Interview: Robert Kraft
Thu, 10 Oct 2013 12:28:50
We could all learn something from Robert Kraft.
His journey from a piano-wielding singer-songwriter responsible for the Who's The Boss theme song, music from The Mambo Kings for which he received an Oscar nod, as well as numerous albums to President of Music at Fox to C.E.O. and founder of his latest venture Kraftbox Entertainment is downright fascinating to say the least. Being a true talent musically and possessing a diehard work ethic, he epitomizes the Hollywood dream without any of its pretensions or pandering. That's what makes him a real inspiration.
On Tuesday November 5, he'll be playing a very special gig at Largo in Los Angeles [Get tickets here!]. Entitled Consensual Sets, it's going to cover his catalog with some quality stories thrown in for fun.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Robert Kraft discusses his own history, the show, and so much more.
Your musical catalog is a testament to the versatility and adaptability required to have such a long and impressive career in music. You've covered an entire spectrum in a way that few can.
That's a really interesting insight into myself that I don't think I've ever thought about it. It's something for me to think about in both positive and negative ways. I don't know if I'd thought about that. The glib answer is some version of, "I just wanted to work". As far as I could adapt myself to the next gig, I would be malleable to an extent. Someone might say, "Hey, you want to do children's music?" I'd reply, "Yeah, I can do that". Or, maybe I'd get, "You want to write a mambo song?" I'd say, "Sure!" Behind closed doors I'd go learn everything I could about Cuban music in the fifties. I'd go educate myself and become that guy. On the other side of being malleable, it's about being musical and not being precious. Film composers would be more of a model for me than the pop stars because a great film composer gets hired and writes orchestral music for one movie and then electronic for another. They learn how to create the appropriate musical soundscape. We are all very attached to the ego-based, artist-based idea of the musician. I am so attached to that. As an artist, I really just sound like myself. I found that out. I can't write songs for other people as well as I can write a Robert Kraft song that sounds like some part of me. As a result, I realized I had better figure out how to do other things or I'll just starve. The kind of music I write and the songs I did aren't particularly "radio-friendly". They're not particularly broad audience. They are café songs about society and about introspection. They're not rock. They're not particularly jazz. They're not necessarily pop. I knew I was right in the middle of some kind idiosyncratic musical island so if I wanted to stay musical, I had to adapt. Thank you for that interesting insight. I don't know if I would've thought that, but you're right. I just said, "Yes", when someone asked if I could do something.
That's very telling.
As a matter of fact in my show, I'm going to play a variety of songs and include a moment where I say, "Either the low point of my career or one of the peaks was coming out to L.A. broke and confused and being asked to write the theme song for a sitcom and thinking, 'Oh God, I have no clue! I don't watch TV. I don't like sitcoms. I'm a beatnik stoner New York artist. What does a TV sitcom in Hollywood sound like? I'll just use white notes because it's so white'!" I wrote the Who's The Boss theme in twenty seconds in my Oakwood garden apartment on my hundred dollar keyboard. It just sounded like TV music. I still get BMI statements thirty years later [Laughs]. I don't know where a lot of that came from. I think musicians can be chameleons too. The thought process often is, "I'm going to sound like those guys who wrote those songs". I tried to mimic a certain style, but I was terrible at it [Laughs]. Like writing for Pat Benatar, I had no idea how to write a rock song for a chick singer. I'd try it though.
How do you go about curating the setlist for these shows?
That's a really good question. It's interesting. First of all, since it is simply me at the piano and I'm going to have an acoustic bass player, the first thing I'm going to do is play the songs that really sound great with just piano and voice. Certain songs were much more arranged like a Steely Dan kind of thing. Some songs just sound good with a guy and a piano. Those were my earlier songs when it was just me at a piano in my apartment writing song. I was like the whole band so I decided to play everything on the piano and sing it. They're going to be all songs I've written. Most of them are from my records. The gigs are basically in celebration of these two different releases coming out. One is five-disc box set dropping on Vivid Sounds. They're releasing my four albums as an artist plus a never-before released live set of me playing the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. The material will come from those CDs. A week later, Milan Records is releasing a compilation of my greatest hits—I don't know if any of them were hits [Laughs]. It's called Consensual Sets. That's the name I gave to the shows. These shows will celebrate this music. Most of it will be songs from my records. It's an evening of songs and stories. I'm going to tell that silly Who's The Boss story. I wrote that, walked away, and heard it on ABC television every Thursday night at nine o'clock for the rest of my life basically [Laughs]. I'm going to tell the story of writing Hudson Hawk, which I wrote ten years before the movie was made. I played it for my friend who was a bartender in New York. He heard the song and said, "Fuck man, that's like a movie. We're going to make that into a movie someday". I said, "Yeah, let's have another drink". Ten years later, Bruce [Willis] and I are in Rome making the motion picture Hudson Hawk starring Bruce. Before I die, I want to say, "Shit like this happens!" I'm going to also play the song from the Mambo Kings that was nominated for an Academy Award. That's a crazy story.
