Doctor Rich Krueger
Creative Strategy Interview # 1: How to talk to your hero.
Rich Krueger is a remarkable singer/songwriter with a remarkable story. He is a Baby Doctor: A neonatologist. I wanted Rich to be the first in a series of interviews with creators: songwriters, novelists, poets. I felt the need to talk to artists who are dealing with Covid. Sometimes, as Canaries in the coal mines, we bring back messages from the dark. I wanted to take a look and listen to the artists that surprise and move me. How do they get their art of out in these crazy times?
I am grateful for Rich’s generosity with the candor, thought and choices behind his answers.
PO: It's been a rough 5 years for me. I'm pretty sure I'm suffering ptsd. Can you relate?
RICH KRUEGER: It’d been about the worse year of my life and I am still putting out fires, and have serious trepidations as to how things will be once things begin to resolve themselves.
I have been living in a country song this year. Unemployment, not playing with my band for nearly two years, having to move out of my house, having to move at last twice, moving away for someone I love deeply, major family crises including death and drugs and addiction, the end of my marriage of 35 plus years, and so on. And none of these things have fully resolved yet, and may never be. Hopeless has frequently reared its horrible head.
But on the other hand, there were a few weird highlights like: being on TV where very nice highly laudatory things were said about me and my songwriting, which resulted in some new fans and some actual CD sales; enjoying many Zoom Open Mics and getting to meet and sharing music with some new folks around the world; hanging with Richard Thompson. And although I don’t have permanent address now, I really needed to get out of the place I had been living in for 12 years.
PO: Crisis and trauma have been our daily bread for years. So sorry you’re in the soup, Dude. Delighted that others are finally catching on to your gifts. I’m going to ask this next question to every artist I meet. Name a favorite piece of art that gives you joy. Any medium Why please? How does that connect your songwriting?
RICH KRUEGER: Many, many many. O so many. I often ask people I meet, and whom I am getting to know, this question: “Have you ever had the experience where after you have experienced a work of art (music, film, painting, anything really – but something created as art so not an environmental thing like the grand canyon for example) that your life was forever changed, and at a significant level cannot be the same again just due to that experience?”
Many folks don’t get the question. They think I mean sort of “ what’s yer favorite movie, etc?”
I have had many, and continue to have, those sorts of experiences in many different media, and as long as I can be open to having them I think at some level I’ll be okay and will see that on the whole, life is still worth it.
Maybe here is today’s top bunch of such things:
Works of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, especially Bedazzled
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The songs of Jacque Brel, perhaps the number one being “Au Suivant” (PO: Killed me.) or perhaps “If We only have love”
So many songs and albums by so many writers and bands, especially Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, The Kinks, The Sex Pistols, and The Beatles, to name just a few
Antoni Guadi’s architecture, especially Park Guell
Tony Kusher’s Angels in America (PO: “The stiffening of your penis is of no consequence!”)
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh
The music of Alban Berg, especially his violin concerto and Wozzeck
Alan Bennett’s The History Boys
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (PO: One of my favorite ghost stories. Ask me what it means to an atheist ex-catholic :)
Any song or performance by Vernon Tonges
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RICH KRUEGER: How all this connects to my songwriting? They serve as models to emulate and examples of excellence to strive toward, as well as add to my overall fund of knowledge about the world, and how I feel about it. And although I may not succeed, I always try to make a song as great as I can, to scale those heigths and so usually I write slowly over long periods of time, and take making them very serious. Not interested in writing throw away songs really. Maybe I wish I could.
PO: Your songs are original, complex, surprising, funny and dark. Let the rest of us be tempted by catchy rhymes and choruses. You’re ok:) Here at CSGR we take our god seriously. Where do you stand on the whole god thing? And like you are so damned. Cause you sang a God song. What changed the world for you?
RICH KRUEGER: I have been a Lutheran my whole life. I believe there is a God. I feel religion can serve a useful goal, but can cause great harm as well. As a Lutheran, we believe we are justified to God by faith, not by works, and that we are all saints and sinners at the same time, and in general beggars before God.
My songs which are obviously directed at the subjects of God, or Heaven, like “Heaven” or Damn Glad to Meet You”, explore the idea that we really know nothing about the true nature of God, and are likely wrong, and that the idea of believing you are in some way righteous, ie being right with God, is in general insane, and is not really the goal of faith, or the value of community belonging to a religion, or even a specific church. And also that the Tribalism that accompanies being a member of such a community can be dangerous for everyone.
I think it also underscores my own feeling of being a stranger in general, of being on the outside, even to communities I am clearly a member of, either in medicine or among friends, or in music.
