Our guest this week on the Art of the Song Mid-Week Coffee Break is Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and musical satirist Eric Schwartz.
Want to listen to the full interview with music? Listen on our podcast here now: Eric Schwartz Podcast !
Katie: I’m sitting here with Eric Schwartz, who I met at Folk Alliance this year. Hey, Eric, welcome.
Eric: Hi, how are you doing today?
Katie: I’m good, how are you doing?
Katie: Cool. So, let’s get into this, let’s start with what your background is. How you started in music. All that jazz. Where are you from originally?
Eric: Did you just say, how you started in music and all that jazz?
Katie: Yeah, all that jazz. I know, I know, it’s terrible. It’s one of my catch phrases, it’s because I was really into Moulin Rouge. Not Moulin Rouge. Chicago.
Eric: Uh-huh. You’re an actor, right?
Katie: Yeah, I am.
Eric: So did you do it in high school?
Katie: I did not do it in high school. I mean, I sang it through the hallways, you know? Because that movie was going on when I was in high school.
Eric: Right. Right. Were you in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones?
Katie: Of course. Who wasn’t in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones? That’s a given.
Katie: Yeah. Anyway, getting back to you.
Eric: No, tell me about your love for Catherine-Zeta Jones.
Katie: In explicit detail. It’ll appear in another song.
Eric: Well this started well. I grew up in Madison, Connecticut and then in Newton, Massachusetts and both of those had good schools where they forced you to do music. So I actually started with the flute in the fourth grade and went to the piano in the eighth grade and I sang in choruses and then did a lot of musical theater. I picked up the guitar after I got out of college and that’s kind of when I started writing songs.
Katie: Oh that’s really interesting. So you waited until after you got out of college. Where did you go to college?
Eric: Tufts University.
Katie: Oh, ok. I went to Boston University.
Katie: Massachusetts connection here. That’s pretty great. So, did you get into comedy though in college? Where did you start in comedy?
Eric: No, everything came from the acting. The comedic stuff and the lyrics. Stephen Sondheim was my hero. Between his lyrics and just general musical comedy mayhem is where I picked that up. So, when I pick up the guitar, and I started playing, the first thing I did was tour around Europe busking in the streets. Because I lived in Spain. So I went to college. After college, I went to Madrid and I lived there for a year. My roommate came home after Christmas break with a guitar. I just grabbed it and learned how to play. I was just into it.
Katie: Wow. You just self-taught? You’re like, ok, I’ve done all this stuff, I’ve done the acting, and now I’m just going to pick this up and go with it?
Eric: The first time I did a hammer-on in D, which is the big thing that James Taylor did, it was like I had discovered the new world. That I actually played something that I loved so much. So I just went nuts with it. I already knew music because I had theory from piano. So I didn’t have to learn the music, I just had to learn the instrument. I went around playing the streets “American Pie” and “Ramblin’ Man” and “Margaritaville”.
Katie: Oh man, in the streets of Europe.
Eric: In the streets of Europe, and made a bunch of money, and toured around. Then I got back to New York City. Actually, I moved to New York at some point and did some acting, but realized quickly that music was where I wanted to be. But what I was doing in New York was again playing those covers in bars and started to write songs at that point and as I started to do my own stuff, it was clear that what I was really enjoying was the funny stuff and getting people’s attention with whatever I had in order to do that. That’s kind of how I found that voice.
Katie: I can’t believe you just hit the ground running with this because it’s hard. Did you major in acting in college?
Eric: I majored in biology. I did a lot of acting. When I wasn’t in class, I was doing a lot more acting than I was studying biology, but I didn’t like studying drama. I enjoyed acting.
Katie: Actually doing it. That’s so funny. Ok, so you moved back to New York, you start playing out, and you start playing out immediately after you learn the guitar it seems?
Eric: I think my first gig with the guitar was three weeks after I picked it up.
Katie: No sh*t!
Eric: I was in Madrid, there was a woman who needed some accompaniment for her gig, and I learned the songs. I remember, one of them was “Have a Heart”. Really, was it three weeks? I think it was.
Katie: I mean, you’re kind of prodigy in that case.
Eric: No. It could have been… Anyway, “Have a Heart” by Bonnie Raitt. I devoured the thing. I had bloody fingers. Luckily it was a Spanish guitar so the strings were at least thicker.
Eric: Yeah, I absolutely hit the ground running. I devoured it.
