APRIL 2014

THE SEARCH FOR SOLID GROUND

by Harry C. Tuniese

Once upon a time, Joel Cage was a different person, playing a different type of music, and treading another musical turf. Something happened and he quietly transitioned into an award-winning acoustic talent. During the past twenty years, he has only released a handful of albums [culminating with recent Eponymous, one of the best albums of 2013), but has chosen the well-worn path of traveling troubadour (much like Bob Dylan and his never-ending tours), performing hundreds of shows in concert, festivals, coffeehouses, clubs, churches, and bars with an indefatigable burst of vocal energy and guitar prowess. Each performance seems fresh, enhanced, and downright direct. In short, to fully appreciate this man's talent, you MUST see him live! Now living in Meredith, New Hampshire, we recently corresponded to trace the steps he took be here & now.

QWhat was it like performing with an international act like Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes? You were quite young at the time. Did it help you decide to follow your own ambitions or was it more gradual?

AWhen I 'officially' quit the Jukes, I was 23 .. did my last show with them on New Year's Eve, just after my 24th birthday.

Looking back at one's self at such a young age, I can't imagine that I had any idea what I was doing at that time, but I have always felt centered in the present, even as a child. So when I joined the Jukes at 20 yrs old, I already knew that it was to be a mere stepping stone to whatever lay beyond.

I grew up in the shadow of my older brother, Gary - a founding member of John Cafferty & Beaver Brown. He has been the prime "inspirator" in my musical life. I used to watch his high school band rehearse in my living room ~ I would lie in front of the kick drum and fall asleep. When JC & BB came into being, around '72, they became the prime gravitational pull in my universe. I fell in love with the the life - the smells, the colors, and the sound of it all. I was already quite sure of my own ambitions towards a musical existence, even if I was not completely aware of what that meant. It was my brother who alerted me that the Jukes were looking for a guitarist. I asked "do you think I'm good enough?", and he said "That's up to you." . . the perfect words, the very words I expected he would say.

I drove down to NYC to audition, and during the audition, I mentioned that I had tickets to see Bruce in a few weeks at the Garden (The River tour) .. someone who was there at the audition (who I came to know well, but at the time was a complete stranger), said that she would arrange for me to have back stage passes. At that time, JC&BB had become quite a force of nature on the east coast bar scene, which had a delightfully fluid continuity, from Maine to DC ... a network of joints and music fans that no longer exists today. JC&BB had been orbiting the Springsteen camp with a respectable degree of welcome. They were also going to the show, so it was family night on the town. I remember standing in the Garden foyer, there to collect my tix and passes, when Cafferty came up to me, having always been the epitome of a "star" in my eyes. He had this strange look of respect, and said "you're big time now ..." (Me! having always been "Gary's little brother?")
I hadn't even gotten the gig yet - I figured maybe he knew something I didn't.

After the show, big bro came to escort me back stage (I'm not sure I would have gone if he hadn't), waltzed me right up to Miami Steve and introduced me ... Miami's response was "I heard about you .." I don't think I'd have scripted the whole thing any better. At the time I remember thinking 'of course, this is the way it's supposed to work'.

Nice story ... but to actually answer your question, I pretty much had my "ambition" established well before the Jukes, encapsulated in the operandi of focusing on the music and everything else would simply happen. This is by no means a recipe for success as is defined by industry standards, but it has worked perfectly for me in living my life fueled principally by music.

QYou quickly established yourself in the Boston Music Scene during the Eighties as a performer with such bands as Big Sixteen & The Subterraneans. What are some highlights from that period? What direction were you seeking or was it just the ride?

AIt's fun having cause to remember all this stuff. Being in the Jukes provided purchase in social & professional circles I might never have enjoyed otherwise; it had a bit of an afterglow that came in handy from time to time. I would go to the Paradise and be greeted by the house manager, hustled backstage or sometimes onstage, hobnob with the local luminescence. I never gave it much credence to the point which I sometimes wonder whether it was squandered ... but every time I give it any thought I quickly settle on the idea that politics was never my strength, and if who I was as a musician wasn't enough, then so be it.

