Interview: Kris Kristofferson

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 01.25.13 in Interviews

All country singers should have a chance to go out like Kris Kristofferson. Throughout his last few albums, he has explored what it means to come to the end of a long road, with a sober understanding that he has more past behind him than future ahead of him. His latest, the ominously titled yet curiously celebratory Feeling Mortal, plays like a man’s last words, full of humor and gratitude and wisdom. Produced by Don Was to capture the new grain in the singer’s voice, the record is solemn but not joyless or fearful. “Life is a song for the dying to sing, and it’s got to have feeling to mean anything,” Kristofferson asserts on the “Bread for the Body,” one of the album’s rowdiest tunes.

Kristofferson certainly has a lot to look back on. Born in Texas midway through the Great Depression, he was a football star in college, a Rhodes Scholar, an Army helicopter pilot and a janitor at Columbia Studios in Nashville. When the industry finally took note of the mop-pusher’s talents, he penned hits for Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Sammi Smith and — perhaps most famously — Janis Joplin. As an actor, he worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of the ’70s, including Peckinpah, Scorsese and Friedkin. He brings all those experiences to bear on Feeling Mortal, but Kristofferson, speaking from his home in California, said he was most grateful for very different things: his large family, his long marriage (“she does all the work and I sit around watching television,” he chuckles), and a good song every now and then.

This album sounds like a thematic extension of the last two, which also deal with old age and mortality. Did you think of them as being connected?

Actually, no. I usually I think every album that I’ve done has been autobiographical, like a scrapbook — what I’m going through at the time. And I guess that’s probably why these seem similar, because I’m just growing older. I don’t feel bad about it, but it’s the way things look now.

So you couldn’t have written this album at any other point in your life.

Probably. Well, I know I never would have written a couple of the songs, like “Feeling Mortal.” I wouldn’t have written that one. There are a few in there that are older from back when I was first attracted to writing country songs. “My Heart Was the Last One to Know.” I can’t even think of which ones I got on there now…”Stairway to the Bottom.”

What made you gravitate toward “My Heart Was the Last to Know” for this album?

I really don’t know. I did about 20 songs with Don and the musicians, and then we selected half of them. I thought it was just a great song and wanted to include it. This is a reflective time of my life, so I’m more apt to be looking back at some of the old songs. Some of them almost feel like new songs to me because I haven’t thought of them in a long time.

The tone of the album is definitely reflective, but it’s also very contented. Especially the title track, which could have been very morbid but actually sounds very thankful.

I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s the way I feel. I feel gratitude. I don’t feel any anxiety about being at this end of the road, you know. I feel very blessed to have all these experiences behind me and to be living with family that I love. Lisa and I are very happy. She does all the work and I watch television.

There are some very affecting tributes to people like “Mama Stewart” and “Ramblin’ Jack.” How did those two people end up on the album?

Mama Stewart was Rita Coolidge’s grandmother, and she was pretty remarkable. I felt like I had a good description of her, especially her attitude toward her blindness and the fact that she got her site back after she was in her ’90s. And just like it says in the song, she didn’t seem at all surprised. God was doing her right. What was the other song?

“Ramblin’ Jack.”

That song reminds me of when I wrote “The Pilgrim.” A lot of people said it seemed like I was writing about Jack, but I was writing about myself, you know. But I was probably writing about what I recognized in Jack, and what I was saying in “The Pilgrim” applied to a whole bunch of us — the people I respected who were doing the same thing I was, which was gathering songs. More than anything else that was what was important. It didn’t matter whether you were rich or successful or whatever. The songs existed by themselves and serious songwriters who I related to — who I identified myself through — felt the same way.

“Feeling Mortal” seems to be very concerned with the comforts and thrills of music. You sing about that on “Bread for the Body” and “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”

Like I said, I’ve always written about what I was going through at the time. That’s why looking back on my albums is like looking back over a scrapbook of my life. At my age, I reflect more on how lucky I am that I got to make this my life — to be creative, to be making pieces of art that work and that other people can identify with. Ever since I put my life in that direction, I’ve never regretted it. I’ve never ever thought I’d made a wrong move, and it just keeps getting better. I got eight kids who love each other and laugh all the time. I’ve been married for 30 years and it gets better every day. I feel very fortunate that this is my life.

There have certainly been some changes in your voice over the years. It sounds a bit lower, for one thing. Has that changed how you write songs?

I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never had a very approachable voice. I know when I first went to Nashville, they wouldn’t even let me sing my own demos. But people tolerate it now. And I know at least I ain’t a great vocalist. People I like to listen to, like Hank Williams and Ray Charles, they’re great voices. Merle Haggard. Willie Nelson. I just feel grateful that I’m able to work with those people and we respect each other. I know the very first album that I made, I felt it was overproduced. I wasn’t used to recording and I was just working with people who recorded that way in Nashville. But I was just grateful to be able to make a record, and I do appreciate that since I’ve been working with Don anyway, it’s been more aimed at being compatible with my way of singing. I’ll never be a great vocalist, but I can interpret my own songs.

How does it feel to live with some of these songs for so much of your life? Do songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” or “For the Good Times” take on new significance over time?

For some reason, when I’m performing the songs, luckily I go into them and I feel the same as I did when I wrote them. “Bobby McGee” always feels the same to me. I feel the same mixture of sadness and gratitude. It’s I think that’s one of the beauties of songs for me, is that you feel them. I don’t know if that’s by virtue of the music or the words or a combination of both. But you experience what you were experiencing when you were writing them back then. Even “Help Me Make It through the Night,” I can feel just like I did when I wrote that.

So they’re almost like time machines.

Yes. You put your finger on it right there. It is a time machine. You go back in time. I’m not still getting up and having a beer for breakfast on a Sunday morning, but I can go back there every time I sing the song. But that’s what songs should do for you. They should affect you spiritually, physically and emotionally

You’ve always been quick to recognize and support other songwriters, most famously John Prine. Are there any current songwriters that have impressed you lately?

There are songwriters, and I’m afraid that I can’t say who they are. One thing that has happened to my brain as I’ve gotten older is that my memory has gotten so bad that I can’t remember names at all. I’ve been told it’s a result of football and boxing. So far it hasn’t upset me any, though. I’m thinking of about three different writers and I can’t begin to tell you their names. I don’t listen to the radio at all, and I really don’t listen to much music anymore either. I haven’t really listened to a lot of music ever since I started working on the road singing my own songs, which usually fill up my head. But I am glad I ran into people like John Prine. I’m going to see him pretty soon. He’s coming out to where I live in Maui and we’re going to sing a couple of songs together. Or we just did. [Laughs.] I’m sorry. Oh boy. Well, there you go.