An exclusive chat with power pop great Richard X Heyman
One of the most consistent questions fans have asked over the course of Richard X Heyman’s remarkably prolific 30 plus year solo career is simply this — how does he do it?
Indeed, that’s something that fans — this one in particular — have always asked, given his seemingly natural gift for plucking immediate and accessible melodies out of the air as if they’ve always been in the ether and ready to be found. That’s evident again with Heyman’s latest opus, Pop Circles, which, in addition to producing and writing all the songs, finds him playing practically all the instruments as well. Gifted with a decided ‘60s sensibility — he claims a well-stocked record shop’s worth of archival influences — his ability to craft hooks, choruses and ringing refrains has been an unshakeable element in his efforts since the beginning.
The inside cover of Pop Circles offers further affirmation of his dedication and devotion. It finds Heyman sitting with his guitar, surrounded by dozens of vintage 45s.
“I don’t want to give you one of those standard songwriter-y response,” Heyman responds when asked about his individual inspiration. “Like, ‘Oh, these songs are just floating in the air and I was lucky enough to be the receptor.’ There are two basic ways these melodies occur. One is putting a chord progression together and see what works on top of it. The second is having a melody first. How and why that melody pops into your head is a mystery, but once it’s in there, you need to then find the right and best chords to accompany it. It’s usually a bit of trial and error, but the melody will dictate what feels right chord-wise.”
Like most artists of his ilk, Heyman also claims to draw from personal experience, and on the new album in particular, he sings with an urgency that’s more pronounced than ever before. “Guess You Had to Be There” is particularly poignant. It captures the trajectory of those who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the sequence of life-changing events that inspired their ever-evolving journey.
In this Woodstock 50th anniversary, the song resonates especially well.
VIDEO: “Guess You Had To Be There” by Richard X Heyman
Likewise, songs such as the Byrdsy “If You’re So Inclined, the cooing “As Love Would Have It,” the extremely infectious “Action Screams Louder Than Words” and the effusive and assertive rocker “Hope” offer examples of Heyman’s ability to strike immediate engagement.
“In a way, time has helped me with these songs,” Heyman nods. “I have had many decades of ups and downs and love lost and found. Being around for awhile gives you a perspective on what’s going on that you don’t have in your youth. At least that’s how it is for me. As far as the actual music goes, I still have a strong emotional reaction to hearing music. Certain chords and melodies and harmonies can make me cry or dance with joy.”
Heyman is always committed to connect, not only though his melodies but with a certain mindset as well. Pop Circles was written and recorded with the Baby Boomers in mind.
“I have no desire to try and figure out what someone in their teens or twenties would like,” he proclaims. “I’d love people of all ages to listen but the inspiration and style are from and for my generation.”
Happily too, Heyman has given listeners a lot to choose from. The 17 songs encompass both an album and a bonus EP dubbed “Richie’s Three Chord Garage,” songs originally written for The Doughboys, a band he helped found as a teenager and then reformed as an adult following a belated reunion.
“We just decided to throw it all on the same disc, as a built-in free bonus, and for good measure we included the extended mix used in the video of “Guess You Had To Be There,” Heyman explains.
The Doughboys offers him opportunity to make music with others, but as a confirmed homebody, he’s quite proficient when it comes to crafting songs on his own and with the assistance of his wife, bass player and engineer Nancy Heyman. They call their home studio the Kit Factory, a play on their devotion to their family of cats (and for that matter, animals of all variety).
“I start with the drums,” Heyman says of his solo technique. “I play each song as if I’m recording with a band. I just have to imagine the instrumental backing as I’m singing along. With drums being my first instrument it’s helpful because I feel confident that I’m laying down pretty much what I’d do with a full band. I then put down a basic rhythm instrument, usually piano, and then I start and finish all the vocals – lead, harmony and backgrounds. Once I hear the vocal/piano/drum combination, I try guitars. If the song was written on guitar, I record whatever it was that I had, like maybe a riff that triggered the song in the first place. Again, it’s all about listening. Finding what works. Being willing to change or abandon what’s not sounding right. I have an initial arrangement, but it’s not set in stone.”
Ironically, Pop Circles originated as songs that Heyman mainly had written for The Doughboys, but that changed he said once he got deeper into the creative process. “I started writing new songs up to the point where there was a whole different record than the one I initially started,” Heyman says. “When I write for the band, I’m consciously trying to be more garage-y, more Stones/Animals than say Beatles/Byrds. It’s good to have that challenge, because I don’t think I would write in that style for my solo stuff.”
As for the future, Heyman mentions that someday he would love to put together a big jazz band and play drums. “I started out playing jazz in the style of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich,” he notes. “Not as well, of course, but I still love it.” He also mentions that The Doughboys will be releasing an album of their own called Running For Covers, which will consist entirely of other artists’ songs.
“Some unexpected and interesting choices along with a few garage classics,” he promises.
VIDEO: Richard X. Heyman – Falling Away