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On inspiration, collaboration and Mitch & Mickey

Three songs from Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby 

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It was a match made in Hull. There was Amy Rigby, who had graduated from the NYC-based trio the Shams to an impressive run of solo records that suggests a one-woman girl group with a haloed Marshall Crenshaw on one shoulder and a devilish Chrissy Hynde on the other. And there was Wreckless Eric (Goulden), Stiff survivor and post-pub-rock poet, whose shoulder mates might be Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock, both decked out in Riddler costumes.

It's doubtful, though, that the promoter who paired Wreckless Eric and Rigby (who'd been covering Goulden's signature "Whole Wide World" in her sets) for a show in northern England fancied himself a matchmaker. He probably just liked good tunes. But the pair stayed in touch, shared a few more stages, and eventually moved in together. This past April, they got married. More good news has followed in the form of a record titled, appropriately, Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, just out on Stiff. It's wry and wise and tuneful in the slightly quirky way you'd expect from this collaboration.

All of this, of course, begs on question: So which male-female singing duo from across history are you most like? "It changes from moment to moment, depending on our outfits," says Rigby with a charmer of a laugh. "We could be Lee and Nancy, Johnny and June. Sonny and Cher, if I get to be Sonny. We can be Mick and Keith, Roger and Pete." Wreckless Eric pauses for a moment before offering Captain and Tennille as a possibility, but you can tell he's not completely happy with that one. Then he's got it: Mitch and Mickey from A Mighty Wind. More laughing, more charm. Ain't love grand?

It sure is: So grand in fact that we've again decided to expand "Song of the Week" to "Songs of the Week" to accommodate it. We revisited "Knapsack" from Rigby's spry debut, 1996's Diary of a Mod Housewife, we learned the origin of his "Whole Wide World," and we got the insider's view on "Round," a song from the new record.

AMY RIGBY'S "KNAPSACK"

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The song feels carefully put together, yet also spontaneous, which is an impressive combination. How did the song come together for you?

AMY RIGBY: It's interesting you should say that because it is those two things. The whole form of it, it really did just come that way to me. I didn't structure it until I got to maybe the third verse, and by then I was aware that there was sort of a pattern going on here. I was picturing like a really small personal situation, the office and the bookstore and all that. But at the same time, I was imagining someone like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty on stage, and how they would take a little personal story and project it to the universal crowd. So it felt like it has this intimate detail, but—maybe through the structure of it—seemed somehow bigger than the subject matter.

How much of the song is rooted in actual events?

AR: It's always a mixture. Things that happen—to me, anyway—kind of lead to imagining stories that happen to somebody else. But there will often be factual details, like the palm tree on the tie of the guy, that's a real detail. Those details are a springboard. They open up a little world that might resemble my own, but I'm always imagining some other character in there, not myself, even if it might seem autobiographical.

WRECKLESS ERIC: I always wanted to be the bloke with the palm tree on his tie. I was always jealous of him.

I'm 47 now, so I was 35 when Diary of a Mod Housewife came out. It felt like maybe the first record that was truly directed at my age group, or at least a music-loving subset of my age group. I'm quiet and nondescript, and "Knapsack" made me want to shout to people, "Hey, I go to cool shows! I have a lot of records!" So that song really connected.

AR: That makes me want to cry. I mean, that's a really nice compliment.

So here's the question: Did you feel like a spokesperson for this particular group?

AR: I didn't feel like a spokesperson, but I felt like there was a little subset of people, a little sector of society, that wasn't really spoken to in songs so much, or identified. I felt there were these Baby Boomers that people would talk about, but they didn't resemble anybody that I knew as far as the type of music they listened to or the jobs they had, the material things they had. And also just the cultural references seemed really specific to an age group, or I think it even extends beyond age, to just a group of people. I felt that was the group I was kind of in, so I wanted to make a record that related to me. (Laughs.) And the people that I felt were out there and in kind of the same boat, and who had the same kind of experiences with the grandiose arena shows of the early '70s, and the whole FM radio thing—and also the AM radio from the '60s. But then we're living in the '90s, after having gone through the whole punk times and the mish-mosh of '80s. Living what was approaching grown-up lives, but somehow it didn't all mesh with the things we'd dreamt about. I wanted to somehow put that feeling into my album.

WRECKLESS ERIC'S "WHOLE WIDE WORLD"

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The song from your catalog that I want to talk about is "Whole Wide World."

WRECKLESS ERIC: I don't remember that one. (Laughs.)

I'll ask you a couple questions and maybe it will come back to you.

WE: I wrote a book that's got a comprehensive account of how I wrote it, but I can paraphrase that for you. The book is called A Dysfunctional Success. I'm not usually this career-minded, actually. I was 19 when I wrote it, and I was living in Hull, in Yorkshire in the north of England. I was an art student, and I played in bands and stuff. I loved Kevin Ayers, and I wanted to write a song that was like a Kevin Ayers song, really sort of simple and summer-y and warm.

