Written by: Alex Green
Jimmer Podrasky is one of the most important American songwriters of the last 30 years.
The only problem is, he’s been gone for about 23 of them.
After Podrasky and his bandmates in The Rave-Ups bid farewell to Epic Records, the singer decided that living the rock and roll lifestyle was not the best way for a father to raise his son. He could have toured the country and made more albums with his band, but wishing his son a happy birthday while standing in a phone booth in Iowa suddenly seemed like a really bad idea.
So Podrasky walked away.
He put down his guitar, left his band and settled into domesticity as a single father in L.A. whose sole purpose was to take care of his son.
Now that Chance Podrasky is a grown man, Jimmer has stepped gracefully forward from the shadows and turned in one of the year’s finest albums. Not missing a beat from The Rave-Ups’ last record–1990’s masterful Chance–Podrasky’s first solo album The Would-Be Plans is a virtual songwriting clinic. From the gut-wrenching irony of “Empty” to the glorious pop wonder of “She Has Good Records,” Podrasky sounds invigorated and as potent as ever. With a few players on loan from Dwight Yoakam’s band backing him, as well as Rami Jaffe and Marty Rifkin in tow, Podrasky effortlessly reasserts himself as one of the greatest songwriters currently roaming this planet.
Jimmer sits down for a chat with Stereo Embers about his new album, where he’s been all these years and why the Ramones still sound so great…
Stereo Embers: First of all, welcome back!
Jimmer Podrasky: Well, thanks for the welcome back but I haven’t been “gone” really–I’ve pretty much been hiding in plain sight for 23 years, just not exactly visible in the big ol’ music world. Who knew there were other things outside the cutthroat, ego-driven, music industry? Actually, I’ve been raising a son (Chance–who’s now a grown man of 25) while growing up and older myself. And, like everyone else, watching the world change (and even self-destruct). Jesus, I think two different “named” generations have been born since I last put out a record. I’m apparently a far more patient man than I thought I was–or maybe it’s just that I’m older now.
SE: How did you keep up your chops?
JP: I never stopped writing songs even though I’d basically stopped performing and recording. To me, it’s always been about the song–so long as I still have a guitar to write with, I’m a happy camper. My very limited singing range hasn’t changed much since I was young–so when it came time to record this album, my voice hadn’t been blown-out by years and years of abuse on the road. That’s why at 56, I still pretty much sound the way I did when I was 26. It’s my voice and I’m stuck with it
SE: This record sounds like the natural follow-up to Chance–how did you pull that off after 23 years on the sidelines?
JP: Chance may have been the last official record I released with The Rave-Ups, but I see this new album as more of a follow-up to 1985’s Town + Country, blurring the lines between urban and rural sounds. Hell, it blurs the lines between good and bad, between black and white, between blood and water. I think with Chance, I was desperately trying to please the good folks at Epic Records, which is something no songwriter should ever do. Town + Country was the album in which I found my voice, both musically and lyrically–I wasn’t attempting to “please” any powers-that-be. The Would-Be Plans is me finding my voice again, and I had a lot of help from others in finding it. I owe everything to those “others.”
SE: Were there moments where you missed making music?
JP: I was making and writing music all along–I just wasn’t sharing it too much with others. My focus for the last few decades has been on my son–in fact, Chance is a pretty damn good guitar player, so there were certainly times that I combined my two great loves by sitting around the living room and playing music with Chance. When I walked away from The Rave-Ups all those years ago, it wasn’t due to the normal band break-up shit (artistic differences/drug abuse/etc.) My son needed a father more than the world needed another singer/songwriter. It was as simple as that.
SE: I know that sounds like a silly question, but did you ever hear a song on the radio or at the end of a movie and find yourself thinking, “I could do better than that…” ?
JP: I never thought to myself “I could do better than that” but it did cross my mind that “I HAVE done better than that” and the world just wasn’t listening at the time. Music is no different than life in general–it’s all about timing. The great thing about songs is that they exist forever and, if they’re really good songs, they’re timeless. Fuck financial success–the important thing about a song is that it connects with human beings. Almost every song I’ve ever written has been a personal letter of sorts to a friend, loved one or ex and I just let anyone who wanted to read it. I don’t like to compare art or artists and I sure as hell never see it as a competition. I always hear people say that The Rave-Ups were ahead of their time and it makes me laugh–we sure weren’t trying to be trailblazers, we were just trying to be good.And we were. In the end, that’s all that really matters.
SE: You’ve always been such a wise writer–how do you compare your wisdom now? Are you a better version of yourself?
