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A short conversation with Gabriel Judet-Weinshel of Unpinnable Butterflies

23 August 2021

Hi, Gabriel. Before we talk about the music can you just tell us about the interesting route which brings you to the field and in particular to the attention of Scott Healy?

Gabriel: I grew up in a family that was wonderfully supportive of my artistic proclivities, so as a kid I was at once always playing the piano, clarinet, or violin, but concurrently just as fascinated with filmmaking—making flip-books, running around making movies with one of the first home video cameras (it was the mid-1980s, and the model we saved up to buy wasn’t even a proper camcorder: the recording deck was separate from the tube video camera, and you had to sling the recording deck over your shoulder and carry the camera in the other hand). My mom’s a painter, and my dad at that time was a furniture maker, so making things was just part of the fabric of being alive, less about a career path.

So (in addition to some forays into painting, acting, juggling, and writing), I’ve always made films and music. Many times, folks have advised me to ‘pick a lane,’ meaning film and music are both endlessly demanding métiers, and it probably would behoove—at least in the sense of getting further or more ‘established’—to just focus on one thing; but the compulsion to make both, and for both art forms to be twin expressions of a single impulse—that has never left me, for better or worse. As much as possible, I try and find avenues—shooting music videos or EPKs for other artists or making the music for my own films—that combine the two art forms.

I first met Scott at Sarah Lawrence College, where he was my jazz piano teacher and ran the jazz colloquium. His main job at the time was as the keyboard player on the Conan O’Brien show, and in the midst of all that he was an established composer and NYC session player. We stayed in touch after I graduated. Meanwhile, though also writing songs and playing in a band at the time, I was working on my filmmaking career, writing scripts, shooting music videos and short films, and gravitating towards working with musical artists (over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of shooting a handful of music luminaries, including U2, Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Judy Collins, Sheryl Crow, Lil’ Wayne, Ani Difranco, Lyle Lovett, James Taylor, The Black Keys, Nicki Minaj, and Elton John; and directing videos for Ben Harper, Braison Cyrus, and Joseph Arthur). At one point, I played Scott a collection of demos. He liked them and offered to produce a record with me.

Meanwhile, I had worked with and cultivated a friendship with the beneficent and prolific independent film producer Gill Holland, who had started a record label called sonaBLAST! (his first signatory was the lovely folk singer Mark Geary, for whom Gill hired me to direct a music video). I played Gill these same demos, and he offered me a record deal. We released my first record, The Exile of Saint Christopher, in 2007. This was a momentous and joyful experience, going from making demos in my apartment and playing tiny clubs to—with the generosity and strength of Scott’s Rolodex of NYC a-list session players—recording at New York’s Avatar studios (originally Power Station) with the likes of Steve Holley (Paul McCartney and Wings), Shawn Pelton (Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash), and Bakithi Kumalo (of Paul Simon’s Graceland). Suddenly music became easier when playing with musicians of that incredible caliber and creativity.

And how integral was Scott to helping you move into a this more singer-songwriter direction from your previous parallel creative pathways?

Gabriel:I think my heart has always been in the singer-songwriter idiom, originally. I grew up listening to the 1960s-1970s folk canon, my parent’s catalogue essentially: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison. What Scott did was open my ears to everything else. He was an ambassador to the world of jazz, classic rock, big band, gospel, R&B, and so much else. It was humbling and inspiring. I’ll never forget something he once told me: ‘music is a big place.’

And, just thinking about the single, You, it seems to have a real Paul Simon vibe. Given that Bakithi Kumalo, who played on his iconic _Graceland album, is there some intentional referencing at work or do you think any link is subliminal?_

Gabriel: For me, the tryptic—who I think of as my three Jewish songwriting father figures—has always been Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. They’re sort of my homeland or mother tongue, in terms of who I return to. Probably Leonard is my greatest cynosure, actually, in terms of how he lived, his humor and sanguineness in the face of life’s travails, and the depth and beauty of his songs. But Paul Simon is also a tremendous and near-commensurate influence, especially his oeuvre from Graceland forward, and the deftness and intricacy of his songwriting. So, regarding ‘You,’—absolutely, inescapably, it’s derivative of Simon, consciously and unconsciously. Having Bakithi on the first record was incredible. He’s a lovely person and obviously a phenomenal musician, and though he didn’t play on Radio Ocean’ we’ve stayed in touch, especially recently during the pandemic, when he generously played on a benefit tune I wrote to raise funds for COVID relief efforts

Lyrically I noticed a wonderful blend of literacy and addictiveness, sort of deep-rooted ideas delivered in quirky and conversational ways,. How important is it that your songs are saying something meaningful?

