Joe Firstman – RAG Interview

Joe Firstman was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina… moved to Los Angeles, California…making a name for himself playing in clubs…signed a record deal with Atlantic Records…opening up tours for Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Willie Nelson all by the age of 23. He is currently touring clubs around the country with a band consisting of Dee Gernile (guitar/vocals), Dave Yaden (keys/vocals), Mike Miley (drums), and Darwin (Double Down) Johnson (bass/vocals). Joes’ first cd entitled “Wives Tales” was inspired by memories from his past while his latest release “The War Of Women” draws from present day experience. Joe Firstman is in a category of very few songwriters, including Jim Steinman, Bernie Taupin… that can tell a story with a song that comes to life in your head and leaves you wanting to see the next scene. With the current “Now You’re Gorgeous, Now You’re Gone” receiving massive air play and climbing up the charts, this songwriter will be a major player for years to come.


Wives Tales (2003) ♦ The War Of Women (2003)

Rhythm, Art & Groove- How’s the tour going so far?

Joe Firstman- The tour is going very well. It’s basically the first time we’ve done any extended number of dates by ourselves. We’ve gotten really lucky with the opening gigs that we’ve done. But…it was time that we got out there and headlined shows. You know, whether it be 25 people that show up, at least they were here to see me. And…it’s a little easier…less of trying to impress everyone and more of trying to be a piano player.

RAG- How old were you when you started to play the piano?

JF- Forever…as soon as I could crawl up the piano. I’ve never taken any lessons. I’m kicking myself now. I’d love to be classically trained. It would make everything easier. But you know…I’m still learning everyday. I was more interested in trying to figure out how to play Billy Joel songs. But as early as I could man, I was up there playin’.

RAG-What were some of the bands that you’ve played in?

JF- I did some stuff in high school. Just crap bands…just trying to figure out what kind of music I wanted to make. I tried to figure out how to play…how to conduct a band…how to sing night in and night out…all the little things. But…it was all crap until I got to L.A. Then I started really getting into Jackson Browne, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, the 70’s stuff. That’s when I realized what kind of songs I wanted to write. I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off. I found an original sound that I was going to “attempt” to create, which I think we do a pretty good job of.

RAG- I was just going to ask you who were your major influences?

JF- There you go. Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, Elton John. Early Elton John stuff is just timeless. You can’t beat it! Jazz music…bluegrass music…everything as long as it was good. Not too much current stuff.

RAG- Who were some of the people that you’ve toured with?

JF- We’ve done Sheryl Crow, we’ve done Jewel, Willie Nelson and a handful of other stuff…this kid Jason Mraz. Little stuff here and there. The big ones were pretty good. It kinda got out tour legs; so to speak…you know, get out there and learn how to do it. They all do it a different way, but they’re all quite brilliant…in there own little way.

RAG- What was it like to tour with Sheryl Crow?

JF- Sheryl is unbelievable! She knew everybody’s name on the tour. She’s completely great…a great lady…good songwriter. I think the way she treated the band and the way she treated everyone with such class, really taught me a lot. Because you know…that was our first big tour man. Shit that would bother me back then…I’d do a big drama fit…I would never do that now. Being out with Sheryl and then Willie Nelson…especially. Those guys are so laid back it’s unreal…’cause they’re high. (laughing) It’s tough enough…there’s no reason to add any extra drama. We just got done with this “College Mega Tour” thing with all these bands. It was just drama…every bar! We were the only ones like “Just cool out man, have a Jager, you’ll be fine!”

RAG- What about with Jewel?

JF- Jewel is cool! She’s more of a pre-Madonna. Before I went on tour, they said that she’s not open at all…she doesn’t hang out…she never drinks…she doesn’t party. She must’ve liked me man…we drank vodka every night. We would go to a bar and sing karaoke. I actually wrote a song for her. We did it in the encore every night. She’s gonna put it on her next record. She ended up being great. I mean she’s a pre-Madonna… no doubt about it, but we got along real well.

RAG- Did she yodel for you?

JF- She did in her show, yeah. People would go nuts!

RAG- Is there anyone that you’d like to tour with?

JF- No, my goal is really to get out and headline. Start doin’ really well in clubs across the country, then maybe move along to small theaters and whatnot. It’s great to tour with all these great artists but…I didn’t come here to be a fuckin’ support act.

RAG- Which do you prefer, small clubs or large venues?

JF- I’ll tell you what I prefer. If they’re there to see me…I’ll play. If it’s in my damn living room…I’ll prefer that. It’s a different thing when you’re out there trying to impress people that don’t know who you are as opposed to people that line up at the door and know every word to every song. That’s a lot easier gig.

RAG- How did you and Bernie Taupin meet and collaborate together?

