A ‘Talk’ With Jon Pousette-Dart

Jon Pousette-Dart had a lot on his mind when he recently spoke with Pollstar.  The singer/songwriter/guitarist chatted about the art of songwriting, his new album, Talk,” and how he believes artists are getting screwed by music streamers.

Married to actress Dawn Young, Jon Pousette-Dart splits his time between New York and Nashville. Speaking from his New York home, Pousette-Dart pulled back the curtain on making music and offered a few thoughts about his own creative process.  “The best things happen when you’re just the vehicle,” he said. “You’re just open enough that it passes through you and you’re lucky to be there at the time it happens.”

Talk, which was released in July, features song Pousette-Dart wrote with John Oates, Gary Nicholson, Fred Knobloch, Angela Kaset, Sally Barris and Kostas.  The disc boasts a dream team of musicians, including many instrumentalists Pousette-Dart has admired for years, including Reggie Young, Clayton Ivey, and Glenn Worf.  Plus, Pousette-Dart cut duets with Jonnell Mosser, Bekka Bramlett and Rhonda Vincent.

Pousette-Dart hails from a family steeped in art, including his late father, sculptor / painter / photographer Richard Pousette-Dart. “I was born into a family of all artists,” he told Pollstar.  [My father] was an artist, his wife was an artist, my sister is an artist, my son is an artist.  I’m the only one who is not.”

Do you draw a distinction between forms of expression such as painting and songwriting?

I consider visual art and music, as an art form, two completely different things.  I consider myself an artist in one respect.  In another way I think of myself really as a musician.  Both terms can apply.  There’s a distinction in my mind between the visual arts and what I do. Visual art … painting – you do your piece, then you walk away and you’re done.  Music is a completely different form.

Do you consider your songs to be finished when you record them or are they still a work in progress, 10, 20 years later?

I think the latter is true.  There are some songs … that find their final form early on, and there are other songs that kind of … the chemistry changes.  The amount of times you play them you begin to see different aspects, and some of that makes you want to alter or tinker with things to kind of hone in on the message the song might be delivering. … Songs [are] like children.  You make them and each one is different, you never know what’s going to come from each one, they just kind of go where they go.  A lot of times when you write a song, you’ll think, “This is the one I care the most about” [and] it’s the one that gets the least response.  And the songs that you let go, [saying] “that’s nothing” – that’s the one that gets the [best] response.

It’s a mysterious project because where you put your energy doesn’t necessarily manifest itself on how other people see it. Sometimes you’re fortunate enough to nail the whole concept in a sitting but a lot of times it moves.  I think it’s a matter of being open to whichever way it comes. … The best things happen when you’re just the vehicle.  You’re just open enough that it passes through you and you’re lucky to be there at the time it happens.  A lot of that has to do with putting yourself in the space where you’re in the present and aware enough when these things happen.  Sometimes you sit down with a pen and write for hours and don’t come up with anything. Other times it appears instantaneously.  Sometimes, going through the hard work makes that happen.

After you record and release a new song, what’s it like when the audience first acknowledges its existence, perhaps applauding when you play the first few notes or singing along with you on the refrain?

It’s great to have the validation. … When you’ve made something that resonates, it’s a great feeling.  You’ve opened a path between somebody else and yourself [and] get to know that you’ve succeeded in making them see what it was that went down.  I think that’s a very rewarding thing when that happens.  One would love that to happen all the time. I think, probably, for every artist that’s … a songwriter, there’s always a certain body of songs that are constantly drawn on, that you’re asked to summon whenever you perform.  When that happens, as an artist you’ve done it many, many thousands of times [and] you might be tired of it.  It’s really your job to keep that alive.  You’ve created something that resonates. … You find things to keep yourself engaged and keep making it move for yourself so that it stays in that place.

When thinking about the music you’re going to play on an upcoming tour, do you ever listen to your old albums to see if there’s something you’ve missed or ignored?