Katie: That takes a lot of cahones there. When you moved back to New York, you start playing out, you tried the acting thing for a while, how did it go when you started writing your own songs? Did you have the same sort of attitude–just hit the ground running? Kind of balls-to-the-wall, I’m just going to do it?
Eric: When you first start writing songs, at least when I did, there’s no rules because no one ever told you what not to do. No one ever gave you a critique. It was everything. Let me try writing this. Let me try writing that. Just all of my years of listening and performing came out. There was jazz, there was torch stuff, pure folk, it all came out. That’s the most exciting time.
Katie: Did you have any mentors or were you just on your own going at it?
Eric: I was on my own. My mentors were James Taylor and Cat Stevens, and Jim Croce, and Joni Mitchell and Elton John and Billy Joel, and all the songwriters of the seventies.
Katie: So you just took all those inspirations, did you grow up listening to that in your family?
Eric: The family actually had a combination. Dad was listening to Rumors non-stop. Jesus Christ Superstar was in the house constantly, which, as horrendous as it is lyrically now that I look at it, the music just rocked my world. Also, the variety. I write in a lot of different musical styles and that comes from the musical theater too. That doesn’t come from James Taylor. That comes from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who would put all these different things in the same show. I keep forgetting to mention, if anyone asks me about my influences…. its not that I conveniently forget it, it’s that I truly forget it, it’s possibly the biggest one, which is John Denver because my mom was a devotee. I was listening to it nonstop and, as much crap as he gets, his earnestness was beautiful to me. And his love for nature. And his unabashed emotions. There’s actually still a piece of that in me.
Katie: Absolutely. We’ll talk about it later with The Better Man, but I really enjoy that about you as well. Alright, so you get out there in New York, you’re doing your thing, when did you decide to start recording?
Eric: When did I start? I was doing all these songs and I knew I had to do it, it was 1997 maybe when I started making overtures. I was working with a woman named Marlene Baker who was just getting into management. She was doing it for a little while. She was managing Mary Gauthier at the time, because Mary was coming in at exactly the same time. So Mary worked with a producer named Crit Harmon, I can’t remember what her CD was called, maybe Dixie Kitchen? If that was the name of the record? But she had a song on there called “I Drink” which she still plays. Crit produced my first record, Marlene did the research. I was in New York and completely depressed and had no idea what to do with what I do. I didn’t really fit in on the Bleecker cover scene. I was artistically homeless. I had no idea where I belonged.
Katie: Where were you playing when you first played out? What venues did you seek out?
Eric: At the very beginning it was Jack the Ripper, it’s no longer there, maybe it’s on West 4th, and The Red Lion and The Better End, and The Back Fence. The standard Bleecker Street. I lived on Bleecker and Sullivan. My bedroom window looked down at The Fantastics and my other window looked at MacDougal Gardens where I gather Jakob Dylan used to play in this gorgeous back area. It was a great place. I was 22 until 30 when I lived right on Bleecker and Sullivan. It was an amazing place to be. So I played all those clubs. But the kind of, particularly the ballads I was writing, or the more edgy stuff, did really belong in a lot of that scene and I didn’t really know what to do. I met Marlene online and she did the research and said, well Boston, which is where I’m from, Boston is where the folk scene is happening. I went up there and I met Crit and we decided to record with him. My first CD was That’s How it’s Going to Be, I think it came out in 1999.
Katie: That’s great. So where’d you go from there?
Eric: From there, I started going into the folk scene, which meant going to Folk Alliance conferences….
Katie: So you started with the conferences pretty early then?
Eric: Really early. The folk festivals, I think the first one I went to was Falcon Ridge. Pretty soon after that I applied to do the Falcon Ridge emerging artist competition and I won that. I was one of the three chosen with Trina Hamlin and Zoe Lewis. And so we got in the car and drove all around and played a bunch of house concerts, which was great.
Katie: God, that’s great.
Eric: Actually in regular venues too. It was fun. Then, around 2000, I also did the Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Competition and I lost that, but I got booked so it ended up working out.
Katie: So you won in some sense.
Eric: Yeah, and it can’t be overstated that I still didn’t quite know where to go until I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival. I think in 2000. I applied to New Folk and didn’t get in, but I went anyway and my friends Stephanie Corby, Kevin So, Eric Gerber, they said, “You have to go to Kerrville”. I was like, “Eh, whatever, I don’t know what Kerrville is.” Then I went, and it’s Brigadoon for songwriters. It springs up for 18 days a year. Have you been?
