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Fish, Birds, and everything in between...
Russell and R.M. Slinky digress about love, music, god, and the new cd.

Interview by R.M. Slinky

Russell David’s eleventh studio release, “A Fish May Love a Bird,” was released on February 18, 2006. I spent the afternoon with Russell on Friday, March 10, 2006 to talk about it. We met at A Nice Little Place to Eat (Glen Park Village, San Francisco) at around 2pm. I ordered coffee, black, while Russell enjoyed Darjeeling Tea.

R.M. Slinky: Wow, it’s great to see you. It’s been what, like two years since we last talked about your music!

Russell David: I know. Strange, huh? It doesn't feel like it

RMS: A lot has happened, huh?

RD: Yeah.

RMS: It’s not like we haven’t talked (Russell and R.M. Slinky had several long talks about religion and philosophy in 2005), but I’m excited to talk about new music!

RD: Me too. It's fun.

RMS: Your last official release was what? 2003? 3 years ago?

RD: Yeah, Factory Sessions.

RMS: In the past you used to do a cd every year or so. What happened?

RD: Well, it was really only about 2 years. I didn’t release in 2004 or 2005, but this project was almost done at the end of 2005.

RMS: Even so, it seems like it’s been quiet for a while at

RD: A lot of factors went into that. I spent 2004 playing a bunch of dates, so that was most of the reason I didn’t record at first. It took a lot of energy to get that stuff planned and done. I played something like 35 shows in 2004, which was a huge effort for me. I wrote a lot too, all the time, but didn’t get much recorded.

RMS: You played a fair amount in 2005 too, right?

RD: Not too much. I don’t know how many shows. But less than 10 I think. That was after Mission of Ed broke up, and so I was just doing solo stuff exclusively.

RMS: And all of that time you were promoting Factory Sessions?

RD: No, well, not really. I mean, everybody's trying sell stuff at shows, so people sort of come to expect that. I don't want it to be some kind of mini-rockstar sales pitch. You know? I want to share my songs, and talk with people, so I'm trying to find ways to change the focus, and make it more of a two-way dialog, and less of a success thing.

RMS: You're trying to make it less of a success?

RD: No, I mean less about some idea of successs, in making money, or whatever, and more about communicating with people emotionally without an agenda.

RMS: But cd's are a big part of that communication too, right?

RD: Right, yeah, I know. And if somebody wants a cd, then I definitely want them to have one! It feels great if somebody wants a cd! I love that.

RMS: So you were just giving them away?

RD: Mostly. Some people insist on paying, and that's fine too. But they're basically free.

RMS: So, did a favorite, or most-asked-for, cd arise? Or were you only offering specific ones?

RD: I gave away some of Factory Sessions. I think I'm out of those now. But mostly I gave away lots of “Songs for When You Think You Made a Mistake,” because I believe in those recordings more.

RMS: And the songs you were doing live? Were they from specific cd's?

RD: Um... Not really. It was all over the map. Probably, mostly, songs from "Friends are Friends Forever" and onward. The last 5 years or so. And I also did a lot of unrecorded stuff... stuff that's still unrecorded. Mostly, I wanted to do a range, and perform them well. I tried to pick my best songs, but it’s such a mysterious thing - all the variables of playing live.

RMS: What was the reaction of people like?

RD: It’s hard to say. There were definitely some good moments. And some bad ones too. I don't know.

RMS: And you found people who were interested in what you’re doing?

RD: I did, and I'm so thankful to everyone who was kind and came out to those shows. But, you know, my personality isn’t really good at the whole performance thing, so I sort of flailed around a lot. I have a lot to learn there. My limitations made it a lot more awkward than it needed to be, I think.

RMS: How so?

RD: You know, just me being shy and weird. I can’t seem to escape that.

RMS: I guess, ultimately, what people say about stage performance is just "be yourself." I bet it’s hard to do that. But I think sincerity and honesty come out even when someone is nervous or awkward. It seems like the most important thing is getting out there and doing it. Did you find that?

