From the LAist:
Syd Straw has a few things to get off of her chest.
Her shows are filled with feisty, intense songs and hilarious anecdotes. She always travels with her constant companion, the adorable dog, Carol Burnett. She usually ends up on stage at some point in an attempt to steal the show. The last time she played at McCabe's, a member of the audience asked her to marry him. She also somehow ended up with a $20 bill at her feet. A Syd Straw show is always full of surprises.
From her days singing backup with Pat Benatar to her years with The Golden Palominos and solo career, she always seems to know how to have a good time. Syd now lives in a small town in Vermont, but she loves to come back to LA to record and play gigs. LAist asked Syd about songwriting, her amazing long list of collaborators, and officiating at weddings.
LAist: You started your career singing backup for Pat Benatar. How did you get that gig?
Syd Straw: I was singing at comedy clubs. I stopped by to see why a bunch of people were in line once. This was in New York at Catch A Rising Star. So I got in the line. I think I was between Gilbert Gottfried and Jerry Seinfeld. It was great. So I went on and they said, "Hey come back. You don't suck." Pat Benatar was singing there a lot. She was this young, foxy, stiletto, pony-boot-wearing gal. They asked me to come sing shows with her and do backup. That was it. She's a great singer.
You have worked with Van Dyke Parks. The last time I saw you play at the Echo, he was in the audience. How do you explain his magic? He seems like this mythical being when you are standing next to him. Like he is not really human.
He is one of the most eloquent, compelling humans that you would ever want to stumble across. I first met him in 1984 over the phone. He needed a singer to go to New York and do his show for a beautiful record called "Jump." Kathy Dalton, his wonderful singer from the record, was pregnant and couldn't make the trip. So thank you Kathy for being pregnant at that time. Joe Wissert, a great record producer of Earth, Wind & Fire said, "I think Van Dyke Parks needs someone. Why don't you wait by your phone?" So I did and Van Dyke called. We discussed pink dolphins that swim in the Amazon. He was so ultra charming and funny I just wanted to write down everything he said. When you are in his presence, he makes you feel like a writer. You feel that words are more important and you better choose them carefully and not waste them. So over the phone he played the high and low notes of the score and said, "Can you do it, Straw?" And I said, "Well, yes, Mr. Parks. It is well within the realm of my capabilities." Two days later I jumped on a plane. We did these fantastic shows at The Bottom Line. It all worked out really swimmingly. I collaborate with him every chance I get. He is the modern Stephen Foster, a true inspiration. He's really a musical journalist of everything beautiful. Sometimes I think his music is too beautiful for this modern world.
Hence the magic.
You can't explain magic. Any magician will tell you it's not wise to explain how it is done.
You wrote songs and sang on the Golden Palominos albums "Visions of Excess" and "Blast of Silence." The lineup included Anton Fier, Michael Stipe, and Matthew Sweet. Who else played with the band at that time?
Peter Blegvad, who is just the most delicious man. He is my intellectual soul brother. He has a Dylanesque quality that I have always admired. Bernie Worrell, from Parliament Funkadelic and The Pretenders, the man with the softest skin in the world. Jody Harris, one of the most beautiful understated musicians.
What band have you always wanted to see?
The Flaming Lips because of their bohemian, intellectual, big-hearted musical qualities. I've never seen a show but I am always hearing about what I missed. I am always about 10 minutes behind those flaming lips.
Richard Thompson and Peter Blegvad contributed to your first album "Surprise." What were the recording sessions like?
Well, first of all I had never even had a passport before. So I got my passport and I took off to see my friends. Then I would book some studio time. That record was made in so many places. Places that I wanted to go because I missed the people that I love. I called that making a record. It was so fun. Everybody was so divine.
Who else played with you on that record?
I ran into the great bass player Tony Levin in Book Soup and said, "Hey, would you play on my record?" He said "I'd love to" and wrote down his phone number on a little matchbook.
When you write a song, what comes first--the words or the melody?
Sometimes it is simultaneous which is really a relief. Sometimes words literally float around for years until I find them a little home. I think it is a case by case... I have no method.
Can you tell when you have an inspiration for a song? That "bing" moment?
