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A lot of this album feels like a Chess record from the fifties. Did you have that sound in your head going in or did it come up as you played?
Well some of the things do have that feel. It’s mostly in the way the instruments were played.
You like that sound?
Oh yeah, very much so. . . the old Chess records, the Sun records. . . I think that’s my favorite sound for a record.
What do you like about that sound?
I like the mood of those records - the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There’s power and suspense. The whole vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It’s alive. It’s right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache
Do you think the Chess brothers knew what they were doing?
Oh sure, how could they not? I don’t think they thought they were making history though.
Did you ever meet Howlin’ Wolf? Muddy Waters?
I saw Wolf perform a few times but never met him. Muddy I knew a little bit.
I suspect that a lot of men will identify with MY WIFE’S HOME TOWN. Do you ever get in hot water with your in-laws over your songs?
No not really. The only person it could matter to gets a kick out of it. That song is meant as a compliment anyhow.
Do relatives come up to you at cookouts and ask when you’re going to write a song for THEM?
Oh yeah, one of my uncles’ wives used to pester me all the time, “Bobby, when are you gonna write a song about me … put me on the radio?” It would make me uncomfortable.
How would you get out of it?
I’d say, "I already did Auntie. You’re just not listening to the right stations."
Do you have a picture in your head of where these songs take place? Where is the guy in LIFE IS HARD standing when he sings that song?
Well the movie’s kind of a road trip from Kansas City to New Orleans. The guy’s probably standing along the way somewhere.
Right, you mentioned something about that before. How did you get involved?
The French director, Olivier Dahan, approached me about composing some songs for a film he was writing and directing.
When was that?
I can’t remember exactly, it was sometime last year.
What did you find intriguing about that? You must get approached for movie songs all the time.
I had seen one of his other movies, the one about the singer Edith Piaf, and I liked it.
What’s this new one about?
It’s kind of a journey. . . a journey of self discovery. . . takes place in the American South
Who’s in it?
At the time we were talking I didn’t know who was going to be in it. I think Forest Whitaker and Renee Zellweger are in it now.
And he wanted you to do the soundtrack?
Yeah, pretty much. But he wasn’t too specific. The only thing he needed for sure was a ballad for the main character to sing towards the end of the movie. And that’s the song LIFE IS HARD.
Were all the songs on this record written for the movie then?
Well no, not really. We started off with LIFE IS HARD and then the record sort of took its own direction.
The new record’s very different from Modern Times which was a number one hit. It seems like every time you have a big hit, the next time out you change things around. Why don’t you try to milk it a little bit?
I think we milked it all we could on that last record and then some. We squeezed the cow dry. All the Modern Times songs were written and performed in the widest range possible so they had a little bit of everything. These new songs have more of a romantic edge.
How so?
These songs don’t need to cover the same ground. The songs on Modern Times songs brought my repertoire up to date, and the light was directed in a certain way. You have to have somebody in mind as an audience otherwise there’s no point.
What do you mean by that?
There didn’t seem to be any general consensus among my listeners. Some people preferred my first period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post Colombian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties. I see that my audience now doesn’t particular care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.
In what way?
Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it.
Like a locomotive, a pair of boots, a kiss or the rain?
Right. All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.