Roger Street Friedman on working with Larry Campbell and his own daughter’s influence – Americana UK

Roger Street Friedman on working with Larry Campbell and his own daughter’s influence – Americana UK
Credit: Jenny He

How you restart a music career after twenty-five years.

Roger Street Friedman has been operating largely under the radar of the mainstream music business since he decided to restart his musical career after an absence of twenty-five years. He did this with the full knowledge of what it would take to build a career, particularly as he had by that time acquired family responsibilities. However, he was helped in his decision by his personal need to write songs and play music, and the fact that producer, stringsmith extraordinaire, songwriter, and arranger Larry Campbell, who has worked regularly with Dylan, Levon Helm, Jorma Kaukonen, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, and David Bromberg among others, collaborated with Roger Street Friedman on three out of his four C21St records, including his latest, ‘Love Hope Trust’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Roger Street Friedman in his New York home studio over Zoom to discuss his working relationship with Larry Campbell, and his new record.  For any budding songwriters who feel that their life opportunity may have passed them by, Roger’s story is empowering, and he explains why he felt the need at nearly fifty to re-start his musical career in earnest together with the pitfalls and advantages of such a late restart.  While Roger shares his classic singer-songwriter and americana influences, he also tips his hat to his daughter for helping keep him abreast of new things happening in music and reminding him of past classics.

How are you?

I’m fine and sitting in my home studio where I’ve been lucky enough to make my last three albums. It is normally great, but sometimes I get interrupted by having to feed the children or something, haha.

What was it like coming back into music in 2014 after twenty-five years?

Eight years ago, was when I released the first album, but I really got started again around 2007 when I started writing again. I’ve had a few life events, and back in my twenties I was in the studio world and to make a long story short, I was in a band that broke up badly, and I had a breakup with my studio partner, and I realised I need something outside of music for a few months while I sorted myself out. That turned into something like twenty-five years, and I do really hate to admit how old I am, haha. I’m the youngest of three by a long shot, so my parents were older than you might think, and in 2004 my dad passed after a long struggle with Parkinson’s, and that was the first person who was close to me that I had lost. Being my dad, it opened up a big emotional hole, and in 2005 I got married to my lovely wife Peggy, and in 2006 while she was pregnant with our first child Ali, my mom died suddenly, two weeks before Ali was born. I was just riding this emotional rollercoaster, and something just cracked open in me, and I started making music again. Someone suggested I record some of my songs with their husband who had a little demo studio in Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. I said that it sounded great, and I hadn’t been in a studio for like, years, and when I was in there working on this song, strumming and singing, something just changed and shifted in me, and I realised I had left a huge part of myself behind for too long. Right there and then I decided to do whatever I could to reclaim that part of myself.

Trying to establish a career as a musician is hard, but people are normally young and they don’t have family responsibilities, how did you find it and how did you cope?

It is like everything else in life, there was a plus and a minus side. I would love to just shut myself in the studio and lock out the world, and just create twenty-four hours a day, and then just go out on the bus and tour, and not worry about anybody which I can’t do, haha. But the other side of that equation is that maybe I have a little bit more knowledge of the world now. I said when I set out to do it full-time and more seriously, it would take twenty years, and I was about fifty, haha. I was reading a Bruce Springsteen interview back in Rolling Stone, and the interviewer must have been a much younger guy and he was asking Springsteen why he was being so prolific at that particular time, and Springsteen was like, I see the train coming, and the interviewer then asked about the train, haha. Springsteen told him there was a train, it was just that the interviewer hadn’t seen it yet, haha. So, I certainly see the train, but I was able to just keep my head down and do the work and write the songs and get out and play whenever I could.

I managed to make the first record which got some good reviews and some play on the radio, and it was encouraging, and that is when I met Larry, Larry Campbell. He played some guitar on that first album, and he was also very encouraging and at the end of that session in 2012, and it was the week that Levon Helm was in hospital, so we weren’t sure if the session was going to happen because it was on a Tuesday, and Larry told me if Levon dies, all bets are off. Levon hung on until Friday, so we managed to get that session in. At the end of the session, I was helping him get his guitars and fiddle into the car, and he told me he gets lots of calls from producers telling him he is going to love a particular session because the guy writes great songs and it is not normally true, but he told me I do write great songs and to keep it up, haha. That coming from someone who I admired really highly was truly great.

How has your life experience added to your songwriting, what is the difference between the young Roger and the current day one?

