Direct from Brooklyn, New York, Bob Telson touches down to teach at Summersong with one very special performance at the Byron Theatre with Tony Backhouse, Kristina Olsen and Shelly Brown, called Summersong SuperShow.
Born in France, Bob was a child prodigy on piano, playing Mozart at age nine on TV; by 14 he’d written 72 love songs for his then-girlfriend Margie.
He and girlfriend Bonnie Raitt had a band together at Harvard; he graduated, moved to NYC, and was Philip Glass’s keyboardist. He composed and arranged all the music for the 31-tour musical Gospel at Colonus, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which both appeared on Broadway. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his song Calling You, from the film Bagdad Cafe; co-wrote with KD Lang Barefoot for her film Salmonberries, and other film scores.
Telson met Tony Backhouse with Alison Pearl in NYC when Tony brought Cafe of the Gate of Salvation choir to perform there. Telson spoke with The Echo.
You’ve composed pop, gospel, punk, soul, Broadway, world and rock tunes. What is the key to your understanding of music from different cultures?
Yes, it’s true that there are many influences in my music. As a kid I ate only vanilla ice-cream. Later I wanted to try every flavour. Same happened in music; as a kid I was a classical pianist and then organist. That gave me a deep understanding of the harmonic foundation that is used today in pop, gospel, soul, reggae, and much more. Soon I wanted the experience that those flavours would provide. Plus I had one small superpower: perfect pitch. That makes it much easier to take apart the clock and see how it ticks – in other words, follow my nose to what sounds really good, then play it. I do admire Paul Simon and David Byrne, but their path to world music was to find great musicians from those cultures and use their music as a springboard for their own creativity. My approach was to start, as in salsa, with a third-rate band where all the guys had day jobs; we played little social clubs and even a Puerto Rican bowling league trophy party… but I learned the music from inside, and within a year was playing in the best bands in the best dance halls, and the expression of that music entered my vocabulary, so that when I had the opportunity to write in that language for the Broadway musical Chronicle of a Death Foretold I could still be me in those culturally foreign languages. It’s all about travelling (but not tourism).
How do you write a song like Calling You? What was the directive?
I wish I knew; I’d write another that good. Actually, in was a confluence of events:
1. I had my first opportunity to write for a movie – which became Bagdad Cafe.
2. My girlfriend in Vienna (I was in NY) and I were breaking up. I didn’t have enough energy to get out of bed all day. Finally, guilty about my three months of procrastination, I woke up one Saturday morning and said to myself, ‘today I’m gonna write that song’. So I sat at my piano and thought about the desert, the open land, the quiet, and in it the coffee machine, the hot dry wind, the baby crying… and began to play the four-note arpeggio, recalling Bach WTC, that spells out each chord in the verse, where the last three notes of each chord stay the same and only the bass note changes, giving the feeling of being in the same place but with different lighting. As the morning becomes noonday become dusk in Bagdad Cafe. But the chorus is where the emotion, the yearning, lie. The rich and sensuous harmonic movement had to happen, a chromaticism where before it was diatonic. And I sang “I am calling you” – probably because the only thing happening in m life at that moment was the 30-minute phone call to Vienna every other day. Didn’t get the girl, but I did get the song.
Funny, really it’s mostly intuition. But as your fingers play something (maybe something you feel more than you know), you recognise the intention and how it works. In 90 minutes I had the whole song, even 90 per cent of the lyrics.
When Barbra Streisand asked you to write another verse to Calling You, what was your reaction?
I was honoured that she loved my song so much that she wanted her own personal verse to sing! Incidentally, the version I just sang for my new CD American Dreamers has that verse in it too, so I guess I do like it. The original verses are pure description, so finally in the new verse there’s action!
What advice to give young songwriters?
Keep your ideas fresh, but don’t forget that ultimately it’s a one-to-one communication between you and the listener; you have to make sense on some level. Create expectations, then satisfy them in a novel way. Same goes for lyrics.
Bob Telson will be teaching at Summersong Music Camp 15–22 January, and his only show in Australia, at Byron Theatre, 24 January with Tony Backhouse, Kristina Olsen and Shelly Brown.