I was still in the Jukes when I placed an ad in the Phoenix and began searching for the musicians that would become my idea of the ultimate band. This made it easier to get the people I met and liked to join up (You play with them?!) That was how Big Sixteen came into existence. We were a meat 'n potatoes band playing mostly original music steeped in the influences of Motown and backwoods flavored Rock & Roll in the era of the synth and top forty bands. Examples of the more interesting local bands to me at the time were Private Lightening and Devon Square.

I had no eyes for the mechanism of the industry ~ the bassist one day said to me that we should be recording and shopping our music to labels .. it seemed meaningless. For me, it was about the writing, rehearsing and performing of the music ~ the rest was all ... something else. I suppose I was waiting for someone to come along and do it all for us.

The musicians were, to my taste, the best around, and we almost created that family vibe that I believe all bands must strive to achieve .. almost. Not quite though, and that cohesive shortfall was our weakest link. But as to highlights, playing with those guys tops the list.

There were other bands in that time as well, all for me about the same thing - the people and the music. Great musicians. I was writing with no greater creative acclivity or prolificity than I do today.

The Subterraneans were, to be precise, a nineties band... the last of my making. The hope and promise of the SubT's, as I saw it, was that there were members in that band who were more acclimated by their nature toward working the system, so that aspect of potential success didn't go quite so ignored. Another group of exceptional musicians, but too disparate personality-wise ~ there was too little human connection, and way too much attention put into the effort to "be hip". To me, "hipness" should be an unintentional byproduct. The more you try to be hip, the less hip you are.

But hey, I'm just talkin' here ...

I always had a vision, not so much of stardom, but hopeful of some place within the webwork of humanity that my music might take hold. To say it was "just the ride" would be anemic. To me it's living amidst a feedback loop if ideas that fold and unfold, drawing into the maelstrom past and present, the architecture of the song, the music, the band, and the performance experience - it's the viscosity of living in the moment.

QI'm always quite supportive of rockers who move into the folk field, seeking new avenues & styles of expression. Did your material shift naturally into that area or did you have to adjust your vocabulary? How did your songwriting change?

AI can't say that it did. In my childhood dreams of my future as a performer, the show would have me performing a solo set of the tunes I write that simply should not be forced into a band format. I suppose you could look to Neil and Dylan for that paradigm. So there was a backlog of music that I had the opportunity of bringing out of the closet upon taking that path.

First I hear the music, then I write it - this is not unique. But it affords one the luxury of hearing it in it's finished form before ever having to put it into physical form. I still have a tendency to write for a full band, and then record it in that fashion, knowing that it will likely never be performed that way. The music is what it is ~ that's my aim, that's my "art" , if you will ... the rest is merely circumstance.

QDo you approach songs either lyrically or musically, or perhaps both? Does songwriting get easier over the years? You never seem to rush the process.

AThere's only one truthful answer to that question, and that's that every song is different. I cannot imagine being only a lyricist or writing only music. For me, they both spring into being simultaneously, sometimes ~ about half ~ in their complete and final form.

Musicians, for the most part, are tweak-addicts, so the refinement of an idea is an ongoing process. I see a song as a living entity, sort of like a child, and once written in it's first form deemed "complete", it becomes no longer 'mine' but rather something with which I coexist. Subsequently, every performance of the tune is a new experience, taking on a new iteration dictated both by my current state of being, and whatever it seems the song wants to be in that particular moment. It is this breathing mechanism that keeps it all fresh, and in bitter contrast, it is a sad day when it comes to pass that the song must be recorded, and thus jailed within the shape and size of the final outcome. This is, no doubt, the origin of the perception that I "don't rush the process." Recording is like the last day of freedom before surrendering to a prison sentence - you want to stretch it out as long as you can, and be absolutely sure you have dotted all the t's and crossed all the i's before the cell door slams and locks it all into a neat
3-1/2 minute stone cylinder. Once recorded, I derive little pleasure in performing the song live in that format - instead, I put it up on blocks until I have forgotten how to play it ... one future moment will come along and I'll whip it out on a whim, feeling my way through it blind, and usually when that happens, I find its 'newness' all over again, as if I had just written it. Self interpretation is excitingly liberating.

