July 16th, 2008 | Interviews

Dan Monick

Inara George “Duet”


Inara George (also known from the Bird and the Bee and Living Sisters) and Van Dyke Parks (also known from Smile, Song Cycle and Twin Peaks) will release an overwhelmingly lovely orchestral album called An Invitation on Everloving next month. They play together tonight and next Wednesday at Tangier.

Inara, what is your earliest memory of Van Dyke?
Inara George (vocals): It was pretty early but when we were little, Van Dyke’s daughter would play with me a lot and I remember with Van Dyke, we’d always say, ‘Lovey-dovey.’ Instead of ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye,’ we’d say ‘lovey-dovey!’ That’s my impression. And we still always say lovey-dovey.
Van Dyke Parks (arrangements): After a very difficult time. If there’s some grueling physically punishing ordeal. Like an interview!
We’re only like a minute into this!
V: You understate your gentility.
How do you get an orchestra ready to record an album in just two days?
I: They’re professionals. They look at the sheet music and they play. It’s like a magic trick.
V: And they couldn’t believe how fast her money was being spent! I think expensive sounds best. At the end of a successful take, I will say, ‘That sounds expensive to me!’
Could you actually hear the money leaving the bank account?
I: In all fairness, we did it quite cheaply for this kind of thing. It’s not something you can reproduce easily.
V: What Inara is trying to say is that I embezzled the majority. She said, ‘You know, I came out of that Edith Piaf picture, and she’d be standing up there and she wouldn’t be holding a guitar trying to remember the lyrics. She had people playing for her—you do that for me.’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ I was delighted—from my standpoint, the arranger’s standpoint—that was easily the most communicative arena right there within that most economical statement. I’ve always said: why use a small word when a diminutive one would suffice?
That’s superlative.
V: We had a ball.
Was this record powered by Diet Coke?
V: Inara doesn’t like Coke. I looked into her eyes—no Diet Coke.
I: I have to make sure it’s here when Van Dyke comes over. I grew up in Topanga. I’d drink it at the movies—it was my treat!
Van Dyke, you said before that a collaboration has to be adversarial if it’s going to be good. And that you should leave no visible contusions.
V: You’re making that up! It’s possible I said that.
We like to bring these kinds of things up.
V: You’re sick to do that! Yeah, that’s true, sir—guilty as charged! But I don’t think a collaboration does have to be that way. This one is decidedly very good. And from my standpoint of never wanting to disappoint Inara—she’s too talented, too beautiful, and I do consider her like a daughter—she’s that important to me is all I’m saying! So it was as easy as falling off a log for me! And now, if we get any approval at all, we’re going to make a global jaunt. It’s gonna be wonderful! We’ll play the record places live. I like records and recording—I’ve always been into Spike Jones and I love ear-candy records—but it’s a fun thing to do when you run into someone with real talent. I hope my back will be to the audience.
I: We’re hoping to perform it with the full thing.
V: Which can hover around three violin lines, two viola lines, one cello line, one stand-up bass, and some other people with fine Italian timber, and some things that blow. Three flutes, two clarinets and a double reed. And one French horn—for a little machismo!
How was that first show last month in Altadena?
I: It was fun! But it wasn’t with the full thing. Just piano and I’m on guitar, and then upright bass and mandolin. Did we have a fun time?
V: The thing was just about as convivial as it could be without the alcohol count!
Are you doing dry sets?
V: I said I don’t work blue! They thought I meant I didn’t wanna work in a place with booze! It was clean, wholesome, funny—we just kind of dressed the show and the guy wanted more! We added numbers and Inara asked me to sing ‘Vine Street’ by Randy Newman.
What’s your funniest go-to bit on stage?
V: You know what I don’t like about that question? ‘Go-to’ suggests we repeat ourselves. We never repeat ourselves!
Exclusive banter?
I: One night only!