JP: I’ve been through the ringer in the last five years or so and I’m very lucky to still be alive. Without some wonderful friends (both old and new) I probably wouldn’t be here, and that’s not a dramatic exaggeration. The one profound change that has occurred as I’ve gotten older is that I’m a far more patient man than I was when I was younger. Maybe it’s the years of single-parenting. Maybe it’s simply the fact that I’ve loved and lost enough at this point to put the big things (and little things ) in life in perspective. Am I a wiser man now because of it? Probably a little. Am I a better version of myself now? I think so…but I’ll let this new album answer that question for me.
SE: Let’s talk about the album title–it’s classic Jimmer humor…Podraskyian, if I may! What I mean is that it’s wordplay whose subtext is both clever, but sorrowful at the same time. Why did you decide on this title and what does it say about the songs therein?
JP: I’m not sure what classic Jimmer humor is. I guess Podraskyian is either cleverly sorrowful or sorrowfully clever, depending on the song and the time of day you hear it. The whole worldplay thing is what attracted me to songwriting in the first place–I was working it into those Rave-Ups songs from the very start. But subtext doesn’t work well in a rock’n’roll band and I think a lot of my “cleverly sorrowful” wordplay fell on deaf ears. On this album, the song was king. Not me. Not even the amazing band. It wasn’t my singing…I have a voice only a mother could love. And it wasn’t my guitar or harmonica playing. It was all about the songs–they were, in a sense, the would-be plans, waiting to be carried out. When it came to giving the record a title, I tossed out dozens of sorrowfully clever ones to Mitch and Ed. The Would-Be Plans was the one that seemed most fitting to the three of us…or maybe I just got tired of defending the dozens of other possibilities. In hindsight, I think it was always meant to be The Would-Be Plans.
SE: What I love about this record is that it plays the way a record should–with cohesion. The opener feels like an opener and the closer feels like a closer–not an easy feat or one that bands seem to pay attention to these days. Was the sequencing tough or did it happen organically?
JP: It was Mitch’s plan all along to make an “album”…something that you can put on and let play and each song stands on its own while somehow connecting to the whole. Not a “concept” album, but a collection of songs that represents something bigger than the sum of its parts. I remember us standing outside his rehearsal space and him talking about making an old-fashioned “album.” I knew right then that he was the producer for me– he was fearless, funny, smart and completely-driven. Plus, he’s a helluva musician. I wanted “Empty” to be the opening track (what with the opening snare hit reminiscent of “Like A Rolling Stone”) but Mitch knew better. “The Far Left Side Of You” isn’t the strongest song on the record but it’s a perfect opener because it has bits of everything in it…you hear little parts of what’s in store on the rest of the album. Sequencing was easier than I thought it would be because the songs simply fell into their respective placess
SE: “She Has Good Records” is a personal favorite–what can you tell us about that number?
JP: That song was written in 1979, in the very early days of the Pittsburgh version of The Rave-Ups.In those days, it was played faster and (since I could barely play three chords) and came out more like a lost Ramones tune. I tried recording it various times over the last thirtysome years but it never really gelled. I guess I’ve been keeping it in my back pocket all these years, hoping that one day I’d do it justice as a pop song. It really is one of the slightest and silliest songs I’ve ever written, but it has a undeniable hook that makes me (and hopefully others) smile. It was Mitch’s idea to put a string arrangement on it–once again, he was right on the money. There really was a “she” who was the inspiration for the song–this girl had the best collection of punk/new wave music I’d ever seen. But in reality, the “she” at the center of the song isn’t a real person–it’s the music industry as a collective whole. How many times has a band or artist heard from record company geeks who say “just play us the hits?” It’s a pop song about writing a pop song.
SE: I know you have your roots in punk rock and you just mentioned The Ramones–do you still listen to them?
JP: The Rave-Ups started out as a punk band, so to speak. But the punk moniker had more to do with our amateurish playing and simple songs than it did with any artistic aesthetic. As I learned more about music, I was able to bring to the table all of the other kinds of music that I loved–blues, country, folk, rockabilly, even Southern rock’n’roll. And yes, I still listen to the Ramones and I still feel that same rush of boundless joy and inexplicable energy that I felt the very first time I heard them at a house party at Carnegie-Mellon. No guitar solos, no lush harmonies–but they still touched on everything from garage rock to early 60’s girl groups to the Beach Boys, all in their own unmistakable way. It was (and still is) pretty damn great. More importantly, it inspired me to embrace all the kinds of music I liked as a kid and to incorporate them into my own songs.
SE: Please tell me we won’t have to wait another 23 years for the next record!!
JP: Well, I’d be 79 by then, so let’s hope that’s not the case. Maybe 23 months, not 23 years. In fact, 23 weeks would be even better! But the only way Mitch and I can do it all again is if folks embrace this new album and we can make enough money to do another one. That’s the whole idea. There’s enough material for at least three more records–but we have to sell this one first. Here’s hoping we talk about another record in 23 weeks!
You can buy The Would-Be Plans here: