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Friday, 18 November 2011

Richard Shindell on zen and the art of being lucky

Richard Shindell is in the UK supporting Show of Hands for three weeks. They kicked off on Tuesday in Salisbury and I found myself pushing through the glass doors of the City Hall, where I was greeted in the rather odd-smelling foyer by Shindell, who was concerned about the sound-check.

I first heard his music over ten years ago while staying in the tall, grey stone Edinburgh home of a retired admiral from the British navy and his wife. The admiral played it over breakfast - he was probably the poshest folky I've ever met - and he had great taste in music. "I did a session on a Scottish radio station in 1998. He probably heard that," mused Shindell.

The two things that you always read about this American singer/songwriter are (1) that he lives in Argentina with his family and (2) he spent time living in a Zen Buddhist monastery and then a seminary in Manhattan, making him one of life's questing souls. His songs are illustrious thumbnail sketches, historical snapshots populated by vivid characters with serious internal lives, and wry, sometimes hilarious commentary on relationships - in one case, with a donkey called Clara. His live album, Courier, which I first heard over toast thirteen years ago, remains top of my personal pops: something I tried to avoid embarrassing him by saying but didn't entirely succeed with.

However, I asked him some stuff too. For instance, why Zen Buddhism? Was it just a phase he went through? "I still consider myself to be a Buddhist, though I was brought up Episcopalian," he said, making a conversational excursion to explain the origins of the Episcopalian church in the US when I looked a bit blank.

"I moved away from Christianity and went to the Buddhist monastery in upstate New York after graduating from college. My introduction to it was that I'd been taken there on a weekend trip by a professor of religion and it was a very powerful experience. But because of the way I was raised I still had a soft spot for my original faith - hence the return to the seminary later.

"There'd been many good things about the church. For instance, I learnt to sing there and in particular I learnt to sing harmony: I enjoyed that part of it. But from an intellectual point of view I moved away. We are not raising our children as Christians - we're raising them in an a-religious household.

"Sometimes, though, I wish that my children could have some of the experiences of being in church that were worthwhile. By that I mean the community of people gathering every Sunday, everyone facing in the same direction, praying to something they don't understand."

Very Zen...

He seemed surprised to be asked whether he'd known any other Buddhists at the time he made the change and had to think about it for a while before admitting that, no, he didn't think he had - which seems bold. "But I studied religion in college and before I was 18 I was reading DT Suzuki and Alan Watts. Then I studied philosophy - Thomas Merton, who wrote a book called Zen and the Birds of Appetite - and came to appreciate the practice of meditating, of trying to stop the inner chatter and the ego that comes with it."

The form of Buddhism he gravitated towards was Soto, which he described as "a little bit more fuzzy" than the more regimented Rinzai school "which is where the bad-assed Zen Buddhists go". But what the Zen and Episcopalian parts of his life have shared is a liberality that he described as "ecumenical".

He has a serious way with words.

So how's Argentina doing these days? I read a really good book by an FT journalist called Jimmy Burns about the Falklands War from an Argentine perspective and got an inkling of the battering it's had. Shindell lives there because it's where his wife's from.

"Argentina's better than it was ten years ago," he nodded, " as far as the economy's recovered in some ways from the debacle of 2001, when there was a kind of economic landslide.

"It's interesting. What happened was analogous to what's happening in Greece right now, because one of the things that provoked the trouble was that they had an economic system in place in which one peso was worth one dollar and the two currencies didn't float.

"Pegging the peso to the dollar had the effect of making anything you produced in Argentina very expensive to export. The people who had money had incredible purchasing power as a result - it is known now as the era of 'deme dos' or 'give me two' because they had dollars to spend, loads of them. But it had a horrible effect on internal pricing.

"It was unsustainable and when the currencies were finally unpegged the peso went from being worth one dollar to only twenty five cents. Then the mudslide happened.

"Before that everybody was making money in pesos. But every time you bought something big you'd do it in dollars. Then all of a sudden you were making a quarter of what you'd been making before, but the mortgage was still in dollars - everyone was going to lose their houses.

"So what happened was that the government decided to denominate all of these loans in pesos... " which helped home-owning Argentinians. But Shindell makes his living, on the whole, by touring the States - which obviously earns him dollars. "It was incredible for us because in one day our mortgage was cut to a quarter of its previous value and we were able to pay it off!"

It is often said that fortune favours the brave: in this instance, those brave enough to move to a foreign country.

