The Happy Rhodes Interview

Homeground (The Kate Bush Fanzine) #48, Summer '93 and #50, Christmas '93

The following is part one of the Ecto/Homeground interview with Happy Rhodes, an American singer and songwriter of ethereal, strange and intriguing songs, who has often been compared to Kate.

Jeff Abbott: Is Happy your real name, or a family nickname?

The story of how I got my name has varied over the years. I've told different people different stories because some folks just don't want to accept my truth. I was born at Vassar Hospital in Poughkeepsie, NY. I was named Kimberley Tyler Rhodes. "Kimberley" after the Kimberley Diamond Mines that Cecil Rhodes discovered, and "Tyler" after Mary Tyler Moore, who was a good friend of my mother's when she was dancing with the New York City Ballet Company. However, the first time my brothers saw me, when I was a day or two old and still in the hospital, my brother Mark could not pronounce the name "Kimberley," and I was an especially happy baby, so he decided it would be easier to call me "Happy." From that moment on, my family members never used the name Kimberley. I was forced, however, to use my given name while attending school. As soon as I turned sixteen, my name was legally changed to Happy Tyler Rhodes. As far as I'm concerned, it's the ony name I've ever had. When people ask me if it's my real name, I always say "yes."

David N. Blank: What are your influences and favourite artists?

The biggest influence in my life was my father. Unfortunately, I had to grow up without my mother, but she had a good deal of influence on me when I got older. My father was a painter. He taught me what creativity was. He also had an intense love of music. He showed me respect for all life forms and he inspired me to dream big. My favourite artists are, in no particular order, Jon Anderson and Yes, Queen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Bryan Ferry, and more recently Martin Swan of Mouth Music. There are more, but these are the people whose albums I would run out to buy.

Jorn Barger: Happy, your melodies and harmonies so often seem to have come straight down from heaven. Do you hear music in your head all the time? How do you keep from losing your best ideas, if you don't read music? Have you gotten any of your melodies from dreams?

Thank you, Jorn. I heard the violin line from "Lay Me Down" in my head days before I wrote the song, but usually the music comes precisely at the time when I'm ready for it (when I'm sitting at the keyboard or with the guitar). I like to think that if an idea is lost, then it wasn't destined to be my best. I don't recall getting any of my melodies from dreams, but then, recall is the operative word here.

David N. Blank: Have you considered covering some of Kate's stuff? How do you feel about the constant comparison on your voice and hers?

I'm not convinced that Kate's material would even be interesting if someone else were to sing it. Her material stands fine on its own, of course, but it just wouldn't be you agree? I think someone should ask Kate how she feels to have my voice compared to hers. That would be interesting! I personally would much rather be compared to Kate than, say, Belinda Carlisle.

Kristin Hargie: All of your songs seems to be partly if not wholly autobiographical. Did you think in your childhood that you could create such emotion-laden songs with a power that can strike a deep chord in those who listen?

Certainly not. All I knew as a child was that I wanted to be respected. I knew I wanted to be a performer, but the notion of music didn't come until later. I'm thrilled that people can get something out of my music. I have to attribute that to integrity and honesty. I've found that people aren't really as different as they sometimes seem. We all have joy and tragedy in our lives. So it only follows that if I write something from my heart and stay true to myself, others will easily identify.

Do you write your songs as a kind of catharsis of the past so as to say 'hey, this is where I've been, look at me now'? Or do you write them to maybe let people that didn't go through the same types of experiences know what another person's world is like?

I don't think an artist ever creates anything with an ulterior motive. The point is usually to filter whatever you're feeling through your craft. It is, then, a catharsis, but not necessarily intended for anyone but least initially.

I know that I have very powerful dreams that sometimes cloud my vision of reality, i.e., I occasionally confuse the dream world with the real world--is this something that you are trying to illustrate in "Dreams Are" it something that happens to you?

In "Dreams Are" I'm speaking of my aspirations more than my literal dreams. We live in a nation where children are encouraged to shoot for careers that offer "stability." I've known a lot of people who wound up becoming doctors and accountants, when all they ever really wanted to be was a pilot or a dancer. I decided at a young age that my dreams (aspirations) would be my reality. You're talking about something completely different, and certainly no less interesting. Maybe you're not "confusing" anthing, Kiri.

Do your songs hold any personal statements against society besides being against the constrictions of the societal norm? Do you blame society for the inherent evil (if you believe in that kind of evil) in the world?

I'm sure I'll always be writing songs dealing with my distaste for the standards society has set. Truly, the only judgment I have is for people who don't think things through on their own. As long as we're all willing to take at face value everthing our government officials and advertisers have to say, then there's going to be injustice, insecurity, greed and "evil." I'll always have faith that one day people will give up their places in the comfort zone of apathy and go out and make change. I admire the folks who are already out there.

Did you ever want to be a teacher?

Yup. Teachers are very similar to artists and politicians. We all delude outselves into thinking we have something important to say and a new twist on how to say it.

