Q&A with Ted Garber

Ted Garber is a DC-area native and second generation professional musician.  His music, which mixes the smoky blues of Robert Cray, the cool guitar rock of John Mayer, and a dash of international flavor, features elements that appeal to any listener, particularly those who enjoy concert outings.  Ted's dynamic live shows are building on the foundation he established with the release of his latest album, American Rail.  Ted will be appearing as a special guest at Justin Trawick's monthly musical residency at Iota on Tuesday, February 9th, and will be headlining a show with Jason Ager on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage on Thursday, February 25th.  I interviewed Ted via email recently about his music, his inspirations, as well as his ambitions.

Ted, why don’t you tell us where you came up with the name of your new album American Rail? What is the central theme or message of the album?

"American Rail" is the product of many months of traveling domestically and abroad and realizing more and more who I am and where I want to go.  The longer I travel out of the U.S., the more I realized how American I really am.  The more time I hopped along on the West Coast, the more I realized that I am truly from "back East." Songs like "Waste Some Time" and "Strike It Up" and "Following You" reflect my romantic wanderlust.  Whereas, "March of the Working Class Hero" and "It's About Time," and "Giving Tree" reflect what I've learned through my worldwide experiences. So, here I am, an American who is aware of his "American-ness", and a world traveler who brings that Yankee-element with him wherever he goes. If the album has an agenda, it's this:  Challenge yourself everyday by having the courage to live life happily and heartily.  Not everyone has to travel abroad to figure this out either. 

I know it’s probably a bit like asking a father to pick his favorite child, but what’s your favorite track from American Rail? Why?

Well, I feel more like a child trying to pick his favorite parent.  I mean to say that I am often fickle, and that my tastes are always changing and developing. Right now I am enjoying "Giving Tree" the most.  I wrote the song around a groove I had started as a Tulane student in the late 90's.  I was back in New Orleans staying in the French Quarter a few months after Katrina, and the song started to write itself in my hotel room.  I kept it upbeat and happy because, to me, that's the kind of place New Orleans is - alive and welcoming.  "Giving Tree" is also obviously inspired by Shel Silverstein's masterpiece, where he reminds us that true happiness comes from within, and that the more generous and gracious we are, the more likely we are to find peace, love and joy.  So, right now, with all our eyes on helping to nourish Haiti, I think I'll continue to sing this light-hearted blues tune with gusto!

You’re a native of the area, and the son of the late local musician Thomas “Holly” Garber? Do you see your career as furthering his musical legacy in addition to establishing your own?

Without question, my dad, Holly Garber, was my hero, my idol and my biggest supporter growing up.  His influence over my music and my career runs deep.  A few years after my father passed away, his mother (my now-93-year old Grandmother, whose life has also inspired many of my songs) said, "I wish your father's music had been able to go around the world."  A few months later, I found myself playing little trattorias, pubs, piazzas and beer halls around Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.  This was the beginning of my world travels in 2001.  When I would run out of material, I would play one of my Dad's songs, "High on Life," a song about a musician's struggle to balance life on the road with his life at home with his family.  Everywhere I played, this song resonated with the audience, and I even started getting requests for it. While my dad is physically gone, his inspiration marches on.

I know New Orleans has a special place in your heart, from your years at Tulane and beyond. Are there any New Orleans musicians who inspired you and shaped your sound? And what’s your favorite po-boy joint?

Oh, heavens, YES!  I can still remember my very first night in the French Quarter, and I was hearing street musicians (playing for tips) doing jazz.  I had never heard live jazz before. People were staggering drunk down Bourbon Street. They didn't know whether it was day or night, and I just stood there, transfixed by the music, parting the wave of drunken revelers like a butter knife.  After that, I started scouring the Quarter for talent, and it was a street player who got me to play in public for the first time. I love the whole feel of the place but those who particularly inspired me where the ReBirth Brass Band, the New Orleans jazz funerals and second-line parades, often headed by Kermit Ruffins, the Neville Brothers, the Wild Magnolias and Bo Dallis, and the Olympia Brass Band.

As far as po-boys - Downtown: No question--Cafe Maspero on Decatur--the best value in the Quarter for food and drink (but cash only!).  And, Uptown, I like the overall vibe and muffaletta  and po'boys at Frankie and Johnny's on Arabella, just off Tchoupitoulas. [Editor's Note: These are excellent choices for po-boys].

