Interview with David Poe
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
My mother had a voice like a bell. Among many contributions she made to the world, she was a music teacher who became a lifelong advocate for the arts.
Growing up, twice a week she’d shepherd me downtown to rehearse with a boys choir that sang spirituals and classical chorales, show tunes and jazz standards. As my voice changed over the years, I learned harmony by singing different parts to the same songs. Wade In The Water, Cantate Domino, The Lord Bless You And Keep You, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Sondheim, Gilbert & Sullivan, Fats Waller.
My sister loved rock & roll. She taught me my first chords on her guitar, what some call the cowboy chords. I started a band when I was in high school. We made a record of a song I wrote that got played on local radio. After that, all things seemed possible.
I never seriously considered an alternative to playing music, but I have done a lot of other jobs. Started out delivering newspapers. Worked at a vintage clothes joint, an animal shelter, a TV station, a toy store. Built power saws in a factory. Moved dirt. Moved art, which wasn’t really that different. Lectured on songwriting at the Pop Music program of the University of Southern California. But my most memorable side gig was running sound at CB’s 313 Gallery when I first moved to New York City.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
Writers read. For fiction I plan to make my way through everything I haven’t read yet from the 100 books listed in Bowie’s Bookshelf, a book by John O’Connell. Nonfiction, I read Ted Gioia, Naomi Klein, Timothy Snyder, Dr. Cornel West. I’m enjoying Mau MC24 by Bruce Mau, a treatise on creativity. Two of the questions it asks are, what is broken and how do we fix it? Songs have a role to play in explaining the world, especially in an era that has difficulty discerning between fact and opinion. Great art tends to live in the middle of the two.
For fun, I’m enjoying Tatiana Maslany’s performance in She-Hulk. It’s a rad feminist memoir presented as a superhero TV show. Reminds me how the best pop tends to be at the intersection of art and entertainment.
How long has your band been together?
Been playing professionally since I was about 16.
Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
New York City was my home base for years, and where I came of age, musically. I worked as the sound guy at the performance space adjacent to CBGB, the venerated punk rock club. There I got to hear greats like Patti Smith and Bernie Worrell, innovators like Vernon Reid and Marc Ribot, and the up-and-comers of that time, like Toshi Reagon and Lisa Loeb.
It was an era of songwriters with big ideas. Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, The Chocolate Genius, Regina Spektor. Morgan Taylor was creating Gustafer Yellowgold, the first rock & roll project aimed at kids. Giant Step mixed DJs with live musicians. Soul Coughing played a sort of live hip hop Beat poetry and David Byrne would come to see them. John Zorn was doing Masada. Allen Ginsberg and Quentin Crisp came around. Elliott Sharp played a double neck and Andrea Parkins played an electric, treated accordion. Kitty Brazelton curated all these eclectic shows. Norah Jones sang Jesse Harris songs. Every one of them was a giant. They all played clubs like the Gallery and The Living Room and Tonic and the Mercury Lounge.
The city was critical to my development, as a person and writer. I lived cheaply in a lot of different places, and I played and wrote constantly. My solo debut was recorded at The Magic Shop in New York with T Bone Burnett producing, Sim Cain drumming, John Abbey on bass, Ribot on guitar, and Susan Rogers engineering.
Now I live in Los Angeles. It’s a new adventure, very different from New York, but I am enjoying the sun and the spirit here. What I lost in depth, I gained in light.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
I recently got to perform the first-ever orchestral presentation of David Bowie’s final masterpiece Blackstar in its entirety. The artistic director was Donny McCaslin, the saxophonist from that record. Jason Lindell, who also was on those sessions, played keyboards. Somehow, Nate Wood played bass and drums simultaneously.
The Blackstar Symphony had new orchestral arrangements by Maria Schneider, Tony Visconti, Jamshied Sharifi, Jules Buckley, Vince Mendoza, Maria Schneider, Michael Dudley Jr., and Vellu Halkosalmi, all played by the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Tim Davies. I got to sing with Gail Ann Dorsey, who sang and played bass with Bowie for years, and John Cameron Mitchell, the creator of Hedwig & The Angry Inch. These are all stunning performers. A memorable few nights. Perfect audiences. It was an honor to be part of an homage to an artist whose songs I've played since my very first band gigs.
Being the support act for living legends like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tori Amos, Chris Whitley, Robyn Hitchcock, Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, Richie Havens, Lloyd Cole, Golden Smog, and The Jayhawks taught me a lot. And I’ve toured, written, and recorded with a lot of people who have become friends and collaborators, like Duncan Sheik, C.C. White, Kraig Jarret Johnson, Curtis Stigers, George Farmer, Milo Decruz, Al Sgro, Brendan Hines, Philip Krohnengold, Larry Goldings, Jenifer Jackson, John”Scrapper” Sneider, Doug Yowell, Gerry Leonard, and Ed Harcourt. When you’re traveling light and playing every night, you get to know each other quickly.
