Harry Shearer has been a whirlwind of creativity and versatility in comedy over the course of a long career in TV, film and radio. In addition to being a voice actor (The Simpsons), film performer (This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind) and radio host (Le Show on KCRW, Los Angeles), Shearer is also a songwriter and recording artist who has just released his sixth solo album, an all-musical affair titled Can’t Take a Hint, out August 27th on Courgette Records.
Shearer has been writing songs and performing them since his days with the early ‘70s alternative comedy troupe The Credibility Gap, and has portrayed a musician in two high-profile “mockumentaries:” bassist Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Folksmen member Mark Shubb in A Mighty Wind (2003). Shearer’s songwriting has always been incisively satirical, a tradition that he mostly continues on Can’t Take a Hint, where he takes on such topical subjects as Rupert Murdoch, Sarah Palin, the BP oil spill and sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. What’s new is Shearer’s collaboration with some of today’s finest musicians - among them Dr. John, Jamie Cullum, Fountains of Wayne, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Steve Lukather and Tommy Malone (of the Subdudes) - who lend the proceedings a high level of professionalism and authority.
Shearer recently took some time to discuss the making of Can’t Take a Hint.
What made you start Courgette, your own record label?
With everything I do, I try to go to the place where I’m the freest to do what I do. And with the recording business, it was possible at this point to do that.
On this record, you take on a lot of people, including Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the network that employs you. It isn’t something most people would do.
Well, I have a contract that doesn’t prohibit it. More the point, he has always proven to be immune and amenable to even cooperating in stuff that makes fun of him on that show. I don’t think that threatens him in any way. Being laughed at has nothing to do with how much money or power he has. I get the idea those are the things he really cares about.
How important is the musical side of your life to you?
My dad was trained as an opera singer and there was always music in our house, various kinds. I took piano lessons from the age of four to the age of 15. At the time, I hated the piano lessons because they were making me read, and I was an ear player. So I just thought, “That’s interesting, but now I’ll go do what I’m really interested in doing.” Over time I just found myself being pulled more and more back towards music.
What are the circumstances that drew you back into it?
Well, very early on, I was doing this satirical radio show called The Credibility Gap. Michael McKean came in and we started working on songs together. He’d write the music and I’d help him with the words, as with our other partner, David Lander. Then over time, Spinal Tap happened, and then The Folksmen happened, and I started writing songs for my radio show and got a modicum of encouragement which led me to do more of that. I got involved with my wife, the singer Judith Owen. And we moved to New Orleans, and I got to know more and more musical people and practiced more and more on the bass. I got to sit in with people, and just gradually, that become a more prominent part of my life. Around this time, three years ago, I realized “God, I spent the first eight months of the year doing music projects, and I’ve never been happier.”
Is writing songs a very difficult process for you?
No! It’s not a regular process, and fortunately it doesn’t have to be. Every once in a while somebody would say something, or a phrase will be in the press that attracts my attention, and I think “That would make a song!” And when I do that, I have to make two quick decisions: whose voice is it written in? Is it written in the voice of the character that’s the target or the person the song is about? Or, is it written from the standpoint of an observer, about that person or thing? And then, what musical style does that dictate? Because I have no musical style of my own, so I have to adopt another. Once I’ve done that, the words come pretty fast, because I know the shape of the lyric by having made the stylistic choice. Whether is has to be a short lyric line or a long one, and how the stanzas go. Normally the lyric comes out in the space of an hour. If not, then I abandon the whole idea. After that, the hard work begins, which is to put it to music.
It’s interesting how some very musical people have so much trouble writing lyrics. They’d rather commit suicide than write a lyric. But they can write a melody.
Well, the gifts are distributed in all different ways, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. So then, I sit down at a piano. I won’t choose a musical style that I don’t have some familiarity with, and that includes knowing what chords belong and what chords don’t. So, I then try to pick out a set of appropriate chords and try to find a melody that way. Having done that and starting to record a demo, I normally realize I’ve overwritten again. Then, I begin throwing out words.
And with this musical approach, once you’ve written the songs, you just need the band, the producers and arrangers to realize the vision?
Yes. This is the first of my records where I’ve played bass on it myself. Normally, I’ve done most of the singing and I thought “That’s enough of me, I don’t have to do the bass as well.” But this time since I had so many guest artists I thought “Well, I might as well pick up the bass and play on some of these songs.” To me, the whole idea of collaboration is not just to have people come in and you say, “Well that’s the way I hear it, do this!” but to gain the benefit of their ideas, which I think we did.
So in recording these funny songs, everybody was pretty serious about getting it right?
Oh yeah! There’s nothing enjoyable about playing bad music. The idea is to try to make good music, and the bonus is: the lyrics are funny!
It’s great how you, the band and the producers could skip around so many different types of music.
If you’re exposed to a lot of music and you have a musical ear, it all goes in and it’s kind of retrievable. If somebody says “Hollywood exotica, circa 1950s!” you can come up with something because it’s all in there somewhere.
You’ve been doing something in the world of entertainment for 60 years, and it seems that it’s still pretty fresh for you.
I keep trying to do new things, and I keep trying to do things that make me stretch and learn new stuff. I keep trying to work with people that inspire me and make it fun. I have this novel idea that if we’re doing work that’s being well conceived and we’re having fun, then that will somehow be translated to the audience. I think doing a comedy-infused project should be enjoyable for the practitioners as well.
Can’t Take a Hint is now on sale. Find out more about the album and Harry Shearer at harryshearer.com.
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