Ned Doheny: “I never thought I was part of the “California Sound”, my sensibilities were more East Coast”

17th May 2011

Interview with the American singer, songwriter and guitarist Ned Doheny following the release of the album Darkness Beyond the Fire. This is the original version of the interview published in French by Yuzu Melodies, a website dedicated to pop music.

In the book « Hotel California: Singer-songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons », Barney Hoskyns wrote that your family was very wealthy. Could you tell me what your childhood was like ?

I think children the world over feel their lives are normal regardless of the circumstances. It is all they know. My life was no exception. I went to good schools, learned to ride horses, shoot guns and surf. My father taught me to love the natural world, the ocean especially, and that love is as much a part of me as my skin.

Do you remember when and why you started playing music ?

I started playing guitar when I was still in Grammar School – right around the third grade. I don’t recall asking for a guitar, but there it was underneath the Christmas tree. Soon it came to define me. I was the kid who played guitar. My first performance was “Adelita” in the fourth grade.

In your teenagehood, what kind of music and artists were you fond of ?

The radio was on fire in those days. I listened to all the usual suspects: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Rogers, Bobby Darin, the doo-wap bands, Stax, Atlantic, Motown and Sun . My first guitar crush was Lonnie Mack’s version of “Memphis”. The solo tore my head off. I also loved be-bop (courtesy of my Dad). By the time the Beatles came along I had been playing guitar for nearly six years.

Could you evoke the life in L.A. during the late 60s and the early 70s. Was it the 20th century Sodom and Gomorrah or a place full of young people who enjoy life and just want to have fun ?

The 60s and 70s found us in our late teens and twenties. We had grown up in the 50s with the threat of nuclear annihilation, skinny ties, narrow lapels, short hair, novelty tunes and sense of national pride bordering on jingoism. We were ready to turn it loose.
Honestly Bo, I think you had it right: it was kids enjoying life, wanting to have fun and it was Sodom and Gomorrah. In the music business things were a bit more extreme, but even civilians explored their penchant for excess. It was in the nature of the times.

In L.A. you were close to young artists such as Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Don Henley, Glenn Frey… how did you feel and how did they feel at that time ?

Were you happy young people who were sure to become successful by playing their music or was it a period of doubt and anxiety ?

We were all pretty excited to be on the other side of the radio, getting paid for doing what we loved. The Asylum contingent was competitive, but in a healthy way. On a personal level, things got a little wicked, but it generated some great music. I can’t vouch for anyone else’s state of mind, but I was racked with doubt. I agonized over the authenticity of the work I was doing. The giants we looked up to had set the bar high.

You recorded your first album for David Geffen’s Asylum. How was the music business at that time ? Is it true that managers were double-dealing and even sometimes dangerous persons ?

The music business has always been an abattoir: the cunning exploiting the distracted. Geffen was no exception, although for a time I think he really did love the music.

I was very surprised the first time I’ve listened to your first album because it didn’t sound country at all although it seems that everybody around you was playing country music at that time. Does it mean that you were not very interested by that kind of music ?

I never thought I was part of the “California Sound”, my sensibilities were more East Coast. I had my father’s love of jazz combined with a fascination for rhythm and blues. I also loved the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Bacharach and David. Country didn’t have enough rhythm for me, but the stories were wonderful.

When I listen to this firt album, it reminds me the music of Carole King or Todd Rundgren. Were they artists that inspired you when you made this album ?

I always liked Todd Rundgren – a talented fellow. I preferred the songs that Carol wrote with her husband, Gerry Goffin. But no, they weren’t really influences.

« Hard Candy » and « Prone » were produced by Steve Cropper. Could you tell me how do you meet him and how was it to work with him ?

Steve wanted to work with me after he heard, “A Love of Your Own”. He was a hero of mine, and a real pleasure to work with.

These two albums were obviously influenced by rhythm and blues. Was it the Steve Cropper’s touch or was it your will?

My will.

Some songs were very disco (« To Prove my love », « Each Time You Pray », « Sing to Me »). Were you influenced by that music ? Did you like that disco period in the late 70s ?

I wasn’t a big fan of disco. I thought the 80s were pretty bleak musically, but Nile Rogers was a great rhythm player. I’m basically a rhythm lover. I think what bothered me the most about the disco era was an absence of good lyrics.

You dedicated the « Prone » album to the memory of John Barrick. Who was he ?

John Barrick was a buddy of ours from the days when we used to hang out at the Troubador and Dan Tana’s . We used to go camping in the desert together. He was a really good soul.

Your first three albums are really great and they seem to have strong potential success but they didn’t sell that much, especially in the United States. What were the reasons for that commercial failure ?

Who knows? I wasn’t much of a team player in those days. Perhaps I could have been a little more helpful. I have always been ambivalent about self-promotion. My family ran afoul of the public eye a while back and discouraged exposing our secrets. Maybe it just wasn’t my time.

The late 70s in LA seems to be a very sad period, especially in the music business with a great deal of drug abuses. Even though many artists have seen their dreams come true, they didn’t seem to be happy and you can hear it in the records of that time. What happened ?

Everyone thinks if they become successful that it will heal them. Sadly, this is not the case. There isn’t enough money in all creation to make you like yourself.

I’ve read that you used to be the DJ of a Japanese radio show named « Postcards from Hollywood ». How did it happen ? What kind of music did you play in this show ?

I was recording for Polystar Records at the time and the radio show was a spinoff of that.
I don’t really listen to that much music. I’m kind of a snob. It was hard finding enough music to fill the show. Still, it was a lot of fun.

You recorded your 80s and 90s albums for the Japanese market, was it the country where your were the most successful ?

I actually sold more albums in the states, but for a time I was more well known in Japan.

Did you live in Japan ? And if yes, how was your life there ? Did you like it ?

I have never lived in Japan, although I did spend the month of March there. I was in Tokyo during the earthquake. Japan is my second home.

In the cover of « Life after romance » you look like a Beach boy, are you a surfer ?

I have surfed since I was in the 6th grade.

Your brand new album is named « The Darkness beyond the Fire ». It’s a very gloomy title, very different from the titles of your other albums. Could you present me this new album ? How does it sound ?

It isn’t gloomy at all. It is composed of tunes I needed to let go of. It actually feels like my fourth American album. I am rather proud of it.

What do you think of today’s pop music ? Who are the contemporary artist that you like ?

I find most of today’s pop music repetitive and predictable. No one comes to mind.

Do you like to play live ? Is there a chance that you come to sing in Europe and in Paris in particular ?

I really enjoy playing live. I would love to play in Europe.

See the other English interviews published by Yuzu Melodies.