I scored and wrote the songs of Shadowland, the shadow dance piece by the innovative dance company Pilobolus.That show has been on the road since 2009. Its premiere in Madrid was pretty fantastic. I also loved making music for The Copier, one of the first dance installations in New York, for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Those were great shows, with great parties afterward on a boat anchored in the river called The Frying Pan.
The solo acoustic shows I’ve been playing of late are the most fun in recent memory. I’m fortunate to have a lot of songs that can be played with just me and a guitar or piano, because they were born that way. The solo thing can be a high-wire act, but there’s a freedom in having 25 years of songs to revisit at will.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
L’Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. First Avenue in Minneapolis. The Bikini in Barcelona. The Mousonturm House Of Artists in Frankfurt. Club Vega in Copenhagen. The Star Pines in Tokyo. Levantine in Tel Aviv. The Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Milkvegg in Amsterdam. The Berns Hotel in Stockholm. Rockwood Music Hall in New York. Rockefeller’s in Oslo. Bataclan in Paris. Schuba’s and the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. Smith’s Old Bar in Atlanta. Amado’s in San Francisco. The White Eagle in Portland. Hotel Cafe and the John Anson Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles. World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. The Rendezvous Theater in Seattle. The Belk Theater in Charlotte. Tavastia in Helsinki. Waverly Brewing Company in Baltimore. The 40 Watt Club in Athens. Quasimodo in Berlin. Almost anywhere in London. I haven’t yet played the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, or Carnegie Hall. That will be fun.
But some of my favorite places have closed, victims of rising rents or of the quarantine years. Remember all those nights we wished we could go out, the livestreams so many did for free? Musical lives are finite. So now I encourage everyone to buy tickets, go to shows, keep phones in pockets, and allow live music to remind us of how great it is we are all alive at the same time.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
This sounds to me this like the “if you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be” question. Frankly, I wish I could do a set with all my friends who have left the planet. Or maybe a show with Yip Harberg, who wrote “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” and “Over The Rainbow” and “Paper Moon.”
But honestly, I’ve had many, many dream bands. Some for multiple albums and tours, some for only a night.
My upcoming tour will be solo acoustic with my brother-in-arms, Blake Morgan. Also a dream gig. He and I always have a blast together.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band?
Write every day. It takes so long to get any good. Instead of trying to sound like everyone else, aim to sound like the best version of yourself.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Protect the groove.
Also: Choose your battles wisely. That reprehensible radio promoter will eventually get their comeuppance from the Attorney General.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
The one I’ll write tomorrow.
Like an animal who is a parent, I only look after a song until it’s time for it to go off on its own. I love them, but only while they’re still being written and recorded. After that, the songs are for everyone but me.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
Remember. You’re The Bomb. Love Is Red. These Are The Days. Gun For A Mouth. Lonely Like Me. Moon. No One Cares About Your Dreams. Loves A Sinner. People Clap Hands. Joy. My sister’s favorite is the quiet version of The Drifter.
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
The creative process loves inspiration but even when you’re not inspired, you can work. For this reason, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I just think there’s good work and mediocre work.
My process begins with a melody or a lyric or both. I try to write something nearly every day. There are those moments when the clouds part, or the earth opens up beneath your feet, and a song seems to be impelled forth from above or below. If that is inspiration, it seems to come to me less when I'm waiting around for it than when I’m engaged in other pursuits.
Like a lot of songwriters, I tend to be most drawn to eternal themes. So writing Everyone’s Got A Camera presented some new challenges because much of the subject matter was more timely, often focused on modern technology and what is has wrought. Personal standards disallowed the mention of apps and devices by name, although I did allow myself exactly one — “emoji “— when I discovered it had been entered into Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. But this album’s writing process involved more than finding euphemisms, or assessing what has changed in current discourse. It was about discerning between shiny object and progress, in the way a marine biologist might when removing a plastic straw from the mouth of an endangered species.
As I recall, this record began with my thumb poised over what I thought was a particularly astute tweet, then thinking, why the hell would I throw this idea into that ocean of opinion when it could become a song?
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
Each listener hears something different. Each song carries its own meaning.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
I’m a solo act. I disagree with myself constantly.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
Thrilled to be performing a new commission choreographed by Jill Johnson for the Los Angeles Dance Project at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, during the World Cup this December, and looking forward to being on tour this fall.
David Poe tour dates, videos, and more are at https://linktr.ee/DavidPoe
Great Interview David Poe! I’ve enjoyed your music for many years but have yet to see you perform live. I’m in LA so I’ll make it a priority next time you’re at Hotel Cafe etc