V: It’s what Inara is doing as I’m withdrawing from the very act of playing a dry room. I’m getting the DTs over there! I’m the oldest thing in the room! She’s a brunette—I used to be a brunette! I can dig the vibe. It’s a youth vibe. To try and catch someone with a perspective that’s informed, but somehow optimistic. That’s the tattoo of a certain age group—Inara’s age, I believe. There’s no longer anything childish. You see how grey the politics of time are. It brings out an urgency and understanding of the material. The material Inara does, she is not pressed to explain—she doesn’t explain between songs. Her songs are very close to the chest—it seems like a collection of private reflections that are very appealing.
Are you saying that you don’t know what Inara’s songs are about and you don’t need to know what they’re about?
I: I know what they’re about.
V: I think you do. I just wanted to say this and then I’ll shut up! You look at lyrics and you know they’re good if they fuse to the melody and music. If they’re an inevitability, they’re a good idea! But there are some lyrics that are simply perfunctorily delivered and they leave the impression that there’s only one impression to think! ‘I HATE WAR.’ That’s good! But sometimes a poet rises out of a situation with a highly interpretive gift—a gift that provides perhaps some uncertainty for the casual observer about what’s being said, and for me that is called poetry, and the poetical power makes it! I like to go along with that. Then you get to a point where you’re not sure what someone may have said. That uncertainty is also a quality of valor in the work. That’s a compliment, Inara. I think your lyrics are terrific, and they have me totally confused.
I: When we perform, Van Dyke is very sweet. I tend to not say a lot in between songs, especially if I don’t have anything good to say. At one time, he had to prompt me to say what the song was about. Maybe because he really finally wanted to know!
V: You know, Inara, I was just looking for the title!
I: I have a thing: I’m turning 34 this week—when I see younger people really go on and on about their songs and what it’s about, maybe they haven’t really earned the right? Maybe no one cares. That’s my own insecurity. A little bit of banter from Van Dyke reminding me I lost the audience!
V: Go out there and work the room, kid! Go to your go-to!
What was it like putting the first notes on the first piece of paper?
I: I had the songs, so what I did—the reality of this is that Van Dyke did all the work. He’s the guy—I think it’s safe to say!
V: When you have no talent, you have to work. Life isn’t fair!
I: He’s in the spotlight with me. His voice is just as present as mine—his arranging voice. I wrote the songs, recorded them, and sent them over to him.
V: She sang them convincingly with a guitar into a computer and sent them to me, and that was so convincing, and that’s the name of that tune!
Was it as simple as just a few emails?
I: I think it was! Mike Andrews—my producer—and I would go over, and listen to the orchestration he’d done on his computer.
V: And she just slapped my hand with the ruler now and then!
I: No, there was nothing I ever had to say! It was perfect and perfectly Van Dyke.
V: A point of fact—it got done in a couple days. The orchestra is what I call the Frugal Gourmet. Some sweetness, nothing bombastic about it—just what it takes to get it done!
Can you give me a concise technical definition of what would make something ‘bombastic’?
V: Maestoso would be it! Well, all kinds of stuff—miserato, diluendo and a slow fade into nothing. There’s all kinds of musical expressions for that stuff. Just say Andrew Lloyd Webber. Percy Grainger was my favorite. He did things like ‘PRESS HEAVILY.’ He would never use Italian and I just love it! ‘TROUSERS FORWARD!’ Wonderful attitudinal instructions in our lingo!
What did you each know you’d get from the other during this collaboration?
I: It gets kind of sappy. We knew that there was love there.
V: To me principally it was a very good thing that Inara pared her ultimate act to instinct in such a way—she had an instinct that would be a good thing! Whether she likes it or not, she’s the damn leader in this one. The songs will be the test in the pudding. I think she has a powerful gift of communication. It comes easy. I wanna go on record thinking that she needs to exercise it for a long time, and I’m just pleased to be a chapter!
What challenges each of you most about the other?
V: I know Inara’s problem right off the bat—she’s just being too tactful! ‘When is this codger rocker gonna learn what he’s supposed to play?’
I: I love that—playing with Van Dyke every single time is fantastic!
V: Wasn’t that fun when you had to nod at me at the last show?
I: You told me to! My biggest challenge and I think his wife Sally can agree—I’m not always sure what he’s saying, but eventually I figure it out. It takes a moment—it’s not exactly a challenge, or it’s an exciting challenge! He said something in one of the shows—I cannot remember what it was, but I was confused as to what it meant.
