Jonathan Richman, the onetime frontman of The Modern Lovers and a longtime solo artist, has enjoyed a career that has thrived just under the mainstream, existing as a proto-punk icon and a road-worn troubadour. The key to Richman’s longevity, according to critic Sean L. Maloney, is his capacity to “keep showing up.” California singer-songwriter Rain Perry credits a similar drive to her success, but of course, there’s more to her longevity and accomplishments than merely the occasional appearance; there’s also making art that both satisfies her creative impulses and resonates with an audience, which includes fans and collaborators like Chuck Prophet, Ben Lee, and Victoria Williams.
Since 2000, Perry, 55, has released six full-length albums, each a dialed-in meditation on a theme. Cinderblock Bookshelves, for instance, chronicles a childhood that found her coming of age in the counterculture. (The album’s finale, “Beautiful Tree,” an honest, yet heartfelt critique of family ties, became the theme song for the CW’s Life Unexpected.) Let’s Be Brave, Perry’s 2019 response to the devastation caused by wildfires, explores loss, resiliency, and triumph.
Her latest, A White Album, arrives in an era divided by partisanship, mistrust, and one-sided conversations. It’s an album that looks to facilitate honest conversations about race, complacency, and complicity, a dialogue that Perry hopes will ultimately foster empathy and healing.
Did you have any trepidation calling your record A White Album? The Beatles reference is inescapable.
That was deliberate. I was hoping that it would get attention because of the link, actually. I did do a little research to make sure that there was nothing illegal about using the title. And it’s not. The Beatles’ record is actually called The Beatles– people just refer to it as The White Album, but also it was deliberate because I’m not making the white album; I’m not making the record about being white. I’m just talking about my own story, my own family. That’s why it’s called A White Album.
What difficulties did you face in writing about whiteness? Did you have in mind, perhaps, your own complicity or complacency? I’m thinking of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
Complicity and complacency are good ways of looking at it. I think your question touches on the bigger question, which is in much of the conversation that we have about racism and structural inequality in this country. It comes down to a question, “Am I racist, or am I not racist?” People are trying to decide who’s racist and whether they are or they aren’t. I don’t think that’s the most useful way of looking at it because we all grew up in this culture. When I was a kid, I got bombarded with all those same movies and ads that reflected a world back to me that I was the center of by being white. Personally, I am on a quest to figure out, to always stay humble in the face of all the things that I haven’t recognized about myself and my life.
Complacency, I think, is the real problem. I think we all need to question ourselves, even those of us who perceive ourselves as not racist, but I also think that for people, no one wants to be– well, there are some people who want to be perceived as racist– but most people don’t, and so given a question, “Are you are, or aren’t you?” they’ll say they’re not, but I think that we can actually get somewhere if we have the conversation in a different way. If we talked about “How are we?” or “How am I making assumptions about people because of their race?” for example.
Do you think these types of conversations are a recent phenomenon? I’m not sure we were having them as openly 10-15 years ago…
Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely become more in the forefront, and I think, for me, anyway, being white, there was a lot of stuff I never thought about because I never was forced to think about it before. For example, there’s a song called “The Money” on the record about the real estate practice of redlining. I knew nothing about that. I did not understand the ways in which the housing policies of the past continue to perpetuate wealth inequality. Once you learn how systemic some of these things have been and continue to be, you can’t help but engage. I know more now than I knew five years
A White Album is hyper-political. Do you think that it’s the artist’s duty to address their concerns?
I think that art can do a lot of things, and I think that’s one of the things that it can do really, really well. If you’re the kind of artist that engages with that stuff, I think you should. I think music can also just be something fun. It’s okay to listen to music to just have a party. But I do think with art, that’s its job. There’s something so effective about hearing a song that highlights an issue. I really am moved by songs that tell a personal story that touches on a bigger issue. Some of the great songs of the ’70s come to mind, like Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” which is so specific about his personal experience and observations. It helps me understand the bigger issue.
I wanted to talk about your creative process, especially after listening to your song “So You’re the Muse” where you’re wrestling with inspiration. Has your relationship with the muse changed as you’ve gotten older? Do you think people become less creative as they grow older?
