John E. Mitchell: North Adams Transcript(9/3/2010)
NORTHAMPTON -- Stan Ridgway might be best known in the United States for his role in the ‘80s band Wall of Voodoo -- his voice is imprinted on many a brain, thanks to their hit "Mexican Radio."
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since that song became an MTV hit. Since then, Ridgway has forged his own acclaimed path in the music world as an eclectic singer-songwriter with a gift for storytelling and a muse that hails from a far different world than most.
Ridgway will perform at the Iron Horse Music Hall at 20 Center St. in Northampton on Sunday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. Tickets here.
His voice is as singular as they come. With a warbly, Western twang, his singing persona winds through the landscape he inhabits like some all-seeing scribe inhabiting the personalities that populate it with him.
"I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I think I am pretty good," he said during an interview this week. "If you can’t blow people out with your pipes, you end up writing in a certain way that involves their imagination, and you end up putting something together that is perhaps intriguing to them on a cerebral level. But if I sang like Tom Jones, I’d probably have a career singing ‘What’s New Pussycat.’"
His latest album, "Neon Mirage," represents an altered course for Ridgway, hailed as more emotionally revealing that his usual songwriting. Over the course
of the previous year, Ridgway faced the deaths of his father and uncle and his collaborator and friend, violinist Amy Farris, and found his original album plan changing course naturally. "A number of things happened in my life over the last year that really pulled me to the side of the road for awhile," Ridgway said. " I do have another box of songs here that will probably come out later on that I put to the side for awhile because I thought, ‘These are starting to heal me; these songs feel like they’re healing me up.’ And sometimes that’s what a song can do if you’re writing it yourself."
Ridgway said his lyrics turned introspective, reflecting the kind of records he had grown up with -- Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, early Bob Dylan -- which were helpful in providing inspiration and perhaps even structure to the healing they provided. "They were big and introspective records and asked a lot of questions like ‘what are we doing here?’ and ‘where are we going?’" he said, "and I felt the record started to go in that direction, so I went with it."
While stories are a part of the collection, they aren’t the bulk of the work -- many of the songs turn the mirror on Ridgway himself, something he just doesn’t often do.
"If anybody does that for any amount of time, that self-confessional thing, I always wonder when do they get bored with themselves?" he asked. "I’m literally pretty bored with me. I don’t find myself that interesting. What’s funny about getting known for something is that once you are, then if you’re as contrarian as I am, you don’t want to be pinned down."
Ridgway’s renown for story songs pulls partly from the personal experience of the characters he visits -- or inhabits -- but also from points of myth and legends, tall tales and Americana which he draws in to create atmosphere, archetypes and even some lessons.
"It comes up a lot in folk music, and I consider myself a link in a chain to that kind of a song or tradition," he said. "The myths and legends and stories of America are pretty vast, and they’re all mixed up with the world’s stories. You’re always trying to put something together that’s hopefully a little more universal, so when you follow a lot of these legends, there are reasons that they’re there. It’s because they’re unanswered questions that we really don’t know how to answer, so they’re all explained in metaphor."
Perhaps Ridgway’s power as an introspective songwriter stems from his expertise as a teller of tales. By exploring other points of view and histories up close, he is able to give the same thorough examination to his own psyche and circumstances. Through his experience the act of writing a song is neither a simple one nor always pleasant. Sometimes it can be a maddening existence.
"It’s an obsessive/compulsive disorder, actually, songwriting," Ridgway said. "Once a songwriter gets hold of something, there’s a kind of bolt of lightning that happens -- the whole room lights up -- you actually see the song, or you see what it is you could do or what it would be. Part of the draw of that is to get out of yourself, to transcend your own experience and get to someplace else to explore that.
"It’s curiosity first, and then the frustration sets in because the lights are out now. It only lit up for a moment. Now the hard work begins: It’s like piecing that back together and saying, ‘What did that look like? Was it really that way?’ In doing so, you find other hallways in that house that surprise you as well. It becomes a puzzle to solve and you really don’t really get there. Sometimes it just goes to the very end, and nothing can ever be as satisfying as what you thought was going to be what you were doing."
