Summer Mixtape: How Jackson Browne balances songwriting about his personal life v. politics

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Jackson Browne’s latest album includes a song titled “A Human Touch.” He says, “The real thing at play in the song is our compassion for one another, and the ability to recognize each other's humanity when in crisis.” Photo by Nels Israelson.

Press Play continues its weeklong “Summer Mixtape” series, featuring artist interviews and custom sets from KCRW DJs.  In today’s installment, Jackson Browne reflects on songwriting for the past and future, and Chris Douridas shares his Jackson Browne-inspired summer playlist. Follow our Summer Mixtape playlist on Spotify to stay up on all of this week's tunes.  

Follow all of the music from this week’s Summer Mixtape series on our  Spotify playlist . Listen to our Summer Mixtapes with LedisiDJ Travis HolcombeMBE DJs Anthony Valadez and Novena Carmel, and Yola.

Singer/songwriter Jackson Browne’s debut record came out in 1972, and since then, he’s released more than a dozen albums. He's been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His laid-back folk sound and deeply personal lyrics tell a half-century-long story about life, love and heartbreak — with a distinctly Southern California sound. 

Browne grew up in Los Angeles and attended high school in Fullerton. In fact, he was a high school student when he wrote a song that went on to define his storytelling style. 

Browne just released his 15th studio album this month called “Downhill from Everywhere.” 

KCRW: Your song “ These Days ” became famous thanks to Nico from the Velvet Underground, and it was recorded by many other artists, including Greg Allman and Drake. You were 16 when you wrote it. Why did you have other people record it before you did?

Jackson Browne: “Well, I didn't have a record deal. Nico had hired me as her accompanist, so she learned some of my songs. On her first record, she did songs by Lou Reed and Tim Hardin. There was a Bob Dylan song that no one had ever heard called ‘I’ll Keep it with Mine.’ So she was curating songwriters then. 

... But her second album was full of her own compositions. And, in my opinion, it's the real start of her creative life. She didn't really like what happened to ‘These Days’ or any of the songs on that record because Tom Wilson, the producer [at Columbia], just put a bunch of string arrangements on it. It was a sort of solution to what to do with somebody who was singing a bunch of different songs, and they didn't put a lot of time into it. 

It's more enduring than her other work, actually. It’s the sound of her voice. A lot of people, when they do it, they sort of emulate her version. Glen Campbell did, actually. ... I'm sure he'd probably never heard my version. And my version, I was emulating Greg Allman because I'd written the song and I sang it a certain way. Greg Allman slowed it down and played it real slow. ... That's how he remembered it because he heard that song before anybody else. He knew that song from hanging out in LA when they were not even the Allman Brothers yet. They were called the Hourglass then. I sang it to him. I met them when they were living in Southern California for a while.”

Was this a moment where you were all sharing songs with each other and playing for each other?

“They were being managed by a guy that managed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I had been in the Dirt Band and Jeff Hanna from the Dirt Band turned me on to them. … I thought they were incredible. Matter of fact, they were playing around Southern California and [Allman Brothers’] Dwayne and Greg invited me to a rehearsal of Frank Zappa’s band, because they'd done a show together with Frank Zappa somewhere out in Riverside or Azusa or something. And he befriended them and invited them to come to a rehearsal to visit. He was doing it in a theater in Hollywood. 

It was great. They were rehearsing on stage and rehearsing some physical parts of the music too. But it was really great to hear them go from ‘Petrushka’ to ‘Bristol Stomp.’ ... They were very powerful young players, and Zappa recognized that and invited them to come hang and watch what he was doing. 

I was probably about 19, maybe 20. [Greg Allman] remembered [‘These Days’] from my singing it, but he didn't say anything about it at the time. And when I ran into him later, after the Allman Brothers were huge, he said he was going to put it on his solo project. … One of the odd factoids of this whole thing is like, if the song has been recorded, anybody can record it, as long as they pay. You don't have to get permission or anything. So that song by that time had been recorded by Nico.”

Why do you think that song has remained so popular throughout the decades? 

“I think it's Nico. She sounded so disaffected. She was so arctic and remote. She had a German accent. And she sang beautifully in a voice that was rather low for a woman. But she had a persona that really comes out in that. As a matter of fact, the way she pronounced the words was very much a product of how I sang in that at that time. Not that I sang like Nico, but ... I was trying to teach her the notes, and I kind of exaggerated the syllables. And that's the way she learned. 

