Musician’s first foray into pop/rock a heartbreaking journeyWith “Postscript,” Jeff Litman is going down the same exact road Bob Dylan, another Minnesota-to-NYC transplant, went down on his 1975 masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, heartbreak sells. With “Postscript,” Jeff Litman is going down the same exact road Bob Dylan, another Minnesota-to-NYC transplant, went down on his 1975 masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks.”
Dylan himself remains puzzled with the public’s fascination with the songs he wrote following his split from his wife Sara (Jakob Dylan’s mother): “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album,” he said in an interview with Mary Travers. “It’s hard for me to relate to … people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”
While Litman’s romantic relationships don’t qualify as well-known rock lore, the Minnesota-raised singer/songwriter’s pain is every bit as real as that of Duluth’s most famous native son.
With a bit of trepidation, we asked Litman about his brave new disc:
Budgeteer: First off, is it true you just up and quit graduate school to work on your “Postscript” album?
Litman: It was a little more gradual than that. I had been out of school for two years since completing my master’s. After completing my auditions for the doctoral program in classical guitar performance at the City University of New York — about seven or eight months before I was to actually begin taking classes again — I turned my attention to songwriting, partially as a just-for-fun change of pace and partially to deal with some emotional turmoil I was going through as a result of a recent breakup.
I found that, with the direct art of lyric writing, I was more equipped to deal with actual emotional issues I was experiencing than with the more subjective/abstract art of interpreting a piece of instrumental music written by someone else. As I got more involved, it just began to feel right, artistically.
As much as I loved, and still love, classical music, writing pop/rock songs puts me closer to what had motivated me to be a musician in the beginning, and that felt good to me.
Doubts about school began to creep in, but that summer I had a great experience up in Maine at a classical music festival, so I decided to start the grad program anyway, feeling a bit recharged on the classical side.
But, when I got back to New York, with all these unfinished songs lying around, I just decided after a few weeks back in school that I needed to follow this path. That was when I began to think about doing a full-fledged pop album, which was something I had always sort of fantasized about anyway.
I didn’t know exactly what I was in for, but the artistic pull toward these songs was too much to ignore, so I just decided to “go for it,” as it were.
So, yeah, at that point I just up and quit.
It remains to be seen if that was a good decision or not, but I’m glad I got that record out.
Did you lose a couple nights’ sleep over it?
I lost many nights sleep over it!
What did your family think/say? Along similar lines, what kind of faces do people make when you tell them your “I followed my dreams — for real” story?
My family has always been really supportive of everything I do, so that was never a problem. People often smile and say how great it is that I follow my dreams. They don’t often know the challenges that that involves, but I generally get supportive reactions from people.
Your sound draws from a number of influences — Elvis Costello and Jellyfish being the two I most frequently hear. (And maybe the Raspberries a little bit?) Do you ever laugh when you look back at the kind of music you used to dive into, like Metallica, Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses?
I love metal; I don’t listen to it too much anymore, but I have no embarrassment about it.
My influences are all over the map. Elvis Costello, Wilco, Paul Westerberg, the Beatles, Jellyfish and melodic rock songwriters along those lines are the most obvious influences, but I love all music.
I’m listening to Grant Green (a jazz guitarist) as I write this, plus lots of Mozart and Bach. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake a lot lately too.
Do you ever put on those old metal records for fun, or are the silly lyrics too much to stomach?
Sure. It’s not too much to stomach. I love the earnestness of it. And metal fans are some of the coolest people. I remember really being embraced by that community when I’d go to shows as a kid. The mosh pit is actually a really friendly place to be, in a weird way.
How was “Postscript” put together? You recorded most of it in your home, and then you brought the tapes back to Minneapolis for the final polish?