Yes. It's the best day in the world. The day you finish a song is the best day of your life. I never knew I could be a songwriter until somebody asked me to write a song. I treated it like an assignment. I said, "Alright, I'll try." And that went okay. They said, "Write another one." I thought, "Everyone else is so good…why don't I just sing their songs?" I love their songs, but there is something so nice about self expression…about getting it off your chest. A lot of people in my tiny little dirt road town in Vermont don't know what I do. I tell them I am in communications.
Tell us about your new CD.
It is called "Pink Velour." It is done. It is here in California. Everything mixed and mastered by the great Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound.
Who plays on "Pink Velour" with you?
D.J. Bonebrake from X and the Knitters is the drummer. We have been playing together for about 21 years. Willie Aron from the Balancing Act, one of the biggest earth angels around plays guitar. Marc Ribot plays guitar on a few tracks. Don Piper plays piano and sings. His band is called A Don Piper Situation. He is one of the most talented people I have ever met and also humble, which I find wildly alluring. We recorded some of it at his place in Brooklyn. Little Red Tiny Baby played some bass. Robert Lloyd played mandolin on one song.
Do you have a favorite song you have ever written?
Maybe "Pink Velour." I think it's my most close to the bone ever. For me, it is the most astute observation of a challenging childhood. The wayward ways of love. I tried to get it all in there. It's my family story in one song.
You are playing at McCabe's on Sunday night. What kind of surprises do you have planned for the audience? What is the best thing about McCabe's as a venue?
It is nice to serenade an attentive room full of people. It's a known listening room. In other venues it is easy to not be heard at your own shows for various reasons. I've always loved McCabe's because in general people really seem to truly love and appreciate music. They don't come there to pussyfoot around or get laid. Although I hope that happens, too.
There is something about all those guitars on the wall.
It is so hot. So curvy. I just love McCabe's. I have been playing there so long, I feel like I grew up there. It is a very hospitable atmosphere.
Who is playing on Sunday night with you?
Willie Aron- guitar, DJ Bonebreak- drums, Francis X on guitar, Severo from the Smithereens- bass, hopefully Robert Lloyd, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that Dave Alvin might show up. Every nice person in Southern California will be there.
Have you ever worked with Joe Henry? He seems to be everywhere these days.
I have not had the pleasure. I'd love to. I really love Joe. I met him when I was up to my chin in mud, dragging my guitar through a field of mud to get to a workshop at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. This handsome fellow stopped me and a said, "Are you Syd Straw?" And I said, "Maybe. It just depends who is asking." He said, "It's me, Joe Henry." And I said, "In that case, yes I am Syd Straw." We stayed up all night talking about films. He is such a beautiful guy. So talented.
Last November LAist interviewed Loudon Wainwright III and asked him about "When I'm at Your House." You sing with Loudon on that track. Tell me a great Loudon story.
I was house sitting for my friend, the director Katherine Dieckmann, in New York. One day Rufus wanted to play his first record for his father. Loudon hadn't heard it yet. So we sat down and we went through his first record song by song. It was a completely amazing experience to see Loudon taking in the mysterious talent of his progeny. It was a beautiful thing and a wonderful way to hear Rufus' record. I felt pretty privileged to be a fly on that wall.
You live in a small town in Vermont. What is your favorite place in LA when you come back here for a gig?
I like to go to the Farmer's Market and eat at The Gumbo Pot.
Last year you officiated at your friend's wedding. Do you have any plans to get into the wedding business?
Are you asking because you know about this?
It was the greatest wedding ceremony I ever witnessed.
That is so kind. It was the most fun I ever had at a wedding.
It was fun and touching. What do you think are you going to officiate at some more weddings?
I am running for Justice of the Peace in my town in Vermont, so I can be very official there. And I am a Universal Life minister which we can all be if you just sign up online. I was just elected constable, so everybody better behave. Keep your dogs on leashes. This is my platform: "Vote for me for Justice of the Peace. I am the marrying kind. Hell, I'll marry anybody." I think some of the other Justices of the Peace there are about 90 years old. I don't think they understand the concept of people just wanting to love each other and be committed. My whole platform is civil unions. Whoever is bold and crazy enough to get married, I am happy to help. I love love. I can't wait to do another wedding. At the wedding we were at last November, the most fun thing was that I got to officiate the ceremony and then get up with the wedding band and sing "Highway to Hell."