Minnesota Public Radio Morning Show interview

August 5, 2002

in News,Press

Garnet Rogers in conversation with Dale Connelly and Jim Ed Poole
(Recorded June 2002)

My introduction to the music of Garnet Rogers began with a question:
What’s a Garnet?

It turns out the garnet is a family of gemstones, often red but found in a variety of interesting and surprising colors. Startling claims are made on behalf of the garnet among them:

It can bring luck in love and friendship.
A garnet repels enemies and prevents discord.
It can help cure fever and jaundice, and prevent nightmares.

A beautiful, varied, useful gem, perhaps with secret super powers. If you happen to be a guy named Garnet, this is not a bad reputation to begin with, but it creates lofty expectations.

As a singer and songwriter, Garnet Rogers lives up to this impressive billing by creating a musical world full of courage, comfort, and hope. He soothes. He
amuses. He enlightens, and he can also rock when he wants to. There is not much more one can ask from a musician.

I don’t know about curing jaundice, though. That’s a pretty tall order.

– Dale Connelly

Dale Connelly – Let’s start by talking about you and Stan (Rogers) growing up and how you got interested in music.

Garnet Rogers –I don’t remember the precise moment it became obsessive, but I do have a very vivid childhood memory of sitting in front of a floor model radio. Stan and I were supposed to be in bed. I would have been three and Stan eight. We were in our flannel jammies with cowboys and lariats and stuff listening to a live broadcast of the Grand Ole’ Opry from West Virginia. We were listening to that, singing harmonies, even though we were supposed to be in bed and asleep. We were always obsessed with music all through the growing-up years and it was pretty much all I ever thought about.

Jim Ed Poole –All different styles of music? Was it country music first?

GR – Well my dad is a big country fan … the old style of country music like the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, and Big Bill Broonzy. It was definitely on the folkie side. My mom liked that stuff too, but she also liked to listen to a lot of opera. So I got a pretty good grounding in classical music and opera.

Then she discovered Bob Dylan in about 1963 or 1964 when that whole explosion happened. So there was really never a format thing like we have today, it was just like, this is music, you know … this is what we listen to.

DC – I understand you started playing the ukulele, of all things.

GR – Yeah, it was what was around. I think an aunt or uncle had left a ukulele behind.

JEP – Wasn’t it the fact that it was a nice size for a young person?

GR – Yeah, that had something to do with it. It was about the right size. My brother had a guitar too that an uncle had built for him. It was made out of birch plywood and welding rods. It was a pretty basic instrument, but it actually played and you could get a bit of a sound out of it.

JEP – Heavy duty …

GR – Yes, very heavy duty. This uncle built mainly canoes.

DC – It’s a big step to go from two young men listening to music in the house to getting up on a stage somewhere and creating your own sound for people.

GR – Yeah, it was more of gradual, insidious process. My brother Stan … that’s all he really ever wanted to do. He just never admitted it to my parents. He went off to dental school and to university … flunked out of two different majors at university … just, kind of threw up his hands and said, “Look, I just want to play guitar and sing for a living.” And so it was a bit of family crisis, but he persisted.

It didn’t do very well for the first few years. The late ’60s and early ’70s were not particularly great for him. By the time I was out of school by ’73 or ’74, he’d been doing it for a bit for a couple of years. One way or another we formed a band with a bunch of other clowns. We sort of had this post-hippie dream that we were going to go out on the road with a big bus painted up in psychedelic colors and take the music to the people. In our minds the “Music” was always capitalized and the “People” was always capitalized.

JEP – When you say you got out of school, you were talking about high school, right? How did your parents feel about that?

GR – I had this conversation with my dad. I was helping on the job one day. He was a bricklayer when he was working. And he said, “What do you want to do?”

And I said, “Well, I don’t want to go to university.”

And he said, “Your mom and I have been saving for your college fund. What do you want to do?”

And I said, “I want to become a musician.”

