A lot of my songs have these little characters. The most current examples I hear about are Dino in ‘No Drive’ and the two soldiers near the end of ‘It’s A Racket’ on Beautiful Sounds. But they’re on every record.
And sometimes they are little non-sequitir cameos like the intro to ‘Hey Girl’ on Home.
Some people love ’em. Many hate ’em (including my closest relations, but that’s another story.)
I don’t know why I started doing these. Perhaps because I always loved ‘acting’. One myth I want to dispel is that they are borrowed from Frank Zappa. Not true. I’ve addressed this before; I was never really that big an FZ fan. Only recently, I saw him in an old interview talk about this. Apparently he felt that voiceovers were much better for conveying complicated thoughts than ‘singing’ since you can be a lot more intelligible. I know this was the whole idea behind ‘recitativo’ in early operas–use spoken bits to explain plot points and then aria to talk about the big ‘feelings’. Makes sense. But that’s not what I do.
I have never had a character ‘speak’ some lines rather than sing in order to be ‘understood’. The characters usually ‘speak’ as sort of a ‘fill’ behind the main action to flesh out an idea. Think of a movie where the camera follows the main character along a sidewalk. Every once in a while, you might get some snippets of conversations to the left or right that give you the ambience. For example, the two soldiers in “It’s A Racket” aren’t the ‘plot’ but their dialogue does express the complexity on the ground that often gets lost while bigger things (the point of the song) go on far above. And then there’s the politician (preacher)–lifted almost whole from Olson Johnson’s epic speech in Blazing Saddles. To me, there’s nothing he says that is any nuttier than some of the ‘real’ speechifying I heard during the Bush Era.
In ‘No Drive’, I had always wanted to contrast the difference between the confident person I’d like to be, the person I think I am at any given moment and the person you see. I worked in Italy a few times and was just amazed at the level of self-confidence the average Italian guy displays relative to us poor, repressed Irish. Attractive? Unattractive? Doesn’t matter. They had no problem talking to any girlÂ like they were, well… Dino Ferrari! It seems silly and it is, but that’s the point. A lot of things we do, things that hurt a lot, are pretty silly.
And sometimes, I do ’em mainly as a bit o’ fun. The opening to ‘Hey Girl’ was an inside joke with my daughter. The song is trying to encourage her to hang in there through tough times, but her being her, I know it can come off as patronizing (as all parents do to their kids.) I added the little bit of Bill Murray-style Buddhism to let her know that I know how it comes off.
When yer a one-man-operation you need to find ways to add variety where you can. These characters are a way to ‘broaden the palette’ as it were. It may not seem like it, given the relatively low laugh-count in some of the material, but a lot of thought goes into doing these. They definitely are not off the cuff.