PETER HIMMELMAN FINDS LIGHT IN THE SMOKE AND FLAMES OF TODAY’S WORLD ON HIS PROVOCATIVE NEW ALBUM THERE IS NO CALAMITY
The critically lauded singer, songwriter, and now author teams with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos for his incisive new CD.
Some songwriters wrestle with demons. Peter Himmelman wrestles with dialectics. In “Sacrificial,” a central song on his new album There Is No Calamity, Himmelman ponders questions like “How angry is too angry? How sweet is just too sweet?/How do you call out for love when love feels like defeat?” Later, he defines his song title “Ropes or Wings” as being among “the deepest choices of the human mind … With ropes we stay tied up, and with wings we can make this troubled world aligned.” His all-too-prescient “245th Peace Song” states, “the anger in people’s hearts needs to be cooled” before noting: “but you’ve got to be careful what you cool it with.”
The album’s brick-and-mortar release date is August 11 on Himmasongs Recordings.
There Is No Calamity’s existence arose with a touch of serendipity. The Minnesota-bred, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has had conversations of late with his musician friends over the dilemma they are facing: “Why make a record these days, especially when no one’s buying them?” For Himmelman, the answer is easy: songwriters need to write songs and need to record them, and then get them out into the world. Making an album also, in Himmelman’s words, “taps into something I loved as a kid when a record was something cool.”
The road to Calamity really began when Himmelman’s longtime tour guitarist Scott Tipping mentioned that his friend, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, was a big fan of Himmelman’s music. Himmelman contacted Berlin and things clicked. Berlin expressed interest in producing his next album and asked to hear all his demos. Himmelman sent him 53. After not hearing anything for months, Himmelman thought it was one of those “not meant to be” things. Then Berlin, back from a Los Lobos tour, got back in touch, and he had a list of songs for the album.
Himmelman admits that the songs Berlin picked weren’t ones that he would have selected, but he found Berlin’s perspective on his music refreshing and the choices “put things into focus for me.” In the past, Himmelman has been hands-on when it came to making his albums. This time, however, he stepped back and let Berlin take the helm for this record.
For his part, Berlin appreciated the trust Himmelman placed in him. Their collaborative process, Berlin explained, “was remarkable in that when we started he really didn’t know me or my taste yet he basically said ‘just tell me what to do and I’ll do it as good as I can.’ A producer can’t ask for anything more than that, and I can tell you that too is rare in my experience.” Berlin strove to capture the dynamism of Himmelman’s voice and music, as well as showcase the rare moral and ethical perspective that he sees in Himmelman’s songwriting.
While Berlin was a new collaborator, Himmelman brought in his longtime touring band to record with him. He had long discussed using these Chicago-based musicians — bassist Matt Thompson, drummer Chuck Lacy and guitarist Scott Tipping — but it had never worked out before. Last spring, they all convened for four days at the B-Side Studio in Portland, Oregon. Playing in the studio with his touring band for the first time “brought a sense of adventure,” according to Himmelman, over whether it would succeed; however, the recording sessions “worked out well on all counts.” More old friends — keyboardist Jeff Victor, percussionist Jimi Englund and vocalists Kristin Mooney, Claire Holley, and Willie Aron — also contributed to Calamity, as did noted producer Mitchell Froom, who guested on the Hammond organ, Celest and Mellotron.
The results thrilled Himmelman, who says it “captures the elusive sound of a record — as opposed to a well-wrought demo.” He was so excited that he had friends come listen to Calamity’s tracks in car. The new album delivers one of his most musically diverse efforts, from the hooky rock of “Memories in This Heart of Mine” to the gospel-toned “Ropes or Wings.” Himmelman’s rapid-fire wordplay in “Ribbon of Highway” gets propelled by a driving rhythm line, while smoldering, bluesy guitar-play enhances the sense of urgency coursing through tracks like “Smoke and Flames” and “Sacrificial.”
On this album, Himmelman examines the darker side of man on tunes like “Rich Men Rule the World,” which suggests a Randy Newman piano ballad that throws punches and not punch lines. However, he doesn’t point fingers here, but instead spotlights a world where “what money buys is what every man craves/as if we could carry it down to our graves.” Himmelman balances out his darker moments with rays of hope in songs such as “Love Is What Carries Us Away” and “The Depth of You.”
A particularly key song on There Is No Calamity is “Fear Is Undoing.” It is one of several Calamity’s songs that address how fear rules human’s lives, but how it can also be controlled. It is a concept that the Grammy- and Emmy-nominated musician explores in his recently published book Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. The book grew out of the work he does in Big Muse, a company he founded that does music-based creativity seminars for Fortune 500 corporations and organizations. As a result of his Big Muse work, Himmelman earned a scholarship to do a yearlong program at Northwestern’s esteemed Kellogg School of Management, and was invited to the Army War College’s annual National Security Seminar. All of these experiences, Himmelman says, are things that he brings back to his music.
Himmelman, who Time magazine has said “writes songs with the same urgency that compelled the Lost Generation to write novels,” has long explored a variety of creative outlets. In addition to his dozen solo albums, he has recorded several children’s CDs (including the Grammy-nominated My Green Kite) and composed scores for numerous films and TV shows. For Himmelman, it is all about taking action and doing something he loves — making music. “Life happens,” he says. “This is it.”