I don’t think people get less creative– I think that they get busier. I’m guessing that when you were younger, you put more time into being creative, and as you got older, you had to make a living and all the stuff that grown-ups have to do. I teach songwriting classes, and a lot of my students are people who were maybe in a band in high school, and I get a lot of people who have just retired, and now they want to put the time into it because they can.
So I actually think that creativity has more to do with how much time you give it. For my process, when I wrote that song, “So You’re the Muse”, I had little kids at home, and it was really hard to carve out the time to write songs. It always felt like a battle, and in that song, I’m talking to the Muse, and I’m like, “Work with me here!” (Laughs) Now, I’ve learned as time has gone on, I’ve gotten more efficient, and I’ve learned what I personally need in order to be creative. I get ideas all the time, and I make sure I jot them down and save them someplace. But if I need to really work on something, I’ve learned that I have to go away for a couple of days. I lock myself in a boring motel room somewhere to get away from my life and just do it for like 18 hours a day– that works for me. Throughout the process of writing this record, I did that several times just because it’s the only way I can really follow a thought all the way through and get in that kind of super-creative state of mind. Doing it in the middle of my regular day at home, it’s just not the same.
How do you account for the change of tone with this record? It’s more politically charged than anything you’ve done.
I started writing it towards the beginning of the pandemic. I had that thought that I think a lot of people had, which was, “If I’m locked down, I might as well make use of it and write something.” I was stuck for a while, but that was at the same time so much of the Black Lives Matter protests were happening and at the forefront on the news. I’m pretty involved politically; I’m pretty politically active, so it was very much on my mind. I could never say exactly why one topic comes out on a record. My last record had a lot to do with loss because there was a big brush fire where I live, and I had lost my music studio– my house survived, unlike quite a few of my neighbors– but my music studio burned up, so the previous record had a lot to do with that, metaphorically and literally. This record just came out of the time that I started writing it, really. [The BLM movement] was just so in the forefront when I was writing.
Yeah, James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I really, really think that we have such great potential here and so much going for us. And yet we’re so at odds with each other. If we could figure out how to be on the same page… I am very sad about some of the directions that this country has taken in terms of the way racism and our internal divisions have flared up so much. That makes me really sad. I’m nervous because of what happened with the insurrection and what’s coming next and all that.
But part of my motivation with this project is to try to talk about it. I think one of the biggest problems is that [both sides] decided that we can’t talk about race, and we can’t talk about one of the major things that divide us without screaming at each other. I want to do what I can do to try another approach, which is, “Let’s talk about it.” Let’s talk about it with an open heart and not get so defensive and not so judgmental and find a way to find a way.
“What’s Wrong With You?” deals with your frustrations with people calling the police on minorities who are just doing everyday activities, like hanging out in the park. Was writing that song a cathartic experience? Are you that angry a good deal of the time?
Not every moment. But yeah, when I see those stories of usually white women, I’m angry at them because I know how much damage they’re causing. I’m embarrassed to be part of the same group– and I’m mystified about what do you do about somebody like that? I think it comes down to the idea of implicit bias, which is what happens when we’re not thinking. In many of these situations, looking from the outside, you’re like, “You’re not threatened. Why are you calling the police?” And for some reason, they think that they’re threatened enough that they have to call the police. Why that is and how you get people to take a breath and go, “Wait a minute– I’m not under threat here. I’m actually the one who’s being threatening,” I don’t know how you do it. That [frustration] comes out in the song, so yes, I am that angry, but not every minute of the day.
I think it’s interesting how you don’t let the older generations off the hook. In “What’s Wrong With You?” you chastise the person calling the police, singing that she was raised better than that, but you take that back immediately, saying she probably wasn’t. And in “Melody & Jack” and “The Money”, you discuss your grandparents’ shortcomings…
I think it’s important to recognize that people are a product of their time and what they know then. Those same two grandparents that I’m talking about were actually the ones who got me to read Obama’s autobiography. They went all in for Barack Obama long before anybody else I knew. They grew, and they evolved. I think part of it is recognizing that the way that somebody that you love looked at things in the past was something they don’t agree with anymore, but I think it’s also really important to say, “I now know something that I didn’t use to know when I was younger,” or “I now see that this is hurtful, and I didn’t use to even understand it.”
