Gun culture, genocide, Covid, environmental disaster, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and consumerism – these are just some of the themes that inform American Lullaby, the ninth studio album by Dean Friedman.
But, as is typical of the quirky, US singer-songwriter, who is best known in the UK for his 1978 number three hit, Lucky Stars, a duet with Denise Marsa, the wildly eclectic record, which includes pop, soul, jazz and funk, is loaded with off-the-wall humour, which means that even though Friedman is often tackling dark and disturbing subjects, the album isn’t a depressing or harrowing listen.
“I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of pretty gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi,” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers, speaking to us over Zoom from his home studio in Peekskill, NY.
It starts with the majestic and epic title track, which is one of the highlights – a lush, orchestrally-aided piano ballad with shades of Rufus Wainwright – and then heads straight into jazz territory with Too Much Stuff, a wry song about hoarding.
Halfway Normal Word laments how lockdown put a stop to some of the simple pleasures of everyday life, the ukulele-led trad-jazz of The Swing of Things is an optimistic ditty about trying to return to some sense of normality after the pandemic, while on the tight, slick and smooth funk of The Russians Are Coming, Friedman sings in a Russian accent for this tale of political corruption and shadowy goings-on in the corridors of power.
There’s more politics and funk, but with a hint of electro, on Ridin’ With Biden, and final song, On A Summer’s Night, is an atmospheric, chilled-out ballad that calms things down after all the madness.
‘I was conscious that I was touching on a lot of gloomy subjects, so I felt it was important to leaven that with an appropriate amount of humour and outright silliness. I’ve no problem doing that, as it’s pretty much my modus operandi’
We asked Friedman to tell us his thinking behind the new album and what inspired this collection of varied songs and styles, which he self-produced in his studio at home.
“I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music,” he says.
Did you write the majority of the new record during lockdown?
Dean Friedman: Yes – 90 per cent of it.
Were you planning on making a new album anyway, or did being stuck at home accelerate your plans?
DF: Last March, I was just about to step on a plane and do a 40-city UK tour. Within 24 hours, it was blown out of the water. I had an album planned – I’ve been crowdfunding them for years. In fact, after Marillion, I was one of the first artists to crowdfund an album.
Keeping in mind the severe suffering that so many people have endured, I would say that lockdown imposed a pause on the planet, which I think most people found really refreshing. As a musician, it gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career. It was a pleasure to be able to really dig into the material. I had more time to explore and try and realise the vision that I had in my mind for how the songs should sound.
It’s a very rich-sounding album, with a lot of varied arrangements on it – strings, jazzy piano, harmonica, ukulele, soul, funk…
DF: I’m accused of being too eclectic, but I’ve always taken that as a compliment because I love all kinds of music. Every song is different, but one of the common denominators is that I think of myself as someone who writes short stories set to music.
Once I’m into the early development of a song, it will generally suggest what sort of musical idiom it is and what sort of production treatment will favour it the most. I kind of let the story guide me, but there are also lots of juncture points in that process where I find myself making a conscious design. Do I want to do it on a ukulele or a guitar?
‘Lockdown gave me more time to spend on recording a new album than I ever have in my career’
Or sing in a Russian accent, like on For the Russians Are Coming…
DF [laughs]: For that, I had a tale I wanted to tell – it was a true story and I drew on source material – the Congressional Record and the Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the US election. I read a good part of a 1,000-page document and tried to make sure the song was accurate.
Once I’d written it, I tried to capture the essence of what I was trying to impart. It did occur to me that relaying it in a Russian accent would be appropriate. I’ve never done anything like that before. I took a wild shot – partly because of lockdown, the extra time and the lack of pressure, and the fact that everything was messed-up and bewildering – and in some ways it gave me the courage and licence to take chances that I might not necessarily have taken under normal circumstances. It cracks my friends up, but I’ve gotten really good responses from it so far. What’s your take on it?
SH: I think it’s fun – it made me laugh. It’s a good Russian accent.
