Interview with Bernard Fowler: Philip Glass's "Songs from Liquid Days"
Composer Philip Glass turns 80 years old today.
While he might be thought of as a "classical music composer" known for his minimalist style, Glass has often played with and crossed the boundaries between musical genres. He wrote symphonies based on the works of David Bowie and Brian Eno, for example. And even if you don’t know his chamber music or operas, you’ve probably still heard his music—Glass has scored dozens of films. (Check out the playlist at the bottom of this post to listen to some selections.)
Recently, musicians from the Oberlin Conservatory joined us at the Museum to celebrate Glass by performing a staged version of his Songs from Liquid Days as part of Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works Festival. Songs from Liquid Days—a collection of songs released as an album in 1986—includes lyrics and performances by (among others) Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Linda Ronstadt.
Exploring this album gave us an opportunity to call up a good friend of the Rock Hall, Bernard Fowler. Bernard is a singer, songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist. He’s sung on hundreds of albums for artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Mayer, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, Duran Duran, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Hutchence, Michael Buble, Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, and Bootsy Collins. He is perhaps best known, however, for his longtime role as a background singer and percussionist for the Rolling Stones.
Bernard also recorded “Changing Opinion,” the first track on Songs from Liquid Days, which featured lyrics by Paul Simon. The Rock Hall’s Vice President of Education and Visitor Engagement, Jason Hanley, asked him about the experience.
Jason: So, Bernard, can I ask you a little bit about how you first got involved in the Songs from Liquid Days project with Philip Glass?
Bernard: One of my early bands, the first band I ever had any success with, was called the New York Citi Peech Boys. And during that time, we had a couple of really big records … “Don’t Make Me Wait” was the name of one, and “Life Was Something Special” was the other one. We also did a cappella records for deejays to mix with other music, and I think that was about the start of the whole a cappella craze.
J: Yeah, that would have been used for dance mixes so the deejays could blend it in with the tracks, right?
B: Exactly. During that time, the band was falling apart, and I had been working a lot with the producer Bill Laswell. (Bill Laswell produced Mick Jagger’s first solo record; he also produced Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.”) And a lot of the stuff we were doing was kind of out of the box—a bit “left,” for lack of a better description.
So, when Philip Glass was putting that record together, they were looking for a vocalist. But they didn’t want someone so high profile. I remember hearing at the time that Luther Vandross was considered, but Luther was blowing up at that time. And maybe there were some other people considered. But I think I got hooked up with Philip somehow through the Bill Laswell camp. I remember getting a call saying, “Hey Bernard, Philip Glass would like you to do the session,” and I was like, “Philip Glass!” I knew who he was from the times I spent with Bill Laswell.
Why me? I’m a little baffled still to this as to why me. I’m glad it was me!
J: Can you talk a little bit about the discussions you had with Philip Glass? Your voice is so powerful, Bernard, and you’re able to do so much. How did the two of you talk about your performance on that album?
B: First of all, I remember getting on the train and going to the studio, and I remember I was nervous as all hell! I was really young. And in my mind, I wasn’t worthy. I remember being super nervous … and I remember saying “F*** it, I don’t care,” just to get rid of the nerves when I walked in the room. And I saw Philip, and I saw [producer] Michael Reisman—I got nervous!
They were really nice. ... If I remember correctly, they were working on another song, and they stopped and gave me the lyrics. Philip played a little bit of what he wanted—the basic melody. There was not a whole lot of direction. From what I gathered, he wanted it as pure as possible. Not with a whole lot of blues or soul inflections.
J: Were you reading off sheet music that was provided to you?
B: No, I’ve been blessed with the gift of hearing something once and being able to do it. … My first instrument was upright bass, and then I went to trombone—so I could read a little bass clef. I could follow it, but I couldn’t really sight read it.
J: So, Philip Glass and Michael Riesman played it for you so that you could hear the melody?
J: On the track, your voice does have very pure, almost operatic sound to it—as opposed to a lot of the blues and R&B you’re known for with the Rolling Stones, later on.
B: Right. And again, when I was working with Bill Laswell, I used to do a lot of experimental vocal stuff. Also, I had a band called Tackhead; Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbish, Keith Le Blanc, and I used to do a lot of experimental type vocal stuff, so it wasn’t hard for me to get it where they wanted.
J: In that process, did you talk at all about the lyrics themselves? Because famously, the lyrics to “Changing Opinion” are written by Paul Simon.
B: That’s right. I remember reading the lyrics, and they were interesting to me: a song about a hum in the room. For some reason the kitchen was in my mind. That’s where you hear most hums—the kitchen. Then when I got to the end of the lyric, it questions, “maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.” But you’re not sure where that hum is coming from, and it says something about “maybe a refrigerator!”
J: Your performance there comes across very emotional, too. Were you trying to find ways to take those lyrics and that kind of phrasing you had in the melodic line and play with that emotionally?
B: Yes, yes, yes, yes. For me, everything, every song, has to have some type of emotion. And I wanted to put an emotion along with the purity of the performance. There’s no particular way to get there. For me it was singing it as passionately as possible, which I thought I did.
J: Did Philip Glass ever talk about what he thought the lyrics meant?
B: Not that I remember. I remember them being happy with [my performance]. Like I said, I was really nervous—I was hoping that they liked what I did. And Michael Riesman—I could see him smiling. And Philip was very attentive ... and I thought, “I got it! I got it, I think I nailed it.”
It wasn’t a very long session—you know sometimes sessions can be dragged out—but at some point, Paul Simon walks in the room. I had just about finished with the vocals, and Paul Simon walks in the room! And it’s really funny, I’ve seen it happen before—somebody walks in and tries to change things, which he did. ... I remember the look on his face—I didn’t get the same smile I got from Michael! And I remember saying to myself, “He’s going to try to pick a hole in this performance.” And he did, but you know, it was all right because what ended up being used was what I did in the first place!
J: When I spoke to you earlier, you said you actually just recently listened to the album. How do you reflect back on that performance and that project now?
B: I smile. It’s one of the highlights of my career. No doubt. Not only did I get to do that record, I actually went on the road with Philip performing it. It’s a very fond memory.
Thank you, Philip Glass. A highlight of my career was doing that record.
This transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.