You often speak about sustainability and renewable energy. Can you tell our readers what you do as an artist to contribute to responsible energy use?

I don't want to give the impression that my songs are all topical, but yes, I do believe in responsible living.  I actually paid an extra $1.25 per album during manufacturing so that I could have a plastic-less case on, matt-finished, recycled paper [album cover].  I suppose the best example though, is that I bought a mini-van in 1996 to cart my stuff around--because it was the smallest vehicle available that carried my PA system. People made fun of me, and some gals would say, "I wouldn't date a guy who drives a minivan."  Well, once gas crested $3.00 per gallon, I stopped hearing those jeers.  And, for all the ladies who busted my chops--I married a woman who loves me for my van! HA!  

Where is the favorite concert venue you’ve played, here or abroad? Where is the place you dream about playing?

I dream about playing The Grammy's, The CMA's [Country Music Association Awards] or The Oscars someday.  I just think it would be an incredible experience to share my music with the highest level of success in the industry.  I used to get really nervous about big venues and big names in the audience until a fellow-musician told me, "think about what you can give these people, not about what you might get if you play well."  From then on, whenever I walk on stage, I just think about sharing my passion for living with people through my music.  That's what I did at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC a year ago, which has been my best local experience to date.  The staff there treats you like Elvis, whether you're the opener or not!

Abroad, I'd have to say that my best show was in a small, fishing village in Northern Brazil, near to Fortaleza.  I was out under a full moon, on a beach.  The villagers made me a seat from a palm-tree stump and made a fire from coconut husks.  I was the only foreigner there, and even though my songs were in English, they somehow resonated with the audience.  It was proof that music really is a universal language. 

You display some pretty impressive linguistic skills on the track “Montevideo”. How important is it for American musicians to speak other languages? Any plans to produce other songs wholly or partly written in Spanish?

I don't think Americans need to learn other languages unless they plan to travel abroad.  It's always abrasive when I'm abroad to hear my fellow country-folk yelling at some person in English, acting as if the native resident is an idiot for speaking only his/her mother language.  To me, that behavior is deplorable.  I seek to be a diplomat when I travel.  I open myself to the places I go, and I do my very best to struggle at adapting to the languages, customs and rhythms of the region I'm visiting.  The local people then notice my effort, and they soon become my ally rather than my tour guide.  Through my attempts at assimilation, I've made countless friends around the globe. Languages opens the door to communication, and we need that right now more than ever.  Still, there is ONE thing that is understood in every country:  a smile.  Wear a smile, and you will be surprised at how more quickly you are conversing and making friend (here and abroad)!

Your lyrics are often deeply personal. Are they most autobiographical, or do you approach songwriting as if you’re writing fiction?

A mentor of mine once told me that good writing is like finding a tiny, nearly unnoticeable run in your sock and then slowly wiggling your toes until that little thread-worn tear has become a gaping, unmistakable hole.  That's how I try to approach songwriting.  I take things that are personal to me, whether from an actual experience or simply a sentiment, and I do my best to expound on that image, that feeling.

Speaking of fiction, what are your literary inspirations?

I'm a big fan of Southern Literature - Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Tom Dent, John Kennedy Toole, and George Washington Cable to name a few.  I also love British Literature from the 19th and 18th centuries and, of course, my hero, Shakespeare.  American literature shines brightest for me with the transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson, especially, and with the Lost Generation, especially Hemingway and Fitzgerald. 

Are there any artists or producers with whom you’d like to work?  

My producer Marco Delmar is my man!  He and I communicate especially well, and I think his mixes are beautiful.  He's the best I have worked with, and I am already planning to start working on my next album late this year. But, it would also be a dream come true to work with Jon Landau, who does Springsteen's stuff.  As far as artists, they are too numerous to mention, but if Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon called me, I'd probably faint from the shock and excitement!


Unknown said…
This was a great interview. Ted's not only a talented songwriter and entertainer, he's also passionate and it comes through in his songs and lyrics. Thanks!
jeffro said…
Nice interview, Brian!
Brian Franke said…
This is a great interview. I've recently met Ted Garber and he does come across as the diplomatic, no frills sort of musician.

Brian Franke
Lessandra said…
If I didn't already know Ted - after reading this interview- He would be someone I would like to know -
he's traveled, talented and insightful- He's lighthearted and passionate - whimical and practical.
Truly multi-faceted - hardworking y muy guapo! A great entertainer and extraordinary person. Excellent interview.