Jonathan Richman is as influential as he is humble. After leaving an indelible mark on the course of alternative music, fronting the Modern Lovers alongside future members of the Cars and Talking Heads, and writing a song that politicians lobbied to have named the official state song of Massachusetts, Richman has stepped aside from the spotlight. He doesn’t use a computer, solely conducts written interviews, and is signed to a small independent label. This is not a retreat from the public eye, or the case of a recluse, but merely a matter of preference. In February, Richman released his first album in five years, Ishkode! Ishkode! (Blue Arrow Records), and has performed throughout the year. When approached for this interview, he and his management were both obliging and appreciative. Responding to a list of written questions, Richman provided honest and enthusiastic answers, seemingly more like a neighbour at a summertime BBQ than a legend of rock and roll. As a great honour for the Lotusland team, the transcript of an interview with Jonathan Richman, as follows:
I thought I would start with your latest work: Ishkode! Ishkode! Researching the title, I discovered “Ishkode” is the Ojibwe word for “fire,” which makes sense considering the album artwork. What was the connection to the Ojibwe language?
JR: In the language section of Birchbark Books, a Native bookstore in Minneapolis, I discovered learning materials on Ojibwe language. I found out that Ojibwe has a music in it that seems to go with my cadence of making up songs.
Your writing in the past has often included multiple languages: do you find a greater depth of expression singing in French or Spanish? Is the writing process different? Has it allowed you to connect with audiences you otherwise would not have?
JR: Good questions! I generally say I don’t write songs: I make ‘em up. I sometimes write down ideas for songs, though and to collect my thoughts in French or whatever, I’ll often write things out. And, as you were suggesting, different emotions and expression comes with different languages. And it really makes a difference addressing a Spanish audience in Spanish as opposed to English. It’s so for all countries.
Turning back to Ishkode! Ishkode!, could you share some details about the recording process? In the 5 years since your last album did you accumulate material for this album or was it a concerted writing/recording effort?
JR: Neither one. I don’t collect and I don’t write. Certainly I don’t write with effort. I got vocalists together and we made up most of the songs as we went after rehearsing their parts a few times. Sometimes no rehearsal. I had no idea what the album would sound like until it was done.
Looking at your work from the last couple albums, themes of mortality stick out. Is writing about the passing of time and death therapeutic or a healing process? Does voicing such themes in song, help you to work through your feelings?
JR: I didn’t even notice that I was making up stuff about death so much! Any song helps me express, and learn about, my feelings. That’s probably why I sing. But it’s not “therapeutic” so much as it is fun.
The album was released by Blue Arrow records – what brought you into their fold? Do you prefer working for a smaller label?
The album was also released exclusively in physical format – why so?
JR: I like that way. I don’t really like the other.
Along these lines, what are your thoughts about streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music? Is a physical copy of an album important to you? Is it out of nostalgia? For the sake of sound quality?
JR: I don’t know much about any of these companies. I just like to make records. That and playing live.
I have also been informed that you do not have a computer, does the release of this album relate to your views of technology as a whole?
JR: Well, I just wanted to make a record. I didn’t know what it was going to have to do with.
Lastly, what can we expect next? More shows or music to come?
JR: We’re going to play in November a lot, all across the states. And we’ve got more 45 rpms coming out and we got more stuff to record I think. Anyhow, we’ll go into the studio some more soon.