An interview with Laraaji for a special midweek issue
|Oct 30, 2020||3|
Laraaji is a multi-instrumentalist and new-age musician who first came to prominence for the Brian Eno-produced Day of Radiance, released in 1980. In the decades since, he’s released a slew of records that strive to produce uplifting and trance-like experiences. His newest releases, Sun Piano, Moon Piano, and Through Luminous Eyes, are a trilogy that center around the piano. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Laraaji on October 15th, 2020 to discuss growing up in the church, the evolution of his romances, and his new records.
Photo by Daniel Oduntan
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, can you hear me?
Laraaji: Yes, I don’t see you but I hear you.
Yes, I’m just doing this as an audio call.
Just audio? Good. And I’m speaking with Joshua Kim?
Yes! That’s me!
And you’re speaking with (great emphasis) La-raa-ji!
Yes! La-raa-ji! How are you doing? How is your day?
My day is wonderful. I had one interview with a lady from Italy about an hour ago. I just finished a little smoothie, and before I go out today I’m going to have a nice little chat with you. So I’m feeling good, well-rested, well-fed, healthy, and super positive about the world in general!
I love that. Did you make the smoothie yourself, or did you purchase it?
Yes, I made it. A little protein mix and banana, apple, and I believe I put some hemp seeds in there too.
Classic. When I make smoothies I always put hemp seeds in there as well.
I wanted to start off by asking you, who in your life can you always trust to make you laugh?
Babies. And puppies, and kittens. (laughter). After that, George Carlin and Redd Foxx are two comedians that can get me there. I have a whole circle of friends that I do laughter workshops with. In unpressured social situations laughter can bubble up spontaneously!
Do you mind speaking about one of the people that you do the workshop with? It can be anyone—I’m just curious what about who they are or what they do or say makes you laugh.
When they’re laughing, I’m not laughing at them. They’re not making me laugh; in the workshop I’m willing myself into laughter and I’m riding off of my own inner momentum. When the whole class is laughing as an individual it feels like a group mantra. When someone loses it and goes into hysterics, they lose the focus of the workshop; the focus is to contain your laughter inwardly. They’ll go outwardly and go ostentatious. I, as a workshop leader, am just concerned that they don’t overpower the others or distract others.
In general, workshop people—I don’t laugh at them (laughter). I do remember that I once did a workshop and a woman who was there sat through the entire workshop without laughing. Afterwards, when I asked for comments, she said she worked for a mental institute and that what she experienced in our workshop was not much different from what she experienced at the institute!
Generally we don’t get into laughing at people, but my antics and our workshop does get funny at points when we get into interactive exercises that are unusual yet logical for our purpose. That is, using our laughter to send our laughter voice into certain areas of the body while we are in our water body. Being in the water body can look funny, if you’re not used to it. Laughing while you’re in your water body is quite a therapeutic event because your body loosens up—it’s relaxing, and you’re moving beyond stress and tension. To have people laughing in your face can be very funny. When you see someone using quite unusual practices during the workshop, it can generate moments of laughter where people are triggering other people’s laughter.
When did you first recognize the importance and the power of laughter?
I’d imagine it was very early in my family life. When I was four or five I would notice it in my family gatherings that laughter was always present. The sound of laughter meant that there was harmony, there was peace. People were in good vibes and that positive psychology was in effect. And, as long as the adults were laughing, they were further away from reprimanding us for anything! I remember around the age of four or five that the family’s cousins and uncles would get together.
Then there were movies and television. Our Gang comedies—there was a certain gang that was funny on black-and-white television, I forgot the name of it. Lucille Ball with Red Skelton, Redd Foxx I was exposed to pretty early. These people, the idea of their jokes would stimulate laughter. I enjoyed it so much that I find myself wanting to make people laugh around me. Around five or six, I found that I would automatically take any opportunity to get people around me to laugh, whether it be my brothers, or my mother, or Sunday school classmates or my school classmates. I enjoyed the experience of seeing the human physique surrender to laughter.
(laughs). I like that, I really like that. Can you describe for me what these family gatherings were like? What was the atmosphere? What were your parents like?
