Peter Link: The BLUERAILROAD Interview
Bluerailroad sits down with the founder of Watchfire Music
To Discuss the Remarkable Album Goin’ Home.
By PAUL ZOLLO
Tony-nominated composer Peter Link is a man of many accomplishments, including his great work as longtime composer-in-residence for the great Joe Pass series of NYC Shakespeare Festival productions. Lately he’s been making waves while running Watchfire Music with a remarkable album, Going Home, a song cycle on the subject of death and eternal life that has sparked a lot of attention.
Watchfire Music puts out inspirational recorded music as well as sheet-music for inspirational songs for choirs and singers to perform on their own. Goin’ Home is but one of many inspirational records created within the fold of Watchfire. As glowingly reviewed here in these pages and elsewhere, it’s a phenomenal celebration of life really, more than death itself – but within this cycle there exists an elegant and inspirational acceptance of death, and ways by which we can realize a true acceptance of death. It’s an album which crystallizes the idea that death is not the end, but a birth into the beyond.
“I started writing an album about death,” said Link, “and wrote an album about eternal life.”
Bravely creating a whole song cycle on a subject that few, with the exception of Lou Reed and Jacques Brel, have approached so fully, he’s created a remarkable exploration of human finality, reflecting musically the full gamut of emotion experienced by those approaching death and those caring for and ultimately losing loved ones. There are sad songs here and joyful ones, and it’s in that span of emotion that the genuine experience of death comes alive. This is not an easy road to walk, but Link’s songs and spirit go a long way in making you feel less lonely walking it. Mr. Link has an evident love of the human voice – as throughout this album there’s a veritable profusion of wonderful lead and harmony singing – created by surrounding himself with some of New York’s greatest singers. He’s built his own choir for this undertaking – and it’s a great one, featuring singers who are all astounding on their own: Angela Clemmons, Margaret Dorn, Vaneese Thomas, Jenny Burton, Catherine Russell, Keith Fluitt, Darryl Tookes, John James, and Kevin Osborne.
We spoke with Peter over the phone from the Manhattan studio of Watchfire. Although he doesn’t claim to have discovered all the answers, his faith, he said, was renewed by the process of making this record:
“This one thing I do know, however: The purpose of this album is to open our eyes to the timelessness of our future. After all, isn’t that what the basis of Heaven is all about? Moving on. No endings – only new beginnings.”
BLUERAILROAD: Your first recognition came from your time working with Joe Pass doing the Shakespeare festival in New York, which sounds like it was amazing.
PETER LINK: It was. We did Much Ado About Nothing which starred Sam Waterston, and was the longest running Shakespeare ever on Broadway. It was a great, great experience. Directed by a young director, A.J. Antoon, who was a genius, and had a tremendous ride in the theater. As you must know, my generation of theater people were just wiped out by AIDS. I lost over 100 friends to AIDS. Designers, directors, choreographers, of course actors and dancers. It just wiped out a generation of Broadway. And I think that is one of the problems of Broadway today. I became the turn-to guy on Broadway when you had a play that you wanted to score like a movie. It was a style they got into, and I think they got into it because I was doing it a lot with the Shakespeare festival. I was composer-in-residence there. It was an incredible time for me, and a real learning time. I was in my mid-twenties, early thirties – and a composer working in the theater is very fortunate if he can get a show on every three to five years. And in the five years that I was composer in residence at the Shakespeare festival, I did music for over forty productions. Great learning experience. I did avant garde music and I did music that was pop at the time. Russian music, Greek music, just a fantastic learning experience for me. There were times I was bouncing around from theater to theater because the public theater in New York has ten theaters in it. Sometimes it was just a cue, sometimes it was a full range of music. So we got into a lot of underscoring, and for both Much Ado about Nothing and Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, there was over an hour and a half of music that ran through it. So they didn’t know where to put me [in Tony nominations], so they put me in as Best Composer with people like Stephen Sondheim and people like that. And for both shows, I did write some songs, but they were really plays with music.
I wasn’t aware of how many friends you lost, though I do know how the ranks of New York theater was decimated. Was that part of the impetus for Goin’ Home?
Part of it, yeah. I lived through an epidemic. I was never concerned about AIDS for me because I am straight, and 95% of the friends I lost were gay men. But going through a lifetime and losing so many of your friends, it makes you look at death and look hard at it. We used to say with AIDS that when someone became HIV positive, that’s when the mourning took place. And when they died, it was a relief. It was “Thank goodness they don’t have to deal with that anymore.” I have been at the bedside of ten, fifteen guys when they left. I saw a lot of that. Because of my own particular look at this passing, I was a good person to have at a bedside because I was pretty positive and encouraging, and I didn’t see death as death, as the end.
That message comes through in Goin’ Home.
