Dave Frishberg never intended to be a singer.
In fact, the singer/songwriter/pianist a four-time Grammy nominee for such clever vocal vignettes as Peel Me a Grape, My Attorney Bernie, I Can’t Take You Nowhere and Blizzard of Lies — earned a degree in journalism before he moved to New York in 1957 to become house pianist at the Half Note, a storied jazz club where he played with stars ranging from Zoot Sims to Carmen McRae. For 20 years, Frishberg wrote songs for other singers and TV shows until he finally began to sing them himself.
Since that first solo concert in 1977, Frishberg, born in 1933, has gained an international reputation as a literate writer in the vintage American pop tradition. Also an accomplished jazz pianist, he chooses to do his solo act (hear the CD, Dave Frishberg: By Himself) only infrequently in Portland, though, preferring to work as accompanist to singers such as Rebecca Kilgore, with whom he has a new CD scheduled for release in October, and in instrumental duos.
He discussed his latest project, an album (due on Blue Note in October, 2000) with fellow singer/songwriter/pianist Bob Dorough titled Who’s On First? (together they wrote I’m Hip in 1964) and other work-in-progress in a recent conversation at his Laurelhurst home.
The way I write doesn’t have much connection to what’s going on in today’s music. I write for hire very infrequently these days. People today are more likely to call Lyle Lovett for a song than me. I couldn’t write for the market today because I don’t believe in it. And if you don’t believe in it you can’t write anything good.
Most of the stuff I write nowadays is for myself to sing, so I automatically don’t write anything challenging because I have a limited range and limited technique and so forth . My songs are very austere and confidential .
I think of a song as the expression of a kind of character. I like to get a specific character singing the song. It isn’t necessarily me. If I imagine a character when I write, it helps me focus on a point of view. If I can get some kind of character in mind, and a turn of phrase that might be characteristic of that person, it helps me find lyrics that will fit.
One of the new songs on the CD is called Too Long in L.A., written from the point of view of a driver who’s waiting to make a left turn. When the song ends, he still hasn’t made the turn . And I had this image of the guy watching the arrow turn back to red again before he can make the left turn. That made me smile and I thought it might be funny,Â and that was what I wanted to be the hinge of the song . It’s like a prelude to road rage .
Johnny Mandel wrote a melody he handed to me two weeks ago a happy, benign little tune, and I’ve got to somehow match the lyric to it. I’m trying to find something that’ll fit a certain part of the song. That’ll be the title. I always start looking for the title. Then I try and construct a lyric that’ll point to that title again and again.
The melody goes through my mind, and I attempt to fit little phrases on those notes. Sometimes I just sit and let something unconscious occur and hope I’ll get lucky. But once I know exactly the part of the song I want to outfit with lyrics, then I’ll be able to write the rest around that … It’s very much like a puzzle: once you’ve found a certain key, the rest of it is filling in blanks .
When I first began to write, the songs were just bubbling in my head. But I don’t have a million songs in my head waiting to get out anymore; it’s hard to think of one.
One of the songs on my last CD was called I Want to Be a Sideman. What I’d like to do this may sound crazy I really would like to do that. I miss the social experience of being a jazz player. I really would like to be playing in an ensemble; it’s one of the things I like best about being a musician.