Interview with Jim Boggia, Safe in Sound

A chat with Jim Boggia

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Ah, the trials of being on the road...

Singer/songwriter Jim Boggia – whose album, Safe in Sound, is one of the best pop symphonies to emerge in the past year – had been all set to speak with Bullz-Eye…but when we called him, his phone went straight to voicemail. So we left a message and waited for a callback…and waited and waited and waited. We dropped an E-mail to his publicist, who seemed somewhat mystified about the silence herself. At almost an hour past the designated interview time, we got a phone call from Boggia’s extremely apologetic manager. Apparently, Boggia had left his phone on the tour bus to charge it, then the bus proceeded to drive off! We were then assured that we’d be getting a call from Boggia in just a few minutes time. A few minutes later, the phone rang…and it was Boggia’s manager again. “If you thought that bus story was rock ‘n’ roll,” he began, “then get ready for ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll, Pt. 2’: the phone Jim was getting ready to call you on just died. Can he call you back in a half-hour, on a phone that we know is going to work?”

A half-hour later, Bullz-Eye finally had Jim Boggia on the telephone line.

Jim Boggia: Hi, Will? It’s Jim Boggia; how are ya?

Bullz-Eye: (Laughs) Pretty good. How are you?

JB: I’m doing alright. Sorry, man. It was the perfect storm of phone catastrophes! About 3:00 PM our time, I noticed that my phone was practically dead, so I was on the bus and I plugged it in to charge it, ran up to the room to catch a shower, came back down at about a quarter to 4:00…and the bus was gone! And I guess wherever we were parked was not appropriate for after load-in, which none of us realized, and we had everyone scrambling around trying to find out where the bus was, trying to get to it. So I definitely apologize, and I’m definitely glad that we have a chance to hook up now!

BE: Absolutely. I love the new album.

JB: Oh, thanks a lot!

BE: And, actually, I picked it up on my own before I was approached to do an interview, so that was ironic.

JB: Oh, that’s awesome! And how, may I ask, did it cross your path?

BE: Well, I had heard your name before; I’m on an E-mail list called Audities, which is all pop music, all the time…

JB: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I like that list; that list has been beddy, beddy good to me.

BE: We have a local indie store called Birdland Music, and I picked up a copy of it there…

JB: Fantastic!

BE: …and loved it immediately. And, literally, the next day, I got an E-mail from my editor, asking if I was interested in checking out the disc, and I’m, like, dude, I literally just bought it…but I’d love to do an interview!

JB: Oh, that’s great. I’m so happy to hear that.

BE: But I had never actually heard your debut (Fidelity is the Enemy), but I’m familiar with the single…well, I guess it was a single…”Bubblegum 45s”?

JB: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, that story has, I think, become more legend than it actually is, but, yeah, that song is where the title of the album comes from. It’s just a song about my love affair of records when I was a little kid…and, obviously, still now. But I actually had, for a show in Philadelphia, vinyl cut of just the backing tracks minus my guitar and my vocal, so I actually had the turntable on stage, put the vinyl on, set the needle down, and had “Bubblegum 45s” on a 45 accompanying me playing “Bubblegum 45s.” Now, the story has come back to me that we released it as a vinyl single and all this other stuff…which I think is great. I think subterfuge and confusion is one of the best things for mystery and allure.

BE: There’s nothing wrong with building a legend.

JB: Right, exactly. One brick at a time.

BE: Well, like I say, I love the new album…which therefore means that I’m finally going to be buying Fidelity is the Enemy, too.

JB: Yeah, don’t worry about that, man. We just got them back in stock a couple of days ago, so I’ll have Jack shoot you one.

BEb Oh! Great, thanks!

JB: Yeah, without a doubt.

BE: So the opening song of Safe in Sound, “Shine,” I see it a co-write with Aimee Mann. I understand you’ve been friends with her for awhile.

