After 20 chaotic, often death-defying years in the pursuit of song, the last few may have been among Chuck Prophet's sanest, but also his busiest. In addition to releasing his own luminous disc, Soap and Water, he was co-writer and guitar-slinger on one of 2008's most notable records, Alejandro Escovedo's Real Animal. That's in addition to various prose projects, acting in Revolution Summer, composing the theme song for the film Teeth, and a reunion tour with the band that started him on the road as a teen-ager, No Depression precursors Green on Red.
Last in town in June, to play Pittsburgh Filmmakers' MediaTonic event, Prophet hits Club Café this Friday without a band, and "without any real agenda," he says. He spoke with CP one morning from his songwriting space in San Francisco. "I came here to write a song, that's what I told myself," he chuckles. "Believe me, any distraction is more than welcome."
In talking about your songs, you sometimes mention "writing for character" as opposed to "confessional singer-songwriter." What does that mean?
In songwriting, it's often assumed that the guy who's singing is singing about himself. I'm heavily influenced by Randy Newman and people like that with the ability to write for character. So I find a guy that's interesting enough to me, that I just kinda fall in and write on him, try to capture that character.
Does it allow you to keep your personal life personal?
Oh, I'm probably in a lot of those characters! We all think that our defects make us charming somehow -- "Oh man, I'm always late, you guys, I'm sorry!" So I think I can exorcise some of those defects in the songs. But I don't think about it as separating my personal life. I've found that the more honest I am, the more I get rewarded, really.
Some people take it to a very dramatic extreme -- Nick Cave, for example.
Definitely very gothic, and that's OK, but it sorta suspends belief for me. He's very gothic -- whalebones and women in corsets and blood everywhere. I'm more of the [John] Cassavetes school, or Raymond Carver -- ordinary people doing painfully, painfully ordinary things can be just as interesting to me.
Let's talk about the record you co-wrote with Alejandro Escovedo -- what was that process like?
He had this idea where he wanted to chronicle his life in music, through song, and I said that would be great. I was really anxious to name names, I think, and take a more blunt approach to it. That got me excited, to take this sort of photograph of life, and the tattooed girls, and the lost friends and the found, and the stolen guitars and all the ugly truth and the beautiful lies, and all that shit and more.
A lot of it was just based on conversations we had -- we've spent a lot of time together and we have kind of an ease around each other. We spent a lot of time in Texas and here in San Francisco, just laying on the carpet in the dark, talking, or listening to Mott the Hoople records.
Is writing about Alejandro's life like a character song?
I wouldn't say that we let the truth get in the way. I would call it "true fiction." I would rant on lyrics, stream-of-consciousness, and I didn't explain it -- we never really had to explain it to each other, we just knew if it felt right or not. But personally, if I had to choose between the truth or the myth, I'd probably gravitate toward the myth. What's the difference anyway?
Perhaps the myth is the version of the truth that's more powerful and more likely to inspire people than the actual nuts and bolts.
Well, you know James Fenton, the poet, said that poetry is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. First you lay it out there, and then you listen to it back, to see how it reverberates. And that's what I call "honking your horn in the tunnel" -- you honk it and listen to it bounce around, and if it gets you off, you do it again! [Laughs.]
Which songs on Soap and Water have reverberated that way for you?
I think that happens with "Would You Love Me?" and "No Other Love," and a lot of these songs that I've written that are sort of about a woman in my life, and maybe God, in a kind of interchangeable way. I think a lot of those songs have evolved over time. Oftentimes now, because my parents are getting older, I think a lot about my mom when I'm singing them.
Chuck Prophet with Michael Fracasso. 8:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 16 (doors at 7 p.m.). Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $17. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com