Katie: I haven’t been. No, I want to go, but I have not been.
Eric: Shame on you. How many interviews could you get? You could just set up.
Katie: I know, I know. I could just set up shop and go at it for 18 days.
Eric: Yeah, but you get to Kerrville and it’s all about songwriting. The people that have hung out there, the Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. Lyle Lovett, I know he did the New Folk competition. It’s ridiculous. My songwriting home was Kerrville when I first got there.
Katie: So you had found more of a place too, when you felt like, you were saying before, that you were struggling with not really finding a place for your music and you felt like that was the community that was really accepting it.
Eric: Yes. Not the least of which because it’s liberal at the Kerrville folk festival. Surround by red. But also it’s Texas liberal, so they’ll have a pickup truck with an NRA sticker next to a Folk Festival bumper sticker. What it also means is they’re not politically correct down there. Which means, my stuff, a lot of the anger and the profanity and the edginess and going over the line, especially my early stuff, was a response to being at a politically correct university in the Northeast.
Katie: Ah, ok! I was going to ask why because politics are such a profound part of your music and I was curious about that. That’s really interesting.
Eric: A lot of that was I was sick of being told what I could say. There was a lot of that going on at college. People’s words were being punished and they were ostracized. A lot of that was “Screw you, I’ll say whatever the hell I want to.”
Katie: Was your family really outspoken? Did you come from that background? It’s funny to me that it was so stifling for you.
Eric: Well, there are two things that I’ll say about that and that’s very interesting. One is that my mom used to shut down parties when she lived in Columbus, Ohio in like 1972 when the Watergate stuff was going on because there in Columbus it was very conservative, but she would just get in these knock-down drag-out arguments about what a criminal Nixon was to the point where everyone was like “Ohhh I got to go” and it would be the end of the party. So she was always very outspoken.
Katie: Oh, interesting, ok.
Eric: But, on the other side, my family had this thing where you had to change your tone of voice. If you were angry and you wanted to express yourself, it was “lower your tone of voice.”
Katie: Ok, this is making a lot more sense why you have a quieter tone of voice in this interview.
Eric: Oh yeah, because I’m sitting at a kitchen table right now.
Katie: Yeah, but it’s just so funny because you’re trying to make a point so then you have to get really quiet and really intimate when you’re talking. It’s funny.
Eric: Mmm baby.
Katie: That’s really funny though. So your family on the other side of it had parameters for being politically….
Eric: Well, not politically, but just in terms of volume, in terms of expressing anger.
Katie: So you could say whatever you wanted to say just as long as it said it in a quiet tone.
Eric: Yeah, but what’s the point of expressing anger by saying “I’m angry”. So I ended up holding a lot of stuff in. And I was an angry kid anyway. I’ve always dealt with depression, and felt a little ostracized, and I had a brother who hated my guts. I was an angry kid and I’m an angry adult. Although I try to not inflict that upon other people.
Katie: I’m sure putting it into your music helps deal with that and cope with that and also share it with other people I would imagine?
Eric: It does and it did and that’s kind of where those who like what I do, that’s what brought them to me is I was willing to say what other people would think and express anger. But the other side of that, and the downside of that is that in the end, the kind of anger that’s about yelling about George Bush, I did “Clinton Got a Blowjob” and “Get Your Jesus Off My Penis” are two of the songs I did.
Katie: I know, it’s so funny; by the way, I’ve been laughing to your music for the last day and a half. It’s been a very wonderful experience. Thanks for that.
Eric: You never know what people are doing to your music in random boxes in random cities in the United States. That anger can also alienate. The bottom line is I actually don’t want to alienate people, especially if they’re in front of me. I want everybody to love me. I want everybody in the room to be happy to be there. So the anger that I’m putting out there, I’ve started to shape it in ways that are less offensive to other people. I’ve toned it down substantially. I’ve actually come back to the, not political correctness, but to the consideration of other people’s feelings that I deliberately avoided having back when I was doing it. There are songs that I don’t want to do anymore. I have a song that’s called “Come Out of the Closet” which is singing to a friend of mine and it’s a bouncy happy song about “Dude, we all know you’re gay” and it’s a good song. People like it. Then, at the end, the last verse is sung by a Chinese delivery boy who was run over by a taxicab and he sings with his dying breath, the chorus of “Come Out of the Closet”. Now, it’s using a Chinese accent, which now I cringe about because I know that that’s offensive and troubling to some people. Ignorance is bliss. Until you realize who is being negatively affected or offended or hurt by anything you’re saying, you can say anything you want. Sadly. And I say sadly, because there was a purity to just saying anything. And, here’s the important thing, there was a purpose and there was a value to keeping lines open and to saying anything and I understand that, but either because I’m too concerned about alienating people or because I’ve actually just grown up a little bit and realized that you don’t want to hurt people.
