Barry Ollman Reviews and Interview presents an extended interview with Barry Ollman...

What'll It Be?
(Blue Colorado Music)

In reality, singer / songwriter Barry Ollman has lived two lives. There was the pragmatic Barry that chose family life over that of a struggling musician. For years while he worked in the corporate world, he would dabble on the weekends with a fellow group of pragmatic musical optimists who had also forsaken the calling of their true passion for real jobs. His group of dreamers named themselves The Thrills and would perform around the Denver area on weekends. For the most part, however, this band of brothers, with Ollman on vocals, had resigned themselves to life's cruel irony—family first, the elusive pipedream a very distant second. Barry Ollman's story however, has an ironic twist to it. It would take retiring from his day job after 25 years, then a heart attack where he actually died in the family living room on three separate occasions within minutes—saved only by quick thinking EMT techs and a defibrillator—to finally turn his elusive dream into a reality.

Barry Ollman's life-long dream he turned into reality with his debut album—What'll It Be?—is a story that tens of thousands of talented music lovers who also had a dream can relate to. For one reason or another, the spotlight eluded them. In today's wired world, you don't need a major label to recognize you. You don't need radio to play your songs. You don't even need famous friends—though it can't hurt—to aid you in your efforts. All it takes is desire and a belief in yourself to actually sit down and put your lyrical thoughts to paper and take it from there. Barry Ollman did it—so can you.

The first song sets the tone for an entire album. Putting the running order of an album together is comparable to editing a movie because you have to arrange the music in a dramatic arc that you hope has a perfect balance throughout. Did you find this process daunting when putting the final mix together?

Barry Ollman No. I felt all along that "Imogen's Lament" should open the record. I figured that in the event someone only gives me a few minutes of their valuable time, why hide the fact that one of these songs is actually a duet with Graham Nash? I do love the song and I'm still thrilled and amazed that Graham wound up making good on his threat to sing on my album! The whole time I was making it, he kept telling me not to finish the record until he'd sung on it. I sent him each song as they took shape and Imogen was the first one that made him say "That's the one!" Graham and I had been close friends for nearly twenty years before I wrote any of these songs. We had picked a little over the years, but our relationship was certainly not built around my musicianship! I think we were both surprised.

To your original question about song order, I did experiment with that, feeling that if this project turns out to be the only record I ever make, I want the variety of my musical styles to be evident and interesting. A lot of people have told me they really like the fact that each song takes you in a whole new direction. For those of you playing along at home, I should also point out that very few of these songs are in the same keys.

Did you have a personal checklist that a song must have for you to seriously consider taking it to the next level—which in this case means recording the composition for live performances and to actually sell either electronically or physically?

Well, to be honest with you, when I realize that I may have a new song coming through, the first thing I usually do is to play it for my wife, Judy. She's quick to tell you that she's not musically schooled. However, my wife does have this sort of scary insight into which songs have a true reason to exist. She can tell if I was trying too hard on a song and more particularly, which ones come from my heart. With very few exceptions, the good ones are the ones that make us cry. True, I cry easily, but on this record, I believe you can feel real passion coming through in the lyrics and the music.

The goal for every songwriter is to create a complete song that has depth, meaning and sounds great no matter how the music is presented. Notwithstanding your wife's input, how did you go about finding the right balance for the various compositions you created in order for you to feel comfortable recording them?

When I've got a song that feels like one that I'd like to hear again, I pretty quickly get some sense of how I'd like to produce it in the studio. But I have to listen to the songs a lot before I really know what to put in and what to leave out. Some people do everything in one or two takes to get that performance feel. I don't really work that way. I like to massage and polish and make sure that every sound in the final mix adds something to the experience of the song. I like to hear every "t" and "d" to the point where it's almost like I'm having an intimate conversation with whoever cares to listen. Call me crazy, but that's what I like to do.

Does each composition have its own comfort level built into it for you?

I do need to be able to feel a song to do it any justice. That doesn't mean I can't have a great time singing "Be-Bop-A-Lula". To me there's a real magic when the lyrics and music come together and my emotions are touched. Sometimes it can be a little scary to enter places like that when I'm playing in front of people. I know when I'm in the audience at a concert I want to feel that I'm in good hands, both musically and for the overall message. I've walked out of shows where I felt I was being messed with by an artist who doesn't seem to appreciate that responsibility. On the other hand, I've had so many truly moving experiences listening to well-written music from brilliant and sincere musicians that I can't even count them. I'd say, be picky what you listen to. It's like anything in life. We get affected and changed by what we focus on. Music is a big deal because it can take you anywhere you want to go.