JF- It’s just one of the beauties of L.A. Music gets passed around and people become fans. Bo Derek became like my biggest fan in the world! She’d come to the show and she’d cry from the love songs! Somehow they (songs) get passed around in L.A. That’s the same for Bernie. He just got ahold of my songs, popped it in, loved what I was doin’…gave me a call.

RAG- Was it the “Wives Tales” ep?

JF- He got it before it even came out. He got some of my early stuff.

RAG- What about the songs for Willie Nelson?

JF- He and I wrote songs for Willie and we’ve written two or three other ones also. He’s (Bernie) a serious, serious lyricist. No doubt about it!

RAG- The songs on your latest record “The War Of Women” are vastly varied in style. Can you define your style on music?

JF- What I’m trying to do is write love songs that are available. I think that when you get too ambiguous, you’re losing the point. There’s a place and a time for that as well. The Beatles were the kings at owning whatever they were doing at that time. Whatever song…whatever verse…whatever phrase…whatever chorus, they owned it! Nothing was overused and nothing was underused. It was perfect. There was a lot of music that I listened to and a lot of different styles that I understood. I understood Shuffle music…Jazz music…the sax solo. I understood the different changes of chords and I didn’t want it to be boring. I also didn’t want it to be so confusing that the music wasn’t available to a 15 year old girl who’s gonna go buy my record after seeing me open up for Sheryl Crow. There’s kind of a trick there…ya know? “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” is a genius song but… it’s also as simple as it gets too. You kinda have to find a trick but… every song is different. That’s pretty much a good rule. I wanted something that people could feel like they were a part of and make them feel something whether it’s good or bad.

RAG- Each one of your songs seem to tell a story. Are they autobiographical, pulling from experience?

JF- Sometimes. For instance, the song “Now You’re Gorgeous, Now You’re Gone” is just straight experience. You can tell through the words. Then a song like “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” that’s just a story I made up. I think it’s just like you’re writing a movie. “Breaking All The Ground” is basically made up. It’s just about a girl…sometimes that’s what you do. “After Los Angeles” is completely autobiographical.

RAG Are the songs about anyone in particular?

JF- Yeah…a lot of the early record I wrote right when I’d moved to L.A. There was a girl that I was with for a long time…since high school named Shannon. She basically had the monopoly on the subject matter of my love songs. A lot of it was about her.

RAG- Do you guys still keep in touch?

JF- Sometimes when I get real drunk, I’ll call her at 4 in the morning. (smiling) That doesn’t make me very chivalrous.

RAG- Which song comes from the heart the most?

JF- I dunno man…I think maybe the song “Savannah” was a song that I really thought was a pretty honest account of what was happening to me at that time. You know…if you write an autobiographical…you want to give them honesty. I hope they’re all equally honest, whether I’m talkin’ about a girl or if I’m talkin’ about being tired or being drunk or being anything else.

RAG- When you started playing gigs in L.A. you had a unique way of getting places packed with people.

JF- Man…it’s just these kids out there in these fuckin’ silly bands. They don’t get it. They got 7 people at their gig at midnight on a Tuesday, at some s**t hole bar and they’re trying to sell their cds for 15 bucks. It’s like “Man…know body knows who you are, nobody cares. Bite the fuckin’ money, give the f**kers away…let them burn it…let them tell their friends…put everybody on the guest list. What are you tryin’ to do? You’re gonna make $250.00 at the Viper Room…big fuckin’ deal!” So, we would create these gigantic guest lists and sacrifice all the income that we were gonna make. We’d burn 1,000s of cds. I invented a package and would sit there literally for hours in the daytime, and put the cd in the packet. It was as “pro” as you could get out of your bedroom! It fuckin’ worked! Got me a record deal! These kids at the Viper Room would be like “My cd just came out.” No it didn’t! You burned a couple in your bedroom…that doesn’t mean it came out. Idiot! “Came out”…you know how many times I’ve heard that when we were up and comin’ in L.A.? The lead singer of some shitty band would say: “Our record’s comin’ out on Tuesday”. “Coming out where?” “What do you mean coming out? Are you gonna have a box of them that you’re gonna sell?” That doesn’t mean “coming out”. Look, there’s a lot of delusional fuckers out there.

RAG-Are there any advantages of being with a big record label like Atlantic?

JF- You know there was this whole “Indie” thing. It was cool to be “Indie”. “Let’s just go out there and tour man and only print 15,000 copies and we’ll be credible.” I was like “Fuck that…I want the best…I want the biggest!” That was my goal from the get go. I wanted to be on a major label! You get major “label dollars” and “major label” exposure. The music is what’s credible or not. I’m on the same label as Brandy. Does that make her music credible…of course not! That doesn’t mean that I’m not credible. My music is my music. Aretha Franklin is on Atlantic.

