Van Dyke Parks is, simply put, a legend. From his highly acclaimed and admired work as an arranger, working with artists as diverse as Joanna Newsom, Brian Wilson, Silverchair, and others, to his impressive solo work on discs like Song Cycle, Discover America, and Tokyo Rose, he has become a true paragon of music.

Now on the verge of a string of 45 RPM seven inch records, he has returned to solo work after a lengthy hiatus. I had the pleasure and honour of speaking to and interviewing Mr. Parks, covering topics from his return to touring to the modern state of music. As candid as he is illuminating, no question went without an engrossing elaboration that often left me speechless at his genius. Before answering my questions, he took a brief moment to prepare a cup of tea and we began.


It's been about 13 years since you released your last solo album (Moonlighting, a live release). What was your main motivation behind this new series of 7"?

A couple of things. My life has completely changed, I'€™m 68 years old. I’ve finished a life of monastic relation in providing music for scores, movies, and television. My family had toured and everybody has gone off in their independent ways. I have the opportunity of travelling now and want to do it while I still can. Last year I did my first tour with Clarence and the Reasons and it was a transformational experience. [It was] phenomenal for a man who has made a living with the blessings of anonymity. I'€™m not interested in getting clapped at, but I am interested in being in a room with live music for the first time with all the hazards.

I had a chance to listen to the live session you did for Daytrotter. What was it like doing a radio session as opposed to a live show?

It'€™s all shock therapy for me. [Chuckles] What I'€™ve done for racket over the last 40 years and change has been the pre-meditative and extemporaneous opportunity of studio work. In the studio the goal is to cover your back and something come out of [it] - something good that will last some generations of judgment; to make a sharp picture of a sharp object. Stepping out of that you are stripped and bleeding, naked, [and] vulnerable; you have lost control. [In the Daytrotter session] it is evident to me with every key punch of that performance that I know that I had lost control.

Do you plan on doing more live or radio sessions or more live shows that are generally undocumented?

I think I should welcome both. It comes as no great pleasure to see footage of myself as a replication of my father on a bad day. The image I have of myself is as a brunette on the cover of Song Cycle. But I welcome the transformation. I want to throw away the vanity to get the core of my reason for being which is to try to do something to make this world a better place. I am moved by that with a sense of urgency, not because I am 68 and almost gone but because the world disappointments me in so many ways. Only 34% of an '€œenlightened' America believes in the theory of Charles Darwin, the rest believes that the world was created 6000 years ago in even days. I have lived through McCarthyism, through riots with race at the core. I have seen dark times, but nothing to match the complacency, materialism, triviality, and Stone Age beliefs that dominate our current state of affairs. So I turn to the epic opportunity – the song form. Songs interest me that much. Songs say 'we shall overcome',€ they can get people to wake up, they can move, agitate, comfort, and discomfort. I want to do that not with a heavy hammer, but a light touch; I want to have the ability to enlighten. It sounds like I have some highfalutin purpose and am embarrassed to say so, but I do have a highfalutin purpose [and] I am content to take all the risks associated. I have had risks in my performances and material because I am not rock or roll; I am not "legit"€ [That's] because nobody does what I do, nobody is crazy enough to want to bring a street sensibility into the parlor. That’s what I want to do and I have made a history of it.

I'm not trying to gussy up music with rusty nails, not trying to hammer down those nails, but frame that sensibility and make it palatable to a wider audience and somehow raise up on the chicken wire of a higher social caste to find empathy with important social determinants. It leaves me stammering because talking about music is like dancing about architecture – there is no simple way to talk about music.

Do you have a sort of plan or methodology behind the way you choose the projects you take on?

Oh no, I have no plan. I'm not that organized. As a matter of fact, I don't believe that the arts reflect a majority interest of people who have a five-year plan. The process of doing something creative requires one vital asset: the ability to know that you don't know nothing and that you must simply bring a healthy and almost athletic sense of inquiry to everything that you do. You can never know. Bringing the ability to ask – that’s what I do. Every event I get involved with I let it get a mind of its own and let me take it with it.

Has there been a project that has been most fruitful to you as an arranger and/or artist?