You used various musicians on different songs through your album. Trust is a key element here because these artists, in their own way, will change the depth and composition of your song once they start interpreting your original music. Did you find this a difficult process to go through, or were you relieved that your vision for the song was being explored musically in ways you hadn't thought of?

I trusted everyone I chose to work with to bring something interesting and personal to the party. I was fortunate to work with some truly great players I was fortunate to become acquainted with over the years. How could their involvement not raise my game? It's sort of like, I've got a song and once I've taken it as far as I can, the cavalry came to the rescue.

Was it difficult for you to decide when a track had been 'polished' enough that you stopped tinkering with it so the song could finally breathe on its own?

Well, I am sort of detail oriented about arrangements and the overall feel of a track. There's a fine line between getting right up to the sweet spot or over doing it. Songwriters usually know when we're there.

You are going to be listening and performing this particular set of songs the rest of your life. Was there any particular point during the making of this album when the enormity of what you were doing really hit home with you?

I don't know about enormity, but I did pour my heart into this. When you put your name on music, it's a delicate thing to do—or at least it has been for me. I wound up sending records, with a personal note, out to many friends who had been there for me in one way or another during my heart episode, pretty much as a way of saying thanks. I was so grateful that I had already done the work to be able to have something like this to offer to people that I love, and who have shown love to me. To me, that's way better than going platinum with a bunch of people I'll never know.

On the song, "Painting the West", you imagined yourself walking in the shoes of famed illustrator William Henry Holmes and American folk icon Woody Guthrie to write the song. Did you follow the same steps with other people you admire to write any of the other songs on the album, and if so, why?

I guess "Imogen's Lament" which centered around renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham and "See Ya in Okemah" are the other story songs on the record—maybe "Banker's Holiday". The rest are really my own stories. My brother, Arthur, is a well-regarded photographer, writer, educator and curator and he knew Imogen in the years before she passed away. One day he told me some things about a conversation they had and I suddenly felt like writing about her. I don't know why but I'm glad I did. I played it for Graham and he told me I had written a great song. That meant a lot to me, needless to say. Then to have him actually participate and cut that beautiful vocal was almost too much. He loved the mix too.

Was there any particular song, or moment during this album process, that emboldened you to the point where you confidently told yourself, "YES! I can do this!"

The night I wrote and recorded most of "The Old Country" in my den, by myself at around 3 AM, was a very telling moment. I felt not only could I do this but that I had to do it. I'd say that was a turning point for me, because the song was a powerful emotional payoff for me. My friend who played guitar on the album, Dave Beegle, would probably say that the moment we mixed Pete Olstad's trumpet solo in "Painting the West" was the moment he felt we were creating something amazing and beautiful.

You played live for years with your band, The Thrills, so you are no stranger to the stage or the sound of your own voice. However, when you are recording an album, every little vocal nuance you overlooked in the past suddenly takes on a life of its own. Was there any particular track you listened to during the recording of your album were you were surprised by the sound resonating from your mouth and if so why and how did it make you feel?

Personally, I kind of find the sound of my voice confronting. On the other hand, people have always liked my voice more than I have. Working in the studio is very different from everything else I do musically, and I love it. I enjoy the overall effort of trying to make my voice sound like tones I hear in my head. This is where my musician friends in the studio played a big part in the recording process. Dave Beegle is a genius on guitar. He understands me musically, better than most anyone I know. Dave can play anything he hears, but most importantly, I rarely have to explain anything to him. He's already doing what I want him to do before I say a word. Telepathy is good.

It is not uncommon for studio musicians to help the songwriter craft their song by make suggestions on vocal arrangements or even the way they play their instrument on a particular part. Did those situations occur during this album, and if so, could you tell me what songs benefitted from the input?

I was driving with Graham Nash one day and I played him my song "Almost Time". He said, "I really like the song but you're going to have to re-sing it. You're trying too hard." I didn't want to hear that from him, but as soon as he made the statement, I knew exactly what he meant. I recut the vocal and I'm glad I did. That turned out to be the last song I did right before I died (heart attack). 'It's almost time, but not quite...' Those words are ironic in a sense. That song was obviously meant to be the last track on the record.

When you write songs in your head, you obviously hear the tune one particular way. Once you have completed the composition, obviously you feel strongly that's the way it should be when it's recorded. After all the many years you worked in a band situation playing covers, did you come to understand that no matter how a song is originally written, it's important to keep an open mind that changes can occur and to never say never to an opportunity to hear ideas that may indeed improve your work?

