Dean Friedman, singer-songwriter, chats with Kevin Cooper about the BBC banning his song McDonald’s Girl, offering cannabis seeds to purchasers of his album Squirrels In The Attic, his latest album Words And Music, and his current tour of the UK.
Dean Friedman is an American singer-songwriter who plays piano, keyboard, guitar and other instruments, including the harmonica.
The songs of Dean Friedman have been covered by several contemporary bands, including The Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds Five, Ariel Pink, The Tone Rangers, and The Blenders. The lead singer of Barenaked Ladies, Steve Page, sang background vocals on Friedman’s album Songs For Grownups.
Friedman’s album, The Treehouse Journals was financed entirely by his fans via his website. He invited people to finance the cost of the unrecorded album by making an advance purchase and by making limited edition signed copies available. This tactic has since been adopted by a number of other bands.
Hailed by critics and fans alike as one of the finest songwriters of his generation, Dean Friedman has achieved legendary, pop-icon status for chart-topping hits, Ariel, Lucky Stars, Lydia, Woman Of Mine, McDonald’s Girl and many more.
Whilst currently on his tour of the UK, he took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Mr Friedman how are you today?
Hi Kevin it’s great to hear from you.
Let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
I’m happy to do so.
And just how is life treating Dean Friedman?
I can’t complain. I’m down in Brighton and the sun is shining and I can’t ask for much more (laughter).
You are currently on a mammoth tour of the UK. Is it going well?
Absolutely, the British audiences are always enthusiastic and appreciative and I am totally grateful for that.
So I take it that the UK audiences treat you well whenever you tour over here?
They do yes. They keep on coming out to share my songs and as long as they keep on doing that I will keep coming back to the UK.
Do you still get that buzz from touring?
I do, but not so much from the travelling (laughter). But the actual gigs are always fun (laughter).
You are here in the UK promoting your Words And Music album.
I am indeed. It’s my favourite tracks off of my last six studio albums, most of which have never been heard on the radio, together with other stuff that I am really proud off.
Are you pleased with just how well the album has been received?
Yes, absolutely. I think that the album means a lot to my fans and I have received a hell of a lot of positive feedback across the board.
You will be playing at the Poppy & Pint here in Nottingham on Friday 10th June. Are you looking forward to that?
Yes I truly am. I love to be able to communicate to people and it is always nice when they know the songs and they take the time to come along to see me perform them. I can’t wait to be honest with you.
I see from your tour itinerary that you will be playing ten dates at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Do you enjoy being up close and personal with the audience?
It is always fun to stand up in front of ten thousand people and feel all of that energy coming from the audience, but I find it more fun to be able to see people’s faces. So in a small room up in Edinburgh, playing the delicate acoustic stuff that I do, that always seems to work the best. This will actually be my twelfth time up there in Edinburgh so yes, I guess that I must like it enough to keep going back (laughter).
Whilst you are in Edinburgh you will also be holding a Song Writing Master Class. How did that come about?
It is all based upon a book that I recently published called The Songwriters Handbook which I put together after doing some song writing workshops and seminars all over the world. I have done them for the past decade or so. It’s my fun take on the art and the craft of song writing.
Taking you back to 1978 if I may, I have to ask you who inspired the song and just who is Lydia?
(Laughter) I wrote that song for a lovely young lady who I once dated when I was first starting out in the music business. However Lydia was her roommate’s name and I figured that I would use her roommate’s name in order to protect her anonymity. But I have to tell you that her roommate was not that happy about it (laughter).
My personal favourite Dean Friedman song is Little Black Cloud; I absolutely adore it.
Oh thank you so much Kevin. You know what, that’s also a personal favourite of mine which I wrote for my wife who can sometimes walk around with a black cloud over her head (laughter). I appreciate you saying that because it is a quite song which means so much to me.
Do you have a favourite Dean Friedman song?
I have got to say that they are like little kids; so you love all of them but some are better behaved than others (laughter).
Whilst we are on the subject of some songs being better behaved than others, back in 2005 you recorded your Squirrels In The Attic album which you said was “comedy songs for adults”. Was that a good idea at the time?
