Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Lucid Culture Interview: Patti Rothberg

Irrepressible, cleverly lyrical tunesmith Patti Rothberg has toured worldwide with Midnight Oil, the Wallflowers and Chris Isaak. She’s responsible for the albums Between the 1 and the 9, Candelabra Cadabra and Double Standards. She can play guitar behind her back if you ask her. And if you see a Patti Rothberg sticker at the Beacon Theatre, row P, seat 9, she’s the one who put it there, to commemorate her first show at the venue. Now she’s back with a new album, Overnite Sensation. As much as it’s a return to her roots, it also comes as something of a shock. We’ll let her explain:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You were one of the last quality songwriters to catch a ride on the major label gravy train: you had a hit album, Between the 1 and the 9, a Top 30 single, and you toured with a whole bunch of quality acts. I remember the first time I saw you play – you were sharing a bill with Aimee Mann at the Beacon Theatre. When your label EMI America sank without a trace, you went to an indie label, Cropduster, and then another one with your Double Standards album which came out a couple of years ago. Are you completely independent now? To what degree are you open to suggestion if a label should come knocking again?

Patti Rothberg: I am completely open to suggestions. After all, it’s only a suggestion, and these things are by nature negotiable. My friend Lou Christie – lightning’s striking again – puts it this way: the internet was the Pandora’s Box. It leveled the playing field for most artists. It comes down to dollars, but not necessarily who gets the boost and gets noticed. You could be the indiest of nubies or a dues paid old school road dog: someone is paying for manufacture, promotion, distribution. Some people use the words quote unquore Rock Star like a curse word. But that was certainly the model I grew up with, and gave me more to dream about and aspire to than say, a smelly van and Days Inns as far as the eye can see.

LCC: Do you miss those days at all?

PR: I miss it all! Even the Days Inns! The other talented musicians we encountered, the characters you couldn’t invent if you were the best scriptwriter in the world. The experience of playing in front of 70,000 screaming fans and making them do the wave, and them actually going for it! I’ve always wanted every day of my life to be different since I was very little. I wanted to be a bus driver, or astronomer, which is funny since either of those fantasies have a reality that’s quite repetitive…even being a “rock star” on the road is INSANELY repetitive – wake, interview, soundcheck, show, sleep, repeat… but it’s the inbetween that has magic.

LCC: Through all the ups and downs, you’ve maintained a consistent vision, both lyrically and musically. To what degree have you had to resist being twisted into a different shape? To avoid selling out?

PR: Let me tell you how lucky I am! My debut album was produced by my friend, basically a first timer, Dave Greenberg…because we had such a strong rapport – this was UNHEARD OF! I got to illustrate my entire cd artwork, experiment in the coolest studio around – Electric Ladyland – and experience life as a total rock and roll superstar! Because that was my first and only time doing this til then, I just thought it was ALWAYS like this, and, tougher to take…I thought it WOULD always be like that for me [sigh]…if you look at the nine portraits on the album Between the 1 and the 9, they have really foreshadowed my reluctance to be stuck to any KIND of music or physical appearance! I still write songs very much the way I did before I ever dreamed of having a giant record deal. The songs are like fireflies, and the albums capture them in a jar to be understood in context, later.

LCC: Do you ever feel that you were pigeonholed? Maybe as a singer-songwriter, when you’re really more of a rocker?

PR: Yes, at first I HATED being called quote unquote folk rocker or acoustic rocker because the combinations of those words created an image of myself which didn’t match my superego…in other words, here I am playing Rod Stewart, the Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, the Runaways, Black Sabbath, etcetera, and I felt I was being chalked up as some chick with a guitar. I thought this advent was insulting to the other chicks as well! Now, I don’t mind it so much. One reason is because there are plenty of other so-called folk rockers who I respect and think are beautiful – such as Joni Mitchell or even Lou Reed. Even if the bare bones of your song were written using an acoustic, this shouldn’t necessarily mean you’re a folkie. Some of it is instrumentation, some of it is simply image. How many copies of Dark Side of the Moon sell and continue to sell? The cover is black with the image of a prism. The music is fully orchestrated with lots of sound effects and genres I can’t even name – ok, Money is a blues riff…but it’s about the journey the music takes you on and people across the board can identify with it. By the way, which one’s pink? [laughs].

