“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today we’re joined by a talented singer and songwriter who was named Songwriter of the Year by Spin magazine, Amy Rigby. Great to have you here.
Amy Rigby: Nice to see you, Ken.
Paulson: We’re going to have some fun. Your songs are not the standard kinds of things you hear on pop radio. By design?
Rigby: Ah, yeah, I guess that’s the only way I can do it is — I like them to sound like stuff you might hear on pop radio, but I like the lyrics to be sort of things that catch you off guard.
Paulson: You have had an interesting musical path. You were born in Pittsburgh, made your way to New York, I understand, to study art.
Paulson: And then somehow you became a professional musician. What got into you?
Rigby: Well, I was a big music fan, and when I first moved up to New York, it was kind of the heyday of punk rock. You know, I went to see The Ramones and Blondie and, and then all the English bands that were coming over. And so I was just a huge fan. Then I started meeting some of the female bands, like The Raincoats and The Slits, that came over from England and just really was captivated by what they were doing. And I think maybe that gave me a little bit of courage to start doing my own.
Paulson: And you did. You formed a band.
Rigby: Yeah, but it kind of — it took a turn there because in the early ’80s in New York, there was a big influx of southerners. And punk had sort of turned into new wave and, and wasn’t as interesting anymore. And so I started meeting all these people from Georgia and North Carolina, and they were playing old country records. And so, yeah, we started listening to the Carter Family and Delmore Brothers, Louvin Brothers. And that’s how I got into writing songs was, I don’t know, just the simple stories that, that the country people told. And their songs were just kind of inspiring to me to actually write my own.
Paulson: And you ended up in a group called The Shams that people who lived in the Northeast probably saw quite a bit of.
Rigby: Maybe, yeah, well, first — first was Last Roundup.
Rigby: And that was, that — we called ourselves an urban hillbilly band, so we kind of — we played in rock clubs in New York City, but we used acoustic instruments and, like, a lap steel guitar, and — but our songs were about, you know, the concerns of a person who would be living in the East Village of Manhattan in 1983. And then that kind of — that turned into The Shams. Some of the girls who were in Last Roundup with me, we formed The Shams. And kind of same thing, we’d play in these rock clubs, but we’d be singing really pretty sweet voices, but lyrics that would be kind of attention-getting.
Paulson: Well, knowing that your background is in punk, new wave, and the Carter Family pretty much explains everything about your style today. You released an album called “Diary of a Mod Housewife,” 1996 —
Paulson: — that got a lot of attention, named one of the top ten albums of the year by The Village Voice, prompting rave reviews from Spin, which then recognized you as Songwriter of the Year. And basically, a groundbreaking record, in part because it spoke from a different place than a lot of pop records. “Diary of a Mod Housewife:” That’s pretty much what the theme of the CD was. Great liner notes, and I just want to read this: “I’ve been a mod housewife since 1993, when I decided I was not going to get down on my hands and knees and scrub the bathroom floor unless I could get up on stage and sing about it. I didn’t want to fight about sex and laundry with my husband unless I could turn it into a song.” Different inspiration than most pop songs.
Rigby: I guess so.
Paulson: What were you trying to set out to do with “Mod Housewife”?
Rigby: I guess I was trying to take the music forms that I liked and enjoyed listening to and — take those, but then set lyrics to them that were the type of lyrics that I’d not really heard in pop music before. Maybe I had heard it in a Loretta Lynn song or in a Loudon Wainwright song, but as far as, like, with, you know, heavy guitars and, and some drums and, and actually making it rock, I think that that’s what I wanted to do.
Paulson: And both that album, and “Middlessence,” which followed — they really are from the perspective of, of a young woman or somebody entering their middle ages, middle age years, where they’re tying to raise kids, trying to have a career, in your case, trying to make music. Has that been a challenge for you?
Rigby: Well, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, if you’re an artist, a musician, or just a person living in the time we’re living in, trying to raise a family, trying to be fulfilled, you know, trying to make a living, trying to contribute something to the world like all the — I don’t — I think we’re maybe the first generation that have all that pressure on ourselves — we put it on ourselves — to do all that. And, so, you know, I guess I felt like it kind of needed to be addressed. Or that’s what compelled me to want to get up on stage by myself — you know, not kind of hiding behind the concept of a band, and — get up and sing about it.
Paulson: Can we hear a little bit from, “Middlessence”? “Summer of My Wasted Youth,” I think, kicks that album off.
Rigby: [Plays and sings] “Summertime in ’83,/ the year that we made history,/ but didn’t have the energy/ to tell a soul, except you, / and you and me. / Selling off fiesta plates. / Ate loaves of bread/ and gained no weight/ from pecan waffles on the roof. / The summer of my wasted youth. / Summertime in ’83,/ the last time I took LSD/ but listening to Patsy Cline/ and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind. / Played the boom box in the courtyard. / Never used a credit card. / Still took a trip by greyhound bus. / The summer I believed in us. / Pushed plaster cows down city streets. / Wore thrift store skirts with little pleats. / Smoked pot and sat around all day. / Bought a guitar, but didn’t try to play. / Hey, hey, hey, hey. / Hey. / Summertime in ’83,/ I didn’t need a j-o-b,/ ’cause unemployment kept me free/ to study country harmony. / And find somebody with a car. / Drink cheap beer in the Polish bar. / Take photos in the photo booth. / The summer of my wasted youth. / The summer of my wasted youth. / The summer of my wasted youth. / Ooh.”