Katie: And maybe from some personal experiences I’m guessing as well that you went through that maybe affected people negatively through your music? Yes/no?
Eric: I received a couple of letters from people. My first big “hit” in the community was when I wrote a song called “Who Da Bitch Now?” It was a swing tune. Have you heard it? Did you listen to that one?
Eric: It’s a no holds barred. It just really says what it wants to say. I got a couple of letters from people saying, “Well, Eric, prison rape isn’t funny” and I have to go, “Ok, I get that, but there’s a reason I’m saying it and it’s not about prison rape.” But, on the other hand, the dude that’s been raped in prison doesn’t necessarily think it’s really funny. But, on the other hand, tough shit, because not everyone has to think things are funny. But, on the other hand, if you can make art that doesn’t hurt people’s feelings…. It’s not about hurting someone’s feelings so much as it’s about really hurting them, not their feelings. That sounds very shallow, but bringing something back to somebody. If somebody’s going through persecution for being Asian their entire life and then suddenly they hear that accent and they’ve heard it too many times. Even if the context, and the context of the accent is totally justified, but even if it’s justified I just feel like if there’s somebody in the audience where it’s going to trigger something I just kind of don’t want to do it anymore. Unless they’re a Republican, in which case they can go f*ck themselves.
Katie: In which case, f*ck off. So your editing process, it seems like, is much more these days toward making sure that you’re bringing value back to your audience as well.
Eric: Bringing value back to your audience?
Katie: Yeah, or bringing value to your audience in a way, and making sure that what you’re saying, even though it might be brash and out there, is having value to them?
Eric: It’s not that it has to have value. The value that it has to have is entertainment if I’m doing it in public. It’s just that I don’t want it to have negative responses. I don’t want people to come and be annoyed or sad that they did. A lot of my stuff is going towards self-abuse now. Judging myself. Making fun of my own and complete lack of ability to maintain a relationship, for example. If I express anger, I have a song called “Codependent Sonata” which, some of the words in there are, “You F*cking Whore, you’re trying to castrate me” which, in a vacuum, obviously, is not very pleasant, but in context, is just about me and what a complete nutjob I am and completely intimacy averse. That kind of thing. It’s easy for me because I’m completely full of self-loathing so it’s not a problem for me to just unleash that.
Katie: What’s it like sharing that sort of anger and frustration with yourself versus outward anger and frustration say, toward, a political figure or Republicans?
Eric: How is it for me? How do I feel about it?
Katie: Yeah, how do you feel about it sharing it in front of an audience? Is it a more vulnerable process? Is it a more vulnerable process to write it even?
Eric: No, I have to tell you that there’s no safer space than being on a stage. Because that’s confessional when I’m admitting exactly who I am. When somebody pays to come and see you, the unspoken assumption is that it’s because you’re worth listening to and it’s because they like you.
Katie: Ah, validation.
Eric: Well, you don’t necessarily need it once you’re on stage; my point is that you already can feel validated if you’re on stage with a bunch of people in audience. Well, you know, that might not be the reason. If you’re on stage, you are putting on a show and when I’m in that personality, revealing myself it’s just daring, it’s just honest, it’s cathartic and I know that people are getting some catharsis out of it too because we’re all screwed up and we all have questions. I’m taking one for the team by saying things that are rather self-abusive or really revealing a lot which means those people in the audience who that vibes with will maybe not just feel so alone.
Katie: Yeah. I’m curious, when you are recording versus being on stage, is there a difference in the way that energy comes across? Because on stage I’ve watched you, it’s so magnetic and it’s hilarious. I loved watching you at Folk Alliance and I loved watching your videos as well, but I would imagine that recording, and I love your recording too obviously, do you find it as gratifying to record these songs as you do performing live?