LCC: I think ultimately that we can attribute the death of the major labels to one crucial mistake, which is the failure to be willing to work with quality artists. Do you agree?

PR: Yes, quantity and the desire for more and more kills quality! When A&R folk became afraid to lose their jobs for choosing the “wrong” bands to stick their necks out for, for fear of having their heads chopped off, lots of amazing bands ended up on the chopping block too. At the end of the day it’s about the numbers…the mind numbing numbers. A&R used to stand for “Artist and Repetoire”..when talented artists were given the space to develop into geniuses and not this year’s models! It was a privilege to have a record deal, not just anyone could get one! Later I think A&R started to stand for “already” and “repeating,” Music Biz fat cat chomping on cigar: “Say, I hear Electra’s got Lady DaDa and she’s movin’ units! Go find us OUR DaDa!!!”

LCC: You have a unique vocal style: you sound like the cat who ate the canary, there’s something up your sleeve, but at the same time it doesn’t sound fake or contrived. How did you arrive at that style or did it just happen?

PR: I think sometimes mid vocal take I am amused at my own lyrics which makes for a smile in my voice [grins]. It’s nice to agree with or relate to oneself, even if it’s about something embarrasing, and that makes it inviting for others to sing along [smile].

LCC: You love puns and double entendres. I can’t help but think of Elvis Costello when I hear you sometimes, he has the same kind of classic pop sensibility matched to a lyrical wit. Did he influence you at all?

PR: Woah, that’s the magic! Go back to where I said “this year’s model” in this very interview! Yes, I adore Elvis Costello…when he says on Blood and Chocolate, “I hope you’re happy now,” he takes an idiomatic expression and makes it a delicious chocolate layer cake of double meaning. I love that he writes in all different tempos and sentiments, making him in my eyes a true artist with a full pallette! The song “I Want You” is one of the most exquisite demonstrations of obsessively wanting someone, through music and arrangement AND lyrics that I have ever heard!

LCC: Every time I see a good, lyrical live band, I’m impressed how many people I see in the crowd: there’s definitely an audience for accessible music that’s not stupid, even if the corporate media won’t acknowledge that it exists. How does a smart rocker get the word out these days?

PR: You know, it’s amazing…this buttery ladder we all climb in the music biz. When I was growing up, I looked up to rock bands, some who are guys now in their 60s. They are looking to open for younger, hotter bands who are really just trying to make it themselves…I think the best thing to do WHATEVER level you may be at is to stand still, let the universe scramble by, and seek for something true. All the best stuff in my career I can recall has been serendipitous.

LCC: I understand you have a great new band now. Who’s in it and where’d you find them?

PR: I am back with the bass player I’d played with live and on Double Standards for ten plus years, David Leatherwood. We met on the 1 train around 1997 when my cd 1&9 was still happening – serendipity!? We’ve always had a great vibe and I’m so happy to have him back! On drums is the lovely Mark Greenberg. We have a similar sense of mischief, and I met him singing back up vocals for [former Utopia keyboardist] Moogy Klingman’s band the Peacenicks. David and Mark were in the successful band Apache Stone together already as their rhythm section, and Mark and I had Peacenicks, David and I together are magic, so even the first and only time we rehearsed, it was like it was meant to be! So far we only played one gig, at Don Hill’s and it was beautiful. Electric! More to come!

LCC: On Between the 1 and the 9, you played all the guitars and bass, correct? Are you also doing that on the new one?