I actually recorded most of the basic tracks in Minneapolis with Andy Thompson, who has worked with Jeremy Messersmith, Dan Wilson and many others. Bass, drums, pianos, lead vocals and lots of the guitars were recorded in his home studio. I then took the tracks home and added background vocals and all the little extra things you hear: flutes, strings, the odd guitar part, Kelly’s vocals on “Maine,” etc. I think I did almost all of “Wife” at home. I sent all that back to Andy, and he did most of the mixing at his place without me. He’d send various mixes; I’d listen to them and ask him to make changes. We went back and forth a few times before we sent it all off to the mastering engineer in Arizona.
At home I have a Pro Tools setup. … Andy uses Pro Tools too, so it was easy to send tracks back and forth over the Internet when we weren’t in the same place at the same time.
I must admit, I was a little confused by the album: I was struck by the beauty of “Wife,” but then I thought back to “Anna,” which is about a great woman who already has a man. Is this a song cycle about your relationships, or are they just totally unrelated?
“Anna” is kind of the odd song out there. It isn’t really related thematically to the rest of the songs. “Maine” is also somewhat unrelated, being about my decision to quit school and write songs, etc.
The rest of the album deals rather specifically with the relationship I was in that ended rather suddenly and intensely for me. I was left with a lot of questions that I had no real answers for, so this record was my attempt to make some sense out of what had happened in my life.
It was also an attempt to communicate some things to my ex, who I wasn’t in contact with. I figured she’d end up hearing the songs, so I kind of put all the things I wanted to say to her in there. The funny thing is, by the time I finished the record, a lot of that emotional upheaval had settled, and I wasn’t so concerned with my ex hearing everything I had to say.
But, in the end, I think I got some good songs out of the deal, and it all helped nudge me in the direction of the path that I probably should have been on a long time ago.
You mentioned that your band members for the Beaner’s show are from Minneapolis — is that just for Midwest dates, or do you guys play out in New York together too? And, what’s it like trying to set up gigs from halfway across the country?
The guys I play with in Minneapolis are old friends I grew up playing with. Andy Thompson (producer of “Postscript”) is playing drums and Marshall Bolin, from the band Run at the Dog — which has a great new CD coming out, by the way — is playing bass. I’ve known them forever and have played a lot with them over the years, so it is a lot of fun. I generally play with different guys in New York. There are certainly a lot of people to choose from.
Setting up gigs from across the country is actually not too big of a deal. I do most booking in NYC, and everywhere else, by e-mail anyway. Very few places, I find, need the whole physical press kit/CD anymore. The biggest challenge is convincing bookers in a faraway town that it is worth their while to book you, and that you will do your best to promote the show and get people out. It’s all a lot of work for an independent artist, but it sort of “goes with the territory” in today’s music world, where more and more artists are doing more and more of the managerial business on their own.
What can you tell us about Kelly Jones, who sings with you on the catchy track “Maine”?
Kelly’s great. I discovered her at a Mike Viola concert in New York. She was sitting in on his set at the Living Room.
He’s also a great pop artist who has recently written songs for the movies “Walk Hard” and “Get Him to the Greek,” as well as the theme song from “That Thing You Do” — not to mention all of his great solo records and records with his band, the Candy Butchers.
Kelly is a really great singer, songwriter and all-around sweet person who helped me out a lot when I first started dipping my toes into the New York scene. She has three solo records out, the most recent being [“Melon” with Mike Viola]. She moved to Nashville a few months ago, and I believe is doing well, although we haven’t spoken in a while.
Finally, did you visit Duluth much when you lived in Minnesota?
I visited Duluth a lot as a kid. My dad grew up there, and, when I was very little, we would visit my grandparents there. I also used to go do some skiing at Spirit Mountain and eat dinner at Fitger’s. Duluth is a great town — so beautiful, right on Lake Superior. I also remember a great record store — can’t remember the name, hope it is still there — that I used to visit on the little excursions into town we would take when I was going to summer camp up by Eveleth.
NEWS TO USE
Minnesota-raised singer/songwriter Jeff Litman will perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Beaner’s Central. Billy Don’t Be a Hero and Tree Veins are also on the bill. Cost is $5. See JeffLitmanMusic.com.