Chuck Prophet: Making music in a mask and dreaming with Waylon
Chuck Prophet is a well-read, engaging man who compares his latest CD to a David Mamet play – “four guys arguing” – and himself making the CD to a Goya painting – “I had bats coming out of my head.”
When the San Francisco-based musician chose to make the record not in his hometown, or even in the United States, but in an old-fashioned studio in the backstreets of Mexico City, it was with the intention of finding the energy that would bring to life the songs on ¡Let Freedom Ring!, an album of what Prophet calls “political songs for non-political people.”
“I’m not really for this or against that but after I’d written the songs I realised, as I stood back, these songs do have one thing in common – they are all living in an anxious, raw time. So, after watching way too many Herzog movies and documentaries on the making of “Apocalypse Now” and “Slumdog Millionaire”, I wanted to go somewhere where it would be an adventure,” Prophet says.
“After all, when it comes to music and making records, the money is something that you spend, but what you put in the bank is the experience. So I had these songs, they were urgent and I wanted to go somewhere energised.”
He could hardly have imagined exactly what sort of adventure he was letting himself in for.
Within three days of arriving, Prophet and his musicians started hearing talk of a disease that was sweeping the city – swine flu. Of all the countries in the world, Mexico was by far the hardest-hit. “It was like the black plague had come to Mexico City and we were there,” says Prophet. “I wanted adventure, I got it.”
Wearing masks to protect themselves as best they could, the musicians continued making the album. And the epidemic was only one of the problems they faced – in Mexico City the power also goes out several times a day.
“You’re trying to get through a take, you’ve got a blue mask on, five guys at the same time in a live take because we were cutting it live. So it was intense,” says Prophet. “If we got to the end of a take before the power went out people put their fists in the air in triumph.”
Surrounded by paranoia, even perfectly healthy people began to wonder if they were ill, but there was never any question of giving up, he says. “People were pretty raw, and that suited it fine. I never thought about going back, no way.”
The finished product is a much simpler sound that some of Prophet’s earlier albums – “my previous records I had string sections and gospel singers and children’s choirs and horns and, you know, a lot of layers” – but he believes the decision to record in Mexico City, along with all the adventures that the musicians experienced, brought an urgency to the music that wouldn’t have been available if they had chosen to make it in San Francisco.
Prophet is now on the road touring the album. After a pair of solo, acoustic performances in April, he returns next month with his band, The Mission Express, for a longer run of shows beginning in Winchester on May 5.
To coincide with that, Prophet is also making available as a limited edition his tribute to Waylon Jennings’ 1975 number-one album Dreaming My Dreams, an album that itself was in part Jennings’ tribute to artists he admired – it opens with “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” and ends with “Bob Wills is Still the King”.
Prophet’s version, entitled Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, covers every song on the album in his own unique way.
“I just almost did it as a kind of a dare,” Prophet says. “But later when I stood back from it and kind of squinted, I started to think this is kind of interesting because this is the record that I used to put on and lie in the dark listening to round about the time I made my first solo record.
“There was something about that record, it was an auteur’s record. That’s what Waylon was. He either wrote his own material or he picked his own material, he had his own band, played his own lead guitar. For a Nashville record, it was this undiluted self-expression from Waylon ... There’s so many things about that record that stayed with me. This is how you make a cool country record.”
Recorded over the course of a weekend with a group of San Francisco Bay area musicians, the album was never intended for release, and Prophet describes it as an art project – one that he says isn’t necessarily all that good in places.
“You can hear at first we’re making a pretty earnest attempt to recreate the record, and then halfway through it just starts to get a little punchy. By round five, six, seven, it starts getting a little weak in the knees, it’s against the ropes, man. By the end of the record I can barely hold on.”
The album was released as a limited edition in the U.S. and sold out, so he has now decided to make it more widely available, with a May 3 release date. “Some of it is pretty challenging to listen to,” he acknowledges. “But it’s honest.”
And what would Waylon have thought of it? Prophet has received the ultimate endorsement.
“Shooter Jennings called me and told me thought it was just about the hippest thing ever and that his dad would really have dug it.”
Chuck Prophet on Backroads (including tour dates)