Soul Picnic
An interview with
Michele Kort
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 27, 2002

If the issue of "musical influence" is not the easiest to discuss, when coupled with the notion of "cult artist" it can definitely become the source of heated debate. The whole matter is further complicated by two factors: since rock music is about fifty years old, given time a group/artist can go from the "widely known" to the "cult artist" category - and then into the "widely known" again, and so on; which - given the present conditions - depends more on consumers' temporal horizons than critics'; this, in a context where notoriety translates into money.

Nowadays, listing the names of the groups from the western world that do not consider the Velvet Underground as an influence goes a lot faster than doing the opposite. Is this influence for real, imagined - or a false claim? And: which VU album are we talking about? Think about Bacharach: if memory serves, in the '70s The Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald was practically the only famous artist who mentioned Bacharach as an influence; a decade later, lots of groups praised Bacharach; but is it the same Bacharach that McDonald admired (i.e., "melody, harmony and rhythm") or a "postmodern" object made equal to "Party + Dry Martini"? Does claiming King Crimson as an influence on (so-called) "post-rock" hold water? Scholars remain unconvinced. Meanwhile, King Crimson's name gets much-needed currency, and the group goes on tour supporting Tool.

All this - admittedly, in a very roundabout way - takes us to Laura Nyro: pretty well-known by the end of the '60s, then more and more a "cult artist" till her premature death in 1997. Her fans' hopes are for "a new discovery". I'll be very glad to be proven wrong, but, alas, this doesn't look too likely; for two reasons: first, Nyro's considerable innovations in both music and words are so deeply ingrained in today's modern music as to have practically become part of the landscape - we don't ask ourselves where it came from (it's Bob Dylan's problem, too); then (but, in a way, this is reason # 1), the most famous artists who have praised Nyro are Suzanne Vega and Rickie Lee Jones: not exactly "hot chart material" in a world with ever-shortening attention spans. So it doesn't mean much when the new Paula Cole hit so closely resembles Nyro's work. Nor when Fiona Apple's debut album could have not existed without her.

So I was definitely surprised when Soul Picnic - the first Laura Nyro biography - appeared (it was published last spring by St. Martin's Press). In cases like this, one fears: a) a copy-and-paste job; b) an uncritical fan who'll praise everything (and, of course, there's always a + b). I'm extremely glad to report that Soul Picnic is an excellent book: long on research, full of new interviews (more than one hundred!), including conversations with producers, engineers and musicians. Michele Kort's own voice is wisely unobtrusive, but her point of view is always clear - and she doesn't shy away from criticism. Full discography, bibliography and notes are included, of course.

So doing an interview with Michele Kort was on top of my wish list. The following conversation - for which I thank her a lot - took place via e-mail, from Dec. 16 to Dec. 19.

After Soul Picnic came out, you travelled all around the USA promoting it. Would you mind talking about the reactions to your book - for instance, on radio shows and similar occasions?

The reactions were wonderful. Some people called in radio shows and said they cried hearing Laura's music. She is so rarely played on the radio, but because of my book, she would get played for an hour or two at a time. Amazing! In general, I found that most fans of Laura Nyro have a similar story: They thought they were the only ones who were so touched by her music!

If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to the beginning: what was the initial impulse behind your decision to write the book? (By the way, thanks a lot for including the credits about the musicians who played on the first three albums - just this morning I got the CD re-releases of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry and looking at the booklets I found those informations still missing! Which will be considered a minor point by some, but...)

Well, I was a huge fan of Nyro's. I always say I was a "Day One" fan, because I fell in love with her music in the fall of 1966 when I heard her version of "Wedding Bell Blues" played on AM radio in Los Angeles. I followed her career from that day on, and knew all of her songs, saw her concert many times, collected articles about her (which helped when I started the book!), and so on. When she died, I was completely shocked, and then sort of heartbroken thinking that I would never see her perform again. That first week, I got tears in my eyes every day when I thought of her. And then a friend said to me, "You should write a book about her." I had never thought of this. I thought I would READ that book, not WRITE it. But I mulled over her suggestion for a week, and gradually thought, "Why NOT me?" After all, I was familiar with her entire career, I had collected all these articles, and I always had wanted to write a biography. From that point on, it was just a matter of believing that I could do it.

Here in Italy at the end of the '60s most of the songs written by Laura Nyro that charted in the USA as covers by other groups - say, Stoned Soul Picnic by The Fifth Dimension, Eli's Coming by Three Dog Night and And When I Die by Blood, Sweat and Tears - were all over the radio. And one could also listen to the Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger's version of Save The Country off their Streetnoise LP - they were quite popular here. But the original versions were very rarely broadcasted, if ever. Would you mind talking about the impact of Laura Nyro's own albums in the USA? They must have sounded quite original - and not that "easy to get" to many...

Laura Nyro's versions of her songs didn't get played on U.S. radio much either! Except on the "underground," hip radio stations. Nevertheless, Nyro's albums had a very solid cult following. They weren't super hits, but they sold a decent amount of albums. College students were particularly strong fans of hers. Her music seemed to speak very directly to young people, men and women, and they were drawn to her very strongly. The biggest criticism of Nyro was that her voice could be shrill, but I felt that it was mainly older male critics who said that. Fans of Nyro thought her voice was fantastic, and her music compelling. I personally thought she was sort of a guide to grown-up romance and passion and maturity (even though she wasn't much older than me!).