I was close with them. My father was a tailor for a local clothing retail chain in the New Jersey area. My mother, for a large area of her life, was a registered nurse. My mother was more into taking us to church on Sundays. She was a very strict disciplinarian. My father was strict too. He wasn’t around as much as my mother was around, but both of them showed us love. They were into laughter. They were into strict discipline. The idea of a belt—or a brush, or slapping and hitting, and corporal punishment—was in the name of the game when I was growing up.
Do you feel like there are qualities of your parents that you’ve taken on for yourself? Do you see your parents in yourself at all?
Yeah, I do. My father was more of a free spirit. I would say I’m bordering on being a nomad or a maverick, and also a rugged individual, be that in my approach to life and my artform. My mother took care to instill in us a pride for appearance and taking care of our things. In other words, as a musician I find that I take care of my equipment in a way that reflects my mother and the things that she instilled in me: taking pride in cleaning, protecting, and packaging things. Also, my mother, her favorite line is, “When you take care of yourself, you take care of me.” So she instilled in me a devotion to taking care of my health and taking care of myself, and also watching my associations—choosing my associations mindfully.
I love the idea of taking care of yourself, and how that can overflow to others.
Every mother probably feels that way.
Who are people in your life right now that you feel like are taking care of themselves and, as a result, are helping you?
My good friend and lady companion, Arji OceAnanda, owns her own home. She takes care of it lovingly, she has a wonderful garden. She’s constantly in the garden, constantly keeping her house beautiful and looking great. The lawn is always looking great, the interior of the house is spick and span, sometimes to the point where I feel uncomfortable visiting (laughter). But she’s one.
Every one of my friends who I’ve had pretty close associations with take great pride in their appearance, make serious investments of time in their spiritual journey, and have a Christian-like, friendly attitude towards kindness and helping others. I have an appreciation for the friendly vibe.
It’s funny that you mention “this Christian-like vibe.” I know you grew up in a church, and gospel music was an initial exposure to music. Do you have any memories that you cherish from church and that musical environment, and how it impacted you? I’m trying to get a picture of what it was like to be you in church as a child.
The church I went to was called the Second Baptist Church of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I later found out that churches around the country, when they have the term Second Baptist—or Second—it means that they are churches for people of color. First Baptist is usually for caucasians. In my remembrance of early church, we had two choirs: one was a straight choir, and the other was called a gospel choir. The gospel choir were usually people who had gravitated from the south and were living in the north. There was a jubilant expression in the way they were swaying back and forth while singing in their robes, with big voluminous voices.
During church service, if it was the right preacher—a very passionate, strong preacher, which was either one or two people—usually what would happen during the summer time is that women would catch what was called the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Spirit. Suddenly they would just lose it, their pocketbooks would fly across the space, and men would rush to the woman’s side and they would all help to contain her (laugher). I was never quite clear what that was all about, but it could be that the fiery energy of the preacher probably triggered this woman’s Kundalini. That’s what I think, that she had a Kundalini rising. It was called catching the Holy Ghost. That’s a very vivid memory.
Also, being baptized in the church at the age of twelve. That was usually memorable because the church had a stage on which the pulpit rested. The preacher would preach from that, and the choirs would sing from that same stage. During the time for baptism, the whole stage was cleared, and a trap door would open to reveal a water reservoir. It was strange, it was filled up with water and the preacher would stand in this tank with a wetsuit on. I remember getting baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and he dunked me under the water. That was very memorable.
When I think about it, waterboarding is probably very similar (laughter). When I think of waterboarding, it sends you close to a primal survival state, and when you come out of the water, you’re hearing the preacher run a narration of God and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, so these principles and ideas are hitting you at a time when you’re gasping for air, and survival is paramount on your mind. I guess I’m being inducted, or imprinted with an expanded appreciation for the divine during that time.
We used to have visiting preachers and choirs from other churches. That was usually exciting because what would come with them was some of their congregation. During my teenage years, it was just natural to look over the visiting congregation for pretty girls (laughter). Then we would perchance get a phone number and within maybe a week or two be visiting some young lady in a different part of New Jersey.
