Patti Smith‘s newly released album BANGA – her first since 2007’s Twelve – is a record of much variety. Not just in terms of its subject matter – which sees the singer-songwriter touch on subjects topics like the Japanese Tsunami, Amy Winehouse‘s death, dreams and Johnny Depp‘s birthday among other themes – but also in terms of musicians as Television‘s Tom Verlaine, Smith‘s children and the aforementioned movie heartthrob joined the singer and her band in the studio. Q sat down with the New York legend to discuss the record, its inspirations, her love of detective fiction, plans to turn her memoir Just Kids – about her pre-fame days with photographer and former partner Robert Mapplethorpe – into a film and more.
How the devil are you?
“I’m doing great! I’m healthy, I feel very energetic, productive, my kids are happy and healthy and I’m excited about the album. So I would say I’m doing really well.”
There’s a few guests on BANGA, was it a collaborative effort?
“Well it was collaborative with my band and the guests on the record. It’s my core band, Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tony Shanahan, but each of them really stepped up song-wise on this record. And my bass player [Shanahan] really blossomed, he was really prolific. So the record really reflects each of their contributions and the contribution of Tom Verlaine who has such a classic little solo on April Fool. The work he did to extend Nine, live in the studio, to me is worth the whole record. To listen to Tom Verlaine’s mind move with his fingers on the guitar is extraordinary.”
And a bit of a family affair as well?
“Yes, my son and daughter. My son plays fantastic guitar on Maria. He plays and on the whole record, but his solo work on Maria and Tarkovsky to me is really fantastic. And Johnny Depp also played guitar and drums on the opening of BANGA.”
What are you like in the studio. Do you pull all the strings or do you give people a bit of rope to try things?
“[laughs] A little bit of both! I have a vision, I know what I want but we work very well together, my people and I, they show me a lot of respect. Because I conceive of the themes on the record and write all the lyrics they really are attentive to the philosophical ideas of the record. We just work really well together, we improvise well together. Everyone had room to express themselves, but I was at the helm. The record was self produced and I feel like we’ve done 12 albums we know what we’re doing.”
Talking about songwriting, there are lost of different ideas, the Japanese tunsami, Johnny Depp’s birthday song, Amy Winehouse. Was there a sense that you were always writing this one –
“[Interrupts] Yes! The record really threads through my life for the last couple of years. With some of the early songs I conceived the idea of exploration and adventure for the record, songs like Amerigo and Constantine’s Dream. But some of the songs really came by accident. The last song that we wrote for the record was when the record was pretty much done. We were doing some guitar overdubs, I was working alone on a little poem I’d written for Amy [Winehouse] and my bass player wanted to play me a piece of music. I really didn’t want to hear any more music, I wanted to finish the record but he insisted and played the music. I was working on my poem, half listening and I realised the music and the poem were a perfect marriage. The cadence of the music and the cadence of this little poem worked perfectly together and I immediately sang it to him. So we just went into the studio – our band can be very meditative but we can also be very quick – and recorded it and it became This Is The Girl. To me, it’s just a pure little song. It happened right at the end of the record without thought or design. It was just a little gift at the end of the record. The whole album is like that, some of it by design and some are these things that fell into my lap.”
It sounds like you’re always writing something.
“I’m always working on something. I might take a walk and be taking photographs, I might be mulling some song in my head or in the morning – like this morning, I woke up in the hotel, got up at six and wrote for a couple of hours working on a novel, had some breakfast then went back and revised my album liner notes. I like to work.”
Even in your sleep it seems, is it true dreams helped informed the lyrics of this album?
“Yes. In fact Constantine’s Dream was inspired by a dream of my own. It was really a nightmare I had while in Italy. It was a vision of an environmental apocalypse with Saint Francis weeping. It was so disturbing that I really needed the next year to work it out through work. Not only daily, being attentive to our environment, but trying to embed this dream in a piece of work so I could exorcise some of it. That was the seed of that song. There are a lot of dream states on the record, which again, weren’t really planned. They just happened.”
Do you dream in big widescreen epics or is it more abstract?
“Er, widescreen [laughs] and sometimes in close ups. I have a very good memory for my dreams. When I was younger my writing really came directly from dreams. I depend on dreams sometimes to work out problems. Sometimes I even wake-up singing, like with the song My Blakean Year [from 2004’s Trampin’]. I woke up singing that song and luckily I was able to grab it before it dissipated and recorded it. I suppose my mind is always moving.”