RD: I did, and I see the truth of that. The thing is, every person has a different experience and is looking for something different, so there will always be people not into what you're doing. And it's really hard to do your thing while you're also listening and affected by all those different voices - or to even know what "your thing" is, you know? It’s just a whole different ball of wax when you have to actually go up there, and face your fears and insecurities. I never plan to be shy and awkward or lose my voice. It just happens. So maybe that's just me "being myself." [laughs]

RMS: [laughs] Yeah. But you still go out there! That's worth something!

RD: Yep!

RMS: And so now this new cd... how did “A Fish May Love a Bird” come about?

RD: The idea was in my head for most of 2005, and was sort of developing before that... but I didn’t start really working on it until November last year. It’s a compilation of songs I’ve written mostly in the past year, and mostly recorded in December and January 2005/2006.

RMS: Did you find the songs flowing quickly, even though you hadn't been writing or recording for so long?

RD: The songs were flowing like normal. I don't really get writers block. I just write when I feel like there's something I need to say. I don't force it.

RMS: So it wasn't that you didn't have songs?

RD: No. I have years of unsused songs piled up. So when it finally comes time to record I always have a lot to choose from.

RMS: And how did you choose which songs to use?

RD: By feeling, mostly. I wanted a group of songs that felt a certain way, so I just waded through what I had, and tried them out, and wrote some new ones. Just whatever worked.

RMS: Do you pick by theme? By musical sound? Or what?

RD: I just pick the songs I like the best. And I think that’s true with these recordings too. It just sort of evolved naturally.

RMS: And what did you mean the feeling of the album as a whole to be? Or, did you mean it to be something specific?

RD: I didn’t have a specific intent. But I don’t think it’s different from the last few cds. I think there’s a through-line from “Songs For When You Think You Made a Mistake” through “Factory Sessions” and through this one.

RMS: And what's that?

RD: Well, I don’t know how to say it exactly. It's about sadness and love, I think - in some way - but I don't know how to explain it. Basically, if you listen to the songs, that's what I mean, mostly. I hope. I mean, it's embarrassing to use words to talk about it. You have to feel it for it to make sense. You know?

RMS: I think so. So, when you say you're "embarrassed," do you mean you're embarrassed that the theme is love and sadness, or just that you have to say that it's about love and sadness?

RD: Both, I think. I mean, internally, it’s the main preoccupation in my life. But as I get older, and I keep churning out songs based on similar themes, sometimes I feel more and more like a broken record. Part of me feels like this is some sort of arrested development. You know? Like this is what kids in Junior High go through, and then you’re supposed to get over it and grow up. And I wonder why I'm still writing songs about this? Why can't I get over it? I wonder about that.

RMS: You're certainly not alone there. Love is the most common theme in music and the arts in general. Right? I don’t think you should be embarrassed.

RD: Thanks. I just feel a little obsessive and unbalanced about it sometimes. It’s beautiful in a way, which is why I can't avoid it. I see that. I live there, so I know. But then when I’m talking about it in public I tend to get embarrassed or self-conscious.

RMS: I think it makes sense. It’s a personal thing.

RD: Yeah.

RMS: But, when you listen to these new songs, apart from your own judgement or intellectualization, what feeling do you get?

RD: Again, it’s really hard to say.

RMS: Uh huh.

RD: It’s hard.

RMS: I just mean generally, more like the mood.

RD: Obviously you can't say anything objectively. It's different for everybody, and it changes even with the same person over time. For me, right now, the feeling is a kind of calm. Like sitting on a warm beach at sunset. Maybe you’re sad, but you're not really able to cry. And you want things to change, but don’t know how... or you don't really want to do what it takes to make things different? It’s a kind of surrendering in that way, but not completely, because there’s also a kind of angst in it? It's like maybe waking up from a coma...

RMS: [laughs] Sorry...

RD: no, seriously... like when you suffer an injury, and the pain has subsided but your head is still cloudy, and everything feels warm inside - like a massive trauma followed by a sense of calm. Like a warm death where you're still alive... the warmth of that. It’s embarrassing really.

RMS: A warm death?

