While Richard Shindell is the first in his family to become a fulltime, practicing musician, he fell into his career as a singer-songwriter quite by accident.
Unlike so many singer-songwriters who struggle for years in obscurity before obtaining a recording contract, Shindell’s first contract, with a Newton, NJ-based record company, Shanachie Records, fell in his lap in the early 1990s, a multi-album deal that gave Shindell his foothold and a subsequent touring base.
“Without my knowing it, someone made a copy of the tape I had been making, which was really just to get the songs recorded — and with purely benevolent intentions sent it to someone at Shanachie, which at that point was looking for artists to sign,” he says. “I got a call from Shanachie, who said, ‘We love your record,’ and I said, ‘What record?’ I was totally flabbergasted. It wasn’t Columbia Records, but it still meant more than what it might mean now. It automatically put me in a category that made it easier to get more gigs and attract more press attention.
“As you know, people who work in radio or print media, they want to see the credentials before anything, and in this case it was one credential that made people take me more seriously,” Shindell, 47, says in an Internet phone interview from his home in Buenos Aires, where he moved to in June, 200 (his wife is from Patagonia). “I had no revelatory moment when I realized I wanted to be a musician. In fact, I kind of slipped in through the back door.”
He appears at the Black Potatoe Festival, which takes place Thursday through Sunday, July 10 through 13, at the Red Mill Museum, Clinton.
Shindell was born in Lakehurst, NJ, and raised in Port Washington, Long Island, and Baltimore. His father, Rutgers, Class of 1957, worked in the mutual fund industry; his mother worked as a librarian after his family moved to Baltimore.
Shindell began playing guitar as a nine-year-old and developed his songwriting chops while a college-bound high school kid. He took his cues from Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and the Beatles. He says he discovered Dylan and the Beatles when he was 10, and his own songwriting took off from there.
Later in high school, he says, “I discovered Joni Mitchell’s records, and I think that ‘Blue’ is one of the greatest records of all time. I also discovered Leonard Cohen and then I went off an art rock jag and Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Springsteen’s first two albums had a very big effect on me.” During this period Shindell also became interested in bluegrass music, which led him to the cross picking style — which incorporates one pick and playing the bass lines and strumming at the same time — he uses today.
“I had no plans to do this for a living,” he says, “and nobody in my family did anything even remotely similar to this. I sang in choirs all through childhood. That’s where I learned to sing harmony. I used to stand in the pews there with my parents and siblings and to amuse myself, I would try to invent harmonies during the hymns and to find a third part that was neither my father’s part or my mother’s part.”
His first three albums, “Sparrow’s Point,” “Blue Divide,” and “Reunion Hill,” all for Shanachie, were critically praised affairs, if not stellar sellers. It allowed him to carve a niche for himself in the world of contemporary folk music that much more quickly.
After graduating from Hobart College in Geneva, NY — where his friends included Christine Lavin’s sister, Mary — he wrote a few songs, got them down on a demo tape to pursue more work on the New York City folk scene of the mid-1980s. “Once I had a record out, I started playing in coffee houses and festivals and then little by little I had a career,” he says. “It wasn’t something I aspired to when I was younger.”
In retrospect, he says, there were all kinds of psychological reasons why his career as an independent musician blossomed, while a succession of day jobs didn’t work out. “There are conscious decisions and there are also unconscious drifts to a certain kind of life, and my unconscious drift was the long drift, having played guitar all those years, and that had its own kind of inertia,” he says. “You end up doing what you are meant to do, in spite of your conscious intentions.”
Shindell moved from the family home in Baltimore to New York City in 1986, when there was still something of a folk scene centered around Speakeasy and a few other Greenwich Village clubs.
“That scene was winding down at the time,” he says, noting Suzanne Vega went from playing Speakeasy and other small clubs and festivals to become an international folk-pop star through her deal with a major record company.
Shindell’s most recent release, available at the festival and via his website, richardshindell.com, is “South of Delia,” a collection of cover songs. One link on Shindell’s website, which he maintains himself, is called “What I’m Listening to Now.” He lists albums by Bob Dylan, Furry Lewis, and an eclectic assortment of male and female singer-songwriters. “I tend to devour records,” he says of his listening habits. “If it’s on that list, it’s a record I listen to a lot. I listen to things repeatedly and obsessively and then I stop almost completely. I sort of internalize them and can’t get enough of them for a while.”
Shindell’s move to Buenos Aires has changed the nature of the way he tours in the U.S. Instead of going out for short weekend trips out of New York, where he used to live, Shindell’s booking agents now have to book him on extended four and five-week tours. Shindell’s wife, Lila Caimari, is an historian. “I can live anywhere, but she had her work and her work functions better if she’s living here,” he says. Shindell visited Buenos Aires and her country house back in the late 1990s and liked it, so they decided to move back there in June, 2000.
Shindell’s next album will be released on Signature Sounds, a small folk and blues label based in western Massachusetts. He says his approach to songwriting is the same as it’s been since the beginning. He tends to get ideas for songs on the road, but can’t flesh them out until he’s back home in Buenos Aires. “It’s like a brainstorming session out on the road, but when I get home, I try to make something out of them,” he says, adding, “I read the newspapers obsessively and all that information is floating around in my brain.”
Asked about his plans for the Black Potatoe Festival, he says he’s not sure if he’ll be there with a band or not. “Typically in the States, I have a group of musicians who are still by and large willing to play with me, so I may be there with a bass player or with a full band. I’ll be doing a mix of new and old songs and songs from the cover record as well.” Songs Shindell puts his own indelible twist on for “South of Delia” include Robbie Robertson’s “Acadian Driftwood,” Bob Dylan’s “Senor,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.”
“Whether I’m solo or with a band, I always bring two or three guitars with me, including an electric.”
Black Potatoe Festival, Thursday through Sunday, July 10 through 13, Red Mill Museum, Clinton. Featuring Richard Shindell, Kathy Phillips, Juggling Suns, Honeyboy Edwards, Jay Collins and the Organiks, Philadelphia Funk Authority, Donna Jean and the Tricksters, John Ginty, Gregg Cagno, Billy Hector, and others. $14 or $37.50 for 3-day pass. www.blackpotatoe.com or 908-391-0769.