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A little background on
Joplin: While living in Lancaster, Pa., he was visiting with his grandmother
and met his future. "In the '60s she'd been a music critic for the
Washington Times, and I was into the Smiths, Minor Threat, bands like that. One
night I put on one of her records. it was Dylan. I didn't even know he was a
legend. I just liked the black and white picture on the album (The Times They
Are a Changin'). Then I heard 'Hollis Brown' and I couldn't stop listening. I
put on another of her records, one by Phil Ochs. I have never heard such energy
in a song. That night changed my life...and after that I knew what I wanted to
be." Shortly after his family moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington
D.C. At the young age of 16, he took his GED, quit school, and headed out on a
pilgrimage to visit the hometowns of his heroes. These included Bob Dylan's
boyhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota, and the El Paso birthplace of Phil Ochs.
and Joplin claims to have communed with the ghost of Woody Guthrie in Okemah,
Oklahoma. He practiced on a guitar that had once belonged to another early folk
artist, Bob Gibson. "I was a hardcore folk singer
the denim shirt and
everything," Joplin continues. "I was caught in a spell." He
spent some time washing dishes in New York City while staying at a friend's
apartment and not getting very far with his music. He then decided that, since
the music of Michelle Shocked and the Indigo Girls was coming from the south,
he would head to Atlanta. When he got there he didn't find the protest folk
scene that he envisioned-but he did find Shawn Mullins and Natalie Farr. After
a brief stint with a two-guitar and drums unit called Lunchbox, he formed the
nucleus of the Josh Joplin Group (JJG) including Geoff Melkonnian on
bass/viola, Allen Broyles on keyboards, and Deb Davis on guitar. In the
mid-'90s JJG released two independent CDs, a process that morphed Joplin from
his folksinger beginnings. "I began writing songs I really wanted to
write, rather than those I thought my heroes might have written," he says.
"I began to realize that writing with a band in mind added an entirely new
dimension. It was more musically interesting, more fun." This
collaborative effort has led the Josh Joplin Group to record the album Useful
Music which, in many ways, speaks of the passages that Joplin has had in his
life so far. From "Dutch Wonderland," which reflects his roots in
central Pennsylvania, to the melodic elegy to one of his heroes, "Phil
Ochs," insightful lyrics are the foundation for Joplin's music. Lines like
"a hat like Billy Jack and a smile like Freddie Prinze" and
"everything I thought before/I won't think anymore" are testimony to
the epiphanies that Joplin has experienced in his life. Ex-Talking Head Jerry
Harrison produced "Matter" and the single "Camera One."
Inspired by the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, "Camera One" tells
the story of a "sandy haired son of Hollywood," a "trophy wife
in Palisades," and a soul who "sells star maps to the sun."
"I really wanted to have the song illustrate the way you can go from being
everybody's best friend to having nobody in the blink of an eye," Joplin
says, noting that he "writes lyrics in the winter and the melodies in the
summer when it's too hot to think about words." However he does it, it is
rare to find an album that is rich with songs that are radio friendly.
Q: Your new CD named " Useful Music" is really
incredible. I wanted to ask you -, is it like opening a book to many stories?
A: Well for me, writing is a process of sort of discovering
a lot of different stories and things that I wanted to talk to. Although I
think there is a theme throughout the album that ties maybe the individual
stories all together and the theme possibly being the age old theme of coming
to terms with faith and lack thereof and that struggle to attain it. And that's
sort of I think ultimately what the album says a lot.
Q: I read that you started out at 16.
A: Yeah. I quit high school and started to travel in a van
and I actually I was just more or less falling the footsteps of the people I
loved. I guess I thought that Bob Dylan, Phil Oaks, and Woody Guthrie would
have wanted to me to I guess in a weird way. It was sort of a pilgrimage for
their sake, not for my own. So I just traveled mostly for about two years.
Q: What gave you that kind of drive ?
A: Other than wanderlust - the drive was to get closer to my
heroes. It really wasn't a propound kind of drive. It was just something that I
assumed that I had to do if I wanted to be more or less like them.
Q: Were you starting to write before that?