Your songs often pack a lot of fascinating, mystical, spooky material into a four or so minute packaage of brilliance. Do you purposefully write with the intention of capturing the attention of those people that share a kindred spirit? Are you trying to teach those "normal" people something out of the ordinary--i.e. to appreciate what's odd in the world?

I think I'm merely provoking thought. Granted, some people don't want to think when they're listening to music. They're the ones who are out there buying up all of the Paula Abdul albums.

Gregory Bossert: What instruments do you play? Have you had any formal training on any of them? What instrument(s) would you like to learn how to play?

The instrument I'm most proficient on is acoustic guitar, but I will also play keyboards, bass, percussion and anything else if there isn't someone else available to do it. I've had no formal musical training to speak of. I'm sure eventually I'll try out a wind instrument and maybe cello. No small challenge.

How long have you been singing (professionally and otherwise)? Whwat is your range? Many of your songs feature complex overdubbed vocal do you come up with these arrangements? If you could sing with anyone, who would it be?

I probably started singing because of Bach. When I was little, my father used to play a particular J.S. Bach album quite often. It was a challenge for me to try to sing along with all of the notes I was hearing. Later on, at around age 13 or so, I started experimenting with vibrato. My professional singing career began with my first album. I honestly don't know what my range is. If I had been formally trained in music, I'm sure that would be different. I treat all of my backing vocals as I would instruments. If an arrangement needs something, more often than not, I'll use my voice to fill the void. Given my admiration for certain vocalists, I'd probably feel inadequately equipped to sting with anyone of stature, but my choices would be Sting, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson or maybe Roger Taylor of Queen.

How do you write songs? Do you sit down with a guitar or at a keyboard or just walk around humming? Do you come up with words or music first? Do you find writing songs easy or difficult? How many songs have you written, and how many have not been released?

Sometimes I have a "feel" in my head. Just as The Rhythm of the Heat by Peter Gabriel has a "feel." That's what I try to capture when I sit down at the keyboard (rarely guitar anymore). Other than that, I usually don't have any idea what song is destined to be. It just happens. I write the music first most of the time, and get it onto tape. Then I listen. More often than not the subject matter and subsequent lyrics just pop into my head. I guess whatever the music makes me feel dictates what the song will be about. It's effortless for me to write music, but not always so to actualize it. I've probably written close to 100 songs, 88 of which have been recorded. There are 23 songs in existence that were recorded, but never realized. And for very good reasons.

Your arrangements tend to mix elements from many musical styles (you've been compated to everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell to the Legendary Pink Dots)--how do you decide which instruments and sounds to use for a particular song? Do you develop your own synthesizer sounds? Do you spend a lot of time working onthe sounds and effects while recording, or do you concentrate more on the performances?

I don't spend hours looking for just the right sound. My main goal, initially, is to get the parts down and worry about the sounds later. I usually can just tell what instrument will be most complimentary in a certain part, and get as close to it as I can. Later, when co-producer Kevin Bartlett and I get together to polish the songs, we take more time getting the perfect sounds. He's more meticulous when it comes to osunds and instrumentation, so I'm lucky to be working with him. Kevin and I both like to develop our own sounds. We have keyboards that have incredible factory presets and we like to take advantage of them, but a lot of them have been overused in recordings, so it benefits us to make our own. When I was recording the material for my first four albums, it wasn't apparrent that other people would be hearing them. I cared more about the performance aspect. On Warpaint, however, Kevin and I took great care in selecting sounds and effects. I personally spent hours getting the right effects for all of my different voices. This is rather new for me and it's a continual learning process.

The following is the final part of the Ecto/Homeground interview with Happy Rhodes...

Gregory Bossert: How do yo go about recording your music? How much work do you do at home? When you work with other musicians do you write out parts for them, or is it more of a collaborative effort?

The bulk of the work is done at home. I write and structure the song, and get it as close to completion as I can. Then Kevin steps in and together we go over the song with a fine-toothed comb. He adds whatever he thinks is missing and polishes up the tracks I've already laid down. We then take the computer and keyboards to the other studio and lay the tracks down onto tape straight from the computer. Next, we do any live overdubs that are necessary. No one ever knows what the vocals will be like until I do them, including myself sometimes. They're the last thing to go down on tape before we mix. My experience with other musicians is limited thus far. If I have specific lines for someone to play, I'll put it on tape for them to learn. Usually, however, a person has a lot of room to play whatever they feel. If I confine a player to a specific part, it's usually just one particular melody line that only happens occasionally in the song.

The production on Warpaint is much more complex than on your past albums. Did the extra resources (musicians, or better equipment or editing) change the way you wrote and arranged the songs? Will your (many!) future albums continue to grow more elaborate production-wise? Do you enjoy playing with musicla gadgets and technology?