RD: I don’t know. In a way, yeah. Somehow that feels peaceful and calm.

RMS: It’s interesting to hear you try to explain it. I don't mean to laugh. I'm sorry. There's just something funny about hearing you describe it that way. I mean, I think a coma, or death, are funny ways for anyone to describe their own cd.

RD: Does it make sense though?

RMS: I think so.
Your cds so often sound like break up albums. So, that’s not different, per se, with this one. But I do sense a different caste of light on these songs. Maybe it’s a subtle difference, but from listening, it’s there for me.

RD: Thanks. I hope that’s true. I hope people hear that.

RMS: I think it is.

RD: I'm interested in how you hear it...

RMS: uh... well, for me it’s like these break up songs are less about loss of a relationship, and more about a loss of understanding, or a sense of place in the world. It's less about the relationship itself, and more about the internal processes going on around it. I don't know...

RD: That makes sense to me.

RMS: Is there a sense in which that was a part of your intent?

RD: I think loss of understanding is far worse than losing a relationship, yeah.

RMS: But how do you mean the loss of “understanding” is worse? Isn't it really the same thing as losing a relationship? Or the illusion of understanding?

RD: No, yeah. That's what I mean. If you believe you’re communicating with someone, and then it turns out you’re not, or that you can’t - no matter how hard you want to - then that’s the most devastating thing to me. It’s the most lonely feeling.

RMS: It’s like waking up from a dream, I guess.

RD: Or a coma. [smiling]

RMS: Ok. [laughs] But, ok, now that we've established the metaphor, what songs cover that ground?

RD: uh... [long pause] you're asking for specifics! I'm always better at generalities... [looking at the cd sleeve] um, I think “Easy Love,” for starters. I don’t know. I’d have to look at the lyrics again. Really, it’s not a conscious thing for me. Having this conversation with you is coming from a different part of my brain than when I wrote those songs. So, I don’t even know if these ideas are related to the songs. I mean, it feels like they are, but I don’t know how to prove it or give examples. Does that make sense?

RMS: No, don’t worry. I understand. I realize that these are different spheres.

RD: I think the songs have to stand on their own, regardless of what I say now, or how I feel about them. They’re out there now, and they’re gonna mean different things to everyone who hears them.

RMS: I respect that. And I don’t expect you to give the definitive meaning. I’m just curious about the creative process, and what was going on for you as you wrote and recorded them. And so I think it’s interesting that themes of love come up, and I’m interested in how that correlates with your personal experiences and thoughts and feelings. So, well, like in “Easy Love,” even the first few lines, when you sing “Babe I don’t even know you, and you don’t know me, and that’s all is between us, that’s all there ever was…” I’m thinking this is related to what you said about the loss of understanding in a relationship - how that’s worse than losing the relationship itself. I think you’re playing with those themes, and I wonder how you see it.

RD: I think that’s in there. Definitely.

RMS: The song also has a real tongue in cheek thing about it, which seems like a strange counterpoint. Later on, when you kind of go into the chant, “you’re so beautiful after all.” Are we supposed to take that seriously? It almost sounds like venomous mockery in some way. How does it sound to you, or how did you mean it?

RD: Actually, I do hear what you’re saying. I guess that’s part of the meaning now, but I know that it wasn’t conscious as I was writing or singing it. I was just was trying to say, “hey, you’re beautiful, and look at how lame I am.” It came from low self-esteem on my part, not an attack.

RMS: To me, it sounded like you meant it both ways.

RD: I’ll have to go back and listen.

RMS: A lot of your writing has that double-edged quality. That’s one of the things that keeps me interested. It forces me to think about both sides.

RD: That’s a kind compliment. Thanks.

RMS: And so this title, the fish and bird. What can you tell us about that?

RD: It’s from a quote by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, though I’ve heard it attributed to other sources too. I’m not sure. It’s just, I think, a metaphor that sort of gets at the idea of the limits of our desire for people, or a feeling or a dream. You know? How we may want to be something, or feel something in our hearts, and that this reality doesn’t necessarily make any difference in actual life, or to those we love.

