by Billy Walker
Sounds, October 23 1971
WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN NEW YORK?
I've got a manuscript of poems that I took down to my publishing agent.
DO THEY SELL WELL IN THE STATES?
I think they do OK. They get me off. It's curious to see them sell, I think I always seem somewhat surprised.
HAVE YOU ANY PLANS TO GO FURTHER, A NOVEL PERHAPS?
Well, I'm always blackening pages or something so anything could happen.
DO YOUR SONGS COME EASILY TO YOU?
No they don't come easily at all.
DO YOU THINK THAT YOUR SONGS WILL TAIL OFF AT ANY POINT, THEY COME FROM EXPERIENCE SURELY THERE MUST COME A POINT WHEN YOU CAN'T SOAK UP ANY MORE?
It's just the in-flow and outflow which keeps the balance but I think there comes a time when people just have to be quiet.
HAVE YOU ANY SONGS STOCKPILED?
No I've never had that imperial privilege of stockpiling, they seem to come when they come and they're not coming in very great profusion, I wish they did. I find that a song takes anywhere from a few hours to three or four years to write, most of the songs on my last album took three or four years to write.
WHO DO YOU FEEL EXPRESSES YOUR SONGS PARTICULARLY WELL?
Judy Collins, I like the way she sings them, I also like Buffy Sainte-Marie shes a lovely singer.
SOME OF JACQUES BREL'S EARLY MATERIAL IS VERY CLOSE TO YOURS?
I hadn't heard him when I started to write songs but I think many people are indebted to him. I don't remember any early influences, I think I stole from everybody I ever heard.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST START WRITING AND PERFORMING?
I started playing with a barn dance band when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old and I guess around the middle sixties I started writing my own songs.
WERE THERE ANY OBVIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL OR EMOTIONAL INFLUENCES IN YOUR SONGS?
There were a few places in the world where I like to hang out and I imagine that the landscape seeps into the songs. Montreal is one because it is where I was born and grew up, it's also a good town.
WAS YOUR ISLE OF WIGHT APPEARANCE SOMETHING YOU HAD WANTED TO DO?
I hadnt been singing in public very long, in fact I still havent, and I had a second lot of thoughts about playing for that many people or about being effective in front of that many people and I still do, but Im glad I got up there. I think I went on about four in the morning.
WAS THAT A GOOD TIME TO GO ON WITH YOUR SORT OF MATERIAL?
The band and myself were sleeping in this sort of trailer, we were supposed to go on at midnight and the whole thing was delayed so we all flaked out in this trailer. They woke us up and we got up there in this kind of daze and everyone was asleep in the audience, well a lot were sleeping. I think our music fitted in well with the general mood of the wipeout that everybody felt. I feel that the conditions of that festival were very unpleasant.
DON'T AN AUDIENCE HAVE TO BE WIDE AWAKE AND ATTENTIVE TO TAKE IN YOUR MATERIAL?
When you're sleepy also your enemy is sleepy, your internal enemy. So that when that enemy is generally on guard it's so alert that he stops you from hearing most things, so when he's sleepy a lot of things get past him so I never mind a sleeping audience. If they're not sleepy when I get there I sure make sure they are when I leave.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO MORE BRITISH DATES?
I'd like to. It always scares me, the notion, I think the people I work with are always anxious to get me on the stage and I am always in the position of resisting their encouragement. I think it is good to get up there and work in front of people but as I sit here talking the idea scares me.
IS IT A FEAR OF FAILING THE AUDIENCE OR YOURSELF?
I think I'm always afraid of failing, I think that's one way of putting it, it's just that I have this sense that to take up people's time with anything but excellence is really too much to think about. Just on the basis of things that people seemed to have liked in the past to compel them to come and then bore them for hours. If you can really give and give the total gift it's worthwhile, but you don't feel you can demand their grace every night.
IDEALLY HOW OFTEN WOULD YOU WORK?
If I could really do it I'd do it every night but I just know that I couldn't if it came to it. It's a test of character which is very worthwhile for me and I think if I didn't go up on stage I would stay in a room and just hang out a very isolated kind of life and this does compel me to get up there. I think what I'm worried about, and think a lot of other people are worried about, for the want of a better expression, is selling-out. I don't want to humiliate myself in my own eyes let alone failing in front of other people, that's bad enough but to humiliate yourself in your own eyes is something else, so the only way you can repair yourself is in work and the only way you can work is in a kind of solitude. So that if you go out there too often eventually you will be cheating both yourself and publishers.
