Richard Shindell:
somewhere near stardom

An interview by Ralph DiGennaro,
February 2000

With the release of his fourth record, Somewhere Near Paterson, Richard Shindell lays claim to a lofty perch in the hierarchy of contemporary folk music. Indeed, the album may well establish the enigmatic Shindell as one of the most brilliant songwriters of this or any other era.

Innovative, highly original and occasionally even spiritual, Shindell's best songs weave beguiling tales that interchangeably champion the downtrodden, exalt the disaffected or wax empathetic to those who would reside on society's fringes.

While hardly some latter day, greater-than-thou apologist, Shindell's genius may lie in the way he creatively puts to verse topics that expose society's injustices in a manner that lays bare the effects of moral deprivation like an open wound. Even more remarkable, Shindell often successfully traffics some of these profound, if often cryptic, revelations through the eyes of a woman. He has a unique ability to morph into the soul of the many and varied personalities he casts as narrators of these veritable novellas he so adroitly sets to acoustic music.

"I write dark songs about dark characters," Shindell says with that sly smile of his that leads you to believe he is only half serious. "It's what you don't know or see in the songs ... that's the scary part."

Shindell may not be as prolific a songwriter as some of his contemporaries, which include such folk luminaries as John Gorka, Ellis Paul and David Wilcox, but his songs are slowly and painstakingly crafted, honed to perfection until they are at once powerful and profound. Or sometimes, simply clever and amusing. Shindell's songwriting is truly eclectic, ranging from lighthearted ballads and adulterous love songs, to dirges and diatribes that skillfully skewer politics, prejudice, war and religion.

Last year, Shindell signed on with a new label, Signature Sounds, Jim Olsen's fledgling, Massachusetts-based record company, which released Somewhere Near Paterson. The contract reflects an unusual, if not groundbreaking business partnership that essentially allows artist and record company to equally split all net proceeds.

Under his contract with Signature, Shindell is essentially responsible for the funds necessary to record and produce his albums. Signature in turn puts up the money to manufacture and promote the albums Shindell chooses to make. Shindell, perhaps taking a cue from his friend and former Cry Cry Cry co-member Dar Williams, retains all rights to the masters, and is guaranteed complete artistic control.

"I feel more confident about this record (Somewhere Near Paterson) than anything I've done in the past," said Shindell. "I'm confident about the resources that are there to promote it. This may be a smaller label but I feel they can devote better attention to this record than a big company, where it could get lost. In fact, everything is positioned in a way that it hasn't been before. But the distribution is the same -- we have the CDs at the same online sites as well as the same traditional retailers."

If buzz within the folk music community is any indication, Somewhere Near Paterson is clearly a breakthrough album, for the artist as well as the record company. High praise has come from Shindell's core fans, who tend to be extremely knowledgeable and discerning, not just about his work but contemporary folk music in general. They are also loyal and supportive, often as active participants in his internet fan club/bulletin board known as the Richard Shindell List, where Signature offered access to the new record almost a month in advance.

Like with all of his past work, Shindell disavows any knowledge that the new songs on Somewhere Near Paterson might be autobiographical, save for one or two. In fact, he admits to having little patience for much of what he believes passes for folk music today.

"There is this diarist strain that really drives me up a tree," he says with surprising candor. "They open their diaries in song as if I even want to read it, yet there is no time spent on form, symmetry or craft and I have to ask, 'Where is the editor?' There are so many who do this. There is nothing wrong with telling people how you feel or being a little self confessional once in a while. But it should have an angle, something that distinguishes the song from becoming just inarticulate ranting."

Of course, many of Shindell's most ardent followers would like to believe he actually is in the details of many of his songs. On the new album, Shindell admits the melodic and hauntingly beautiful tune "Wisteria" bears a close resemblance to something that happened in his own life. But then again, the song's strength is that it strikes a universal chord in the collective memory of anyone who has left a house behind only to return and see it all changed.

"It's out of necessity that I make things up, to entertain myself if nothing else," Shindell says. "In the end how much could I say about myself that others would want to hear? My life is just not that interesting."

Neither does Shindell want to read between the lines of his songs to confirm what they may or may not mean.

"It's not a concept record," he said, "even though my family was from Paterson (New Jersey). But if you consider the Latin word pater, meaning father, with the ending being son, it's safe to say that the title reflects my roots, along with where I live now and somewhere near it as well. I'd rather not nail it down. I never have liked explaining lyrics. I won't explain the title either, which limits it to what it means to someone else."

Shindell will admit, however, that he likes this latest record better than anything he's done so far.

"But that could be simply because it's my latest," he laughs. "The songs all have a similar kind of symmetry, all except 'Transit,' which is a weird story and unlike anything I've ever done before."

Indeed, "Transit" -- which is written in the third-person, a rare literary form for Shindell, who favors first-person almost exclusively -- is a kaleidoscopic ride through hell otherwise known as the New Jersey Turnpike. It is a haunting song composed in the Phrygian mode, with a descending diatonic scale often heard in ancient Greek music. Pair the odd melody with Shindell's descriptive gushing verses and urgent finale and one is left exhausted even after just listening. Last fall, when he began playing the song live, Shindell says scattered laughter from the audience surprised him.

"At first people thought it was a joke, a funny song," Shindell recalls. "I mean, it isn't sad, and maybe even optimistic and hopeful at the end, but the song has two parts that are very different. It's about road rage, and there are things that anyone with tri-state credentials will identify with, maybe even snicker about ... in the song's first part."

To help promote the new record, Shindell has begun what he considers to be a major tour, although in comparison to other singer/songwriters, is relatively small. Recently he announced plans to relocate with his family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, so that his wife could take an important teaching position, a move that may reduce his already short touring schedule even further.

"This winter I am hitting all the markets, including the West Coast, the Southwest and the Midwest, all places I hadn't focused on previously," said Shindell. "There are even plans for me to go to Europe, Scotland, the United Kingdom, and France. Because I have a family, it's hard for me to get away for too long. But even after the move, my family and I have made a commitment that lets me tour as much as possible."

While Shindell admits having enthusiastic fans all over the country and in Europe is an "incredibly humbling" experience, he says he is happiest when he returns to Long Island, New York to perform.

"I still consider Long Island as my home, it's where I'm from," he said. "Sometimes there are people in the audience I went to school with, people with whom I share the same set of references. There's something very comforting about that."

Even though Long Island, as everyone knows, is not exactly somewhere near Paterson.

[ by Ralph DiGennaro ]



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