Easy Writer: Jack Tempchin Reflects on “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and The Magic of Songwriting
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • December 12, 2017
Great American music scenes have flourished throughout the years all across the country, from New Orleans to Nashville, New York City to Seattle. One of the most fertile such creative flowerings occurred in Southern California in the late ‘60s and early 1970s, ground zero for the singer-songwriter movement and the country rock success of the Eagles. Jack Tempchin, a harmonica-slinging singer-songwriter plying his craft in San Diego music clubs, had just the right chops at the right time and became part of American music history when he befriended Eagles’ founder Glenn Frey and wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” for the band. It became one of the group’s most played, beloved and enduring songs. Tempchin went on to write more hits with Frey (“You Belong to the City,” "Smuggler's Blues," “The One You Love”), for the Eagles ("Already Gone," "The Girl From Yesterday," "Somebody," "It's Your World Now") and for artists such as Johnny Rivers (“Slow Dancing”), George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Trisha Yearwood and more. His songs have also been sampled by Coolio and Jay-Z. While steadily building his own career as a performer and recording artist, he has also shared his valuable insights on songwriting in a video series, “Go Write One,” where he explores the “non-linear, spiritual and magical” aspects of his craft.
Tempchin recently released Peaceful Easy Feeling: The Songs of Jack Tempchin, featuring all new recordings of Tempchin performing his hit songs written with Glenn Frey, plus some other memorable songs in his long career. The album also features special guests such as Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen and Rita Coolidge. We spoke with Tempchin about how he met Frey, the experience of recording these songs for the first time, and why magic is so important to his songwriting process.
What was it about that late 1960s to early ‘70s Southern California music scene that led to so much great music and collaboration?
Well, you have the end of the 1950s, and it turns out, looking back, that was a super prosperous time for America. San Diego was a military town and really buttoned-down, behavior wise. I think what came after that was in response to the ‘50s, actually.
It was also the era of the singer-songwriter. Was everyone hungry for a record deal or was it more altruistic than that? Like the simple desire to write a good song and share it with the world.
I think it was altruistic. I was in the folk music movement. You sat there with your guitar and you sang your song. I used to play at the Candy Company, which was a club, and Jackson Browne would come down and play, and it was just a whole movement of music. I think the commercialism happened because the young people said we like this, and they started buying it. And then the music changed from what you just described to giant, corporate, young people.
Nevertheless, as someone interested in folk, writing a song for a band that ended up being such a success like the Eagles must have been transformative. How did you cross paths with those guys.
It was about 10 years before the Eagles. I was playing at the Candy Company and Glenn Frey, who had come from Detroit, and his buddy John David Souther, from Texas had a duo. They came down to play in San Diego and they played the club that I was in. That was how I met them and I said, “Hey, whenever you guys come to San Diego, why don’t you stay at my house?” I had a big house full of hippies. They came down and stayed there all the time and I just remained best of friends with both of those guys. The trick is I met them long before the Eagles. Glenn was into folk and songwriting and all that, and he also had played bass and hung out with Bob Seger in Detroit.
How did you come to write “Peaceful Easy Feeling?”
Like all of the songs that I was doing at that time, it just came naturally. With “Peaceful Easy Feeling” specifically, I thought I hit the nail on the head. I said what I needed to say. I never imagined that it would be a hit song. I was playing a little gig and dreaming about every woman that I ran into at that point and I started writing in this coffeehouse when the girl I was supposed to go home with disappeared. I was sleeping on the floor of this little coffeehouse. Then I went back to San Diego and I saw a girl in a street fair and she had these turquoise earrings, so I just put her in the song. I just kept putting every girl I saw in the song. But the song is really about the fact that you don’t find what you’re looking for until you give up and you don’t need it anymore.
Logistically, how did your collaborations with Glenn Frey work?
It worked out in many different ways. Sometimes there was an assignment. Like Glenn met the guys doing the Miami Vice television show. They said: “Here’s an episode. We want a song for that.” So we wrote “You Belong to the City.” Another way it worked is if Glenn was working on an album and thinking about what kind of song he’d like on there. We would come up with a title and work from the title. Another way we’d do it is we had a technique called “El Blurto.” We would just sit here in my little house in Hollywood, and we’d sit here with some yellow pads and turn on our cassette recorder and we would just make up stuff for an hour. Then we would listen back and see if El Blurto had come up with anything good that we could use. That’s another way we did it. But no matter how you get the stuff that comes out quickly at first, you still have to spend a lot of time polishing and fixing it in the end.
Your most recent album means something to you beyond most of the records you’ve recorded because it largely represents your work with Glenn as well as some other successful collaborations. Why was it important for you to capture these songs in your own voice?
Well, it started as a request from my record label. They’ve always wanted me to record all the hits songs I wrote. Some of these songs were so well recorded by the Eagles or Glenn Frey, as you know. But then I started to make the record, and I talked to Glenn about it; he thought it was a great idea. So that made me feel good.
I also put a couple of songs on the album that were never recorded. I thought if I don’t do them no one’s ever going to hear them, so that was really important to me. Some songs are well-known and true to the originals, like “The One You Love” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Some of the other ones I did completely different, such as “Party Town.” I also did a new song called “Privacy” that Glenn and I wrote that we really liked but never got around to recording.
You also have some great guest performers on the record. How did that come about?
It was kind of an adventure because the record company encouraged me to have some guest artists, which made recording the songs even more interesting to me.
When it came time to record “Already Gone” it was really a challenge. So many people had heard the incredibly great record that the Eagles made. I thought so what am I going to do, just sit there and record it on the acoustic guitar or something? So I thought of getting two amazing musicians, Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson, and I just was so delighted with the way it came out — it’s totally different from the Eagles and yet it still has the same feel
I’ve always just been star struck by Chris Hillman ever since I first saw him playing in the bluegrass band called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers when I was a kid. Then the next time I saw him he was at the Arena with The Byrds in San Diego. And then one of my favorite bands was the Flying Burrito Brothers, and he was in that. So recording him and Herb was a real adventure for me.
What did you value most about your relationship with Glenn Frey?
Well, Glenn and I had in common a tremendous love of music. We just became good friends, and that was really the big thing. He recorded two of my songs with the Eagles and then when he started to take that vacation from the Eagles for 14 years, he called me we started writing stuff and it turned out to be just very fortuitous your great friend just turns out to be one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of the whole time period that you’re in [LAUGHS]. I think I just had a certain ease of flow of words that helped him, and together we were just a great match in terms of writing. So it was magic.
Speaking of magic, I know that you are a firm believer in summoning that mystical side of the songwriter’s craft. Can you describe what that means to you?
I have a series of lectures about songwriting and they’re called “Go Write One” and they’re up on my website; they’re only two minutes long. But what I talk about is how to get in the mood to write a song.
What that means is, you kind of have to trick yourself into getting into a space where everything that’s been coming into your eyes and your ears and your mind is all in there and it’s bonking around and you just trick yourself into a space where it starts flowing out.
That’s really what the songwriting’s about. People go, well, you start with the words for the music. No, I don’t. Usually, I start with an idea. You have an idea and that’s what propels the song.
You get in the mood and you let the thing flow, and then later there’s an opportunity to edit and whittle stuff out and throw away the junk and put things together.
I need to kind of baby a song along and really care about it and not be willing to throw it away. So, trying to capture the magic is the whole ballgame.
For more info, visit www.jacktempchin.com