Do you remember your earliest girlfriend?
Yes, I remember my earliest girlfriend. There were girls who were interested in me, but I was not convinced I’d be interested in them. I remember once in Sunday school, there were two girls fighting and pulling each other’s hair. I was wondering what that was about. I later found out that they were fighting about me (laughs). It didn’t flatter me!
I remember my first girlfriend, her name was Caroline. Whenever I would visit her there were adults present, so all we could do was play. I just remember one time going to play and she had this wind-up truck or car that would do curlicues. I never heard the word curlicue until that moment. She kept talking about the curlicues. That has stuck in my memory—it’s probably very trivial.
I would get infatuated quickly with a pretty girl. I’d dream about her, my heart would beat when they would come into a room, or when I’d go to church and see them sitting in another seat. That was the romance in the Baptist church.
Then there was summer Bible study. During the summer months when we were no longer in school we had the option of enrolling in what we’d call Bible school. We would have an intensive exposure to areas of the Bible that we didn’t have time to go through in casual Sunday School. It was there that I learned things like the Book of Obadiah and Deuteronomy, names that I had never really heard of in the Bible before. The Bible and the subject of Jesus Christ were pretty mainstream in my life during my early years. The model that I was presented of Jesus Christ stimulated me to want to have my life parallel that image—to make contribution to humanity in such a way that would be uplifting and enlightening.
I feel like you’re doing that. Both with your music and with the workshops that you have.
Thank you for validating that.
I like what you said about how early in your life you were dreaming and head-over-heels for these pretty girls. Do you feel like that sort of intensity that you had is something that stuck with you throughout your life—that you’re very romantic?
Yes. Thank you, I think you helped me to think this a little bit deeper. I think the romantic energy has been a natural element in my life as it is expressed through my music, or in my life, or my attitude about living in New York. I feel like I’m a New York romantic. There’s a romantic edge. It might have come through my exposure through early R&B music, which I feel is romantic.
What R&B artists were you exposed to—what R&B did you like—when you were younger?
I love that you’re making this connection between the romance you may have heard in R&B and the romance you try to express through your music. How do you try to accomplish that? I feel like with R&B, at least in my mind, it would be easier than with the music you’re making.
The romantic side comes through the more dreamy, almost trance-like music. I’m a transromantic—my romance that was stimulated by pretty girls, I believe, has transformed into what I’ve learned about meditation. Meditation is the highest romance. I feel like that transformation has taken place for me, that I’ve transformed my romantic excitement from pretty girls—which I still enjoy—to romance of the universe, of the cosmic field. That romantic feeling was identified in meditation experiences in the mid ’70s, when hearing cosmic music would connect me to this highest romance because I felt my heart just crack open for the universe—an attachment or a bonding with the universe. I feel like it initiated a cosmic romance.
The music that comes through me now is not so much about romanticizing pretty people; it’s about feeling, savoring, honoring and appreciating the wonder of the cosmos, the wonder of consciousness, the wonder of being, the wonder of shared evolution.
I love how you’re talking about romance in this way! I feel like when people generally think of romance they typically only think of it in a lover-relationship. To you, what does it mean to be romantic?
It means being heart-centered, sensual, aesthetic, and immersed in a poetic, immersive adoration. To be filled with joy, hope, and inspiration by mentally focusing on something. Music is a large part of it. I can be romantic around or about New York, but once a certain music plays, that romantic feeling becomes more palpable. I think Frank Sinatra’s music represents an edge of romanticism for me in “New York, New York,” and also his other songs. Certain figures and musicians, their music is like a backdrop for romantic feelings.
Even today the idea of meditation being the highest romance, I can feel this romantic feeling when listening to Indian music, which is very luscious and sensual. Usually it’s closely aligned with divine worship and divine practice—classical Indian music.
What do you love about New York? You moved there after going to Howard University, did you fall in love with it right away?
