A new album, Press On, provides an unintended look at life with a pandemic presence
Peter Himmelman has been a multi-tasker practically since day one.
More than a mere singer and songwriter, he’s also recorded a series of acclaimed children’s albums, authored books, found success as a motivational speaker, and still found time to score soundtracks for films and television. Each of his albums — approximately two dozen since he initiated his multi-faceted career more than four decades back — are telling, tender and occasionally turbulent, ringing with irrepressible melodies and songs that beg repeated hearings from the first listen on.
Not surprisingly, Himmelman’s new album, aptly titled Press On, offers further astute observations about the human condition and the troubling times that the world finds itself in.
Despite the fact that the album was recorded prior to the pandemic, it boasts a telling title and urges its listeners to persevere despite the obstacles and turmoil that have befallen them of late. “You’ve got to rise up, rise up,” Himmelman declares on “This Is My Offering,” the final selection of the set.
“It’s one of my favorites on the album,” Himmelman says of the song. “I had originally demoed the song as a very high-energy rock song, like something the Who might have recorded in the late ’70s. But when I listened back to it, many of the lyrics struck me as a little corny. I shelved the song for a long time. Then, one evening I took out my guitar and tried the song again in a 3/4 time signature, a waltz. It was strange how everything suddenly felt honest and uplifting in that new rhythm.”
It follows then that Press On is a remarkably telling effort overall, one which Himmelman readily acknowledges in afterthought.
“Sometimes the idea, or concept behind a creative project, is best described post facto,” he suggests. “Now that the record is out in the world, I see it as simple as this: times are hard, times are strange, and having love and faith are the tools that get us through…”
Indeed, Himmelman himself seems somewhat in awe of the fact that so many of these songs, though written pre-pandemic, resonate today.
“Yes, It continues to surprise me, he admits. “There’s another grandiosely title song on the record called, ‘Truth Proffered In A Hard Time’ that has these lines. They seem so prescient to me that I wonder what I was channeling when I wrote them:
‘Come take my hand now I got the money in a paper sack
Kiss the ground beneath you, we won’t be comin’ back
I knew the storm was coming, loud and dark and hard
Everybody just laughed while I was standing guard…’
In fact, there are any number of songs on the new album that get to the very core of those convictions. The rumble and ramble of “This Is How It Ends” is yet another example. “It means a lot to me,” Himmelman reflects. “Not only for its lyrics, which seem strange to me even now, yet seem so on point — how could anyone have known in early 2019 what was to befall us just a year later — but also for the chord progression and the way the melody unfurls itself. I sat at the piano one afternoon, drifted off to some nice place, and the it just rolled out of me.
The brooding ballad “A Place In Your Heart” finds Himmelman sharing a singular song of devotion. “It’s such a simple song,” he observes. “In many ways it feels like something I’d been yearning to write for a long time. It has a very gospel-like quality to it, so you could say it’s a truly spiritual song. It also conveys the love I have for my wife, but in a manner that’s realistic enough that it allows me to inhabit the song anew each time I sing it.”
It ought to come as little surprise that a picture of Himmelman’s five week old grandson adorns the album cover. “His face on that record cover completely exemplifies everything I’m looking to purvey in this album — hope, wonder, and perseverance,” Himmelman insists
While Press On is easily the equal of any of his earlier albums, Himmelman sees it as something more. Both the message and the melodies seem to have made a decidedly impactful impression even on him, the album’s creator.
“I would hope there’s some kind of evolution with each of the records I make,” he notes. “But Press On, in particular, has something in it I can really get behind. A lot of the record’s urgency comes from the way the recordings went down; everyone was playing together, Improvising parts in the moment, responding to one another. I’ve come to realize that ‘releasing’ a record, as opposed to ‘making’ a record has very little charm left for me. When I was younger, there was always a sense of anticipation about how a record would perform in the marketplace, how the critics would respond, how radio would respond. At this point, it’s all about the joy of writing the songs, the joy of recording them with people I love and respect, and mostly —although, with COVID this part will have to wait—performing them in front of a live audience. My body of work is not as popular as I once hoped it would be. But those were the hopes of a younger man who didn’t understand as much as I do today. Everything that is good is a direct result of the creative process itself. Absent that, there is little meaning, and even less joy. Most days, I walk around content with the knowledge that I have written songs that have made many people feel their own aliveness —and perhaps become more of what they aspired towards.”
So too, he also has high praise for the musicians who contributed their efforts to this undertaking.
“Matt Thompson is on bass. He’s an incredible musician and friend. He’s the kind of guy who’s so schooled, he can listen to a Coltrane solo while he’s walking around his backyard and write it down note for note. Greg Herzenach is on guitar. Greg has played with me on several of my albums and has toured with me since the early nineties. He’s another Coltrane-notator, a consummate musician and friend. His knowledge of harmony is his genius. Jimi Englund is on drums. Jimi is as good a drummer as I’ve ever worked with —and I’ve worked with some of the very best. His ability to make the songs come alive is matchless. Chris Joyner plays Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, and upright piano. When Chris sits down to do his magic the day opens wide. He is a master at bringing an old school soul and gospel feel.”
Himmelman’s gratitude towards his musical collaborators isn’t surprising, especially considering the fact that he still shares his admiration for the first outfit he was involved in, prior to launching his solo career. That band, Susan Lawrence, released two albums in the early to mid ‘80s, Hail to the Modern Hero! and a double disc titled Pop City.
“What I think of when I think of Sussman Lawrence is that we all experienced a miracle,” he reflects. “First, the four guys — Andy Kamman on drums, Al Wolovitch on bass, Eric Moen on sax, guitar, and keyboards, and my cousin Jeff Victor on keyboards — were all incredibly gifted players right out of high school. They were highly regarded by some of the best players in Minneapolis during the late seventies and early eighties. Second, and this is where the ‘miracle’ comes in — we all went to the same school and we were all best friends! Even today, although we don’t see each other as often as we’d like, our love for each other is sky high. What I learned from my time in that band was that you can both dream, and see the manifestation of your dreams. This is something I first experienced with these guys. The components of success are imagination, diligence, and respect for yourself, your collaborators, and for what you’re working on. Everything follows from that.”