Author And Critic David Hajdu Turns Songwriter With “Waiting For The Angel”

illustration by John Carey

CD cover illustration by John Carey

I’ve known David Hajdu’s words for decades now as among the most articulate and nuanced in the overlapping fields of music criticism, culture reporting and nonfiction books.

In the pages of The New Yorker, in many other publications, and online—and currently, as music critic for The Nation—Hajdu has considered songs of many musical styles as well as the lives, times and talents of those who play, sing and create them. His 1997 book “Lush Life” stands as the definitive biography of one of the 20th century’s great composers of song, Billy Strayhorn.

When I last ran into Hajdu, he had just completed the manuscript for a forthcoming book “Popped Up: Popular Music and What It Means to Me,” which he described to me as befits its subtitle—a personalized tour through decades of songs and the circumstances surrounding them.

Hajdu seemed far prouder of another accomplishment—again focused on songs, this time from a new perspective.

Waiting for The Angel: Songs with Words by David Hajdu,” due August 28 on Miranda Music, marks Hajdu’s debut as a lyricist and songwriter. These 11 songs represent songwriting collaborations with pianists Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule and composer Mickey Leonard. The performing cast includes Rosnes and Hersch, along with other New York all-stars such as trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Carl Allen. The songs are sung by a distinguished trio—Jo Lawry, Michael Winther, and Karen Oberlin.

Suddenly, I find myself encountering Hajdu’s words—a voice I know well—in a new and freshly gripping way.

One tune, “Suffer,” set to music by Rosnes, is a dedication to Strayhorn, whose world Hajdu inhabited for more than a decade while working on his book. Yet if there’s a patron saint here, it’s Lorenz Hart. When I interviewed him about this new CD, Hajdu posed the questions that, for him, most animated this new project: “What if Lorenz Hart lived in the 21st century and had a contemporary frame of reference, a 21st-century view of the world?  How would he write?”

I’m not sure Hajdu gives us the answer to those questions, or even really tries. These songs sound nothing like poses or play-acted speculation. Instead they come across like clear, present and first-hand joys and anxieties set to music, major-chord realizations and minor-key moments that likely have played our in Hajdu’s life or rattled around his mind after he’s completed listening to and commenting on other people’s music.

Here and there a truth gets unfurled—“good things happen slowly but bad things happen fast,” goes the refrain of one song. Hajdu packs a lot of good and bad, slow and fast, in here. Mostly, though, he gives us the many shades of in-between that make for what we seek from a lyric when we listen to new songs.

A CD release performance is planned for Wednesday, September 2 at Rockwood Music Hall.

Here’s the text of my interview with Hajdu about “Waiting for the Angel”:

How did this CD project come about?

About five years ago, Jill Sobule and I cooked up an idea for a project to do together—a song cycle inspired by a vintage charm bracelet that she got as a gift.  Our idea was to imagine the life of the owner from the material evidence of the charms, with a dozen different writers contributing lyrics about a dozen of the charms.  We reached out to a group of writers we both liked—Luc Sante, Jonathan Lethem, Mary Jo Salter, Sam Lipsyte, and others, and I wrote lyrics about two of the charms.  Jill wrote all the music.  The album was called “Dottie’s Charms,” and it came out last spring.

Over the course of working on this, Jill and I talked a lot—a lot, a lot—about song craft.  I had been writing about music my whole life, since I was a teenager.  I care a great deal about songs, and I think about them all the time. At one point, Jill said to me, “You know, you’re pretty good at this.  Why don’t you write more songs yourself?”

I said, “I don’t know.  I guess I just don’t have the calling,” and Jill said, “If thinking about something all day and night isn’t a calling, I don’t know what is.”

So Jill and I kept working together after “Dottie’s Charms” was finished and released—her with her guitar and me at the piano, because I can play passably and know some music theory.  We wrote a song called “The Angel in the Attic,” a pretty little lullaby about sexual abuse and suicide.  We played it for a wonderful singer named Marissa Mulder, and she sang it at a club.

Something just clicked with me.  I don’t know if it’s a calling or what.  But something clicked. Jill is a wonderful lyricist herself and doesn’t really need a lyric writer.  And I know that I’m limited at the piano.  So I turned to a couple of the composers I most admire in the world—Fred Hersch and Renee Rosnes, to see if they’d want to try writing some songs, and they both did.

By the end of about five years, a little catalog of songs had taken form, with the music written by Fred, Renee, and Jill, or Jill and me composing together.  A great many of them have been sung around New York over the past several years-by singers like Kate McGarry, working with Fred, Hilary Kole, Mary Foster Conklin, and my personal favorite, Karen Oberlin.  Yes, she’s my wife.  I’m a lucky guy, and not only a lucky songwriter.

Will this experience change the way you write as a critic about songs and composers?

I think it will, yes.  It has already changed the way I think about the songwriting process.  I’ve never thought of it as an easy thing, but I realize now that it’s even harder than I thought.  It took me several weeks—in some cases, several months—to write the lyrics for each one of the eleven songs on the album.  In many cases, there was lots of back and forth with the composers along the way, too.

I teach a seminar in arts journalism at Columbia, and one of the things I have the students do is spend an entire week making art—they do printmaking, under supervision at an art studio—for a full week before they attempt to write about art.  I want them to try it themselves to shake out unfounded presumptions about the creative process.  As a music writer, it has always helped me to be able to read and play music myself.  Now, I’ve begun—though just begun—to grasp the demands of song craft.  It’s hard to do.

Is there a little Billy Strayhorn in your approach?

On the level of technique and ability, not at all.  Strayhorn was a genius.  He wrote in his head and then sat down at the music paper, as if he were taking dictation from the muses, and masterpieces flowed out.  I’m a struggling laborer at songwriting.

I did write a lyric dedicated to Strayhorn, though.  It’s called “Suffer,” and the music is by Renee Rosnes.  She did it in D-flat, the key of “Lush Life,” and it’s infused with musical suggestions of Strayhorn’s sensibility, in the same way that, say, “Chelsea Bridge,” is infused with suggests of Ravel.

Who else are models and influences?

Lorenz Hart, for sure—for the extraordinary union of playfulness, bleakness, and mordancy in his lyrics.  In fact, I’ve had in mind to do a specific thing in the songs I’ve been writing, and it’s connected to Hart.  I’ve thought, what if Lorenz Hart lived in the 21st century and had a contemporary frame of reference, a 21st-century view of the world?  How would he write?  Thinking that way got me on my way to finding my own voice, my own way of writing.

What’s your favorite song on the CD, and why?

Oh, I don’t want to pick one that I did with one collaborator and hurt the feelings of the other two composers.  So I’ll say that the first one written for the album has a special place in my heart—”The Angel in the Attic.”  The title of the record, “Waiting for the Angel,” comes from the lyric.  It’s a strange and grim little song that leaves you humming.  It’s unsettling.  I like that.

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