American-Sikh singer-songwriter and indie rocker Hargo Khalsa’s provocative new albumOut Of Mankind is out now. We talked to Khalsa about his songwriting heroes and “Crying For John Lennon,” which was the last song to be produced by Phil Spector.
When did you first start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs sometime between eight and nine years-old. I started with just being able to write pieces of songs, short ideas, sometimes just a verse or a chorus of a song that would never make it to completion. It seems like it wasn’t that long though until I actually started writing full songs, a development inspired, in part, by deal I made with my parents that if I could write a full song with verses, choruses, and a bridge, that they would someday take me to record it in a studio. So I got serious. My songs were, naturally, very simple at first. Three or four chords, at the most. But they always had hooks and interesting lyrics. I think I started out more as a poet than a songwriter; I was fascinated by lyrics. My melodic sense definitely matured rapidly over time, as well as my musical understanding (which came from listening to the Blues and reading The Beatles chord charts, and tons of experimentation).
Tell us about your song “Crying For John Lennon.”
John was my favorite Beatle. Almost everyone has one. But beyond my appreciation for him as a songwriter and musician, I always connected with his vision of Peace disintegrating social boundaries. Several years ago I was playing guitar in my parents little home studio set up in the garage and the words “I’m crying for John Lennon…” came into my head, out of nowhere. Sometimes I get a concept for a song, a title or a theme, and then the rest comes (sometimes the opposite) and this was one of those times. The song (“Crying for John Lennon”) wrote itself. I think, from start to finish, the song took maybe 2 hours. I wrote the verses and chorus and the bridge the following day. I realized that the song really isn’t about John Lennon. What it’s saying is that I’m crying for him because the vision of Peace that he stood for was fading in the world, that he would be sad to see what things had become. 9/11 was still fresh, we were at war, terror alerts were propagated everywhere in the media. It was a dark time, to me. That song was probably an expression of my own frustration and tenuous grip on the hope that things would get better.
How did your career after that?
After I wrote “Crying For John Lennon” some interesting things did start to happen. I found some band mates in San Diego, and we started playing shows at clubs in town, which was a departure from the coffee shop circuit I’d been playing for a few years. Mark Elsis, founder of john-lennon.com and an independent filmmaker, heard my demo of “Crying for John Lennon” online, got in touch with me, and we became friends. He was working on a documentary about people going to Strawberry Fields in Central Park to honor John on his birthday and memorial every year, and asked if he could use my song at the end of his film, which ended up happening.
You were the last artist to be produced by Phil Spector. How was that experience?
It was both amazing and very surprising. When I met Phil at the taping of his interview for Mark’s film, and he heard my song I was so nervous. He is one of the most recognized record producers of the 20th century, producing Let It Be, Imagine, All Things Must Pass, and so many other great records. After listening to it in his billiards room he said that he loved the song, that it was reminiscent of a demo John would have given him to produce back in the day, and that I “reminded him of a young John Lennon.”
The latter statement was, and is, the most arresting and humbling thing I’ve ever been told. Mark asked him if he’d be interested in producing the song for the film, and, after a few weeks of driving around listening to the demo in his Mercedes, he agreed. I was instructed to send all the tracks and session files I’d recorded to a studio in Sherman Oaks where he would begin working on the song in between pre-trial court dates and lawyer meetings.
About a month later, I was asked to come up to LA to record my vocals. I was to come ALONE, as Phil didn’t want anyone but us and the engineer in the studio. I arrived outside the gate at the studio and met Phil who was with his bodyguard. We went into the studio and I ended up chatting with him for about 45 minutes, just the two of us, while we waited for the engineer who was running late. We talked about Bowie and photographer Mick Rock (a mutual friend who had done Phil ‘Back to Mono’ boxed set).
The actual vocal session was probably about 2 hours. Phil sat with his back to me, as I looked through the window in the isolation booth, and would relay his feedback and thoughts to the engineer (which I couldn’t hear) who would then tell me what Phil wanted. The first time they played back the song, with everything they had done, I was stunned. It sounded so incredible and right from the start had Phil’s touch all over it.
By the end of the track the Wall of Sound, with his signature strings, tambourine, and piano was in full force. This was the sound I heard in so many of my favorite songs, and to hear it enveloping my own is still beyond words for me. At the end of of the session he told me how pleased he was with how the whole thing came out. I had a CD with some other brand new demos I was working on and the engineer, Graham Ward, and I listened to them together in the control room. Phil, from the other room, came back in and listened to both tracks and really liked them, particularly the first demo (which would become “Empty Cups” on our new album Out of Mankind).
What’s a song on the new album your particularly proud of?
It’s so hard to say, as songs are like children to a songwriter. But, if pressed I’d have to say that I’m most proud of “Crashing Down” (parts I & II). I know that’s cheating because they’re two songs, technically… But they were written, and the band performs them live, as one. I’m proud of “Crashing Down” because it does everything that I want it to do. It’s fun, it’s kind of funky, sort of a Neil Young groove on the rhythm guitar. It’s a bit more complex than other songs, without really feeling like it (a trick I learned from studying the old Beatles charts), as there is a key change and a time signature change midway through the song. The lyrics are some of the boldest on the record. I’m talking about defying systems of control (particularly the Federal Reserve’s chokehold on our economy and politics, the education system, etc.) and staving off a generational tendency towards apathy and disinterest. Then, at the end, in “Crashing Down part II”, after I’ve gone through layers of funky angst, frustration and fury, there is total beauty and aching hope.
What’s a lyric on the album you’re especially proud of?
In the last verse of “In Reverse” I’m talking about redemption and 2nd chances in a relationship, being clear on what you want the 2nd time around. “But what if I turned around?/Only a fool keeps looking for what he’s already found”. That lyric always resonated with me and, in fact, was what convinced John Jolley (bassist) to join the band when he heard the demo I gave him. He, too, is is a lover of Radiohead and poignant, melancholy lyrics!
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I love the word Myrmidon. Never had a chance to use it in a song. But who knows? I’m not a huge fan of the word “cute.” It strikes me as kind of insipid and condescending, depending on the context.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting?
Do you revise a lot, or do you like to write automatically? I typically write automatically. I’ve always felt like the best songs write themselves, like they already exist, and, as an artist, we allow them to take shape in the world. If I do revise, it’s fairly small details. Rarely do I strike whole sections or ideas of songs. If the song isn’t immediately going down the right path, then I move on to a completely different idea. Sometimes songs come in potions, though. A verse or chorus may come days, weeks, or months before the rest unfolds.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Gardens of Alize” seems to always have a impact. I’ve had fans write me messages on Facebook or Twitter talking about how much it speaks to them, or asking questions about what I wrote it about, etc. Whenever we play live, that song always gets a huge response and seems to be the one people remember the most.
Who’s an underrated songwriter in your opinion?
I think Craig Nicholls from The Vines is an underrated songwriter. His craft is pretty impressive. Lyrically, not the strongest. But melodically, his layering of background vocals, the hooks, memorable guitar riffs, and so many other things. His songs feel like they take 10 minute to listen to, but they’re like 2 minutes long. I think it’s his autism or something. They just have such a dreamlike quality.
Say you’re going to be banished to a desert island and you can only pick one catalog to bring with you: Tom Petty or Bob Dylan’s. Who do you chose, and why?
I think I have to go with Bob Dylan. The depth, variety, and subtlety of his catalog is unmatched in popular music. His use of imagery, wit, and his ability to sum up the way we feel in certain situations (like he’s walking in your shoes, or perhaps you in his) continues to blow my mind. There are very few artists who are both incredibly melodic and gifted with phrasing. I can only think of a handful off the top of my head that I would put in that category. Dylan and Lennon are at the top.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Imagine” is a perfect song, to me. The most memorable piano hook. The most honest lyrics. A simple, beautiful melody. What more can you ask for?