles there!  If you’d given me some notice, I could have looked at the box set and given you a better answer!  There’s a lot of them that work live great, but might not be what I consider some of my best lyrical work but those are some that come to mind.  I know there’s a lot more, on the new album, ‘Ain’t The Truth Enough’ is one of those for me.  I wrote a couple songs on piano that I wish Nat King Cole had sung, ‘Only Your Smile’ is that kind of American song book.  By the way, Tony Bennett, bless you for your life of sharing, not only music, but just being an extraordinary human being. Extraordinary.  I got to meet him a few times and let him know face to face.  I played his music all the time on the road; it calmed me down at night just to bring me peace.  All the time.  One of my heroes. Rest in peace, Tony.  We could’ve used you for another 95 years for sure, just one of the great humans, gifted with one of the greatest talents ever. ‘Only Your Smile’, just a simple little ballad – the great Ron Carter played upright bass and Cindy just brought it to a whole other level with her harmony and her scatting as a soloist. ‘Code of the Road’, a great road song, it’s not like a classic ballad or anything, but that’s a song that meant a lot to me and I still just love playing. Going back, a little country song ‘All Out’, a kind of a waltz, just a Grin song that rang my bell and still does. There’s a few songs that come to mind, but I know if I looked at the titles running by me, I’d give you a lot more ammo and information than that.  I’m sure I could top ’em if you gave me a day, Andrew, but that’s the best I can do!

Actually, here’s a few more: ‘No Mercy’, ‘Girl in Motion’, ‘New Holes in Old Shoes’, ‘Wonderland’, ‘Big Tears Fall’, ‘Some Must Dream’, ‘Little on Up’ and ‘All Out’.  Now, you’ve got too many!

I think you’ve done pretty well there!  And, in some ways, getting the quick answer, the instinctive answer is an interesting thing to do!

And if I had the titles in front of me, I would continue to give you instinctive answers!

I could do this all day!  So interesting and intriguing to listen to, which is why ‘Rockality’ will be great. So many stories.  Thanks very much.

Great talking to you. Thanks for spreading the word on my record. I really appreciate it.  All the best.

Nils Lofgren’s ‘Mountains’ is out now on Wienerworld.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMbsPLL5wWU

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UnGnH7sORc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0Ttdn-lEp8

About Andrew Frolish 1453 Articles
From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Nils Lofgren, Ferris & Sylvester, Tommy Prine, Jarrod Dickenson, William Prince, Frank Turner, Our Man in the Field...
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Rudolf

Fantastic interview with a great artist. But anyhow – Moutains disappoints me a little bit.

andrew riggs

Nils weakness was always his songwriting although he has released several fine records the best being 1+1 and Cry Tough. Great live too.

Jonathan Aird

Great interview Andrew! Quite surprised that Nils didn’t mention ‘Keith don’t go’ (or ‘Sun hasn’t set…‘) as a top song – but definitely yes to ‘Girl in motion’.

Ain’t the truth enough‘ – that’s a pretty powerful song, and Nils comes from all the right directions: “human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, democracy, you know, just common decency with a lot of people that have lost their minds and been brainwashed“.

Great read!