“I’m on the 90-year-plan,” Garland Jeffreys cracks.
When you’re helping to raise a 15-year-old daughter and your first album in 13 years is about to hit the market, there’s a reason to map out an ambitious future.
Jeffreys has been playing the occasional festival in Europe and the odd show here and there over the last decade, but mostly what he’s been is a full partner with his wife, Claire, raising their daughter, Savannah, in New York.
“She’s benefited from two parents who’ve been around,” he adds. “I didn’t see any reason to have a child and raise a child if you weren’t going to be around.”
She’s learned well, giving the old man a run for his money. She has a fan following on Youtube and a solo gig at The Bitter End later this month. “We’re raising an entrepreneurial rock and roller,” he says from his apartment near the East Village. “”That’s what you’ve got to be today.”
With Savannah Jeffreys well on her way, it’s time for dad to get back in the game, something Jeffreys does emphatically with “The King of In Between,” an effort worth the long wait.
“I wanted to make an album that means something,” he says. “I’ve really set the standards high and I’ve struggled at times to make songs that would work and are representative of me and what I’m thinking.”
The album features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “The music I grew up with and listened to my whole life is coming through me when I’m working.” That’s everything from Frankie Lymon to Dinah Washington to The Band to Dylan to Hank Williams and Motown.
“Some artists are easily recognized,” he adds. “Every song can sound the same on an album. I’m the opposite. I like the idea of trying to come up with a sequence of songs that are different from one another and make it work. That’s the challenge.”
For the album, Jeffreys called in favors from friends old and new. Steve Jordan plays drums, Brian Mitchell mans the keys, Mike Merritt is on bass and most of the guitar parts are played by Duke Levine and Larry Campbell. “One of the key things I say to these guys is I have no money,” Jeffreys says, chuckling. “They don’t call me for a month after that. But they understand. Any time someone asks me to sing on an album, I do it for free. You have to help out one another.”
Jeffreys called up Campbell, who he’d met in passing over the decades, and asked him to drop by his apartment to hear a few songs. The idea was for Campbell to contribute guitar and violin. But when they started recording, the two got along so well that Campbell became the album’s co-producer.
“I think the common thread — what I’m always looking for — is an honest interpretation of who you are,” Campbelladds, the morning after he’d played another one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles upstate. “He does that really well. The genre isn’t important. It’s about being true to yourself and expressing that. If that’s there, then I’m in.”
Campbell’s favorite cut on the disc is “Streetwise,” a slice of string-fueled Philly soul laid behind Jeffreys’ reflections on the world his child faces. Jeffreys suggested Campbell arrange the strings. Instead, he came into the studio one day with two violins and began laying down the string parts. “He doesn’t get off the seat for four hours,” Jeffreys recalls. “He lays down al lthe strings himself. I’d never seen anything like it before. The guy is amazing.”
Even Campbell says: “I think we really nailed something there. I think we really crystallized Garland’s initial vision of that tune.”
Jeffreys did return to the strudio for a couple of cuts because he felt there wasn’t enough energy on the record. One, “Coney Island Winter,” kicks off the album with ringing rock guitars and a deadpan delivery that owes a little to Jeffreys’ longtime friend, Lou Reed, who he met while a student at Syracuse University in the 1960s (Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals was another running mate there).
Other cuts like “All Around the World” and “The Contortionist,” featuring Reed and Savannah Jeffreys on background vocals, dip into reggae. “‘Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me” is a a shuffle that would make ZZ Top proud.
“Sooner or later gonna dust my broom,” he sings. It’s one of two songs on the album about facing mortality; the other is “In God’s Waiting Room.” “Here I am loving the song. I check with Larry and Steve and they think it’s great. I bring it home and my wife and daughter hate it,” he says. “I’m not connecting with the idea it could mean I’m going to die. I’m thinking about what a great song it is.”
Jeffreys admits he’s been wondering recently if he’ll live long enough to be around when his daughter makes her first record or gets married. “I’m not planning on leaving any moment too soon,” he says. “I’m healthy. I have no illnesses.”
The songs were written over the last five years and many were played live in the studio with the band. “There’s nothing like having a great band, a great bunch of players,” Jeffreys says. “You go over it, you get the chords straight and lay the track down, vocals at the same time, and there it is. You can add a couple of things afterwards.”
There is a sweetness as well as a toughness to his writing. The album explores the New York of his youth and of today, moving from remembrances of Coney Island to what he sees on the street outside his Stuyvesant Town apartment, where he says he likes to go down and sit in the park and shot the breeze.
As always, Jeffreys explores race and identity, which he addressed directly on “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” notably with “Hail, Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “The Color Line.”
Jeffreys himself found it hard to fit in (listen to “I May Not Be Your Kind’). His father was the product of black and white parents. His grandmother was Puerto Rican. His grandfather was part Native American. He was raised Catholic, the only family of color in church.
“There was the awkwardness of being different,” he says, singing a line from “Spanish Blood:” “Say you’re Spanish; say you’re Spanish blood.”
That’s what he did as a youth, pass as Spanish, not black. “I would hide and get through,” he adds, hiding in his own skin.
And he notes that his daughter is a mixture of races as well and “lives in a world that is totally accepting. She said to me, ‘Dad, that’s your problem, not mine.’ ”
“I absolutely love to see my daughter with her friends hanging out on the basketball court with all kinds of kids,” he adds. “It’s that way now.”
Jeffreys started singing in kindergarten. He remembers crooning “Do the Huckle Buck,” offering a few lines during the interview. When he was older, he sang “It’s Almost Tomorrow” at an assembly. “That was it, man,” he says remembering. “That was the way a career started.”
After studying at Syracuse and abroad in Italy, he dropped out of graduate school and started a band. He moved upstate for a while, then returned to the city.
In 1973, he released his first solo album, “Garland Jeffreys.” A single not on the album, “Wild in the Streets,” became an FM radio hit. Among those who played on the tune were Dr. John and the Brecker Brothers.
His biggest hit came later in the 1970s with “Matador” off the “American Boy and Girl” album. The tune hit the top of the charts in several European countries. “It came out in ’79 and it still produces revenue and helps provide for our lifestyle,” he says. “I wish every songwriter has one of these.”
Most of his catalog is out of print, but he intends to get them back on the shelves and online in the next few months.
Jeffreys turns 68 this month, but he looks and sounds much younger. Being a songwriter hasn’t been easy over the past decade. He’s remained big in Europe; he’ll play festivals in Spain and Belgium this summer with his Europe-based band, The Coney Island Playboys. But he’ll focus more on playing in the States, building again a fan base.
Jeffreys headed upstate to play a Midnight Ramble with Helm and Campbell a few weeks ago, closing the show with a sing-along of “The Weight.” “I’m glad he’s doing it again,” Campbell says. “You can see he’s got all that enthusiasm and fire. He just gives it up. He’s the real thing.