His main client is still The New Yorker, for which he provides interstitial and story illustrations with regularity. And his performing career got started oddly, when he toured for a while as a self-described “Slideshow Poet” where he accompanied projections of his paintings, drawings and Polaroids with readings of his poetry in dive bars and rock clubs. And yet for now, music has got his interest – and ours, given the talent that Friedman is showing not only for wordcraft, but also for fine, hauntingly memorable melodies.
“Writing and recording songs, for me, represents the expressive and therapeutic side of my nature and the things I enjoy doing. Nobody assigns me an album to create or a song to write like they do with the illustrations I make for magazines,” he writes of his bifurcated life, all parts of which he loves. “It’s true that I came into songwriting a bit late in the game, and have only been strumming a guitar and singing for six years. I never touched a guitar or sang a note in my life until the spring of 2005 – a few months before I wrote and recorded (for better or worse) the songs on my first album, Taken Man. And while my brain knows this to be true, my heart has no idea that I’m not still an oil-painter. It still thinks I’m in the studio painting every day, and I’m only hoping it doesn’t read this piece or it will open a whole can of worms, and I’m not quite ready to have that kind of sit-down with my heart, who is still very young.”
Friedman acknowledges a deep sense of connection to the region, both from his own family trips to the old Borscht Belt, going back several generations, as well as his wife’s connections into the Woodstock area. “Images of the Ulster and Sullivan County region of New York State pervade this new album,” he notes, describing a tribute that he has recorded to the life of his old touring mate and friend, the late John Herald (“Roll on, John Herald”), an ode to “the crumbling vestiges of the once-glorious Borscht Belt region” in “Motel on the Lake” and the split between country peace and city job-life that he catches in “Down by the Willow.”
“Last summer was a prolific one in that regard, and I think I wrote all of the material for Laserbeams and Dreams in the solitude and calm of the trees by the Esopus. Not that I need solitude and calm to create; in fact, a lot of the lines I write are first conceived while driving or in an elevator or waiting on line for bagels – and they hit me when I least expect it, and when I’m not calm at all. It’s the assembling that takes a bit of work, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or weaving a tapestry. I enjoy that process, but it’s not something you can do while you’re distracted. So I look forward to the slower-paced time up here, where I can work on those puzzles and figure out how to make sense of those words and half-sentences I’ve been jotting down all year.”
For this weekend’s concert, Friedman will play alongside his friend, the Wisconsin-based singer/songwriter Jeffrey Foucault (whose new album, Horse Latitudes, is getting praise similar to Friedman’s). The illustrator/singer/poet will perform his new record in its entirety, accompanied by David Goodrich and Stephan Crump, along with earlier and newer works, to be followed by a private campfire party afterwards.
“I say what I have to say in the way that I need to say and the way that I’m capable of saying it. I don’t lie in my art – or my life, really,” Friedman writes, later, as if channeling a whole new generation of musicians now making their mark. “I love when people find something in my music that they love or need or want, but I don’t approach it in a way that gets me thinking about what someone might like or might not like, or what they want or what they don’t want. I’m doing what I’m doing as the product of other artists who laid their souls on the line for me to sift through and make sense of, and who healed me when I needed it most.”
Those include, Friedman adds, connections to the past via the likes of Herald, whom he met through John Sebastian’s son Ben, when the bluegrass legend who played with Dylan in his youth expressed appreciation for what was being done with poetry and image – before song, as it were – as well as all those whom Herald and Dylan and their ilk were revering, going back a century in a mind’s eye. “When I first met Spider John Koerner, it was at a bar in Miami, Florida. There he was, sitting alone with a drink between his sets,” Friedman continued. “I said to him, ‘I bet you wouldn’t have guessed that a kid from Brooklyn (I was 23 or 24 at the time) has been listening to your music for so long and that you’ve influenced me so much.’ He took a shot and said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not supposed to know any of that. I’m just supposed to be doing this whether anyone is listening or not.’ I practically learned more from that aside than I did in four years of college.”
Andy Friedman and Jeffrey Foucault play this Saturday, July 16 at 9 p.m. at the Colony Café, located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock. Each will accompany the other, in part; and expect some very special guests from the local music scene who feel indebted to these guys for carrying on long traditions. For more information, call (845) 679-5342 or log on to www.colonycafe.com.