There’s a really great essay about that– have you ever read Tom Petty’s interview in Rolling Stone where he talks about using the Confederate flag on stage?
I don’t think so, but I just finished a 33 1/3 book written by Michael Washburn about Southern Accents that discusses that issue in depth…
In the interview, he talks about the decision to use it and how quickly he regretted it. Then he talks about what the flag meant to him when he was a kid. To him, it was just local pride, but he blames himself. He’s like, “If I had just thought for one more minute, if I had taken that thought just a little bit further, I would have seen just how hurtful it was to the people around me that I cared about.”
I hope on the record that I’m also holding myself to account. But I also think– and this is the challenging thing for people who so desperately want things to change– is that you have to meet people where they are. If they’re making an honest effort to learn and grow, but they still have attitudes or ideas that you find disturbing, you can either write them off, or you can engage in a conversation with them. That’s something I’m trying really hard to do with this project, which is going to be a theatrical performance as well. I’m developing it, and that’s going to be later this year, probably.
I want to be able to bring people in who don’t already agree with me a hundred percent. To do that, you have to have an open heart to people who you disagree with while being very clear about what you think is right and wrong. That’s a challenging line to walk, and it’s something I’m trying to do.
Did writing Cinderblock Bookshelves, which focuses on your growing up in the counterculture, make it easier to write about your family, to talk about them publicly?
Yeah, for sure. That was the project where I really did it for the first time, and I don’t know if you know, but there’s a theatrical version, which also exists as a podcast. I was intimidated to write such personal stuff. My dad had passed away, so it was a lot easier to write about him than if he were alive and getting mad at me or defensive. My friend, who’s a photographer, said, “Say the things that are true for you. Your family’s going to get over it. If you don’t say it, you will have never said it, but either way your family will still love you.” I was like, “Wow, okay!”
I really did find in writing and performing that play that people really saw themselves in it. By me saying the stuff that was challenging and difficult about my own family and my own life, people didn’t judge me like I thought they would. They saw themselves.
A lot of Cinderblocks and A White Album interrogate the American Dream. The song “Indian Hill, Ohio, 1967” comes to mind. Is that song based on a real event?
That is where my dad grew up. My mom grew up in California. She came from kind of lower-middle-class working folks. Her grandfather was a miner, and her dad worked for IBM. That was my mom’s side of the family. My dad came from a wealthy family. He was born in Boston, and he grew up in Indian Hill, which is one of the most exclusive communities in the country. It’s very wealthy. My dad was born and raised there. Then his parents died, and he blew through his inheritance very quickly and raised me as a broke hippie, but that’s where he came from.
That song is really true, that image of the city burning while this person is sitting there in their perfect, beautiful surroundings. Some of the Cincinnati riots happened in ’67. I was talking to my aunt recently about remembering hearing her dad and his friends talking about what to do about the riots, trying to get the police to blockade the road to protect their perfect, wealthy life. So yeah, it was real.
How was the American Dream pitched to you when you were growing up?
Oh, wow! It’s interesting because I was raised by my dad from the time I was 7, and my dad was a counterculture kind of a guy. For him, the American Dream was a lie. It was what his dad wanted him to do– go work for Proctor & Gamble and be a company man. My dad was rejecting that to be an artist and live a different, Bohemian life. So the American Dream to me seemed like something that was a part of the system, of “the man”. I grew up thinking that I was somehow above that or that I should judge that, wanting the American Dream, having a house and two cars, and all that. That was my point of reference growing up– to be opposed to what I thought it was.
You’ve seen both sides of the counterculture. Are there positives that you would take and apply to the world at large today?
Well, I think the positive aspects of the counterculture were the idea of honoring your quest to become a fully, actualized person, honoring being creative, and questioning experts. There’s a lot of stuff that my dad and his peers were into when I was a kid that have become mainstream now, like yoga and health food, patient’s rights, not just trusting what a doctor tells you.