There was sort of a long silence and he said, “Whatever you end up doing, don’t do it just to make a living. Try to do something you really enjoy and not so you just have to bring in a paycheck. That’s all I was ever able to do. I had to get a paycheck and raise a family.”

And it was really kind of a … I mean, I was thunderstruck. I thought, “My God, you mean you never liked being a bricklayer. You didn’t like standing in the rain?” It never occurred to me that somebody would actually do that … go out and do a job they hated just for the sake of sacrificing for the family. It was a terrifying moment for me to realize that was what my dad’s life was like.

During the same conversation he said, “If you want to take the next four years and learn to become a musician, go ahead and do it as long as you’re not going to mess around. If you need to borrow from the college fund in days when you can’t make your rent or you need to get somewhere, you can always pay it back. The fund is there for you if you need it over the next four years.”

That was a huge leap for them, in terms of acceptance of what it meant for a couple of kids to go off and become musicians.

DC – Yeah, that must have surprised you.

GR – Yes, on one level I was surprised, and on another level I wasn’t. My parents were always pretty generous people in many ways, and that was one pretty terrific example. At that point we pretty much had their support as long as they knew we were trying our best.

DC – And has it worked out the way you and your dad hoped during that conversation, that you would do something that you truly loved?

GR – Oh, that part of it, yeah. I think Utah Phillips once said “there are no career moves in folk music.” So if you can actually do it on any level and maintain then that’s a great thing.

I’ve been able to do it on my own terms and haven’t had to mess around with record companies so much. You know my parents, from about 1976 onward when my brother and I came out with a record, we had to approach them for money. So suddenly my mother ended up being officially the “record company president.” My parents were both involved in it right from the get-go. I still work with them on a daily basis with the record company. They’re involved to that extent right now.

DC – This is Snow Goose Records?

GR – Yeah, and it’s amazing, really. None of us did it with the idea of ever being famous or anything. I would say any kind of fame or notoriety is the downside of doing music.

DC – Well you didn’t get the bus, but you certainly spent a lot of time driving.

GR – (laughs) yeah.

DC – And it wasn’t a Volvo you imagined.

GR – No, I never really saw that happening. We never really had any clear plan, it was just, you know, “We’re going to do it.” And if it meant hitchhiking to the gig, or whatever, in the early days … that was what you did. And we did a fair bit of that. But to look back at however long it’s been … I think it’s been 28 years now … it’s extraordinary to me. I don’t know where the time’s gone.

DC – When Stan died in 1983, did you consider giving it up there?

GR – I think …. There was a part of me that was saying “yeah.” Um … it was a huge blow, not really knowing what … not having done any shows by myself. I never had any idea I wanted to be a front guy or be a solo act. There were no plans for my album of solo guitar pieces with the London Philharmonic or anything like that. It was simply that I was content where I was. So when it happened I was really kind of treading water for a while.

I went out on the road to fulfill some obligations to club owners, basically with more of a sense that I was going to say goodbye to all of that and say, “Thanks for the fun, thanks for all the good times,” play a few songs and leave. But at the end of that first little tour, the response was such that I was able to look seriously at going back out again. And I thought, “I’ll make a record, put it out, and give it a year and see how it works.”

DC – It’s amazing how it really becomes a conversation between the performer and the audience. I mean, they tell you what they want you to do.

GR – Yeah, and I’m very grateful for that. I had a tremendous amount of support right from the start where people … they felt it was perfectly within their rights as an audience member and as someone who had a stake in this whole deal, that they could come up and say, “I like what you did there,” or, “That was really terrible. Don’t ever do that song again while I’m in the room.”

JEP – Well they booed Bob Dylan, you know.

GR – Well I guess I was in good company then.

JEP – The thing with him, his problem was that they wanted to keep him in that little niche that he started out in. Is that something that you’d like to do … expand or explore different kinds of music or have you found something that you’re comfortable with?

