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Joe Firstman talks "Treehouse" and more

Joe Firstman.jpg

Singer/songwriter Joe Firstman has done a lot in his almost 10-year career in music. He’s had a much buzzed about major label debut album, 2003’s The War of Women. He’s been the opening act for such heavyweight headliners as Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, and he even had a stint as a late night bandleader for Last Call With Carson Daly.

With a new live-in-the-studio album, Live at the Treehouse, out now and a solo acoustic tour in progress, what does the California-based tunesmith have to say about these and other topics?

Firstman checked in from a tour stop in Oxford, Miss., to provide the lowdown. So, you’ve got a lot happening right now with the new album and the tour. How has the tour been so far? How are the crowds?
Joe Firstman: “The tour’s been going good. We’re having a good time — almost too good of a time (laughs). The audiences are all good. We’ve been in these Southern towns, where it’s not like thousands of people, but plenty of folks coming out to see us. And it’s just me up there by myself with my acoustic guitar.”

The new album, which was recorded live in the studio, is almost all acoustic guitar and has none of the piano or full-scale band aspects that you featured on other albums. Was it a conscious decision to make this change?
Firstman: “It wasn’t even a decision. It’s just what was happening at the time. I was going from one tour onto the next thing and playing most of those tours with acoustic guitar. So when I got into the studio, I tried a few things out on piano. But it felt so right on guitar, and we started creating the songs, which flowed so nicely as acoustic-guitar based. I was just thinking that maybe I’ll play more piano on this next one, but it was flowing so great already in this direction, there was no need to jump back in and reinvent anything.”

The label you’re on now, Rock Ridge, has a solid and interesting roster of like-minded singer/songwriters. How did you land with them?
Firstman: “My friend Tony Lucca is with them, and we’ve been boys for a long time and after I got off Atlantic [Records]. I was releasing my own music, putting it out there myself, and I just didn’t give a damn about the business or talking to label people. I just wanted to go tour and do what I wanted to do and go surfing.
“So this guy called me from Rock Ridge and said, ‘Make whatever your want, however you want to make it, and we’ll put it out.’ And I was just like, ‘All right’ (laughs). So I make the records how, when and where I want to, and they come up with a game plan on out how to release it, so there’s not much to worry about.”

It is a nice roster that you’re a part of there with Lucca, as you mentioned, and another great artist in Ike Reilly, plus the added bonus of former Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams. Maybe he’ll let you try and strike him out at a company mixer one of these days.
Firstman: “I did play semi-pro baseball in Mexico. Yeah, maybe we’ll shag some flies and he can teach me some jazz guitar (laughs).”

Tell me a little bit about the early part of your career. The War of Women came out in 2003, and you were on some big tours. How did those tours prepare you to headline your own shows and put on your own tours. Was there any advice or tips you got from Willie Nelson or Sheryl Crow?
Firstman: “Those tours were just like, you walk in, and it’s not hard to get it together in your brain. These people have an incredible work ethic; they have innumerable talent, and it didn’t have to be Sheryl Crow coming up to me and saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, boy.’ You just watch the way she does it. She knew her whole staff really well, and she never yells at anyone — just really gracious and supportive of what I was doing.

“And [on] Willie Nelson’s tour, I was just trying to watch how those people, who’ve been doing it there whole lives, put it together and learn some things. So it was totally fluid at the time, and it wasn’t nerves because I felt like I was meant to be there. Those tours were rocking; I went out there to conquer the world. But that’s how we rolled back then — that’s how hard we played.”

From there, you landed the gig as bandleader for Last Call with Carson Daly. How was that experience?
Firstman: “You know, it was a trip. The weird thing was being in town all the time and being young with my buddies all out on tours. They would come back into L.A. and want to sit in with the band to jam, so we made it a cool thing. From a musical standpoint , aside from making a bit of money, I was able to get all my favorite musicians and some friends in there to play on the show. It was awesome playing with guys like Kenny Aronoff and Marc Ford and Steve Gorman from The Black Crowes. These guys were in my band, all playing my songs that I wrote that day, and we’re hanging out working on ideas that I might have worked out on piano that day before I came in. I never claim to be a virtuoso on piano or vocals, but I know how to write a song. And I always felt like I was respected, and those guys were excited to work with my material.”

Getting back to the new album, a live in studio album, what was the creative process behind putting that together?
Firstman: “I had 40 songs that I had been playing on all those tours, and I just went in and recorded them all. I knew that I had certain songs that were going to work better. I recorded everything; the medium just happened to be guitar because I felt like it was flowing real sweet, and the piano was just overly powerful. The live-ness of it meant you could just set the mikes up and just send it down the river. In listening to the record, I liked things like the little count-off before ‘Middle Ground’ because it’s recorded really live. You can hear the air blowing in the room, it’s so live.”

You’re right, and if we could have more artists working in that style — not just in the studio but in an actual show setting, where it’s loose but professional — I think music would be in a better place.
Firstman: “You bring up a good point. Can the artists sit down and play the song cleanly and sing it cleanly enough to be recording? No, only a small percentage can do it. So that’s why everyone has to get their stuff separated and things have to be beautifully mixed.

“A lot of guys at my level, this so-called underground level, go into the studio after they’ve been out their slinging it with their little box guitar, and it sounds like they’ve spent a $150,000. It should sound like what you’re doing on the road, and when you have the money to afford Bruce Springsteen‘s band, then you hire them. But until you get there, have it sound like you sound live.”

So should we expect a lot of rearranging of your other material from the previous albums in you live shows?
Firstman: “Yeah. I rearrange everything. It’s been a hindrance for me, but I try to play the song the way I feel at that time, on that night, with those people present. This way, everything is involved, like the microphones, the guitars — everything is put together to make the most spontaneous musical, unmanufactured moment I can.

“I like to take chances. I like jazz musicians and how they have their rugged individualism that allows them with all their practicing and crafting to just chuck it all out the door to make something that has no limitation.”

If you were afforded the opportunity to play a song on any artist’s tribute album, who would it be, and what song would you choose?
Firstman: “Maybe if some came to me with a Townes Van Zandt tribute record, I’d love to cover ‘Two Girls.’ I like that kind of stuff.”

And who would be playing the Joe Firstman tribute album? Who do you see doing you material justice?
Firstman: “I don’t know because I don’t keep up with the new guys too much. But I will say this: Whenever I see some kid trying out one of my songs on the Internet or even when I’m having a conversation with other songwriters, I’m totally mind-boggled by people who like my stuff and want to talk music with me. That’s a good enough payment for me. I work hard at writing songs, and I feel I’ve gotten pretty good at it. It’s what I’ve spent most of my life trying to do, so I’m always stoked when guys tell me they heard my stuff or they like what I do.”

— Introduction and interview by Mike Madden

Joe Firstman on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Aug. 23: Smith’s Olde Bar — Atlanta
* Aug. 24: The Social — Orlando, Fla.
* Aug. 25: Jack Rabbits — Jacksonville, Fla.
* Aug. 26: WorkPlay Theatre — Birmingham, Ala.
* Aug. 27, 28: The Windjammer — Isle of Palms, S.C.

Photo by Rob Shanahan