Singer/songwriter Pamela Polland talks about the 60s, Blues, Jazz, Ry Cooder and Hawaiian culture

"My fear is that we’ve screwed up our environment so badly, that we have done irreversible damage to our planet, and we are headed for unsustainable and unlivable status on Earth." 

Pamela Polland: A Spiritual Ocean

An award-winning singer/songwriter, Pamela has three albums on Columbia and Epic as well as three more independently released albums to her credit, and two gold records. She has performed and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Loggins, Ry Cooder, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, John Denver, Taj Mahal, Manhattan Transfer and many others. Her songs have been recorded by Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, et al.

In 1970, Pamela joined the famed Mad Dogs & Englishmen Tour with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, appearing on the resulting album as well as in the movie. After writing her first song at age nine, Pamela's musical career began to flower, as a teenager in the mid-1960's, playing folk music. In this context, she met the young, budding guitar instrumentalist, Ry Cooder. For the following two years, they worked as a duo; Ry accompanying Pamela’s performances of authentic blues material.

Pamela formed The Gentle Soul with fellow singer/songwriter Rick Stanley in 1966. The band played Southern California venues and recorded on the Columbia and Epic labels for the next three years.In 1970, she took a short "break" from her solo career to join Joe Cocker and Leon Russell for the famed Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour resulting in her participation in both the associated double album and film documentary. But in 1971, Pamela re-signed with Columbia Records and went on to tour and record as a solo singer/songwriter for the next few years. In the mid-70's, Pamela was drawn to return to her blues roots, but in a decidedly different way. She created a fictional character named Melba Rounds (got the idea from a cracker box).

Fulfilling a life-long call to live in the Hawaiian Islands, and after the release of Heart Of The World, Pamela and her noted-designer-husband Bill Ernst, resettled on the island of Maui. Pamela immersed herself in studying the culture and native language. In recent years, Pamela has performed both as a hula dancer and as a musician.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Pamela Polland sound and progress, what characterizes your music philosophy?

Well, “sound” and “philosophy” are not necessarily the same thing. I think we have to start by recognizing that I’ve been writing, performing and recording for over 50 years, and during that time I’ve sung everything from folk to blues, to rock, to jazz, to Hawaiian music, and ALL those years I have also written my own songs. So how do we describe a “sound” when I’ve done so MANY different styles of music? As a singer, I guess I would call myself “earthy” and “passionate” and “authentic.” As a writer, I just think I’m a classic singer-songwriter, not really bound to any specific genre. But as a philosophy – ah, now we get into the deep belly of it. For me, music is a way of life. Music inspires me, brings me joy, heals me, and gives me a reason to live. Music is my identity. Music connects me to “spirit”, and therefore, it could be called my religion. And I live to share it. To bring my inspiration, my joy, my healing, and my reason to live to others in hopes they too will be inspired, joyful, and healed. I know that’s a tall order, but hey, why not shoot for something grand in this life?

"Jazz is derivative of blues, but it’s so rich and layered, it has a long shelf life. Blues is the bottom line. Blues is where music and soul crawled out of the swamp together, so it’s always going to evoke emotion and connection." (Photo by Janet & Craig Becker)

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas (for songwriting) most frequently?

Oh, that’s easy to answer. Most of my songs have been inspired by falling in love or getting my heart broken. That’s typical. But I also get inspired by certain of life’s other dramas, such as monumental political events or environmental issues. My song “Heart Of The World”, for instance, is all about the question, “Have we gone too far?” Have we ruined this planet to the point that we won’t be able to sustain human life here in the next few hundred years? I don’t know the answer, but I find the question compelling, and it inspired the song.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Wow, it’s hard to choose a “most interesting” period, because there are so many great moments. And I’d like to think that THIS is a great moment and that there will be others in the future.  Some highlights were being in a duo with Ry Cooder, singing back-up vocals for Mad Dogs & Englishmen, recording with the awesome musicians I got to work with on ALL my albums. I think the “highest” moments are always the ones when I work with truly great musicians, and I’ve been very blessed in that department my whole life.

As for “the worst”?  Well, two things come to mind. Losing my contract with Columbia Records in 1973 was definitely a low point, especially because I had JUST completed a really great album with Gus Dudgeon as producer, and Columbia just dropped me and didn’t release the album. THAT hurt. Other low points are showing up for gigs where the sound system sucks. It’s really hard to do a good job when you can’t hear yourself, and I’ve had to suffer that way too many times. It’s VERY frustrating knowing that you could be so much better, but you’re being diminished by bad gear, or worse, a bad sound man. Those are frustrating moments and sometimes even heartbreaking.

"Music is a way of life. Music inspires me, brings me joy, heals me, and gives me a reason to live. Music is my identity. Music connects me to “spirit”, and therefore, it could be called my religion. And I live to share it."

Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it’s ROOTS music. Most other contemporary music is derivative. Jazz is derivative of blues, but it’s so rich and layered, it has a long shelf life. Blues is the bottom line. Blues is where music and soul crawled out of the swamp together, so it’s always going to evoke emotion and connection.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with Mad Dogs & Englishmen?

Are you kidding? I could tell funny stories for HOURS about that tour! But here’s one special moment that was very personal to me. I had a great little dog…a fox terrier named “Canina”, and she went everywhere with me. In fact, I got her in Italy in 1969, and she came to Greece with me and we lived on Milos for a couple of months. The following year, she came on the Mad Dogs tour. She was always VERY well behaved as long as she was near me. If I tried to leave her somewhere, she would do anything to break free to come and find me, but as long as she could see me, she was always calm and quiet. When the tour came to play Boston Symphony Hall, we were told that no dog had ever been allowed on that stage, and the management said Canina would have to be locked in a room somewhere backstage when the band performed. I told them she would rip the room apart trying to get to me, so the best place for her would be on stage, but they kept refusing. I even offered to not perform that night, and to stay backstage with Canina, but Leon did not like that solution. Finally, after some HOURS of trying to negotiate with them, Leon told them, “If the dog doesn’t go on, WE don’t go on.” And guess what? They capitulated.

Canina was, of course, very well behaved and did nothing to hurt Boston Symphony Hall. To this day, I think she might be the only dog that’s ever been on that stage.

"We’d get together and play our new songs for each other, and it was more like a 'community'… maybe just a little bit like Paris in the 1930s and 40s when artists and writers and musicians all hung out together in one spectacular artistic community." 

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Backstage, warming up with Mad Dogs & Englishmen. That was one rockin’ great group of musicians.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I really like playing BIG arenas and concert halls. There’s a huge arena in San Francisco called the Cow Palace, and one year John Denver was scheduled to play for a sold out crowd there, but he got snowed in where he lived in Aspen, Colorado. The promoter called me two hours before the show and asked if I could fill in. That was pretty exciting. I have to say the audience was VERY generous. They could have been so pissed off and bummed out, but instead, they just welcomed me so warmly.

Of course, the whole Mad Dogs tour was memorable, but I’ve had a lot of good gigs. Anytime I make my audience happy, it’s a good gig.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

I think meeting Clive Davis and Gus Dudgeon were two major turning points in my career, but also meeting Billy James, my first manager, was very significant. There are also a lot of musicians who have influenced me and benefited me.

"I think the “highest” moments are always the ones when I work with truly great musicians, and I’ve been very blessed in that department my whole life." (Pamela & Gus Dudgeon / Photo by Michel Ross)

What is the best advice ever given you?

Wow, great question. In 1968, the Gentle Soul’s producer, Terry Melcher, wanted to take me and Ry Cooder to New Orleans to record a LIVE album at Preservation Hall using the great blues and jazz musicians in that area who were still alive. This idea was nothing short of THRILLING to Ry. I liked the idea, but I had reservations. I was concerned that if I recorded with Ry and it became successful, the record company (Columbia) would no longer take me seriously as a singer/songwriter. And I really wanted to keep recording my own songs. So, I called up Clive Davis, who was the President of Columbia Records at that time, and I asked his advice. I said, “If I do this blues album with Ry, will Columbia still support me as a singer/songwriter?”  Clive said that if I really wanted to pursue my career as a singer/songwriter, I should NOT go to New Orleans, and not record this blues project with Ry. So, I bowed out of the project, and Terry killed it all together, which was TERRIBLY disappointing for Ry. In fact, Ry hasn’t spoken with me since, which is very sad for me, because we were very good friends, and I LOVED singing with him. I’m so glad that he had a great career anyway. I’m sure nothing could have stopped that with his enormous talent. I went on to record two solo albums with Columbia as a singer/songwriter, the second of which was never released. So the question is, was that “good advice” that Clive gave me? How could I know? How would my life have been different had I taken on that project? I’ll never know, of course. But what I can say is that I followed my heart.

I LOVE singing jazz and blues, but what could be more creative than singing my own songs? So I followed that path, for better or worse, and I can’t say it was “the best advice,” but it was one of the few times in my life that I did follow someone else’s advice. I’m usually marching to my own drum.

Are there any memories with Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, and Taj Mahal which you’d like to share with us?

I call Ry Cooder my first singing teacher. Because Ry really taught me how to listen. He taught me how to listen to every nuance of these blues greats whose music we were emulating. Taj was always so supportive. He’s a true gentleman of the blues. Bonnie – it’s hard to describe how great she is in every conceivable regard. I’m such a fan of hers – what a BRILLIANT musician and singer. She sets the bar so high, I can barely imagine that level of talent, but we all get to hear it album after album. And she matches her incredible talent with her incredible humanness. Smart, funny, generous, she has been an inspiration to me as long as I’ve known her, which is now about 40 years. Lucky me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s?

