Iggy Pop on Singing Jazz, Turning 70


Iggy Pop sings three tracks on Loneliness Road, the new record by Jamie Saft’s jazz trio, including the bassist Steve Swallow and the drummer Bobby Previte, major figures in American improvised music. This is not a simulacrum of jazz, a high-voltage jam band, a PBS tie-in, or a promise owed to a manager. It is a rock personage deciding to invest time and energy into a record of improvised, first-take jazz by a band he had nothing to do with: Iggy wrote his own lyrics for Saft’s original compositions, and recorded his vocal tracks at a studio near his home in Miami. This sort of thing does not happen very often, especially in the United States, where it can seem as if – in Iggy’s words – “by subscribing to a particular kind of music you have joined a political party.”

They are melancholy, melodious songs, vulnerably delivered, honest within the scope of the persona he embodies. “I’m sorry for the loss of time,” he sings in “Every Day”:

“I’m hungry for the soul that shines in your eyes/And all I want to say is/I love you/Every day/I love you.”

“Iggy is such a great master of his instrument, and of constructing songs,” says Saft, a pianist and keyboardist who has played jazz and experimental music around New York since the late Nineties, sometimes in the orbit of John Zorn, Merzbow and Wadada Leo Smith. “He really just got right inside the forms of each one of those songs. They’re each really different – he put down something so fundamental.” 

Iggy Pop turns 70 today. A few days before that milestone, he spoke to Rolling Stone on the phone about collaboration, jazz, aging and singing in other languages.

This record came out of nowhere.
[Laughs] For you, you mean? I like “out of nowhere.” That sounds good to me!

Usually you can ascertain the circle around a musician and figure out how a certain collaboration came to be. Very little is truly unpredictable. But I don’t know how you ended up on Jamie Saft’s record.
I’ll tell you the reasons it happened. For one thing, I’ve been around for a long time and spread my net very wide, and at this point I just happen to know a lot of different types of musical people. [Bassist and producer] Bill Laswell and I were working on something else, with me and Bootsy [Collins], that Bill’s producing. Bill told me, “Look, there’s some guys in New York …,” and I don’t remember how he described them, but I definitely got the idea that it wasn’t a balls-out, tight-pants, electrified outfit. He said, “They really want to do something with you, and could I send them along?” I said, “Yeah.” I think he mentioned that there was a fella behind it named Giacomo [Bruzzo, co-founder of RareNoise Records] – I don’t know if he used the word “jazz” or not, but a good record label, he said. So they sent me three tracks, and they were already played, and that was that.

The other reason it happened is that since I was a little kid I’ve always been very fond of quieter, maybe more introspective sort of music – everything from Floyd Cramer to Debussy to Sinatra’s September of My Years – that song cycle was on constant rotation in our little trailer when I was going to high school.

I’d just been out rocking hard in different ways all year, so it was a pleasure to listen to music, and I told them I want to tackle all three. Then I thought, “What have I done? How am I gonna do that?”

I was just listening to them in the car in stolen moments at first, and I took a lot more time with this than I normally would. “Every Day” was the one that just kind of flew out of my mouth in little bits. The other ones took more thought – “Gee, how would I structure a melody and phrasing that swings it a little?” I tried to keep everything small, in keeping with the quietude about the tunes.

The house I have [in Miami] on a little river, there’s a back door with a washer and dryer and a little old chair that I bought on Fifth Avenue in the Eighties – it’s an African chair, one of the oldest possessions I have. I sit there with a boom box and mumble some stuff. For some reason, Third Man Records had sent me a bunch of these little tiny books. Anyway, I wrote these lyrics in little tiny notebooks in very bad handwriting. Just kinda worked ’em up that way – as long as it had the feeling and I’d done the proper planning, so that I wasn’t gonna dick around.

So I went in and did them, and they were basically first-take on each one. I was a little surprised at how feeble I sounded on certain parts of it [laughs], but I thought that was OK. You know, I kinda thought that the feeling fit. I thought it was my best effort, and I sent ’em in. I thought about it a couple of weeks, and I thought, just let it be what it is.