No, I fell in love with it around the age of nine or ten, when my uncle and aunt who lived in New York would invite my two brothers and I to spend a week or two, sometimes more, over the summer months, in Harlem. My first exposure to it was when we were put on a bus in New Jersey, and we were told how to get off the bus and find the subway, and then make our way up to Harlem. It was a culture shock! (laughter).
I remember getting on the subway car and, before the door closed, some man tried to get on and he got caught in between the doors. There was this pause, not knowing what was going to happen. Was the train going to take off with this man in the door? He was squirming, and groaning, and grunting. Eventually, maybe in a few seconds, the door opened and he came in and he sat. That was one of my first exposures to how New York could be an intense place. My first thoughts at the time were, “How does anyone live in a place like that and then have individual personal space? How do you maintain your space living in a situation like this?”
My aunt would then proceed to places like Radio City Music Hall, where I heard my first symphonic orchestra. She took me to Rockefeller Center, and I remember that was mystical. Then the rodeo—I remember our school class trips to New York during my early days, to the Museum of Natural History or Madison Square Garden. Once I saw Roy Rogers in the rodeo.
New York was like the carrot that was dangled in front of me when I was young. I was impressed with the intensity of the life of such a city. I learned to appreciate New York even more as I began travelling around the world. For instance, in Rome I discovered that I can’t do in Rome what I do in New York. I can’t just walk without encountering hills (laughter). New York is very level and I can walk any time of day or night and have backup transportation to take me home when I’m done walking. I appreciate the parks of New York. I appreciate the multicultural, multiethnic flavor of New York, which adds to the kinds of foods that are available, and also adds to a high level of ethnic tolerance that I see displayed here. Especially on a crowded subway train at rush hour. I’ll look around and I can count sometimes six, seven or eight different nationalities peacefully huddled together, sharing the same ride to their destinations.
I like that New York has lots of sunlight during all seasons. I like all the four seasons here. I like—or, I did like—of the available opportunities, to dance barefoot. Yoga-centered or conscious, mindful dance situations were happening in New York before this passage of time happened. The dancing was good, the weather is good, the walkability, the food, the parks. I like the idea of not needing to own a car here in New York.
Thanks for sharing all that. It’s obvious that you love New York. You mentioned dancing. People primarily know you for your music, what do you get out of dancing? What do you get out of movement that you don’t feel like you get strictly from music alone?
When I’m dancing, I’m everywhere I need to be. One woman’s philosophy, Gabrielle Roth, helped to explain that. When we are in motion, we cannot experience separation. When we are moving, you can temporarily dissolve any sense or emotions that are based on a sense of separation, or fracture, or abandonment even. That movement takes me out of the realm where I am processing separation. By virtue of that lack of a sense of separation, I am in an automatically default sense of unity. I feel oneness, and with my mindful intention, when I do dance I set intentions to do some breathing and do some meditative moving so that my movement is not just within the venue or the dancefloor, but that my movement is consciously in relationship with an imagined cosmic field. It’s another form of conscious meditation for me.
You’ve talked about how you love the people in your life, how you love New York, how you love dancing. Naturally I’m wondering, can you share what you love about the piano, what you love about the zither? What do you love about the instruments that you’ve primarily used throughout your career?
Well, Joshua, I’m glad to answer that! (laughter). I love the physical interaction with the keyboard, the piano—especially concert grand pianos. They have long strings and I feel like the percussion against the string sets the strings vibrating, and I get a big sensual joy out of being immersed in the sound of a well-tuned piano. It’s like therapy—piano therapy, music therapy. I can move with the piano, and dance with the piano, and move to different chords and different scales and different keys. It’s like a free, open, recreational release.
Music is also communion. I can be within an expanded state of awareness and consciousness while playing music. I’ll feel like I’m sharing the same moment of creation that the creator is in. I feel like I’m in intimate union with the fundamental purpose behind creation.
I like the zither because it’s portable, and I can tune it in creative ways. I can do things with the zither that I can’t do with the piano. I cannot freely tune the piano in experimental ways. I thought about it, but piano tuners told me that it’s not worth the trouble. So I am able to tune in to the zither. It gives me the chance to be portable and take my sound to remote situations in the world. It allows me to do a lot of work behind other artists through collaborations. These collaborations are with singers, with dancers, with other soloists. The zither allows me to play for meditation, it allows me to travel and share music in areas and situations that a piano would not be present. I do like that the zither is not an expensive instrument; I can easily replace one if anything happened to it. It’s a sustainable artform for me.
