Garland Jeffreys’ album, 14 Steps to Harlem, grew out of a soulful period of retrospection late in the artist’s life and career. As a veteran songwriter, Jeffreys started writing provocative, ahead-of-its- time, genre-bending songs in the early 1970s, with lyrics focused on everything from relationships to racial diversity to political turmoil. Now in his seventies, the New York musician is looking back on his life with an album that takes on bold topics and includes a title track inspired by his turbulent relationship with his father.
Jefferys spoke with Georgie about his latest release, his relationship with Lou Reed and his somewhat unconventional approach to songwriting.
Georgie—14 Steps to Harlem is a great album.
Garland Jeffreys—Thank you. I’m very proud of the record. I took some chances in recording it but had confidence that it could be something special. You don’t know a record is good or bad until it’s done – then you know. I worked on the album with my co-producer, James Maddock, who’s a great artist in his own right.
G—The title track, “14 Steps to Harlem”, stood out to me. I read that it was written with your father in mind. Did the experience of writing about your dad help you to see him in a new light?
GJ—I had a rough time with him growing up. But … as time went on, he began to understand and he made a big apology to me. I treasure that apology. Toward the end of his life we were able to move on.
My relationship with him is such an important topic for me – the good, the bad and the ugly. I can exorcise the past by talking about these things and writing songs about them. It frees me, and it helps me to see the picture much better. He came from a different era, from Harlem. And that’s where “14 Steps to Harlem Comes From.” In the end he tried to make up lost time.
G—“Colored Boy Said” has such a powerful message. Can you talk me through the meaning behind it, especially in the context of what’s happening in politics today?
GJ—[Sings] “I got a president who looks like me/I got a president who looks like me/Colored boy said”… it’s a terrific tune that reflects the present and the past.
G—You certainly aren’t afraid to speak out about things that matter to you. Was that song written pre-Trump?
GJ—I’ve been writing these kinds of songs my entire career. I’m thinking about writing something about Trump. But I don’t think I want to sanctify his name with my music. I could have some choice words for him.
G—Do you think artists today are less inclined to use their music to take a stand on something?
GJ—I think there are a lot of people who are doing it. I’ve been writing these kinds of songs for many years. And some people have said, “What are you doing that for?” or, “You’re ruining your career!” At first it felt uncomfortable when people were telling me that, and I really did question it. But I can’t write any other way; these are things I care about. It’s what I really cherish – the right for people to live under the right circumstances, under the right housing, whatever colour you are.
G—There are a couple of covers on your album [“Help” by the Beatles, and “Waiting for the Man” by Lou Reed]. What made you choose these particular songs?
GJ—I had the privilege of meeting John Lennon … He was very kind and loving and sweet to me. It was around the time the Beatles had broken up, and Lennon was kind of happy they’d broken up. He was sick of the Beatles. The Beatles had their run, and I believe Paul wanted to continue, but John was very savvy. He was smart and said no – and a lot of people didn’t like it.
But John went ahead and made this decision to record his new album in this studio in New York City, with a recording engineer named Roy Cicala. And Roy was my mentor. He showed me about recording studios. He was a wonderful guy – like a father to me. I met John because Roy was working with him.
G—And what about “Waiting for the Man”? I know you and Lou Reed were close.
GJ—Lou Reed and I went to Syracuse University together and we were like brothers. We loved each other, you know. We were really great, passionate friends. He was just a misunderstood character, but he was a fantastic friend of mine. He wasn’t friends with everybody. I was much more outgoing than Lou. But he was a wonderful, wonderful guy – a very generous guy. He and I liked old-fashioned doo-wop music – the kind of music that we both grew up listening to, like Frankie Lymon & and The Teenagers – these street-corner groups. I sang in a group like that when I was a young kid.
G—What are some of the lessons that Lou taught you?
GJ—One of the greatest lessons was don’t shy away from what you believe in. Be a leader, don’t be a follower. And it’s not something that Lou Reed taught me – it’s something he showed me. He was just a friend to the end. I was at his wedding with his wife Laurie, a lovely person who I’m still friends with now.