(Laughter) well what I can say is that I was inspired to write that album by all of the great comedians who I saw for the very first time that I played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (laughter). It was such a great experience for me to watch all of these tremendous comedians who were all at the cutting edge of comedy. I have always had comedy songs in my live set but being at the Fringe and seeing everyone taking all of those chances, inspired me to go home and write a bunch of over the top comedy songs. The next album that I recorded, Squirrels In The Attic was an all comedy album and it is a real fans favourite. That album changed my set list to some extent because it gives me something different to pull-out whenever it is needed; plus the people seem to really enjoy it.
Staying with Squirrels In The Attic if I may, I have to ask you about the promotion for the album. Looking back, do you think that it may have been a mistake to offer the purchasers of the album a free packet of cannabis seeds?
(Laughter) well what can I say except that it was an education and an eye-opener for me, together with a well-crafted press release (laughter).
Didn’t it almost cause you to cancel your tour of the UK?
That’s right, every venue except for one up there in Scotland cancelled the tour. I had to get back on the phone and assure everyone that I wouldn’t distribute cannabis seeds on their premises (laughter). However, I am pleased to say that it all worked out in the end (laughter). Now back home, more and more States are either legalising or decriminalising marijuana which I think the time is right for that to happen on an international level. Marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and it’s kind of sorry that people still go to jail for it.
One of the biggest TV shows here in the UK back in the 1980’s was Boon which starred the late Michael Elphick. Not many people will be aware that you wrote, performed and produced all of the music with the exception of the theme song which was performed by Jim Diamond. How did your involvement with the show materialise?
I met one of the producers of the show who I think because I was American assumed that I knew how to write and perform a lot of Country music, and I have to say that I actually did (laughter) and at that time I was also playing a lot of those types of festivals . The musical subtext to Boon was that Ken Boon, although he rode a motorcycle, imagined himself to be a cowboy in the Wild West. So the producers hired me to do this Country and Western music which was great fun, and I had a terrific time. I got to play my harmonica; wear a cowboy hat and fortunately it was well received.
As you rightly point out, there are still a hell of a lot of people who don’t know that it is me singing the songs like Texas Ranger and He’s My Friend, He’s My Buddy. Jim Diamond sang the opening credits but for the first five seasons of the show I did all of the music which was contained within the shows together with the end credits. It really was a fun experience and also a great time.
Back in 2002 your album, The Treehouse Journals was financed entirely by your fans via your website and is something which you duplicated in 2005 with your Squirrels In The Attic album. Whilst this now seems to be commonplace amongst artists and bands, back then it was you and Marillion who were the trend setters.
(Laughter) well I certainly wasn’t the first; that honour has to go to Marillion. They were the first acknowledged crowdfunding band in the music business to do it but I am pleased to announce that I was the second. I was sitting in my treehouse one day and I thought to myself that I had a whole bunch of songs that I wanted to put out on a new album and I didn’t want to wait another ten years for some idiot record executive to give me permission to record them. I thought that I had a website and so I would ask my fans what they thought of the idea of me having them fund a new record.
So I sent out that email and I was afraid that everyone would write back saying ‘Dean why don’t you get a proper job’ (laughter). But instead they were all very supportive and I managed to raise enough money to enable me to record The Treehouse Journals and I have been crowdfunding my albums ever since.
So you have found that crowdfunding really does work for you?
What I will say is that it certainly cuts out a lot of middle men and I appreciate that. It allows me to make albums for the people who really want to hear them and that really does make a huge difference. It makes it possible for me to operate, record and tour as an independent musician without having to ask anyone’s permission but my fans.
You mentioned making albums, where were you between 1985 and 1995, and what were you involve with?
Well, after my song McDonald’s Girl was officially banned by the BBC because the chorus mentioned the name of the fast food restaurant, I was dropped by my record company. So I kept myself busy by writing books on the newly emerging synthesizer industry called A Complete Guide To Synthesizers, Sequencers, And Drum Machines. I was also busy designing video games for Nickelodeon TV together with science museums and children’s museums around the world. Also during that time I designed something which is called a music atrium which is basically a giant musical playground just for kids which I also sold all around the world to children’s museums and theme parks.
