The Continuous Journey of Alan Munson, an interview by Jiah Carron
The cliches of obscure, mysterious, posthumous discovery often end up the albatross around the neck of artists in the “Outsider” niche. At a certain point, the brunt of the attention can be sustained by the mythos rather than the art itself, making for a damaging cocktail. If this becomes the case for an outsider artist, especially an artist that has passed, it becomes almost impossible to truly appreciate the merit of the music without the experience being cursed by sentimentality. One such artist has subverted the plague of the outsider artist and not only managed to escape the gravitational pull of fringe-folk obscurity, but has actually thrived in spite of it, all while being very much alive. This is prolific American folk-rocker Alan Munson. Throughout his formidable career that has stretched nearly 5 decades, Munson has continued to make thoughtful, beautiful, and down-right rockin’ folk-rock that has kept the spirit of 70’s, Easy Rider-style, open-road freedom alive and well.
Munson has earned a slew of modern pop-culture laurels such as having his song “Sightly Sue” used in Netflix’s hit ensemble rom-com Easy, and several tunes have been featured in filmmaker Patrick Hoelck’s An Interview series. Most recently, Munson has signed a record contract with major label Sundazed Music who designed, produced, and released 2018’s One Man’s Journey compilation. They also released Cooley-Munson II in 2020, the sequel to Munson’s legendary debut album In Debt in collaboration with Bill Cooley. The label will be releasing at least one more Alan Munson project in the near future.
I had the privilege of conducting this interview with him and was delighted by his incredibly candid, insightful, and humble responses. A true insider-outsider.
Across the five decades you have been a musician, I wonder about your relationship with the music you make and the people you collaborate with. You have mentioned previously in an interview with It’s Psychedelic Baby that you and Bill Cooley with whom you collaborated on your first album In Debt in 1972 have remained close friends and went on to release the successor, Cooley-Munson II in 2019. Between your first collaborative album and your second almost 50 years later, you released 3 solo albums, 1975’s Good Morning World, 1979’s First Light, and 2010’s The Road Goes On. There seems to be a general conception, especially among folk and outsider musicians, that isolation and solitude lend heavily to the creative process as they can lead to revelatory introspection and reflection. As an artist who seems to succeed brilliantly in collaboration as well as solitude do you find this to be true? Does isolation provide you with creative tools that collaboration lacks or do they each provide inspiration in their own right?
Collaboration with other music artists has always been an important contributor to my learning and growth as an artist, especially in the early years of my music work. I spent many years as a guitarist and lead singer in numerous rock bands and performed in a few duos with female vocalists. The collaboration between myself and Bill Cooley has been a treasure through nearly five decades, with the recording/release of two record albums together, concert performances, and a lot of recording studio work over the years. I’ve also performed on other artists’ records, including vocal tracks just recently on a San Francisco prog-rock band’s new album release. Collaboration really gives an artist the opportunity to pursue exciting new directions and to take on new challenges.
The recording of my solo songs and albums has been a different situation. Although I now work primarily as a solo artist and record most everything on my own, I don’t think of that as isolation or solitude, and it really has nothing to do with a need for revelatory introspection and reflection. It is simply a methodology for the writing, creation, and recording of my songs and albums that best works for me.
When I started writing and composing songs back in time, I often found that a recording studio collaboration with even highly skilled instrumentalists wasn’t always working out for me. When I got together in the studio with other players (particularly percussionists and keyboards players), I found it very difficult to communicate what I was hearing in my head for their performances on my song tracks. Although their recorded performances were technically great, many tracks felt like a compromise versus what I thought would best appear in my songs.
Back then, I was recording all of my own lead and backing vocals, and playing all of the lead, rhythm, and bass guitar tracks on my recordings. But, I played no other instruments. For that reason, I decided to learn how to play drums and keyboards. That changed my dependency on other artists, and I was then able to compose and record my songs as a solo multi-instrumentalist, performing all of the instruments and vocals myself. Years ago in a published interview, I was asked about my solo artist recording studio preference and I responded with “I figured if nobody liked the songs, there was only one person to blame”.
I find the music business fascinating because on the surface it is assumed that success in music is determined by financial profit rather than artistic merit. As an artist, how do you gauge your own success?
Obviously, if you are an artist who is working in the music business on a full-time basis, a continual stream of financial gain is mandatory. I personally don’t think it is a sole gauge of success, but for many artists, it may very well be considered a major success factor.
In many ways, the word “success” seems to indicate some kind of an endpoint to a music career and implies the full satisfaction of music career goals. Instead, I think of my own music work over the decades as a continuous journey, which has taken me through some occasionally predictable, and more often unexpected, directions through time. There have been accomplishments and achievements along my journey which have certainly been rewarding, and have helped to fuel the fire and passion to keep my music work moving forward through the years. But, I have never been tempted to declare ‘success’ at any point along that journey.
Perhaps my definition of success is more about the continuance and longevity of my music career, with the production of new music. New goals are continually being identified and new project plans are always in front of me. Since the earliest days that I have been working in the music field, I’ve had a deep appreciation of how fortunate I have been to be doing exactly what I love to do over all these years. So, maybe that is my success definition.
Recently an original press of your album with Bill Cooley, In Debt, has been made available online for $1500 USD. When you see a number like that attached to music you made almost 50 years ago, I’m interested to know how your opinion on the monetization of art changes. Do you feel like it is a corruption of your work to have such a price on it or do you see it as a testament to the timeless quality of your work, that it has accrued such value and regard over the years?