Eric: They’re entirely different. It’s gratifying in a different way. Most of my CDs are live CDs for that reason. Recorded at Fox Run with Neale Eckstein, who I’m going to see in a few days. I’m going back and doing some writing and recording with him and Tom Prasado Rao and Jagoda and Matt Nakoa at Fox Run and we’re going to have an awesome time and you’ll be able to see videos of that I’m sure because Neale videotapes everything.
Katie: Yeah, it’s great.
Eric: But therefore, not only recording but playing songs live that I have recording is a challenge. I love recording because I love the musicality that I can’t express at a solo gig because I’ve never been an awesome guitar player or an awesome piano player. I play them well enough to put the songs across, but musically, these last two records I did The Aristocrat and The Better Man, I got the best musicians that I could find (in LA, that’s the best musicians) and I fulfilled each song style-wise in ways that I could never do on stage unless I hire a whole band. So, “There’s a Picture of Somebody’s Dick on Your Phone” has a full-on country production and pedal steel. Marty Rifkin, who plays with Bruce Springsteen, and he plays with me on “There’s a Picture of Somebody’s Dick on Your Phone” and one tune will be full-on jazz with a jazz flute solo, which I played (!). I played the jazz flute. I finally picked up my flute after years. The songs actually get to be what they were always supposed to be. That’s amazingly gratifying, but you don’t get the audience reaction, which is kind of what you’re suggesting. You have to find other ways for it to be funny, or you have to have it be funny on a different level. When you’re recording, and in the studio, the funny just has to be from the purity of the style parody. That has to sound exactly like a country tune, so that when you hit that punch line, it hits you in the face.
Katie: Yeah. And you have to, I imagine, also do it for yourself in a sense versus doing it for an audience and getting that feedback. Do you use any tricks? Do you imagine an audience? Do you have any visual aides? Anything that really gets you to that place?
Eric: I don’t know. These are the songs that are coming up. I think that most challenging one on The Aristocrat was “Who’s Going the Fuck the Singer” because that is all about talking to the audience.
Katie: Yeah, I was actually thinking about that too because I was like “Wow, that would be hard unless you had some specific visuals”.
Eric: So I imagined talking to people on the other side of the speakers. I adjusted it somewhat and started talking to myself a little more, I think. I’m not seeing a bunch of people listening to it right now, to this podcast, but I am certainly talking to them anyways to some extent. You imagine they’re there I suppose.
Katie: Yeah, in a way I guess. That’s really interesting though. I’m curious, what is your writing process like? Do the lyrics come first for you? Does the melody come first for you?
Eric: Melody rarely comes first. Maybe a groove, maybe a lyric. It’s almost always something I want to get said and I will often just sit down and write the lyrics and then figure out how to put music on top of it, which means that the musical style is clear because I imagine what style it’s going to be, but melody is not my first passion, and it’s not my greatest ability. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be, and because I’m doing style parodies, I can pull from very standard melodies.
Katie: Absolutely. So it’s about getting the message across first. Are you a fairly regular writer–,=you sit down every day, you carve out time? Or is it just when inspiration strikes?
Eric: I never, ever write songs and yet somehow I have them occasionally. My most recent song I said, “Ok, you need to write this, because this needs to be a music video and this is important.” If something comes along I realize, “Oh, this needs to be written” and see that’s usually a political thing or something just with a great punch line. I go, “Oh yeah, I have to write that now.” My most recent one I realized that needed to be written because I needed to make a video of it and I just sat there for days and worked my ass off to try to get that finished. It’s in a state where I’m performing it and I’ll probably perform it at Falcon Ridge when I go in August, but that’s a work in progress still because that needs to be perfect. There are too many words for it not to be really easy for people to get the first time, because otherwise they’re just lost at that point. Anyway, the answer to your question is sometimes I get disciplined when I know something needs doing, but 99.5% of the time that doesn’t happen and I end up with scraps all over. Now they’re digital scraps. Notes. I have them everywhere. I have them in my notes app. I have them on my text edit. I built a database in Filemaker with checkboxes that say “Funny”, “Not Funny”, “Was I stoned when I wrote it?”, “Should I reexamine this, is it finished?”, “Is it a parody?”
Katie: Wow, you’re organized.
Eric: Oh, anal, but who actually is going to go through and check all that stuff. It’s huge.
Katie: It’s just one of those things where it’s very gratifying to have all these scraps and know they’re there even if you don’t go back to them.
Katie: That’s really interesting. Talk to me a little bit about your most recent album The Better Man.