Maybe the fact that the tempo of her songs in their original versions wasn't very strict - in fact, they made extensive use of "rubato" - had something to do with it? But it's also because of this that - in my opinion - today they sound a lot less dated than many other songs from that period. Anyway, quite a few artists who were already active by then - I'm thinking about Felix Cavaliere, Todd Rundgren or Joni Mitchell - were extremely attuned to her work, not to mention future artists like Suzanne Vega or Rickie Lee Jones...

I think other artists changed tempo -- even in their covers of Laura's songs. No, I think she was just too intense for mainstream radio. Passionate, unrestrained. Compare the cover versions with her own -- they sound tame, smoothed-over. But real ARTISTS in music adored her work, because they recognized her unique vision and her remarkable abilities as a songwriter. I think many were also blown away by her charisma as a stage performer.

A fact that has been reported as true in every rock encyclopaedia is her being booed at the Monterey Pop Festival. But after reading your book I think we can safely put this myth to rest, right?

I sure hope it's put to rest! It's true that she wasn't a big hit at Monterey, especially since the hits of the festival were the rock acts like Jimi Hendrix and the Who and Janis Joplin, but she wasn't booed either. You can now watch her performance on the new DVD of the festival released by filmmaker DA Pennebaker. When he and the festival's producer Lou Adler watched that tape, after many years away from it, all they could hear at the end of Laura's set was someone yelling out "Beautiful, beautiful..."

A topic I'd like to ask you about is what I perceive as her not wanting to "play by the rules", in the business sense of the expression. (By the way, the recent Rolling Stone "Women in Rock" special issue (# 608) didn't even mention Laura Nyro - a fact that didn't go unnoticed by some readers - nor did they feature people like Ani DiFranco, Lisa Germano or Aimee Mann, who are definitely not very "flexible" when it comes to the business dept...)

Yes, Rolling Stone usually fails to recognize the real female talent in music -- that magazine is looking for the women who look most like hookers! Since Laura Nyro never performed in a midriff top (nor do DiFranco, Germano, and Mann, as far as I know), they're of little interest to R.S.

As for Nyro not "playing by the rules," I think that after she had her very successful taste of the music business early on, she decided that she preferred music to business. I don't think that being very famous suited her -- she said herself that although her audience was small in quantity, it was high in quality. She always wanted to do exactly what she wanted to do, throughout her life. She certainly didn't want to adjust her songs to suit someone's idea of "hits."

Sony has recently re-released three early Laura Nyro albums on CD. But some titles - say, Nested or the Season of Lights live album - have been out-of-print for quite a long time. It seems to me that when it comes to music critics her later work has been unfavourably compared to her previous material. Is my perception correct? And: how do you regard her post-Nested output?

Well, Season of Lights I believe will be re-released next spring, along with Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and Smile. It will also be the full-length version of the album -- not the truncated version that was released in the U.S. in 1977. I hope that Sony Legacy will then re-release Nested and Mother's Spiritual, which I think are very overlooked. They have wonderful material on them. But yes, her later work was rarely considered by critics to be as good or important as her earlier work. Personally, I love Mother's Spiritual, but it took me about five years to "get" it. It was so much mellower than her previous albums, and I missed Laura's intensity. But then I realized that she had changed her perspective completely, and was now creating "healing" music. I had to be going through a very anxious and blue period of my own life to understand that, because then Mother's Spiritual was about the only music I could listen to! I'm not a huge fan of the Live at the Bottom Line album, nor of Walk the Dog Light the Light. Both have songs on them that I like a lot, but I do think her songwriting had slipped a few notches from the early days -- especially lyrically -- and I thought the production on Walk the Dog was not very intriguing. I wish Laura had worked in later years with some really hot, innovative young producers!

In closing: is there a Laura Nyro album that you consider as a personal favourite?

New York Tendaberry. I think it's a masterpiece. It creates and sustains a mood that's almost ominous in its intensity. The instrumentation is stunning, her voice is magnificent, the songs amazing. And I've always felt that producer/engineer Roy Halee captured the SOUND of silence on that album. I think it's about perfect.

Is there anything you'd like to add about the book and about Laura?

I wanted to restore her to her proper place in the pantheon of pop culture history. Although she's recognized by many for her importance, she's still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the Songwriters Hall of Fame, or listed among the top female rock artists in Rolling Stone magazine. That's just plain wrong. All the young super-popular female singer-songwriters of today -- and I hate to sound like an old grump, but most of them are mediocre -- wouldn't exist without Laura Nyro. She carved the path. She made it possible. And those young women either don't know about her, or don't give her proper credit. Can you imagine Laura Nyro or Joni Mitchell not knowing of Billie Holliday or Nina Simone when they were just starting out? On the contrary, they knew and respected who had come before them. Mitchell gets her "props" these days -- Nyro deserves hers as well.

© Beppe Colli 2002 | Dec. 27, 2002

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