All of these songs have such a rich history, and you can feel that in the words and melodies.
People often ask, "How did you have that career?" Fuck, if I know! I just showed up, played the piano, and shit happened. I read books. I called people. It always felt random to me. Whenever people ask what the strategy is, there is none. Work hard was one strategy. Say "Yes" to everything was another. In one of my favorite books there's a line, "If you can't make money, make friends". I think that might be the real secret. Be nice. Then people call you. The set will be a combination of all the different moments. I think I'm going to get up and get out. Brevity is the soul of wit. I'll play twelve or fourteen songs and wonder what I did.
Looking at this whole process of releasing Consensual Sets and playing these shows, which song speaks to you the most right now at this moment in 2013? What's impacting you the most?
I love these questions, Rick. I really love them. They are questions I haven't been asked and haven't thought about until you asked them. That's really wonderful. It lights me up to hear them. I have to think about them. The general answer is I'm absolutely amazed at how much I'm enjoying playing all of them again. It's not anything but that feeling of, "God, I love sitting at the piano playing these songs". I'm amazed because I shut the door on that part of my life. There's a little bit of a childish wonder. You're getting on the mountain and skiing again. I'm really enjoying being back on the mountain. I'm kind of scared of falling because I haven't skied in the last twenty or twenty-five years. I also think, "Fuck it! I'm just going to ski. If I fall, I fall. I'll pick myself up and get back to the bottom". There are a couple of songs that surprise me in that they're a bit prophetic. One of my songs "Failing Upwards", which I wrote in 1982, starts with the line, "Last year, couldn't get on Fox's lot. This year, look at all the deals I got". I thought, "How did I write that? I ended up being the President of Music there!" I drove by it wondering how I could get on there. There's a song on my first record written in 1979 about trying to tell the difference between a false start and a dead end and what it means to hope things will work out. You keep pushing. You get up a little earlier. It still speaks to me—"False Start". It's the 23-year-old version of the expression "Failure is not an option". When I play it now, I still feel the same way. It's fun. I'm also wondering, "Where did I come up with this shit? How did I write these songs? What was I thinking?" It's a real luxury to revisit it.
This catalog is like a living photo album of your life. Do you see a different Robert when you go back to these songs?
You're good [Laughs]. I do see a different Robert, and it makes me wonder who that Robert was and who he became and why. Frankly, the process of playing those songs, all of them written in my twenties and thirties, I was very committed to being that guy—the artist, singer, and songwriter. The next chapter is "Robert Kraft, the studio executive". He doesn't play the piano. He doesn't write songs. He tells people what to do and answers questions that are mind-blowing privately [Laughs]. Which one of those two am I? Am I both? Who is that first guy? How do you re-address your youth thirty years later? How do you make it genuine and authentic? The nicest answer to the question is the songs I wrote then were so stylistically apart from the music of that moment which was punk and disco. I was set on being apart from those things. I was twenty-three. It wasn't like I was a square. My friends were punks. I was at Studio 54 at night. I was definitely focused on not making popular music like that. The stuff doesn't sound wedded to an era. As I'm playing these songs, I'm remembering other things I wrote at that moment.
Was it easier writing for yourself or for a film?
It's an answer that has two parts. It was easier to write just for myself at the beginning because I had all of this youthful energy and needed to express myself. Then, like any artist, I found I was going back to the same informational well to write from. It was like, "Now what?" I loved and took to the ability to do the latter. Give me an assignment, and I'll write it. Now, it's like, "What will I write about at this moment?" Now, there's no career move in writing. There's no financial upside to writing. As a poet, writer, artist, American, and musician, what would I choose to write about that would be worth leaving? It's really an open canvas.
Will you be there?