Paulson: Wonderful. “Skeeter Davis blew my mind.” I love that line. You had a chance to meet Skeeter Davis.
Rigby: I did. I did. I met her backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when I first moved to town. And I went up to talk to her. I just couldn’t hold back, ’cause, yeah, that was one of the first country records I really got into, was the Davis Sisters singing “I forgot more than you’ll ever know about him.” And, you know, that was just a psychedelic line to me. You can think about that line for a long time and what it means. So, so we talked, and —
Paulson: Does she know that you put her in your song?
Rigby: Yeah, I told her about it. And, yeah, so that was — that’s one of the really exciting things about coming to Nashville is just meeting people like that who, who really just, basically, yeah, blew my mind.
Paulson: In an interview with the Houston Press, I believe, you talked about — you don’t feel like you’d really be a success until you come up with a song that is popular with a lot of people —
Paulson: — which is an interesting goal for somebody who’s written the material you write.
Rigby: Do you think I’m crazy?
Paulson: Isn’t there kind of a contradiction? I mean, the first two albums are wonderful records, but — or actually wonderful CDs. I’m dating myself.
Paulson: But they are from a very distinct perspective, a middle-aged woman —
Paulson: — or a young woman raising small kids and, ah, not a universal pop theme, which is usually dancing, sex and young love. Are you working against yourself somehow?
Rigby: Well, I guess I just feel like there’s a lot of people out there who have other concerns. Like, their concerns kind of go deeper than just that fantasy, escape element of pop music. And so yeah, may — maybe they want to escape with pop music. Maybe I am deluding myself. But I guess, you know, it seems worth a try. And at this point, I feel, having performed a lot of these songs in front of an — audiences, you know, I tour a lot, and seeing the reaction that I get from people where they might be my personal experiences, but people feel like I’m singing about them, too. Yeah, I guess at this point, I just feel like it’s a lack of exposure that keeps one of those songs from actually being, like, you know, a phenomenal success.
Paulson: And you also write some beautiful pop songs that don’t necessarily have that particular perspective. On your third CD, “Sugar Tree,” you wrote a remarkable, very pop song called “Magicians,” and I wondered if we could hear that now.
Rigby: Sure. [Plays and sings] “You say there’s nothing in the future for us. / This lust is just a passing thing. / You tell me late at night while lying in bed / that we’re not really happening. / You tell me this is nothing real, / that we can touch, but we can’t feel. / Let’s leave reality out of this, shall we? / No need to mention it. It’s always here. / Give the cold, hard facts back to the mathematicians. / We’re magicians. / We make reality disappear. / We’re really something when we take off our clothes. / I wish that we could stay this way. / It’s not a healthy way to live, I suppose. / At least that’s what I was raised to say. / You tell me life is just unfair, / but I can hear that anywhere. / Let’s leave reality out of this, shall we? / No need to mention it. / It’s always here. / Stick the rhetoric with those old politicians. / We’re magicians. / We make reality disappear. / Suspend belief. / It’s a must-do. / My fantasy, / I don’t trust you, / but I won’t hold it against you / as long as you hold me against you. / You tell me this is nothing real, / that we can touch, but we can’t feel. / Let’s leave reality out of this, shall we? / No need to mention it. / It’s always here. / Give the cold, hard facts back to the mathematicians. / We’re magicians. / We make reality disappear. / Stick the rhetoric with those slick politicians. / We’re magicians. / We make reality disappear.”
Paulson: The songs you write, and that’s another example of it, they are so candid. I mean, some of these are conversations with the other party in a relationship. Are you that candid in real life?
Paulson: So you inevitably — if things aren’t going well, you have to write a song and say, “I’m going to dedicate this to you.”
Rigby: It’s true. Yeah, it makes it hard for my personal relationships, because, yeah, sometimes the only way I feel actually bold and articulate is in a song. And that’s when it all makes sense. And then as soon as I’m done writing the song, you know, I’m just, like, as clueless as the next person. And so I think that’s what makes me want to go out and play, also, because every time I play the song, I kind of feel like I know what I’m talking about for, like, three minutes.
Paulson: And you probably get this affirmation, women in the audience coming up and saying, “I know that guy.”
Rigby: Right, and the men too. Like, the men — that, that’s been a real learning experience, is songs that I think are distinctly female. Yeah, I’ve learned a lot about men through my songs, because I have found out, you know, that a lot of the same things that women are thinking about, you know, men are concerned about, too, and suffering through the same trials. So that’s, that’s been a good education.
Paulson: Well, your work is always honest. Are there times where you won’t tackle a subject? Do you censor yourself? Are there things you just say, “I can’t write about that” either personally, emotionally, or politically?
