Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Allee Willis

December 28, 2010 by  
Filed under PublishingTalks, Technology, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Allee Willis is one of my all-time favorite people.  She is best known as a spectacular and hugely successful songwriter; her songs for Earth, Wind and Fire and the Pointer Sisters were giant hits, she wrote the theme song for “Friends,” the music for the Oprah Winfrey produced Broadway musical production of “The Color Purple, collaborated with the web sensation Pomplamoose (Jungle Music), and as of the date of this posting, her song “I’m Here” was sung by Jennifer Hudson for Oprah Winfrey’s Kennedy Center Honor Award.  But all of this musical success notwithstanding, as she herself says, Allee is “a one-woman creative think-tank. A multi-disciplinary artist and visionary thinker whose range of imagination and productivity knows no bounds, her success exuberantly defies categorization-‘unique’ pales as a descriptor.”  You have to visit her website to begin to get an idea of what a creative powerhouse she is.  Her Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch is not to be missed.  She’s constantly creating, integrating music, art, video, multi-media technology and lifestyle via a series of work which she co-composes, sings, plays, produces, draws, animates, directs, designs web worlds for and stars in. The first release, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “It’s A Woman Thang”-part of a 6-song collaboration with singer-songwriter Holly Palmer (aka Cheesecake) was selected as Official Honoree in the 2008 Webby Awards, and won three 2008 W3 Awards. Her second video, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “Editing Is Cool” was also ‘featured’ on YouTube. At one point, Willis’ 2009 video “Hey Jerrie,” co-starring 91-year-old female drummer on an oxygen tank Jerrie Thill, was the 12th most popular video in the world on YouTube.

I wanted to talk to Allee mainly because she has been working with the internet in her work almost since the ‘web went public – as she points out, the ‘web itself is her medium.  She is the ultimate social being, her work itself is social art, her medium is her life.  Anyone working in an artistic discipline today can learn from what she knows and how she conducts herself as an artist.  I loved talking to Allee about her work and what she knows – which is a tremendous amount.  And now I am addicted to her website too.  Writers and publishers, please pay attention to what she has to say: art is social! books are bait!

David Lehman: A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

May 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0805242508 – Shocken Books – Hardcover – $23.00 (also available in e-book format)

What a lovely book this is.  David Lehman is an acclaimed anthologist and a poet (his most recent book of poems is Yeshiva Boys), and David’s approach to the great American songbook of the 20th century is complex and personal, written from an interior place, while at the same time, erudite and celebratory of the full glory of the words and music he writes about.  Lehman brilliantly evokes the individual lyricists and composers who made this music, so many of whom were the first generation children of immigrants from eastern European countries and were somehow able to meld their art with the true soul of America.  They created music that both evoked their era, and simultaneously defined it.

Lehman explores the rich complexity of American music in the early to mid-Twentieth Century, as the musical soul of Jewish songwriters melded itself to the African-American jazz and blues tradition to make something new and unique.  All the greats are here, Berlin, both Gershwins, Rogers, Hart, Hammerstein, and many more.  He tells the stories behind the songs, and brings to life the composers and lyricists who wrote them.

For David Lehman, this music is touchstone to his being, and that deeply felt connection shines through his words. Reading this book allows one then to connect to the author, also in a deeply felt way.  Lehman is a fine writer, in full command of his subject.  I liked what John Ashbery said about David: “David Lehman’s A Fine Romance wittily explores the enormous contribution of Jewish writers and composers to the American musical scene. Lehman finds Jewish influence, or what he calls ‘a plaintive undertow,’ even in such unlikely upbeat anthems as Gershwin’s ‘Love Walked In.’ His love-struck history is itself a major entertainment.”

Talking to this author about the stories and music, and especially the songwriters themselves was for me a natural extension of reading the book, and inhabiting the author’s personal life through its pages.  We covered alot of ground, including much about the unusual, impressionistic style and structure of the book, and of course the music, the songwriters, his many anecdotes and stories, and David Lehman’s obvious love of his subject.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed the conversation with the author.