“We’re talking at a time where I look out at the world every day and I don’t recognise what I’m seeing.”
Chatting from his Santa Monica studio, evergreen songwriting legend Jackson Browne waxes lyrical about a wide range of topics.
Good luck, however, getting the 69-year-old Californian, who performs at next year’s Leeuwin Concert with his accomplished seven-piece band, to talk about himself.
Ever since he bought his first album, Joan Baez Vol. 2, at age 14, Browne has preferred to look outwards. Ask about his latest album, 2014’s Standing in the Breach, or his pop-rock classics Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty, The Pretender, Doctor My Eyes and Take It Easy — which he co-wrote with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey (more on that later) — and the conversation will be deftly steered towards his current favourite musicians, including young Catalan singer Rosalia (“a force of nature, astonishing”) and Perth’s own Tame Impala.
“I think that they’re great,” says Browne, who first saw the psych-rockers play LA’s Greek Theatre with Flaming Lips four years ago. “I’m astonished when a band comes out of nowhere and especially when they come from a really unexpected part of the world.”
He befriended Tame Impala bassist Cameron Avery, who recorded much of his debut album in Browne’s studio.
Other detours away from his music include the “pristine and beautiful” ranch on California’s Gaviota Coast, where he lives off the grid when LA gets too much.
Or he’ll set off on a long ramble about the perils of plastic. “It’s something I got from my wife (artist and Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder Dianna Cohen), who is a tireless activist to try to stop us from using single-use plastic … we shouldn’t be passing on our bad habits to the next generation.”
Or politics — “the movie business for ugly people”.
Even Browne is shocked by the level of corruption uncovered, particularly the revelations about Russian meddling in the US election as well as the Paradise Papers.
“We’re not used to seeing this,” he remarks. “This would be called treasonous in the 60s.”
At least the Russian connection prompts Browne to discuss his 1983 hit Lawyers in Love, with its timely line: “The Russians escaped while we weren’t watching them.”
He says people aren’t paying enough attention to politics and is disappointed when he meets young people who don’t vote.
“We want to have the freedom not to vote, the freedom to not have to do our jobs as citizens,” he says. “I realised then that there are people that are really only thinking about themselves.”
Browne finds such self-interest and apathy impossible to reconcile with his own activism, which started during his early days as a songwriter working at the coalface of the counter-culture movement.
Earlier this year, he inducted his hero Baez into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Bruce Springsteen inducted Browne in 2004.)
“I grew up singing those songs,” Browne says of Baez, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone.
“I really did immerse myself in blues, R&B and the incredible folk musicians … that was the music we had to convey our ideals and what we were trying to make happen.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that we haven’t come that far. We’ve travelled way down the road of black people having communication and power in the arts and sports — having a voice — but we still, politically, have a long way to go until we have justice. In my country, it’s like the Civil War was never really settled.”
The recent mass shooting in Texas particularly angers and saddens Browne, who addresses the subject directly on his latest album in The Long Way Around.
“I tried to write the most persuasive song I could,” he says. “Something I learnt a long time ago is that when you try to approach a question head-on, you’ll find people that agree with you and you’ll also find people who don’t want to be lectured.”
Standing in the Breach opens with The Birds of St Mark’s, a song he wrote 50 years ago after a brief stint living in Greenwich Village.
“I wrote a lot of songs before I got to record,” Browne says. “I thought I recorded the best of them already but then you find there’s one that you hear again and go ‘That’s not so bad’.”
All of a sudden, Browne is talking about Jackson Browne.
Which leads into a rambling tale about effectively gifting Frey, who died last year, one of the Eagles biggest hits and their debut single, Take It Easy.
In the early 70s, Browne and Frey lived in the same Echo Park apartments. On a stroll to find dinner one day, Browne sang the unfinished tune to Frey, who asked if his band could record it once it was done.
After Browne was too busy polishing his eponymous 1972 debut, an impatient Frey completed the song with the immortal lyric: “It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.”
“I think he turned it into the song that everybody loves,” Browne says. “He came up with the best line and the most memorable line.
“He didn’t even want to share the songwriting credit. But (at the suggestion of their mutual manager David Geffen) I said ‘We better split this’.”
Competition within the Eagles after their meteoric rise meant outside collaborations were mostly verboten and Take It Easy remains the only Browne/Frey composition.
But if you’re going to pen one Eagles hit, Take It Easy isn’t a bad place to start and finish.
“I’m happy to have gotten to write that one song with Glenn.”
Jackson Browne plays the Leeuwin Concert on March 24. Tickets from leeuwinestate.com.au.