What got me going in this is that I woke up one morning, thinking about life. And I realized I had already lived more years than I will live. Based on averages, right? We Americans, we ignore death. We put it in the backseat and don’t want to deal with it. I think I would maybe take a more Eastern approach to it. I have always said that if I was gonna die, I’d like to go out on acid. [Laughs] It’s a very different mindset. Those trips I took were very fascinating. I didn’t take acid and go to parties. It was a spiritual search for me. I would often think that on that drug it would be a very interesting way to go out. And once I had a family I stopped that drug. I stopped all drugs. Because it’s chancy and I don’t wanna gamble with my life, with a family. I would not want to die in my sleep. I want to be wide awake. I hope it would not be a painful experience, because that would take the intrigue out of it, right? Fighting with pain. There is part of me that looks forward to the trip. It will be a fascinating time. I am fascinated with what comes next. So when I first started working on this album, I would joke that I am doing an album about my death. And the reason I chose to do an album about it is I thought what better way to take a real good face to face look at this experience than to write music about it? Because that is the way I think, and the way I live.
Were you thinking at the start this would be an entire song cycle about death?
In the beginning, I was thinking maybe you ought to take look at death in musical terms. Then I thought, oh gosh, what a morbid album that will be. But I don’t feel morbid about it. It’s the Western culture to ignore death, to ignore that transition and I thought I could bring a light to it, and certainly music brings a light to it. I would joke and say this is an album about my death and my wife Julie would roll her eyes and say why do you say that? She didn’t like that, which was understandable.
Then about a year into writing this I realized, this isn’t an album about death. This is about life eternal. I took three or four songs out cause they were too much about endings. I wanted to bring a Gospel feeling to it but I didn’t want to get stuck in Gospel. I have a group of people I have worked with for many years , a lot of the studio singers I have worked with and through the Jenny Burton Experience. I have really gotten connected with the top studio singers in New York. We’re worked together for years and we’re all friends so I felt this would be a great experience to have. Once I had that understanding, the album opened up for me and I saw what it was about and got a very clear insight all the way to the end of it.
It’s an album very comforting for people going through a death – both for the person dying, but also for those at the bedside. Was that part of the original intention, to provide that?
To a small extent, yes. It was a way of saying to look at this. But I have to admit that I would often think this as more of an album for older people than younger people. And sometimes I would think are you writing an album for people who won’t buy it? But people in their 50s now grew up on rock and roll. Older people are open to this kind of communication, through Gospel and Pop. That didn’t bother me. As it turned out, in truth, I wrote an album for everybody. I got a letter from a guy who was 14-years old and he said he wanted to thank me, his grandfather died, and this album got him through it. Got one from a 16-year old girl who said her best friend committed suicide and she went up to her room and listened to this album for a week, solidly, and she said it helped her through it. I have been getting such amazing response, so much.
I’m not surprised, because all of us at some age have to deal with losing someone. And having to digest the lost of someone who is not old from your life, that is a challenge.
I think everyone on earth is dealing with the loss of someone in their life right now. Look at Aurora, Colorado. Look at the impact of that.
What was the first piece you wrote for this?
I knew right away I wanted to do “In That Great Gettin Up Morning.” That’s a classic Gospel song and I have loved that song for decades. I’d heard it in church. What I wanted to do was take that pretty straight-ahead song and flesh it out classically. And that was the fun of doing that with Margaret [Dorn].
Lovely trumpet on that by Barry Danielian.
That was a fun session. It was a 16-bar solo and I wrote the first quarter of it. And I figured that was all I would write because this is a guy who played with Tower of Power. He came in and saw him the first four bars and he liked it – and I said just take it up and out. He knocked that thing out in about ten takes. I felt it had it in three takes but he kept wanting to do it again. He had that kind of energy.
The album is about death but it starts with a very joyful track.
The second song is “To My Father’s House.” That was on the O Happy Day album back in the day. I loved that. That was probably the first number one Pop Gospel song on the Billboard charts ever. That song “To My Father’s House” has always been one of my all-time favorite Gospel songs. And it’s never been done. It was one of those ones in church where the drums are all echoes in the back and the choir is a little flat here and there, but it just had such a great energy. I thought it would be nice to bring that back, and it fit well. I was also very into working on “Saints.” Researching it and understanding where it came from, which was fascinating. I wrote a first part for it. The idea was that Julia [Wade, singer and the composer’s wife] could be a reporter standing up next to a road, and the road was heaven’s highway. And you’re the on-the-spot reporter saying here they come down the street. That was fun to write and bring in that completely transdenominational concept of “When The Saints Come Marching In.”
I didn’t even know of all the other religions that have saints. I Googled Saints for about a week and I came up with a list of about 150 saints from so many religions. And some rang so musical to me, I used those. I would love to do a video with a cast of thousands at the side of the roads of heaven with all the saints marching by like a New Orleans funeral into the gates of heaven. That would be fun. I’m not much of a believer of the gates of heaven and St. Peter sitting there, but that’s the iconic image that can be used.
You obviously have a love of great vocalists.