JB: Yeah, that actually came out because of the Fidelity album. A fan of mine is a member of her street team, and so she passed a copy of the album up through the channels that way, and I did a project called 4 Way Street with three other songwriters from Philadelphia (Ben Arnold, Scott Bricklin, and Joseph Parsons), and we played a couple of dates opening for Aimee. And, after the soundcheck the first night, she came up to me and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you that I really love your record,” and, you know, ten minutes later, after I stopped hyperventilating and picked myself up off the floor, I was, like, “Really? You have my record?” And she told me the story, and she was really complimentary, very generous, and gave me her number and said, “Look me up when you’re in L.A. and we’ll do something.” The first thing we actually did was when she was playing in L.A. at an Elvis Costello tribute night that was basically a fundraiser, I think, for a friend of theirs that had medical expenses. And she asked me to play a couple of Costello tunes…obviously “The Other End of the Telescope,” which she wrote with Elvis, and then I think we did “Girls Talk.” So we played on stage together a couple of times, and then right before I went in to start recording Safe in Sound, and Julian Coryell co-produced the record, and he was Aimee’s guitarist at the time, and so she called me up and said, “Hey, I hear you’re going to be in town making a record. Why don’t you come by a couple of days before, and we’ll try to get something together?” So we not only did that tune, but she also listened to all of the other tunes I had at the time and suggested a few things here and there. And so did Michael (Penn, Aimee Mann’s husband), which was really nice. So (laughs) I have some stealth Mann and Penn lines in some of the other songs as well, but they’re nice enough to not even ask for credit for them.

BE: Was it intimidating writing with her?

JB: Uh…you know what? It certainly was. I don’t like writing with anybody, because I get squirrelly, and, you know, she’s really at the top of my list of modern songwriters…and, then, of course, when Michael was in the room, too, I was, like, (nervously), “Oh, hey, cool, it’s, like, Lennon and McCartney that I have to play things in front of!” But I have to say that the way Aimee communicated as we were doing things was really a great way of putting me at ease. She would always talk about the song. “Okay, this song, what is the tone trying to say here? What do we think about this?” And, so, comments were never directed at me; they were directed at the tune we were working on together, which was a very…kind of a neutralizing factor, and it definitely put me at ease. And I actually love the stuff we came up with. “Shine” is definitely one of my favorites on the album. That whole first verse, which is all hers, is just beautiful. And there’s a line in there, “Rise / With the hair still in your eyes,” and I have this amazing memory of her sitting on the couch, playing the guitar, singing this melody to me, and she gets to that line and says, “That line’s for you.” Because I have, uh, particularly unruly hair. And, so, you know, it was just awesome.

BE: Being a fellow music geek, I’m totally in awe that you got to work with Emitt Rhodes. (Writer’s note: Rhodes was the frontman for ‘60s baroque popsters the Merry-Go-Round, who are probably best known to ‘80s fans due to the Bangles having covered their song “Live” on All Over the Place. His solo work during the early ‘70s, particularly his self-titled album from 1970, is praised by fans of McCartney-esque pop, but Rhodes has been somewhat reclusive since then, reportedly continuing to write music, but battling depression and making only very sporadic live performances.)

JB: (in a low voice) Yeahhhhhhhhhhh! Emitt’s like…(hesitates) My whole thing with records is that, when I was about four years old…well, you know, I’ve talked about this, but you know how you have memories of when you’re a kid, and then you talk to your parents about it and they’re, like, “Really? That happened?” So I don’t even know that they remember this. But, when I was four years old, they gave me a bunch of old vinyl records…and by “a bunch,” I mean probably 25 or 30…just all these classic albums, and Emitt’s first album, that great self-titled album, was one of those records. And, so, he has been a thing since my early childhood. I’d sit and learn to play all those tunes. And I remember being very surprised when I was 12 or 13, playing all these songs from these other albums – the Beatles, the Kinks, Sly and the Family Stone, all that kind of stuff – and nobody knew who this guy Emitt Rhodes was.

BE: Somebody gave me his first CD…well, you know what I mean, first album…and said, “You’ve got to hear this. I’d never heard of him, but, honest to God, he’s more Paul McCartney than Paul McCartney is.”

JB: Yeah, right? He’s like the Paul McCartney of an alternate universe! And working with him was just…it’s, like, we were sitting in a room, coming up with lyrics together (for “Let Me Believe [Evan’s Lament]”). That was a song where I actually had the melody and the chord progressions for, but we wrote the lyric together, and then, I had him in the studio, and we were singing the background vocal together, and that was pretty amazing. And my big hope is that…well, at that time – and I’m sure he has more now – he had, like, twelve or fifteen new songs that he would play, and they were AMAZING. Like, his melodic sense and harmonic sense are still completely there. But I would say his lyrics have a depth to them and kind of a mournfulness to them that wasn’t necessarily there on those first couple of records. And they’re just amazing. And I keep really hoping…he keeps saying he’s going to put demos together, and you just know that Ryko or Rhino would just jump!

