Interview: Edie Brickell on New Bohemians, Jerry Garcia, Whistling at Paul Simon’s Farewell Shows
photo by Todd Crusham
Although it’s been 12 years since Edie Brickell recorded a studio album with New Bohemians, she explains, “We never stopped playing together. I just couldn’t commit to touring with them because I was raising my kids and they were musicians who need to work.”
That changed in 2017 when New Bohemians guitarist Kenny Withrow invited Brickell back to her home state of Texas to perform at a benefit for La Rondalla, a free music program for needy students, which led the band to create the material that appears on their new record, Rocket.
“I told Kenny: ‘That’s a great thing you’re doing. Of course I’ll be there,’” Brickell recalls. “By this time, my youngest child was in college. So I went down there. This is the original band—guys I’ve known since I was 18 years old—and we just had the best time again. We made up all these songs while we were rehearsing because we’re essentially an improv band. It takes a lot of self- discipline to go in and rehearse because we feel the magic in the air. It’s always there for us, and it’s just so exciting to express it.”
Given your predilection for improvisation, I’m curious what you took away from your experience writing the Bright Star musical with Steve Martin, where I assume you needed to be more focused. How did that impact your songwriting on Rocket?
I learned so much. It was fun to dial in all that focus for those characters and to understand how certain images convey certain emotions and steer myself toward that in terms of my lyrical expression. But also, I wanted to make melodies that are easy for people to sing along with. I brought a little bit of that to Rocket.
The other piece is that I learned to play the piano during the past few years—not enough to feel comfortable performing, but enough to sit down and write on the piano. When I was in the studio with New Bohemians and we needed a bridge or some other piece—I always want a song to go in a different direction, as it interests me more if there’s a departure and then we return, musically—I was able to sit down at a piano and write some new changes and some parts. That came from the musical experience because, many times, our director would say, “We need something bigger than the banjo here. We need the 11 o’clock number from our star. She needs to allow her range to show a bigger emotional expression” and the piano allows you to write like that. So he would ask me: “Would you sit down and write something on the piano?” and I would. And I loved it. So it was thrilling to able to bring that to New Bohemians.
Thinking back to your earlier compositions with New Bohemians, The Gaddabouts, Steve Martin or your solo efforts, had you previously written in character?
All the time—I feel like every aspect of our personality is mercurial. We have different facets to our personalities and there’s an arc of choices in who we’re going to be every day. However we’re challenged or however much fun we’re having, those influences bring different aspects to life. The emotional impact of the band and the chord progression or the riff touches me on some emotional and psychological level, inspiring a character of personality to emerge. Then, I express what that feeling represents.
Is it true that you had planned to do a fully improvised tour with Jerry Garcia?
Yes, and I was so disappointed that we never got to do it. We improvised a lot during our session with Rob Wasserman [recording “Zillionaire” and “American Popsicle” for 1994’s Trios]. When he discovered that we could do that together, and that I loved improvising, he suggested that we go out on the road just as an all-improv band. I couldn’t wait because the most exciting music you can make is what you come up with when you’re channeling the thoughts and melodies that you’re feeling in the moment. It made me feel completely alive. It still does.
I loved working with Jerry. He was exciting to play with, the energy was completely alive. When people are in the moment and they have that flexibility and freedom in their playing to listen and have that conversation, it’s the most fun you can have with music. It’s a lot more fun than remembering a song and playing it over and over, as privileged a position as it is to be able to play your music for people. Then, he called and asked me if I wanted to do a blue-jeans commercial with him. He flew to New York, we did this goofball improv thing and they made a 501 commercial out of it.
That’s why I love to play with New Bohemians. There aren’t many people I could do that with, who are willing to let the music unfold—“It wants to happen. Let it happen.” We even formed our own group called Heavy Makeup, where we would just make up songs all night long. That’s who we are and we intend to do that in our shows because there’s something really special in the air when that happens. We can do that together like I could do that with Jerry.
Can you describe the experience taking the stage with your husband [Paul Simon] to whistle during “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” on the final two nights of his farewell tour?
I had done that before when Paul joined Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers and myself on that tour for about six shows [in 2014]. Then, when Paul was doing his farewell tour, he said to me: “I lost my whistle! I couldn’t whistle on ‘Julio’ these past few nights. Would you do it?” And I said, “Aww, man, I don’t know…” I went and saw him on Thursday night at MSG and, sure enough, his whistle was not working. [Laughs.] So he said, “See?” I showed up at soundcheck the next day and we figured it all out.
When I stepped out there and saw his big old smile, and the audience was warm and welcoming, I felt the love. I felt love from him, I felt the love from them, and I felt very thankful and happy to be there. I thought, “Wow, what a beautiful moment.” I really appreciate it. In between, when I looked over at him, we bonded yet again.
It’s funny: People in relationships have moments where you bond and moments where you feel apart. All throughout your relationship, throughout your days, you just never know what the special moments will be. I have a memory of sitting across from him in a booth eating a taco in Texas. You don’t know which memories are gonna stick. So to look over and see that smile and that light in his eyes, and then to look out and know how special it was for him, I felt thrilled to be a part of it.
This article originally appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.