The enduringly debonair, witty and with-it Bryan Ferry has an excellent new record out called Frantic, on Virgin Records. Mr. Ferry, late of avant-rock frontiersmen Roxy Music and the creator of numerous diverse and critically praised solo works, has followed his 1999 30s-tribute album As Time Goes By with another wide-ranging and rather forthrightly rocking collection of tunes that brings the elusive and esoteric Ferry back down to earth, or perhaps to his roots -- roots you may not have suspected the arcanely elegant crooner had. We chatted a bit about his penchant for finding an unorthodox beauty in the simple and direct, and a few other things . . .
L.A. WEEKLY: Frantic is certainly an interesting hodgepodge of material. Did you have a concept in mind?
BRYAN FERRY: It just turned out that way, actually. I chose the songs I liked, did them in a naturalistic way, with a band feeling, and mixed them up with some of my own songs. This album was started at the tail end of the 30s tour I did, and the second half of the show on that tour was mostly rock stuff; I was enjoying playing with the band on the heavier things, and I thought, Well, I want to do a rock album again. So I chose a couple of Dylan songs; I like the words of those early Dylan songs, theyre wonderful, and they mature very nicely. The main thing was to do something quite earthy and slightly bluesy, and I eventually got around to doing a Leadbelly song, even, Goodnight Irene. It fitted in very well with the other things I was doing.
Do you find yourself thinking, Ill try something because it wouldnt seem a natural fit?
Doing a Leadbelly song is not what people would associate with me, although they dont know that Ive been a blues fan since the age of 10. That was the first music that actually attracted me, and hearing Leadbelly later and other people like Big Bill Broonzy, and other country-blues artists. From there it seemed a short hop into jazz and then R&B and rock & roll. The other kind of American music Ive always liked is the composed stuff from Broadway, as well as Hollywood musicals. Thats a different kind of American music, which doesnt normally have a blues root to it -- its more European-based, probably.
Ive strayed from one thing to another, I suppose. When I did my first solo album [These Foolish Things], there was Leslie Gores Its My Party. Maybe its time I did something more in that vein again. Its such fun to sing songs and get away from the angst of writing, and just enjoy the performance of other peoples material. Its a sort of busmans holiday.
Im told that one track on Frantic was written by Richard the Lionheart.
Id done the song which follows it, called A Fool for Love, which is another love song, as it were -- a highly different twist again on the love song -- so I thought, Lets do one from the point of view of a medieval troubadour singing a courtly love song, and use some instruments from that period. Then Colin Good, my arranger, came up with this track, Ja Nun Hons Pris, which is done in medieval French, and its written apparently by Richard the Lionheart. I thought, Oh, cool, how great to have a song written by a king on your album. A rock & roll warrior sort of thing.
Its nice, that early-music world. I remember having an album of that music when I was doing the early Roxy stuff, and it has an influence on one of the songs I did, called Triptych, which was on the fourth Roxy album, Country Life.
When you use juxtaposition like this, it would seem to derive partly from your visual-art background [Ferrys a former art teacher]. Do you still think of what you do as a kind of conceptual art?
I try to be creative, even if some of the things I do now are quite direct and plain, which I wouldnt have done before -- I would have embellished things more in the past. The Bob Dylan song Dont Think Twice I did with my voice and harmonica and a piano, but putting in the piano instead of Dylans acoustic guitar makes it a very different song, and it creates a different ambiance for it; thats a very subtle way of changing a thing.
I see it all as one big experiment, really. At the end its, Will it work if I do this 30s album dead plain, with string quartets and jazz horns? I find each project a riddle that has to be solved.
Given the pop-art-conscious leanings of Roxy Music and much of your own solo work, critics make an assumption of irony in what you do.
Yeah, I sense that as well, but everything is played quite straight on this new album. Theres no double take at all.
You seem to be enjoying getting out of the laboratory and hitting the road again.
Recently the main feature of my life has been live performance, which Ive embraced in old age. Ive been on tour for the last three years -- a lot like Bob Dylans neverending tour -- and it suits me quite well. Ive enjoyed seeing my audience again. Its funny, as you get older, they tend to become much more appreciative and affectionate toward you. And its rather nice, actually.
I feel much more energized about everything to do with my music as a result of having the courage to go onstage again -- and it takes a bit of courage to do it. Doing that 30s album got me playing again with musicians in a live way rather than my rather solitary studio life, where you just sit there experimenting on your own like a mad professor.
What sorts of things guide your songwriting? And are you a disciplined writer, or . . .
Oh, I have to be dragged to it by wild horses; I find it very painful, very hard work. The tunes tend to come much more readily than the words; the words are a bit of torment, cause Im quite particular about words, and I love words. Which is why I love Dylan -- there are very few people who write well in pop music, and he is one of the few; Cole Porter was another person who could write words and music. Ive always longed to meet a great lyricist I could collaborate with. Ive never been aware of any knocking about, but one day maybe I will, and then therell be a great flurry of activity.
Ive always gone back to T.S. Eliot -- we share the same birthday; he measures words beautifully. Scott Fitzgerald Ive always liked. And Evelyn Waugh, very amusing, a fantastic writer, really. John Donne, the metaphysical poet; Sylvia Plath . . . I like sadness, in writing and in music. It always strikes the right note for me.
Your records have grown increasingly beautiful. How does one address beauty in music or art without falling into the sappy and saccharine?
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Its a lifelong quest to search for beauty in everything, and I find it in all sorts of things. Its interesting, the whole thing of taste and beauty -- how does it form, where does it come from? I live through my eyes quite a lot; one of the great things about living in Europe is that you can go to Rome and see all these beautiful things. I like a lot of old things as well as new. I like history, and I like old buildings.
How would you assess your career arc? Does it tell you anything about how youre evolving as an artist or as a person?
Ive got so much more I want to do, and I get a bit exasperated, really, not enough hours in the day. I love the touring life, but I want to start making something new again now. So far its been very interesting, and I wouldnt exchange my [recorded output] for anybody elses, Im very pleased with it. I just keep wanting to add to it. And that probably says something about me, but how much about me, I wouldnt know.
Bryan Ferry performs at the Kodak Theater on Saturday, November 23.