RMS: A fish may love a bird, but where will they make their home?

RD: That’s the full quote, I think.

RMS: Connected with that, there’s a kind of unpossessive love that I hear in quite a few of these songs. Especially in the first few tracks like in “Easy Love” where you’re giving kindness and encouraging words to someone who hates you, or “Lullaby,” which is maybe a bit more snarky in ways. Is this in response to you not being able to translate those feelings in real life?

RD: You thought it was snarky?

RMS: Well, Maybe snarky is the wrong word? I just mean they have sharp edges, and there’s a cutting sense in some of the lines. Like we just mentioned with “Easy Love,” and especially in “Lullaby.” I mean lines like “all those those things you said about love were just the way they go about it in the movies.” You know? That's not nice!

RD: I see what you mean. There are conflicted emotions in those songs, I guess. And I guess there are slivers of anger buried in them. Again, this isn’t something I consciously thought about or intended. But I guess it’s there.

RMS: I’m not saying it’s ruthless or unfair really. I don’t know. And it’s definitely sublimated with understanding... but I think it’s interesting to see that as part of the mix.

RD: Me too. But I hope it's not too snarky! I didn't mean that.

RMS: Maybe that's a harsh way to put it. Fair enough. But I wonder how this mixes with the “unpossessive love” thing on the other side. Do you think that some of this frustration or anger that bubbles up comes from being unable to express your vision of unconditional or unpossessive love successfully in real life?

RD: I don’t know. I’m not too comfortable making those kinds of sweeping psychological conclusions. I mean, sure, maybe. Right? As far as real life, I have no idea. But I don’t really think my “vision of love” is all that unpossessive. I think it wants to be unpossessive. But it knows it’s not, and that longing is the tension that pushes the songs forward.

RMS: But it’s clearly not possessive in the traditional “I want to own you” sense. Right? The songs seem to be about letting go, and trying to somehow express the sense in which love remains real regardless of what the object of love may do. To me, anyway. That’s how I hear them.

RD: I don’t know really. Even with that, even the way you said that, “the object of love...” I think there’s a kind of possession and holding on that makes someone sing or write about that stuff. So, those are the contradictions I’m dealing with, and trying to work out.

RMS: And that tension is what creates the illusion of non-possession or selflessness?

RD: In a way, I guess. I don’t know, because I don't think of them as particularly selfless or unpossessive. I think we’ve learned to think of possessiveness in very linear terms. And these songs may violate the most obvious sense of possession. I may be letting someone go physically, but if I’ve got to go sing songs about it, and express how open and free I am, then it feels incomplete to me. I’m still missing something, right? And, in that sense, I feel uncomfortable talking about the songs like they’re "spiritual" or "unpossessive" or something. I don’t think that’s true. At least not deeply.

RMS: But, still, you would say that the desire to be spiritual or non-possessive is a big force moving in these songs, wouldn’t you? Or in your own life at least?

RD: Yeah, I think so, in a way. But I think it’s backwards to think of the songs as trying to reach an end. The songs are ends in themselves, for me. So they may be about all of this stuff in ways, but they weren’t written with that agenda in mind. You know? I also want to be careful to keep boundaries separate. Because the songs are expressions of a feeling, and not necessarily about my literal life. The two aren't interchangeable. So, I can feel something or have my own experiences, and the song may be something totally different. They don’t have to relate. Or a song might be just one aspect of my feeling, magnified, you know? I just think it’s dangerous to confuse them together.

RMS: Uh huh. I’m asking about both, and not assuming that one is necessarily the other. In a way, here, I’m just asking about how it is for you personally.

RD: Personally, yeah, I’ve been hit hard in the past few years by how meaningless my love can be. It’s been hard. Because most of my life has been lived in a vain attempt to break past that kind of disconnection. And, you know, there’s that desire to love unconditionally. Sure. That’s something I want. I want to have relationships where I give out of real love and not out of fear or duty or greed. I want that to go on despite how people respond to me, and whether or not they give back.

