David Hajdu is a well-known non-fiction author whose books include a 1997 biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn called Lush Life and 2011’s Positively 4th Street, about the Greenwich Village folk scene of the ’60s which helped birth the career of Bob Dylan—both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also a noted critic who has written extensively—and not always glowingly—about music for an array of titles, including his current home The Nation and, back in the ’90s, Entertainment Weekly. One thing for which he is not well-known is songwriting. So, Hajdu is aware he may cause a few eyebrows to be raised with the release of an album, Waiting for the Angel (out Aug. 28), on which he has contributed the lyrics for tunes penned in collaboration with a list of musicians including singer-songwriter Jill Sobule and pianist-composer Fred Hersch. “I do think that people will think, Well, who the f–k does he think he is?” says Hajdu.
Hajdu doesn’t sing on the jazz-informed collection, whose numbers are fronted by an array of performers, such as theater veteran Michael Winther, Australian vocalist Jo Lawry, and Hajdu’s wife, the singer Karen Oberlin. But the writer admits he is concerned about the degree to which he is sticking out his neck with this venture. “Oh, in a big way,” says Hajdu, 60. If I still worked at EW, you know what I would do? I’d make some calls to all the musicians who I wrote severely critical reviews of, and I’d send them the CD, and I’d say, ‘What do you think of this?’ I’d call Philip Glass and Sting and John Zorn and all the revered icons of contemporary music who I’ve had some trouble with as a critic—and I’d give them a chance!”
Hajdu was initially encouraged to try his hand at songwriting by Sobule, with whom he had become friendly after interviewing her for a 2002 New York Times Magazine article. “Jill liked it—and I like people who like me,” he laughs. Five years ago, the pair came up with the idea for an album which would feature songs inspired by a vintage charm bracelet belonging to Sobule with lyrics from writers not known for songwriting. The result, Dottie’s Charms, was released by Sobule in 2014 and featured contributions from, among others, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, and Hajdu himself.
“Jill said, ‘You know, you’re pretty good at this, why don’t you do more?” says Hajdu, recalling the genesis of Waiting for the Angel. “I went, ‘Well, I don’t have the calling.’ She said, ‘If thinking about songs day and night isn’t a calling, I don’t know what is.’ So, we sat down in my living room and we wrote [the song] ‘The Angel in the Attic,’ together. I thought, Well, this is fun.”
Hajdu was further inspired by a quote from one of his other subjects. “I thought about something Bob Dylan said,” he explains. “Which was, one of the reasons he started writing songs was that nobody was writing the songs he wanted to perform. So he said, ‘I had to write them myself.’ The kind of songs he wanted to do, didn’t exist. And there’s a little bit of a parallel to that here. One of the kinds of songs that I wished existed just didn’t exist. What I mean by that is, songs that have the complexity and the grimness of PJ Harvey or Nick Cave but with the complexity of jazz and the meticulousness of the great Tin Pan Alley writers. So, I thought, Well, I’m going to try to do it myself.”
What does all this mean from a lyrical standpoint? Well, Hajdu describes “The Angel in the Attic” as “a pretty little song about sex abuse and suicide” while the lyrics for another track, the Jo Lawry-sung ballad “Good Things Happen Slowly,” were inspired by the near-death experience of Fred Hersch, who both cowrote the song and plays piano on it. “It’s about Fred having been in a coma for three months, nearly dead from AIDS,” says Hajdu. “While he was in a coma, his partner Scott asked his doctor how is he doing. The doctor said, ‘Good things happen slowly and bad things happen fast.'”
Hajdu says he is determined to continue his songwriting adventures and is at work on a couple of more numbers to augment a live performance of the album, to be held at Brooklyn’s Rockwood Musical Hall venue on Sept. 2. But how has Hajdu’s newfound musical career affected his music criticism? The obvious thought would be that he now might have more empathy for for the artists he writes about. “Well, it’s obvious and also true,” he says. ” I don’t think I’m getting softer as a critic but maybe something’s happened that’s made me a little more sympathetic. I always thought, That can’t be easy. And now this reinforces my supposition and brings it home more deeply to me now—this really is hard.”
You can hear the track “The Angel in the Attic,” below.
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