I like the gong, I’m getting more into gong music because of its symphonic output. A gong doesn’t need to be tuned, but with various mallets I can evoke sounds from it that are immersive or transportive.
There is an intimacy to playing amy instrument for a long period of time. How do you feel like your relationship with these instruments has changed? If you think about yourself from decades ago and compare it to who you are today, how do you feel your approach to playing has changed? How do you feel like you’ve grown as a musician utilizing them?
I feel every musician and every artist that has hung out with a medium of expression for a long time—if they stay awake and devoted—evolve in subtle and great ways. My way is that my music parallels my growth in yoga and meditation and cosmic consciousness. I find that what has shifted over the years is that I have a deepers sense of the cosmic presence at every moment. I’m no longer just playing in a square box, or a venue, or a church, or a concert hall, and I am mindful that an infinite cosmic field is present.
In some way I’m imagining and exploring the idea of bringing my sound forward inside of an imagined cosmic acoustical space as opposed to a third-dimensional physical building. As I reach for that kind of expression, I find—especially with the zither—I’m using echoes and delays to create a sense of expanded space and time. Also, pauses. I find that as a result of a deepening meditation practice I have an expanded appreciation for silences and pauses which I allow to happen. Like the music of Day of Radiance: the first time I dared to leave very quiet pauses.
In modern concerts, the idea of pausing and allowing silence to be a very noticeable element of the experience of listening to music. Also the imagery that I invoke at times now, more mindfully, using music to transmit imaginary ideas, like the image of angels dancing in the aether, or blood flowing through someone’s veins. Using music to support, relax, breathe with.
When you’re performing or recording something, is it an instinctual thing in terms of knowing if you’re going on the right path? If you’re improvising, are there things that you do or look for or try to capture that show you that you’re doing the ‘correct’ thing?
In the case of, say, zither music, I put time in before the performance to design, or to craft, or to channel a specific tuning, a harmonic feeling into the instrument that I resonate with so strongly that it constantly evokes a passionate response. When I’m in performing mode, this mode will suggest where to go with it. It’s like playing within an ocean of harmonic joy. Being spontaneous within it—I don’t need a script. I’m feeling my way, moment to moment. Like you said, intuition allows it to flow.
With an open-tuned autoharp you can’t make a bad note because it’s tuned to a set harmonic field. With the piano, it’s like pulling music down from the sky—that’s one of my favorite phrases—into a meditative form of performing, whether I’m doing yoga or movement backstage or some positive mind-science treatments. I bring myself to a place of high-confidence and trust.
I go into the performance mode of free association. The first note happens without me knowing what it’s going to be, and then a trusting, spontaneous guidance occurs. I never claim to know exactly where I’m going, just like this conversation we’re having.
I think that’s a good thing, to not necessarily know where things are going to go.
It’s good if you’re playing solo (laughs).
Why do you say that?
Solo, it works. One of my concepts is that I’m mightier as a solo, one person orchestra. If I were 32 people trying to give the experience of spontaneous, fluid, unpremeditated movement, we might have some amount of real confusion.
Jazz ensembles can do it. A trio or a quartet can possibly pull it off after rehearsing together and getting a sense of a theme or structure around what you improvise. As a soloist, I find that I can go on stage without having to know where I’m going to go. If I’m on stage with someone else, I at least have to tell them the key that I’m in, or the mood, or the inner picture, or the inner painting that I feel I want to address.
I want to talk about your new albums. You have a series, you’ve so far released Sun Piano and Moon Piano. How would you describe these two albums—and the third one in the trilogy, if you want to talk about that in advance [of its release]. What do they mean to you separately and together?
