There's nothing abstract about the title of A Cure for Loneliness, the latest solo album by Peter Wolf. The J. Geils Band singer long ago discovered his own remedy for that universal condition, and with his new LP, he plans to share it with the world.
"Music's always been so powerful in my life," the veteran songwriter tells Rolling Stone. "I feel so grateful that I'm still absorbed by it and can continue on the path of doing what I do and meeting people like Merle [Haggard], doing a duet with Aretha Franklin, and spending time with Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett. That to me is my cure for loneliness, and I feel so blessed for having had the opportunity."
In 2010, the singer released the widely acclaimed album Midnight Souvenirs, which featured duets with Haggard and Neko Case. He’s hit the road multiple times both with the J. Geils Band and his own regular group of players, and he’s even found time to play music journalist, engaging with Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg for a rare, hour-long interview. Starting April 9th, he'll tour the Northeast and Midwest in support of the new LP.
For his eighth solo album, out April 8th, Wolf decided to return to his musical beginnings, and the deepest roots of all American music: country and the blues. Across 12 tracks, including new originals, obscure covers and a bluegrass reimagining of the J. Geils Band classic "Love Stinks," Wolf plumbs his own emotional depths in an attempt to strike back against the forces of time and complacency.
Wolf recently spoke with RS via phone about Shakespearean rock musicals, his kinship with the late, great Bobby Womack, and the great collaborators who continue to push him in directions both old and new.
A Cure For Loneliness is your first record in about six years. What have you been up to?
Well, I do a lot of touring. There's downtime — I do painting and that takes over. Making a record is sort of like baking. You don't want to rush it. You want to cook it and make sure it turns out right. Right now I'm working on taking the entire Shakespeare tragedies and turning them into a Broadway musical.
No, that was a joke [laughs]. It seems like every rock & roller is doing a musical these days, though. I thought I would choose all of the Shakespearean tragedies, mix 'em up, put them into one and turn them into song.
Like a Shakespeare's greatest hits?
Yeah, like I Am Hamlet. "To be or not to be …"
How much of your time away from the studio these past few years did you spend really nailing down the material for this album?
Time flies by, and of course you want to find a good home for your work, and that takes time too. And before you know it, there's this space. But it's not for a lack of having material. I can go in and record tomorrow and do another kind of record, but it just wouldn't make sense. There's a certain cast of characters that I like to pull together, a certain group of players that I want to be involved because I believe in collaboration. I've had the opportunity to work with some really fine musicians, and they bring in so much personality to the work and help lift the bar up for me.
You enlisted a number of different collaborators for this release that you've used in the past, most notably your writing partner Will Jennings and producer/keyboardist Kenny White. What is it that keeps bringing you back to those guys?
It's just that we have a camaraderie. They understand the way that I work and their contributions are so beneficial. I can say to somebody, "Give me a little Bobby Womack guitar," or "I don't know, that feels more like a [Steve] Cropper," and all of that translates. I can communicate with them in a way that they get it and we really enjoy the process of recording.
How do you build songs? What's your process like?
When I do write, if I'm doing something alone, it's just me, an acoustic guitar and a cassette. Every song is sorta different. They're there as a kind of beginning sketch, and it comes to life when I sort of sit with the musicians in the studio. We kick it around, maybe make it harder, and try different keys. I find it all very exciting because you don't quite know how's it's going to end up until the final mix.
From a sonic standpoint, there are so many different blues and country flavors on A Cure For Loneliness that it kind of has this Exile on Main Street / Let It Bleed kind of a vibe to it. Is that far off the mark of where you wanted to go?
No, I take that as a great compliment. What I loved about Exile is that it had so many different influences going from a real unique blues feel to acoustic country blues. You had the Slim Harpo impacts; you had the "Tumbling Dice." So many different roots appear on that album, and yet it all works and I think that's what made that album so important.
Was that something you tried to do yourself here, incorporate a lot of different roots flavors onto your record?
Well, it's not anything conscious. For instance, I would strum on my guitar and start playing a song like "Always So Easy" which was a song I knew by Moe Bandy. To me it, was always a honky-tonk classic, but it was pretty obscure to a lot of people I respected. For that song, I tried to kick it up but still allow it to contain that sort of honky-tonk feel to it.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, you have a song like "Mr. Mistake," which is kind of a jump-and-jive jazz track.
Yeah, that was kind of an homage to a Wynonie Harris kind of a feel. Like "Your eyes look like cherries in buttermilk." Lines like that, but with a "Whoo!"
In the song "Peace of Mind," you sing, "When I was a young, I used to believe in everything/Now I'm not a young man and I don't know what song to sing." Could you comment on what you mean there?
