Few musicians possess the literary voice of Richard Shindell. His songs read like short stories, with an eye for detail and a knack for parable that would please fans of Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.
The folksinger’s sixth album of originals (Not Far Now, Signature Sounds) is again full of well-drawn characters with tales to tell. Among the cast are a juggler, a beaten small-time thief, a woman selling empanadas and beer from a roadside stand and a struggling junkie.
Shindell both writes and reads with equal mastery. He memorably put his stamp on James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters” with the folk supergroup Cry Cry Cry. He covered Bruce Springsteen, Jeffrey Foucault, Bob Dylan and others on his last studio album (“South Of Delia”).
On his new album, Shindell updates Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” – the product, he says, of reading Sir Paul’s biography (he calls him “a musical hero”), and a “two-week Beatles listening binge.”
In the song (“Bye-Bye”), Shindell imagines two very different endings for the family in the Sgt. Pepper’s track. One is stoic – “on every life some rain must fall/but that doesn’t mean we let the roses go” – another despairing, with doors askew and gardens gone to seed.
With a writer’s omnipotence, he toys with bringing the wayward daughter “back to them with a few strokes of this fountain pen,” before handing the song back to McCartney.
“That’s not how this story ends,” he sings finally.
“Providing that story with a resounding conclusion would be false and graceless,” says Shindell.
Asked if he’s ever tempted to revisit the stories in his own songs, Shindell says he tried what he terms a “kind of amplification of a character” from his first album for the title track of his third.
He pictured the woman waiting for her husband to return from war in “Reunion Hill” as the same person referred to as ‘Mama’ in “Arrowhead” (from “Sparrow’s Point”).
“The narrator of that song is a child-soldier in the Civil War who is addressing his mother (perhaps in a letter, perhaps just in his mind),” explains Shindell. “However. “Reunion Hill” seemed to work better if she was searching for her husband rather than her son.”
“But now you’ve got me thinking about other potential follow-up songs,” says Shindell. “So thanks for the question. It might prove fruitful.”
Are the first person narratives dominating Richard Shindell’s work the product of a frustrated novelist? Perhaps.
“I get vertigo writing prose,” he says. “Too many directions, too much open space. Perhaps agoraphobia would be a better description of the sensation. But I would very much like to get over that block and write something other than songs.”
Though born in New Jersey, Shindell has for the past several years lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Digital technology helped bridge the divide between the expatriate and the musicians he worked with on “Not Far Now.”
Shindell and co-producer Greg Anderson recorded basic tracks in his dining room and sent them off to bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Steve Holley, original E Street Band keyboard player David Sancious and others, who recorded their parts..
“The entire process, from beginning to end is a series of happy accidents,” says Shindell. String player Sara Milonovich’s contribution stands as one of the happiest.
“I thought she was going to add a fiddle – that is, one,” he says. “Instead she sat down in a room one day and laid down an entire string arrangement, just to see what would happen. It was a total surprise, and I was thrilled.”
“But I prefer it that way,” he continues. “I’d rather hear what a particular musician’s take on a song is before giving them too much direction. And there’s never any harm done if they come up with something totally wrong (which hardly ever happens).”
After all, he says, ”we’re not using actual magnetic tape anymore, everything is fungible, plastic, and wide open for revision and editing.”
Shindell plays bass, acoustic and electric guitar on the record, along with piano and bouzouki. Shindell likes the 8-stringed, teardrop shaped guitar. “As the Irish discovered well, it’s a great instrument for accompanying the human voice. It also produces a very persistent, driving kind of sound, which I find generates a certain energy in an arrangement.”
Shindell is a regular Northeast Kingdom habitué. “I generally feel very comfortable playing for a Vermont audience,” he says. “They’re very attentive, without being – how shall I say this? – too pious.”
However, the live album he made two years ago in Randolph had less to do with his love for the state than the Chandler Music Hall’s superior acoustics and a good recording engineer Shindell hired for the night.
He adds that one other thing factored in. “That night in Vermont I announced from the stage that I’d be recording and that anyone present could purchase a CD in advance. Once I had taken their money, I had to come through!”
Richard Shindell @ Boccelli’s on the Canal
Bellows Falls, Vermont
25 March – 7:00 PM
Tickets – $24 (front row “Angel” seats $35)