Despite only ever having spoken once before with singer-songwriter Joel Rafael, our phone conversation on April 2, 2015 felt as comfortable as catching up with an old friend. Signed to Jackson Browne’s Inside Recordings in 2000, Rafael has played an integral role in the folk music community, serving on the Board of the Folk Alliance for several terms. A Woody Guthrie devotee, Rafael was the featured performer at a Guthrie tribute held in 2012 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. During the course of his career, Rafael has shared the stage with the likes of Joan Baez, John Trudell, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Sheryl Crow, Laura Nyro, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, and John Lee Hooker. The California-based artist is about to release his ninth solo album on April 14th and is heading to New York City for an April 13th performance with Tom Chapin at City Winery.
Long Island Pulse: I’ve been marinating myself in the new album, Baladista. Just like 2012’s America Come Home, it’s like a favorite flannel shirt; the songs just seem to slip right on and they’re instantly comfortable, instantly familiar.
Joel Rafael:Thank you very much, I sure appreciate that.
Pulse: I wanted to discuss the writing process with you. I recently spoke with Richie Furay and Jimmy Webb and each of them talked about their changing perspective on songwriting with the passage of time. What are your personal views on that?
JR:Well, I’m not sure what their process is, but I do know that every time I’ve figured out what the formula is, what I realize is that there is no formula. I might have told you that before! [laughs]
Pulse: Yes, you did!
JR: I’ll stick with that one, but the thing that I have noticed is … when I work, I save everything, even if I just get a short start of a few words or a sentence or two, I keep it. I’m not very good at keeping track of it, but I keep it. And when I get in a writing mood, I dig through the stuff that I’ve got, so consequently sometimes my songs come from pieces that are stretched out over a long period of time. I might find a couple of things that, all of a sudden, I realize that they go together. I think what happens in the finished product of a lot of my work is that it covers a time range that reaches the demographic that’s within that time range, but also, probably, my own demographic, you know, as well, because obviously we’ve lived through the same times. I guess what I’m saying is that the songs cover some time, some distance. It’s not like you sit down, and OK, I’ve got a new song this week. The song might contain elements that have been composed over a period of many years; at least in my case, the way I write.
Pulse: The autobiographical nature of the album is revealed in a sort of timeline. On the opening track, “She Had to Go”, I was having visions of being back in middle school or high school … it really brought a lot back! I also love the line in “Love’s First Lesson”—Ask anyone with a love that’s true/Love’s first lesson is a broken heart. Bravo! That song is a collaborative effort with Jack Tempchin; how did that one materialize?
JR:[laughs] Well, we’ve been friends for a really long time, around forty years, really. We haven’t hung out together all during that time; we’ve kind of run into each other at different chapters in our lives down through the years. We met forty years ago, and we don’t live that far from each other, so we tend to run into each other and had beco Ime really good friends over a period of time. But we’d never written together, and he does do a lot of co-writing, but he’s very prolific as a songwriter on his own, and he writes with other people. I came to write mostly on my own; I do have some collaborations. Anyway, I was just at dinner one night and he called me up and basically said that he was looking for somebody that was a good writer who was willing to stay up really late, drive over to his house, and help him write the epic song of the ‘60s … and he said he narrowed it down pretty quickly to me! [laughs]
To find out what happened that night, and to read the complete conversation, visit Island Zone Update.