For 15 years I was the number one call on the east coast for big industrial shows. Did things for Apple, General Motors. Produced a lot of live music around the country. I had choirs in most of the major entertainment cities in America. I could pull in from church choirs for these. And very often Jenny [Burton] would come from New York and join a choir, and I would write a big opening song. So I had great budgets to work with. In those 15 years I wrote a song or two every week for these shows. Because I had big budgets to do these things, I had the opportunity to hire the cream of the crop in New York to do background parts. I got to know all these people and be friends. We created the Jenny Burton Experience as a choir for her show. When I do background vocals, I like to use usually three singers and then triple-track them. That gives it a sound that I like. What we did with the Jenny Burton Experience was to hire nine singers, a triple-track sound behind her. That was the show she did at one of New York City’s hottest clubs, Don’t Tell Mama, which ran for seven years and sold out every Thursday night. It was a great, great play. Working with those people – three quarters of which were African American – we had a Gospel, non-Christian music. If you were Atheist, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever – you could enjoy the show.
That was the preface for Goin’ Home. We did a lot of powerful singing . Through attending church with Jenny a lot I was able to get deeply into Gospel music in a way that most white guys don’t usually get to do.
That comes across. Also Gospel seems to suit the subject so well, and can handle heavy matters. And the joyful nature of Gospel provides real comfort.
That’s exactly right. I couldn’t have said it any better.
I love Tom Tipton’s singing and spirit here.
The song “Goin’ Home” I had produced on the best of Tom Tipton’s album. And he just killed me when he did that song. Tom recorded “Going Home” when he was 74 years old, four years ago. “Going Home” is a song to music by Anton Dvorak. It was a song Tom had sung his whole life but had never recorded it. He came into the studio that day and did that song. And he knocked my socks off.
He is a wonderful singer and a great, wonderful man. I love Tom. He is a true artist. When he was a little boy he lived in Washington DC and used to shine shoes in front of the White House. Everyday he would go over there with his shoe-shine kit and shine shoes because in those days you had to have a good shine on your shoes, right? And he always dreamed of going in the White House. And he ended up singing for four different presidents.
What led to writing “I Can’t Go Home”?
I thought this is the perfect song for the Goin’ Home album. I wanted to write about all the aspects of this transition. I had written about the joys of anticipation of death. One day it came to me that I am not ready. Even when writing this album sometimes people would get nervous and ask me if I was sick. So it made sense to write a song that says one day I’ll do this, but right now I can’t go home. Then I found this song from Julie Gold, “Come To Me As A Bird.” We loved the song and one day I was listening to it, and I thought it was the perfect closer. When I heard it, I thought of Julia after I’m gone wishing I would come and make a visit. I thought I could write a coda for it and really set that song up. Remember I come from the theater, so I always have a bit of a story to tell. Even if that story is only understood by me. There’s still a through-line to the way I think. So I look at the idea of “What Could Have Been” and that is the song that sets up “Come To Me As A Bird.” So those two songs are about missing. Mourning. I deeply value mourning. It is very important. Those are the mourning songs.
Talking about great theatrical language, echoing Sondheim, I love the lines, “the primitive and complex of you/the cavity and convex of you…” It’s like Cole Porter.
That was me saying I am really gonna miss your body. [Laughs] So much of the lyrics today are so sexually blatant. I think it’s a sad turn for music. The craft of lyric writing diminished and has in fact become dirty. It’s just so sad to me. I think Rap has done a disservice to lyric writing.
But I think now, more than ever, when someone hears a perfect line like that which is metered and rhymed – it is especially appreciated. In the context of such awful stuff.I’m a throwback lyricist. I deeply believe in rhymes than rhyme.
I met you through my dear friend Steve Schalchlin, the famous songwriter- raconteur. We worked closely together at the National Academy of Songwriters for years. And when he got HIV we assumed it was a death sentence. And remarkably, he survived – and to write amazing songs and shows such as “The Last Session.” I have proudly collaborated with him on a few songs.
I love his company “In The Bonus Round.” He was one of our interns. Though more than an intern because he is a very bright, thoughtful guy. He came over here every day for six months and worked for Watchfire for nothing because he believed in what we are doing. Now he’s a composer on our site and we are selling his sheet music. I have worked with him on four or five of his songs. Now he’s off doing other things but I am going to keep working with him.
There is a very joyful message in this album – has the response reflected that?
Absolutely. You do an album and if you get a 10% response from people who buy it, that is huge. It feels like I have gotten a 60% response to this. The letters have poured in. I get two or three letters almost every day thanking me for doing this. People talking about death, a family member’s death, a friend’s, their own passing. So I feel we have been able to accomplish something here besides making people dance. [Laughs]
There’s precious few other albums that fill this space.
There are a lot of websites that deal with grief and how to handle it, so we will reach out and make ourselves available to people.
When this album came out, my friend Mandi Martin, a beloved figure on the L.A. songwriting scene, had just gone through a sad battle with cancer death surrounded by the music community here. And this album made a difference to me going through it.
Your experience was so timely for all of us. For a critic to come in and listen to this album at a time when they were going through this, the way I look at that whole experience with you was that God knew what he was doing. The personal touch has reached out and touched a lot of people.
Peter Link runs Watchfire Music, which puts out inspirational recorded music as well as sheet-music for inspirational songs for choirs and singers to perform on their own. Goin’ Home is but one of many inspirational records created within the fold of Watchfire.