A: Yeah. I was. I was writing before that. I was writing
topical protest songs. I was writing like Phil Oaks and Bob Dylan. You know I
guess I would have thought they were writing like, and so I just essentially
was - you know one day I might have been Bob Dylan and one day I might have
been Phil Oaks.
Q: I admire both of them. I had the pleasure of meeting Pete
A: I've had the pleasure of meeting Pete Seeger as well.
It's much easier to meet him then anybody else.
Q: That does answer one of my question, because I read that
you admired Bob Dylan and Phil Oaks immensely, but they sang about political
issues and mayhem that was going on back then that they were writing about, do
you feel like you should be writing about issues of our time?
A: Well at the time I did. At the time, I thought that I
needed to write about issues because I think that the thing that was so
instrumental in coming in touch with those two in particular, Bob Dylan and
Phil Oaks, was that they were the ones that made me think that I should want to
do what they do. That I could maybe create music just as well - not as good as
them - but as well and to do it the way that they were doing it. They were the
ones that put me in touch with the idea of one person, one song and I don't
think I was in touch with that before them. So yeah, I started to write based
upon the relationship I had with them, so of course I thought that everything
that they were doing I thought I needed to do as well and one of those things
was to write about issues of the day. Although I don't think the issues of my
day have never been quite as polarized as they were for them. The issues for my
day typically were much more unearthed and still are. I think that's what
drives a lot of people to have such a difficult time understanding.
Q: Could you peacfulfully protest about a cause like Pete
A: I had ideas that I wanted to do that. I don't think now
even I would mind doing it for Pete Seeger. You know if it was Pete Seeger.
It'd have to be Pete Seeger though. He's one of the only men right now that I
could truly trust that I'd probably feel very comfortable with any cause that
he's involved with.
Q: Was Shawn Mullins your first step with touring?
A: I think the first step with touring was really just
settling down finally after living on the road and living in Denver for a while
and then New York and then moving to Atlanta. And then deciding that I had gone
through another kind of transformation where I wanted to start playing with
other people. And once I started playing with Jeff and Allan and eventually Deb
and Eric we started going out the road. And so us going out on the road was
really our first experience of actually touring. But meeting Shawn Mullins, I
had met him when I first rolled into Atlanta as a folk singer with my harmonic
and stuff like that - the whole deal.
Q: I'm glad you clarified that. I wasn't quite sure what
your connection was with him. I thought maybe there was a trio of you.
A: No. No. Shawn was a friend really and he essentially let
me open for him. I was under age at the time and he was doing pretty okay as
Q: He's fabulous.
A: Yeah he is. He's fabulous. And then he, when he got
popular with lullabye, he and his wife wanted to keep SMG Records going, their
independent label, and we happened to be the first band that they signed. So it
was really nice.
Q: It must have been a rush.
A: Yeah. Of course. Exactly.
Q: Do you have any kind of remedies for writers block?
A: Yeah. My remedy for writer's block is - I'm actually very
- I'm one of those writers that tries to write every day. But my remedy for
writer's block, it's not successful typically. I especially have writer's block
in summertime so really, my only remedy is to read a lot. I take stories that
someone will start out. I figure what the artists surrealists used to call it
where they used to take a picture and they would fold the paper and they would
draw the picture and then someone else would finish the second sleeve and then
the picture. I do that sometimes with writing, especially with short stories,
I'll try to finish someone else's short story. And that's one of the ways that
I try to unblock. But I don't have any real remedies that have worked
completely for me. So, I'm waiting for one.
Q: Do you write a song that's going to be a big hit?
A: Yeah. I don't do that. That'll kill you. You know what,
unfortunately, it's a pretty fickle time and place in music so it's a very
difficult thing to not have that in the back of your head constantly put there,
but I try not to do it.
Q: Were you surprised when you they took the song Camera One
and made be the single?
A: I didn't know which song they wanted to use. I know that
Matter was one of them and I've Changed and they went with Camera One and
Gravity and that's great. To me, that's not really my decision, that's up to
Q: Was the song Matter a relationship story or despair?
A: Actually, I consider it, although I know songs are
subjective and they can be whatever anybody thinks they're about, I think of
Matter as being sort of the half-life of dreams. You know scientific half-life
of not dreams never really going away necessarily no matter what you
circumstance changes the reality, you can go on and go on and go on and never
manifest any part of your dreams. But for me, it's really about that half life.