G—She’s playing violin on your song, “Luna Park Love Theme”, right?
G—What keeps you inspired?
GJ—Anything can inspire me. Anything can lead me into a song. The question is: does it have enough value? Does it have enough meaning? And I do like to write the occasional happy song. People accuse me of being someone who only writes about tragedy, or race… not true! [Laughs]
G—Are you working on any new material at the moment?
GJ—Always! I’m going to do a live album and just released a new single this past December called “She’s a Killer”.
G— What do you enjoy most about touring?
GJ—It’s nice to get out of New York City, and I get to see old friends like my friends in France and Italy.
G—You lived in Italy for a period, right?
GJ—I did. I have friends all over. I have a childhood best friend who lives in LA: Phil Messina. He needs some ink. He’s writing a script for his new movie. It’s called The Day the Dodgers Left Brooklyn and it’s a fantastic idea. He’s been working on it diligently.
G—Sounds like you know a lot of interesting people all around the world!
GJ—I sure do. It’s a joy. I know people who don’t get out of NYC. New York’s a great place but it’s not the only place.
“14 Steps to Harlem” & Garland’s latest single She’s a Killer is available now on Spotify.
Since his 2005 breakthrough, Breaking Kayfabe, Cadence Weapon has been an artist to watch. The two-time Polaris Music Prize nominee, writer, producer and rapper is known for his innovative musical style and has made waves worldwide. Following a five year hiatus – which included a move from Montreal to Toronto and a stint as Edmonton’s poet laureate – Cadence Weapon returns with a new self-titled album. Cadence Weapon is armed with furious flows, big collaborations and themes that include dance-party politics and dystopian futures. For his latest effort, the rapper is noticeably more focused and is reintroducing himself in a big way. Georgie caught up with Cadence Weapon to talk about the new album, his musical journey, and the L-word: legacy. G—Your new self-titled album is being called a “reintroduction to Cadence Weapon.” What does that mean? Cadence Weapon—I feel like I’ve matured a lot more and the music really reflects that. There is a reason why this album is self-titled. It feels like a rebirth for me; it feels like my first album in a lot of ways. I feel like the creative process for this album is what I’ve always wanted to do in my career. I was
Using his life experiences growing up in downtown Toronto as a source of inspiration, Langston Francis is on his grind as a young artist discovering himself and the world of music around him. We caught up with Francis on the heels of his debut single release to talk about his foray into music, early influences and his direction as an artist. G—You are still in high school. Do you find it hard to juggle your new music career with school? Langston Francis—It’s challenging. For example, I had two exams in one day, then a show at night and I was feeling under the weather. I have school every day, so it definitely gets hard to juggle things sometimes, but it’s sort of something I just have to take in stride. I’m just so grateful for all the opportunities I have. G—Can you tell us a little about your first single, “FCKD IT UP”? LF—I wrote the song and beat when I was 14. At the time, the song had a certain meaning to me. We ended up finishing the song about 12 months later, after that it took on a whole new meaning. As I grow up and change
Québécois singer-songwriter Gabrielle Shonk locates a raw vulnerability within an indie-folk sound on her debut self-titled LP released this past September. Tracing through her own experiences with a voice that pierces and taunts in equal measure, the 29-year-old has earned comparisons to the likes of Alicia Keys, Fiona Apple and Adele. To kick off the new year, Georgie caught up with Gabrielle by phone at her home in Quebec City. G—Could you tell us a little about your background? Gabrielle Shonk—I am French Canadian. Actually, I was born in the States in Providence, Rhode Island, and we moved to [a suburb of Quebec City] when I was five or six. My dad is American and my mom is from Quebec City. G—Is French your first language? GS—Yes. I went to school in French and everything; my whole upbringing was in French in Quebec. G—Your English is absolutely perfect. GS—I would say English has always come more naturally to me; I love both though, but my main musical expression language is English. G—Who would you say are your greatest musical influences? GS—I like a lot of old stuff, from the folk scene: Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I