Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has a reputation for melancholy, and it’s easy to see why. Even some of his more upbeat songs may have a darker edge to them once you dig deeper. And yet, it’s something Browne himself doesn’t really see.
"Oh, that's a big misconception," Browne recently told the New Zealand Herald while he was on tour down under. "I'm not melancholy at all, but I like sad songs. I like songs that describe life's sorrows, because that's how you get through it. Songs that take you from one place to another."
The full journey of Browne’s songs will be on display at his show April 29 at the Grand Sierra Resort. It’s part of a solo acoustic tour, in which Browne plays his many hits unadorned and likely talks about the songwriting process.
In fact, Browne started his career as more of a songwriter than a recording artist. Soon out of high school, he became a staff writer for Elektra Records. His first big break was when ex-Velvet-Underground singer Nico recorded several of his songs in 1967, including what’s become a modern folk standard "These Days." He also co-authored "Take it Easy," one of the Eagles' first hits in 1972.
Browne recently told the Australian website Addicted to Noise that “Easy” was really an unfinished song of his when he presented it to his co-writer, the late Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and to Frey’s bandmate, Don Henley.
“They were happy to hear that I wasn’t going to finish it in time to get it on my first album,” Browne said. “Then, (Frey) was impatient that it wasn’t done yet for his. He finally offered to finish it. I said, ‘Yeah,’ because I loved those guys. I loved the way they sang and the way they played. I didn’t think of them as the writers that they then became. He and Henley became great songwriters, a great songwriting team.”
Browne’s own performing career started in earnest with a self-titled album in 1972 which netted a top 10 hit, "Doctor My Eyes." From there, Browne toured and received critical kudos for the rest of his '70s work, which included songs such as "For a Dancer," "The Pretender" and "Here Come Those Tears Again."
Browne's biggest commercial breakthrough was "Running on Empty," a 1977 album that documented life as a traveling musician and featured the title track, "You Love the Thunder" and the closing medley of his own "The Load-Out" and '60s chestnut "Stay." The album sold 7 million copies and reached No. 3 on the Billboard album chart.
“Empty” told in bald terms of the excesses in ‘70s touring life, something Browne acknowledged to the New Zealand Herald.
"Back then we didn't sleep. We smoked and drank, did all that stuff," he says. "These days on the road I keep to myself, I read, exercise and listen to music and play guitar. I don't go anywhere or talk to anybody. ‘Cause I can't really sing the way I want to sing and talk a lot.
"These days I live in a more sustainable way and you have to because a lot of the people I knew then aren't around anymore.”
‘Exploring the world’
From that turning point in his career, Browne balanced likely more sensible tours with hit albums throughout the next decades. Among his best known songs in the ‘80s and ‘90s are "Boulevard," "Somebody's Baby," "Lawyers in Love," "For America," "In the Shape of a Heart" and "I'm Alive." Browne was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
He also became known as a political activist against nuclear power and to protest wars the U.S. was involved with in Central America. At times those political views ended up in his songs, and he recently told On Milwaukee magazine that he never saw it as a risk to his career.
“The songs with a political or social subject are my own journey to exploring the world,” Browne said. “I don't see much difference in a song about love or a relationship and one about a social injustice. Both convey a need or desire to understand.
“Where you could go wrong with either one is if you become too positive about what you're saying. Most of my songs ask questions, or they have an ‘I know about this but I don't know about that’ thing going on. State your doubts, and you'll discover what you're sure of. That's what draws people into a song.”
Browne's latest studio album, “Standing in the Breach,” was released in 2014. It includes a song called “You Know the Night,” with lyrics by Woody Guthrie. It reached No. 15 on the Billboard album chart.
With such a deep catalog from which to choose, it may be likely that the GSR audience will request songs, and Browne recently told Addicted to Noise that he does get that at shows.
“Sometimes, they’ll call for a song all night long, and I won’t do it,” Browne said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Well, here’s a song they were calling for last night.’ What songs you do is pretty much a combination of what you’ve come there prepared to do, and what you feel like doing in the moment.
“Sometimes, what someone calls for is a really good idea. Other times, somebody calls for something that is so like the song they just heard that you couldn’t do that one. It would just show how similar those two songs are from either the same key or the same instrumentation.”
Browne made clear, though, that he does appreciate how connected his audience is to his whole catalog.
“I’m a little spoiled because most of my audiences know the songs very well,” he said. It’s a matter of feeling them and summoning the emotion of the song as much as anything. If you just walk through a song, and it didn’t do anything for you, it’s probably going to be the same way for the audience. It’s a way of going through something together. It’s a way of experiencing these songs.”
“The audience themselves give us indications of that while they’re listening and in between songs. I’m far from being annoyed if people are yelling for a song I’m not going to do. I’m happy for the encouragement and for the acknowledgement.”