Gabriel: Thank you! I hold close this quote: ‘Poets are band leaders who have failed.’ —*Ayi Kwei Armah*. So yup, for me, the words, the story one is telling, it’s essential, and I really belabor the process. At the same time, I try and stay open to occasions for humor and playfulness, because as Wavy Gravy sez, ‘If you’ve lost your sense of humor, it’s just not funny anymore.’

I’ve often turned to poets, as well as other songwriters, for inspiration. But a poem is also not a song, and the addition of all the elements of music—harmonic structure, rhythm, the variegated textures of any piece of music—makes the way those words exist in the music inexorably different than words existing in the silence of a page or in a spoken voice.

I still feel like a beginner in understanding that interplay, and in a lot of ways, my penchant has always been for a sort of maximalism in both lyrics and music. Take a tune like “Radio Ocean,” the title track, in a 13/8 and then 7/8 meter, layered with jazz piano voicings and Grace Kelly’s virtuosic saxophone; in addition to all that density in the music, the lyrics are dense, the storytelling expansive and cinematic, sort of an enumeration of the vast geopolitical crisis the planet and its denizens are in. But is that trying to wrestle with too much, in terms of what the ear can absorb? I think there’s tremendous bravery in, say, the work Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin, stripping everything down to a voice and a guitar, and there’s a ton to be learned from that sort of directness and minimalism. So in the wake of this record, which was very much a kitchen sink kind of record, that’s where my head is at. I do wonder, how much is all that layering somewhat driven by insecurity, a need to show off, or, at least, frenetic compulsion? I guess I’m still exploring and learning, constantly being humbled.

As well as the aforementioned Bakithi Kumalo, there are a host of fantastic players on Radio Ocean, how and where did you and Scott go about assembling such a cast of iconic players?

Gabriel: Scott generously opened his capacious Rolodex to me on both records we made together (no Bakithi on Radio Ocean, actually, but he’s all over the first record). On Radio Ocean, suddenly we have Lee Sklar *(James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King) hanging in the studio and laying down these mind-blowing bass lines, or *Curt Bisquera (Curt’s played with Mick Jagger, Tom Petty) lending his impeccable drumming to the record. Through some of the contacts and friendships I’ve formed through my film work, we have Perla Batalla (an amazing singer who collaborated for many years with Leonard Cohen), JT Nero and Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago (Allison’s solo record, Outside Child is gorgeous and the talk of every town at the moment), and even a mentor/collaborator of mine, Danny Clinch (Danny’s an iconic music photographer who also plays a mean harmonica).

The influences on the album seem to run across every sound and style, all eras and genres. Do the songs tell you what they are about and what their sound might be or do you have more deliberate plans for them as you create them?

Gabriel: The original concept for this record was a more live, ‘classic rock’ sound. I was listening to Astral Weeks,’ to McCartney’s Ram, to Harry Nilsson, to early Randy Newman, trying to capture a certain 1970s vibe, and also a sort of playfulness. I wanted this to be a record that folks could dance to, and also a record that wasn’t too precious. But the concept grew from there. We have an outlier tune like “Cracks in the Architecture,” which is much more post-punk 1980s vibe, and the sprawling, odd-metered title track, and a tune like “Burden Down,” which definitely was inspired by some of the West African guitar work I love from bands like Orchestra Baobab.

Is the solo music role where you want to stay for a while now or are still going to be equally active in your other creative avenues, film making, photography, etc? And if so, how do you know when the time is right to head off down those other paths?

Gabriel: The curse of the polymath is I’m always a bit more spread thin than I probably ought to be and always trying to take a number of paths at once. A life making feature films and putting out records is the ultimate goal. On the docket is another feature film, and one of the scripts in development is a cinema-musical (I’ve written a bunch of the tunes already), so the hope is, as much as possible, to more and more often find the nexus between film and music, or at least allow one art form to fertilize and inform the other.

And where next for Unpinnable Butterflies and despite having so many creative options on your plate, is there anything else that you want to explore creatively?

Gabriel: Over the years, I’ve tinkered with a number of iterations of screenplays about musicians, and I may (though it’s still inchoate) be circling in on something now that is finally working in that regard. Should know more soon. And with the cinema-musical, there is certainly a lot of music emerging, both perhaps as a solo record version of those tunes, as well as, eventually, a proper soundtrack. And finally, long in the can, is an off-shoot record of more electronica tunes.

Alas, I seem forever incapable of staying in one lane.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and best of luck with the release of You and Radio Ocean.