So as you can see I have been heavily involved in a whole slew of multi-media pursuits simply because there was always some musical component to it. I had a lot of fun and did a whole load of exciting stuff that was enjoyed by people all over the world. During that time I never stopped writing songs; I never stopped being a musician and with the advent of the internet I was able to get back into it and start recording once again.
You mentioned McDonald’s Girl, were you surprised and disappointed at the BBC’s reaction to the song together with the subsequent ban?
I was surprised because I never realised that the song would get me ejected from the music business for almost twenty years (laughter). But you know what, I wrote that song back in 1980 and just a few years back I got a call from McDonald’s asking me if I would allow them to licence the song for a national TV and Radio campaign (laughter). I just smiled and said “what took you so frigging long” (laughter). So it all worked out in the end. I always believed in the song even after it was banned. The then unknown Canadian band called Barenaked Ladies did a cover version of it which became their first airplay hit in Toronto. That’s what helped start them off as a band.
Then when U2 came around people all over the world started to know all about the cover versions of McDonald’s Girl. It really did become a phenomena. As I said earlier some songs behave much better than others, well let me tell you that McDonald’s Girl really was quite mischievous (laughter).
You mention cover versions, do you have a favourite cover version of one of your songs?
There are all kinds of covers and I have always liked The Blenders version of McDonald’s Girl. But every time that I hear someone do a cover version of the song it is a real treat; it’s my song and it’s always nice to listen to someone else’s interpretation and take on the song. I always get a really big kick out of that.
At what point in your career did you feel the most musically satisfied?
Well I have to say that I haven’t stopped being musically satisfied. Whenever I write a song that achieves the tasks that I set at the beginning, there is a great feeling of satisfaction. I have recently been writing a lot of songs for a new album that I am working on, and that is what keeps this fun, fresh and interesting. Every new song and every new creative project becomes a new puzzle and if you solve the puzzle then you win. It doesn’t matter if people like it or it sells a lot of records, the first thing that you have to do is to satisfy yourself and if you can accomplish that then you are way ahead of the game.
Who would you say has influenced you musically along the way?
I have always been accused of being eclectic as a songwriter and that is simply because I have eclectic influences. I listen to everybody from The Beatles to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and all of the Broadway show tunes. I listen to Classical, Folk, Rock, Jazz, Pop you name it then I listen to it and I feel that there is a little bit of that in all of my music.
What was the first record that you ever bought?
The first record that I was given as a present was The Beatles White Album. However, the first record that I actually went out and bought was Last Train to Clarksville by The Monkees (laughter). Both of them are very good records and are extremely good influences too.
Who did you first see performing live in concert?
I saw some Classical stuff as a kid but the first Rock concert that I went to was to see The Allman Brothers in an outdoor concert at City College which was the university that I went to in New York. It was before Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash so both Allman brothers were up there on stage playing. It was totally amazing. It was a huge arena which had a one second reverb so at one point Duane Allman played a lead guitar solo in harmony with himself way before we had digital delays (laughter). He was using a real actual acoustic delay in this giant arena and it was breath-taking.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
(Laughter) gee that’s a tough one. That really would have to be meeting a whole lot of talented musicians. Also getting to play and perform with my kids who are both musicians really was something for me to remember and cherish. For me to be up there on stage and to turn around to see both my son and my daughter singing and playing, seeing the audience enjoying it and getting paid for it too was a heap of fun, so I would say that’s a highlight.
You have briefly mentioned a new studio album. Do you have a date for its release?
I am currently aiming for next spring, so I would say roughly a year from now is the time that I should have it all ready to go.
Is there anything left for you to achieve?
You know what, I love doing all kinds of multi-media, video design and games because as I said earlier there is always some musical element to it, and I have already done some animated music videos to some of my songs that I am proud of. So I would like to do some more of that. Also I would love to do a musical and a feature film so they are still to be ticked off the list. I have already done some children’s musicals which have been very successful at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one of which was called Smelly Feet and it toured the UK to much acclaim. I do plan on doing more musicals and hopefully some film.
On that note let me thank you once again for taking the time to speak to me and I look forward to seeing you here in Nottingham.
It’s been great to speak to you Kevin, thanks for calling. All the best and I hope to see you up there in Nottingham.