Moving beyond the singer/songwriter role
Anyone who has ever gotten suckered into going to an open mic night or been forced to sit through an unfamiliar opener at a show is painfully aware there's no shortage of excruciatingly bad singer/songwriters in the world. Perhaps this is because it only takes a guitar and a pen, both of which are relatively easy things to come by.
Or maybe it's because a master makes it look so easy to be a storyteller communing with a crowd. Jeffrey Gaines fits into this category.
Gaines was part of the early 90's singer/songwriter boom and has worked constantly ever since, releasing major label albums and touring with the likes of Tom Petty, Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, Sting and Joss Stone. Although you may recognize him most directly from his cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," Gaines is a critically acclaimed, soulful performer and teller of his own tales.
In a recent phone interview with NUVO, Gaines discussed everything from the sad majority of mediocre singer/songwriters, to Ashlee Simpson, and the Edwin McCain connection.
NUVO: Do you ever feel trapped by the adult contemporary set?
Gaines: A little bit. Once you become a brand people go to it for that particular thing. By nature with all my rough edges and flaws I'm probably better suited personality wise for rock. Sometimes the acoustic gig takes me into things that are almost too sophisticated for my taste.
NUVO: How do you think the 17 year-old KISS fan Jeff would react to the thirty-something adult contemporary Jeff?
Gaines: He would kick my ass.
NUVO: How does it make you feel that even though you've put out several acclaimed records over the years, your cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" is what you're most identified with?
Gaines: Hopefully the first time you hear it you think of Peter Gabriel and the second time you hear the live version you think of me. Now you know it's Jeff Gaines because the DJ said it last time and you turn it up now because of our thing we're sharing. Luckily, I love to sing so I can just remove all of my personal stuff and just enjoying singing the thing.
NUVO: Have you ever looked at the career of Edwin McCain and wished yourself in his place - the sensitive singer/songwriter guy who started with a song like "Solitude" with Darius Rucker and moved up to doing videos with a Scandinavian-esque supermodel to play your girlfriend?
Gaines: Edwin's apparently a big fan of mine, come to find out. When "Solitude" came out I got all these from all these people saying dude, this guy... he's all over your shit, you gotta turn on the TV. I was like what are you talking about? I hear it and I'm like yeah, whatever. When I met him later on, he revealed to me that there may have been a correlation. He's a real sweetheart. He was like, 'I used to sing your song "Hero in Me."' When he was playing college bars, he would often cover my songs. And I was like, wow, that's cool, it's an honor.
NUVO: What do you think about that?
Gaines: I think with my stuff, I can never sing about love in a way that doesn't have a bit of flawed truth included. I think really to hit it all the way to the top 10, you have to be heroic in a way, you have to say "I'll Be" you know, and I can only say "Well, I Might Be." Even if we had the same impulse and wrote the same song, mine would totally be a little more flawed like "I'll be your crying shoulder, but sometimes I might not be there... at all." [Laughing] Teenage girls don't want to be dreamy about that guy; it's like wow, you mean you're not going to make it all better and ride me away on a white horse? And I'm like, well, sometimes I might be capable of that, but expect the worst. My song would keep me out of Hitsville.
NUVO: That's the most unromantic, unsappy thing I've ever heard, especially coming from a singer/songwriter.
Gaines: In that sense I kind of remind myself of Paul Westerberg. Ouch, you know? Actually discussing all the broken parts of things.
NUVO: So no supermodel-clad videos are in the works for you?
Gaines: Nah. But, the nature of videos, to be honest, it's all a land of illusion until it comes true. Look at rap. When those guys who were living in the hood a week ago make a video it's like let's rent a helicopter, a house, we need a Jacuzzi, we need a hundred Scandinavian supermodels, give some cash money to be countin'. You have to present that you're a baller even when you don't have that stuff yet. If you came out honest and said this is your first record and I'm really hoping for the best and that you'll get behind it, they'd be like, no. You have to come off as big as big is big.
NUVO: So here's to pre-fabrication?
Gaines: Well, look at Ashlee Simpson. Have the best songwriters, have the best production, in fact film the whole creation of me. It's huge right out of the box.
NUVO: But as an artist that has been continuously creating for over a decade, how do you feel about watching fabricated artists like Simpson walk in to a TV show, a record contract, and selling a million albums in the first week from the exposure and then seeing how the exposure doesn't waver, even after they prove themselves to be completely incompetent at the base thing they are supposed to be celebrated for?
Gaines: As a fan of something I've pursued my whole life since I was like five, when you look at it all play out, I just sort of take my place within it. It's like a song I wrote called "Belle de Jour" - I look at it as hat's off, your time is now, grab all you can, you know. I'm actually happy for her; I'm the only person in the car who won't turn it off when it comes on.
NUVO: Do you think a backlash against pre-fab artists is on deck?
Gaines: We're picking on Ashlee today, soon as that's just enough already we put somebody else in her place then another one in that one's place. I don't know if anybody will actually get sick of it because there is always going to be another distraction to take your mind off the man behind the curtain. You're right though, the exposure doesn't waver. It's amazing how things have changed. They sure got to Milli Vanilli; that guy threw himself out of a window. If he just would've held out long enough they'd be doing a reunion tour right now.
NUVO: About 80% percent of singer/songwriters are either extremely bad or steeped in clichéd mediocrity. Why is there such a thin line between the fantastically horrible and the absolutely inspired when writing about themes of love, heartache, disappointment, misunderstanding, told through a guitar and a voice?
Gaines: When I see the amount of people who get into it, I think it's their reasoning that is completely wrong. There's a lot of open mic gigs that are creating the new singer/songwriter and what I'm noticing it that they're into it socially. Music becomes a way to get out of the house and be popular and start meeting girls and then when they actually have songs to write, they don't have a need, really.