Van Dyke Parks is a man of two identities. To the mainstream, he’s a supporting player who wrote lyrics for the Beach Boys’ legendarily abandoned, and recently resurrected, 1966 album Smile and has played on/arranged/produced the albums of such superstars as Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt. To adventurous listeners, the 68-year-old singer-songwriter is a superstar in his own right, one who creates music theatre for the home stereo via his own albums, such as his 1968 cult favorite Song Cycle, and now collaborates with younger — but equally fearless — musicians like Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright.
The Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-based composer is currently releasing an ongoing series of 7-inch singles (and digital tracks) with covers designed by acclaimed artists like Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha, Charles Ray, Klaus Voorman and Frank Holmes. eMusic’s Barry Walters talked Parks through some of the more recent achievements in his long and winding career.
How did the singles series come about?
I had made every effort to enlist some sponsorship from the patronage that I’m used to, which is the record industry. But the record industry hardly exists anymore, and rather than wait for a phone call I decided to gird my loins, pull up my bootstraps and do it myself. I’m like the Little Red Hen; I’m getting that done and making that bread. I’m spending more bread than I’m making, actually, to get it done, and so I’m coming up with a limited series. That way I’ll never feel lousy about having undersold — I can sell out! This is very niche; more niche than riche.
I’ve always thought that I should be emphatically optimistic, however informed I am of the disappointments in life. I’ve tried to make the listening experience be a confection and an inviting place to go, and keep a light hand with the dire information in front of us — that we live in a nuclear wind tunnel, that we are at war, that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, that there is no contrition on the part of the first world for what we must’ve done that so offended the dispossessed Islamic reality and resulted in those planes being driven into the heart of Wall Street.
Many people spent the 10th year anniversary of [9/11] grieving for the lives of the Americans that were lost. Well, I grieve about the Americans who are alive, who have lived lives of excess for far too long. I remember Neil Young — that Canadian guy who has done so well in the United States — came out with a song called “Let’s Roll,” one that invited thoughts of retaliation and machismo. Well, that’s not what I think should be the end product of such a disaster. What we should do is ask why they were so angry at us. I think that we are not the aggrieved party, those of us who survived, and that we have to change the way we move in the world. That is what I was trying to point out with “Wall Street,” and I did it by not speaking of those things. I just spoke about a man and a woman who fall in love upside down on their way to the concrete. I sat on this song for 10 years because I didn’t want to profit in any way or get attention for my own grave misgivings. But I finally decided that it was time for me to confess that I now look through the glass darkly.
Your 2008 album with Inara George (daughter of the late Little Feat leader Lowell George, a friend of Parks, and one-half of electro-pop outfit the bird and the bee), An Invitation, is stunningly beautiful.
Oh, it’s so wonderful for you to note that. That record — like every other record I’ve ever done — sank without a trace. She sang and played guitar in front of a computer, sent those songs to me in an email, and then I spent five weeks orchestrating them. We recorded those orchestrations in nine hours! I must’ve worked all day, every day to try to make those arrangements as fitting to Inara’s sense of innocence and her female earthen dilemma as I could possibly get because I have such affection for her.
Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album Ys, which you also arranged, was recorded in the same way?
With exactly the same orchestra. That’s the one that delivers the biggest bang for the buck — three violin lines, two viola lines, a cello line and a bass line, and then the five woodwinds and horn. This is what I call a frugal gourmet: It’s big enough to be small and not get in the way. Yesterday I worked with a much bigger orchestra for [dubstep producer] Skrillex. He represents a new kind of anti-music, is what he calls it, but I think it’s as musical an experience as I ever had. I get a clear picture with Inara and Joanna, but most remarkably through Skrillex, that I am not aging gracefully with an adoring, aging peer group. I don’t have the stigma of having been somebody or having been a star. I’m a nobody, but my life has given me migratory powers to a new generation of artists. I work for them, to be sure, yet they’ve made me feel so alive, and this is a just reward for a life that’s been filled with no success. My mother once noted before she died that I put my retirement before my career; I was definitely out of the picture as most of the people I was surrounded by went on to great fame and big deeds that were publicly recognized. But I find a lot of youthfulness in serving new projects and never knowing how to proceed, and that was the case with Joanna and Inara, who I equally admire for their powers of self-possession.
On Smile, what was your contribution beyond the lyrics?
You must forgive me. I have no comment on Smile. I’m so sorry.
Okay. What about your music for HBO’s 2002 animated adaptation of the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon?
[Explosion of laughter] You’re a naughty man! In every episode, there are three different snippets of songs. And in one episode, Harold, who is probably three or four, has a goldfish that died. So the producer said to me, “I don’t know how you’re going to handle death, but bear in mind that you may be addressing an unattended three-year-old child somewhere in a living room.” Well, that was a big challenge! Although I am by family history a Christian, I don’t believe in proselytizing religion. I didn’t want to throw Jesus at these kids’ faces: He stares too much; he’s very stern. Buddha? Buddha would’ve laughed about the damn fish. Quite frankly, I avoided all the philosophers. I just included a sitar, and that put me on the helix of life.
You passed along Rufus Wainwright’s demo to your old friend Lenny Waronker, who made him the first signing of DreamWorks Records, and you arranged the first track on his 1998 debut album. Was it daunting, introducing the world to an artist of that caliber?
I knew he was inevitable, and that’s what I said in a handwritten note when I sent Lenny the tape. He was handsome, he had eros in his breach, he had romance, all those delicious flavors of internationalism that come out of a place like Montreal, which so desperately wants to be French and wear the right underwear. I wanted so much for him to have an opportunity; he was so hungry for it. He was post-adolescent but somewhat uncomfortable, trying to interpret the fact that he discovered he was gay. All of this called for me to do everything I could to be supportive. I regretted that I didn’t produce the entire record because he would’ve made a dime off of it. Of course, he didn’t. The record was overproduced and so was the next one, and this is definitely the pot calling the kettle black. Absolutely de trop, as it were.
I want to end with your recent Arrangements album, which collects some of your earliest solo and collaborative work, yet often sounds contemporary. What did you learn about yourself while compiling that record?
I learned that my best work is with me and ahead of me, that I started out in a very raw way, and self-educated. Although I went through many music schools and disciplines and practiced hard and heard a lot of things about musique concrÃ¨te and abstraction and tone row and so forth, I had to finally learn what popular music was in a recording studio, and adjust as technology improved. Les Paul opened my eyes to a different kind of music, and that was recorded music. What he did was clearly demonstrate that the possibilities beyond the live performance of music were absolutely beyond imagining. That’s what I wanted to explore, and I’m still doing it with my usual excess interest in sound invention and synthesis.