Back in the early 2000s, I was in the recording studio working on a new album release when I first became aware that my original three albums from the ‘70s had been rediscovered by psych-folk/rock fans and vinyl record collectors around the globe. The high prices being paid for the albums at collector’s shows and online auctions were very surprising to me. But, I was most pleased that the music I had written and recorded on those early albums was finally getting that level of attention and interest from the fans of that music genre and collectors around the world.
I don’t feel that the auctions’ sales prices were in any way a corruption of my music work. The marketplace determines pricing and value through demand and actual sales results. I do wish that I had held on to a few of those early albums, but I was always more thrilled with the notion that my records were prominently displayed and being sold out in the record stores. including the Tower Records store chain in California. It felt like a mainstream music sales adventure. However, the albums were sold at Tower (Records) back then for around $6.00, versus the dealer’s $1500.00 price tag on this current eBay auction, so it was a very different payday for me as the recording artist back in time.
The first three albums were originally released in low production volumes and with a limited distribution, so it is not hard to understand that original copies of the records are difficult to obtain and are pricey, particularly outside the U.S. In 2008, Guerssen Records in Catalonia, Spain produced, reissued, and distributed all three of my 70’s albums into a worldwide marketplace, thereby making my music available everywhere at very reasonable prices. The quality of albums they produced was exceptional and they introduced my music work to an extensive global audience. But, for many of the psych-folk/ rock genre fans and collectors, the interest level and their efforts to procure the original vinyl copies of my albums has never slowed down.
Now I’d like to ask you about your music itself because you work in such a myriad of styles ranging from the seemingly tropically inspired “Sightly Sue” to the psych-blues of “I Need a Change”, meanwhile, vocally, you have a very distinct and singular sound. How would you go about writing your songs, did the vocal melody and lyrics come first or would you begin with your instruments?
My songwriting process has remained virtually unchanged from the very first days of writing and composing songs. When I write songs, I write the lyrics and compose the music all at the very same time. I can also hear possible ideas for the backing instrumental and vocal tracks in my head as well.
I quickly learned that the initial song ideas and concepts were often just available to me as moments in time, and had to be captured and preserved on a recording before walking away. Otherwise, I would risk losing those song concepts and ideas to the passage of even a short time. So, no matter how inconvenient it might have been at that time, I always powered up recording equipment, grabbed a guitar, and started recording scratch tracks while working through the lyrics, guitar patterns, vocals, and other song ideas. Over the next day or two, I would go through those scratch tracks, moving forward with the actual song creation and living with the song until I was completely satisfied with the overall song, lyrics, vocals, instrumental composition, and arrangement.
In terms of the music style variations on my albums that you mentioned, my music is very difficult to put into any music category box. My music interests are diverse and range through several music genres, from psych-rock, psych folk, some hard(er) rock, some country, some blues, and more. When I first start working with a new song concept, I let the songwriting and music composition process lead me to the genre or style that best fits the song. That accounts for the category distance between songs like “Sightly Sue”, “Good Morning World”, “I Need a Change” and “Returning To The Flame”.
In a 2018 interview with It’s Psychedelic Baby magazine, you declared your songwriting credo, a piece of advice you’d received from a record producer in the early ’70s: “If you don’t live it, then don’t write songs about it”. This rule is evident across the decades of music you’ve made and it gives your work an intimate, lived-in feeling that is absent from many artists’ discographies. It also makes the music intensely personal to you as an artist. I am curious, throughout the numerous appearances in film and television your music has made, how do you connect with the placement of your music outside of the context of what these songs meant to you when you wrote them? Do you feel like their use in the show is faithful to the lyrics you wrote?
As a songwriter, it has always been my hope that listeners would find their own way into my songs and develop their own interpretations of the songs’ meanings. To me, it’s all about the listener’s view of how the songs/lyrics may connect with their own lives, personal stories, and experiences. Conversely, it is not important to me that anyone’s interpretation of the song’s meaning aligns directly with my own or the personal experiences which formed the background for my writing of those songs.
The same concept applies to the use of my music in TV series, movies, and other film applications. I have always been fascinated with the film/TV director’s/music supervisor’s placements of my songs within their film productions. It has always been very clear to me, after a short study, how they were interpreting and utilizing my songs/lyrics to support, reinforce and contribute to specific scenes or full segments of the film. Their interpretation of the songs’ meanings seldom align with my own, but I have really enjoyed and connected with their placement choices and can easily understand why a particular song was chosen for a scene, a show, or a series. The use of my music in TV and films has been an exciting new direction for my music work, and the film licensing experiences with the Netflix TV series, the An Interview TV series, and many other film applications have been great.
My final question to you concerns your artistic journey. For your contemporary and eventual label mate, David Bixby, music was necessary to his survival, it was an outlet that allowed him to exorcise his demons. What role did music play in your life and how was it necessary to you? I’m interested to hear the inciting incident or series of incidents and influences that led you to find your place in music.
Since I was about 8 years old, I was a constant listener and follower of music. Soon after that time frame, the British Invasion groups including the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Yardbirds and so many others first appeared and took over the radio charts. The evening I saw the Rolling Stones’ first TV performance in the U.S., I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life and I started learning and obsessively practicing both electric and acoustic guitars. I must admit that their audience, filled with hundreds of screaming girls, may also have contributed to my “I wanna do that” decision.
While those early days may have set me off on a lifelong journey in music, there were many incidents and happenings through time that continued to inspire and lead me into new projects, challenges, and directions. For example, I played guitar and sang lead vocals in many rock bands through the years, took new directions with duos and solo performances, the recording and release of seven record albums, constant songwriting and composing, a few major record label contracts, the use of my music in Netflix TV series and other film applications, and a library of over 400 songs that I’ve written and recorded. All of that has certainly kept me busy, fully engaged, and excited about what still lies ahead with my music work.