When I think of that very subject, for some reason, the name Henry Gross comes to mind. Henry is a founding member of Sha Na Na. He also wrote the song "Shannon" that became a worldwide hit. He is ferocious, fearless and dedicated to finding the right word or chord change—at any cost—when it comes to songwriting. Henry has a great record called "I'm Hearing Things" and I was very fortunate to meet him and subsequently become friends. When he was writing some of the songs on his record, there were times where we would spend hours on the phone debating the benefits of this word or that. And I do mean hours! I'd be ready for a nap and he wants to go on to the next song. I learned from Henry to not get suckered into the easy choice. Find the right way to say what needs to be said and the song will thank you! I recently recorded a song that had a line in it which has been bugging me for a long time. I went ahead and recorded the music and the day before I cut the vocal, I totally rethought that bridge. I went at it from a whole other direction and it gave the song a very different dimension. So yes, it's very important to keep an open mind. In the end, it's generally worth it to follow that feeling.

Did you find yourself crossing any self-imposed songwriting boundaries on this album you previously never thought you would ever attempt?

"Banker's Holiday" is a song I started writing when the economy was collapsing in 2009. You could just tell that none of the bad guys were going to have to pay for their misdeeds where a lot of innocent, ordinary people ended up having their lives turned upside down. I felt very strongly about the situation, and this was the first time I ever wrote a song when I was pissed off. I knew enough about the topic to lay out my case lyrically pretty well. When I recorded a demo and played it for my wife and brothers, they all said that it didn't sound as pissed off as it was written. I had to go deeper and find the feeling and let it come out of my mouth. I think it worked pretty well. I sent the final mix to Garry Tallent and he liked it and said it was 'intense'. I figure if a guy who has literally been twenty feet from Bruce Springsteen at some of the most overwhelming rock moments and concerts shows of the last 40 years said that, I'll take it. Other people say it reminds them of Warren Zevon and I'm good with that as well.

What was it about the songs you had previously written and recorded—then listened to once again several months after you had recovered from your health scare—that convinced you the compositions you had finished were still the building blocks for the album you wanted to make?

I actually had just finished mastering this record and designing the cover art two weeks before I had my heart attack. While I was recovering, putting out a record suddenly went way down to the bottom of my list of things to do. About nine months later I thought I ought to give the music a spin so I put on my best head phones, closed the door, turned out the lights and really listened. To my delight I not only liked the songs I had recorded, I felt quite moved by the whole experience. I thought to myself, "Why wouldn't I want to share this music even if it only ends up in the hands of the people I know and love?"

I was asked one time why I never interviewed actors. My reply was simple. Nobody remembers the first movie they ever saw, but no one ever forgets the first concert they attended. Do you understand where I'm coming from?

I do, and in a way with this record, you could say that this is me performing my own script. A lot of time music is autobiographical. It certainly was in my case. You could even call my album a memoir. Acting I believe comes in two forms. There are the film actors who do a number of takes and move on in the role they are playing only to see a heavily edited screening many months later. Stage actors, on the other hand, have the chance to really get into their roles, night after night, to the point where they can have a whole different sort of relationship with the material. Songwriting is the same way.

That said, as a songwriter you have come to understand the power of words in ways most people don't quite grasp. Are there any particular tunes on this album you lyrically phrased just right that carried the emotional impact of the message to another level? And if so, how did you feel afterwards?

I definitely work on every word and phrase until it's as clear and expressive as I know how to make it. And yes, I do feel that words can create powerful imagery so I try to be careful how I use them. If anyone takes the time to listen to my songs with lyrics in hand, you'll be able to find a ton of word play. I come from a long line of Scrabble and Crossword players. My Mom is nearly 96 and she does the New York Times Sunday puzzle every week with my brother Rick. Words do indeed matter. I will say that the song "Almost Time" has a bridge that really struck me when I came back to it. I remember I was feeling a lot of gratitude just to be alive and this line really touched me. It says. 'When I was young, the road was long and wide ahead. But as I've traveled, I feel I'm standing on a Golden Thread.'

Were you conscious to make sure people didn't see your album as a 'bucket list' project to check off because of the health scare and did you take any steps to ensure the public at large would see this as a serious undertaking on your part—or is that even possible?

