His name may not be familiar to most music fans but over the past for decades the extraordinary body of work by singer/songwriter Jack Tempchin has served as the musical soundtrack for millions of listeners around the globe.
His C.V. is impressive, notching covers by the likes of Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Johnny Rivers and co-writes with a who’s who of music including Tom Waits, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner, George Jones, Desert Rose Band, J.D. Souther and others.
Perhaps best known for penning the Eagles monster hits Peaceful Easy Feeling and Already Gone and Swayin’ To The Music (Slow Dancin) by Johnny Rivers, Jack Tempchin is a formidable artist in his own right. He’s just released a new EP, Room to Run with a full length CD, Learning to Dance, to follow in late August. Both find Tempchin in fine artistic fettle, emboldened by a restless creative spirit and stubborn refusal to rest on his lofty laurels.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What’s the last song you heard where you said, “Damn, I wish I wrote that?”
Jack Tempchin: Okay, there’s a new song out by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. They’ve got a song on there that neither of them wrote, Unfair Weather Friend. That song really got me. I went, “Damn, that’s a real song!” It’s about somebody who’s just always there when you need them. Of course, Willie and Merle sing it so great. Once in a great while there’s a song that really gets to me and I love that because it keeps you goin’.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve written songs for decades, how have your life experiences inspired the subject matter on both your new EP Road to Run and CD Learning to Dance?
Jack Tempchin: We’re just here and everything we do goes in and then it comes out in the music. When I look back on all the songs on Learning to Dance, I realize they’re all love songs about different stages of love; the euphoric parts of love and the problems that come up and then you get more mature love out of that. I looked at that and went, I’ve got a whole album of love songs here and of course that’s all from experience.
I think everything you do goes into every song that you write; you just can’t help it.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell me about the track, The High Cost of Hate (Let’s Make Some Lawyers Rich). That’s one of the best song titles I’ve heard for a long time.
Jack Tempchin: (laughs) I went to Nashville to write songs and I do that every year. I was just talking to a lot of my songwriting friends, some of whom have had really good years and done really well. But people have gone through divorce and all their money’s gone and they squabble over the kids. I’m going, God, this is such a total nightmare that so many people go through and it’s just horrible.
So I got home and was sitting at the kitchen table one morning and I just started writing this song and I couldn’t help it and I never use explicit language in my songs but there was no other way to say it. I wanted to make the point that usually both people in a relationship are guilty.
So I wrote the song and I played it for my wife and she said, “That’s great but you can’t play it anywhere unless you’re gonna get some gigs in a bar.” (laughs) I got a gig and when I got there I realized it was a show for 150 of the best divorce lawyers in the country. They were having this special dinner and said, “Man, I’ve gotta play this song to them.”
So I played it for them and about halfway through I got a standing ovation. At the end of the song it’s also nice to the lawyers. I mean, hey, a lawyer’s gotta make his own alimony payment; he’s also totally damaged by the whole thing. So then my record label got excited about the song because people in my record label are attorneys as well so that’s why they decided to put out the four song Room to Run EP so they could get that song out because it wasn’t on my album.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Having written songs for decades, today how much of songwriting is pure inspiration and how much is craftsmanship?
Jack Tempchin: Glenn Frey and I used to call it “El Blurto.” He’d blurt out things and you’d get in the mood and make a lot of stuff up and then you have to whittle away later and put it into shape. That’s maybe when we used to call “morning coffee work” with the yellow pad. Sometimes you blurt out the whole song all at once and it’s all good but usually you have to do a lot of tweaking and working later in your clear-thinking moments to wrestle it into shape so when you sing it and every line feels right to you.
Rock Cellar Magazine: There’s a litany of successful songwriters who no longer have the drive or hunger to keep creating and others, like you, are still doing it with enormous passion. How do you keep inspired and keep motivated?
Jack Tempchin: I don’t know the reason. I feel like I just want to keep writing and for some reason it’s still totally there. Since I got a record deal and someone was effectively saying “If you write some songs we’re gonna pay to record them and we care about it,” well, that just made my brain really explode. I think I’m at the peak of my writing and I’ve got things flowing through me and I want to get them down and hopefully have somebody hear it. That’s all I really care about and I love the recording thing too.
I notice with a lot of successful writers who have done so much they’re not writing that much anymore but for some reason I am and I love it.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Recall the first time you heard a song you wrote on the radio.
Jack Tempchin: Oh sure. My girlfriend and I, who later became my wife, were in a Volkswagen bus and we were started the long journey traveling up the coast of California. We were in a park and ran into this guy named Star who was the manager of bands and he took us to the band house. So we were there hanging out and there was a little radio on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen and suddenly the Eagles’ Peaceful Easy Feeling came on the radio. It sounded awfully good, too.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When writing that song did you sense it was special?
Jack Tempchin: Not so much with that song. The Eagles of course did such an incredible version but I didn’t think it was gonna be a hit. For one thing, it wasn’t exactly a love song. I mean, he’s never gonna see the girl again and it doesn’t matter so for that reason I thought it’s not a regular love song.
I love the song but it didn’t occur to me that it would be a hit and that people would get it and dig it. Later, when I wrote Swaying to the Music, I thought, okay, this is probably a hit.
I had a record deal with Clive Davis with a band called the Funky Kings and we recorded Swaying to the Music and he put it out and it got up to number 60 on the Billboard chart. So at that time I was still trying to be an artist and I figured every song I wrote I was writing it for me. But then Johnny Rivers heard it on the radio and he thought it was a hit and when they told him, “No, it isn’t a hit” then he said, “hey, I’m gonna do it.” I didn’t know him at the time but later we became good friends.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you write with the audience in mind or purely as an act of self-expression?