Do you ever surprise yourself? A “No idea where that came from but it will work…” moment?
And along with the dreams, is it true you wrote some of this album on the Costa Concordia, months before the cruise ship infamously capsized?
“Well, yes. Lenny Kaye and I were invited by Jean Luc Godard to accompany him on a ship while he shot some of [2010 film] Socialisme. When we went to meet him I thought he meant a little ship or a yacht but when we arrived I saw this ten story cruise ship, which was shocking, I’d never been on a cruise ship. So we embarked on a journey with Jean Luc Godard. I’d never been at sea, so we had a lot of time. It was daunting at first, but something about being at sea and the expanse was really good for my mental state. I worked on structure and philosophy of the album and Lenny and I wrote the lullaby Seneca and we took photographs. Before it was ill fated, it was always going to be part of the pictures in the liner notes. It’s very sad what happened to it, but it is a part of our voyage.”
What a strange coincidence, because it was probably just about to become famous as the ship on the Patti Smith album, and now it will always been known for something terrible.
“Really it was just shocking and heart-breaking to watch the ship sink. Going on a cruise is not my style of travel, but it was an amazing opportunity to work Jean Luc Godard and visit places like Cyprus and Alexandria. Then to see this great ship on its side, sinking, in the news was disturbing to say the least.”
Looking ahead there’s talk of a film version of your book Just Kids, there are reports you’re casting for that at the moment.
“No I’m not casting for that at the moment. We haven’t finished the script and I’m not in such a hurry to do that. I’ve got so much work to do and I’m happy the book is in book form. It’s a bit daunting the idea of having the movie and someone playing you when you’re alive! So I’m not in a hurry. I’m sure it will be a modest little film. Robert [Mapplethorpe] and I were unknowns so that’s how I think it should be best filmed, with unknowns. But I’m not quite ready with that, but when I am, I’ll put my all into it.”
Are you looking forward to taking BANGA on the road?
“Oh yes, we’re plotting our tour, mostly in Europe and the UK, I haven’t plotted any American dates yet, but we’ve got a lot planned. My band tours a lot. I like playing in areas that have a literary or historic connection for me it’s not based on money or the venue, it’s the area of the world that I long to see. I’d want to play the area where Charlotte Bronte is from.”
Talking of literature, what are you reading at the moment?
“Well I just read IQ84 by Haruki Murakami, a big book, and I’ve re-read Villette by Charlotte Bronte which I’ve read a number of time. I’m always reading or re-reading something, right now it’s essays about Proust. I’ve just read all the Kurt Wallander detective stories so I’m always looking for new detective stories. I love to read.”
As a Sherlock Holmes fan what do you make the new Sherlocks that we have at the moment, the film and the BBC series?
“Oh yeah. I really enjoyed [the BBC series] them, they’re high-spirited and I like the interpretation. I liked Basil Rathbone, I liked Jeremy Brett, I’m always interested in an interpretation of Sherlock Holmes because he had so many sides so some might portray more of his meditative, intellectual aspect whereas others its his whimsical side or his humour or his physical deftness. I like very much Jude Law as Watson, he was really the surprise of the new films. I just thought he was great, it was a different interpretation. You often see Watson as the bumbling older fella, whereas really Watson is the writer, he’s like Doyle himself. I thought he did a great job. Detective-wise, my favourite is Kenneth Branagh doing Kurt Wallander. He’s fantastic. I brought the DVDs and watched them over and over, I just wish he would keep doing them.”
Finally, as we’re sat in Covent Garden, I have to ask, you previously said you were “68 per-cent” done on a detective novel that starts in St Giles In The Fields’ churchyard, which just around the corner. How is that project going?
“It’s going great, except that I developed it and it got so complicated that I’m back down to 58 per-cent. But it will someday come out. It’s in the forefront of my creative endeavours it’s just I had to put it aside to finish this album and spend time bringing it to the people. It’s always with me and it does indeed start there and I love this area of London. I always go on a little pilgrimage and walk over and look at the grass where I first conceived the idea for my detective story. I love that church very much. I love the old gate as you walk into the church grounds. We’ve played a few benefit performances there and I’m sure we’ll do more.”
For more head to Pattismith.net.