You're one of the most prolific artists of our time, but you took three years before releasing ¿Which Side Are You On?. Why take such a long break now? That was all about being a mom, you know? Dedicating my time to my kid. Yup, she slows me down quite a bit. [laughs] Slowed down my average pace, which is terrific. It never would've occurred to me to slow down to a reasonable pace, but because I've been forced to it's actually been very useful I think. Taking a little more time making a record.
Did your songwriting process change?
Just more stepping back, I guess. I used to have like, free reign to go deep inside my shit and stay there. But a kid forces you out into the very real, sometimes boring, world around you, and it's great. I appreciate my job more, I appreciate being on stage more. I cut back on that, too. And making records, when I step away from the desk, I come back, I've got some perspective. That's been a missing ingredient along the way I think.
Do you think being a parent also affected it being a more explicitly political album than you've made in a long time?
Yeah, maybe. Being comfortable in one's own life means you have more time and energy to look outward, right? I guess having my shit dialed in at home means I can really dedicate myself to y'know, things like political change or whatever. More outward-looking songs again.
Why do you think protest songs have all but dried up during these fucking crazy political times?
I don't know, man. I'm really heartened by all this energy around the Occupations, even though we do indeed live in a fricking police state. And boy, out where you are it's been especially brutal! But just being out there, making people talk about the disparity, let alone changing it ... it's part of a whole cultural moment where artists are gonna get inspired to get involved. I'd love to see a renaissance of political music. It's like you said, there's no shortage of fucking shit to write about these days.
I've read criticisms that they "date too quickly," which is insane; no one thinks of Bob Dylan and says "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" or "Hurricane" didn't date well.
That the political song dates itself or something? Yeah, what the fuck is wrong with that? I mean, I just titled my new record after a song that dates back to the 1930s. I rewrote the verses so it's changed to the struggle today. The original verses were very much about the labor strike and the coal mining in fucking West Virginia or Kentucky or something... but the song itself is timeless, the sentiment is timeless. It's a call to action, and that's a whole process. Take the shit and update it and continually evolve it just like the political situation evolves. But if nobody puts it out there to begin with ... then there's no cultural legacy of rabble-rousing, revolutionary music to draw from, to reinvent.
Had Pete Seeger heard of you before you worked with him on that song?
Oh yeah, yeah. I've played his Clearwater festival since I was 18.
You were honored by the National Organization of Women a few years ago, so naturally I want to know your thoughts on Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh.
The only bad thing about that is, the more crazies the better in the Republican race. You know, he's a dark-hearted and dark-minded person, so, I wish all those kind of people didn't get so much airtime. I guess everybody understands Rush Limbaugh to be pretty far on the right, but what passes for the middle of the road these days is fucking fascist if you ask me. I think our whole perspective has gotten pretty skewed anyway, with Rush being just a symptom.
"Dude could be FDR right now/ Instead he's just shifting his weight" is one of the most quotable lines on the new album. What's been Obama's biggest failing? Do you think he'll be more gutsy in his next term?
That is the hope isn't it? I'm as disappointed as the next guy that Obama didn't enact change that was more sweeping and radical. But I try to shift focus away from him and the cult of celebrity that America is so invested in and really look at what stopped him from realizing all the good things that were attempted. Campaign financing, the tax structure is all wrong ... and then I think how Obama is failed is not answering to the people who rallied and got him elected in the first place. Is it his failing or is it ours? Because if we as a populace were really pressuring him, were really making our voice and our wishes known, so that he had somebody to point to when he's trying to make shit happen.... It's all of us together. That's the frustrating thing about democracy, you don't have a superhero to come and save you.
Another one that stands out is "Chicks got it good now/ They can almost be president." How close do you think are we?
The problem with feminism is it hasn't evolved. You see women as CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, you see women as Secretary of State and this and that. So you have a veil of equality, and you have way more equality than most places on the globe, so that's something to celebrate. But meanwhile, you have women in high places within a patriarchal system. And that's different from addressing patriarchy, which hurts men just as much as women. That's the way our legal system and our social culture is designed. Then you're still going to have all these unchecked manifestations of unchecked patriarchy: war, environmental destruction, blah blah blah.
On your jazzier albums of the last decade, were the lyrics intended to be less important and more abstract to blend in with the denser music?
Well, uh, there's lots of things going on in the last decade or so for me, concurrent and contradictory things. There's certainly been plenty of political content; it's not like I had some long gap of abstractism, really. But yeah, I guess none of it has a strategy, I don't intellectualize it other than just as an artist who's changing -- I've written like, 200 songs -- and I'm just trying to find new stuff to write about, or a new way to write about stuff, or, you know, something. [laughs]
You've always been on your own label, so I wanted to know, has the collapse the music industry been something you just kind of watched from afar, or have you felt it? The new album debuted at No. 26 or something on Billboard, which is impressive for an artist of your longevity.
In terms of the overall economy and the music industry being sort of exacerbated there, the whole thing fell apart and the new thing is being born. We have felt it at Righteous Babe, but the thing about me is I have a live audience that I've built over decades of endless work, so I still have a job. Whereas somebody else who's suddenly selling a tenth of the records they used to, they might not be the same kind of working musician. I think music in its essence is a social act, and what I do onstage will always be most important to me.
Do you think it's viable for a lot of other people to have the same career model as you?
Absolutely! Anybody else who can fucking play! And that's the way it should be. There's nothing wrong with smoke and mirrors and making records with machines and exploring all those possibilities, but with the whole music industry like that, it's like a house of cards. If you can't really sing and you can't really put on a show, when the marketing muscle starts failing, so does your gig. I mean, I don't think it's the worst thing in the world that the music industry has been contracting and distilling down to its most passionate and dedicated people.
Do you think there will ever be a time when what's considered corporate will grow to mean compassionate as well?
Yeah, absolutely could be! You reminded me of Japan. It's a different flavor over there, you have these huge corporations, and they have a different relationship with their workers. There's honor and longevity. If you get a job at Sony you're gonna have it the rest of your life, and you're gonna be treated with respect. There's a different, not just chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out modus operandi. Like we talked about earlier, if you come at it with a different intention, you can use all of these tools for good. I mean, I own a corporation; you're talking to a CEO. So there's nothing wrong with capitalism really, if you have the right spirit.
Tue., March 27, 8 p.m., 2012