It's about holding, regardless if you want to or don't want to, sometimes it
can be nightmare to hold on to dreams. But no, everybody has them and they
never seem to go away and they never really change that much. So that's sort of
what I was thinking about lot at the time I wrote it. But then, it's ambiguous.
It's not a very succinct idea.
Q: But you have experimented with different styles of music
A: Yeah. But I do try to branch out as much as I can
musically. So that can be easy and that can also be difficult. I come from rock
and I come from folk, so for me to experiment tends to be the mixture of either
one of those.
Q: Is that true Depeche Mode was one of the bands influenced
A: Well yeah. I think those bands were just bands that I
listened to as a teenager, but obviously the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Velvet
Underground and all those bands ....
Q: How does your song process begin?
A: Well, I write simultaneously a lot of times. I'll write
music, melodies and things like that, but I'll write lyrics also at the same
time; but I won't mix the two until I have a lot of melodies and I have a lot
of lyrics and then I'll start trying to see what lyrics might fit what melodies
and sometimes some melodies will just come to me as the lyrics come to me. But
typically, that's how I do it. I'll write a lot of melodies and then I'll put
the lyrics together.
Q: Do you dabble in poetry?
A: Yeah, I guess it is poetry in a way. I call it
songwriting. It's just the way I go about it, but I guess it's written like
poetry would be written because it's not written with a melody in mind.
Q: Why a song about Phil Oaks ?
A: I guess I would say to that I'm not cynical but perhaps
the music industry is and I think that with all of Phil's optimism and all of
Phil's ideals wrapped up into who he was as well as what he was presenting, it
would be a very difficult home to find for Phil in the music industry today as
well Bob Dylan as well as perhaps some of the artists that we've come to think
as legendary. I think it might even be a very hard home for David Bowie if he
were coming out today. I don't know that, but I think it probably would be.
Q: What do think about Folk music coming Back?
A: Well I am excited about the fact that Cold Play is out
there and I think the Brit Rock thing is really exciting and I think that that
could really help. Well I mean hopefully. Hopefully is like a pendulum - you
know eventually it has to swing another way and hopefully when it does it will
swing my way. And if it doesn't, then hopefully it will swing to someone in
some music that I like.
Q: Can you elaborate on the song Human ?
A: Sure. The idea of reminding ones self that you can't do
all of the things that your maybe even expected to do and not only that, that
you can't do all the things that you expect of yourself. Often times you just
have to remind yourself that you're not of some sort of subnatural form, that
you are just human and that you have to deal with in those confines of being
Q: So you basically started out in coffee houses?
A: I did. The streets actually. I started out playing on the
streets and then moving into coffee houses and playing the streets
simultaneously and then eventually just playing the clubs and stuff like that.
Q: People hear a song and someone will say who does that
sound like REM ?
A: Right sure. That's what I mean by it's being natural. I
think that I mean I'm a newcomer to music and to the music industry and REM has
been here for 15 - 20 years and to me it's a very natural process and also
music itself as a medium is a borrowed medium. I mean it borrows from itself
over and over. REM borrowed from folk music and the Byrds. I borrow from folk
music and Bob Dylan. The Byrds borrowed from Bob Dylan. Eventually, if you link
it all up, we all come from the same tree. I just happen to sound like him. If
I didn't sound like him it might not be such the natural link.
Q: That's why I started off our interview asking about the
words and the lyrics. I think it's the most important and especially you have a
really good voice.
A: Well thank you.
Q: And really great musicians that are backing you up. A:
Yeah yeah, they are good friends.
Q: You said your friends too?
A: Yeah. We've been a band for six years, so we've been
friends for just as long as we've been a band. So, it's really really good.
It's been a good experience. Sometimes I regret that our name is Josh Joplin
Group, it doesn't do the band justice. The band is much more important then the
Q: I understand you're from New York ?
A: I kind of from ... yeah. Really that's where I'm living
for the most. I've been on the road mostly now.
Q: I like the story where you were just playing the albums
from your grandmother and you said who is this guy?
A: Right. That's how I discovered Bob Dylan and how I
discovered Phil Oaks - all on the same night as a matter fact. It made my
experience in night life changing.
By Randy Cohen
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