On Friday, Jeff Slate, an ASCAP award winning NYC-based singer-songwriter and music journalist who contributes to Esquire, Rolling Stone and a host of other publications on music, culture and, most notably, Bob Dylan, will release his third solo album, Secret Poetry.
Slate, who founded and fronted the band The Badge in 1997, has worked with The Who’s Pete Townshend, was the support act on Sheryl Crow’s first major tour, and whose music has appeared in films and TV shows, also performed a well-regarded version of Dylan’s “If Not For You” on the BBC.
But Secret Poetry is notable for the all-star cast Slate has assembled. In addition to his regular live band – Jimmy McElligott on guitar, Rick Mullen on bass, Charly Roth on keyboards, and drummer Steve Holley – Secret Poetry features such guest artists Holley’s former bandmate in Paul McCartney’s Wings, Laurence Juber, Adam Ippolito and Gary Van Scyoc from Elephant’s Memory (who backed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the early 1970s), and various David Bowie alumni, including guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar (both of whom also played with Lennon), Mark Plati, Alex Alexander, and Gail Ann Dorsey.
“I sought out everyone who contributed to the record because I knew they had something very special to offer,” Slate told me. “People like Earl Slick, Steve Holley and Carlos Alomar — and everyone else on the record, for that matter — elevate the song above everything else, and what they bring to any session is priceless. The songs were the songs, but they make something that’s good when it’s just acoustic guitar and voice into something great when it’s finished. They’re also really great, egoless people.”
Another connection to Lennon and McCartney was a piece of music that was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios. “Well, only the piano on one track (‘Exile’) was recorded there,” Slate confessed. “Back in the ‘90s I had a friend who worked there and he snuck me in just to fool around, really. I had the beginnings of the song and so he sat me down at a piano and Studio 3 – where The Beatles did some work, but where Pink Floyd recorded it’s seminal albums – and let me just play. When we got close to the end of the hour or so that we had he gave me a click track and recorded what I was doing. The engineer gave me a DAT tape — that’s how long ago it was — at the end of the session and that’s what we used as the basis of the basic track when it came time to record the song. For any of the musicians who have worked there, as soon as I played them the track they knew it was from Abbey Road.”
Slate produced Secret Poetry, and the album recalls different eras, including mid-60’s garage-pop, early 70’s confessional songwriter, and late 70’s new wave, yet it all sounds fresh.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Slate said. “I think even as early as the ‘80s, when my first band the Mindless Thinkers made an album, I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to sound, and I don’t think that’s changed all that much over the years. It’s fine to dip your toe in different waters as a creative person, and I do it all the time, but ultimately, if what your doing is authentic, you always end up sounding like you in the end. I’m certainly a product of The Beatles and the Small Faces and The Who and The Jam, as well as Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and all of the other artists that I grew up with and who have inspired me over the years, including any number of soul and R&B artists. Over time, the blend of who you love and who inspires you seeps into who you are, I think. But I’m always honored when people come up to me and say they hear any of those artists, or any music that they love, really, in what I do.”
David Bowie died near the end of the Secret Poetry sessions, and there were artists on the album – Slick, Alomar, Plati, Alexander, and Dorsey – who collaborated with the Thin White Duke at various times over his career. “Well, the sessions for the album were pretty complete (by then), so I wasn’t trying to pay direct tribute to him in any way,” Slate explained. “But it became that, in a way, once he was gone and I realized how connected this album was to his legacy, at least on that level.
“I don’t think it sounds like David – in fact, my reference was more music he produced, like Iggy Pop’s early solo records – but his legacy looms large over anyone who is a fan or student of his music. There are very few singular artists like David Bowie who come along and reshape the way we think and feel and, especially, listen. So I’m honored that so many of the people close to him helped me with this record, and I’m glad that it’s become my way of saying ‘Thank you and goodbye’ to a man who was so significant to me as a young kid growing up and just finding my way as a musician.”
In additional to his regular live shows, Slate often performs tribute concerts focusing on one artist for the evening, including Lennon, Bowie, Dylan, Petty, and the Traveling Wilburys.
“You always learn a lot about an artist when you perform their music,” Slate said, “especially because we don’t do note for note recreations of any artists music, but instead we try to honor it by finding our own way into it and making it our own. As a performer, that’s the only way I’d ever attempt any of the music we play. The easiest example is Bob Dylan. In many ways Bob is unknowable, and I love him for that. But every time I come to learn a new Dylan song – not just to play it for myself, but to perform it onstage and really get inside the song – I find I learn a little bit more about Bob. Just learning the words isn’t what it’s about. People always say Bob’s lyrics are hard to follow, or random, or whatever, but I always find that there’s actually an easy-to-follow story once you get right down to the basics of having to perform one of his songs. And that makes them actually very easy to remember, even though most people think learning Dylan’s lyrics is probably impossible.
“Also, performing great songs makes you reassess your own material as a songwriter. It will inspire me to rearrange songs, sometimes, or even drop songs. But it also pushes me to be better in everything I do, to do justice to the original songs as well as to give the audience something worth spending their time and money on.”
Slate generously offered the exclusive premiere of “Letter From Paris (Showed Me The Way),” a selection from Secret Poetry, to be included in this article.
“The song is a great example of the collaborative process,” Slate said. “I began ‘Letter from Paris,’ not surprisingly, while on tour in Paris. I’d demoed it a few times, but it never really seemed to capture the song. I knew there was a good song there, somewhere, but it wasn’t until I got in the studio with Steve Holley, to lay the basic track down, that it started to fall together. Then Earl Slick came along and added that riff — which reminds me of so many of his signature riffs, but especially the one he played on Bowie’s ‘Valentine’s Day’ from The Next Day — that the song really came together and felt complete. I don’t think I could have realized the potential of the song on my own, so what Steve and Slick — and Jimmy McElligott, Charly Roth, Adam Ippolito and Gary Van Scyoc, too — added was really priceless.”
Like most artists, while Slate is promoting his new album, he’s already thinking about the future. “I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about this record, and I hope people find the time to listen, which is hard in this day and age. And we’re already playing shows in support of it. We’ll be doing a lot of shows this summer, with a bunch in celebration of Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday, too.
“But, believe it or not, I’m already thinking about the next album and I’ve already written a load of songs for it. I know artists always say that, but it’s true. It’s funny that the process of making a record and delivering it to the public takes so long that by the time it’s out as a songwriter you’re almost always on to the your next challenge.”
For tour dates and merchandise, check out Jeff Slate’s official website.
Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the byteclay.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news – David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.”(Simon & Schuster, 2014)
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