Family Weekly, February 29, 1976
by Noel Coppage
FW: You didn't major in music at NYU?
NEIL: No, I majored in biology, in a pre-med program. Songwriting is different from music, although I don't deny now that it would be nice to have a little more background in music theory. But when you're writing songs, you're dealing with all sorts of things. I was always interested in science, and pre-med was arespectable thing to do while I ursued my songwriting. By the time I was in my third year, I was interested only in fencing and writing songs.
FW: What was the attraction of fencing?
ND: It's a terrific way to vent your aggressiveness, for one thing, and I needed that. It's physical combat in a classical sense, and it's beautiful to see and do. I've always thought of it as similar to ballet. One of the thins I've been panting to do, in fact, is write some music for a fencing-ballet--the movements, music and staging would seem to go naturally together. My movements onstage actually incorporate fencing moves. I've looked at photographs of myself during concerts and it sometimes looks as if I'm in a fencing move, with a guitar in my hands instead of a sword.
FW: Your 1972 concerts on Broadway seemed to anticipate some of today's theatricality
in the staging of popular muxic--you were appearing out of a puff of smoke and the setting
was pretty elaborate for that time.
ND: Yeah, I guess I just think in terms of the stage. A lot of my songs lent themselves to it, to visual interpretation. The album I'm working on now is the kind of thing I might want to turn into a film.
FW: Do you view writing as a way of leaving your mark on the world, a way of acheiving
a kind of immortality?
ND: There may be some of that subconsciously, but the way I think about it is that I have three little kids and I may be leaving something by which they can know who their father was. I'm not sure Stephen Foster is any happier in his casket now that he's 'immortal'. He was poor and ragged when he died, you know.
FW: Your songs are deceptively simple. Most have just three chords. How do you go about
designing a song?
ND: When I first started, I worked with three chords in every bar, but I found that tied me down--I'm not a chord-change writer, I'm a songwriter. For my new album, I've finally refined it down to a one-chord song in one case. I'd been wanting to do that; it gives me an ultimate sort of freedom.....The other things, though--rhythm, for example--are as complex in some of my songs as you'll find in any jazz piece. That's a basic connection to human beings-rhythm. The lyrics aren't simple, either. They're extremely difficult because I'm trying to say complicated things in as few words as possible. Song Sung Blue took a lot of compressing and refining, and it has one of my favorite lyrics. It says something that's true-about melancholy being part of the human spirit-and it's concise. I Am...I Said is a different kind of lyric, and it was agonizing and personal to write. I spent four months on that.
FW: A lot of people have commented on the gospel sound in your songs.
ND: Well, I loved singing in the chorus, and there was some connection for me between gospel and choral music. But I had one experience that had quite an influence on me. I went up to a church in Harlem and sat in for the service to hear the singing. It was extraordinary, raw and powerful; it made my hair stand up.
FW: After those Broadway concerts, you temproarily retired from live performing to
write a symphony. Did the job of writing the Jonathan Livingston Seagull score
ND: I guess I satisfied the urge I had by writing that score, at least temporarily. It took a whole year of my life and was very involving. After doing it, I felt I'd now like to do something simpler.
FW: I understand you did considerable delving into religious tracts while you were
working on the 'Seagull' score.
ND: That's right. By chance a Hare Krishna kid came knocking on my door about then, wanting to give me literature and such. I invited him in. We talked for a while, and I asked him to read the script and tell me what he thought of it, had him make notes on it. I wound up working with him about six weeks-put him up in an apartment, rented him a car-until I reached the point where I had to work alone on it. He wanted me to go off with him to India and sit in a cave. I said that sounded great and I'd love to, but now I had to write this thing. I gave him a plane ticket, and he went while I settled down to pull it all together.
FW: It doesn't sound as if you miss performing as much as you would miss songwriting.
ND: Songwritng is what I do. Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest. Songs are so all-encompassing; they're the joys and sorrows and pacing of life. Songwriting is the only real discipline I've had in my whole life-thats why I hate it so much; I dont like imposing that kind of discipline on myself, but it has to be. Songs are life in 80 words or less.
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