GR – I’ve always found different ways of expressing it. Aside from this compilation record on Red House (“All That Is”), I’ve got another new record out called Firefly. And there’s some orchestral things sort of in the backgrounds of songs, and there’s one solo orchestral piece that I’ve put together, and that’s reflecting a life-long interest in sort of small ensemble playing with things like cellos and woodwinds. I put the thing together by myself and played all the instruments myself and then recorded it over a period of days driving the engineer stark, raving mad.

He had to sit there while I was … like, “Okay, I’m going to lay down five cello tracks now …” like that. A couple of hours later, it’s the violas and then it’s the violins and I’ll bring the woodwinds in tomorrow and start all over again. Its sort of a Ralph Vaughn Williams kind of influence to that whole thing.

You talk about Bob Dylan and him going electric and what that did to people’s perceptions of him and their feelings of ownership of his music. I was at one of those early concerts. My parents took me to see Dylan when I was in grade three. He played solo for the first half of the concert and then came out with the band for the second half and the place just absolutely erupted into bedlam. There were ambulances. There were people screaming, being carried out on stretchers, fights breaking out and chairs being thrown. It was really a riot in this very stately, old concert hall in Toronto.

My dad led me out and we were standing in the lobby, watching people literally being put into ambulances to go off into the night. Somewhere between that sort of really reverential, quiet music and the audience reaction to that, and this bedlam that I was also witnessing, I thought … somewhere later in life … I thought that was sort of a turning point for me. I wanted to be in there somewhere. I’ve always gone between the quiet, pastoral, sweet, pretty stuff to completely over the top distortion and noise.

DC – Well I was going to say you’ve gone a little bit electric too on occasion.

GR – Yeah, I did a whole album a couple of times out ago. It started with feedback. It had feedback in the middle. It had a lot of drums and I actually literally tore a guitar apart on tape one day in the middle of recording this song, and you can actually hear the thing dying on the floor. It was a pretty aggressive album. It’s just part and parcel to the whole deal.

DC – That’s right. Every musician has to do that at some point along the way. And I’m sure it was much safer to be up on stage than out in the crowd where pandemonium broke loose.

GR – Yes. I think it was Guy Clark who said, “the stage is the one place to be where they can’t get at you.”

DC – Well, let’s talk a little about where you’re planning to go from here with your music. Are there any challenges down the road that you’re looking forward to?

GR – Um … It’s kind of like painting a bridge. You finish one record and you wait for the well to fill up again. You know, more songs start coming … so you have to go back and start another one. Which is not to say it’s not important to me or I take it lightly or anything, but this is what I do. It never stops.

There’s always a little bit of a drought after I finish a record. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve learned to accept it now. So I had a bit of a drought with the writing for six or eight months, I think, after Firefly came out, and now things are just starting to come back again. During that time you just have to keep writing in your notebook and just put down stuff. But it takes time for stuff to gel.

JEP – As a singer-songwriter are you reluctant to do other people’s songs?

GR – Oh, no, no … I love doing them. There are nights when I will get up and only do three or four of my own songs in a night, just because I’m in that kind of mood. I don’t have any particular agenda, or anything. I’m just trying to feel how the audience is feeling. Because of the nature of what I do and the disparate nature of the stuff I’ve released, you know … the quiet, pretty stuff and the very traditional- based music, and certainly when I worked with my brother Stan, it was based on traditional forms, so I still carry along a lot of that baggage and I carry along that audience.

I’m very glad to have that. But on any given night there are people who are going to want to hear songs about the sea or traditional-orientated stuff and they’re just going to put up with the louder, more experimental stuff that I do. So I try to give them a real balance. There are some parts of the country that I know I’m just going to do the quiet show. So I never really know what’s going to happen.

DC – How do you feel about doing Stan’s songs? Is that difficult?

