Burt Bacharach and Daniel Tashian
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Release date: 7.31.20
Label: Big Yellow Dog Music
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Great songs are timeless.
This simple truth speaks not only to the music and lyrics on Blue Umbrella, the debut by Burt Bacharach & Daniel Tashian, but also to how the cross-generational duo came to collaborate.
When Daniel was growing up in Nashville, a budding musician and the son of folk-rock duo Barry & Holly Tashian, one of his favorite songs was “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head.” Fast forward some forty years, and the legendary composer of that classic was equally taken by songs like “Slow Burn” and “Oh What A World” from Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour, an Album of the Year Grammy winner that Daniel co-wrote and co-produced.
Their mutual admiration led to a meeting, and before they knew it, the pair were halfway through writing the first of the songs for Blue Umbrella. With Burt on piano and Daniel singing, it's Bacharach's first album of new material since 2005. Anyone who has a heart and a love of what's known as “The Bacharach Sound” can't help but hear familiar echoes in such songs as “Blue Umbrella,” “We Go Way Back” and “The Bells of St. Augustine” - rich, jazzy chords underpinning restless, dynamic melodies that move unexpectedly and always at the center, a profound emotional gravity. But thanks to Tashian's graceful, understated lyrics, and his own inviting sound as a singer, this EP becomes something much more than nostalgia - it's a true blending of personalities, a coming together of sensibilities and spirits, a newly-minted 21st century ampersand worthy of the Brill Building.
Burt Bacharach needs little introduction as he is one of songwriting’s most honored and successful composers. A recipient of three Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards and eight Grammy Awards (including the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award and 1997 Trustees Award with collaborator Hal David), he revolutionized the music of the 1950s and 60s. In 2018, he appeared on Elvis Costello's Grammy-winning Look Now, co-writing three songs and arranging and playing piano on two of the songs. And of course, with lyric partner Hal David, he wrote some of his greatest and unforgettable hits including "Walk On By," “I Say A Little Prayer,” "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me," “Alfie,” “The Look Of Love,” “I'll Never Fall In Love Again,” and “What The World Needs Now.” Of course, Bacharach has also enjoyed a celebrated career in film as well and the film for which Bacharach received two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and a Grammy award, “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” (1969), where “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” first appeared.
Daniel Tashian has lived a life in music. Before his parents met and had their duo, his father Barry's group The Remains opened for The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Daniel started writing songs in high school, and at 19, signed his first record deal, with Elektra, making an album produced by T-Bone Burnett. A prime mover of the Nashville music scene with his bands Silver Seas and Skyline Motel, Daniel has written songs for Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Lee Ann Womack, Josh Turner (whose “Hometown Girl” was Daniel's first #1), Maisie Peters ("Daydreams" single), NeedtoBreathe ("Hang On" single) and Brett Eldredge ("Gabrielle" single). As a producer, he's recently made albums with Eldredge (the upcoming Sunday Drive), Lily & Madeleine, Jessie James Decker and A Girl Called Eddy (which MOJO praised as “exquisite, one of the best albums of 2020 so far”). His songs have appeared in such TV shows as Breaking Bad, Pretty Little Liars and Nashville. Aside from his two Grammy Awards for Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour, he has been nominated for another for his children's music album I Love Rainy Days.
Blue Umbrella was recorded in Nashville, with Bacharach on piano, leading a band of A-Team session players, including Dennis Crouch (bass), Fred Eltringham (drums), Tom Bukovac (guitar) and Jim Hoke (harmonica). It's a 5-song calling card that carries the promise of much more beyond. During the quarantine, the team have further solidified their musical relationship, writing via FaceTime and accumulating enough songs for a full-length album.
In conversation, there's an obvious affection between the two songwriters, and you get the sense that Burt recognizes something of his younger self in Daniel. Here they speak about how they met, their working methods and the importance of Jack Daniels.
Bacharach / Tashian
Burt, how did you first become aware of Daniel as a songwriter and producer?
BB: I met him here in L.A. I'd been listening to the Kacey Musgraves album and thought it was incredible. Daniel had just won the Academy Award – no, not the Academy Award yet (laughs) - the Grammy, I meant. You've got a ways to go yet before you get the Academy Award! But Daniel, if you'd like, I will give you one of my Academy Awards.
DT: (laughs) Man, that's so awesome. I'll just take a picture with it, Burt.
BB: Okay (laughs).
Daniel, do you remember your first encounter with Burt's music? And has it been an influence?