People have always remarked that it's a rather old song, or a song that would normally be written by an older person. But it's not that. I think it's a very young song. It's about the sorrow that you feel encountering your own fallibility. You're beginning to see that you make mistakes, and some of them are long-lasting. That's something that happens around the time of your mid-teens.”

At 16, you feel things really deeply. Do you still feel that way? 

“When a song contains that feeling or emotion, there's times when I sing it when I'm really emotionally experiencing that song. And what happens is that you experience it with a different history. By the time you're older, you've got a whole life full of experiences that may really reinforce that feeling or add to it. So some songs get amplified by just the passing of time. For me, but also for the listeners. 

I remember feeling that way when I was still young. I remember hearing a Dylan song that I hadn't heard in several years. But it was a song I loved when it came out and listened to for an entire summer. ... When I heard it a few years later, it came flooding back with all kinds of memories that were not that old, but felt like a huge chunk of my life ago. … It works in a funny way, what your mind remembers and what takes up residence in your mind.”

There’s a song on your new album called “ A Human Touch .” What is it about? 

“This was a song written for a movie with two other people, Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwen. They needed the end credits for a movie about the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. ... It's a really interesting film and it's really about understanding not only what these patients went through as they were dying from a mysterious disease, but the doctors themselves not knowing if they might be in danger of passing it on to their own families. ... So the film is really about overcoming those fears, and the doctors and nurses in particular were so courageous and treating them with humanity and with compassion. Taking off the hazmat suits and just simply giving them solace and comfort as they died. 

When I was offered to write a song for it, I didn't think I'd be able to do it. But when I heard what Steve and Leslie had started, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a great song.’ It sort of dispelled my fears of not being able to. I've turned down so many offers to write for films because I’m just afraid that I won't get it, that it won't be good enough.”

I couldn't help but think this song is also about the current COVID crisis. 

“Yeah, it has resonances in the present situation. The fact that we've always had difficulty with epidemics, pandemics. Our health situation is precarious, always. It brings a lot of that stuff out of the song. And the real thing at play in the song is our compassion for one another, and the ability to recognize each other's humanity when in crisis.”

Where do you think we are, publicly, when you're talking about this compassion?

“We're at a crossroads here. I'm about to embark on a tour, and all the places we're playing have varying rules about COVID protocol. In some places, they've challenged the constitutionality of telling people that they have to wear a mask when they enter their store. And that's really an astonishing place to get to, where we don't agree about that, about public health, about science.”

“I want my songs to be persuasive, and not exult in some point of view that is understood or given,” says Jackson Browne. Photo by Nels Israelson. 

When you go to places with different political values than your own, do you address it, or do you avoid it and just put on a good show?

“Here's how I deal with it. I assume that people share my values. I do understand that not everybody does. But that's not really the focus. I think that my job, as a writer, is to persuade. So I want my songs to be persuasive, and not exult in some point of view that is understood or given. 

It sort of played out a long time ago with my song ‘Lives in the Balance,’ which was about U.S. involvement in Central America. And I thought I had to explain it because I knew that not everybody knew what we were doing there. 

And that turned out to be a problem, because then people really feel like they're being lectured. And you are. You’re trying to tell them something in so many words. And I've found that the song works best [when] you just let the song do its work. Just sing the song. If the song is good, the song will do its job of introducing a subject or getting to the heart of the matter.”

Your songwriting is so personal. How does it change when you make it public? Does it take on a different sense of who you are when you perform or record it? Do you see yourself differently when you listen to those recordings?

“I try to ignore that. I've always thought this is really not a matter of me recounting the events of my life. The song has to be about the listener. So it's about singing something with details from a life, but it's interesting that those details are somewhat universal. In a lot of cases, sometimes not. 

That's an aspect of short story writing too. They want the details, they want the odd, sort of seeable differences of a life. It makes it difficult to write a song about a relationship you're in because you feel like you're making some sort of announcement or like you're making a report. 

It’s the third time I stopped writing about my personal life altogether and started just writing about social issues. I didn't do it intentionally. I just sort of shied away from it. For instance, I wrote a song called ‘In the Shape of a Heart.’ It was about the death of my first wife, but many, many years after. … I found as I was doing it, I said, ‘Wow, this is about something that happened so long ago, but I think it took me that long to be able to sing about it or write something about it or know what to say.’ 

And that’s sometimes what's going on if I sing a very personal song about something in the past. I did it so much that each time I’d start a song I thought, ‘Boy, you better have a good reason to be going back here.’ Now, actually, a journalist pointed out to me with this record that all the songs are in the present tense. And I didn't realize that. I wasn't trying to do that. But I think I like it.”