But the dark side of the counterculture, I think we’re seeing some of that in QAnon and stuff like that, which is questioning everything to the point where you don’t trust any of the institutions anymore. You don’t even trust that we share the same set of facts. That is taking those ideas too far, to the point that I think it threatens our fabric as a society. But it’s easy for me to judge the counterculture because it’s my people– my name is “Rain”, after all. I grew up amongst the naked hippies, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s really good about the way I grew up that I take for granted. But like anything, it can be too much in the extreme.
Let’s talk about your song “The Money.” You take the Berry Gordy original and turn it on its head…
“The best things in life are free!” (Laughs) I had this conversation with a friend of mine from high school who teaches history in Oakland, and somehow we got to talking about redlining. She explained to me what it was, and I had never heard of it. Somehow, when I was working on the songs for this record, the idea of writing a funky ditty about real estate law, with three-part harmony, kind of like a silly love song… I don’t know why that came out, but it did.
I think that it was part of my efforts to bring these big concepts into something personal that I could relate to, and hopefully, other people could relate to the idea– some of its poetic license– but the idea that all our grandfather’s taught us that if you work hard and save, you can have the American Dream and realizing and learning that idea was actually not true– you could work hard and save and do all those things, but if you were black, you couldn’t buy a house in the same neighborhoods, and the house that you bought wouldn’t appreciate. For me, it came out as a way of addressing how you have to rethink things once you get new information, like, “Oh, I see. This isn’t just a question of working hard.”
I appreciate the message because I’ve always been inundated by wealthy friends, coworkers, higher-up types who are content to tell us, “You know, money can’t buy happiness,” or “Money isn’t the most important thing; it’s actually…”
It’s always easy to say it’s not about money if you have money. If you don’t have money, it’s always about money.
Yes! The ridiculous things that couples fight about or people come to blows over when they have no money… Changing direction a bit, what about the production, the synthesizer? I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.
Ah, great! I love it! I have to give credit for all those great arrangement ideas to Mark Hallman, my producer. The way we work is I write the songs in my head. Then I make these crappy iPad GarageBand demos where I give an idea of what the drums and bass should be doing, what the rhythm guitar should be doing. I give the very bare-bones idea of what it should be, and then he just takes that and makes it bloom. He thinks of the most interesting, weird parts, and that’s one of them.
What was the inspiration for the rap that you drop in the middle? It’s educational, and not at all heavy-handed…
I’m so glad it came out that way. I can’t tell you; it just came to me. When I originally wrote it, I was thinking of it more as a play with different characters, different people playing different characters. And when I originally wrote it, I pictured it as a conversation between two friends, and one of them was white and one of them was black. The white person is the one who sang something like, “If you work hard, you’ll have the American Dream,” all that stuff, and the black friend saying, “Okay, I’ve got to give you a history lesson here.” But that didn’t really gel. I started thinking about how it’s not really any black friend’s job to educate me, to take their time to educate me about this. It’s my job to do my own research, and there’s plenty of resources out there for me to learn. I ended up rewriting it as me talking about my own grandfather, and that worked better.
You close with “This Is Water.” Is that a reference to David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College?
Yeah, which I love. I just love it, and I was looking at different metaphorical ways of talking about how to understand seeing– to use a really tired term– white privilege when you haven’t seen it before. That essay came to my mind. In the essay, he’s talking more about seeing the life that you live, being awake and aware to what’s going on around you. But it seems perfect to just push it a little in a direction, to see the privileges you have, the things you’re able to do that you don’t see when you’re born into it. You’re just swimming around in it.
Here’s a perfect example of that: I was at this ZOOM meeting because I’m on the board of a local art organization. It was a diversity, equity, and inclusion training. There were people from lots of different organizations who had gathered in this big ZOOM. One of the organizations was oriented to expanding access to hiking trails in Southern California. Their plans were that they had bilingual signage as part of their outreach. Somebody asked, “Do buses stop near your trailheads?” They hadn’t thought of the fact that for a lot of communities, they weren’t going to have access to these hiking trails because a lot of people didn’t have a car. The other one was about personal safety, and they were like, “Well, we have good signs, and it’s lighted,” and this two weeks after Ahmaud Arbery was shot while jogging. It hadn’t occurred to these very well-meaning folks that a solo jogger of color might really not be safe at home in these trails if somebody from my white lady song [“What’s Wrong with You?”] feels threatened by them.