PO: I was surprised you were religious. But the eloquent way you break down the striking humility and community of Lutheranism—very appealing. I share your feeling of standing on the edge of any crowd I am in. And I realize talking about spirituality is at times useless. But. I must say that your word “justified” contains a whole worldview that I have rejected totally as false and harmful. But aside from that I enjoyed the play:) And I daily fear all the tribalism in religion, too. And I am no longer a bystander; I am their enemy. It is not academic to me. I have never felt more empathy for the police then the day I watched them beaten for hours by righteous thugs and broken-brained Christians on the Capitol steps. I was more enraged and traumatized than I was when I watched the plane fly into the second tower. In case there was any doubt where I stand, my friend. I would be happy to live in a world where fanatics don’t fly airplanes into buildings. Today as snow falls outside my window I contemplate a world much different than the one I woke up to five years ago. Sounds a bit like you. I hope my frankness is not insulting.
Let’s talk about your song For Eva.
PO: Just wow. Speak more if you dare say something.
RICH KRUEGER: Thanks. This was a song written at one level about a woman I met while living in Albuquerque, who at times wore a hat with a large poppy sticking out of its crown, and my infatuation with her, but also with the circle of friends we hung with then. And further what I was reading at the time, which was the writings of Wittgenstein, particularly his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and books about him and his work. I don’t claim to understand a great deal about his works other than at a superficial level, but I was drawn to learning more as they were taught at The University of Chicago, and was one of themes in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. And I am particularly interested in the problem ‘that some features of language and reality cannot be expressed in senseful language but only "shown" by the form of certain expressions” (this is not my sentence but one I have read about his work). That is, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Or as I put in the song, If you really can’t say try saying nothing. There are other ideas jumbled in this song, particularly WWI (which Wittgenstein served in) and Gregory Bateson’s idea “The Map is not the Territory”
Never read Wittgenstein. Read Bateson. There’s a world here I hope to unpack with your someday.
RICH KRUEGER: The music was one of the first songs I wrote after I began writing again in 2007, after an eight year hiatus due to trying to make tenure at UCLA. I always thought the music was somehow different then what I had previously written. The track sounds so great due to the players on it, especially the vocalists, Scott Daniel’s fiddle, and Gary Lucas’ fantastic otherworldly guitar, and few scraps of sarangi playing we took for that players session on my song Green.
PO: They give amazing performances. Everyone should hear that song at least once, Another Creative Strategies Question: What do you wish you had asked your favorite artist? I know you talked to Tom Waits who told you, “Everything you put into music you will get back.”
RICH KRUEGER: I have a lot of favorite artists. I would think that as I did when I met Tom Waits on an EL in Chicago, I’d try to get him to talk with me, and tell me things in general, which he generously did. You cannot talk to a hero and ask them for something. They’ve already given you tons by creating the art you admire. You just have to let them know you are genuinely interested in what they do and then hope they will share some of that with you. I am also not above wanting to ask a hero to listen a song or album of mine, but that’s almost always a non-starter. They have to ask you if they could listen to one of your songs. And they will only do that if something about your interaction intrigues them.
PO: Functionally your songs have long lines, sort of skipping over the beat. It sounds to like you write your words and jazz them over the beat. You got a few punchlines Dylan wouldn’t kick outa bed when that samba train comes to a crashing halt and baby blue it’s all over.
RICH KRUEGER: I do write lyrics across bar lines, and sometimes it is conversational even. Paul Simon does that a lot. But I fade in and out of that way in most of songs. And yes I do vocally riff over a harmonic rhythm I have made, which then suggests a melody and kinda how many syllables belong in a line. Without that harmonic rhythm I usually have a good deal of difficulty completing a lyric.
I have written both ways; lyric first then song and vice versa. But my usual way is to make a harmonic rhythm (IE the chord progression and the way it is structured rhythmically to make a song) and then the melody it suggests, then vocally riffing on it. Sometime that brings up a line of lyric out of no where. Then perhaps, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly , I then ponder on it, and eventually find out what that line might means and what it leads to which becomes the song.
I also work on the harmonic rhythm so that it hopefully had something in that is unusual, or clever, and hopefully helps to develop the song structure. I like bridges. (Sting said “Bridges are therapy.” to Rick Beato.) I don’t write a lot of choruses, and if I do they often change a bit as they are repeated expanding the ideas in the songs. As far as “great lines”, or maybe aphorisms is a better word, thanks. The way I think about them is that if you have such a line, treat it like a jewel you want to set in a great piece of jewelry so they glisten and shine. And they really have to have a point and have to belong in the song and add to the meaning of the song.
I have reams of pages where I have written down these candidate aphorisms, and sometimes I go back and read them and maybe find a few that still interest me, and then maybe a song will hatch out of the mud.
CREATIVE STRATEGIES FOR A GODLESS REALITY has been honored to break words with Rich Krueger, one of America’s finest songwriters. But don’t take our word for it.
This interview is brought to you by Patrick O’Leary’s new novel “51” coming 2/8/21