For Garland Jeffreys, the 13 years between albums before 2011’s “The King of In Between” were a time to focus on raising his daughter. Savannah is 17 now, a songwriter with a considerable following, so Jeffreys again has directed his considerable energies and restless creativity towards writing and performing. And, oh, how that’s evident on his new album, “Truth Serum,” one of his best albums in a catalog full of moving, important work.
“This new album was really a different kind of experience,” Jeffreys says from his New York apartment. “These songs came out, bang, whole songs. I don’t know where they came from. And then, in the studio, each song was one take.”
After “The King of In Between, ” Jeffreys’ relatively low profile disappeared with appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” onstage with his old pal, Bruce Springsteen, and performances across the globe (Jeffrey’s has remained popular in Europe where his song, “Matador” remains a radio staple). Jeffreys recently turned 70, but his live performances and his joy for life are undiminished. He will still jump from the stage and strut through the audience. When one story ends, there’s always another about to begin, if you’re listening. And he’s as confident in his writing as he’s ever been.
“I’m on the 90-year plan,” he says, adding that he figures he can perform for at least another decade. “And that means I’ll be working on songs, man. That’s it. My wife has been kicking my ass on a regular basis. She’s got a kick that’s pretty heavy. She’s really pushed me and it’s been for the good.”
“Truth Serum” is, in some ways, the model of a Garland Jeffreys album. You never know what you’ll hear next. It opens with the blues of the title cut, then segues into the catchy “Any Rain.”“Dragons to Slay” is a sly piece of reggae from the guy his buddy, Bob Marley, said was the best American reggae singer. He makes a nod to Savannah with the off-the-cuff fire of “Collide the Generations,” tucks troubles away with “Far Far Away,” and dreams of “Colorblind Love.”
“Any Rain” is the cut getting the most attention. It’s an older song, something he wrote and put away during the “King of In Between” sessions because he wasn’t satisfied with it. “I picked up the song again,” he says. “That happens. You’re in a different place. I started working on it and there it was. It was rough when I brought it into the studio to Larry (Campbell) and the gang, but they jumped all over it and we had it in one take.”
In an essay in The New York Times, Jeffreys writes about “Far Far Away,” a cut laid down on cassette tape and then forgotten until he started to work on the album.
“The process of writing songs is still pretty much as mysterious to me as it was in the beginning. The tune, the words are still rattling around somewhere inside me and I just need to locate them,” he writes. “I’m often alone and very sensitive to when I’m getting close because a little bit of hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck excitement begins. It can be just a few stray words to signal the song, but I don’t presume I’m anywhere, yet. The line, back to the line — could it be the title? I go back to it and worry it, but have to remain patient, talk to myself, for I could still be nowhere. Slow, easy, cool down. Rushing can ruin the whole thing. If my humility is there I have a chance of maintaining the delicate atmosphere and getting started.”
Jeffreys again explores race and what it means to be neither white nor black, as he did with his masterful 1992 album, “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.” On the slow-burning “It’s What I Am,’ he recites a litany of traits, mostly good, and notes “Too white to be black, too black to be white.”
He says race remains an issue so he will continue to write about it. “For the longest time I haven’t been really bothered (personally) by any race issues. People on the street, they see me and don’t know what the hell I am,” he adds. “But the whole issue is still so powerful.”
His grandmother was Puerto Rican. His grandfather was black and white and probably part Native American. He was raised Catholic, the only family of color in church. He grew up on Coney Island and still visits the neighborhood.
“Because of my grandmother, I was raised Catholic. Because of my grandfather we had a black experience. But I was light skinned and everybody in the neighborhood didn’t know how to relate to me,” he notes. “I didn’t know how to relate to them. I think I was frowned upon, looked down on, by the other kids my age. It’s been a journey. I think, in the end, I got stronger. I began to see myself in terms of my strengths rather than what might be considered a weakness. .”
Jeffreys started singing in kindergarten. He remembers crooning “Do the Huckle Buck.” 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.”
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.
Much of the same studio crew that joined him on “The King of In Between” returnes. Larry Campbell and Duke Levine on guitars. Steve Jordan on drums (all but one cut because he left to join Eric Clapton on the road). Brian Mitchell on keys. Zev Katz jumped in to play bass.
Jeffreys knew when he returned that he would have to start over again in some ways. “We didn’t know we were going to have a kid and we worked at it, Then, there it is. She was born and we decied to enjoy that experience,’ he says.” Now, she’s 17. She’s doing so well as a developed person who’s growing, getting ready for college. She’s very independent. She’s got all the signs you want your kid to have.”
So it was time to focus on the music again. “I felt like I had to start all over again, which was not exactly true,” Jeffreys says. “I had the feeling I had to go back and play these small shows, these house concerts.”
(One of the first small shows he did in the States was my house concert series, North Shore Point House Concerts, in Norfolk nearly a decade ago, performing as a duo and singing until his voice gave out. He returned two years ago for a second concert. In each, he was the consummate showman, walking through the crowd, jumping from the stage, and drawing out his fine back catalog of cuts like “Ghost Writer,” “New York Skyline” and “I May Not Be Your Kind.”)
The album was funded by more than 425 fans who donated on Pledgemusic.com. “Within in a couple of days, we had our total,” he says. “I was shocked.”
Did he ever have doubts he could still perform up to his standards? “I had to be clear on this in my own head,” he says. “One one hand, there was no doubt. In another way, I couldn’t prove there was no doubt until I actually started doing it. Now, all those (shows) have created much more confidence. There’s no uncomfortability, just an ability to go out there and do a show at any time on a high level.”
His tour will move from North America to Europe, then Australia and even China. He’s beloved in Belgium and Holland.
“I feel healthy,” he adds. “I see myself playing for another ten years at least. Number one: What else am I going to do? Number two: I get to go and play and see lots of my friends all over the world.”
That leads into a story about how he was originally denied admittance to a study abroad program in Italy when he was at Syracuse. Jeffreys knocked on the door of the professor involved, went inside, and laid out why he was qualified. The professor was blunt: “this was a race issue.” There had never been a person of color chosen. A few days later, Jeffreys was accepted.
“That was a mindblowing experience,” he says. “It taught me so much. You see what happens when you stick up for yourself. You go with what you believe in and you succeed.”
Later, there’s another story about seeing Bob Marley open for Bruce Springsteen at Max’s Kansas City in 1973. Jeffreys learned about reggae and Marley from the towel guy at the YMCA downtown, beginning a lifelong love of reggae, which he says is a simple chord structure, perfect for him. Later, they would hang out, and Jeffreys would go on to do some shows with Jimmy Cliff.
That reminds him of a time in 1964 when they were at Syracuse and Reed said this group, The Rolling Stones, were coming and they had to see them. So what happened?
‘I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” Jeffreys says, breaking into a laugh.
“But I’m not going to say anymore. That’s it.”
A master showman, of course, always leaves his audience wanting more.