In true Midwestern fashion, John Prine opens our conversation with an apology. He’s a few minutes late to our call because he just got out of the physical therapy for his new knee. I ask him if he’s made any progress. “I keep forgetting my cane,” he says over the phone from Nashville with a laugh. “So I guess that’s a good sign.”
His self-congratulatory, self-deprecating charm has become his trademark, so much that Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan himself once gave him the weighty description of “pure Proustian existentialism, Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.” Prine’s songs find the humor in the sadness and the absurd in the mundane. Also, I feel it important to point out that Prine still uses a flip phone.
If you ask him, his first album in 13 years is just an album, and it only exists now because his bosses told him it was time to release it. “My wife is managing me now,” he says of his reasoning. “Our son is running the record company and they came up to me last summer and said, ‘We need a record,’ and then they booked me into a hotel in Nashville for a week.” The 71-year-old then holed up in a suite for a week with four guitars and ten boxes of unfinished lyrics from his 50-year career, ordering food service as he wrote the 12 songs that would eventually become The Tree of Forgiveness, his 19th album that was released earlier this year via Oh Boy Records.
Each song on Tree of Forgiveness carries the weight of time and a feeling of isolation—be it through age or physical distance or mental exhaustion. “I once had a family but they up and left me / With nothing but an 8-track, another side of George Jones,” he sings on “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” a song that, weaves together present-day age-imposed solitude with fond memories, and acts as a perfect example of his extraordinary songwriting skills. Prine puts you directly in the mindset of an aging narrator in order to bring you a song about the inane process of life that you only come to understand through age.
In conversation, though, Prine—who was born and raised in Illinois—downplays those grand themes. ”It’s probably just because I’m by myself when I’m writing,” he says when I ask why he thinks so many of the songs here feel as if they’re coming from a place of loneliness. Maybe it really is just a song about a screen door, and that day he’d just happened to be wearing jeans without change in the pockets, but his music is the kind that melds to whatever you’re feeling at that time. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it’s light, sometimes it’s both. You’ll never hear one of his songs the same way twice. He is as much a jokester as a songwriter with a guitar determined to point out the idiosyncrasies of life with a healthy dose of laughter.
Noisey: How many songs do you think were actually in those boxes?
John Prine: When I wrote 12 songs, that was it, I didn’t look any further in the boxes. There might be another 12 songs in there, but I’m going to wait another ten years before I look in there again.
What was the oldest song that you picked out from them? Did they have dates on them?
It was 30 years ago. Me and Phil Spector wrote half of a song, we’d written a song called “If You Don’t Want My Love” and when I went back to play [it] for Phil Spector we wrote another half a song as we were going out the door. I tried to finish it a couple of times before and it’s a pretty song. It’s the one that turned out to be “God Only Knows”—this time around it seemed easy to finish and it was in my range so we put that on the record.
Does Phil know that he’s got a new song on your record?
Well, we got an address for him and we sent him a copy, but I haven’t heard back yet, so maybe. I dunno. Maybe he doesn’t have a CD player.
You didn’t have any moral objections to including that song of his on your record?
No, I never considered that… I mean, he wrote this before they said he was a criminal. If I ever thought there was anything about the song that might affect anybody that was involved in the court case, I guess maybe I would have thought twice, but it’s a pretty song.
The songs sound like they come from an isolated place. What was your mental headspace like while recording?
I guess that’s just the way I write. To sit down and write a song, it’s an isolating situation even when you’re co-writing. If that’s what you’re trying to do is isolate yourself long enough until you can concentrate on what you’re doing.
You have a lot of themes on this album that address being isolated or left alone.
Well, it’s probably just because I’m by myself when I’m writing.
“The Lonesome Friends of Science” sticks out to me. Would you mind taking me through writing that song?
Well, way back when scientists decided that Pluto wasn’t really a planet, I got ticked off and I guess it stuck with me. I couldn’t see how all those years ago, I had to memorize all the planets in 5th grade science, and then all of a sudden they taught me that one of the planets isn’t really a planet, it’s just a star. What do these scientists do, sit around in a room and drink martinis and decide what planet is still a planet? It sounds like a secret society to me.
"What do these scientists do…sit around in a room and drink martinis and decide what planet is still a planet? It sounds like a secret society to me." —John Prine
I also remember when they decided that Pluto wasn’t a planet and I was also incredibly upset by it.
I just don’t understand it—and then on top of it, after about seven years of it being an ordinary star they said that Pluto is actually a dwarf planet. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Not quite good enough to be a planet but still kind of a planet, but we still don’t count it.
Pluto’s family must have objected or something.
Did you daydream a lot as a kid?
I was born a daydreamer. I mean, I had a hard time in school, concentrating on any of the teachers. I would stare at a button on their shirt more than what they had to say, you know? If you put a dog up on the table barking at me, it would have made more a difference in my life than a teacher standing up there talking about ABC.