GR – It was (difficult), and it still is to some degree. It was more difficult as events were fresher. I had a real fear when Stan died … he’s a real legend in Canada, but back in ’83 when he died no one really noticed it initially. We only had sold about 40,000 records worldwide. And I had this fear that when I went out on the road and played that I owed it to Stan to continue to go out every night and do his damn songs. And I was afraid of that because it was going to be very, very emotionally draining and after a while you’d just be seen as someone’s tribute band. I was very fearful of that, but then Stan’s music really caught on, and sadly that was only after he died.

There are people all over the world who know his music now and he’s sold millions and millions of records, so I don’t have to worry about carrying that particular torch anymore. It was a relief to have a choice in it. A lot of people do his songs now so I don’t really feel any particular need to do that. But, having said that, I do throw them in fairly often.

JEP – Do you have friends writing songs that they give to you and you have to figure out how to turn them down nicely?

GR – (Laughs) Yeah. I think its been only about twice in the past several years where someone’s given me a tape … you know, there’s sort of a 30-second rule where you go, “whooooops,” and you take it out of the tape deck and throw it in the back of the car.

A friend gave me a song a few years ago and said, “I wrote this for you and I thought you might like it.” As it turned out, I did like the song. And more recently my friend Marcus Vichert gave me a songÑhe didn’t actually give me the song, he just wanted my opinion of itÑand I started playing it immediately so I kind of took it from him and I’m not sure he meant it to really go that far.

DC – That’s the good side of that same process. You do have to stay open to that because there are great songs there that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

GR – Yeah, I’m sure you guys have that problem yourselves. There’s just so much stuff being produced out there it would take an enormous amount of time to wade through all the stuff that’s available to you and find the real nuggets of stuff that puts the wind in your sails.

JEP – There are people who aren’t that good that produce so many CDs and the ones you wish would do more don’t.

GR – Yeah, and then there’s Greg Brown, who’s pretty much everything you want. He’s incredible and he’s prolific. That’s the good side of the equation. (Laughs) Greg just makes the rest of us look bad.

DC – If you could put together a little band, with no restraints on people’s availability, I suppose Greg would be in it?

GR – Actually Greg has been in it. We tour a lot together, and we’re actually coming out to Minnesota to do a few shows in the fall. We had a little band for a while that sort of fell together. Karen Savoca, Pete Heitzman, Greg, and me were out on the West Coast and did a string of shows together. It turned into a pretty funky little band there for a while. We were all sort of sad to see it end.

We’re continuing on together whenever we can. It’s pretty much based around Greg. He does the bulk of it with … (laughs) … Pete, Karen, and me … (laughs) … sort of dancing like white people behind him.

DC – So you’re about to hit the road again. I know you’ve put a lot of miles on the Volvo. What’s you’re favorite drive or are you completely tired of driving in all its forms now?

GR – I never look forward to it when I get in, but there are parts of it that are pretty nice. Wyoming and Montana are pretty good places to drive. You don’t have to worry so much about the speed limit, traffic isn’t so much of an issue. And because I tend to write songs in the car .. just about every song I’ve every written has been attention away from the road long enough to start scribbling stuff.

DC – Another behind-the-wheel songwriter. We’ve talked to several. It sounds hazardous.

GR – Yeah. It is hazardous. There are times when you simply have to pull over to the side of the road or into a restaurant as a courtesy to other drivers and just finish the damn thing.

DC – It’s like a cab. You need to have a “writing” and “not writing” light on top.

GR – Yeah, please don’t disturb the driver. You know its funny. If you sat anyone of us down behind a desk for 12 hours, we would start seeing it as horrible work to come up with a song. But when you’re on the road, your mind is free to roam, you hear bits and pieces of stuff on the radio and it kind of starts the process. That’s where a lot of it’s done, for sure.

DC – Well, Garnet, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

GR – Oh … not at all. I’m glad to talk to you guys. I really enjoy the show.

© Copyright MPR 2002

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