I was thinking about this when I was doing a bit of a jog, and I think the young Roger’s songs were typically a young person’s topics, missing somebody, breaking up, being afraid we were going to break up, I’m leaving, she’s leaving. They were good songs, and some of them made it onto the first album, but I think my songs now are much more reflective of a person at this stage of life, the theme of time passing, you know, is there always in a lot of them. I was always interested in social issues, I came up listening to the protest music of the ‘60s, though I wasn’t old enough to be in the marches, I was right behind that sort of age, but I always thought there is nothing wrong with a good protest song that sheds light on current events and there is plenty to write about at the moment. ‘The Ghosts Of Sugarland’ on the new album is all about what happened to African American people after the Civil War in the South. And there is another song, ‘Cut Your Losses’, which is about the Republican Party here, which to me have mostly lost their minds.

No shortage of topics and I just think I have more perspective, and in terms of the writing process itself, I think I am more patient with the writing in that I trust the process more than I used to. I think I used to force the issue sometimes because it can take a very long time for that last line to come, and that can be incredibly frustrating. I used to say I have a bunch of songs with great lines in them, but they are not all great lines because I think I was a little impatient, just wanting to get the song finished. So that is definitely something new that has come to me over the past few years that I need to trust the process more. Usually, it comes somewhere else, not necessarily in the writing session, and the lion’s share of the song will come out when I’m here with my guitar and laptop and I’m just writing, but sometimes I think of it as a puzzle and the last piece of the puzzle will pop into my head when I’m shopping. So, I think there is a maturity in these songs, and even the love songs are much more wistful, the love songs are more realistic they are not about how perfect the love is, but how imperfect it is.

You make it sound as if it is worth the wait.

It often is because there is nothing more satisfying than thinking that is as good as a song can be, and there is nothing more frustrating than having something that feels like it can be so much, but it isn’t, haha.

Two words, Larry Campbell.

Larry Campbell, as I said earlier, we met on that first album and we kept in touch sporadically, I would send him an email now and again, and I sent him that first album. I also sent him the second album, which he wasn’t involved with, and he sent me an email back saying he’d lost the first album, and could I send that to him also? I eventually got a note back a few months later saying he had finally listened to it and how impressed he was with the songs and the production. My wife and I with some friends went to see him in Queens, and after the show, I went up to him and he gave me a big hello and I told him I had a bunch of new songs, and I asked him if he would be interested in producing my next album. He told me he loved my music and he wanted to hear whatever I’d got, so I sent him a bunch of songs, just acoustic guitar, and vocal, scratch tapes, you know, and then I didn’t hear from him for about six months, haha. I’ve come to realise how busy he is, I think he is the hardest working man in show business, he is always doing something, and when he did get back, he told me when he finally had time to sit down with my songs he was really impressed, and he hoped we could find time for him to produce the record. Our managers worked the details out, and in August 2019 we started recording right here in this very room. People who are familiar with Larry or have seen him live, realise what a brave instrumentalist, songwriter, and singer he is. As a producer, he immediately puts everybody at their ease in the studio, he’s got a calm demeanour and he is very thoughtful, he listens to everybody’s ideas and input. He also has a very solid vision of what he sees and what he hears, so the records end up being a real collaboration with the instrumental arrangements underneath the vocals being really all him. It is quite incredible to watch him work, it is like a master class. We videotaped the whole recording session, including the interaction between takes and whatnot, and if I get the time, I’m going to get a reel together of all the times I was like, “How about this?”, and he said, “No.”, haha.

That’s what you are paying him for.

That’s why he gets the big bucks. He says I’m very good to work with because I have a healthy sense of entitlement around the ideas, but I don’t have too much of an ego getting in the way. First of all, I have so much trust in him with his experience and depth of expression, I mean, that dude is deep, he goes back to where this music came from.

But he is from New York.

Yeah well, he was down South for a long time, he is as southern as any New Yorker can be. I can’t really say too much about how I respect him, and how much of his thumbprint is all over the records he’s worked on, and that is in a good way. That is not to mention that as a guitar player he really makes me strive to up my game, which I think I have done. I feel so blessed that he digs my songs and wants to work on them, and we had a very chilled and open experience making this record, and everyone who came in felt that way, I think. He is just great. We cut together a thirteen-minute documentary and at some point, we will share that, and it is really interesting because we had a lot of great players on the record, my rhythm section of Jim Toscano on drums and Matthew Schneider on bass, Jason Crosby who is touring with Jackson Browne at the moment on keyboards, and Lucy Kaplansky and Teresa Williams singing, so a great band.

How much does having your own studio take the pressure off recording an album?

I think a lot because there are no time constraints, ever, and it is also nice being in the house, we can have dinners around the table, and the weather was pretty nice, so we were outside a lot on the back porch. I think if we were out at some other studio, it would be tougher, maybe not that much different but I would be watching the clock a little bit more.

How did you decide on the songs to be included on ’Love Hope Faith’?