Eric: So I’m in L.A. and not really knowing what I’m doing here…
Katie: How long have you been here?
Eric: Ten years.
Katie: Oh god, yeah.
Eric: I’ve had a lot of fun in L.A., but the reason one would come to L.A. isn’t what I’m doing. Although, let’s put it this way, I haven’t had plenty of opportunities where someone could look at me and go, “Oh yes, I know what to do with you” in which case I wouldn’t be sitting here having this kind of conversation, I’d be going, “And then, Steven Spielberg’s cousin saw me at a gig and that’s when I wrote his whatever.” So, it hasn’t happened, let’s put it that way. I have not yet been justified for being in LA, although I love the community and the people that I know here.
Katie: What brought you here originally?
Eric: Ronny Cox. I met him on the folk train from Toronto to Vancouver one year, probably 2004 or something like that, and Ronny said, “You need to come to LA because you’re going to be a writer”. So I moved in with him and his wife Mary right when I came for about a year and a half. I’m living there again now because about a year ago I got rid of my Hollywood apartment because I knew I was going to be gone for a few months and then I came back and have been balking at actually committing to finding another apartment in LA.
Katie: Because you’re wavering on being here?
Eric: Because my wavering and because how expensive it is and figuring out which community to live in. Do I go totally inland to South Pasadena where I have my friends like Brad Colerick and Chauncey Bowers or do I go to the coast and live in Venice or Santa Monica, but that’s really expensive. There are all sorts of reasons to live and not to live in each place in LA. Anyway, I was in LA and not knowing what to do with myself, realizing that I needed to up my game and present the industry with a professional visage, so I realized that probably meant music videos. To make music videos, you need studio tracks so I had all funny these funny songs that had never been fulfilled and a bunch of serious ones that have never been fulfilled.
Katie: Yeah it was very interesting too listening to The Better Man, there was some very raw songs on there too, speaking of the John Denver influence. I love your comedic songs too, but it was wonderful to hear your really heartbreaking songs as well and see that aspect of you.
Eric: Thank you.
Katie: How was that sharing that part of you?
Eric: It was good. It doesn’t mean I would actually do it in public.
Katie: Yeah, I was going to ask because I think I’ve only seen you do comedic songs out in public.
Eric: It’s a hard mix because when you’re being comedic, there’s certain totalitarianism to comedy. You are in control. Nothing can faze you.
Katie: A sort of invincibility.
Eric: You’re not ever vulnerable. With the kind of comedy that I tend to do, you’re not vulnerable. Jill Sobule manages to mix the humor and the wistful sadness in the same song and that’s a real gift.
Katie: It’s really funny to me that you say you’re not vulnerable, but you have a lot of self-effacing songs.
Eric: Yes, but the act of self-effacing in public is owning it and almost puts a pride behind it because what you’re saying is, “I’m going to tell you about it and I don’t give a shit what you think about it. I’m going to tell you exactly who I am and f*ck you.” There’s still a boundary there, there’s still a barrier, but then when suddenly I sing a song like “I’m Sorry” which is just….
Eric: It doesn’t scare me on stage that somebody will, that they will laugh at me for what I’m singing, quite as much as it is I’m afraid of boring people. I might be deflecting there. Once you’ve set people up for comedy, that’s a very intense, visceral energy that they have, then, if you sing a ballad, first of all, they might be going, “Where’s the entertainment, I was having fun a minute ago and now you’re making me think.” Also, in some ways, I can be subverting my comic persona. It isn’t funny. Because if I sing a country song that’s a joke, that’s in it’s essence making fun of country songs, and then I sing an earnest country song, then I am, in essence, saying to everybody, “I’m not cooler, I’m actually buying into this.” Which, I kind of do, but then it means that I’m the guy that I just made fun of, and that’s a weird combination.
Katie: That’s a weird balance too.
Eric: On the other hand, I’ve started putting more ballads into my set because a lot of people in the folk community are like, “We like your voice, why don’t you play more ballads.” In fact, Susan Moss booked me for Labyrinth Cafe in Ft. Lauderdale recently and she said, “I hate to ask you this, but could you do a show that’s all of your nice stuff?” And I said, “You know what? Yes”, because, in essence, it gives me permission to do that because I have this sensitive, vulnerable man in me wishing I could get out, but I have created this persona that’s all about the other thing.