Not so much in exactly that way.  I think you go back and check in with things … I think it’s a cross-section of things.  I think you’re looking for things you’re engaged in and that please you and I think you’re looking at things that fit what you’re trying to do in terms of medium, tempo and feel.  You’re also thinking about bringing in the songs that are historically relevant to the audience. You try to bridge all of those things.  When I write a set, that’s always what I try to do – try to give a roadmap through all of it and give enough reference to the past and keep a body of work that’s moving ahead that’s new and fresh and you’re excited about.

Are there songs you play strictly for your own enjoyment regardless of whether the audience will appreciate it?

Certainly.  I would think most artists tend to be most excited about what they’re doing right now.  That’s what they’re attached to at the moment.  So you want to go out and play the newer things you’ve done.  And yet, when you play to an audience … you have to keep building a mix of textures for them.  You can’t just go out and play all your new songs because they’re just not going to know them. … When I write new material, I truly find out which songs are successful when I play them to an unknown group.  Playing new material that no one has heard, you see which songs resonate.  You get the feedback of what people are responding to.  To me, that’s the best indicator of all. … I’m a big believer that you got to be able to put [a song] in its rawest form.  I know that there are a lot of people who do everything – “We’ll build a lot of textures, put all kinds of orchestration.”  Everybody has their own way of doing it. But I find, for me, the real measure of a song, when I feel I have a song, is when I can sit down with a guitar by myself – it lives there before it gets turned into a band arrangement

But, as you’ve already mentioned, you might still want to tweak a song years after recording it.

Yeah.  There’s one song of mine, it’s a very old song that goes back to the second album, called “Fall On Me.” It was a very short song, about 2:25, and it felt good there.  That’s how it was released. … Now, I’ve written another bridge to that song that I perform live that I think makes it a much better song. … No one seems to give me a hard time about it (laughs).

That song was used on “Lost” a few years ago.

Carlton Cuse was the producer. He used to come down and hear the band when he was at Harvard. We used to play this little club near Harvard.  Turned out he was a big fan.  He contacted me all these years later and said he was going to use it.  I was flattered and honored.

Did you hear a growth in your work when you hear that first heard playback of the new album, Talk?

I do.  I feel like now the music I’m making is much more conscious, much more directive.  I guess the best way to put it is when you’re young you do all of these things by accident.  You do stuff very compulsively … doing it without consciously trying to steer it one way or another.  You’re fortunate to have it all happen naturally. As you proceed, you come to a point where you can’t automatically expect that you can kind of throw stuff [out] randomly.  You’ve got to think about what you’re trying to portray and deliver.  I’m always trying to look for an underlying message that means something.  Particularly as an artist, I like to put forth as much of a positive statement … [rather] than sitting there groping through the blues, which I also like and there are a lot of artists I love that do that.  But I try to bring a little bit of hope, somewhere, along with the process.

For me, I think this latest record is the best I’ve made, in my own mind.  Whether it’s received that way or whether other people feel that way or what it does on radio – it’s totally unpredictable.  You can’t manufacture the response that will come from it.  Most of the records I’ve done previous to this – I had done kind of internally.  Some of the records I’ve played a lot of the instruments myself and produced myself.  Other records I did with the bands I was on the road with. 

This record was a departure in that it was a record I wanted to make for a long time.  When I first went to Nashville in the early ’70s, when I walked into the studio at Quadrafonic, they were … finishing a single by an artist I really revered, Dobie Gray, and they were cutting “Drift Away.”  All the guys who were on it – Reggie Young, Steve Gibson … were there.   I thought someday I’m going to come back and make a record with those guys.  That was the motivating factor on this record. 

My one guitar player had some health issues and needed some time off. I thought, “This is the window.” Bil VornDick, who I met at MerleFest, we did a project together with Jesse Winchester that he was producing and I sang backgrounds with Valerie Carter. We kept meeting and I got a really good feeling from him. So I asked him to produce this record.  It was like being in heaven for me. He was so plugged into these core guys who were the original mainstays in Nashville.  Reggie Young was always one of my favorite guitar players, bar none. So to have him play on the whole record and to have these guys from the Memphis and Muscle Shoals rhythm sections on the record was like being a kid in a Candy Land for me. … This record was a very, very meaningful and enjoyable process. How it’s received, I don’t know.  The scene out there is so bizarre at the moment.  It’s a crazy time.

