The ‘80s were a time of “MTV dominance,” as singer-songwriter JD Souther, puts it, so why not take the opportunity to take a vacation. That’s what Souther did.
“I’d never really taken any long time off and I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to take a decade or so and just enjoy my house and the dogs and my girlfriend, go skiing when I feel like it, go to Europe when I feel like it and drive around the Midwest when I feel like it,” he says via phone.
He entered a period that he calls an “early retirement” of sorts and built his “dream house.” Life was good for Souther, and he had certainly earned his right to enjoy a break in the action.
The ’70s had been an extremely busy time for Souther. Transplanted from Amarillo, Texas, he had arrived in California early in the decade where he met people like Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon, a “core group of friends” that would prove to be a potent bunch.
Early on, it was Ronstadt who had “paying gigs” because she had already released a couple of singles, Souther recalls. Most of the rest of the group were “out of work,” playing open mic nights and spending lots of time at the Troubadour, the legendary club that would play an important role in the formative years for the collective group of musicians.
The word was getting around and, as Souther remembers, “Jackson [Browne] got the first record deal of our bunch with David Geffen and then I got a deal. So with what little money we were advanced, Jackson and I both got little bungalows that were across the courtyard from each other. I spent another year listening to him play around the clock. I mean, I heard him play some of those songs until I wanted to scream. But it was really a brilliant education in precision and accuracy and thoroughness and also just the fact that his focus on songwriting was to tell true stories.”
Soon, Souther was telling his own stories and he released three solo albums during the ’70s, but the songs that he helped his friends write were the ones that would really put him on the map as a songwriter. He penned tunes like “Faithless Love” and “Simple Man, Simple Dream” for Ronstadt. Henley and Frey forged the musical union that became the Eagles and Souther co-wrote a number of future classics for the group over the years, including “Best Of My Love,” “New Kid In Town” and “Heartache Tonight.”
He has fond memories of working with Zevon, a friend, who as Souther discovered, had a lot of similarities, but he also had his own brilliant way of executing the musical ideas that were in his head.
“Warren, like me had a classical background too,” Souther explains. “Warren studied music theory and he was a serious musician and quite accomplished at it and he had a big musical vocabulary, as did I. We listened to a lot of music. So I was game to hear anything and I always loved Warren personally, just for his ability to take his very precise brain and education and then just run roughshod over everything and just throw the furniture in every direction that he wanted to and it all ends up as something that made sense. I thought that the way that he had of telling a story was pretty unique, the vocabulary of it, and the more I knew him, the more it made sense, because we were both avid readers and I think that makes for great writing.”
Souther still has a lot of love for the writing process and everything that he’s learned along the way from working with his musical comrades. In 2008, he released If The World Was You, his first solo album in 24 years. He cut the album live with a five-piece jazz ensemble, and it’s an adventurous set that closes with the 13-minute jam “The Secret Handshake of Fate,” a spontaneous venture that became a favorite track for all involved.
“We played that through once; that’s the reason it’s as long as it is,” he says. “I had written a poem that was three of those four verses and I was just sitting at the piano. I think we’d just finished ‘Journey Down The Nile’ or something else that we were really satisfied with and I said, ‘Do you guys want to try one more thing’ and they said, ‘Yeah.’ There wasn’t a chart for it or anything. Everything else we had done on that record, it was done live in one room and we did have charts.” Prior to that, he and his bandmates had done a lot of work to make sure that they would be well-primed for the planned recordings.
“We had been playing gigs — it was really old school, you know? We had a little residency at a place here where we play every Friday night and we were more than prepared for that album. If you have really great jazz players like that, it’s a good way to do it, because everybody’s got the language really down and we had tweaked the charts to the point that everyone was happy with them. We’d had a great week in the studio and at the end of the night, I said, ‘Listen, I want to try this thing.’ Actually, I was just writing [the words for what became “The Secret Handshake of Fate”] — I had just found it in one of these notebooks of mine and it’s got three good verses and I think it needs four. Let me sit down here and see if I can make up another one. And then I just said, ‘Follow me,’ and I started playing that guitar riff and we played for 13 minutes, stopped and looked at each other and I went, ‘Well, that was pretty good.’ [Band member] Jeff Coffin said, ‘Man, that’s the reason we started playing music to begin with.’”
The album was such a positive experience that Souther has continued to write and recently, he’s been putting the finishing touches on a new set of songs that will be released by Sony/Masterworks next year.
“This new album is a different ball of wax — I had a great producer, Larry Klein produced it and Billy Childs, a great jazz piano player, played on it and he wrote these absolutely staggering string parts. To me, every record is a different movie — I’m after something a little bit different every time. What we really wanted this time, it’s pretty heavily orchestrated [in parts]. It’s very sort of film noir.”
His new songs have already gotten high praise from an old friend.
“Linda Ronstadt says the musical forms of these new songs remind her of early and mid 20th century composers as well as those from the late 20th century and 21st century. That makes sense since the first music I heard apart from my Grandma’s opera records, was Gershwin, Cole Porter, and the like; the early American masters. So we’ll see. I have more regard for her opinion than anyone. She’s always the first person I play something for.”
Souther promises that it will be a “blast” when he arrives at the Music Box Supper Club with his band. “I’ve been playing such a broad palette of music the last five or six years and I think [the fans] know they’re going to get a good show and that no two are exactly the same. They’re going to hear some of the big hits that they want to hear and they’re going to hear some interesting songs from other eras that other people wrote and they’re going to hear some newer songs of mine and maybe some [of those songs] that people would call ‘deep tracks’ now — some things of mine that maybe weren’t the singles from the albums.”JD Souther, Chris Walters, 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $32 ADV, $38 DOS, musicboxcle.com.