Indeed, an abiding impression of Shindell is that he's a magnet for good fortune - "I've not had to strive very hard" he said at one point, though that probably says more about his attitude to work than anything else - whose luck is generated partly by a talent that draws people to him. For instance, when a week's worth of UK tour was cancelled last year he found himself seeking a bolt hole and was introduced to Steve Knightley, of Show of Hands. Knightley knew his work and invited him to Devon for the week, which is how they became friends.

I was trying to avoid asking him questions about his songs, as it was clear from reading previous interviews that he doesn't much appreciate scrutiny of his motives. I think this is fair enough: what's the point of going to all the trouble of crafting something beautiful only to have some idiot come along, wanting to dismantle it in public? For similar reasons I'm not often moved to try and describe music in words: what's the point when you can insert a clip from YouTube?

However, he wrote a gripping song about a child soldier in the Confederate army - called Arrowhead (below) - that usually makes me cry when I hear it.

"I'm sorry," he said, unnecessarily, before sitting forward in his seat as if something important had occurred to him. "I'm afraid I have some bad news about that song though."


"Have you heard of GE Smith? He plays with Bob Dylan's band? He's done a version of it, but he wrote an extra verse for the end. And he has a rather acute sense of military justice."

No! He didn't!

"Yes. I'm afraid he killed the boy. His final verse has my underage Confederate deserter sitting on a white horse with a noose around his neck before someone slaps the horse from behind."

I am oddly devastated by this, as I've spent a great deal of time empathising not only with the child in the song - "for god's sake, someone give that kid a gun!" - but also with his mother, to whom he's speaking in the lyric.

"I'm all in favour of the folk process... It's all fair. But I wrote to GE Smith, and asked him 'What were you thinking?' And he wrote back 'I just thought that boy had to die'." Shindell said this in a deep drawl, as if Smith were speaking through him.

He let this thought percolate for a while.

"So I sang it that way myself just once, to see how it felt. But it felt wrong... I'm happy that Smith liked the song deeply enough to get into the nuts and bolts of it though."

His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, for whom he wrote the heartbreaking Reunion Hill, and this was also recently reworked by Fairport Convention. I asked whether he was thinking of collaborating on anything with Show of Hands while he's here and he explained that he's in the middle of writing a song over the internet with Mary Gauthier, with whom he toured earlier in the year. It has a working title of Black Eyed Susan's Facing Back. "I've always been very insecure about working with other people, in case they come up with loads of ideas and I have nothing. This is my first time."

But the question also provoked a sudden rush of enthusiasm for The Cecil Sharp Project, which Knightley had apparently been playing him in the car on the way to the venue. This may have been by way of a consolation of some kind, as an attempt by Knightley to impress him with an excursion to a Knights Templar-related church went awry when it turned out to be shut.

"I'm not a very committed tourist - especially when I'm supposed to be working. I get into a rut of going from gig to gig and the surroundings become secondary. I had a day off in Florence, Italy, in early January 2009 and the strangest thing happened..." he said, as if he'd learnt his lesson with this taking-the-day-off thing.

"I decided to spend the day walking and as I set off in the morning I got 50 yards up this alley with a steep incline, heading for the hills, and found it barred by police tape. Ahead there was a tarpaulin with something lumpy underneath it and a foot sticking out. Someone had fallen down dead in that alley and I had to go around." That'll teach him.

Although, in fact, he's about to take a year off. "I'll stay in Argentina for most of it, study Spanish and Spanish guitar in a more deliberate way and attempt to challenge myself creatively. The reason, though, is that I have two teenagers and I feel like I need to be more on the case. They're getting older and aren't going to be in the house for that much longer."

And this time it was his kids who seemed lucky.

* If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy this more recent post about Richard Shindell.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley


  1. Wonderful write-up! There was much here that hasn't been covered in other articles and interviews about Richard Shindell. You also have a lively and engaging writing style.

  2. Thanks Vanessa. That's very kind.

  3. Thank you so much for this interview. I just found it today and it fills me in on a few things I didn't know about RS.
    I've been a keen admirer of his songs ever since discovering him through Gabriel Yacoub's version of You Stay Here in 2001.

    /Owner of

  4. You're welcome. I probably enjoyed doing it more than you enjoyed reading it x

  5. Returning to this four years on, I think whatever gushy bits there may have been in the context of the interview, you admirably leave them off the printed page. (Several people have previously praised the way that you write, and IMHO this piece is right up there with anything in this blog.)

    Looking forward to any future events that you might manage to video in your abode (Hint: Stick In The Wheel can't live that far from you) and this summer you could always 'take it on the road' in your distinctive voice to the stunningly brilliant, but rather under-mediatised Leigh on Sea Folk Festival).


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