DT: Definitely. They say you shouldn't meet your heroes because they'll disappoint you. But I haven't found that about Burt. Winning Album of the Year gave me an opportunity to meet one of my greatest heroes, which is Burt. Burt, you were only grumpy with me on one occasion, when I wasn't getting the note right that was written on paper. But I know you to be a very warm and compassionate person. You're my hero. When I was a little boy, “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head” was very important to me, as were so many of your songs. Also, you're at the top of your game, I might add. It's a great privilege and honor to work with you.
BB: It's very mutual. With you, there's a wealth of knowledge of all kinds of music. I knew you could really make records. But when we got in the studio and I heard you sing, I just thought, “Hey, you sound great, man!” It's funny, when I was struggling to have a song recorded in the Brill Building, in my early stages of writing, the first hit I had was a number one on the country charts, “The Story of My Life” by Marty Robbins (laughs). It was so far away from where I was going to go with Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles and Chuck Jackson, into the R & B world. But I think it's kind of a full circle in a way, saying, you started with Marty Robbins, now you're writing in some fringe of the Nashville world. I love working with Daniel. One of the highlights of my last ten years.
How did the collaboration begin?
BB: You were hanging around L.A. for a day or two and you were in victory mode because you'd just won a couple of Grammys.
DT: The next day, I went to your house.
DT: I'll never forget that first day. Your lovely manager says, “Burt will be down in a minute.” I go into the music room and you come down. You've just gotten out of the pool. You've got your Ray-Bans on. You had a couple pieces of paper in your hand, came in, went right over to the piano, and said, “All right, I've got a couple lines on this thing.” I had texted you some lyrics. You went right into the beginning of “Blue Umbrella,” and man, it knocked my socks off! It was electrifying. I thought there was potential in the lyric but it wasn't until you started playing those chords that I realized how much. All of these things started coming into focus for me as a songwriter that I had sort of peripherally known about, and it all started to crystallize in my mind, just what a beautiful spirit and soul you have. Just to be sharing that moment with you right after the Grammys - I felt like I had gone to graduation, then after, I got to see the headmaster (laughs). Just hearing your music with my words was incredible.
BB: The brilliant thing about you, Daniel, and I mean this with all my heart, is you have a great sense for both melody and lyrics. I had many years of writing with Hal. I wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics. I came up with some titles. . .
DT: You contributed lyrically to this stuff too.
BB: I did back then, occasionally too. I came up with the titles for “The Look Of Love” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head.”
So let's talk some more about the process for writing these five songs for Blue Umbrella. It sounds like there wasn't a clear-cut division of labor in the co-writing, but rather you were both contributing to music and lyrics.
BB: Yes, on everything. Daniel's got this great musical sense.
DT: Sometimes. . .
BB: Daniel's instincts are always right on target. Musically, he's got the chord before I've got the chord, when I can't find the chord. I appreciate it so much. He hears impeccably. He brings to the table a great lyric sense. He tells a great story. He also brings to the table some valuable music stuff. It's a really collaborative thing.
DT: Also I think you feel comfortable saying, “Hey, what about if the lyric went like this right here? Or what if we shortened this part?” You know you can contribute lyrically, and I respect your lyrical thought as much as your musical ones. Maybe some of your collaborations in the past, the division of labor was more defined . . .
BB: Yeah. But I think the thing is, it's so cohesive. Getting to know each other, having some dinners along the way, and hanging out in a room with a keyboard and a guitar. And on top of it all, Daniel's got a killer voice (laughs). You're always grateful when you have a gift like this coming at you.
DT: I feel the same way about you, man. I hope we get a chance to get on stage and do some of this stuff in front of people.
BB: That would be great. But that would mean we'd have to get out of the house (laughs). We'll be old, old men. I'll be 102 by then (laughs).
Let's get into some specifics of the EP itself . . . Aside from just trying to write the best songs you could, was there an underlying theme that grouped these songs together? My impression is that there's an emotional throughline – separation, rainy day melancholy, a wistfulness . .
BB: It kind of happened naturally. We were traveling a good road. Not an intentional road. It just was there. I have to admit that it wasn't always a pleasure co-writing songs with people in the past. But this has been a joyful thing. There's an exuberance coming from Daniel about making music. He's loving it.
DT: Oh yeah, there's nothing I'd rather do than make music with you, Burt. I also feel like we respect people's time who are listening to it. We're not just doing something to amuse ourselves. It's not overly indulgent. I think both of us have one ear on brevity.
BB: I never want to beat up a listener, or wear them out.
Daniel, you said you tried to use a lot of one-syllable words in the lyrics because the melodies are frisky and sound funny with longer words. One of the things I love about these songs is how they are reminiscent of some of the work Burt did with Hal. He also had that tendency to write simply, and it made what might be complex in Burt's music sound natural.