BE: I’m sure Ryko would. Anyone who would put out the solo album by (former Big Star member) Chris Bell…

JB: Yeah, I mean, that album? A new Emitt Rhodes album? So everytime I’m in L.A., I see him and say, “Dude, got those demos yet?” And he’s, like, “No, I’m still cleaning out the studio…and then I get really scared…”

BE: Now, I saw the name Pete Donnelly on the album. Is that Pete Donnelly from the Figgs?

JB: Absolutely! Yeah, Pete’s the other co-writer on “Evan’s Lament”!

BE: I’m not gonna tell you I recognized his name as being a member of the Figgs right off the bat. I just knew I knew it, so I went to the All Music Guide, and lo and behold…

JB: Yeah, Pete’s playing in my live band now when I play full-band shows, and we’re starting to get stuff together for the next go-round. Yeah, Pete’s fantastic.

BE: Actually, your album’s chock full of guest stars. You’ve got Jill Sobule on there, and, uh, from the MC-5…

JB: Yeah, Wayne Kramer! And those things are actually kind of related. Jill I’ve probably known for…seven or eight years now? We shared a bill when I was first playing in Philadelphia; there was a benefit concert in Philly, and I was on the bill where it was, like, “Doors open at 1:00 PM; Jim Boggia at 12:30.” But she was one of the headlining acts, and I introduced myself, and said, “I play a bunch of your songs.” And she said (affects high, girlish voice), “Oh, really? Wanna come out with me?” And then she gave me this great intro. (Girlish voice again) “Hey, I met this guy backstage who says he plays my songs. Let’s get him out here!” And I come out to great applause, it dies down, and, then, her comic thing is so perfect. “Now, I’ve actually never heard him; he might suck!” And I ended up playing with her every time she played Philly, and I did a little tour with her of the northeast, just with me accompanying her on guitar and vocals, or harmonium and melodica and…well, a lot of goofy stuff on a lot of different tunes. I guess we played a week’s worth of shows in France a couple of years ago. And she’s been amazing. I have to say that, stagewise, she was my Master’s Degree on how to play, in particular, solo shows on stage in front of an audience. She’s so in the moment and connecting with the crowd and never has a set list and is always trying to read the room and create a unique show for that room on that night. And standing off to the side of her for so many of those things and just watching her do it…it was an invaluable learning experience.

BE: And I keep focusing on your guest stars, so let me give you a compliment…and don’t let this go to your head…but there’s definitely a Jon Brion feel to a lot of the album.

JB: (in mock horror) Ohhhhhhhhh! (Serious again) Yeah, thank you! But Jon Brion is, like, the bane of my existence, because it’s…damn, that’s what I’d do! And…damn, dude, that’s what I would do, too! Awwwww, you’re already doing it!!! (Laughs) But, yeah, I opened for Jon one night at Largo (the nightclub in Los Angeles where Brion has a Friday night residency), and Jon’s been a sweetheart. We sang “Eleanor” (by the Turtles) together. I couldn’t get him to produce my record – he was in the middle of doing music for a movie…or possibly it was during the 2-year odyssey of the Fiona record, I don’t know – but, yeah, man, I’m bummed because we were talking about him the other night. We thought that the L.A. show that we’re doing at the Troubadour with Duncan (Sheik, for whom Boggia is currently opening)…Phil Sullivan, the manager on this tour used to be Jon’s roommate in Boston years and years ago, because this whole music scene is just totally incestuous, and Phil thought, “Hey, it’s a Friday night, and if we’re in L.A. and you do you’re opening set, you could skip out afterwards…” And I said, “Dude, I’m so far ahead of you that you don’t even have to finish that sentence.” But then we realized this morning that we’re actually in L.A. on Saturday. So no Largo trip this time!

BE: Damn.

JB: But, yeah, Jon’s totally a freak of nature, and, uh, I really wish he’d stop. (Laughs)

BE: It looks like I’m going to be able to catch your show with Duncan in Williamsburg, Virginia.

JB: Oh, nice. That’s, I think, pretty near the end of the tour. Two nights before the end. We’ll all be crying and mournful, getting misty by then about the tour being almost over.

BE: I’m really excited, because I’ve never seen Duncan before, either.

JB: Oh, his show’s great. And his band is…I’m seriously considering bumping him off. His band’s fantastic. And I don’t know…Duncan, besides just the songwriting, how he just slips between his full voice and his falsetto is just gorgeous. It’s so seamless. I’ve been watching the show everything, but it’s still pretty amazing.

BE: Your album, I’d say, is…well, it’s almost like a pop symphony, because it jumps around from style to style throughout, but it’s all still definitively pop.

