Described by Time magazine as someone who “writes songs with the same urgency that compelled the Lost Generation to write novels,” Peter Himmelman has long explored a diverse array of creative outlets from solo albums and children’s CDs (including the Grammy-nominated My Green Kite) to composing scores for television and film. On August 11th, the singer-songwriter released his latest full-length, the stunningly crafted There Is No Calamity. Recently, Mr. Himmelman graciously took the time to speak about the project, including working with Steve Berlin, and more.
There Is No Calamity was produced by Steve Berlin [Los Lobos] who had a large hand in choosing the songs for the project, which to me seems to involve both relinquishing some control and a lot of trust.
At this point in my career, I’ve done so much on my own, but in many aspects of life, having a partnership is something that’s desirable to me. I really wanted some input on the album, and I did trust Steve. In fact, I started trusting him even before I heard his production stuff. I trusted the way he spoke on the phone. I liked what he had to say and the way he said it. Then I went back and listened to what he’d done, and I thought he had this muscular rock sound, but it wasn’t WROQUE. It sounded like things that I liked - it sounded lean and tough, but also had production value to it. I liked what I heard, so we went forward.
I wrote all of the songs he picked from, some I liked less and some I liked more, but had he not picked a few like “Rich Men Rule The World,” I would have thrown that one on there. Then, there were a couple that were done as country demos that I would have canned if he wouldn’t have chosen them. So, in a sense, I didn’t give up control; I had input, and if I was firmly against something, it was out.
It sounds then like it was a collaborative effort then. Something else that you did for the first time was use your touring band - bassist Matt Thompson, drummer Chuck Lacy and guitarist Scott Tipping - as the players on the record.
These are guys I found somewhat serendipitously maybe ten years ago though a drummer I knew. I found them to be amazing players who were also very enthusiastic, and that combination of enthusiasm and mastery is a very powerful thing. In 2015, I promised them I would use them on a record, but ended up going with other people, which they understood, so with this record I felt I owed them. That promise was the motivating factor, but using them on the album was just so doable even before I thought about making this record.
Was it something that you were thinking about for awhile?
At least at my level, there really are no practical reasons for someone to make a record these days. Even with the Kickstarter, it’s all about how much money I want to lose because it’s a certainty that the record will not recoup what it cost to make. When I was on a label, I made a living by being given an advance, putting out a record, and touring behind it. Now there exists a purifying motivation that goes back to when you were a kid, and you weren’t thinking about a set point investment – you made music as an act of love. One returns to making records because it’s restorative and inspiring, and has powerful life giving properties.
As a listener, music definitely can be all of those things.
Where does the title There Is No Calamity originate from?
It comes from a line in the chorus of the song “I Pity You Poor Spirits.” Some people point out the irony of the title in these times, but it was written and chosen before the political season. I saw that phrase and thought it felt right. Then, I asked my son, who is aesthetically astute and a great writer himself, to pick one phrase from the whole of the lyrics and he picked the same one. I knew then that was it.
The album begins with 245th Peace Song which was written after you’d read the United States’ Department of Justice’s report on the causes of what happened in Ferguson in 2014. Why did you choose that to lead the project?
Steve had a hand in putting that first; I think he believed it was somewhat anthemic, and I thought it seemed right. Although it mentions race, I don’t look at that song as being political. I see it as an internal dialogue to use your intellect to overcome your emotions, which I think is one of the most important things for a relationship, or anything. Some people may ask ‘What about emotions?’ Well, your emotions are fine – they’re an endless ocean. There’s no problem with emotions, but one way to express them is to allow them to come to the prism of intellect. That’s what this song is saying.
Two of my favorite songs are “Fear is Undoing” and the gospel-tinged “Ropes and Wings.” Would you choose one and talk about the story behind the song?
I like those songs both, but I’ll take “Ropes and Wings” because it’s at the end and maybe people won’t hear it. “Ropes and Wings” deals with that duality I mentioned earlier about intellect over emotion. In any instance, it’s your choice to decide whether you are going to impune or ridicule or subject people, or yourself, to violence or elevate them. Every second, human beings are making decisions, or some are electing not to make a decision, which is its own decision and probably the most dangerous thing of all.
This song has a very simple idea about that, but it’s something that I think about a lot because it is very important to me. For example, I used to play in a band called Sussman Lawrence and we wrote a song called “I’m a Fireman” and the lyrics were “Oh baby I’m coming, I’ll be there to hose you down.” Those songs were being listened to by Warner Brothers, and I’m so happy that none of them got us a record deal because I’d be having to play that shit now and my kids would think Dad is such a loser. But these songs, on this record, I stand behind them. I can inhabit them and play them and feel connected to them - and that’s a good thing.
I can believe that must be.
Finally, is there anything you would like to add?
Sometimes people who have been with us for years come to shows for nostalgic purposes, to hear songs we’ve played for a while. Recently at shows I've said, ‘I’m going to do something now that hopefully isn’t going to offend all of you and I apologize in advance, but I’ve written new material and I’d like to play it because I think it’s every bit as good as my other stuff.’ You know, we’re still doing this; I’m still making what I think is really strong stuff and I’m ready to make the next record. Maybe I’ll work with Steve again; maybe we’ll take more time to record, but the ball was on a hill, I gave it a little kick and it started rolling. It's in motion.
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