No one could fault Jackson Browne if he decided to follow the path of so many of his musical peers from the ’70s, hitting the road for the occasional “greatest hits” tour and generally enjoying a stress-free retirement.
It’s been years since Browne recorded a hit anywhere near the scope of songs like “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes” or “Somebody’s Baby,” but that hasn’t dampened his motivation to write.
At 63 years old, Browne seems to be hitting his stride. He’s excited about the energy that new musicians and bands such as Jonathan Wilson and Dawes are bringing to Los Angeles and the national music scene, energizing himself through new collaborations with musicians including Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), with whom he’s touring all summer.
Most importantly, Browne remains passionate about the environmental, social and political scourges in our country, continuing to write songs that directly address issues as vast as the buildup of plastic across the planet’s oceans.
Last December, he even performed for the Occupy demonstrators in New York’s Zuccotti Park, demonstrating solidarity with people willing to make sacrifices to take a stand against corporate control of the government.
Browne’s latest releases include a 2010 live album recorded in Spain with David Lindley, “Love is Strange: En Vivo Con Tino,” and 2008’s studio record, “Time the Conqueror.”
In one song off that release, “Giving That Heaven Away,” Browne sings, “I’m looking around for that ’60s sound. Those days are gone.”
That’s a pursuit Browne has been after since the 1972 release of his eponymous debut. Many would argue, however, that the sound is far from gone, and that Browne himself continues to embody it.
For a collection of songs in support of the Occupy movement released earlier this year, Browne even completed and recorded a track he’d been working on for a year, updating its name from “Which Side Are You On?” to “Come On, Come On, Come On.”
“It’s about songs that raise hope and connect you with an issue; not so much resolving an issue but putting you in touch with it,” Browne said of his approach to songwriting. “I like the first verse of ‘Come On,’ how it suggests that you might be a young man, an old man, a woman or just about to be, and you know that the battle for the future is coming and asks, ‘Which side are you on?’ It’s a good question.”
Browne never shies away from issues that concern him and need attention, but he’s careful with his phrasing and delivery. He only recalls one time, in Iowa, when a fan stood up and walked out of a show because of something he said from stage.
“I don’t think people go to the trouble to hear you play if they’re going to boo,” laughs Browne.
“I was playing at the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Asheville (N.C.) a few years ago and I sang this song that was pretty much an anti-war song, and I told another performer backstage, ‘You know, maybe I don’t want to sandbag this audience singing a song like that at a Christmas show,’ and he said, ‘Jackson, people know you and nobody should be surprised to hear you singing an anti-war song.’ You have to sing what’s in your heart and what really moves you.
“People ask, ‘Do you think music can change the world?’ and I say, ‘It does, every time you make it.’ The Indians believe that God is vibration, so music is very much a pathway to a higher plane.”
Playing for hope
Browne launched his career with a few hit songs (including “Take It Easy,” which became an even bigger hit for The Eagles), but built his fan base as a musical poet. Songs such as “The Pretender” and “Late For the Sky” managed to captivate listeners and become timeless tracks, despite multipart song structures that mask the sing-along choruses necessary to score a pop hit, then and now.
Songwriting has always been a careful and cathartic craft for Browne. After his first wife, Phyllis Major, committed suicide soon after their wedding, Browne even sat down with his bride’s mother, Nancy Farns- worth, to write “Here Come Those Tears Again.”
“I do think there’s a hope found within touching on certain subjects,” said Browne, giving the example of a song he wrote about the earthquake in Haiti. “It very quickly turned into a song about poverty, and also our difficulty responding to natural disasters. These are subjects that are so vast and thought provoking. I think that anthemic singing about helping people in need, while certainly heartfelt and welcome, doesn’t really talk about the real need to address poverty and talk about a debt that has gone on for centuries. The real needs are the poor who live in the flood plains constantly being wiped out by hurricanes or living in buildings that can’t withstand storms and wind.”
Browne draws inspiration from letters he’s received from young people spending a summer serving a rural community in Honduras or building wells in Africa.
One cause he’s very passionate about is the buildup of plastics across the planet.
Two years ago, he switched his tour over to being free of disposable plastics. Each crew member carries a reusable water bottle, and the band’s rig includes filters that easily hook up to the municipal water supply at a venue to create water as clean or cleaner than the bottled option.
“Plastic is everywhere, on our beaches and clogging drains. In 30 years as a culture, we’ve completely transferred our delivery systems for commodities into plastic bottles and containers,” Browne said.
“We’ve found ourselves saving hundreds of bottles every day and saving a lot of money in the process. The truth is that every bit of plastic ever manufactured is still in the environment. I needed to feel the relief of knowing that I’m not adding to it.”
After speaking with Charleston Scene, Browne was on his way to the studio to track out a song he’s written about the issue called “If I Could Be Anywhere.” In the first verse, Browne goes surfing, but by the second, he’s found himself in a sea of plastic.
“Then it starts being about empire, because plastic really is an empire controlled by the people who make a profit delivering goods. I’ll admit it’s hard to sing about it, and I think the song may end up working better as a viral film for the Internet with visual images,” explains Browne. “The line where plastic comes up goes, ‘They say nothing lasts forever. But all the plastic ever made is still here,and no amount of closing our eyes will make it disappear.’ I liken it to the problem of nuclear waste, and how what we do for our short-term needs is going to be around forever.”
For Browne’s summer tour, he called upon singer and fiddle player Watkins to open, after contributing harmonies to her new disc “Sun Midnight Sun.”
It’s hardly a traditional opening arrangement, with Sara and her brother, Sean (also of Nickel Creek), joining Browne and his own small ensemble as the backing band.
“It’s a pretty amazing six-piece by the end of the night,” Browne said of the collaborative group, who were working on a cover of a song by the band Ween just before our interview.
“We started trying to figure out which instruments we wanted to take and as it turned out, we’re bringing all of them, even the Hammond B-3. We’re jokingly calling it the ‘Comforts of Home’ tour.”
The arrangement leaves Browne the spontaneity to play any song he can remember, varying his sets night to night while also allowing him the pleasure of playing intricate arrangements worked out with the full band.
At home in L.A., Browne has found himself invigorated by house sessions with musicians such as Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Wilson and the band Dawes; all are occasional collaborators. That renewed feeling of musical camaraderie lends itself to his current tour.
“There’s something about spending time kicking around these jam sessions in peoples’ houses that makes this an exciting time. People sat in with each other in the ’60s, but it didn’t really happen to this scale,” Browne said.
“Jonathan Wilson is kind of responsible for reviving this sort of thing, so maybe it took somebody from North Carolina coming to L.A. to make it happen. It comes by way of that Southern idea, where there’s just music that happens in peoples’ houses in the South. That’s the best thing that could happen to an industry town like L.A. — for people to start treating music in that way. It’s just been a huge transfusion of soul.”
When Browne heads back to the South this week, that transfusion should come full circle, replete with nostalgia for familiar favorites from a bygone era and new hope looking forward.