PR: Overnite Sensation’s first five tracks were prewritten with drum loops, synths and such on protools. I wrote and sang lyrics and melodies over them. As for the rock tracks – the rest of the album – the drums are played by Adrian Harpham, with the exception of the song “Interest” which was played by Mike Demetrius. Because I am always filled with so many ideas, I just instinctively grabbed the guitar and bass and played everything myself.

LCC: Where does a song start for you? What comes first, the hook, the tune, the lyrics? What’s your process?

PR: Believe it or not, my process often starts with a situation! The impossibly complex universe can sometimes seem like an unfriendly ocean, but then suddenly I’m thrown a life raft in the form of a song title which expresses the exact situation I’d been drowning to describe [smile]. Then it’s easy, I just transcribe that into lyrics which have their own meter…and meter implies melody in my mind. Then I just color inside, or even outside the lines. Other times a melodic hook or riff gets stuck in my head and I need to grab a pen and a napkin [grin].

LCC: Can we talk about the new album? It’s a mix of both the richly lyrical, catchy rock that we know and love…and also some Britney Spears-style dance-pop – is this all brand-new material or stuff that’s been percolating for awhile?

PR: The quote unquote fireflies that I described before became Overnite Sensation over many years! That’s why the the title is funny. Dave and my first record really WAS more of an Overnite Sensation for us…over the ten years I’d been recording with Freddie Katz – ’98 to ’08 – Dave and I made these dance demos and completely intended for them to go to Kylie Minogue, but I came to him with my new collection of rock tracks, which naturally sounded a lot like 1&9 due to our combo…but also Harphamed [referring to Adrian Harpham] back ’cause he was the drummer on both albums. When we were taking inventory of all the stuff we had done, we listened to the dance tracks with my vocals on them..and the concept of Overnite Sensation was born.

LCC: On the dance-pop songs – but not the rock songs – there’s autotune on your voice. With Taylor Swift, for example, that makes some sense, since she can’t hold a note. But you’re a strong singer, you don’t have a pitch problem. Why?

PR: Believe it or not, there is a technique to singing along with autotune! Theoretically if you sing a note flat or sharp and you set the parameters right it FIXES you. But…I can tell you as a blues style singer with lots of dips, wiggles and other stylistic goodies the folks today might call imperfections, you really have to vanillafy your voice…think it straight, focus into the mic to make that autotune work as an effect. I know you won’t believe this, but the theory behind my using autotune is that ears today can only hear autotuned vocals. I actually heard the executive producer of Double Standards say to me years ago, “I can’t even LISTEN to a vocal that hasn’t been pitch corrected.” So my autotune use is like ritalin in a riddled world. How can you reach the masses if you don’t speak their language!?

LCC: You’ve always had an individual voice – you’ve always come across as someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone. How would you respond if I said that all these lovey-dovey dance-pop songs send the message that a girl should put a guy’s needs before hers? Doesn’t that go against everything you’ve ever stood for? Or am I taking things way too seriously here?

PR: I could write a novel on this one. Do you remember the song “Treat Me Like Dirt” from 1&9? It was #1 in Kosovo! That’s a lotta masochists! I wrote it in the spirit of “here I go again falling for the bad boy,” kind of making fun of myself. But it could be argued that it means I would take A LOT of shit for love. I’m not sure which lovey dovey pop songs you are referring to, but lets start with the dance tracks.

LCC: Yeah, them.

PR: Remember when everyone danced in their black trenchcoats and asymetrical haircuts to “Tainted Love”? Have you listened to those lyrics recently!? This is a dysfunctional relationship, a very painful one that we have been boogieing to all these years. “Touch me baby, tainted love.” He might as well be saying “Treat Me Like Dirt.” I also think that it’s okay to sometimes put a guy’s needs before your own. It can be romantic! If you really want to know what I stand for, it’s being able to express every aspect of your being! To admit being hurt and fragile, while also sometimes screaming you want to beat somebody’s balls with your rolling pin.

