JD Souther’s breezy Midnight in Tokyo flows flawlessly with jazzy precision and punch. The legendary singer-songwriter’s new six-song live EP purposefully highlights hidden gems, rather than his greatest hits (Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight,” his own “Faithless Love”).
“It was one of those two-sets places, and a lot of people stayed for the second set,” the current Nashville resident says. “We said, ‘Well, they’ve already heard the hits once. Let’s just play whatever the hell we want.’ It just went great.”
CMT Edge: Midnight in Tokyo sounds intimate.
Souther: It was. It was at a 500-seat place, and my friend Jeff Coffin, a sax player, was in town. He played with me a lot, but he wasn’t actually booked on that gig. He was getting married to a Japanese girl that week. It was a great coincidence that he was there the same week. I said, “You want to come down and play a set with us one night?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll be happy to. I’ll play two sets.” It was one of those nights where from the first downbeat until the end of the set, it was wonderful.
Why release a live album?
About two years later, my front-of-the-house mixer said, “You know, I have a great set from Japan. It’s really remarkable, but the only problem is that I didn’t do it multi-track. It’s just a two-track board mix, but you should listen to it.” I listened to it, and we sat around and went, “Gee, that’s some pretty special music. We should put that out. Nobody really hears this band do a set of just this kind of stuff. Let’s do it.” There are a couple clams in it because it’s a live record, but it just felt wonderful.
It’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever made. It’s so real and natural. It was a very relaxed set with long solos. It was like playing the Blue Note or the Vanguard in New York in the ’60s. It felt very organic. The audience was right with us every note, but their mics were off for some reason, so it sounded like there were even fewer people there. We just hear the audience through the stage mics, but I said, “Let’s just do it.” And I asked the record label, and they said, “Absolutely. Let’s go.”
Why stop at six songs and not release a full-length?
The set actually had three more songs, but these felt like the best ones that ran together best. They seemed like the most complete set. It’s actually not that much shorter than albums used to be on vinyl. You could only go 20 minutes a side before you started really losing quality. Albums in those days were 35 to 42 minutes. That’s all I had to go on. It wasn’t some marketing ploy. It just felt good.
Tell the story behind writing “A Chorus of Your Own.”
It’s a song about consequences. Be careful what you wish for. You know, you make enough trouble for somebody, and the trouble will probably come back to find you. You make enough sweetness and light for somebody, and that’ll probably come back to find you, too. “You might get a chorus of your own” is just another way of saying that.
What still intrigues you about songwriting?
The near impossibility of it intrigues me. It’s difficult to do. It’s just a combination of hard work, experience, talent and plain good luck to write a really good — a really rare — song. They just don’t come along every day. It’s not that easy to write “Faithless Love” or “Prisoner in Disguise” every morning.
Your upcoming Songwriters Hall of Fame induction is a big deal. What does that mean to you?
A lot. It’s like the Oscar for my business. It’s a very small group. Somebody told me while doing the research on this that there are four times as many Oscars as there are Songwriter Hall of Fame statuettes. You have to be in the club to vote. It’s gonna be great. I’ll look out and see my friends like Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams in the audience going, “Yeah, you deserve this.”
Have you written a perfect song?
No, I’m not sure there’s such a thing. Well, there might be. I actually wrote a song this year with Arthur Hamilton, who wrote “Cry Me a River,” and I think that song is musically just about perfect. It’s such a remarkable melody. I don’t know. The perfect song? Let’s just let that hang out there for another couple hundred years. I think the closest to a perfect piece of music is “The Goldberg Variations” by Bach.
How did “Heartache Tonight” take shape?
Glenn Frey and I were at my house and were listening to Sam Cooke records. We started walking around in my kitchen just tapping our hands on the two and four [beats] and singing that melody. We had no instruments or anything, and it sounded pretty good, and we looked at each other and thought, “Gosh, we have a good song going here.” Then we got Don Henley in on it, and it got a little more detailed, and we got a second verse finished.
We just couldn’t think of a good chorus. I mean, between the three of us, to not be able to think of a good chorus is … defeating (laughs). We thought, “Damn, where should we go to make this story really have some punch?” Glenn used to work with Bob Seger when they both lived in Detroit. So, Glenn’s on the phone with Bob. He said, “Hey, Bob. John David and Don and I have this song going, and it’s really good, but we don’t really have the right chorus for it.” Bob said, “Let me hear it.” Glenn sang the song right up to the chorus, and on the phone, Bob came in right on key and sang the chorus. Glenn called me and said, “I think we have a fourth writer on this song.”
Do you have a favorite cover of your songs?
Boy. I think probably not. There are so many versions of “Faithless Love.” Glen Campbell had a hit with it. Obviously, Linda Ronstadt did the seminal one in the ’70s. It’s on Bernadette Peters’ Carnegie Hall album. She killed it. She did it almost completely a cappella, and she absolutely nailed it.
Do you typically play the hits at the shows?
I play a different set every night or at least every tour, and then we jumble it up. Yeah, if you come see me, you’re gonna hear at least two or three of the big ones. It’s only fair because that kind of works into the ticket price. If somebody pays money to see me, they’re probably going to be disappointed if they leave and I haven’t played “You’re Only Lonely.” The last thing I want is for people to leave and say, “Well, it was a great set, but he didn’t play the song I wanted to hear most.”