Interview with emerging songsmith Rich Krueger

Rich Krueger has been writing and performing his own songs in Chicago for over 30 years, and the guy is as passionately devoted to good songwriting as you will ever find. On his first full-length solo album, Life Ain’t That Long, released in January 2018, he demonstrates his love for the craft by telling candid stories about things that aren’t shiny at all. It’s through these tales of embarrassment and suffering that he also demonstrates his love for humanity. His best moments reveal themselves when the imperfections of his characters urge the listener to notice their own imperfections. Under Krueger’s microscope, mistakes and their consequential suffering are presented with often harsh honesty, but it’s the compassionate, truth-seeking kind of honesty that starts difficult conversations. Why do people do “stoopid” things? What makes people persevere through hard times? In these and other questions, Krueger finds beauty where it’s buried, and the result is cathartic.

This week, I asked Rich to delve deeper into what inspires his songwriting, especially the importance of discomfort and the paradoxes inherent in being a person.

Rich, how would you describe yourself?

I’m a generous and very lucky guy who loves listening to, learning about, sharing, and creating real songs. I’m not real sure I can articulate what a “real song” is, but I feel like I know very quickly if what I am writing is not a real song–if it’s an imposter posing as a song.  Whenever that happens, it’s time to stop and regroup.

You’ve been writing music for decades but just recently released your first full-length album. What makes now the right time?

I have wanted to make a real record for many years, but I think the stars just aligned this time. A friend wanted a specific song of mine recorded properly for a play he was working in, and that was the kindling event. I had started becoming good friends with Bill Kavanagh who owns and operates a studio in Oak Park, Illinois, and that was all we needed to start the project. I think it turned out well, and I am hoping the second album will turn out well too.  

Why do you write songs? Has the reason for writing changed at all over the 30 years you’ve been doing it?

I write because I have to. It’s like being a cabinet maker: some do it because that’s what they have been trained to do, and it provides a livelihood; others do it because if they don’t keep doing it, maybe they wouldn’t be able to anymore. I write not necessarily because there is something I must say, but rather because making songs is a huge part of who I am. I like to talk about things that others seem to ignore. Also sometimes I just need a good talking to, and writing a song is the best way to do that. 

“The Gospel According to Carl”

A lot of your songs tell stories of people who are intensely attached to their brighter pasts, from a traveling salesman who has lost his magic touch in “The Gospel According to Carl”, to older men who are still hung up on an old unrequited love. Is there something especially magnetic to you about these kinds of stories?

Yes. You put your finger on it exactly. I believe that among all other human talents, self-delusion is one of the strongest. I think it is deep in the human race not to take responsibility for one’s own actions. As they say, “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Hope is essential to continue living, but it is also a great source of pain. My songs try to reflect that paradox. The stories I write about in my songs are almost always at least in part about real events that have happened to me. Sam Shepard said, “If it’s not personal, it ain’t worth doing.”

I think there is one thing that’s true of every human who has ever lived, and will continue to be true of all humans going forward: some part of what any person knows to be absolutely true, is not true. And the source of sorrow and of man’s constant inhumanity to man is that there is a heterogeneity of opinion on that fact. Human failure, especially that of remarkable or gifted people, has always fascinated me endlessly.

You are also a medical doctor. Does that kind of work make you a better songwriter?

Yes. I heard once in a documentary about William Carlos Williams, who was a poet and pediatrician, that both doctors and poets are observers, but they use their observations in different ways. A doctor uses observation–like something as simple as how a person sits, or holds their arm, or the way they move–to draw out meaning in order to diagnose and treat his patient. A poet uses observation to draw out meaning in order to translate and illuminate the world for others, to affect others’ hearts and minds.

The fact that people make foolish choices all the time for foolish reasons and then suffer the foolish results is driven home again and again as a doctor. So is the fact that bad things happen to good people. In fact, being a good person is almost always a bad prognostic sign in medicine. That perspective illuminates my work.

“Ain’t It So Nice Outside Today”

On your website it says you admire Jacques Brel’s songwriting because it’s “braver, more honest and cuts to the bone.” Your songs are often shockingly candid as well. Do you believe songwriters have a duty to make their audience uncomfortable sometimes?

I read somewhere that the “shocking” filmmaker Peter Greenaway (who wrote and directed The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), in response to an audience member who was complaining about the shocking elements of his films, said that when he sees a film, he doesn’t just want his “prejudices massaged”. So, to answer your question: songwriters are *ONLY* here to make their audiences uncomfortable! At least enough to know they are alive.

The world is a wonderful, joyous, inspiring, brutal, unfair, damaged, beautiful place. It’s replete with unending hope and never-ending suffering. It can be hysterically funny and heartwarming, and heartbreaking and infuriating, and, you know–Life Ain’t That Long (shameless plug). One’s time here is short, and you can only hope that your life affects others in a good way, and vice versa, and that the whole thing didn’t end up being a damn waste.

 

Your writing style has already been compared to a lot of celebrated songwriters, including Paul Simon, Van Morrison, and Richard Thompson. Which comparison means the most to you, and why?

All of these comparisons are enormously flattering. These are masters at the craft of songwriting.  Geniuses. They all taught me something. Their albums are master classes in songwriting. If I could be any of them as a writer, I would probably pick Richard Thompson. He seems to be from my tribe. But I don’t think I’d want to be any of them. The real fantasy is that I’d love to play a song or two of mine for each of them.

Which younger songwriters are you most impressed by?

I love a lot of newer writer-performers, and I always want to keep my ears open. One of the great things about hanging out at open mics is meeting young performers and having them turn me on to new people.  

I am very impressed by Sarah Shook, Mary Gauthier, Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, Jeffrey Lewis, M. Ward, John Darnielle (a.k.a. The Mountain Goats), and John Fullbright. I’d also add my friends Joe “Cartoon” Shields, Ross W Berman IV, Paul Kotheimer, Brian Belknap and Vernon Tonges to this list (although maybe only Ross counts as young). THE best writer-performer out there right now is Robbie Fulks, and I’m not just saying that because he is my friend.

What does the rest of the year hold for you as a songwriter and musician?

I’m in two pretty big-deal songwriter competitions in May: the 2018 Songwriter Serenade in Moravia, TX, and the 2018 Grassy HiIl Kerrville New Folk Competition in Kerrville, TX. I can’t wait. I’m also working on my second, as yet untitled, album.  I think it’s going to be very long, equivalent to a double-length LP, but we’ll see. It will be drawn 50-50 from older and newer songs. Like my first one, it will be eclectic in terms of arrangement, hopefully tailored to what best dresses each song.

Starting in the late summer, I’m hoping to set up a regular ongoing gig in Chicago and hopefully start doing two or three short tours in the States each year. I’m also hoping to play in the UK and EU in 2019, as I’m getting what appears to be a lot of airplay there.

Thanks, Rich, for sharing your thoughts.

Thank you and your audience for this terrific opportunity, and I hope they enjoy the interview and consider checking out my music.

You can listen to more of Rich Krueger’s songs and keep an eye out for his second album at www.richkrueger.com.

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