But I was having trouble with a girlfriend. It wasn't working out, and we were always fighting. But we couldn't seem to break up. One night—it was an early spring kind of night—I thought, "She's gonna come 'round, and then we're gonna have to go out or something, and I really don't want to." I was walking around in an area where I didn't usually go, by the university. My mum had actually said to me a couple of weeks before, "There's only one girl for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti." She actually said this. So I started thinking it out, writing it out. I couldn't write good songs. It was one of the first good ones that I wrote. Some people would say it was the only good one I wrote. But they'd be wrong.

Yes, they would.

WE: Oh, thank you. (Laughs.) I wasn't fishing for a compliment. But all the same, it's nice to get one. Anyway, I was writing all these words, and I thought, "I've got to get home." When I got home, she was sitting on the doorstep, the girl I was trying to avoid. She's going, "Well, I thought we were going to go out somewhere." And I'm going, "Well, I was a bit busy," but I was also thinking (sings quietly) "the whole wide world, the whole wide world." And she's going, "You know, you didn't say anything. Where have you been?" And I'm going (more quiet singing), "Weeping in a tropical moonlit night." She says, "Are you even listening?" And I say, "No, not really." So while I'm writing it, we're having a row. It was kind of proving the point in some way. … I was thinking that it would work on two chords, and that's amazing. Nobody writes songs with two chords. This is great. So by the time we split up, which was like in the next half hour, I'd gotten the song pretty well written.

Do you have a favorite cover version of the song?

WE: Loads of people have covered it, but I don't think anyone has got it quite right. The Proclaimers made a beautiful version of it. It's Scottish. I like them doing it. The Monkees did it on their comeback album. I thought that was a great idea, and then I heard the album. It was the worst day of my life. I was making lists, you know. Oh yeah, they always worked with the best songwriters: Neil Diamond, Goffin and King (pauses), me. "Last Train to Clarksville." "I'm a Believer." "Whole Wide World." (Laughs.) And then I hear the album, and they haven't got the producers anymore and the session musicians. They've done it all themselves. It didn't sound anything like the old Monkees. I was really disillusioned. (Laughs big.)

WRECKLES ERIC & AMY RIGBY'S "ROUND"

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How comfortable are you with cowriting, and how did that process work for the song "Round"?

AR: Eric and I did a different kind of cowriting than I've ever done. In the past, I've done the standard sit around with a couple guitars and kind of "Do you have any ideas?" "No, how about you?" Then you end up talking, or someone comes in with a little riff or a lyrical idea, but we didn't really do any of that. One of us would get a song going—in most cases, it was Eric because I was completely in a slovenly state of mind (Laughs.) without being able to come up with even the will to write a song. As soon as I would hear him doing something, I would listen through the wall and think that I could hear a lyric or melody for that. That's what happened with that particular song: he got that whole kind of beat going and the guitar thing, and maybe even started singing "round and round and round." We just talked about the possibilities for what the song could be, and because he had the whole "round idea," it was "Well, what's round?" A record's round.

WE: That's great that you're asking about that because I think it's one that gets overlooked because it's toward the back a bit. I think it's the real, true cowrite, where we came up with it together. There's the guitar part (Mimics the riff.)—that part—with a beatbox, and I didn't know what to do with it. Then the "round and round" came in later. And we were going, "Oh yeah, that's good." And it could go to the two chords, I think it's a B and an A. We put that in. Really, we put the idea together so quickly that we had to keep cutting bits into it to actually make it into the recording you hear. For a while, I didn't want to touch it because I didn't know quite what to do with it to make it sound right. We used to call it "The Record Song." Amy had the idea that it was a record, and we were going, "Oh yeah, I was a hit in '72" and all that stuff about coming out again on a CD. It was funny, all that stuff, and we had a great time writing it.

So maybe not your standard co-writing process.

AR: I've always wanted to make a record in the studio—write the songs in the studio, you know. Make the record from beginning to end, and not bring the songs in and start recording. This was a chance to do that. We had the studio right there, and stretched out over a period of time, it was possible to get songs going in a different way, with the music taking shape and the lyrics just kind of coming along afterward.

"Round" feels to me like the best merging of the Amy Rigby style and the Wreckless Eric style on the record. Any thoughts on that?

AR: I think that's good; I like that idea. We're struggling to learn to play that one live. We want to play it, but it fights us. We might try to play it tonight. We're working on it.

Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby play Local 506 Friday, Sept. 19. The show starts at 9 p.m., and tickets are $8-$10.

  • On inspiration, collaboration and Mitch & Mickey

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