To be honest, all three albums—including the one that has yet to be released, Through Luminous Eyes—all three of these albums were mixed only from the spontaneous piano improvisations that evolved in the two days of recording in the church. From that body of improvisations, the producer Matthew Jones [of Warp Records], Jeff Zeigler, and Christian Havins, and myself decided that we had more than enough material for one album, so why not go for three albums and edit the music in such a way that certain music would go toward Sun Piano? It’s more vibrant, danceable outgoing music. Sun! The more introspective, quiet, sedate, feminine, lunar pieces would go in something called the Moon Piano. Through Luminous Eyes is a result of the tracks that included the piano and zither together, because the zither treatments kind of suggest a luminous lightness, a celestial, astral attitude.
You’ve released a lot of albums. We talked about how you’re constantly evolving. Are there specific releases that you can recognize as big moments in your musical expression, where you feel like you’ve had some sort of breakthrough with music at the time it was recorded or released?
Day of Radiance, my first globally released album produced with my friend Brian Eno, was a breakthrough in the sense of it being my first studio album that had a focus of going global. In other words, when I was working in the studio I had the sense that whatever happens here has a chance of being distributed worldwide. That was a breakthrough, the idea that I was being recorded in a studio with the confidence that I was now recording on the bigger platform. My activities were going to be reflected on a larger platform.
It also created a quantum leap in my appreciation for microphone qualities. At some point I was relying on pickups that went on to the autoharp. I was really impressed to hear how much sound I was not getting because I was not using microphones. High-grade studio microphones really opened my ears up to what the zither had to offer.
Day of Radiance was one breakthrough. Vision Songs is another breakthrough album because it allowed me to actually give voice to the currents of spiritual interest that were going on through my lifetime in the ’80s, and allowed me to also serve spiritual communities that were in my lifestyle at that time by creating an album of music that they could related to, that could support them in their journey. Of course at that time it was recorded on cassette tape. Two years ago it was released on vinyl, finally. That was a breakthrough. Have you ever signed a recording contract?
I have not, no.
Back in the day, when you’d sign a recording contract, there was always this mystical phrase: the company has the right to exploit this music in forms known and forms as yet to be realized (laughter). And at that time, CDs weren’t even up on the radar yet. It was a breakthrough to see your music in CD form, and eventually music that was done only on cassette was released in LP formats.
Another breakthrough album of mine I guess would be these latest ones on the piano. That allowed me to take my dream off of the shelf of owning my passion for the piano at this level of professional recording.
Why do you think it took these albums to get to that point?
I think I got involved with the zither and the new-age movement, and I identified with this new-age sound, and it was so unique. Because it was so unique I felt like it was a more appropriate symbol for new-age consciousness than a traditional musical sound. I think it’s the case that it became a metaphor for new experience, which new age wants to represent—new-age consciousness, new experience, new awareness. It’s a backdrop sound for mass new-age awareness.
For years I was being asked to do zither music. I was getting invited to conferences and concerts and tours based on this unique sound, until I left the piano passion on the side. I always play piano when I find one, even if it’s backstage at a rehearsal.
Two or three years ago in San Fransisco I was performing with Arji [OceAnanda], my partner, and while we were setting up stage, the stagehands asked if I wanted the piano moved offstage. I thought, (in an idea-formulating voice) “No, why don’t you leave it there.” (laughter). So they left it on the side and I incorporated it into my concert, and it was recorded! Matthew Jones at Warp Records, the producer of my other recordings, eventually heard it. He said, “Hmm, maybe it’s time that you should do an album. Maybe we’ll call it Sun Piano.” And I went for it. I said, “Yeah, I think it’s time for that, Matthew.”
I’m glad you had him in your life to push you to get to that point. That’s nice.
Yes! He’s the first person who made that suggestion.
I wanted to ask: a lot of people first got to know you because of that Brian Eno-produced recording Day of Radiance. Do you mind sharing a story or a memory of a time you had with Brian Eno that you think is representative of who he is, of your relationship with him?