“I was a little surprised at how feeble I sounded on certain parts of [Loneliness Road], but I thought that was OK.”

I’ve done a couple things since that are also in a quieter vein. The thing that Danger Mouse really guided me through, for the movie Gold, and something for a movie called Good Time, by the Safdie brothers, by an electronic producer with an unpronounceable name [Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin]. They asked me to write for that. I had a ball doing that – it was challenging musically, but not unlike that guy that’s singing in that stuff with Jamie and Bobby and Steve.

“Every Day,” to me, sounded like something that, if he wanted to, Barry White or Donny Hathaway or Teddy Pendergrass could have really wailed on. “Don’t Lose Yourself,” I thought the music sounded a little Doors-y, and so I tried to sing something a little against it – I was looking for phrasing that would make it swing a little. And “Loneliness Road,” I kept thinking of Floyd Cramer and his chord voicings. So I had stuff within me emotionally that I wanted to say, on all three – and then, technically, you’re influenced by what the music is. “Every Day” would have sounded really terrible if there were a lot of sophisticated verbal images. Better to me if it’s plainspoken. Some of the lines are lines you’ve heard in other songs or in other ways, like “What you see is what you get.”

You alter the cliché, though: You say “What you see is what you’re gonna get.”
Well, yeah [laughs]. There’s a little bit of desire and fidelity kind of mixed in there, and also, you know, a little bit of need for love, which is different from desire. Everybody has that, but there are ways to get around it when you’re younger. Then, when you’re older, there’s not.

The music that you’re singing over is full of the little imperfections of jazz. There’s a lot of wisdom in it, and it’s kind of open and unguarded.
Yes, that’s what appealed to me. There’s no big, bashing thing or echo trick to hide behind. And then there are little things where it kinda goes on and on, rises and falls, and it’s a trio – they were doing what they wanted within their own boundaries. I tried to come in and live in it, basically.

Was that the challenge?
Yes, to get inside it. That’s the big one. Listening very, very carefully is an art. Sometimes it’s just like cooking an egg – there’s steps you gotta do to get to know it – but at other points you’ve got to do it in a state of extreme enjoyment, almost bliss, to allow something happen, to come out of yourself, to connect with the thing.

For instance, in “Loneliness Road,” I noticed, OK, Steve’s coming in with the bass line early. Suddenly the soundscape suddenly changes. I thought, “Ooh, that’s the place to come in with a certain pickup line.” It just matched. I knew that in my register it would be good.

Later in that one, there were bits where they kinda started swangin‘, a little bit like a show band, and you’ll hear me up the ante a little bit and give a little discreet shout once in a while.

What was your knowledge of these three musicians individually before you started working with them?
Almost nothing – I knew Steve Swallow from the Carla Bley records, particularly that last album, the one called Andando el Tiempo. I knew he’d been around doing things for some time. Bobby Previte, I knew that name as a kind of serious drummer. Jamie, I had no idea – I’d never heard about him. But mainly it was listening to it. What they were doing – it was jazzy, but it’s not an avant record by any means. It’s just sorta how they feel. I thought, “Well, I could contribute to that.” 

You’ve played a lot of jazz on your BBC6 radio show over the last few years. I sense you are following your nose there.
Yeah – I’m not that knowledgeable, but I’m getting more knowledgeable through the show. I was playing more stuff from the “free” period first, but when I was out in the desert, working on Post Pop Depression, this guy Hutch, the sound man for Queens of the Stone Age, gave me this DVD [A Great Day in Harlem] to watch before I went to sleep to help me out that way. It was about this photographer [Art Kane], who got every important jazz musician in Harlem to pose for a picture. Suddenly here’s Roy Eldridge and Lester Young and Count Basie, who I already knew, but a lot of great guys I wasn’t thinking about. I started listening to them. Coleman Hawkins, and all this stuff. It reminded me of all them. So I started poking around a little more.