QYou released your debut album, Last Hard Road in 1996 and then Nobody in 1998. The emphasis was on your quality songwriting as you shifted comfortably into the acoustic scene. Your next two releases, Live - Windmills Are Coming in 2000 and Professional Stranger in 2002 were a testament to your incredible live performances. Is that the toughest challenge, to match the level of your past work? Did you have a dry spell? Or were you satisfying your fans - a good career move?

AI'd have to say that I find it no challenge whatsoever to "match the level" of my past work, because I don't perceive my past work as having a level .. is just simply is.

As to dry spells, or 'writer's block' - the dreaded infliction .. to me it doesn't exist. Writer's block is a precipitation of the perception that one's music is a product designed for sale in a marketplace. If you're pumping out tunes for the sole purpose of getting them on to CDs and selling them, then it is entirely probable that you will become a slave to the reactions of others to your music, and the concern, aka the 'fear' that others will react negatively will ultimately cause you to begin crafting your music around what it is you think they want to hear. To me this is a dead end street because the truth is you never truly know what others are going to think. One can only guess, and when you reach that brick wall of realization that human response is ultimately unpredictable, that's when you draw a blank.

Forgive me as I wax idealistic, but in my universe, the true artist plies his creativity solely as a means of self expression, and as long as you exist, perceive, observe, opine, and theorize, you will always have something to express, and as long as you don't lose interest or cease getting enjoyment from the process, you'll always have a means of expression.

Clearly there are righteous arguments to this philosophy, but I seek not this debate. The Industry of Music has aptly illustrated that structure and predictability are viable concepts in the manufacture of, and force-feeding to the public, music that is designed to generate sales. The 'Art' of Music is my chosen purview, and I am well aware that I do not stand as what one might deem 'successful'. I am, however, free from the need to comply to any industry standard, thus not subject to the fear of failure to do so, and am, by my own standard of expectation, living large. For that I offer many thanks to the cosmos, and to those good folks who come around from time to time and show their interest in what I do.

The '3rd album live' was me mimicking the pattern so many artists followed as I observed in my youth, It seemed fun and appropriate. Professional Stranger was indeed a response to the enthusiasm so graciously shown me by folks at the gigs for the covers that I play. These two releases were intended to come fast and loose, but I ended up slaving over them as much as I do for any recording. I guess it's just my nature.

As far as the "career move" is concerned, I remember when I was young, the supreme benefit of achieving the monumental success & stardom I was wont to imagine in my wildest fantasies, was the freedom to do 'whatever I want'. While I may have strayed from the road I needed to travel in order to reach this goal, I never lost sight of the goal itself, and so, in retrospect I find, that 'doing whatever I want' is exactly what I did. I found it far more enjoyable to do that than to do what I thought I 'had to do' in order to reach the point where I could do 'whatever I want'. The least enjoyable period of my musical life was a 15 month span where I was signed to a label. Although the contract was willfully signed based on the caveat that I would do 'whatever I want' I was immediately besieged upon with calls dictating to me what I 'had to do.' While my noncompliance was irksome to them, their insistence that I do what they wanted was in breach of our agreement. I was eventually 'bought out' ~ easiest money I ever made, except for the fact that the entire time I was annoyed by the existence of this troublesome thing in my life, in which I was otherwise ridiculously happy.

So you could say that doing 'whatever I want', is the only career move I have ever made.

QThrough the years, the accolades and the awards have been coming your way - Kerrville Festival New Folk award, three-time first prize winner USA Songwriting Competition, John Lennon Songwriting grand prize winner, Falcon Ridge Festival Showcase artist, and Boston Music Awards folk finalist. This is a tough biz - has this acknowledgment eased your ambitions or is success always a struggle?

ASuccess is subjective. If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. These two things can be seen as both great wisdom and excuses for simply not being "good enough". But looking around, particularly at American culture, the most popular things are the things I like the least ... junk food, reality TV, bad country music . . . This is not to say that there aren't good people out there doing good things and being successful at them . . . more successful than I, that's for sure. I suppose I wish the "recognition of quality' hierarchy leaned more towards 'actually good' over the easily digestible.

I never thought I would think or say this, but I miss the generation gap. If I see one more 30-something mom with her identically dressed preteen daughter dancing to Katy Perry ... the human race will never evolve if we seek to raise carbon copies of ourselves, or try to become carbon copies of our children . . . I digress . . .

