There’s always a catch-22 inherent in watching a great artist perform at a small club. Sure, it’s thrilling to have the opportunity to see a major talent in an intimate venue. But it’s also frustrating when you know your cover charge is granting you access to a musician who should without a doubt be playing the local enormodome. Such is the dilemma of Jim Boggia fans.
For the uninitiated, if you’ve watched television in the last few months, you’ve probably heard Boggia’s music without realizing it — his guitar-driven track “Live The Proof” is featured in BlackBerry’s current ad campaign running fast and furious on the major networks. The commercial, however, only includes an instrumental portion of the song, so one needs to check out the Boggia catalog or a live show to experience the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter’s soaring vocals first-hand.
Currently, Boggia is on the road supporting his new album, “Misadventures In Stereo,” the follow-up to 2005’s “Safe In Sound” and 2001’s “Fidelity Is The Enemy.” Mastered at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, the album is available not only on cd and through the usual online digital outlets, but on vinyl as well — in mono, to boot.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Boggia before a show in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, I should note that in addition to his musical talents, fans appreciate Boggia for his humor and wit. (Sample blog entry: “I can’t remember whether it was Walt Whitman or Ric Ocasek, but a wise man once said, “Summer, turns me upside down.”) So, I knew I was in for an entertaining talk, and our conversation did not disappoint. Boggia’s funny, spirited, and very frank insights into his career and the record industry in general are a must-read for old and new fans alike.
Interviewed by: Heather Kobrin | November 2008
So, to start off, I want to ask about the feedback you’ve received on the BlackBerry commercial. “Live The Proof” is your most popular track on iTunes right now.
It’s definitely a mixed bag. What I mostly see are my fans — who already obviously know the song — they get really excited about it. I’ll get MySpace messages and emails saying, “Oh, you’re on the Superbowl,” because they’re playing the living hell out of the thing. What I haven’t seen are people writing me saying, “I heard your song on the BlackBerry ad.” I frankly think that’s a little bit of everybody drinking the same Kool-Aid. The industry wants to believe that is a viable method of exposure. I think if you do an iPod commercial, where the ad itself is basically also a commercial for the act, maybe in those instances you can make that argument. I don’t necessarily notice that it’s made a huge difference. I’m kind of Neil Young- old school. I didn’t write that song to make people buy something. So when my label told me about it, I was like, “Oh, can we not do that… please?” And they’re like, “No, we’re doing it.” (laughs) And contractually, they can do that. It’s funny because the actual technical legal term is “exploit. “ They have the right to “exploit” my music in that way (laughs). Which is nice, at least it’s right out there. It would have been nice if my label had respected my wishes, but contractually they did not have to. And also contractually, they did not have to pay me a single penny from the money they got from making the deal. So, let’s review…
Exploiting… didn’t really want it… not making money… so yeah, I love it! (laughs) I hope to do it again.
Let’s talk about the new album, “Misadventures In Stereo,” your follow-up to 2005’s “Safe In Sound.” I understand that most of your time in between the two releases was not spent on the actual recording process, but rather on ensuring that you had the songs, recording locations, and collaborators you needed to create the type of album you envisioned, is that right?
Yes. I tend to, in calendar terms, take a really long time to make a record. From the time we all sit around a table and say, “Ok, yes, it’s time to make that new record,” to the time that I actually deliver something… boy that’s a highly inordinate amount of time. People have this perception of me that I’m this studio tyrant who’s in the studio all the time, crafting and slaving over things. And it’s really not like that. I started in November 2006 and worked for about a week and half. I cut a bunch of basic tracks to tunes for which I thought the lyrics were right around the corner. I went off to write the lyrics, and what happened is what often happens. I ended up writing a lot more music, which is just not helpful (laughs). It doesn’t move things along. Then, when I first started recording, the British magazine “Uncut” told me they were doing an issue on The Faces, and asked me to do a Faces cover. We went to my friend’s place and recorded everyone playing together. They mixed it, and everybody was really happy with it and loved how it sounded. Then I knew, “Ok, this is how we need to make the record,” and we sort of reset ourselves. I think the first session for the record was January 6th of this year, and we were done by the end of March, working two or three days a week. So it really wasn’t that much time recording, it was just all that time getting ready. And what I’ve realized is that I can’t make records the way most people make records, where you just set a day, do it all in one fell swoop, and then you finish. So now, I’m already writing songs and starting to record, knowing that the process takes a long time.
Jim Boggia’s Abbey Road – Photo by: Emily Chatton (Courtesy of Jim Boggia’s MySpace)
You refer to the first part of the album as “My Misadventures,” and the second as “Other People’s Misadventures.” Was that a concept you had in mind when you initially started recording? Or did the songs that you ended up with just seem to fall into a natural grouping of stories about your own experiences vs. stories about other people’s lives?