Any discoveries in recent months?
Syd is incredible. Kandace Springs, man, whoa – I guess people say that’s jazz singing, but there’s something very fresh about it. There’s also a punk band I went back and listened to, very particular and literate about their beliefs, called Crass. I’d never heard them before. And I like Fea, out of San Antone – a girl band, pretty raunchy, extreme packaging and all that, and that’s a good punk band. Stuff like that. A range of stuff. I like Ricky Eat Acid, Laura Mvula.

This reflective guy you inhabit on these songs on Loneliness Road – he’s a persona. I feel that we’ve seen him before. What else do you know about that guy?
Yeah, right – they kind of pop out, these guys. I don’t really sit around working on them. Well, you know, he’s lonesome, a little bit of an airhead, a little bit head-in-the-clouds, maybe. A little bit weary of the game he’s in. Yeah, you know. You know. Like so many other people. In a way this started back when I was at the height of the touring machine with the re-formed Stooges, when I wrote a song called “I Want to Go to the Beach.” That was a very melancholic song – it’s the same guy. I wrote it in that little house with a feeling of hopelessness that I would ever be able to find a place to record it, how would I put it out, where would it find a home. And with a feeling of hopelessness that I would ever overcome that melancholy. But I’ve made a habit of writing out my pessimism, and it tends to lead to a surprisingly optimistic outcome.

In that case, a couple of years later, I got a call to contribute something to a movie about Michel Houellebecq, and that song, that project, became Preliminaires. That song found a home, and suddenly there I was singing “Autumn Leaves” in French, and growing, in a way. The music found a home, and no one’s life is perfect, but mine keeps it going, and that’s pretty good.

Do you consider what you did here, on Loneliness Road, categorically different from what you did on those chansons records, Apres and Preliminaires?
Yeah. I’m a guest here, which is what I wanted to be. I’d just gone through two years of the big time, with Post Pop Depression and a couple of large tours. What a great band, what a great experience. Professionally staged, and I was professionally dressed, at least for the first couple numbers. And then you go out and you talk to strangers about it. I just wanted to be a guest here. These are nice musicians, and the music spoke to me, and I don’t expect it to speak to everybody, but it might speak to somebody – and that’s all I care about. Also, I’m always singing, or through the radio show, listening to other people. It’s kind of great: Practice makes perfect, and it’s good to do different stuff if you’re lucky enough. Especially in my vintage.

Do you feel like there’s more down this path?
Yeah. But I don’t know what’s gonna come up. With Apres, that only came about because I’d finished Preliminaires, which had a couple songs in French, a little more like soft rock, and a coupla jazzy numbers, and then I did a music-hall television show in France, and because I’d sung one number in French, they decided, well, here’s a dozen other numbers so that you can do duets in French with people.

I did. But in so doing, they threw a songbook of about 30 songs at me and what was left over were all these great French songs. There were these Sinatra songs I’d always loved and always wanted a crack at, and then I saw, I thought, “Well, you know, look … Nobody in the U.S.A. is gonna let me escape punishment if Iggy Pop tries to do the Great American Songbook.” “No, no, no, youre the guy who rolled in broken glass.” But the French have a different attitude. I figured I could do these French songs and do that kind of singing and sing ’em in French; I enjoy the process of learning something in a foreign language – it’s a lot of fun. And I was able to squeeze in “Michelle,” by the Beatles. I saw a connection: “My Way” was originally written by Charles Trenet, wasn’t it? [Note: “My Way” was set to the song “Comme d’Habitude,” co-written by Claude François, who also recorded it in 1967.] The way I found out about “Autumn Leaves” was when they approached me about Michel’s flick, I looked at footage and thought, “Well, he reminds me of the character Jackie Gleason used to have called the Poor Soul.” Very good character. I thought, “‘Autumn Leaves’ would fit him.” The people doing the film said, “Sorry, the Americans want a fortune for you to do that and put it in the film. But if you sing the French lyrics we can get it cheap.” I said, “What French lyric?” Lo and behold, that’s the stronger lyric.