Well, as I said, I had finished all the work on the record with absolutely no inkling of what was right around the corner. The truth is that my life has been centered on music since I was a young kid, and you can ask anyone who knows me about that. My dad wrote for Billboard Magazine from 1949 to 1975, for God's sake. I had no way out! I was listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Dave Brubeck when I was ten. And of course, once I heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on the radio in December of '63, I was toast. There was no going back. Another thing I'd like to say is that I've become something of a believer in 'late blooming' as a result of all this. I feel I have a whole lot more to say now than I ever did before. Why not write about these things? What would I possibly be waiting for? None of us knows how much time we have left. As Graham told me once, "When the end comes, not even Bill Gates can buy an extra minute." It's a good thing we don't have to remember to breathe or we'd all be goners!

You mentioned in a previous interview that during the initial phases of this project, at one point you found yourself growing less and less afraid of the writing process. What exactly was troubling you?

I think I was self-conscious on a variety of levels for a long stretch of my life about songwriting. I don't think it's an accident that those feelings coincided pretty much exactly with my working life. I've always lived in many different worlds, and while I was pretty comfortable in each part of my life, I'm not so sure that they ran into each other very much. I think when I was working, more than full time, I felt pretty self-conscious about my creative, inner life. In 2005, I was fortunate to be able to walk away from my business and try to get back to where I once belonged, to borrow a phrase.

That said my 10-year band, The Thrills, did play at quite a few of my company's parties along the way. We played mostly covers for those events, so on a personal level, songwriting was less intimidating. When I really started to dig deep inside myself and write the songs on this record, it was a whole other experience. I had to find my courage. A lot of my favorite songwriters strike me as both adventurous and courageous people. That list includes Randy Newman, Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, John Fullbright and all those CSN&Y boys. It takes guts to open a vein like that.

Was there any one tune on your album that became your "a-ha!" moment where everything seemed to fall into place afterwards?

Each song on this album was really a very different experience for me. The first song I wrote and recorded was "Blue Colorado". Until Nick Forster (of NPR radio's Etown fame) offered to record the tune with me, it honestly didn't even occur to me that I should try to capture the essence of the tune in some way. Nick is an amazing fellow and has been a great friend ever since he refinished my Guild D-40 back in 1975. He gave me a lot of confidence to at least see what else I might be able to come up with. I know I'm very fortunate to have had support and feedback from some tremendous musicians like Graham Nash, David Crosby, Garry Tallent, Henry Gross and noted composer David Amram. If a song sucked, there's a reasonable chance I was going to hear about it from someone!

Back to your question, I should say that I absolutely did not set out to make an album. It was honestly one song that I could only hope there'd be one after that to follow. A lot of artists make an incredible first record because they've been saving up their best stuff and it all comes out at once. I didn't have any type of backlog like that. I had to build my ship as I was sailing. There did come a moment when I did notice that the songs I had been recording might hang together as a collection, that they may actually play well together. I think the moment came when Garry Tallent played that killer bass track on "Banker's Holiday" and Dave Beegle laid down a killer B3 Hammond part. We had a lot of fun mixing that song. We tried to squeeze all the dynamics we could get out of those parts while making sure that every word I sang could be well understood. When we finally got that song where we were all satisfied with, Dave and I kind of looked at each other like, "This is starting to feel like a record somebody might actually want to listen to. I better write some more songs!"

Your friend, the former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S., Andras Simonyi, is a firm believer that rock and roll played a critical role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. You obviously have sat down and talked to him at length about this subject. Does he have a point?

I love Andras. Your readers may remember him from when he had a bridge in Budapest named for Stephen Colbert when he was Ambassador to the U.S. You can watch that interview on the Colbert Nation site. I know Andras has given this subject a tremendous amount of thought and I absolutely think that he's right. Honestly, music is a powerful force in my life and that's true for so many of my friends as well. On a social level, outside of religion, I really can't think of any other thing that can move large groups of people to think and act differently in the way that music does. I've spoken with many people in Eastern Europe who've told me that The Beatles, Bob Dylan and CSN&Y gave them hope during the bleakest times of their lives. It's been much easier for us in the West to take that all for granted.

In the digital and social media age we live in today, it's very difficult for musicians to make a living at their craft. Do you determine success by the simple fact you can still get out and perform with fellow musicians and still follow the muse inside that has inspired you all these many decades?

I've said all along that if I get to play more music with musicians that I love and respect as a result of opening up my heart and coming out with these songs, this will have been a total success. Whatever else comes of it is fine. But that's really what I'm doing here.

- David Huff