V: How can I respond to charges that haven’t been articulated?
This interview is getting unconstitutional.
V: It’s totally out of hand and I’m worried!
I: He has certain sayings, and if you don’t know the story, a lot of time you’re left confused. Like ‘Molly took a crap in the car.’
Is that positive or negative?
V: That’s bad. When things go very very bad.
What does Molly do to the car when things are going well?
I: No, she always takes a crap in the car.
V: I can’t think of one for a mixed audience. I don’t work blue!
You said before you ‘stay out of the present tense.’ What’s brought you back?
V: I meant in work—I don’t mean psychologically. I’m in the prism of current understanding. I got the newspapers and I read them. But my reasons for that—‘I stay out of the present tense.’ I think reverse is the most powerful gear. The torque! Things pass, and rememberance is the most instructive arena there is. It’s wonderful because there’s nothing creative about it!
It’s archaeological?
V: I’m very big-bang driven. I wanna know why we’re here—for what purpose. I just come from a very uncompromising parental pool. People bludgeoned their offspring in my family for years. I have that from my own parents. I’m not satisfied at all. There’s an urgency to every action. Of course, I’m 65 now. I want to make a difference, but it’s good—what I’ve chosen to do is linger with people who have still within their easy ability—as I put it in Inara’s case—to bring change and harmony and all kinds of good things that make a lot of people reading absolutely revolted by this audacity! So I won’t go there anymore. I am an idealist and I’m deadly in earnest about that and there’s nothing casual about this particular collaboration.
Does this connect to what you told the Times about the song being the most powerful political weapon of our time?
V: I think that’s obvious. I thought ‘We Shall Have Overcome’ would have been a good title, but we threw that one away.
What will be America’s most lasting contribution to music?
I: One of the great things about spending time with Van Dyke is just hearing him—he pulls out music I’ve never heard before that’s part of the American songbook. It’s so amazing to think that there’s so much I don’t even know.
V: Somebody asked Aaron Copeland—‘What is American music?’ And in quotes—italicized, perhaps—he said, ‘American music is written in America.’ That’s very interesting. It extends to ‘Going Home,’ the quasi Negro spiritual used in the New World Symphony. Dvorak, a Czechoslovakian writing music in the United States in the 19th century and a Negro spiritual that didn’t exist that he made up that was later adopted by blacks—very interesting! Vernacular music has always interested me. The stuff that feels American. I always wonder what’s American music? We are—all of us! That’s what’s wonderful about it. It osmotes just as much as the Japanese language does—borrows from other idioms to create its identity. The age of Yankee ingenuity—that got me magnetized! And music! Music! What I really dig is what’s happening now in American music!
What specifically?
V: Inara George’s new record!
I hear it’s pretty good.
V: The kid turns on a dime! But this totally American music, and back to lyrics—what is the power I like in music? The poetic urge—deception—deceptive lyrics is what it’s all about! That is the MacGuffin—the thing at the conclusion of the story that Hitchcock included. That’s why you don’t want a lappy—you want an evergreen and something you want to nurture! It’s something you cannot completely know and understand, even on the part of the creator—no one understands something that is a real bijou! It’s a phenom of our collective wits—Mike Andrews for surrendering the musical influence to me. He offered me the job—that was a diamond in a coal field right through! What can I tell you? Everything has just been terrific! And there are no contusions or abrasions. Very happy, aren’t we! Now I just want the barge trip down the canal in Burgundy. It takes two concerts in Dijon to make that kind of money.
You’ve got it all decimaled out?
V: You have to—the dollar’s not worth a damn!
What was it like doing a little self-parody with ‘Black Sheep’ for Walk Hard?
V: I’m a shadow of my former self now—I thought it was good to show my former sensibility! Oxygenating—breathing in!—that’s what I decided to do! And I think it was in perfect order. Not usurious in any way. It did not hurt anybody else. It felt good! The first time I worked for Mike Andrews.
So Walk Hard pointed the way to An Invitation?
I: Exactly!
What happened between you on this album that can never be captured again?
V: That’s easy. She’ll never give me this much money again!