Having made music for decades, today’s music scene must seem like a very strange place.

I think that for all of the people of art that come from the school we started out in, that were fortunate to be around when all of this was starting, when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones … the English stuff came in, the last of the ’60s … there were some fantastic transitions of music that took place into the early ’70 … it was a magical time because nothing had been established in the rock world.  It wasn’t legit yet.  Now it’s like banking but back then you’d have people who would take amazing chances and just roll the dice, throwing money around.  The book wasn’t written.  It was a great time to start out.  The days of album radio, to me, I sorely miss.  That was a time when it really meant something to go out and make a record.  You’d buy a record … listen to the whole thing through, play both sides. Now people have the attention spans of Irish Setters.  If you don’t get it down in the first three seconds, five seconds maybe, and they’re not hearing it there, at least from the people in the industry, it’s done.  That’s it.  Throw it out.  Next.  There’s no desire to be really engaged.  It’s just a matter of going from one thing to another, like flipping channels.  It’s tough for everybody who is from our generation.

Kind of like the movie “Demolition Man,” where Sylvester Stallone plays a cop placed in suspended animation and wakes up to find himself in a future where all the popular songs are commercial jingles.

That’s reality right now.  That’s what we’re living. I never thought I’d see the day when all those rock ’n’ roll songs would just be ad campaigns.

You probably thought you would never see the day when music would be free, regardless of the artist’s or  label’s preferences.

The hard reality is that people who’ve done this know what’s happening and the public doesn’t. [The public] doesn’t realize that Pandora, Spotify … the whole revenue stream, for artists in general, [is] nothing.

But the labels are not, at all, gone. And they’re making most of the money from streaming.  The biggest profit from streaming in every format, the people making the money, are the labels, still. Except now the artists have been cut out of the pie.  That’s the hard reality. … If you get a million streams, you’re going to get a check for barely $2,000.  I saw one guy who got something like 3.6 million hits and he got a check for $39 or something.  It’s beyond comprehension that it has been able to evolve into this kind of nowhere land where the artists are almost out of the game in terms of making money.  So that the model is back to what it was in the ’50s where the guy who makes the money is the guy who fills up his trunk with records, does dates and sells records out of his trunk.  It’s kind of gone back to where it began.

What would a fair price to listen to a stream?  One million streams can mean up to one million people each hearing a song just once and is not like radio airplay where each spin can be heard by thousands.

It’s a really good question and I’m not sure I have the exact answer. I think where it is now is obviously far below where it used to be. … Now it’s something like a quarter of a hundredth percent on a penny.  It’s so ridiculous.  The royalty checks we get right now?  I’ll get these checks, and it’s everybody, not just me, and it’s like $1.37, a check for 89 cents, $2.49.  You can’t even deposit them. There are so many checks you can’t even cash.  That’s how insulting it is. What would make sense per song?  You can make up a number that would make more sense than what it is right now. Ten cents for every stream.  Something that can add up to something. But a hundredth of a cent on every play … that’s one problem.  The big problem that leads to that  is you can’t enforce intellectual copyright over boundaries.  That affects everybody’s writings.  A songwriter, an author, scripts, screenplays, anybody who writes for a living … it’s a sad testimony.  You can’t depend on the income for what you do.  It’s almost a vanity project to release your work.

Do you think that will be the eventual outcome for every form of art?

One of the reasons I’m very involved in the art world with my father’s work is we don’t allow copies to be made. Everything there is an original.  I don’t know how to get around it other than that.  As soon as people can make digital copies … we’ve been involved with lawsuits where people have copied stuff, and we’ve gone after them.  But in the record world that’s over.  As soon as the digital genie is out of the bottle, you’re done.