My first exposure to him was through word of mouth. It was during a time when I was accustomed to playing music in the northeast corner of Washington Square Park in the evenings with my eyes closed. After performing for an hour, or two or three hours, I’d open my eyes and count my change. On one particular night, this couple came over to me and began a conversation that was intending to get me familiar with the music of Fripp & Eno. They kept saying Fripp & Eno. I wasn’t sure what Fripp & Eno was. They invited me home for dinner, and they kept talking about Fripp & Eno in their Greenwich Village apartment.
So I began this casual commitment to seek out what Fripp & Eno was! (laughter). In my early search of just asking around, I discovered it was actually Robert Fripp and Brian Eno—two different people. Fripp was popular for using tape delays at the time, and Brian Eno was regarded as a unique producer.
During that time, I remember I was involved with scientific prayer in my own personal spiritual life. I had put out to the universe that I was looking for the right producer. That was one of the elements of the right prayer—you never pray for anything specific. You keep it general, and you let the universe apply the specifics. So I just prayed for the right producer.
So here I am, at the same performance spot in Washington Square Park, maybe a month later. I hadn’t done any more research on Fripp & Eno. So I finished playing at about ten or eleven at night, my eyes are usually closed. So I’m counting my change in my zither case after a robust audience had circled around that evening, and there was this piece of paper that looked like it had been ripped from a very elegant notebook. On it, somebody had written a note on it with a very fine pen. It said, “Dear Sir, please excuse this rather scraggly piece of paper, but I’m wondering if you are approachable about participating in a recording project that I’m doing.” It was signed Brian Eno. I was like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” (laughter).
He left his phone number, and I think I called him later that night or early next morning and I arranged to meet him. He lived not too far from Washington Square Park. He lived in a penthouse apartment. I went to visit him, and I took a bottle of juice with me. He introduced me to a sound project he was working on with three speakers. Technically, I couldn’t grasp what it was. Then we talked about other things, and we eventually got to the subject of ambient music, and the intention of ambient music was to not be the center of focus, but to be in an environment in which one could think, listen, or do creative work.
I was kind of understanding what he was getting at, but I assured him that whatever direction he thought I could go in, we could go into a studio and go in that direction and something interesting would happen. So we agreed to go to a studio not too long after that, maybe a week or so after, right there in Greenwich Village—Apple Studio, I think, was the name of it. We recorded the music that he was familiar with on the album.
But the music of mine that he wasn’t familiar with was the music I could never play in the parks. That was the more meditative side. I went into the meditative zone in the studio. We were all happy with the music until we listened to the playback, and the meditative side was too quiet for that particular studio because industrial motor sounds making their way onto the recording. About six months later we found another studio and finished the album with the meditation side.
Brian in the studio would coach me very tactfully to get sounds out. He encouraged me to double track the zither, which means record it once and then record a second track to create a full sound. That was something I hadn’t done before. He introduced me to microphones, and to double tracking. When we finished the second side, the meditative side, he allowed me to participate in the graphics of the album, choosing out what the album cover would look like.
All along our relationship was very peaceful. Lots of laughter would bubble up. You could say that he was very brainy. He’d have intelligent comments on probably any subject you could bring up. At that time he was living on St. Marks Place, and eventually he moved to another area of the village. He always had an interesting apartment. One time he built an apartment with a studio in it.
We stay in touch, and I visit with him when I get a chance to when I’m around in England. I’ve watched him get married and have two children, now they’ve grown up.
I’m glad that relationship was one that was filled with laughter and peace and encouragement for both of you. I wanted to ask just a couple more things. You’re in your 70s. Are there specific things that you want to make sure you do before you pass away? This can be music related or not.
I always said I wanted to be connected with some kind of major film release, but the music industry’s situation being what it is, it might have to be on television. But it may have already been accomplished—putting music to a wonderful visual experience. Also, to participate in a comedy film, or something off-off-Broadway. The thought of writing a Broadway musical—even Broadway is kind of challenged right now—but it’s this idea of writing songs and music for a musical. This may have already been accomplished in the music I’ve already done. That Broadway feeling is something that has caught fire within me many years ago. The Rodgers and Hammerstein, that whole Broadway passion thing caught me when I was in high school and I always thought I’d want to be a part of it eventually.