RMS: And I hear that in some of these songs too. Mixed in with the anger and frustration and disappointment.

RD: I'm glad. That makes me feel good. I want them to be mixed together like that.

RMS: Ultimately, I think that's the powerful thing in these songs. You paint muddy pictures of internalized feelings. And for those of us who take the time to really look and listen, it feels real - like a reflection of real life.

RD: I really hope comes through in the songs. I'm honored you say that. Thanks.

RMS: It's just my feeling. The songs are what they are, and they're filled with all this imperfection and contradiction. You seem to be saying that those feelings are ok.

RD: I do think it's ok. I think it's ok to admit it to each other, and make things a little more open and less serious. It’s not life and death. I really think that. We can make mistakes, and those we love can make mistakes, and they’ll hurt us, and we’ll hurt them. That seems almost unavoidable, and there can still be love. It’s ok.

RMS: I like that a lot. It’s a simple thing, really... trying to love with an open hand - without expectations of return.

RD: Right, yeah, and I do think real love takes place outside of those rules and that give and take. But then there's the real world too. And it’s hard because I want to challenge myself and fix where I’m going wrong, and, at the same time, I have to live with my real-life non-poetic problems. You know? It's not all packaged like a song in real life. And so, I mean, as much I want this kind of ideal love, I'm also a selfish and small-minded person. So how do we know where that line is? How do we deal with our personal weaknesses, and at the same time strive to give unconditional love to the world? I don’t know.

RMS: Do you actually think that kind of unconditional love is possible?

RD: I do. But that doesn't mean I know how to do it. I feel senses of it in my heart and in the world. I know the feeling of that deep down, and that’s real for me. But also, there’s the fact that it’s not translated too well for others. There’s this huge breakdown between my intent and how others perceive me. So you have to ask, “is it my failure?” “am I being stupid and deluded for not seeing it?” or is this just the way unconditional love always is? You know? Is my search for emotional satisfaction itself the problem? I think it is, actually.

RMS: You mean, because you want to feel good, you're unable to really show unconditional love?

RD: Yeah, exactly. That's part of it. I want people to notice what I’m doing and love me back. And maybe unconditional love is the exact opposite? Maybe we have to be ok with the "not feeling good" thing in order to really love? And maybe that's just a big eternal contradiction and there's no answer?

RMS: I don’t think we’ll ever know.

RD: We probably won't. I think that's true. But I still live with all these feelings and longings, and that’s the hard part to deal with.

RMS: Does any of this relate to music for you, or, how is it related?

RD: I don’t know. Right now we’re just talking about ideas and feelings, so it probably doesn't. Sorry!

RMS: No, it's fine. I don’t think it has to be related... it's great, actually. To even get more off-topic, let's talk about God! [laughs]

RD: [laughs] Really?

RMS: Definitely, because on the other side of all this, I wonder how all of this relates to religion, and all of the connections you have on that side of it. It’s interesting that you were writing a lot of these songs around the time we were talking about that stuff, and I wonder how they’re connected.

RD: Well, they're connected in the broadest sense, of course. I lump all of that emotional longing together. So, to the extent we relate the idea of “God” to the idea of unconditional love, it’s all the same thing for me.

RMS: And, we’ve talked about this before, but, for you, God and love are synonymous, right?

RD: In a general way, that’s how I see it, yeah. The idea of God doesn’t make any sense to me otherwise. But it's a complicated thing. I don't want to reduce it to a cliché.

RMS: I guess if people are more interested in that area they can check out our other discussions. (click here to read more) You talked a lot about that in our dialogs earlier last year.

RD: Yeah, I really enjoyed those conversations! I hope we can talk more about all of that someday.

RMS: Anytime!

RD: Cool.

RMS: On the practical side, the new songs sound different from Factory Sessions, and from everything you’ve done previously. How did you record them?

RD: I used Garageband for almost everything. The end result is still rough, but I think it’s slowly moving in the right direction. Once I learn more about how to cheat with these programs, the quality will hopefully improve greatly. But even so, I think the sound quality is improved. The rhythm is a bigger weakness on these ones. Did you notice that?