It was pretty serendipitous. I knew from the beginning that this was going to be an actual record. I was going to do vinyl. I tried very hard to talk my label out of doing a cd, because it just costs money and nobody buys cds. I just wanted to do downloads and vinyl. So I always knew that it was going to be two sides, two 20-minute collections of material, which is much better anyway. I think part of the reason why music isn’t as prominent in people’s lives is that when we went from vinyl to cds, every listening experience got doubled because the two sides got shoved together. Record companies thought, “Well, you can’t just make a 45-minute cd, because it can hold 60 minutes.” But I’m sorry, you don’t want to sit down and listen to 60 minutes of music. When you could listen to side 1 of an album, knowing that it would be 20 minutes, that’s when people were totally into albums, because it felt digestible. But I digress (laughs). As I was finishing up the songs, it did dawn on me that I had a series of autobiographical tunes, and a series of story songs — even though some of them are first person, they’re other people’s first persons. Part of what had held up the writing is that I swore this album was not going to have any autobiographical songs, because there were things on the last album that were so autobiographical, I wouldn’t play them live (laughs). I was too freaked out. And it’s not good to have a bunch of songs on your album that you won’t play live.
Yeah, that’s kind of a problem.
It’s a problem. So, I said, “Ok, I’m either not going to do any autobiography, or I’ll do autobiography in a way so that I turn it into fiction by changing all the details.” I would keep the feeling or the subject that I wanted it to be about, but I’d put it in some other time or situation — just something to give me some distance, a safety zone. But then ultimately what happened was that there was some stuff going on in my life that I just had to write about. And I was not writing those songs. Consequently, I wasn’t writing anything. So, most of the tunes on side 1 are newer than the songs on side 2, because side 2 has the story tunes that came first. When I finally just slit open the vein (laughs) things came pretty quickly. That’s when I realized it was cool in a way, because then I knew how I could organize each set of songs.
This album has been described as darker than your previous releases. Although loss seems to be a prevalent theme lyrically, it sounds like the process of working on these songs was cathartic for you. Do you feel that the end result was that the lyrics ultimately convey a sense of hope?
Well, you’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? (laughs) That would be nice. But I do think that’s correct. Even within the tunes that are autobiographical, maybe the songwriter in me has put that element in. I think that in any kind of creative, artistic endeavor, on some level you’re striving to be a better person in your work than you can manage to be in your real life. You’re working stuff out through the process, so maybe the piece of work is a little bit further along than you are. So I would like to think that those songs are not total downers and that there are some glimmers there, even if personally, it’s harder for me to feel that. I’ve become friends in the last few years with Aimee Mann — we wrote together for the last record. It’s funny because Aimee, no matter what you play her, she’s like, “Well, you know I really like that, but if it were my song, I’d probably maybe make it a little darker.” (laughs) She’ll say something like, “There’s that one line in the bridge where you think maybe there’s a little bit of hope — I’d probably get rid of that.” (laughs) The first version of “Live The Proof” was like “Up With People.” When I played it for her I said, “I know we’ve got to do something with this. Don’t judge me.” And she wrote this great lyric for it that was really dark. But, we had already cut the track, and her lyrics just didn’t seem to fit the music we had. We should have just re-recorded the music, because Aimee’s lyric was much better. So unfortunately with “Live The Proof,” I kind of feel like that lyric… that lyric needs some darkness. So it is possible to have too much hope in a lyric.
Jim Boggia Live – Photos by Billie Jo Sheehan
I know that one of the new songs, “Chalk One Up For Albert’s Side,” was written with Tony Asher, the lyricist for (The Beach Boys’ masterpiece)”Pet Sounds.” What did it mean to you to be able to work with him?
It was great. It was during the time that everybody was waiting for this record. And I didn’t have the songs. My manager was like, (impersonating) “Babe – why don’t you co-write?” The thing is, I’m kind of against co-writing. You never see two painters get together and say, “Hey, let’s paint a portrait!” (laughs) It kind of feels like cheating to me. But my manager persisted: “Babe – who do you want to work with? Just give me a name.” So, I thought all right, the way Brian Wilson worked with Tony Asher seemed to be great. I loved Tony’s lyrics because he uses very simple, very direct language, but there are emotional underpinnings that go much deeper than the words on the page. So I told him, “Ok. Tony Asher.” I was thinking now that I had put out a name, they would stop bugging me because they’re not going to get Tony Asher. Four hours later, my manager calls me and says, “Babe – I just got off the phone with Tony Asher. He’s intrigued, Babe.” He lives in L.A., but he was making a trip to New York, so we got together at his hotel. He’s such a great, sweet guy. I don’t like co-writing because I’m really nervous. I don’t like to put my ideas in front of myself, let alone other people. But he’s just really easy-going about it. It was really nice. I’m hoping that we’re actually going to do some more things together.
Although you’ve been described as a “power pop genre master,” you’ve said that you feel the power pop tag is too limiting. It sounds like, in general, you could do without the industry and the press’ efforts to compartmentalize artists.
I think of power pop as a very specific, very stylized genre. I think some of my music falls within that, but some doesn’t fit the pure definition. Labels just become this way of putting walls up between you and the rest of the musical world. There was a time when there was a thing called “rock. “(laughs) And rock was this all-encompassing term that applied to everything. Growing up, the album I listened to more than any other was the White Album. There have to be 8 to 10 different genres on that album. Ultimately, it all sounds like The Beatles. But people in the industry thought it would be easier to market things and make money by categorizing music as narrowly as possible. And what happened is that that they cut the audiences off from one another. Instead of there being one big audience, there are just a bunch of smaller audiences. That’s why nothing gets really big like it used to, why people aren’t selling 5, 6 million records any more. I appreciate it when people talk about the power pop thing with me — I know they’re being complimentary. But I just think it’s either rock or it’s pop. I think I do yester-pop or I do brand new classic rock. Those are the only ways that I describe what I do any more.