Jack Tempchin: Wow… I don’t know. I guess you always sort of have an audience in mind, maybe not a specific audience but you’re thinking, ‘hey, I’m gonna sing this for somebody and they’re gonna like it’ so I’m reaching them with some kind of words that I’m saying. But I don’t know; it comes out in a zone that’s just pure writing and creating. When it comes out you’re not really thinking about that, you’re letting it flow.
I wanted to mention that I have a website that I just put up called gowriteone.com and it takes you to a page where I have made little video lecture about songwriting. They’re all about two minutes long and they don’t talk about how to write a song or how to publish a song or how to get it on the radio or the structure of songs or rhyming; I don’t talk about any of that. I just talk about how to get in the mood and get your mind rolling and get the song to come out. So I’ve made a whole bunch of these little lectures about that and that will give you a different idea of my thoughts on writing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Is there a difference between the songs you record as an artist and the ones farmed out to others?
Jack Tempchin: Well, no. If someone wants to do one of my songs they can. I don’t care which one it is. Maybe I wouldn’t play certain things for people ‘cause I thought they’re not gonna really respond to that. At one point my friend sat down one night—he was good friends with Brian Wilson and Brian played a couple of songs on the piano and sang them. My friend was just sitting in the corner and said, “What are those, I’ve never heard those?”
And Brian said. “Oh, those are my private songs.” (laughs) I’m thinking, well, what if Bob Dylan has a whole bunch of private songs? “Oh no, these are just mine; I don’t let anyone else hear these.” (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Barring commercial concerns, for you what are the essential ingredients needed for a great song?
Jack Tempchin: Well, when I write a song, it’s just the way I feel when I sing it. If I get excited every time I sing it and the ideas seem to flow and it all just feels like it’s going the right way then that’s one thing. I measure songs in terms of likability. It’s not a very scientific metric but it’s the only one that really works.
My feeling is people know when they like a song and they’re always right. People are never wrong about what they like. You can play the same song eight years later and try to fool them and they’ll go, “No, I still don’t like that.”
(laughs) So it’s all about likability and with some songs there’s just more people who like them; you achieved a formula that reached a lot of people somehow so that’s kind of it. It’s just likability.
Rock Cellar Magazine: One of your most successful co-writes is Already Gone, popularized by the Eagles. Share the back story behind that one.
Jack Tempchin: I listened to country radio on a little transistor when I was going to sleep at night in San Diego. So I didn’t know much about country music except later I wanted to write some country songs and I realized I didn’t have a clue.
So I got together with my friend, Rob Strandlund, who was the co-writer of Already Gone. I used to run a facility at San Diego State University, a coffee house called The Back Door. We were in the back room of The Back Door getting ready to go on and Rob and I found a jug of something in the refrigerator and started drinking it and it turned out to be hard cider. I had never had any alcohol before so I got kind of zonked and we both did.
Then we just wrote that song in about 20 minutes. Then we got onstage and played it; somebody back then recorded it and years later I got the recording. A few years later after we wrote that one I got a call from Glenn Frey and he was in the studio and he said, “Hey, you know that country song you wrote, I think we could make that a great rock song” and I went, “Yeah, great” and then he held the phone to the speakers and there was the Eagles recording of Already Gone.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Was that trademark guitar riff already in place when you and Rob wrote Already Gone?
Jack Tempchin: No. They put the riff in there and they also put in the modulation; I don’t usually do that. The thing about the song is it’s got three chords, G, D and C, and they just repeat throughout the whole song and never change; that’s the way I wrote it. So it’s a perfect song for learning the guitar. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: In 2015, what’s the state of songwriting today?
Jack Tempchin: The way records are made is changing with the technology but that’s okay. There’s a lot of writing that doesn’t do it for me but then again there always was. There were usually only a couple of songs on the chart that we liked and sometimes the stuff we liked wasn’t even on the charts.
There was always junk on the charts that we didn’t like. But if I just find a few good songs and some people are writing them, then I’m happy. But my feeling overall is because of the technology what’s happening right now that we’re not aware of is there’s a gigantic boom in music that’s gonna change everything.
Just in the last year or two you can pursue any kind of music with Spotify and Shazam and find music you like and you can find out all about it instantly. Some kid’s gonna sit there and realize he likes bluegrass music and then he’s gonna become an expert in it with nobody helping him. If you think about it, this stuff was never available before.
I think that kids and people all over the world are getting into music right now in a way that they never did before. They’re sharing world music with each other in a way that was not possible before. I think there’s gonna be an unprecedented music boom with many many more people playing music and listening to music and being totally into it even then ever before.
I think music is almost like another form of sex. (laughs) It’s like, people make each other feel good only it’s not limited to male-female or cultural, it goes everywhere across the board.
You talk about music as another kind of way that people cross-pollinate. Due to the music, everyone’s mind in the whole world is becoming connected up through the music. So I think it’s just an amazing time for music. Also, I thought because of the computer and using little clips of recordings that kids would stop learning knowing how to play but it turns out that it’s not true. Many young people play multiple instruments and they play really great and I didn’t know that was gonna happen.
But I feel real good about what’s happening. The only thing is technology has not caught up with a way to pay people so artists who make the music are not getting a fair share and everyone else is making a lot of money off of them but I think that will change. That’s’ the only thing that’s not really cool; everything else is insanely great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Away from music, what passions occupy your time?
Jack Tempchin: I like to walk and I like to go to the beach and I like to read. But really, music is the main thing for me. I don’t have too many other passionate interests, I’m ashamed to admit (laughs) I’m really good at watching television; I like that. (laughs) But music keeps me young and keeps me alive.