I think my best work is my second album [Discover America]. On the first record [Song Cycle] I wasn't even aware that I was to be communicating with anyone, but on the second record I awakened to the fact that I was to entertain. I believe that the LP should cohere and in those days a double-sided vinyl could develop a through-line. In terms of getting a sense of place in a record and getting a through-line and having it be a dream escape, Discover America was my best album both arranging and producing. I also enjoyed Orange Crate Art [an album made with Brian Wilson]. [That album] was to force Brian Wilson out of 'forest retirement' and show him that he was able. I look back at [all my albums] with mixed givings and the question "What was I thinking?" Each time€“ it comes with experience. but it ain'€™t so bad. It is valedictory for a person to stand up and bring his passion to the vulgar public gaze, as Jefferson put it. I do that and it takes courage, and as Ted Turner said in his book, "€œIt only looks easy."€ I would feel very disappointed in myself if I made do with retirement. I'm not going to do it and I will stay vocal with my objections of what I think is tolerable and stay vocal for what is being done well. To get somewhere and do something of value one must reserve the value of being wrong. Without that risk it'€™s ho-hum, dullsville. I try to keep the requisite courage it takes to rise and shine. This is the second year of my show business life. I got an agent and I got me some jobs – this is a big deal. In the second year of hitting the road, an athletic adventure for a man of my years, I have decided to accompany it with recordings and not turn to the CD form which I despise. I do not want to receive one more CD. They are brittle, hard to handle and harder to open, and it'€™s often a disappointment to open it and hear what'™s inside. What I’m doing today is starting the summer with six 45RPM vinyl stereo singles. They are going to be high fidelity – the best sound we can make in that form. I was asked two days ago if I wanted the record to have the big hole or the small hole, and I said the big hole. The printer said it'€™s cheaper and I said I thought it would be. I want it to be an old thing, to go on the road and flog that merch and have that 45 single. People may realize I'€™m from a certain age of analogue recording, and it doesn'€™t bother me. To be old and not in the way is something to do with my time. But to avoid any misimpression that I'€™m trying to be precious, I’m making it available for download but I stop there. Those lack the totemic value, the tactile advantage that such a product as a vinyl disc offers. It allows for a sleeve big enough to look at the art. I'€™ll be releasing it on a vanity label, Banana Stand, since nobody is interested in another note from me in this imploding industry. The first single, 'Wall Street', reflects 9/11 and is about a man and a woman who meet on their way down. That will be back with 'Money Is King'. Another one is about a flight to Paris one day the morning after seeing the bombs dropped on Baghdad by Bush. Art Spiegelman did the art for the first one and Ed Ruscha with do the second one. Another will be by Billy Edd Wheeler, the greatest force in Appalachian songwriting and vernacular art. Katrina will be illustrated with a song called 'Missin' Mississippi' and will illustrated by my wife [Sally Parks], a champion watercolorist. The art will speak to the group as we slouch out way towards Bethlehem. If nothing else I can assure you that each of these will be an objet d’art, something to hold and to have, something that will not get lost in a sea of jewel cases. And what a misnomer that is, a€“ 'jewel case'.

Could you describe your perception of what it's like to compose a piece of music or an arrangement? Do ideas come to you from the ether, or do you follow a specific set of guidelines that come from training?

I don't think there is any training that I can attribute to any aspect of the songwriting form. Songwriting is too damn arcane. It is, to me, finding that the germination of an idea will occur. It usually occurs behind the wheel on a rain soaked highway or perhaps in the shower, somewhere where it is absolutely inconvenient to write the damn thing down. The first talent is to find the fluency to write an idea down when it occurs, usually when the music and words collide and sound wonderful, inevitable, meant to be. Those moments are rare and need to be seized. Once you encapsulate and record that spasm of enthusiasm, then comes the hard part: the discipline to write the rest of it; to drop the other shoe. Being a man of limited talent but of the will to provide with due diligence, that is the mark of a real craftsman, and that's what I hope to be. I think the songs I'm doing now show that my best is still ahead of me. I’m still crazy as a loon, maddened by all I see, but I know the difference between right and wrong, and as long as I am clear about that I feel like I have to be.

Would you say, then, that ideas are always in your head in some way - that is, do you '€œhear music in your head all the time'€ -€“ or is it really just some random occurrence?

