Broadway the Hard Way: A Conversation with Richard X Heyman (part one)

Whether he likes it or not — and as you’ll read in a moment, he tends not to – Richard X Heyman is known as a powerpop artist. His string of albums began in the late 80s and continues to present day. Consistent hallmarks of his work include a refreshing DIY aesthetic (he plays nearly everything himself), an unerring ear for melody, and lyrics that are in turns witty, poignant and memorable. And while he’s often pigeonholed into a specific genre, Heyman’s music has always borne the fingerprints of a musical background immersed in many styles; prominent among his influences is a love of Broadway musicals.

And it’s that particular influence which Heyman brings to the fore on his 2011 paired albums Tiers / And Other Stories. Designed as two separate albums but packaged together, this new music is piano-based and quite different from what fans have come to expect. While in some ways the new music is wholly consistent with Heyman’s approach, it’s different enough to stir up confusion among fans and critics alike. And not surprisingly, confusion is not the reaction Heyman was aiming for. I gamely waded into the controversy in a recent conversation with Heyman. — bk

Bill Kopp: There’s a much wider sonic palette on these albums than you’ve ever displayed on record before. While you’ve always proudly worn your influences, in your previous work you seemed to filter all of those wide and sometimes disparate strains into one particular style. On these new paired records, you touch on all sorts of styles. “The Real Deal” is sort of soul-gospel. “Good to Go” is straight Nashville. Was there any sort of conscious effort with these albums to display a wide stylistic range, or was it more a function of the sonic demands for a particular song in the cycle, if you will?

Richard X Heyman: Well, the songs came very naturally, due to the fact that I bought this Yamaha electric piano. The instrument inspired me to write these songs. To simplify the whole thing, I would say this is basically my first “total piano” album. With a couple of exceptions. The piano is an instrument that…you know, you move a finger or two around and you start hitting things you just wouldn’t expect to do on guitar. So different types of songs, different types of chords can come out of the piano. So I think that is really the main ting you’re hearing as far as the style of music. The piano inspired me to write many of the songs. “Good to Go” was probably written on guitar; I can’t remember. Sometimes I’ll write a song on one instrument and then transfer it to another.

BK: Really? Because “Good to Go” has a real Floyd Cramer kind of thing happening…

RXH: I’m a big, huge Floyd Cramer fan. You’ll hear Floyd Cramer throughout all of my piano playing. I’m a combination of Floyd Cramer and Joni Mitchell. I really learned to play piano listening to Ladies of the Canyon. When that album came out, I just studied how she was playing, what the left hand was doing. I kind of based my whole style on that. And I got into Floyd Cramer, as well as Ramsey Lewis, Ray Charles. All that stuff, and the Left Banke, Paul McCartney. So it’s all in there.

BK: In terms of the lyrical content of these albums, I get the sense that you didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to take this project on. How long has this idea been knocking around in your head, and why now?

RXH: It didn’t really start out as any sort of concept. The songs were coming naturally from just sitting down at the piano. The very first song I wrote was the opening song on Tiers, “Hot on the Trail of Innocence.” And the next one was “Golden in This Town,” and then “Last Thought in My Mind.” And by that third song I realized: in a very abstract way, I’m recounting the story of how I met [my wife] Nancy [Leigh]. And at that point, it just sort of came out; I kept continuing the story: I left for L.A., and so forth. The whole story was writing itself, more or less. I wasn’t making a conscious effort to make a concept album. At a certain point, of course, I knew that that was what I was doing.

BK: So the songs came out of you in chronological order?

RXH: Yeah. If you look at the first album, it’s all written in that order. The only one that’s not in order – and it’s not even really supposed to be on the first album – is “Fire in the Country.” That one is a slightly political song, with a little social commentary. And it was supposed to be on the other album [And Other Stories]. But I felt I needed an up-tempo song, so I took “Hustler’s Last Stand,” which was supposed to be my first impression of L.A., and I switched the two. Just for musical reasons.

