Van Dyke Parks on His New Album ‘Songs Cycled’ and Reuniting With Joanna Newsom

Van Dyke Parks. Photo courtesy of Fort William Management

It’s been 24 years since American composer and songwriter Van Dyke Parks released a proper solo album. But he’s hardly been dormant: in 1998, he released a live album called Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove, he’s worked on numerous films and TV shows and written arrangements for musicians like Joanna Newsom, Brian Wilson and Inara George. Parks, who is playing “an evening of songs from my horrifically long life that I’ve either written or arranged” with the Adelaide Arts Orchestra and Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns on March 8 in Australia, called Hive on his way to the airport and discussed why his new album Songs Cycled is like a bitter pill, possibly writing for Joanna Newsom again and why music is like “a sexual conquest on a four-poster bed.”

You have a new album coming out. Why the hell did it take so long? It’s been 24 years!

[Laughs.] I have two things. First, I’ve been working very hard and and with due diligence under horse hooves and gunshots making music for movies. I’ve been orchestrating for other people. I’ve done a hell of a lot of B movies and televisions shows. And second, I go back and I just dig into things. So it’s taken me some time to confess the song that I wrote the week after 9/11. It took me time because I didn’t want to capitalize on other’s misfortune. I didn’t feel like retaliating, like Neil Young did. I thought that was stupid thing to do. I was in a state of shock and awe. I wanted to know why they were so pissed at us. So that’s why I’ve waited. I just had to wait to put out some songs.

So it took you awhile to process the events of 9/11?

The song is called “Wall Street.” I got out of the shower [on 9/11] and I see on the television what’s going on. The tower is coming down. The phone rings, and it’s my daughter and she has just come from Brooklyn into Manhattan to go to school at NYU. She is on the cellphone and she says, “Dad what should I do? There’s a wall of ashes about two stories high.” She’s running from that wall of ash. I said, “Where are you going?” She said, “I’m running north as fast as I can.” I said, “That’s a good thing to do, you keep doing that.” At the same time, my friend Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, was picking up his daughter four blocks from the site itself and taking her out of school. She points up to the sky and says, “Dad, the birds are on fire.” They aren’t birds, they’re people.

“Wall Street” is about a man and a woman that are upside down holding hands as they approach the concrete below. They fall in love in short order — there’s not much time to give it second thought. Art had a done a picture of the same cataclysm. So I thought that would make a great illustration. Each song has an illustration. Since no one was interested in me — record companies, that is — I put these self-financed productions on 45 records with illustrations. About a year passed, and finally I got an invitation probably about three or four months ago from Bella Union in London to make a real record out of it. So this has been a very good fortune for me.

Who plays on it?

Oh, damn. A whole bunch of different people. A room full of strings! A fine guitarist. Ira Ingber, Grant Geissman — I really hesitate to say how many, I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out.

Where did you record it?

All over the place! From my own Pasadena home — in my modest studio, we’re talking about mom-and-pop-shop stuff here — to large rooms that are wooden paneled where string sections gather. So I did it in a whole bunch of studios. But, as I mentioned, I put them out as singles to demonstrate my attention. I found out quickly that the vinyl industry is a niche industry. It is high fidelity. It’s the world that I came from! I’m 70 years old now. I wrote Song Cycle [his 1968 debut album] when I was 23 years old. I would say that this is a better record.

In your short essay about the new record you write, “There’s nothing more precious than the song form to revolutionize popular thoughts and practices that need a jolt of shock therapy.” That’s more relevant now than it has been in a long time. Are you coming after Congress with this new record?

“I am so ecologically alarmed by what we have done. The album is a bitter pill. And I have attempted to make it delicious by coating it in great visual art. By distracting people so they won’t think I’m just an ugly old man and a curmudgeon who is just hopeless. Because that’s not the case. I do have hope!”

You can expect a cursory, panoramic look at the multi-faceted crisis of modern man. We’re entering this new theological era, which I think actually started with the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It’s a new age of man! We have conquered the earth as the bible suggests we should. We’ve done it. And now we’re cooking in our own grease. I am so ecologically alarmed by what we have done. The album is a bitter pill. And I have attempted to make it delicious by coating it in great visual art. By distracting people so they won’t think I’m just an ugly old man and a curmudgeon who is just hopeless. Because that’s not the case. I do have hope!

You worked with Joanna Newsom on her album Ys. Are you working on any new stuff with her?

I heard from her record company that she may be calling me and asking me to do an arrangement, which I would love. I really admire her.

Are you working on any scores?

When I get back from Australia I am about to embark on a five-song cattle call — that is, we’ll see if they survive — for Amazon’s first feature-length picture. Am I frightened? Of course! I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea. I just try to find the way. And I do it simply with a lot of hard work. I put my shoulder to the wheel and push.

Are there any young acts that you have on repeat at home?

I listen to a lot of dead white guys. That means music that is truly great, Bach to me is the greatest musician. And I’m from Mississippi—I don’t need Mick Jagger to tell me what the Delta Blues is all about. My favorite is Paolo Conte, he’s the greatest songwriter of my time. I listen to young people and I keep hoping I’m going to learn something incredible that will help me cross the rubicon to somewhere I’ve never been. I enjoy the music of Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, I love Joanna Newsom because of her courage and she obviously works without any regard of what people might think of her—that’s what I like, I like music that makes you feel empowered because it’s so courageous and just oozes courage and virtue. Listen, I don’t watch awards shows that pretend to be charitable functions, like the Grammys and the Academy Awards. That nauseates me quite frankly. I would rather listen to music that hasn’t been found yet. Music that somehow gives me the same thing I would get from a sexual conquest on a four-poster bed. Basically at this point in my life, nothing else matters.

Songs Cycled is out May 6 on Bella Union.

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