There are a lot of ideas that reoccur. I remember the song 'Orange Crate Art' - it plagued me for several years. I had [plays 'Orange Crate Art' on piano] and that just plagued me. I improvised this piano exercise and it just plagued me so much that maybe within three or four years from thinking about this simple tune, I connected all the dots and thought the piece was adequate to express the associated images. Something can stay in the head for a long time and plague an individual, and I write down these ideas and find them in a box or in the garage or a piano bench and revisit them. Some ideas need proper time to germinate and get their light of day. As I approach my 70th year, there are many things I desire to get taken care of. They become like bills past due. I have a tendency to want to get out of the present tense in my work but still have it reflect some currency. …I have no plans, I respond very well to offers of my service to people half my age with neither of us understanding why we are united with a trans-generational concern. That's apparent with Silverchair, a band with a grunge/rock sensibility. Rather than wallpapering a once grunge group with orchestral sensibilities, I focused on their ability and I think they improved in the process as well. Once again that is to illustrate the value of not knowing nothing. It has been most adventurous to my loyal family and me because it brings uncertainty.

What is your view on copyright and the current state of intellectual property?

In 1910 a song sold for 10 cents for the sheet music. The creator would get a nickel; the printer would get a nickel. A telephone call at that time cost five cents and a loaf of bread 2.5 cents. Given the cost of living has increased and that so much has changed – what has happened and improved for those manufacturers, what has happened to the songwriter is with big companies you get fractions of cents per song. That is, if you haven'€™t been pirated. Now that the industry has been imploded by greed and poor standards more than technical advances, there is no copyright. I am very, very sad about it. It amazes me that people are casual about such an ethical dilemma. Who is going to patronize the arts? How can we allow artists to go out with little more than a Jew’s harp or a banjo and develop an idea? What about those people who want to provide a service for the ear? Well, they’re out of business because nobody pays for the arts. This comes at a time when people don’t believe in Darwin’s theory, when a mostly Republican senate does not patronize the arts, with pixilated movies that talk about petite bourgeoisie life and deal with success and jollity. The problem is being exacerbated and becoming exponentially more difficult and disastrous for the sustaining powers of patronage. Without a second thought of the long range, we have franchised the hamburger connection to the world with this rock sensibility. I can go, "I would be in exile now, but everywhere'€™s the same," as Phil Ochs said. The fact is, we have been successful in exporting this musical culture and lifestyle that America represents and it resented by the developing world to the point that we have seen airliners thrown into our highest buildings in Manhattan. We have created a friction in the world where, if it isn’t a cultural crusade, I want to know what the word is. We need to repair the situation to make things better, not by applied sciences, but the arts. The arts are here to illuminate and that is why I am doing this hardscrabble task and doing what I'€™m doing, not in retirement somewhere lawn bowling. I believe it is my responsibility to right what is wrong. How the hell can a budding artist make ends meet in an age that trumpets the convenience of pirated copyright information? It is beyond me. It makes me very sad and I worry about the future of an America that has had its chance for a century. We'€™re shooting ourselves in out feet with the casualty of piracy. I'€™m not going with it, you show me one little green man and I'm going with that spaceship. I'm telling you, this is self-destructive and we need to empower the arts. I am raising the question: how will the arts survive? Softball journalism elected George Bush twice – he was not fit for the office and I think time will prove that. Journalism is so softballed because it is corporately controlled. Music is in the same position. I’m not saying that we don'€™t have time to gag on a Lady Gaga, but it shouldn'€™t be our dietary staple. There is a world beyond Mick Jagger and white kids with the blues; a world beyond the navel gazing whiners who have been giving us pop music that is a study in First World problems. It is time for us to explore the arts.

Well, I only have one question left and it's a bit more upbeat than that last one. So: What can we expect after this string of releases? Are there any more full-length releases or collaborations in the immediate future?

To tell the honest truth, I can'€™t tell you how definitely on target you are. I do have some big plans that are already in the works for movie length activity. I am thrilled by it but I am not at liberty to publicize it. In fact, the question is fairly, "€œDo I want to do another album in an age of 'shuffle mentality'" and yes I absolutely do. This is who I am today and this is what I am and what I must do to get there.

Van Dyke Parks is due to be performing his first UK gig in a year at The Union Chapel, London on May 16th, in association with DHP and Get Your Acts Together. Special guests include Clare and The Reasons.

Tickets are £25 and can be bought direct from Union Chapel,