JB: Yeah, you know, I think there’s been a trend to try and make albums have a unified style. Like, ‘Hey, it’s this mood, or that mood.’ It’s probably the Beatles and the Kinks stuff that I grew up with, but I don’t like that. There’s a few times when I want to spend an hour or two in just one musical mood, but my model is still The White Album, where you can have all those musical styles right next to each other, and as long as the songs are good, as long as what you’re doing production-wise is serving the songs, then screw it. At the end of the day, those songs might have different timbres to them or different moods to them, but it’s all the same guy making them. And when I listen to it, it all sounds like me. And to other people, I think it sounds like “that same guy.” But here the guy is happy, and here the guy is sad, and here the guy is playing with his synthesizer…! But it doesn’t necessarily sound like 17 different bands on one album. But, you know, I had to fight for that a little bit.

BE: Obviously, you’re not afraid to try different instruments.

JB: Yeah, I’m, like, “Oh, does that make sound? Then let’s do something with it!” It’s hard for me to admit, but I’m a decent guitarist now, and I’m okay on piano, but other things in a recording situation, where you can go back, erase things, and try again, I’ll play anything, man. If it makes sound, I’ll literally play anything. Coke bottles, wine glasses…it doesn’t have to be a musical instrument. You know how drafting boards have that elastic band or wire that goes down the side that keeps the blueprint from rolling over…? Well, you play that like a one-string bass. Just play one end and you can move your finger up and down. Anything’s an instrument if you try hard enough.

BE: I know you’ve got toy piano on there…which leads me to another comparison I was going to make earlier. You remind me of E, before he had so much hardship in his life and was doing solo albums as A Man Called E.

JB: Yeah, you know, I don’t know that stuff really well, but the stuff that I’ve heard of his, I really like, and I can definitely see the connection. And here goes the name game again, but Butch (Norton, drummer for the Eels) wound up playing drums on the majority of the record, so it definitely has that Eels connection with that going on. But, yeah, man, I like non-traditional instruments. I like cheap, ten-dollar guitars that have a really small sound, and toy pianos, and it’s another thing that I’m often told to, uh, knock it off and limit that . But I just really don’t want to hear just one set of instruments the whole time. That’s really what the whole Safe in Sound thing is: it’s a playground to me. I want to do all of it.

BE: And I found the rainstorm on the CD. (At the end of the disc, there’s a lengthy track that simply captures the sound of a thunderstorm.) I uploaded your disc onto my iPod, took it to work, and, all of a sudden, I was…uh, is it raining?

JB: Y’see? There you go. Sound is sound, man. That actually comes from when 4 Way Street was making their record in the house where I was living with Ben Arnold. It was this great 7-bedroom beaten-up old Victorian house where Ben actually lived for years and years; I was there for about five years. And the idea was that we were gonna be a band, and we were gonna move in all the gear and record in the house…and the first week in August, where it was 105 degrees for six days in a row with no air conditioning in the house, so that kind of put the kibosh on that part of the plan. But one of the days when we were recording at the house, this huge thunderstorm came up, and it was so massive that we had to stop recording because it was bleeding into the tracks we were doing. But then we went, “Wait a minute! Take this microphone and that microphone,” and we ran cable to the porch, because it had a big wraparound porch, and we set microphones outside. So I’ve always had that piece of audio, and I just thought it would be a nice, quiet way to end the record. And with the title of the album being Safe in Sound, it was a way of drawing attention to the fact that I’m not just talking about instruments or music. I remember as a kid that I would lay in front of the refrigerator and just listen to the hum of the refrigerator. (Pauses) I’m weird. (Laughs) But I like those things! And I don’t know if you’ve gotten to the end of the storm…very few people have, because it’s rather long…but there’s a goofy little faux thirties tune…

BE: I did hear that, because I remember thinking it was very vaudevillian!

JB: Yeah! That’s another aspect. I’ll change my voice and do some sort of genre piece because it’s music, man. It’s all music. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or it’s bad, it doesn’t matter what style it is. What matters is, does it move you? Do you get a reaction from it? And, for me, it’s more about, am I going to have fun making it? I find that if I put my being interested and engaged in what I’m doing as the driving factor, that’s the best shot I have at other people liking it and having them respond to it. Trying to do something because you think, oh, this is marketable…well, I guess that, A, I don’t have my finger on the pulse in capacity to do that, and B, it’s no fun, and C, you can chase that forever and still not get anywhere. So why not do something that you actually like?