RAG- In 2001 you won “Singer/Songwriter Of The Year” at the L.A. Music Awards.

JF- Yeah…that was fun. Tony Lucca, the guy opening tonight, won another award that same year. We sat at the same table at the awards show. It was cool…not a really big deal. It’s not like there was a lot of young, hip acts being nominated. It looks really good on paper I’ll tell you that. (Yells to Tony) “The L.A. Music Award…baby”. “Oh, yeah”…Tony replies.

RAG- In your song “After Los Angeles” you have the line “You wouldn’t believe the things that I’ve seen”. What are some of the things that you’ve seen?

JF- It’s just the “L.A. Thing”, man. There are odd things that I’ve never seen before being real young and out there in L.A. Women act a little differently…guys act differently…and people want something from you. They don’t really care to need anything from you until you’ve got something to offer. Then, you start to see people stand a little to your table when you’re having drinks with your boys or you see the girl across the way kinda give you alittle more attention than you’re used to. It keeps getting crazier and crazier the better you do for yourself. You’re trying to make it. You’re stealing, you’re gambling, and you’re hustling. You’re trying to do whatever you can to get where you want to be…to reach your goals. Sometimes you gotta cheat. Sometimes you gotta steal. It’s like you wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen. L.A. is crazy! (laughing) I’ll tell my dad stories. He lived in the “60’s” and he’s like, “I’ve never heard of that”…shit that happens after hours in those damn Hollywood Hills. It’s a beautiful thing. It’ll ruin you too…if you let it. Don’t let it ruin you, man.

RAG- Do you remember where you were the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?

JF- Yeah…we were in Montreal. We’d just got done with a really great show up there with (Jason) Mraz. Everybody got laid…it was great! (laughing) We were driving back to the airport and picked up a station from Vermont. It was “Breaking All The Ground”. You heard the intro, heard the song, then (makes a static noise). You could hear the song every couple of seconds. We were all cheering…it was a nice thing. The next time I heard it I woke up in a hotel in Chicago, “Something” by the Beatles was on and then my song came on after it. I thought that was pretty cool… my song after a Beatles song.

RAG- What are your plans in the future?

JF- We’re gonna finish this club tour, then we have a week off. I’m gonna go back to L.A. and cut a bunch of new songs that I’ve written. Then I’m gonna do another tour. If everything goes as planned, I’m gonna open up solo for Jewel in the early evenings and then I’m gonna meet the band for a club show that night. So, it’s gonna be a massive undertaking on my voice. The record company really wanted us to do the Jewel tour and I really wanted to do a club tour. They (Atlantic) were like “Do both…you can do that right?” I was like (shifts eyes back and forth) “Well yes…of course I can.” So…we’ll see.

RAG-Two full sets a night?

JF- Yeah.

RAG- Is there anything that you want to say to you’re your friend or fans?

JF- I think everyone’s responsible for sort of bringing the revolution of good music back. It’s kind of depressing…what’s out there and what people are championing. Even the people that are considered “credible”…I just don’t get it. I just don’t understand what kind of music people are making these days. I think if people went back and dusted of their Jackson Browne records and played them for their sons, their sons would kind of dig into what was cool back in the day and have a greater appreciation of what’s not cool now. Now you hear it…a John Mayer track. God bless John, He’s a sweet guy. His music just sucks fuckin’ ass! You hear that shit and all due respect, it’s like “Whoa, what is that?” because you have that catalog and library of Beatles albums and you hear it (a new song). Your mind goes “That’s not good. This is what’s good”. Your mind is telling you that Stevie Wonder is good. I don’t get what’s out there…man. I don’t know how these kids are getting signed. They don’t know how to play. I think we all need to come together and praise the next great thing or some kind of movement like they did in the 70s. Like…Bruce Springstein: “We’re waiting for a savior to rise from these empty streets”. He’s talking about himself! He was right! If you tell me that John Mayer’s gonna be around in 30 years…you’re just drunk! It’s not true. It’s not gonna happen…no chance. We got to champion the young kids. It’s like the record company’s fault. All they sign is crap! It’s the musician’s fault because we don’t even know how to play. You don’t have to be a musician to get signed. Pink…she doesn’t know how to play! Back in the day, they all knew how to play. All the cats…everybody could play. That’s not the way it is anymore. I don’t mean to put a bleak outlook on what’s happening. There are some nice bright spots here and there. I think that we’ve got to get back to what was great about American music. What it all came up on…the Blues and Jazz music. Bluegrass music that turned into Rock ‘n Roll music. I think we need more of a Carl Perkins and less John Mayers. If John sees this…I’m sorry. He’s a nice guy. (smiling)

Troy- I want to thank Kim Harris at Atlantic Records for all the help and Dee Gernile for being so cool!

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