The big splash of "Mexican Radio" marked the end of the line for Ridgway’s band Wall of Voodoo. Following that hit, the band broke up and then partially regrouped to continue as a shadow of its former self with a couple original members, neither of them Ridgway.
"We had quite a ride, and the things I had in mind, nobody could really understand what I was doing," he said. "It wasn’t for any reason that it was so high falutin’ that they couldn’t. I really started the band, and it was at a point where I could only be the ringmaster for so long. My nerves were shot and so were everyone else’s."
The band has been lumped in with the one-hit wonders of the day but is really part of a subset of groups that were anything but overnight sensations, instead part of a strange movement in the music industry to scour the experimental underbelly of the new-wave scene for interesting and weird bands it could transform into gold.
At the time, Ridgway was very involved with a more formal contemporary music scene, focusing on various poly rhythms and experimental textures and techniques. He brought that to the music with the idea that something would result that would offer no clue as to where it was coming from. As the band progressed, the styles of Ennio Morricone crept into the sound with the idea of evoking the West Coast more in the music -- members got tired of being mistaken for a New York City band.
"A lot of the influences for Wall Of Voodoo were hidden, and that was designed that way," Ridgway said. "A lot of the things we would throw out would be things we considered to be rock behaviors. I’m talking musically -- gestures, licks, things that just seemed to be borrowed -- so we would chop them up."
While "Mexican Radio" was a huge radio hit in America, it barely registered in Europe, Ridgway said -- although songs off his first two solo albums, "The Big Heat" and "Mosquitos," did. He sees it as being in the right place at the right time and just the first stepping stone in many that has given him a respectable and colorful career for almost three decades.
"What’s funny about ‘Mexican Radio,’ it’s just one song of several, but because it was the MTV era and because a lot of cultural planets were coming together at that point in America -- punk rock, MTV, new wave or whatever -- that was a highlight, and first impressions are hard to beat," he said.
"I chuckle a bit at "that’s your defining moment." In this country, I’ll be quite honest, I’ll probably always be in the shadow of that song. I play it every now and again -- I tear it up, I turn it up, I put it through a thrashing machine, I chop it into cubist bits and put on my own Picasso get-up."
Ridgway sees himself as a magpie building a nest with different elements -- or putting together what he can with what he has. He thinks he would make more money if he settle on one thing and do it to death reliably, but that’s just not him. He desires music as more of an adventure, and musicians as guides down an unknown path, leading the audience on that adventure.
"I follow artists and songwriters that I like, and I’m really interested in where they’re going to take me," he said. "I don’t want to tell them ‘I really want you to take me over there.’ That would be almost odd to me. What are they, service people? Part of the fun is get in their bus -- their metaphorical art bus -- and see where they’re going to take you. And you don’t really say, ‘Oh, can we stop for doughnuts there at the corner for awhile? Maybe you can eat one and I can watch?’"
Based on Ridgway’s experience, following your own path keeps it personal, and that’s what builds connections. He sees the current state of the music industry as one of perpetual marketing, where technology has given so much opportunity for labels to sell music without actual development. He doesn’t think there’s any way to rush musical success. He’s already had the big-time American hit and realizes it’s what’s endured decades after that matters most.
"The only way that you can actually make any headway as an artist is that you have to make memories for people," Ridgway said. "It doesn’t really have anything to do with how you’re going to market yourself so much as it has to do with showing up and making memories for people and yourself. That’s what sustains a career.
"I get people coming up to me at this point now saying, ‘Oh Stan, I met my wife at your show’ and ‘Oh Stan I threw up in the taxi the night I saw your show and they took me jail and I’ll never forget that night.’ This is a trail of memories you leave and there’s no fast way to do it, either, there really isn’t. You could enter a contest and win like some do, but that might be short-lived as well. "
Ridgway can be found online at stanridgway.com.