Ultimately, it’s more interesting.
Well, I was lucky that I went into the line of work I did, because I wasn’t trained for many other things.
I wanted to get a little bit morbid. You’ve seen so many things happen over your lifetime, what’s something that’s surprised you the most about getting older?
What surprises me—actually what surprises me—is how fast it goes by. Yeah, when you’re younger it seems like life is pretty fast but when years just start disappearing, it’s really crazy.
What do you mean by disappearing?
Well, I mean, you think about celebrating a birthday every two months. The years just slip away. They fly by, you know? In a good sense. It’s all fun—glad they're not dragging by but when you get older you just realize that the years go by really really quick.
Is there anything that shocks you besides time?
Well, I woulda thought by the time you turn 70 that you’re somewhat of a different person. I still feel like a kid between my ears, you know?
Well unless I walk by a mirror I don’t feel like I’m 71 years old. I feel the same way that I did 20 or 40 years ago.
Is that your outlook on life?
Yeah, I mean, that’s my outlook on life. That’s who I am, so that stays the same and because I’m in the business I am, you get a lot of friends over the years and you get to go play your music for them and they either share your outlook on life, or they wish they had that same outlook. So it’s kinda nice; it’s a nice business to be in.
"Well, I woulda thought by the time you turn 70 that you’re somewhat of a different person. I still feel like a kid between my ears, you know?" —John Prine
Does the album title refer to the Sir Edward Burne Jones painting?
Oh no, I thought of a title about at least six years ago. It just wound up being a good title for an album and then a couple of years later, when I dug it up again, I looked it up to see if it was already something. That’s when I saw the painting. I had my son—he’s into mythology—he explained to me who the characters were in the painting. I tried to write a song just using the title and I couldn’t come up with anything that seemed like it should be a song. That week I spent in the hotel, the last song I wrote was “When I Get to Heaven.” I was in the middle of the song heading for home and I thought, “I still haven’t used the Tree of Forgiveness,” so I had to stick it in there at the very end just to get the title in there.
Why is that?
Otherwise people would go, “How come you named it this and didn’t put that into a song somewhere? There’s no song called the ‘Tree of Forgiveness.’” This way I got an answer for them.
That’s very practical.
I’m a practical person in an impractical world.
What’s the most practical thing that you do?
When I get up in the morning, I lay up in bed, and think what am I going to have for breakfast, and when I finally decide that, I slowly get up and go into the kitchen and start to prepare it. I try to get out of the house by about 1 o’clock or so, go get a hot dog for lunch, and kinda hide out all day.
To make people think that you’re working?
Exactly… if you show up at 2:30 in the afternoon, they’re going to know you’re a bum and you don’t work. [_Pauses_] I just saw a beautiful red bird fly by me.
What was that?
I just saw a really beautiful red bird fly by me.
Are you into birding?
No no, that was my mom’s favorite bird, and I rarely see them. When I do see them, it’s her just flying by and saying hello.
"I’m a practical person in an impractical world." —John Prine
Do you miss your mom often?
My mom was a real character. So was my dad, but he died pretty early. But my mom got to be 82. She got to know her grandchildren or when they were little kids. She got to spend some good time with them and she was a good storyteller and so was my dad.
Kinda inherited it then?
I guess so. The gift of gab I guess they call it.
She had eight sisters. I imagine you’re probably good at gabbing.
I used to go to family reunions and just listen to all those girls tell stories. They had wild, wild stories about growing up in Kentucky and that little town “Paradise” I wrote about.
I bet there was a lot of gossip.
Oh, there was tons of gossip, and then when they got through gossiping about other people they’d gossip about each other.
How did you write "When I Get to Heaven," the last song?
I wrote the chorus first. The chorus was about my favorite drink and then having a cigarette with the drink. I had my first cancer 25 years ago, and I quit smoking the night before. I still really miss cigarettes. I see them in my dreams. [When] I see somebody lighting up outside a restaurant, I go and stand next to them so I can get that first whiff, and so I’m thinking I’ve got this chorus that goes, “I’m going to get a cocktail/ vodka and ginger ale/ I’m going to smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long,” and I thought “Where can I do that?” Heaven, that’s the only place. There can’t be any cancer, and probably not any No Smoking signs, because there’s no bureaucracy in heaven. So, I figured that’s the next place I’m going to be able to have a cigarette is heaven, and that kicked the song off for me. I came to heaven just so I can have a cigarette with my drink. Now that’s pretty practical, isn’t it?
That is absolutely practical, yes.
Almost the definition of practical.
Do you think heaven is just going to be one big party?
Well, if I’m there it will be. BYOB. You’re invited.
Thank you. I’ll be sure to let God know when I get there.
Please do. Mention my name. Tell him John sent you.
When Annalise Domenighini gets to heaven, she will also smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long. Follow her on Twitter.