Katie: I would imagine that would be really hard to break out of that because I would imagine that a lot of people who would book you book you for your comedy and so, to be like, “Hey, let me sing a sensitive ballad where I’m a broken man inside”…
Eric: Yeah, and they wouldn’t necessarily tell me that. That’s the thing is when you’re singing a funny song, you know if it’s working. People are laughing. The energy that I get in a room of people all in the same place f*cking hollering. It’s like humor church. Then you sing a ballad and all you’re getting is people looking at you. You don’t get the same reaction.
Katie: That intense addictive energy.
Eric: So you don’t know if they’re bored of if they’re enraptured. You have no idea anywhere in that frame, so it takes more faith.
Katie: It’s terrifying.
Eric: It’s the same thing with sex with me.
Katie: I was wondering when this was going to come up.
Eric: Well, I’m a very sexual person, right? It’s my other performance. That is to say that laughter and orgasm are very similar in that it’s a person loosing control out of pleasure of some sort. I’m on all the time. Sexually, I need to make sure she’s enjoying herself and I think that there is a correlation. There’s a sense of I need to be 100% all the time instead of allowing any time to come in and just languor, savor…savor is the word I’m looking for…. I find that those are similar things. I need to have the audience always off-balance so I know I’m in control.
Katie: Yeah, and the same thing with sex.
Katie: Yeah, I would imagine though that’s pretty difficult for an artist too in your creative process sometimes to always have to be in control because to have creativity and to have that come in and to write the vulnerable ballad songs that you have to write, you have to be a little bit out of control I would imagine to a degree.
Eric: For the vulnerability? Yes. I would say so.
Katie: Was that uncomfortable when you started to delve into that realm?
Eric: Well, I was there before I was humor. The first songs were not. God, you know what’s funny? I just realized this. The first song I wrote that I really liked, I was traveling. It was called “Paris isn’t going anywhere”. I was traveling, I was on a TGV from Tours and then I had a to go up to Paris to get on a train just to go down to Annecy and I couldn’t believe the fact that all I was doing was getting on a train, taking a cab and getting onto another train and leaving Paris as soon as I got there ad I was like “Paris Isn’t Going Anywhere” and I wrote the song on the train that actually was both wistful and funny. I’m looking back going “Damnit, where did I go fromthere? Why don’t I do that again!”
Katie: Oh, that’s interesting.
Eric: Why are we talking about this?
Katie: I don’t know, but it sounds like an interesting direction to go in. It sounds like you’re kind of heading there with your music though now, maybe that’s why.
Eric: Oh the vulnerability. Yeah, it was always there and, in fact, maybe got into the humor to conquer that vulnerability because that was uncomfortable.
Katie: Yeah, but now you’re cycling back to it.
Eric: I think so, but my life-long struggle as a songwriter is to express that vulnerable side that is so present in my personality but I don’t know what to say. When I say that I mean musically. I’ll pick up a guitar *singing* and I’ll just start singing something, can’t figure out what the words are, but I can feel the emotion in my voice, I feel that…. I’m an atheist…. but I can feel spirit in my voice and I know there’s something I’d like to say but I don’t know what it is and that’s been going on since the mid-90’s so I’m left with all these humming things, these beautiful things with my guitar, piano, and I know that those songs are there, but I don’t know what they would say. ** And I’ve been looking for those lyrics for twenty years.
Katie: You know what’s funny about that? We were talking about before how the lyrics came first for you so often, but it seems like with this sort of vulnerability, it seems like the musicality is rooting it and the emotion is rooting before the lyrics so that seems like a different style entirely in the direction that you’re heading.
Eric: Exactly. That is correct. There’s that sense that I have very strong poles in my life and always have and in some ways they never meet so I’m very distinct.
Katie: Yeah, disparate parts of yourself and it’s hard to merge the different personalities here, here, and here. They’re compartmentalized.
Eric: Right. And that music, that side of me, it’s pre-verbal. It’s undeveloped.
Katie: It’s archaic. It’s the root of you as a person–before words.
Eric: Yes, and it’s not matured. I haven’t matured to the point where I can express it or something like that.
Katie: So is that where you’re going? Is that your aspiration? Is that where you’re heading next would you say? If you know?
Eric: I’ve got a problem. And here’s my problem. I got to make a living and it’s harder as a songwriter than it ever has been to make a living. So, for me, to say, what I’d like to do is just go off to a cabin for a year. Besides gouging my eyes out with loneliness, I might come back with some good songs, but then I really wouldn’t know what to do with them, because I don’t want to be on the road all the time and selling songs is hard and selling recorded music is harder and harder and harder. So, I hate to say it, but I don’t know if I have the time for the art because right now what I need to be doing is figuring out how to use what I do to make money.
Katie: That’s heartbreaking.
Eric: I wish I had another 20 years to go up to that cabin, but I don’t really know how I’m going to work all this.
Katie: In a broader sense, would you say that you think that it being very hard for artists to make a living today dampens creativity in general and dampens the creative development that was maybe there in previous years?
Eric: Absolutely. How can it not? If you have to make a living, it’s very nice to say: “Miles Davis didn’t care, Bob Dylan didn’t care, they made a record then they moved on.” They had record labels. I can’t speak to their lives, but I know that Miles Davis also had money behind him. I don’t know if he was using it at that point, I don’t know who these people are, but most people need to think about how they make money. You wouldn’t decide to make electronics and make something that nobody liked. It wouldn’t make any sense if you wanted to make money. And, if you have to make money, how can it not affect your art.
Katie: So let me ask you a question: if someone was starting in songwriting and they don’t really have much of an ability to make money, how would you encourage them to pursue their creativity but still be able to make a living?
Eric: Making a living as an artist?
Katie: Yeah, or, would you encourage to say, have side jobs until you can figure your sh*t out.
Eric: Well, the standard thing for artists and it’s no different for actors in this town, you figure out how to do both. It’s a really hard life to have to work three jobs and then study your lines if you’re an actor and get to those auditions. It’s really hard to work that job and find time to write and that’s why most people will say, “If you can do something else besides act, do it.” Because it’s a very difficult thing to choose. The whole “follow your dream and it will happen” thing is a load of sh*t. It works for some people, but some people’s dreams they don’t have the talent to fulfill, they don’t have the luck. You need to make your own luck and you need to work your ass off. It gets harder and harder as I become more jaded and have done many things and seen what’s on the other side of that opportunity. It becomes harder to be excited about it, but for those people who are young–somebody’s got to be a star. There are spots to fill. So, if they want it that badly, those are the ones that are going to get it and I would say, “Do you want it that badly?” And, if you say “Yes” then I say, “Then do what you got to do” and it may work out and it may not work out. I’m not saying that it’s not going to work out for me, I’m not trying to be maudlin here, but I’ve been so all-over-the-map between the ballads and the funny stuff and doing whatever it is I do during the day, I haven’t been focused toward getting one thing. I never have and that’s been the reality of my path. That being said, that means I can do a lot of different stuff but, at this point, it’s kind of like, “Ok, it’s time to focus, become project-oriented”. I’m writing a musical right now. I don’t have the luxury of the same many-tiered exploration. You got to start working toward something and that’s what I would say to young people too. If you can, find something that you really like to do and then bust your ass to make that one thing happen because once you have success in one small area, you have more leverage and you know more people and you have more of a track record and a reputation and people trust that you can make money. And then you can do other stuff. People were telling me that for twenty years. I never wanted to do that and that’s ok.
Katie: Well, I think we’re about out of time here, but did you want to do a song? Would you be up for doing a song?
Eric: Sure, I’ll play you the new one.
Katie: Yay! What’s it called by the way?
Eric: I can’t tell you.
Katie: Ok, I was curious about this.
Eric: Alright, here’s the deal with this song: since it’s written to be a video, the song is not complete as just a music performance. It’s not complete with sound and words, it demands a visual of the video in order to be complete, in order to totally express to be fulfilled so I can’t do that for you because I don’t have the video.
Katie: We can set it up but I know you said you weren’t in video-preparation mode.
Eric: No, I mean animation, I mean it was written to actually have characters then to be animated.
Katie: That’s great. This is exciting
Eric: So therefore I need to have more of an introduction or to try to get a visual for people and in this case it’s the “Bernie or Bust” thing. It’s the “I’m not going to bother voting because it’s not going to matter.” Even if not the Bernie or Bust, it can just be people who are generally disillusioned. “Voting is a lie, it doesn’t matter, so I’m just going to stay home.” So I asked a few more conservative friends of mine to give you an opinion on whether you should get involved and each one of them has written a verse for this song. Now, you would see a visual for each of these.
Want to hear the Song? Hear it now at 61:40:
Katie: That’s fantastic. Eric Schwartz, any parting words before we leave for today.
Katie: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
Eric: Thank you very much for having me.