I’m working on a French lyric right now for a French film – kind of a folk-tale film, a period piece. It’s about an itinerant miller named Cornelius who becomes a problem for a small village because, although he’s a really good miller, when he’s upset he needs to go out and scream at the moon in the middle of the night. Because of this aberrant behavior, they drive him out of town. Not unlike in the movie Cat Ballou, there’s a little folk song in there to bookend the movie, about this character. I enjoy it. I didn’t write it – but I think about what would be the best way to sing it, how do you get the feeling across. That sort of thing.

It must be funny having this parallel work life in French.
Yeah. It’s starting to happen a little bit in America too – Americans are starting to notice, “Hey, that album’s OK.” At first I got “laughably bad crooning.”

I noticed that Bob Dylan said he likes Apres.
That’s a nice plug, isn’t it? [Laughs] I appreciate that.

I found a little more freedom there. I put out Apres myself – I didn’t want the company to put it out, but they didn’t want to put it out either. Some douchebag so-called A&R guy wrote me this dismissive – “This is really not what cool people are doing right now; if it was acoustic …” Whatever – blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I put it out myself and didn’t have a problem, didn’t lose money or anything. And then a few years later this guy brought me a bottle of wine to the gig in Lyon. He owns a very nice wine shop in Lyon, and he said, “Every so often I order 25 copies of Apres and I put them on the counter next to the cash register, and they sell out.”

Nice!
Yeah! [Laughs] I like being at the wine shop! I like that idea! Yeah! But I look at the albums I’ve done and I think there’s some good in there, and I’m in a fortunate enough area right now to kinda let them all sit, and there are people who will check them all out and enjoy them if I don’t deluge them with a bunch of albums. But I like singin’. So I kinda like being a guest. Different position.

I have heard that you are about to turn 70.
[Laughs] Yeah, I keep hearing about it too! I haven’t made it yet. I gotta get to Friday.

Tell me something. … I would guess that for you, 70 is arbitrary: just a number. But I would expect that as a worker, you are looking at the precedents that have been set, scanning around the history of music, looking at singers who got to that exact age and were making great things at that age. Is that true?
I haven’t really thought about it that way. Maybe I should.

You definitely think prosaically about “what kind of work can I do,” “what kind of work would I be comfortable doing,” and “what kind of work can I get.” But on the other hand, there’s this other guy [laughs]. There’s this other thing going on. I really like Sleaford Mods, and they have a particularly vicious track called “Chop Chop Chop.” I covered it the other day in rehearsal, and I put my own verses in there about the most scathing episodes in my life history.

Anyway, you get a little more circumspect. If you manage to live this long, that’s O.K.; you want to live longer, but at the same time you don’t want to do that just for the sake of breathing.

But it’s really do a little bit here, do a little bit there, and try to be a decent hang.

It sounds like you’re bringing it down to the musician level a little bit – rather than keeping it at the career level, the manager level, the concept level, the trend level.
That’s true. Well, I always wanted to be a musician, and at this point I don’t feel bad when I hear somebody who does something better than me. I just don’t.

You mentioned this not long ago: You don’t feel professional competition anymore.
Not much. Not directly. I have a little left over. In every biz, there was always the guy at the office, and you want to show him. But there’s not much anymore.

You know, I try to do my best at whatever comes up. The Jacuzzi Boys are a group I admire, in my hometown – they had a thing right off, and they have a great name. They summed up Florida culture, right there! They were cool but ragged, and then all of a sudden they were really good, and they were on my concert when I went through with Josh [Homme] and those guys. Danny, who does extra stuff for the band, said, “We have this online magazine called Mag Mag, and would you like to contribute something, a written piece or some music?” 

I had an old blues laying around, kinda grumbly. I gave ’em that. It’s lower than low-fidelity, but I felt it told the story, and there was a nice home for it, and there was something I could do with them. So we could do something together. Yeah, then you just see what happens. I still have that “let’s try this and see what happens” thing. I’ve never lost that since way, way early. Even when I was in the high-school cover band: “Let’s do this backwards and see what happens,” or “How ’bout if I have a 16-foot drum riser!” You know, whatever. Just try some stuff. That’s what I’m doin’.

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