Saying that Talk is the best album you’ve ever done – has that feeling happened before regarding a new album, or is this a new sensation for you?

When you’re young it’s a beautiful thing because you’re not as aware as you are when you get older. … I can’t say I really saw it when I was younger.  I think this was a different record because I went down to a studio kind of according to the Nashville plan.  We did it like a movie where I sat down and did pre-production.  I sat with Bil and [bandleader] Bruce Dees and found a group of songs. We listened to some outside material and constructed almost like a plot line, like a storyboard.  Then we went out and picked the sections to play those songs, that we felt would really nail those songs.  I love that process. … I don’t know if I want to do every record that way but it’s great to walk into a room with someone you’ve never met, that morning, and have a track in the can one hour later.

What inspires you today?

Right now I’m trying to think about things to write about that aren’t kind of escapist things. … It’s a tough time right now to come up with stuff.  I try to write things that are kind of uplifting and [make] you take a long look around the world right now, it’s pretty challenging, if you want to send a message that has your heart and soul attached to it in a hopeful way.  I think you can write about things in any way [in a] third party [perspective] and not have to make a statement about it … almost like a fiction book. Or you can write from a personal point of view where you’re trying to get to something.  The short answer, a blank sheet of paper and a pen, where we are at the moment, that’s a hard place to be.  You’ve really got to open up inside of you to find things that keep you wanting to keep moving forward.

What makes you happy?

Family.  Being around the kids.  I’m getting up there. I’m 63.  I have a wife, three kids and seven grandkids.  It’s pretty amazing what kids come up with.  If there’s anything that makes you smile … I have granddaughter named Marisol.  I wrote a song for her.  She’s a pistol on the record.  She’s starting to learn ukulele. … I’d love to be more engaged with kids because I think they bring the real hope to everything, to the world.

So you’re still optimistic, even in these turbulent times?

I am.  I think the country is in a really bizarre state.  I think the United States … we’re still the best place on the planet to be. That said, I think it’s crazy what’s going on in politics, with things in the Mideast and the rest of the world.  I would say, in short, I try to be optimistic (laughs).

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

It’s been little things here and there.  Bits and pieces I grew up hearing.  My first manager, Don Law, who took me on in Boston, he was the force that put me on the map.  He was a big promoter in the Northeast and is now with Live Nation.  He and his father, Don Law senior and John Hammond senior, they were the original talent scouts at Columbia.  They found Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, all those [artists].  John’s son, [John Hammond, Jr.] became a guitar player and Don became a promoter … one of the best promoters in the Northeast.

When I first started with him, I was 20, 21 … something like that, and I was going to start taking classes, going to school and learning to write out stuff.  And the first thing he said to me was, “No.  You don’t need to do that.  Just keep honing in on who you are, internally, and just stay with that.”  That was good advice.

And my father gave me the same advice.  He said, “Always do what your gut is telling you.  Don’t follow any other roads people are saying to go down. Just stick to your heart.”  And that’s pretty much where I’ve always kind of come from.  Being a guitar player, a songwriter and a singer, I’ve always tried to  … not be what I’m not.  When young people ask me what’s a good thing to do when they’re starting out, a lot of it, I think, is identifying what you’re not and deciding where you want to be and who you are.  And don’t try to be everything to everybody.  Just be who you are.  That’s the most important message there is. Stick to your guns and don’t let the politics and people sway you. You’ve got to learn to trust your own gut.

“Playing new material that no one has heard, you see which songs resonate.  You get the feedback of what people are responding to.”

Upcoming dates for Jon Pousette-Dart:

Oct. 10 – Plymouth, Mass., The Spire Center For The Performing Arts
Nov. 6 – Pawling, N.Y., Daryl’s House
Nov. 7 – Collinsville, Conn., Bridge Street Live
Dec. 4 – Old Saybrook, Conn., Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
Dec. 5 – Dedham, Maine, Private Function 

For more information, please visit Pousette-Dart’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel.