New Jersey Stage

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interview with George Wirth

George Wirth is one of the area's best songwriters.  With vivid descriptions, his songs come to life with characters that live and breathe in ways few songwriters can match.  His first record, "Lights of Brigantine" was one of the best records I've heard in the past decade.  His latest disc, "The Last Good Kiss", was released over the summer and is just as good.  I had the chance to interview George via email recently to talk about his career, his music, and Asbury Park.

You seemed to come out of nowhere a few years ago.  I think I may have  first come across you at the Indigo Coffeehouse.  Had you been playing out  all these years?
I've been a closet guitar player since I was a kid, but didn't start writing or playing out until about eight years ago. I'm 63 now, so it took a while to get around to it. Writing, performing live and recording albums were the furthest thing from my mind, believe me.  But the songs kept coming, and one thing led to another. The Indigo is where a lot of us hooked up for the first time and where I made some good friends. Michael Brett, Janey Todd, Bobby Strange, Patti Bramson, Anthony Fiumano, Sheli Aarden, Michael Patrick, Bob Denson, Keith McCarthy, Abbie Gardner, Red Molly and Danny White all played there at one time or another. It was one of the few outlets for live acoustic music at the time and a great place to try out new stuff.

I've never been good at being part of a crowd... nothing intentional about it, that's just me. I tend to avoid uncomfortable situations if possible and if given a choice on the night of a gig I'd probably choose staying home, though I'd end up regretting it later. Once I get there and start playing I'm fine and end up having a good time. It's strange to me and anyone who's known me for a while how relaxed I am once I'm onstage. It's the last thing any of us would have expected.

Recording, on the other hand, is a whole other game. It's a long drawn out learning process that seems to start at square one with every song. I record myself at home with a very simple setup so you'd think it would be easy and it probably would be for someone less obsessive. In my case, it usually turns into a nightmare of my own making. I suspect it would be easier to go to a studio where someone else pushes all the buttons and says, "We're done! Let's go home!".  But that's beyond my means and, truth be told, I'm not sure I'd get what I want.

You're often referred to as a "storyteller".  If you were pinned down and force to provide a label for your work what would it be and why?
I don't think labels mean much anymore. Calling yourself a "singer- songwriter" carries about as much weight as calling yourself a "trapeze artist". Less, in some circles. Without delivering the goods they're both meaningless and the final determination of that rests with the audience, not the performer. I got tagged as a "storyteller" back in The Indigo days and I guess it stuck. I never really thought of myself that way but I'm fine with it. I suspect it comes from the fact that most of my songs are in narrative form and have a certain continuity to them. I honestly never thought about it and still don't. Same goes for the song structure...or lack of it...that form my songs. If the song ends up with a chorus or bridge, fine. If not that's OK too. Hell, some of them don't even rhyme.

I know you have a wide variety of musical influences.  Who are some of the artists that first attracted you to music and who are ones you came across throughout the years?
Well, 60 years covers a lot of ground. My old man came home from WW II with a love of country music, called hillbilly music back then. He'd go on about Roy Acuff and others. In the 50's, Red Foley had a show on TV with country guests, and we'd watch that. The image of one guy with a guitar always appealed to me, and when Elvis appeared on TV, that really brought it into focus. At the same time, I was listening to late-night radio out of New York on a little crystal radio I made; with guys like Alan Freed playing more urban sounds of doo-wop, blues and rockabilly.

By the 60's folk music became popular and I was as drawn to it as everybody else. Not only was there one guy with a guitar but he didn't even have to be particularly talented. Then Dylan came along. By 1965 he turned the institution of American popular music inside out and upside down and changed us all along with it. I don't think it's possible to overstate his influence on our current perception of American music. Ten years later we had Springsteen who took the best of everything that came before, made it his own, and brought it all back home. Along with Tom Waits, arguably the best American songwriter we have, these guys have produced a body of work that speaks for itself. They're all still huge influences on me. For the last few years I find myself drawn more to local artists for inspiration.

Some artists complain that there aren't enough "listening room" opportunities for them in New Jersey, but you and your wife have actually been proactive with the "Rosie's Cafe" shows in trying to change the situation.  How important is it for songwriters like yourself to be able to perform before an audience that not only is paying attention but quiet enough that people can truly hear each word?  Do you ever feel as though you have to change your performance a bit when playing a noisy club?
Asbury Park has been a rock and roll town for the 50 years I've lived in the area but there's always been a niche spot for acoustic artists. The Twisted Tree CafĂ© is probably the best known acoustic room right now but Scott Stamper deserves a lot of credit for his regular acoustic shows at The Saint. In my opinion it's the best music venue in town, acoustic or electric. Sonny's Espresso Joe's in Keyport is another great place to play, with Anton Daub running one of the best acoustic open mics around. It's always a pleasure to play somewhere where the owners actually like music and both The Saint and  Espresso Joe's work hard at providing good sound and a good listening environment.

I've learned to avoid most noisy clubs because I'm just not comfortable in them, but if I find myself in one, I just do what I do. Playing louder usually makes things worse, so I'll typically do a quiet tune instead. Sometimes you just have to accept that it comes with the turf. I've never asked an audience to quiet down while I'm playing and never will though I might say something if someone else is playing.  It's always nice to play for an attentive audience, but if you can connect with a rowdy crowd it can be more fun. People around here are great, but I've played some "folk" venues where you could choke on the seriousness of the audience.

Speaking of Asbury Park, I personally believe "Memorial Drive" is one of the best songs ever written about the town. I love how you tie the past, the present, and the future together within the song through tales of Joe Harvard and the redevelopment.  When did you first go to Asbury Park and what brought you there?
I think I was 11 years old the first time I saw Asbury Park. This would have been around 1958 or so. We were living in a small town up north, and in the summer, I'd spend a few days with my grandmother in Newark. She hated kids; always burned the toast and once gave me a Scotch Tape dispenser for my birthday. On the other hand, she let me watch TV as late as I wanted, as long as I kept the volume down and promised she would take me to "The Shore".

Next day we got on a bus that finally dropped us off between The Palace and the carousel in Asbury. It was the kind of bright summer day you can only experience as an 11 year old - sounds from everywhere, the Ferris wheel coming through the roof of The Palace, paddle boats on the lake, kids laughing and screaming all in one breath, all mixed with the smell of food, suntan lotion, sand and ocean. Of course, there was a dark side to all this, but when you're a kid, you don't think about those things. Two years later, my family moved to South Jersey and I've lived around here ever since, always in small coastal towns.

When the riots hit on July 4th of 1970, I had just gotten out of the Coast Guard. My wife Brenda and I had been married for about a year and were still living in a small apartment in Highlands, I think. Most of my knowledge about the trouble in Asbury came from the radio, TV and newspapers. The place itself was locked down pretty tight with curfews and roadblocks. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious that this was a long time coming and could have been avoided, not through concessions but by a policy of inclusion for all citizens. As it turned out, promises were made and minimally kept. And Railroad Avenue was renamed Memorial Drive.

Joe Harvard made his way into the song "Memorial Drive" because I was working on it at the time he ran into trouble. He's never specifically mentioned in the song, and my intention was to keep his identity vague, while focusing on the event itself. I guess that didn't work out too well although anyone from outside the area won't have a clue as to whom I'm talking about. I love and respect Joe, and sincerely hope he'd tell me if he had a problem with it.

My connection to Joe, Mal and The Long Weekend is strictly as a fan and observer, though I wish I could make myself get up and join them. To my mind they run the best ongoing show in town and should be supported by listeners and musicians alike. Joe himself is brilliant, and I don't use that term lightly. He's also irreverent and fearless; two traits, that when combined, tend to get him in a lot of trouble. It's ironic because those are exactly the things that rock and roll was founded on. For anyone not aware of it, The Long Weekend takes place every Monday night in the Parthenon Lounge at Synaxis on Cookman Avenue.

One of your songs - "Eisenhower Summer, 1952" - was included in Sing Out Magazine. Was that something that came out of nowhere for you?  Did that sort of stamp authenticity in the industry for you?
That was kind of a nice surprise. They were looking for songs, heard mine and got in touch with me. It was cool. I was on their CD and in the magazine, along with their take on the song. They saw it as a piece of nostalgia and pretty much ignored the dark side of it. To me it was always about the girl in the first and last verses. I got $50 and a year subscription.

I think "The Last Good Kiss" is simply one of the two best love songs written by a Jersey artist in my humble opinion (Glen Burtnick's "Perfect World" is the other).  Your songs really bring the listener into the characters and the story. The characters live and breathe and are easy to picture. Are songs like this usually based on your life or solely fiction?
Thanks for saying that about "The Last Good Kiss". It was really special having Amanda Shires play fiddle on that tune and "In Your Arms". I should also mention the wonderful Abbie Gardner, who added dobro, vocal and lap steel on two tracks and my good friend Jim McCarthy who played on Janey Todd's "Dreamland".  And, of course, thanks to Janey for letting me do her tune and for singing on the record.

The first record, "Lights of Brigantine", was largely autobiographical. On the new one, I tried to take a step outside of that. That's where "The Last Good Kiss" came from, as well as other songs on the record. I wouldn't call any of these songs purely fiction, though. The characters and situations in the songs are very real, all drawn from the lives of people I know or have known. I'm not the guy in "The Last Good Kiss", "Great Wide Blue" or "Power Lines", but I very easily could have been. I think it's important on any song to not make it too specific and not focus too much on yourself. I try to leave room for the listener to fill in the blanks and make the song his own. Even on songs that are autobiographical and told in first person, I do my best to tell the story in a way that the listener can relate to.

I don't know the right or wrong way to do any of this stuff and if anyone's looking for songwriting tips, I'm flattered, but I'm not your guy. There are plenty of writers out there who would be more than happy to pass along suggestions. I just do what I do, which is basically tell a story within a simple framework of chords and mood. Everything else comes out of that. There's always a point of view in these songs, but it's never expressed as "Here's what I think" or "Here's what you should do". I'm not interested in that kind of song; not as listener and not as a writer. Life is complicated, life is messy, and personally, I'm suspicious of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

One thing I find interesting about your songs is that you are one of the few artists (locally and nationally) that isn't afraid to include religion in your lyrics.  Is this something that comes naturally to you or does religion pose somewhat of a block for songwriters?
Well, if I'm working on a song, I never think, "Oh, this would be a great place for a religious reference".  It just happens. I didn't really think about it and never kept score, but I guess there are quite a few on the records, though I haven't been to church for a Sunday service since I was a kid. I'm certainly not afraid of the subject, and looking over the new record I see that at least half of the songs have at least one religious reference. The album has it's light spots, but overall, it's pretty dark. Many of the songs are about loss, bad choices, conflicts and regrets. The Bible is pretty much a textbook on those themes, and I suspect that's where the religious overtones come from.

Tell me about how Brenda has influenced your career.  You two have become one of the most recognizable couples in the area.  How has that support kept you going? Influenced you?
Well, first off, thanks for referring to what I do as a "career". <smile>  If Bren and I are recognizable, it's probably because we've been together so long. We met when we were kids and have been married for over 41 years. Before I started playing out regularly, I was pretty much known as "Brenda's husband".  Now, she'll sometimes meet someone new and they'll say, "Oh, you're George's wife.", which is pretty funny. I have no idea where I'd be without her. Nowhere good, I'm sure.

Well your "career" has led to several Asbury Music Award and Jersey Acoustic Music (JAM) Awards and nominations. How important is it to be recognized for your work?
You have to keep these things in perspective and not take them too seriously, but I confess it's nice to be recognized for something you've done. I see these events as celebrations of local music and performers rather than typical "Best Of" award shows. They're good for the town, the venues and the artists, and are usually a lot of fun. As for gaining mainstream recognition, I'm not even sure what that means anymore. I do know you can live a perfectly good life without it.

Finally, you've seen an awful lot of what goes on in the Asbury Music Scene over the past few years.  Drawing a broad stroke, what do you think of the talent in the area? Are there too many egos running around or do you think you'd find that anywhere?
As I said earlier, Asbury has always been a great music town, and even though there are fewer venues than in the past, it still is. That's one reason musicians in the surrounding areas are drawn to it. Anyone who get's onstage to perform is going to have a decent-sized ego; that's just a given. It's how they behave offstage that's most revealing. There may be one or two people I'd rather not perform with, but that's probably as much my problem as theirs. I find most folks around here are great and a pleasure to be around.

What do you think the Asbury Park music scene needs to do to really become a force nationwide rather than just locally?
Frankly, I'm not sure how important it is for Asbury to make an effort to become a national force in the music business. The whole business model is changing daily, and if you try to keep up, you'll find yourself chasing a lot of ghosts. These "hot spots" come and go, and Asbury's had at least one good shot at it. It's both ironic and disheartening that often an artist's local success is measured by how fast they can get out of town, but that's the nature of the beast. I understand it.... a lot of kids here dream of becoming successful on a national scale. That's always been the case, and if I were a young man, I'd probably be the same way. Right now, I'm way past that stage. I think I may have one more record in me, but other than that I'll just keep writing and playing as long as folks show up.