WOULD YOU GO AS FAR AS TO WALK OFF STAGE IF YOUR ACT WASN'T UP TO A CERTAIN STANDARD?
I hope I would have the good grace to do that. I did it once in New York a few years ago. It was my first time singing in public and Judy Collins introduced me and my song and I think she had just sung "Suzanne", the audience greeted me with tremendous warmth and I hit my guitar and it was incredibly out of tune. I was trying to tune the guitar and it wouldn't tune, I thought it must be me, it must be in tune so I started singing 'Suzanne". I sang three or four bars and I knew that it was impossible and I quit. I said "I'm sorry". I just knew there was no point going on.
DID THIS MAKE YOUR NEXT PERFORMANCE DOUBLY HARD?
Yes it was. I spent a lot of time tuning my guitar beforehand.
ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR ARTISTS YOU ADMIRE TODAY?
There are people on the scene that supply some kind of nourishment for the head that is essential. There are so many, some like Dylan or Judy. But there are some people that have that voice, you hear it for a moment and it doesn't matter if they're going to last over the years or not. Just to hear some quality in a man or a woman's voice and you're nourished by it.
WHY HAVE YOU STAYED AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE'S MATERIAL?
The reason I've stayed away from it mostly is because I started writing my own songs because I couldn't really learn the tunes of other songs. I would love to and if I could really sing well I'd sing everybody's songs but I feel if I sing my own songs nobody can complain. I think if you sing your own songs you can really embody the vision in the song but I wouldn't like to try it with "0 Sole Mio".
DO YOU FEEL THERE'S A TIME WHEN YOU WILL CEASE WRITING?
I think you always feel that, I think you feel it if songs are longer coming and it has happened to better writers than me. If the gift dries up I think the best thing is to turn your back on it and walk away and never look at it again. I find it hard to write songs or anything else, so it's always on the edge of extinction so if anything comes I'm always grateful for it but if it stopped coming I would hope, I would know and wouldn't keep pressing it. I think the quality of the work has already in certain instances been too low. I think some of the stuff isn't too good and wish I'd have held it back.
DO YOU NEED A PRIVATE LIFE MORE OBVIOUSLY BECAUSE OF THE STRAIN OF WRITING AND WORKING LIVE?
Thats why I dont want to get into performing too much because Ive always seen song and poetry as the evidence of the life rather than the life itself, the picture of life is straight and if you really are experiencing things then this work is the evidence of that experience. If your experience only becomes putting out for the public, and we are all whores in a certain level because we're out there every night like the entertainer, but for me I couldnt live that life totally because I know it would dry things up. I already feel that I am spending more time by myself, I did get into it for a little while.
DO YOU NEED TO GET AWAY TO WRITE?
I don't go away for that reason, it's not going away it's just going away in terms of what the outside world sees, but one is looking for sunsets and things.
IS THERE ONE SONG OR POEM YOU ARE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF?
In all honesty I really do feel embarrassed at most of the work, I feel it errs on the side of sentimentality. I feel they could be a lot clearer and I try and work on that.
DO YOU FEEL CREATIVITY MUST COME OUT IN SOME FORM OR OTHER?
I don't see it so much as creativity as work and if you just lose the taste of the real command of a certain kind of work. I suppose it's like the workers who do the high building work, if you lose your nerve for it it's no great disgrace, it means you can't do that any more and I think that there are other honourable kinds of work that I think I could find. I think one of the things has wiped so many people out who do other kinds of work, like factory work, is that they're not involved in the perfection, they don't have a standard of excellence and I think if a man doesn't have a standard of excellence his work becomes meaningless. I feel that you're interviewing me with a kind of idea of what a good interview is - a standard of excellence - and I'm enjoying it. If you were completely indifferent, I know that your whole heart is not totally involved in what's going down here, but you're working with a certain kind of skill that is acceptable and when that level and acceptability really declines then it's time to get out of it.
DO YOU THINK YOUR LYRICS AND WAY OF LIFE ADD TO THE COHEN MYSTIQUE?
I think you do have to be in contact with yourself or be interesting in establishing contact with yourself, a lot of people aren't interested in their higher state, it just happens that I am interested in my internal landscape and just paint pictures of them.
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