David Rovics is an engrossing songwriter and singer who writes passionately about the type of topics most people cannot think about let alone comprehend. David will be performing live in Ireland at the end of the month before going to play numerous dates around the UK and Europe. Here is an interview with David Rovics which I hope will provide an introduction to this most engaging of performers.
Hi David, it always feels like a lazy description to call your music ‘Protest-Folk’, how do you describe your music to people?
people understandably need to put music in different categories for lots of valid reasons. it’s very difficult for us musicians, tho. i don’t like the term ‘protest’ music or ‘folk’ music — ‘protest folk’ even less! i completely understand why i fall squarely into both categories, but using the term ‘protest’ makes it seems like it’s a musical speciality, like it’s something on the margins of music. in reality, ‘protest’ music is mainstream and always has been, if you ignore the corporate music industry, which has nothing to do with what people having been writing and singing since long before the industry existed.
the term ‘folk’ is equally troubling because of what it has come to mean — a guy with a guitar singing songs he wrote. this has nothing to do with ‘folk’ music in the traditional sense. a guy (or girl) who writes songs is a songwriter, technically. if this person performs the songs he writes, he is a singer, too. so i am a singer/songwriter. technical, dry term, but completely accurate and descriptive. in the broad sense it could be said i’m a ‘folk’ musician, but any sense where that term applies is too broad to be useful. for example, folk music is music that the folk (the people) sing. people sometimes sing my songs (other than me) therefore i write songs that could be called folk songs. by another definition, folk music is any kind of music created by and for the folk — so anything other than classical or commercial music. so in that sense i’m a folk musician, too, but then so are most punk rock bands, hip hop groups, etc.
The subject matter of your songs vary from guantanamo bay to wall-mart to singing about smaller injustices. What one song from your expansive catalogue are you most proud of writing and therefore helping to bring to a wider audience?
there really isn’t one song that i’m most proud of. there are some songs i think are particularly well-written and others less so. there are songs i wrote a long time ago that i’m not proud of at all, that i’d rather were never recorded, but as far as the opposite end, songs i’m most proud of, there is a group of them, probably numbering in the dozens. when a song of mine is the first way that people hear about a particular historical event, person, or current struggle, this always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, whether it’s the saint patrick battalion, hugh thompson, or whatever. right now my favorite song, of my songs, is the one i wrote last month for private bradley manning.
Here is that song from David Rovics entitled: Song for Bradley Manning
In terms of recent influences, are there any unsung heroes of yours who have had an influence on your music in the last few years?
i find most heroes go unsung — even heroes from a hundred years ago, most of the time. i’ve written songs about people who died a hundred years ago who i don’t think anybody else had ever bothered to write about. i think there are just a lot of heroes out there — sung and unsung, but mostly the latter. in terms of people who have done things worth singing about, there are oodles of them. in terms of other songwriters who have influenced me, also oodles. jim page of seattle most prominent among them.
I found your music back in 2003 on Soundclick where all your songs are available as free downloads. Can you explain why you decided to go down the free download path? Also does the paypal ‘donate’ provide you with the funds you need to continue recording and touring?
usually i find that very few people donate or throw anything in my ‘virtual guitar case’ unless there’s a specific campaign going on, such as my recent efforts to raise money to make a high-quality recording of ‘song for bradley manning.’ when i’m doing a campaign like that that resonates with people it sometimes goes really well, as this one has. but either way, i think putting all your songs up for free download is the next best thing to getting the radio airplay that artists like me tend not to get (especially in the united states). the internet is by far the most interactive communication/broadcast technology ever created and is, therefore, a wonderful thing and a democratizing influence, whether we’re talking about music, politics, or whatever. not that it replaces the impact of commercial media or large corporations generally, but it gives them a good run for their money in all kinds of ways.
on a very practical level, what we performers need is fans to come to our shows. in order to have fans people need to hear your music. the best way to make that happen is to give it away online. you still have to tour to make a living, as always, but that works because the internet has helped provide you with fans all over the world who will come to shows when you’re in the area. that’s the theory, and i can say pretty unequivocally at least for myself that it works pretty well.
I’m a big fan of songs that deal in great detail about human grievances like ‘Falluja’ and ‘Song for Hugo Chavez’ but I always feel like these songs work because they sit next to the hilarious ‘Sit Down to Piss’ and ‘I’m a better anarchist than you’. Do you make a conscious decision to write humorous songs in between those songs of conviction and depth?
yes — i like writing songs that make people laugh, and i also think it’s useful, both for those individual songs, and for the overall effect of a concert or a record. you can’t do 2 depressing ballads in a row, they lose their impact at that point. you need to give people an ‘aperitif’ at least, preferably a substantial one.
Listen to the brilliant ‘Falluja’
Do you think there is a mainstream audience for an artist in any genre who writes with passion about perceived controversial themes like yourself?
i think there is a mainstream audience for music of all kinds, whether political or not, if it’s good and well-recorded. whether the mainstream audience ever hears about the stuff is the question. in the u.s. that’s especially difficult.
Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions in great depth. I’ll leave the last words to yourself!
keep on keeping on!
See David Rovics Live:
Saturday, February 26th -Conary Community Hall, Wicklow
Wednesday, March 2nd – Sandino’s, Derry
Thursday, March 3rd – Murray’s O’Connell Street, Dublin
Saturday, March 5th, Roddy McCorley’s, Shaws Road, Belfast
Wednesday, March 9th, A Ragged Trousered and Angry event, The Carlisle, Carlisle Parade, Hastings, East Sussex
Thursday, March 10th – Islington Folk Club, London
Friday, March 11th, The Wagon & Horses, Adderley St, Digbeth, Birmingham
David continues his European Tour right into April: http://davidrovics.com/index.php
Really interesting interview Peter- a great read. Well done!