RMS: I did. It’s pronounced on a few tracks.

RD: It’s frustrating, and just due to my lack of talent. Every track but “As it Turns Out” was recorded live with me and the guitar, and then built up from there. This is a real limitation when you mix because you can’t separate the rhythm guitar from the vocal. And also, if you can’t play to a click track, like I can’t, it creates some sloppy sounding stuff. I did the best I could to fix it, but it’s still noticeable in places.

RMS: Why'd you do it that way, recording live?

RD: Mostly, because the feel seems to disappear when I break the songs apart. I’m not sure why that is. But when I try doing it separated, vocal as a piece, rhythm guitar as a piece, they both suffer. So, I had this trade-off between an emotional take, and higher quality sound. Ultimately, I think performance is more important, so I erred on that side. But it’s a devil’s wager, really. Recording is still a mysterious art to me. If something goes right, it’s almost always accidental.

RMS: And yet somehow it worked on “As It Turns Out.” It’s an emotional song, and the quality of the vocals enhance that a lot. It sounds more emotional in a lot of ways because of that.

RD: Thanks! Yeah, that’s a rare thing. If you listen, you’ll notice a huge difference in the quality of the vocals. You’re right. That was an accident. It was the first song I recorded in Garageband, actually. It was my learning song, and I wrote it as I was recording. It’s also the only song that uses drum loops.

RMS: The other songs were played with midi drums?

RD: Yeah, and I played them out in real time because I don’t know how to program them. Basically, everything was done ass-backwards on this.

RMS: Well, like you said, the ultimate thing is that you feel like the recordings are moving in the right direction. They’re getting better. And I think they are.

RD: Thanks. That’s definitely my goal. I just wish it wasn’t such a slow process.

RMS: I also really like the piano and organ sound! You used it a lot.

RD: Yeah. I started writing piano songs back in Factory Sessions. It’s such a beautiful instrument. I still don’t know how to play much, but I was able to figure out some simple things that added to these songs a lot. I’m happy with that aspect of it.

RMS: The playing actually sounds very competent. I’m impressed! There’s even an 80's synth solo in “Just My Luck.” Very nice and unexpected.

RD: “Just my Luck” was one of the last songs I recorded for the cd. I like it a lot despite it’s limits. It rings emotionally true to me.

RMS: Is that a whirly organ on it? It very reminiscent of some of the more recent Leonard Cohen songs.

RD: It’s a whirly electric piano of some kind. Or electric piano with a leslie. Yeah, the whole cd is somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s “Dear Heather” and “10 New Songs” because it’s so computer generated. I’m not convinced that’s a good thing, but it’s true.

RMS: I only noticed the Leonard Cohen thing on “Just My Luck.” I wouldn’t have known most of the others were computerized. “Lullaby” really reminded me of something Nick Cave-ish. It has a real organic analog sound.

RD: It’s the organ!

RMS: I think so.

RD: It's too bad the rhythm is so unstable on that one. I know that's a distraction.

RMS: I don't notice it too much.

RD: I'm glad. Thanks. Hopefully I'm just being a perfectionist... but it still bugs me.

RMS: So what's up next for you? Where can people see you play?

RD: I'm playing with a few different projects, so I'll be out and about. I'll try to do another solo show at Simple Pleasures this year. We'll see. I'm also playing drums with the Procrastinistas, and playing guitar with Liz Angelucci. We're playing a bunch of stuff in April, so that'll keep me pretty busy! (click here for upcoming shows)

RMS: Any new songs?

RD: I have lots of songs waiting in the wings, and I definitely want to do some new recordings. I haven't done any yet though.

RMS: I hope you'll keep us updated. I'm loving the cd, and can't wait to hear more!

RD: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your support. It means a lot.

RMS: Keep in touch, and let's talk again soon, ok?

RD: You bet.

Interview (c) 2006 Russell David Holsopple and Riska Man Slinky.

Russell David's eleventh studio project:“A Fish May Love a Bird” is available now. Visit the catolog for your FREE copy!