BE: Does that hidden track actually have a title?

JB: At the end? Yeah, it’s just called “Shane.” And it’s actually written about my friend Shane Smith, who was the engineer on the 4 Way Street record, engineered and co-produced part of Safe in Sound, and he actually plays trumpet on “Show My Face Around.” He’s just a great engineer, producer, and we’re good friends, and when I got my optigan, I just wrote that song so that I could call him on the phone and show him that I got an optigan…but, then, it turned into that track.

BE: I knew his name because I looked at the credits to Fidelity is the Enemy on, were he’s credited for “Noise, Engineer, and Sounds.”

JB: (Laughs) Yeah, I think that might be slightly vague! We could probably be more specific than that. But sometimes that AllMusic stuff is the king of general gist.

BE: Actually, what I was going to ask about is that, also in the credits, listed as an arranger on the album is Brian Wilson!

JB: (Clearly annoyed about this) Uh, yeah, see, and sometimes it’s just plainly inaccurate! Like, I don’t get AllMusic. I don’t get where it comes from. And that Brian Wilson thing is the other bane of my existence. There’s the star rating for Fidelity, which is actually pretty good, and then…the only bad review that Fidelity ever got was this guy on AllMusic. And I found out that he didn’t review the album; he reviewed MP3 files that were mislabeled…and I think is kind of where the Brian Wilson thing comes in. Right before “Bubblegum 45s,” there’s a tiny little snippet, maybe 12 or 15 seconds, of…I remade – and I do things like this, and people don’t get it – but I remade a discarded thing that Brian Wilson didn’t use for “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” (from Pet Sounds), and I did all that and made it sound like an old record, and I put it as the beginning of it because the chorus of “Bubblegum 45s” is, um, “I’m right back in my room like I was four / Bubblegum 45s scattered on the floor / Spin ‘Crimson and Clover’ / Sing along over and over / Try to get it right,” and, like, that’s my whole musical education. I was an only child, we moved to the middle of nowhere, there were no kids my age, so when I wasn’t in school, I was in my room with a record player and a guitar and all those records that I got, trying to learn all the parts to all the songs, to play all the parts on my guitar and learn all the vocal arrangements. So I thought it would be kind of a cool idea to have this little recreation of what I would do when I was a kid: listen to records, tear them apart, and then rebuild them on my tape recorders. So I guess this guy gets the file and it’s mislabeled, and “Bubblegum 45s” is actually mislabeled as “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).” So this review spends all this time talking about, “And he deems to rewrite the melody, chord progression, and lyrics to ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),’” and then he’s pissed at me for the rest of the review. And I’m, like, no, dude, that’s not what I did! So I don’t know about that The thing about a Brian Wilson vocal arrangement is that it’s clearly a Brian Wilson vocal arrangement…but, no, man, I don’t know Brian Wilson. He didn’t come in and go, “I think you should do it like this, Jim.” But, again, that misinformation, confusion, and subterfuge makes for good myth.

BE: That’s true. People will spot it and go, “Oooooh, he’s got Brian Wilson on his album, I’m gonna go buy it.”

JB: “Brian Wilson did his vocal arrangement? That’s incredible!”

BE: “I’m sold!”

JB: Exactly!

BE: And I know you gotta get going, but, knowing that you’re a diehard music fan, I have to ask you: what’s your favorite obscure album? I know it’s probably hard to pick just one, but something that you think most people haven’t heard that you absolutely love.

JB: Well, that Emitt thing is way up there, isn’t it? That’s an album that a lot of people don’t know. But I gotta tell ya, there was a band…and still is…in Pennsylvania – they came from Lancaster – called the Innocence Mission.

BE: Yeah!

JB: This girl Karen Peris was the songwriter, and I have always thought that she’s just amazing. Incredible lyrics. She’s so detailed and tells you a part of her story, and yet you get this incredible sense of all of the emotion behind it and this whole world opens up behind this peek into the window that she gives you. And her husband Don has just these thoughtful guitar parts and voicings that were always just amazing. So those are good albums to check out as well.

BE: I was working at a record store when their song “Black Sheep Wall” first came out, because it was on a mix disc that we were playing instore…

JB: Yeah, there you go! Absolutely!

BE: Okay, well, I think we’ve got some good stuff here. I appreciate you calling me back after everything.

JB: Absolutely, Will, and, again, sorry about that.

BE: No worries.

JB: Okay, great! So…hopefully, we’ll see you in Williamsburg, and, uh, we’ll get all colonial together! 

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