It was something to watch– it blew their minds to think about this in a way that hadn’t occurred to them before. I’ve had so many personal experiences of that, like my conversation about redlining with my friend, so “This Is Water” became the perfect metaphor for that.
That’s a wonderful extension of his idea.
Ha! I love how much depth of research you have here for all this stuff. It’s great (laughs)
We look to art to change us in some way. How did making this record change you?
I think the number one thing that it’s done- -making the record and talking about the record with people– is making me clarify in my own mind how I think we might effectively talk about these issues. When I was working on it, every time I talked to white people about it, generally, people were supportive. They’re like, “Oh, that’s great; it’s really necessary.” And then often people got defensive, and I’ve had to deal with my own defensiveness plenty of times during the process of making this where I thought it was saying something clearly, and it turns out that I was not.
Making the record has made me go through the process and continue to go through the process that I hope people will go through listening to it, which is to look honestly and non-defensively, or at least with an open heart at their own assumptions.
You mentioned a few minutes ago that you plan to dramatize A White Album?
Cinderblock Bookshelves was a one-woman show, one woman with a guitar player, and I toured it for a year, sort of limited touring in the West coast mostly, gosh, maybe ten, fifteen years ago? This is going to be similar. I’m not quite sure exactly what the staging is going to be or where. Everything’s still up in the air about how you even do live performances with COVID. But my plan is to take it on the road nationally later this year and next year.
How do you make that leap from a record to a stage show?
When I wrote Cinderblock Bookshelves, I wrote songs and prose all at the same time, like a 400-page manuscript about my childhood. We honed that down into an 80-minute play, my director Kim Maxwell and I did. In this case, I’m more writing pieces that go in between the songs, too. For example, you asked about Indian Hill Club– I have this whole sequence about the history of Indian Hill and what came before my dad and his family, and before that, and who were the Indians of Indian Hill, and what was going on with them before the white people came, and trying to weave it into kind of a… I don’t know if you’ve heard of that play What the Constitution Means to Me?
It’s a whole piece about the Constitution and the ways in which [playwright Heidi Schreck’s] own personal life has been affected by things in the Constitution. What I’m seeing this play being is a combination of that– my own personal story crossed with Stop Making Sense. (Laughs) If I can pull it off, that would be my number one goal. We’ll see how that works, logistically and budget-wise. But if not, I’m going to do some kind of multimedia hybrid. I know that in order to get people to think about this stuff, it has to be entertaining, you know, it just has to be. I’m hoping to make a show that people will really want to see and find fun in a way to deal with some stuff that’s hard.
In the song “Cinderblock Bookshelves”, you mention your dad’s bookshelves full of Sam Shepard books? Is he an influence on you as well? With something like Motel Chronicles, he’s combining prose and poems…
Oh, yeah! My dad was obsessed with him!
He’s a national treasure!
I saw several of his plays when I was a kid. In fact, it’s interesting that you ask that because he was a very multimedia kind of a guy, between being a poet and playwright and actor. And yeah, I do find that inspiring. I like the idea that you don’t have to be one thing. I didn’t intend to be a filmmaker, and then I made a documentary about the music business [The Shopkeeper]. I like trying on different media to tell whatever I’m trying to tell.
To what do you owe your success and longevity as an indie artist? You’ve accomplished so many things on your own terms. How is that possible?
I’ve stuck with it. I mean, honestly, more than anything else, I just keep doing it. Also, I think that I have a good sense of who’s good to collaborate with. I have wonderful people that I’ve worked with, particularly three: my producer Mark– this is our 5th record together, and we’re really a team; these records are as much him as they are me; I have a wonderful husband who totally supports me in doing it; and then I have my director, Kim Maxwell, who’s a big part of my artistic life.
I have people who I really depend on to work with, but also I just have always been inspired to just keep pushing it. There was a certain point, maybe a couple of records ago, where I was like, “Where is this going?” Then you reach a point where you realize, “Oh, I’m not trying to figure out how to have a career anymore. This is my career. This is what it looks like.” It’s been better since I’ve reached that place where I realize it’s a weird career, it’s not following any normal trajectory, but it’s mine, and it reflects who I am and what I’m interested in doing, and I’ve embraced that.