Larry really had a lot of input into that, and I think he tries to envision songs that are both fertile ground for his arrangement ideas, and also songs that going to feel like a cohesive album. Again, we had about thirty songs to choose from, so we have enough for another record and a half. Definitely, we are talking already about when that will start, but having just come off this I need a bit of a break. One thing I think about coming back to music is that there is no dearth of material, I think I’m making up for lost time because knock on wood I don’t jinx it, I have a lot of creative juices still flowing, and I want to mine that as long as the music keeps getting better and going in the right direction as far as I’m concerned, I want to keep doing it.

Who are your major musical influences?

That is such a hard question because there are so many, but the handful I mention all the time are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor in terms of the singer-songwriters, Dylan of course as well. I was a kid in the ‘70s so I just loved Led Zeppelin and Yes, but somehow that prog rock never made it into my own style, but man, was I into that music as a young kid, haha. I remember being in trouble in high school at 14 years old. I was in a boarding school in Arizona and I was looked in my dorm, I wasn’t allowed out for the weekend because I’d done some bad thing which I’m not going to tell you because my kids may be listening, and I remember listening to Jackson Browne’s ‘After The Deluge’, and I had always loved the song and it was on one of my first albums I got when I was 10, I loved the melody, the singing, and the instrumentation, and I was just sitting in my dorm room and all of a sudden it just hit me what the deluge was all about. I was like oh my God, that is incredible. Lyrics like that are just so deep, and it is what I strive for, but I’m not saying I’ve arrived there. Those are the writers that really stay with me.

There are other artists, I love Shawn Colvin and I’m listening to a lot of Jason Isbell, who I think is terrific, Richard Thompson, and one of my favourite songs of all time is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightening’. Yeah, those are my touchstones., and I can’t say enough about Paul Simon, I always think about the line in ‘My Little Town’, talking about a rundown factory town, a mill town up in the country here in America that got all shut down after the jobs all moved overseas, “And after it rains there is a rainbow And all the colors are black It’s not that the colors aren’t there It is just imagination they lack”. It makes you want to hang up your pen, but it also makes you want to try and achieve something like that.

What are your touring plans for the new album?

I’m just starting to work that out now, yes for sure I’m hoping for lots of dates in the spring starting in January. The radio promotion is really going to start in the New Year in January, even though the record is releasing digitally in November, and I’m hoping to have lots of dates all over the US. I’m also hoping to come to England and play.

What will be the difference between the sound on the record and the live show?

They will translate pretty easily, there will be parts where Larry will do a violin line and he will follow that with a mandolin and then triple that with a guitar, and if we do it live it might just be a fiddle or a fiddle and a mandolin.  We played in Philly last weekend, and they wind up being a little bit more spare but faithful to the arrangements. Of course, I don’t have Teresa and Lucy singing with me, but my backup band are pretty good singers, so we are OK.

How much did you enjoy working with Teresa Williams in the studio?

I have to confess Teresa didn’t make it into the studio this time, so we recorded remotely because she got COVID. Lucy Kaplansky is just great, and when I recorded ‘Rise’ in 2019 I had Teresa and Lucy here at the same time and it was just a blast, she is a pip, and it was just great, and I feel lucky to have these guys. And I stopped writing when we started recording this album, but I’ve started tinkering around with some new ideas and I will have to get something scheduled with Larry, maybe sometime at the end of next year we will all get back together. I want to get this record out and tour it and see where it goes, and then start working on the new ones.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, your top three artists, albums, or tracks?

My daughter, who is 15, is a singer and a piano player, and for a while, she was really into One Direction, and she still enjoys One Direction, but she is now a big Harry Stiles fan as many of the young girls are, and we would do a lot of drives in the dark through the backwoods where we are because she wanted to play her music for me. So, we would drive around listening to all these One Direction songs, but slowly her tastes changed, and she would start playing me all these songs I’d never heard like Beatles songs, “Hey dad, have you ever heard ‘Hey Jude’”, haha, and she turned me on to Olivia Rodrigo who is just phenomenal and doesn’t seem derivative at all to me. There is definitely some Alanis Morrissette in there, but she has an authentic voice. She has now gotten into Elvis Costello, and we’ve been listening to ‘Veronica’ which is one of my favourite songs, and XTC ‘Senses Working Overtime’ and those are the two that come to mind. I saw them open for The Cars in the ‘80s at Madison Square Garden, and XTC gave this incredible opening performance and played the record, so it should have been the other way around, haha.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

It would be great if people would check out the music, to follow me on Spotify would be fabulous, and ‘Love Hope Trust’ album is out now. The ‘Love Hope Trust’ single is already out, as is ‘Annabelle’. If you are interested, you can also follow me on all those social media type sites, haha.

Roger Street Friedman’s ‘Love Hope Trust’ is out now as an independent release.

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