Rigby: A far as, like, politics, for example, not to say I’m ignorant, but I maybe don’t feel like I’m the right person to address that, in, in song. Sometimes family stuff, you know, maybe my daughter. I try to — there’s things I could say about — about, you know, what we go through, that I try to give her a little bit of respect, you know, and not — not go too far.
Paulson: Speaking of not going too far, I wonder if we could hear from you on a song that showed up on your “18 Again” anthology, a collection of, I guess, the greatest hits that should have been your greatest hits.
Paulson: And this is a song called “Keep It to Yourself.”
Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about the making of this song and perform it for us?
Rigby: OK. Well, I was having a conversation with a new boyfriend. And you know how, when you get together with someone, you kind of reveal a little of your past, and I was talking about the last person that I was involved with. And I — you know, maybe I was laying it on a little thick about how bad they were. And my new boyfriend said, “I’ll kill him,” and I said, “Well, I could give you his address.” And so the next day, I was going to write a song with Bill Demain, and he had, like, a nice little bossa nova beat in mind, so we just put it to that. [Plays and sings] “You say you’d like to kill the man who broke my heart. / You don’t think he should be allowed to live. / You say you want to shoot the dude who screwed me up. / Me, I’m trying so hard to forgive. / But here’s his address. / Here’s his picture. / Here’s the make and model of his car. / He works until 4:30. / Then he hangs out at the topless bar / with a girl on each arm. / If he should come to harm, / just keep it to yourself. / Remember how he cheated / and he lied to me. / You told me that it makes you lose your head. / I see they’re pouring concrete on Route 33. / I don’t believe / you’d do those things you said. / But here’s his address. / Here’s his picture. / Here’s his pager number and his cell. / He works out at the health club. / And he really likes to watch himself / flexing in the mirror. / If he should disappear, / just keep it to yourself. / I like the way that you take care of me. / I like the way you say / that you’ll take care of things. / Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba. / Ba, ba, ba, ba. / So here’s his address. / Here’s his picture. / Here’s the make and model of his car. / He works until 4:30. / Then he hangs out at the topless bar / with a girl on each arm. / If he should buy the farm, / just keep it to yourself. / Just keep it to yourself.”
Paulson: Did you notice a falloff in dates after recording that song? Who in the world —
Rigby: No, actually —
Paulson: I don’t know. I’d be a little intimidated by that. Tell us about your latest CD.
Paulson: This is called [Both say] “Till the Wheels Fall Off.”
Paulson: And it’s not a theme CD.
Rigby: No theme. No theme. Although a lot of the songs were written while I was driving. You know, I’d stop and write it down later, actually, but, you know, coming up with melodies — ’cause I did so much touring the last two years. So I’d come up with melodies and lyrics while I was driving. And then I’d pick up a guitar later. But yeah, no, no real theme, just basically — the big difference with this album for me is that I didn’t use a producer. I worked with a lot of different musicians who play with me in my various road bands and different studios around Nashville. I recorded a couple songs in Scotland with a guy that I work with over there and one up in New York. And so, yeah, it was just really kind of — it feels the most like what I do, so.
Paulson: You don’t write a lot of political songs, but there’s one song on this CD that reflects the chaotic times in which we live. And I wonder if you could do that for us.
Rigby: Sure. This is, ah, this is called “Don’t Ever Change.” [Plays and sings] “I took a walk in a small town Sunday morning / just to see what was going on. / Sat watching two guys fishing in the river running through / like there was nothing wrong, nothing wrong. / They had their lines in the water ten feet apart, / beer guts, T-shirts, me with my heavy heart. / Don’t have religion, but I’m trying to pray / and I never liked fishin’, / but I wanted to stand up and say, / ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change. / Don’t ever change.’ / ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change.’ / I picked my daughter up at school last week. / She had her headphones on. / She barely said ‘Hello,’ / and all I wanted was to hug her, / smother her with kisses, / but I was cool like, ‘Hi there, how did it go?’ / She had chipped nail polish, writing on her hand. / She was nodding her head to her favorite band, / staring into space like she was all alone. / But I didn’t take it personal. / It meant that I was home. / And I said, ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change. / Don’t ever change.’ / ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change. / Don’t ever change.’ / I’m holding on to anything that’s good in this world. / There’s a lot that’s good in this world. / I saw my baby sitting there at the breakfast table, / his hair a mess, and he forgot to shave. / And I wished that he would get up, / make it all better, / stop drinking so much, / learn how to behave. / Then the radio was playing a Chuck Berry song. / He was looking at me asking what was wrong. / I made a list of the things I could say. / But he gave me a wink, and it all went away. / I told him, / ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change. / Don’t ever change.’ / ‘Hey, I love you. / You’re perfect. / Don’t ever change. / Don’t ever change.’”
Paulson: From the new CD “Till the Wheels Fall Off” from Amy Rigby. It’s been a pleasure visiting with you. Thanks for being here.
Rigby: Thanks, Ken.
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