BK: In the spoken part of “Game Stays the Same” you recount sort of meeting Gene Clark

RXH: That really happened. The thing at the end of that song is a letter I had written. Nancy had sent me a pair of pajamas for my birthday. I had just gotten out there; I had been there less than a week at that point. I was just getting settled in, and I was already disillusioned. So I got this package in the mail from Nancy, and in it was a pair of blue and white striped pajamas. So if you read between the lines you can see that I’m already pining to get back.

And the thing with Gene Clark is almost like a metaphor: you’d better grab what you have today. Don’t take it for granted, because it might not be there tomorrow. That was what was going on for me at the time; I had the love of my life on the other side of the country, and I wasn’t taking advantage of it. And I never did get to meet Gene Clark again.

BK: Did you just plain dig out the old letter — which I assume Nancy had — and then read it, or did you contruct it from memory and use some artistic license?

RXH: It’s pretty much the letter. I may have changed a minor thing or two.

BK: I interviewed you some four years ago, when Actual Sighs came out. At that time you told me that the next project you had planned was a collection of piano-based pieces. So this is that, basically.

RXH: It probably started back then, yes. I’ve been doing the Doughboys project, as a drummer, and doing some other things. So it kind of got stretched out a bit.

BK: Your fan base is – if you don’t mind my saying so – a bit like that of a cult artist. By that I mean that they (we, I should say) sort of value you as the whole package. You can go off in different directions, like a Todd Rundgren or a Neil Young, and they’re open to it. In fact they embrace it. That approach is different from some artists who are more or less expected to turn in the same album again and again. Do you think that’s an accurate characterization?

RXH: I don’t know yet. There’s this genre that I’ve been placed into called powerpop. And I’m not sure what that means, exactly, or if that’s what I do. I always considered myself – as far as my solo work – a traditional singer/songwriter trying to express myself with a lot of different influences. I never considered myself a powerpop artist.

I’m just getting the sense that some people who expect me to have the jangly guitar powerpop sound may not quite “get” this album. I’m not sure. It’s so different. I hope to gain a new audience from this music. While I was making the album, I thought, “I may alienate some people who like the guitar pop.”

BK: There’s some of it on there…

RXH: I tried to keep it to a minimum. I could have done a whole other album, still telling that story, but in that style. I put one or two guitar songs in there. But there were many times where I left songs off, saying, “We’ll save that for when I do a real pop album.” On this album, instead of guitar, we put on strings. Or harpsichord, or orchestration. That was sort of the theme of the album: Let’s be a bit more bold.

BK: The down side of that, of course, is that it makes an artist what the industry likes to call “hard to market.” While your music is highly melodic, accessible and impeccably crafted — what I would call “commercial” in the strict and best sense of the word – the music on Tiers / And Other Stories is a little less immediate. The songs aren’t built around catchy guitar riffs and such.

RXH: I’m sort of outside that whole argument. To me – I can’t be objective, of course; I’ve been working on these songs hundreds of time – they’re very immediate. But I guess, for a first time listener…this is what I’m hearing. And it’s a surprise to me, because they were sort of what I dug, and put together. I thought they were very hooky and immediate. But I’m getting a lot of that, that people aren’t getting it on the first listen. Maybe on the third or fourth listen. Again, I can’t really be involved in that, because it’s the listener’s perspective. I’m a little disappointed that people feel that way, and yet I know that the songs are there. And if people are willing to put the time in, they’ll be more into these songs than to some of my other songs.

BK: Not to belabor that point, but I would argue that the albums that wear the best over the long term are the ones that do reveal their charms on repeated listening.

RXH: It’s a little disappointing to me, I have to say, that reviewers so far – mainly from the powerpop community — I really don’t feel like they listened to it more than once. And they’re making that same comment abut it not being as immediate. I feel that the songs they’re not getting on the first listen will surpass the more immediate ones as far as the impact.  On an emotional level, I really poured my heart and soul into the lyrics. I know it’s got that in there; it’s just a matter of whether it affects the listener or not.

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