I think having access to better equipment allowed me to do the things I'd always wanted to do on the previous four albums. My writing didn't necessarily change, though. When I did the earlier albums, I only owned one keyboard and a guitar. That meant that I'd be forced to stop at a certain point in the orchestration, whether I wanted to or not. My songs never turned out the way I knew they could sound. This was an endless source of frustration for me. I was being categorized as "folk" because of the acoustic guitar and overall sparse arrangements. I always knew that I was a s far from "folk" as a person could be. I suppose more elaborately produced albums will be a natural progression for me, but certainly not a goal. The musical content is still the most important factor. I don't get all goofy over new and upcoming technical gadgets. If you put one in my hands, chances are I'll enjoy using it. I'm not afraid of modern technology, and seem to have adequate user skills, but you won't hear me talking about the latest equipment at parties, and you won't see me in the music store every week, looking for new stuff to trade my week-old keyboards in for.

Klaus Kluge: Do you like to read, and what are you reading now? Favourite authors? Books? "Phobos" and "Wrong Century" gave me the impression that you're into reading Sci Fi.

I do like to read science fiction. In fact, I read little else. I'm currently reading two books: "Journeys Out of the Body" by Robert Monroe (not Sci Fi, but as close to it as you can get) and the other is "My Father Immortal" by Michael Weaver. I don't think I'm well enough read to actually have favourite authors yet, although Frank Herbert never disappointed me. My favourite books are not science fiction, but most people would consider them to be.

If everything works out, you should soon be painting your first book cover, a science fiction novel. How did that come about and what are your thoughts about getting into this new venture?

This came about when Michael Weaver asked me if I'd be interested in doing the cover for his next book. He liked what he had seen of my work. I was flattered and not altogether sure if I could do it. I don't actually think I have any place doing the cover art of a published Sci Fi novel. There are so many brilliant artists out there who are more capable of the task than I am. I had considered it as a career at one point in my life, but music seems to be the dominant force at play here. If the Art Department at Avon Publishing House approves me, It will be an exciting challenge and I'll do my best, but it probably won't become a habit.

Gregory Bossert: Are there more monster paintings? When did you start painting? What is your favourite medium to work in? Do you like painting and drawing as much as writing music?

There are other gruesome looking critters lurking around the premises here. I started painting when I was about 14. My father was the catalyst. The reason I started painting monsters was because I didn't have to follow any rules, such as anatomical proportion. I always hated rules in art. I don't exclusively paint monsters anymore, but I'll never do a landscape. I prefer to use oils, but acrylics have their advantages sometimes. I love to create with a canvas, but honestly, a painting has never evoked the king of feelings in me that music can.

Klaus Kluge: Were you inspired by the paintings of H.R. Giger?

Indeed. Not only that, but two of my favourite movies are Alien and Aliens.

David N. Blank: What were your SAT scores? Tell us about your schooling.

I left school when I was 16, at the start of eleventh grade. I never took my SATs. I left because it was the right thing for me to do at the time. I was very unpopular in school, and I had my sights set on music. I got my GED the following year, in case I ever decided to torture myself with those kinds of social pressures again and go to college. I'm not ashamed of my limited education...and I don't think it afekted my abilaty too cumunikayt at al.

Gregory Bossert: What kind of equipment do you and Kevin use?

A tech question? Okay, in our home studio, we use a Korg M1, Korg T3, Korg DW-8000 (no, Korg isn't paying us), Juno 106 (analog lives still), a Roland Octapad 2, occasionally we dust off the sequential Circuits Six-Traks and Tom Drum machine and the Oberheim Cyclone. We have an Amiga computer and the sequencer we use is Dr. T's KCS V3.5. We have two Alesis Quadraverbs for effects and a Soundcraft 200SR mixer. I didnt' include the noise reduction units or tape decks...that might get boring. When we go to the other studio to do the actual recording, there's more equipment involved.

Klaus Kluge: Which of your own albums do you like best? I know that many artists will always point to the latest release for promotional reasons. Not that I think that you are one of them, but I'm also more interested to get your answer from a different point of view. Try to answer it not from the artist's view, but through the eyes and ears of Happy, the music lover. Which of your albums would you like most if they were by somebody else (a strange question, I know)? Can you take that remote viewpoint?

I've always said that if I were hearing Happy Rhodes for the first time, and the album was Rhodes I or II, I wouldn't pay much attention to it. The same really goes for Rearmament and Ecto. There are qualities that I would appreciate, but none of those albums would ever be enough to capture me. I don't mean that to be self-effacing. I just know that the qualities I look for in other artists are not present in my first four albums. Warpaint, on the other hand, harbours a few of those qualities, so it's the obvious choice to date.

Just a last minute answer to Martin's question: Being too aware of other people's opinions of one's music could have an effect on how one writes in the future. However, I'd liek to think I'm smart enough to know that I'll never please everyone. The only logical thing to do is please myself, and hope for the best. Well, that's all folks...It's been great fun and I thank you for your support. It's meant the world to me.

© 1997

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