Another great question, but the answer is – not that much! There is one thing: in those days, the music scene in LA was smaller, more intimate, and almost everybody gigging and recording knew each other. We’d get together and play our new songs for each other, and it was more like a “community”… maybe just a little bit like Paris in the 1930s and 40s when artists and writers and musicians all hung out together in one spectacular artistic community. LA was not quite THAT intimate, but I got to hang out with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, The Bryds, The Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, The Association, JD Souther, and Glenn Fry. I got to rub shoulders with Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix. These days, everyone is so spread out, and it’s so expensive to go hear live music, but in the 60s, it was FREE or really inexpensive, so we were all going out and hearing each other all the time. I do miss that. A couple of months ago I ran across a Mad Dogs & Englishmen poster in a box of memorabilia. It said tickets were $3 in advance or $4 at the door. Can you imagine? THREE DOLLARS to hear one of the greatest rock bands of all time? That was 1970. A couple of years ago I paid $250 to see Peter Gabriel. How often can I do THAT? It’s really a shame, because it’s so inspiring to hear great artists live. But this is how things are now, and I don’t think it’s for the better. (Pamela at Hyde Park, London, Photo by Michael Ross)

In your opinion what made the 60s the center of the Folk Rock explosion?

I think that was just a matter of evolution. There was a very strong folk music scene in the 1950s, and it was destined to evolve, just as the blues was destined to evolve into rock and jazz. And just as rock and folk formed a merger in the 60s, ALL of it merged in the 80s into what we now call World Music and Fusion. I wonder what we humans will think of next.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched you (emotionally)?

Life makes me laugh daily. Isn’t this a strange planet? Aren’t we humans strange beasts? I marvel at how brilliant and STUPID, how wonderful and terrible we can be as a species. How giving and how cruel, how sweet and how awful we can be. And what touches me emotionally is how deeply we can love, and how we can also hurt each other. I live with my heart on my sleeve, so I’m pretty emotional most of the time. But I think that’s a typical artist mentality..

"My hope is that there are new generations of brilliant people who will come up with solutions to the damage we’ve done in the last 100 years, and that there will be amazing fixes to help us keep this planet alive and well, and capable of sustaining human life." 

Which memory from Tony Curtis's 81st birthday party and Anthony Hopkins makes you smile?

Awwww. Well, they were BOTH very gracious. They both got up and danced a little hula with my Hawaiian band – that was so sweet of them. I’ve played for Sir Anthony twice now, and he’s been very gracious both times.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz and continue to Folk, World & Psychedelic music?

Wow… what a question! I don’t even begin to know how to answer that. I can only say: Music, evolution.

Which incident of your life would you like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Singing with Ry Cooder could be a nice painting…just the two of us digging in. It was such a beginning for me of a long life in music.

What have you learned about yourself from Hawaiian (Polynesian) way of life?

Wow, another very interesting question. Well, I’ve learned that I truly belong here. These islands felt like home to me the first time I set foot here, but Maui most especially. I love learning about, and being connected to, a true culture. America is so young as a nation. We don’t have a deeply rooted culture of our own, only what was borrowed from the nations that settled in America. But Hawaiians have a culture going back a thousand years…and more when you trace the roots to Tahiti. So I guess I could say that I’ve learned how important I believe culture is.

"Life makes me laugh daily. Isn’t this a strange planet? Aren’t we humans strange beasts? I marvel at how brilliant and STUPID, how wonderful and terrible we can be as a species."

You are also known as a fervent political activist. What are your hopes and fears for the future?

It’s a good challenge to see if I can answer this question succinctly. My fear is that we’ve screwed up our environment so badly, that we have done irreversible damage to our planet, and we are headed for unsustainable and unlivable status on Earth. I also think, ESPECIALLY here in America, that we have dumbed ourselves down to the point that we are no longer reaching ANY degree of true human potential. My hope is that there are new generations of brilliant people who will come up with solutions to the damage we’ve done in the last 100 years, and that there will be amazing fixes to help us keep this planet alive and well, and capable of sustaining human life. I also hope that education will once again become the highest priority so that our species can truly evolve into the potential we deserve to achieve. And lastly, I hope the human race will wake up and realize that we are all one species, and we need to respect our sameness and our differences, and put down ALL weapons, and start treating each other with kindness, compassion, and understanding. War is such a pointless waste of human resource.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

The albums of my original songs, and a photo of me with my mom and dad.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

A hundred years into the future – to see if we pulled it together.

Pamela Polland - official website

 

 

 

 

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