Feathers in the cap are only as useful as you choose to exploit them. It never hurts to win a contest, but the prize is likely most valuable thing you're gonna get. Accolades look good on the promo and webpage. There are managers and record label personnel who will tell you "this stuff is gold!" And to them it is - their job is selling. It's interesting, to me, that at the dawn of the industrial age, the job of the businessman was to find out what the people wanted and make it for them. Nowadays, the job is to make something and then convince people that they want it. This is why I am a cynic in business - I have no desire to convince anyone of anything. I write, I play, I sing, I make CDs. If you don't care for it, thank you for listening, good day to you, kind madam or sir. If you do, then good morning, brothers and sisters! My life and welcome to it.

QAfter almost a decade, you finally released a new album. The songs on Eponymous seem so strong, yet tender - wise, yet very simply put - all a tremendous balance of context and expression. I've seen the level of introspection rise through your songs to a newer clarity. As you say, this is a search for solid ground. Any comments about some of the tunes or the overall narration?

AIt pleases me find so many things that I considered as a child still with me today ~ their ubiquity being a tribute to their correctness. Truth is everywhere, no matter how desperately you may seek to disguise it. I have always adhered to the principle that since no two people are exactly alike, the best way to be unique is to be yourself. I have studied the architecture that makes the hits hits, the tough songs tough, the cool songs cool, and the tender ones tender. I have written songs around phonetics, rhythmic phrasing and melodic themes. My favorites have always been melodies that just come to me, and lyrics that I truly mean.

When John Lennon began releasing his love songs for Yoko, as a young, leather clad street rocker, I found these tunes to be too sickly sweet. I now see them as courageous and genuine, and when I listen, what I hear is music the likes of which will never be made again. Dylan is similar ... if you listen to songs he wrote on his first recording, and his most recent release, you will find something that has never changed. That something is the "to thine own self be true" factor. Maybe is was easier back then, but once the big money got involved, the craft of song sculpture eclipsed that art of music.

These days I seek 'absolute introspection'. It's frightening to strip yourself naked in a pubic forum, and that door can seem difficult to open, but once you open it, everything is in there ... an infinite supply of ideas... including the cure for writer's block.

QIn a lesser light, your liner notes are wonderfully written - a nice overview of who you are, where you've been, and what you value. The essay about mastering is a must-read for any sonic adventurer. But did you have to make them so god-damned small? It was a major effort to read - or was that rub for more intimate conversation through your website [www.joelcage.com]?

AThank you for your kind words, sir. I would say the intimacy is implicit in the font size. Ya gotta wanna read it.

I remember, as a child, the album covers I would look at while listening, their backsides were filled with text, like a newspaper article. I'd stare at all those words thinking one day I'd read them - might be interesting - but I never did. Prose is a great breeding ground for poetry, and many of my lyrics are born of my more journalistic meanderings. Serving up a bit of such doggerel seemed an apt way to paint a more complete picture. And, as it so sayeth in the text, if you can't read it, there is a pdf on the website which you can enlarge to taste and need. User interactivity - wave of the future ...

QLastly, tell us about that rugged well-worn guitar of yours, which has been your traveling companion for years. Through your long musical journeys, it's as much a part of your charisma as your passion.

AThat guitar changed my life. The 1936 Gibson L30 - so named for it's $30 price tag. The cheapest of the line - catalog description: Basic Acoustic Guitar. In 1936 a young man bought it fresh off the line. He then went off to war and was killed. His mother put it in the attic where it sat for 50+ years, until a friend of mine, doing some pick-up carpentry work, found it and offered to buy it. She told him the story of her son and gave it to him, saying it was time for it to move on. Later that very day I met up with my friend - I walked in on him sitting and strumming this newly acquired gem, and in response to my awe and admiration, he told me the story and gave me the guitar. It has been, virtually, the only guitar I have played since. It's a remarkable creature - different every time I pick it up - yea different even from song to song over the course of any performance - which requires that I constantly adapt, not only to how I want to play, but how it wants to be played. We fight, we caress, we converse. For me, it's the ideal example of spiritual/physical symbiosis.

In the grand scheme of things, I am inclined to believe that it was meant to be.