LCC: One of the new rock tunes reminds me a lot of Ashes to Ashes by Bowie. You covered Moonage Daydream on Candelabra Cadabra. I’d love to hear what you could do with something a little more sinister…All the Madmen, maybe?

PR: Ooh, that’s a good one! I haven’t heard that whole album in a Diamond Dog’s age!

LCC: I’m hearing more of an artsy 70s powerpop style on some of the new stuff: that new piano ballad that sounds a little like ELO; that backbeat glamrock number, is that a deliberate move on your part?

PR: 70s powerpop is a natural direction I go in because I’ve listened to so much of it! I grew up listening to ELO A LOT – and then the Beatles – the fact that you picked up on Interest sounding like John Lennon’s Woman is quite astute. Track number 8 has lots of harmonies which always make things sound ELO-like which is fine with me!

LCC: The new rock stuff is more direct, more stripped-down, compared to the work you did with Freddie Katz which is a lot more ornate, sometimes psychedelic. Let It Slide, for example, very direct yet very allusive at the same time. A lot more like 1 and the 9. A return to your roots?

PR: YES!! Believe it or not, while Double Standards made some deliberate attempts to sound like 1&9 in places, Overnite does it effortlessly because of who done it! You can identify John Bonham’s drumming in one bar…Jerry Garcia’s slinky guitar in a few notes. This is signature, and though it can be developed a lot of times, it is the simple equation of artist plus instrument!

LCC: How about that torchy trip-hop song, you give it a really sultry jazz feel. I’ve never known you to have any interest in jazz, am I missing something?

PR: Would you call The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” jazz? If so I ADORE jazz. You aren’t missing a thing though, I’m not much of a jazz freak, but I LOVE some of the lighter 60s pop jazz stuff. I can get into anything if I like it, I try not to write off whole genres if I don’t yet know enough about them!

Q: I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot of live shows lately around town. Any plans to take the show on the road sometime in the near future?

PR: In between intentions and actions lies a lifetime. In other words, I’ve been performing the Overnite dance tracks as an alter ego character called “Precious Metals!”

LCC: I saw the flyer, you dressed up in this metallic outfit like Madonna. You should do Vegas…

PR: I’d love to do the act in Vegas, but as of now it’s so far from ideal, and my rock trio is KILLER!!! With just a few rehearsals we could play anywhere in the world and be astounding. Ah, but where to find the clubs that pay guarantees?

LCC: Out of town, Patti! People out in Middle America are starving for good music! One last question: You were famously discovered while busking in the subway. When’s the last time you played there? Any plans to go back?

PR: I had a wonderful thing happen! I met a fellow busker, Randy Stern, on the R train a few years ago. We have since become friends, and we learned the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin My Heart Around”. One night after hanging out at a Peacenicks show, Randy was going downtown on the subway platform as I was going up. He took out his guitar and we just started playing our duet across the tracks. People were amazed and the whole station applauded when we finished. That is the last time I played in the subway…but it won’t be the last time ever I’m certain!!!

Patti Rothberg plays Caffe Vivaldi on November 26 at 9:30 PM; watch this space for upcoming live dates.

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November 16, 2010 - Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Patti Rothberg, decidedly a goddess and Eminem devotee is rather impressed with herself today. After having read my own list of accomplishments to this date, I would very much like to work with the other top superstars in the field of music producing, playing ass kicking (electric) guitar both solo, with my beautiful band Wet Paint and to promote and endorse fashion cosmetics lines with an emphasis on glitter and fantasty with the likes of ex producing teams Dave Greenberg and Freddie Katz, plus to create a forum with other “Angry Rock Chicks” from the late 90s, namely Juliana Hatfield, Poe, Alanis Morissette to do glamour cover spreads and interview about our lives. We will utilize our newfound fame and fortune to promote the fashion teams which made us look good in the past such as Troye Evers (hair), Heart Montelbano (hair) and COSMETICS as well as regular foot rubs for world peace and mani-pedicures. Peace.

    Comment by Patti Rothberg | November 21, 2011 | Reply


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