Well, "Rolling On" became sort of the template for the songs, and the working title of the record was "Rolling On." Both "Peace of Mind" and "Rolling On" have a sense of "How do you endure? How do you keep going as the landscape is constantly changing?"
The song "Peace of Mind" and that precise lyric has to do with constantly trying to figure out where do you fit in the landscape, what are those big questions all about. To quote an Delmore Schwartz poem, "Time is the school in which we learn/Time is a fire in which we burn." As you find yourself reeling in the solar globe, you just wonder how can you endure as an artist and as a person. I think that's what that song is about. One is searching for answers and some kind of peace of mind through it all.
"One is searching for answers and some kind of peace of mind through it all."
Have you found an answer that works for you?
That's a good question and the answer for me is my cure for loneliness and that's music. As things change, music still prevails. As long as I have the ability to keep doing what I do, I feel a satisfaction.
What compelled you to revisit the J. Geils Band song "Love Stinks" in the bluegrass style that you did here?
The whole recording of it was unexpected. I had gotten to meet Bill Monroe and bluegrass is one of the things I'm a fan of. As a young kid growing up in the Bronx, on Thursday nights on my AM radio, I used to get WWGA from Wheeling, West Virginia, and there were these girls singing this haunting ballad and when they got done, the DJ said, "That was the Stanley Brothers!" I thought it was two girls! That was my first turn-on to this strange-sounding music called bluegrass, and it just sort of stayed with me.
So we were backstage before a show, and we were doing some Bill Monroe songs during the show, and we were just messing around back-porch style and I started doing "Love Stinks" and the band followed me. Anyway, that night, I called out that song onstage and we happened to be recording so we captured it. When we went back and listened to it, it was something that we enjoyed so much that we ended up keeping it on the record.
Do you think a good song should be adaptable to different styles and flavors?
Oh, yeah. Time has proved that to be true as songs from the Thirties continue to endure. Great standards like "I Only Have Eyes For You" became a doo-wop classic. That's one of the reasons that "Tragedy" appears on the record. When it first came out, it had such an impact on me — the lyrics and the chord construction of it. It was recorded many times. Thomas Wayne did it originally and it was produced by Elvis' guitar player Scotty Moore. I think that Paul McCartney did a version of it, and each version has a unique element to it. Once again, there were people I knew that weren't familiar with it, and it was something that I always thought was a brilliant piece of music that again had a haunting quality to it, so we just started messing with it and it just sorta fell into place. Not all songs do that.
Is it true that you were planning on recording "It's Raining" with Bobby Womack?
Yeah, that's a interesting tale. Bobby and I were going to try and do something on the Midnight Souvenirs record, but the schedules wouldn't allow it. We had talked about doing a song on this new recording and I found a song I did with Don Covay. He and Bobby were very close. So we were recording "It's Raining," and I was getting ready to put down a vocal and send it out to Bobby, and as we got done with the studio, Kenny White, who produces with me, said, "Pete, you're not going to believe this." I said, "What?" He said, "It just came across my phone: Bobby Womack passed."
It was so eerie because we had just finished the track. I had Bobby's number and was about to call him and tell him, "Hey, it's done," because we had talked a while before about the possibility of doing something and that I would send him something when the time was right. It made it even eerier so I went back in and put down the introduction sending it out to Don and to Bobby.
Bobby was one of those artists that I find such an amazing personality. His songwriting, his stuff that he did with Wilson Pickett, and his own recordings, just the lyrical aspect — he was such a unique character. The texture of his voice just thrills me.
Do you have a favorite Bobby Womack song?
Oh, there's just so many of them. To me, it'd be like picking a favorite Otis [Redding] song or a favorite Stones song. His early period with the Valentinos is so special, and he progressed more and more ... There's just so many periods. It's too vast for me to focus in on.
Was the first single, "Wastin' Time," recorded live, or was the crowd noise a studio effect added later?
No, that was recorded live. It might have been done on the same night as the "Love Stinks" recording. I loved the feel of that and the sound of the recording, and the distortion of the organ. The whole thing just sorta came alive. It's one of the decisive moments where, just like a photograph, you capture a moment in time.
What is it about that song in particular that stood out to you enough to make it the single?
I think the spirit of it. There's an intensity to it and the quality of the playing is to such a high bar that for me it just emotionally seems to work. I thought that would be a good way of presenting what A Cure For Loneliness is all about.
Going back to the title of the album, do you want listeners to come to it as a place where they can find some solace from their own loneliness? What do you hope people glean from it?
You just do your work and you just hope that there's some kind of response. You put an invite out and you hope that people will come to the party. You hope that people get the chance to know that it's there and you hope that it resonates with them in some way or another. That's all you can really do.