By Henry Carrigan. Originally published on No Depression.
Mention Jack Tempchin, and the words “Peaceful Easy Feeling” come immediately to mind. So do “Already Gone,” “Slow Dancin’ (Swayin’ to the Music),” “Smuggler’s Blues,” and “You Belong to the City,” among many, many others. He’s written songs that have been recorded by artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris, Tom Rush, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Patty Loveless.
Yet, Tempchin doesn’t sit still and doesn’t want to live in the past, and he’s just released an EP, Room to Run, of four new songs that he either wrote himself or co-wrote with others, and his new album, Learning to Dance, hits the store shelves on August 21. “I have millions of songs rushing through my head today, and a real passion for recording them and playing them live.”
The threads that weave through Tempchin’s earlier work and his newer material are the quality of his narrative storytelling and the crystalline musical sound of every one of the songs. His reflective songwriting on his EP runs from the personal—in “Room to Run” he meditates on the relationship between a father and son: “My daddy always gave me room to run”—to the universal—in “Jesus and Mohammed,” he ponders what might happen if Jesus and Mohammed sat down together and looked at all the discord their followers are now sowing in their name: “Jesus and Mohammed/Sitting underneath a tree/Mohammed said they’re fighting/Over you and me…How did all our words of love/Bring us to this day?”
Tempchin remains deeply passionate about the power of songs: “Songs change people. Songs enlighten and delight. Songs bring lives together.”
I caught up with Tempchin by phone recently, and he shared his infectious enthusiasm for writing, music, and his two new projects.
How did this album, Learning to Dance, and the EP, Room to Run, come about?
Tempchin: I’d been doing a lot of things a songwriter does to keep at it; I go to Nashville every year to co-write with great writers like Carey Ott, Bill Franklin, and Jim Lauderdale, among others. When I knew I had enough songs for a new album, my manager, Bradshaw Lambert, and I started talking about getting them on a record. He saw an ad in the back pages of a music magazine for this little label called Blue Élan, and we made an appointment to see them. We went up to this office on the 30th floor of a building in Century City, and all I could hear running through my mind were the lyrics to “Sin City”—“on the 31st floor/behind gold-plated doors” (laughs)—because that’s where it felt like we were. Once we sat down the lawyers started talking contact with such great terms that I thought this was way too good to be true. In fact, I talked to Bradshaw afterwards and said, “Thanks for renting that office space and hiring those actors.” (laughs) They gave me the contract, and I showed it to my attorney, and he told that it’s the best recording contract he’s ever seen.
Did you record the album live in the studio?
Tempchin: I did vocals and guitars and my producer, Joel Piper, who’s a whiz at Pro Tools and could have simply used a computer to layer in other music, played all the other instruments. I don’t care how I record it; I care how it turns out.
How does the EP relate to the album?
Tempchin: Once I got the contract for the album, my brain just exploded, and I was on fire writing songs. It feels so good. The EP is composed of four songs I left off the album, but I ended up doing it because of the song, “The High Cost of Hate.” I was asked to play at this dinner at a convention of the country’s top 150 divorce lawyers, and I sang that song. I’ve had friends over the years go through these nasty divorces, and this particular song drew on one of my friends in Nashville’s recent experience. I just sat down at my kitchen table one morning and wrote it. The refrain goes: “Since I’m a cheating bastard/And you’re a selfish bitch/Let’s call it quits/And make some lawyers rich.” Well, I played the song at the dinner, and those lawyers loved it. When Kirk Pasich, Blue Élan CEO and an attorney himself, heard it, he wanted me to put it out as soon as possible, so we added three other songs—“Room to Run,” “Jesus and Mohammed,” and “Summertime Bum”—and put out the EP.
And the album?
Tempchin: It’s a fairly mellow record of love songs that follow an arc through the stages of love from the early feelings of euphoria to later, more complicated matters like divorce. The EP contains songs I left off the album.
When did you start writing songs and playing?
Tempchin: When I was a teenager and a friend of mine and I would play in the coffeehouses. He’d play, and I’d make up songs, and we’d sing them. The second song I ever wrote, another player started playing it around town; when I asked him to let me play it at a gig, he said, “no; that’s my song.” I learned then the difference between writing and arranging; whenever arrangers get to a song, they think of it as theirs. (laughs) I wasn’t a very good player, so I started writing my own songs, and started writing songs with a lot of other people. Shortly after that period, I met Glenn Frey, and he recorded “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” which is a song about girls, you know; the harder you try to get the girl, the less well you do, but when you give up, well…
What’s your approach to songwriting?
Tempchin: I approach it from every different angle; sometimes I have a poem; sometimes I have a guitar chord; I always have to go back and forth with my songs. I’m still alive, and I love it that people love some of my songs.
You’ve done a good deal of co-writing, and two of the four songs on Room to Run are co-writes.
Tempchin: What I love about co-writing is getting to learn from everyone I write with. Sometimes you come out with something you never thought you would come out with. We all come with different styles of music and levels of excitement. We might talk for about an hour before we get started, but sometimes we start right away working on a piece of music someone’s brought.
What are the elements of a great song?
Tempchin: Likeability; if the song makes you like it. If a song touches your heart one way or another; if the message gets through. If the music lives in you. The song you think is great is great; if I think a song is great, it’s great; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Songs touch individuals, and everyone decides for himself or herself what a great song is.
Who are your three greatest musical influences?
Tempchin: Mississippi Fred McDowell—there’s something so real and powerful and direct about his music; Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix.
What’s your favorite mistake?
Tempchin: You know, in the ‘70s, LA was always smoggy and disagreeable, so I didn’t want to go to LA to try to make music. So, I moved to San Francisco and Berkeley because it was nicer; but I discovered after about a year there that there’s no music scene there; so I moved back to LA. (laughs)
What excites you still about writing songs?
Tempchin: It’s the song. You sit down and don’t know what the heck’s gonna come out. When you play it a couple of days later, you say, “that’s a good song.” You know, I have my own radio station, KJAC; I’ll write a song and make a cool demo and ride around in my car listening to it on KJAC. Whatever sounds good on KJAC makes the cut.
How have you evolved as an artist and songwriter over the years?
Tempchin: If you look at everybody’s work, does it get better? Well, no. You just change and bring in new influences. Artists don’t necessarily develop into better artists. You just keep learning and keep bringing new stuff in.
What’s next for you?
Tempchin: Working on a second album for Blue Élan. It’s going to be a little more up. I’m excited to be writing songs, making records, and getting people to listen to them. I’m also excited that my producer, Joel Piper, who’s also a great videographer, has put together this great new series of videos called Go Write One. We’ll release one video a week, every week, until the end of the year. On these, I’m not talking about songwriting like every other songwriter; these are short videos where I talk about the spiritual and magical aspects of songwriting and try to get people excited to “go write one.” I’m still excited about writing songs, even after the thousands I’ve written. The songs just keep coming. I’m still writing and I’m totally into it, and I’m so excited to have a record of all new songs.