ONLY AFTER SPEAKING to Greg Dulli on the phone from his room at a Jury’s Inn (somehow appropriate), I notice that on the CD of the Twilight Singers’ new album of covers, She Loves You, there is printed what appears to be an alternate title in Italian. ‘O: Il vestito da sposa di sua madre’ -‘Or: His (or her) mother’s wedding dress’.
Pretty cryptic, could be kinky, but it sounds like that classic Dulli mix of higher sentiment and base instinct to me. And, as is often the case, it involves a woman – several, actually. “Originally, it was going to be all songs by women but in the end I included songs about women as well.” Two from the songwriting camp have already voiced their approval: one is Bjork, who passed on an admiring message, and the other is Martina Topley-Bird, who has invited Greg out to dinner the following evening. “Hopefully, it’s not to tell me to fuck off for ruining her song,” he chuckles (Unlikely, if he’s as gushing about Martina on the night as he is anywhere else, repeatedly saying that Quixotic is one of the best albums he’s ever heard.) The rest of the track-list continues the eclecticism of those choices, ranging from two grandmothers-of-all-songs in the shape of ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Summertime’ to ‘Real Love’ by Mary J Blige.
Dulli’s never minded advertising the artists that turn him on and, from the captivating Uptown Avondale EP of soul covers with the Afghan Whigs to the, until-recently common, appearance of ‘Hey Ya!’ in the Twlight Singer’s set, other people’s music has always been integral to his repertoire. The way he sees it, he’s engaged in breaking down ideas of people having ‘ownership’ of songs, as “the songs are everybody’s”. In Dulli’s world you can own a song when you sing it, but it’s not yours to keep.
Frequently, the covers album can be a sign that an artist is creatively off the boil. In this case, it’s a question of ‘why not sooner?’ “I’m always interpreting songs. Anyone who’s seen me play ever knows I do that. I always will – there’s too much to do.” Elaborating on his habit on stage of weaving lyrics from songs into his own, he says “If you give me a beat or a chord progression, I could do 10 or 15 songs inside that, and you’d be right there with me.” He makes me think of a rapper bragging about his rhyming skills. Then, before I can grasp how we came to it, Rod Stewart is on the agenda – “Never has a guy betrayed himself so much,” he reckons, with a mixture of mock-scorn and pity. Better to finish up crooning standards in a gin-soaked piano bar, I suggest. “I tell you what, catch me in New York in ten years and that’s exactly what I’ll be doing. Although it’ll have to be a bar where I can smoke.”
With Dulli “trying to catch lightning in a bottle,” the album was recorded in 11 days, and the songs were played pretty much as they are in the live show. “It’s easier with other people’s songs to be that spontaneous.” What about his own, how easily do they come? “Yeah, I do get fear of the blank page sometimes, but generally I’m always writing, whether it’s songs, stories or film scripts.”
Both the Twilight Singers albums have sprung from difficult personal circumstances, particularly in the case of Blackberry Belle (the second), which was a reaction to the death of a close friend.
“Not that I go looking for it, but I’m more creative when I’m wounded. I’ve tried to sit down and write a happy song, and it always comes out trite. I do wonder about myself in that regard; I’m trying to figure that out, but maybe I never will.”
The next album, which is almost entirely written, seems to fit into that ‘figuring out’ process. Already titled Period Rush, Dulli calls it “an investigation of childhood. It’s me looking back and asking the question: what went wrong?” The title comes from a text about the Deep South called Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. In the book, author Tony Horwitz discusses people who dress in full civil war regalia in an attempt to almost transport themselves back into that era. “They can get a kind of high from it, which is known as ‘period rush’.” Dulli’s personal version of that has taken him back to the 70s. “I started the decade a five-year-old and finished it as 15-year-old. They were my formative years.”
In his songwriting, as in his life, does he ever feel trapped by himself, by his own past?
“There’s a part of me that wants to be different,” he reflects “but the worst thing you can do is fight your way out. Changing for the sake of change is as futile as anything, so I’ll change when I need to and stay the same when I need to.” He pauses – “Hey, that’s the first time I’ve really figured that out. Thank you, doctor!”
Anytime, I say.
© David McKenna, 2004