Another thing I want to do is start a trust fund or some kind of foundation that would be a talent scout for artists or communicators that have a special cosmic or uplifting message, but don’t have the savvy to go into the world and make it big. Hidden talents that have a very strong spiritual contribution to make to the planet through their art, mostly.
I thought of my story, having busked on the streets of New York and then Brian comes along and gives me an opportunity to get my inner expression out on a bigger platform. I’m not sure how that would work other than being visible with what I do, to inspire those who just need an extra push to go towards what they want to be doing.
I appreciate you sharing this and I hope you get a chance to do all of those things. That would be really nice. I am particularly amused by you wanting to be in a comedy film. I think that would be incredible.
(laughs). The joy of that would be working with other people with comedy sensibilities. I enjoy working with people who have a comic edge. Some of these people would be very serious, too. I find that some of the funniest people are not sometimes those who just have a good sense of humor, but people who have a good sense of seriousness!
Oh wow, that’s so interesting. I’m trying to understand that. Can you give an example of someone? What does that look like?
People who are in their seriousness, they’re so serious that they evoke laughter. How can I say it…
Do you mean that they are too self-serious?
Yes, that’s a good example.
But there are people who in general are so serious at what they’re doing that… it might be a little bit impolite to laugh at them, but something about them evokes laughter. In a comedy team, a straight person stays serious to allow the funny person to bounce off of that person.
That makes total sense. I just have one more question for you. We talked a lot about romance and the things you love, stories about people, and your instruments. Can you share one thing you love about yourself?
I love that I trust this moment to be my source and my destiny. I trust investing a majority of my resources in this moment. (laughs). I love that I trust this moment. What I mean by that is I trust in being still, being empty, being silent so that the presence of the moment slides up in my awareness. I trust feeling safe here, I trust that this moment will provide me all the information I must have in order to be creative endlessly. I trust that this moment is a place where I can rest, and that this moment is common to everyone else’s inner moment. Through this moment we can go back to our common moment, our common denominator.
I love that, I’m really into it. Thanks for sharing that.
(in a slow and exaggerated manner) You’re welcome, Joshua! (laughter).
Is there anything that you ever wanted to say or talk about in an interview that you never had the chance to talk about?
I’d say that the period that we’ve gone through over the past six months has been a wonderful opportunity for me to rest, relax, reset, go within. It allowed me a chance to really get to know some of my electronic tech equipment much better. It has allowed me to learn that I can trust being alone, and that I don’t have any issues about being alone and being in isolation. That has been a learning experience that either is a form of spiritual liturgy or emotional liturgy. It has helped me to see how unattached I am to so many things. Even to dancing, I can do without dancing.
These last six months have been an opportunity to grow inwardly and to rest. That’s why I open up this conversation to say that I’ve found I have a very positive state of mind about the world right now. For me, it has allowed me lots of benefits, this situation. I’m aware that it is not that case for everyone else in the world, and that there are many horrific challenges going on in many people’s lives. I would imagine that, and I would imagine that there are many people who are getting the benefits that I’m getting from this period.
You mentioned also at the beginning of the interview that you’re going to go out somewhere after we finish talking. Where are you going?
A friend contacted me via email that they were interested in finding a copy of Sun Gong, an album I produced many years ago. I said, “Yes, I have a copy here and I can meet you somewhere in the village and hand it to you.” So that’s one thing I’m going to do, and then I’m going to check on my post office box that I check once a week in my old residential area of New York. Check my mail. And then just float, go on non-agenda. I might walk in a park, I might do some shopping.
Sounds like a great evening that you’re going to have. I hope it’s nice meeting your friend, and I hope the walk that you have is pleasant and wonderful and brings you energy.
Remind me where you are again?
I’m in Chicago.
Chicago! Chicago is in the state of Illinois, is that correct?
Thank you so much, I really enjoyed talking with you.
Thank you Joshua! Have a beautiful you!
(laughs). You have a beautiful you as well.
Photo by Jacob Ferguson
Thank you for reading our special midweek issue of Tone Glow. Learn to be a romantic, if you aren’t one already.
If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.