The title track, which is the opener, is my favourite song on the album. It deals with gun culture, genocide, slavery, the 2017 Paradise shooting in Las Vegas and how America got to be in the state it is today. You then follow it with Too Much Stuff, which is a lightweight, jazzy number about being a hoarder. The first two songs are a real juxtaposition…
DF: I’ve always done that – even in my live shows. I don’t want to put people to sleep, and I want to present a broad palette of human experience and human nature. That element of humour is crucial to understanding and surviving our surreal existence here on this Earth. Without it, nothing makes sense.
The title track nicely sets up the album for some of the issues you go on to talk about, doesn’t it?
DF: It does precisely that – that was my conscious intent. The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery. The common denominator is our incomprehensible obsession with guns and the degree to which they make us adept killers. Why are we the number one military power, at least for the moment? It’s cos we’re really great at killing people! It’s one of our greatest talents. Look, I love our country and I’m proud to be an American, but not for every reason. On American Lullaby [the song] I’ve tried to tell a 400-year history in a six-minute pop song, which isn’t easy to do, in as gentle as way as possible.
‘The song American Lullaby talks about America’s two original sins – the massacre of the indigenous population and slavery’
All lullabies tend to be infused with these horrible things that happen to babies – like the bough breaking and the cradle falling in Rock-A-Bye Baby. The poor kids falls out a tree and gets hit on the head by a cradle – the point being that, in a strange way, lullabies instil some kind of warning to those little humans just entering the world about all the perils that are out there in front of them, but in a way that doesn’t scare the hell out of them.
That to me is what the album is all about – to impart dire messages in comforting and soothing ways, like a lullaby. Be aware of all the horrible things that are going on in the world but try and avoid them.
The whole album is sort of my attempt, for myself and, potentially listeners, to make some kind of sense of all the crazy shit that’s gone on for the past six years – from the day America woke up to a failed gameshow host and con artist being president.
We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House. The world has gone so far astray that any sense of normality is hard to recapture.
Myself and everyone else on the planet had this sense of befuddlement and confusion – I was incredulous at what was going on, but we had to get on with our daily lives and get stuff done. I wanted to provide a context for that and to chronicle my experiences, my understanding and my bewilderment of the past six years.
Did you write the record as a concept album?
DF: After writing the first couple of songs, I realised that inadvertently what I was doing was chronicling these surreal experiences of current events. Once it dawned on me that was the case, I did consciously address topics that fell within that brief. There are a couple of songs that aren’t 100 per cent in the script, but even then I was leavening some of that heavy, sober and difficult material with some measure of humour and silliness.
‘We knew that people were going to die and hundreds and thousands of them did, needlessly, because Trump was in the White House’
There’s been a low-key, underlying sense of anxiety about what’s going to happen next because, clearly, our leaders don’t have a fucking clue! Even if they did, they don’t have the competence to execute any kind of solution that’s appropriate.
For myself, I also felt compelled to write something that was optimistic and uplifting – a song like The Swing of Things. When you’re in a funk and you’re having a really tough time, you don’t want to get out of bed. That song tries to acknowledge that and people who are experiencing it, but also say, ‘that sucks but sometimes you’ve just got to get back into the swing of things.’
SH: We talked about lullabies earlier. What keeps you awake at night?
DF [laughs]: Like every other indie artist, with rare exceptions, I serve as my own promoter for my tours and gigs. That means that all the responsibilities are down to me. So what keeps me awake at night is wondering whether I’m doing enough to let people know that I have a new album coming out, and that I have a tour coming up in April.
The other thing is that I have a little dog called Lola – she’s from the Czech Republic and she only weighs about four pounds. I live in a semi-rural part of New York State – about an hour north of New York City.
I worry that some kind of bird of prey, like a red-tailed hawk, will swoop down, see little Lola and think ‘what a tasty little snack.’ I’m always out in the backyard with an air horn to distract the hawks. So far it’s worked out okay.
Dean Friedman’s new album, American Lullaby, is released on August 27, on his Real Life Records label.
He will be touring the UK from April 2022 – visit www.deanfriedman.com for more details.