BB: That's a very good point. Hal was brilliant. Whether I gave him a tune, or he gave me a lyric, he was always consistent. You can't argue with a lyric like “Alfie.” And it does remind me of how we're working now. I like the process with Daniel, where we start with part of a lyric and let it grow from there. Maybe I give him two bars back, then he sends something back. It kind of snowballs and grows like that, even though we're far apart.
So you've continued writing beyond the five songs on Blue Umbrella?
DT: It was you, Burt, who suggested that we get on FaceTime and get some songs going. I had been feeling not resistant about the idea of writing on the internet, but I get such a read on a situation and a person's mood from being in the room with them. But I'm glad that we started working remotely, because it's really lifted my spirits. Also, your work ethic is incredible. Everybody should take a page from that playbook. You don't stop, man. You were up in the middle of the night last night working on a channel section of a song. We're both night owls. These things, they just tug at your sleeve until you solve the problems.
Daniel, how was the experience of being the singer on this project different from your own solo albums and with Silver Seas?
DT: It's a joy to sing these melodies. I think it should be acknowledged that while the door is open to my musical contributions, a lot of those melodies emanate from your brain, Burt. And I wouldn't want it any other way. I mean, I'm singing intervals that I would never sing in my music, and I love the challenge of it. And when I figure it out, I love the freedom it gives me of using my voice in that way. That's part of our process. But I was hoping that you might sing a vocal on “Twenty-First Century Man,” when we get that up and running. You're very reluctant to sing, but you've got one of my favorite voices.
BB: You're too kind. I remember years ago, Mark Lindsay cut a song that Hal and I wrote called “Something Big.” I didn't like his version. It was not my session. Then I went it and recorded it. Phil Ramone was encouraging me, “You can sing it.” I've got a rhythm section, they all know me, and I'm standing there embarrassed. But three Jack Daniels did it for me (laughs). With these songs, I see something closer to perfection, and I get that from you.
DT: When you want perfection, you want Daniel. I understand (laughs) “Nothing wrong with a little perfection.” I remember you saying that. That was a quote that I really took away from our sessions. I was saying, “Should I fix this part here? I don't know if I want it to be too perfect.” And you said, “Nothing wrong with a little perfection.”
What do you remember most about the recording sessions?
DT: I remember feeling stressed because I hadn’t read vocal music in that context before. Reading music and trying to get my vocal takes in a live session with five master scale musicians and the clock ticking. I remember asking Burt to please feel free to mention any timing or phrases he heard that he wanted differently, and he said “Phrasing is one thing, but what about the NOTES!” Also, I remember him asking Fred Eltringham (drums) for “more romance from the rhythm section!” Unusual production comments. “It sounds like everyone is going to the chorus!” he said after what we thought was a good take. “Huh? Aren’t we supposed to go to the chorus?” we asked “Yes, but don’t telegraph it, just let it flow into it without marking it.” Stuff like that sticks out. I remember feeling tired at the end of a long day and Burt seemed to just be coming to life at 1am! He was ripping at the piano and I thought, 'I gotta wake up, I’m exhausted.' He’s a night owl, for sure. Each of the musicians came up to me individually and thanked me for having them and told me they would stay after the session was over if I needed them which was unusual. Lastly, after it was all done, late in the night, I remember Burt sliding into a black suburban, and as it pulled away he rolled down the window, waved, and said, “My Champions.”
BB: For me, it was a joy recording these songs in Nashville. The studio musicians were unbelievably great. The engineering and the studio is as good as it can get.
What's next? Is there a full album coming?
DT: Who knows how long the social distancing that we're experiencing right now is going to continue. We're just continuing writing, as we usually do. We're probably making 10-20% slower progress than we would make with each other.
BB: Yes, because in the room together, which we can't be, it's a bit easier. But I can at least get excited because we can connect on the phone. It grounds me to be writing with you. After the virus hit, I didn't go to the piano for five weeks. Things just shut down. What was I doing? I was just trying to sleep. I feel fortunate to be in a great house, a big enough house that I can move around in. But there's so much going on. There are projections about how many people are going to get killed by this virus. There's an election coming up. I would do whatever I could do to help get this guy out of office. I'd like to go out on the road like I did before Obama, and play for the candidates maybe, you know? But that can't be done now.
DT: What we're going to do is make some more music. It's a mighty powerful political tool, music.
BB: It is.
DT: Even the mindset of peace and love in a song is a powerful political statement.
BB: I could never tell what was going to happen with “What The World Needs Now,” but suddenly, there are virtual bands playing it on YouTube.
DT: I'm playing it all day long in my mind. It's at number 14 now, but it's going up.
Even if it's not overtly political in its message, the fact that you're putting something as beautiful as these five songs into the world, I think moves the needle in the right direction.
BB: Thank you. The whole process has been so beautiful.