Browse by Title
V W X Y Z #  

Van Dyke Parks
Van Dyke Parks is best known for writing lyrics with Brian Wilson on the Smile album, but that's just a sliver of his work. Yes, getting The Beach Boys to go from "She's cruisin' through the hamburger stand now" to "Sail through the sorrows of life's marauders" was a big deal, but more important are his profound and exceptional contributions as an arranger, producer and musician on his solo work and also on albums by a spectrum of artists that includes U2, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright, Sheryl Crow and Joanna Newsom. His name on the credits indicates integrity and care - you don't hire VDP for commercial appeal, but because you want to create something special.

We've seen Parks described in major publications as both an oddball and a genius. He has said that his motivation is not fame or fortune, but the honor of music. These days, he's more relevant than ever, still pushing to see what a song can do. His latest project is a series of 7" singles with artwork commissioned to accompany each song printed on the sleeve. To hear it, you'll need a record player and an open mind.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You wear so many different hats: composer, performer, instrumentalist, arranger, producer, and lyricist. What do you think is your greatest strength as an artist?
Some of Van Dyke Parks' Arrangements
U2 - Rattle and Hum
Silverchair - Diorama, Young Modern
Rufus Wainwright - Want, Want Too
Ry Cooder - Ry Cooder
Carly Simon - Another Passenger
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Sesame Street - Follow That Bird
T-Bone Burnett - Talking Animals
Stan Ridgway - Mosquitos
Divinyls - Divinyls
Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah
Fiona Apple - Tidal

Van Dyke Parks: Well, to me, the tensile strength and the very definition of an artist is something that I would place at the top of a vertical hierarchy. To be an artist is to suffer and to lead a life without shelter. It takes a great amount of Derring-do, self reinvention, imagination, familial loyalty, sacrifice, economic uncertainty, and the right to be wrong, the right to fail in order to achieve something of noticeable value. So I would say of all those categories the way that I would like to view myself is as an artist. And that is in my mere survival as a musician for these last - just a moment here, let me do the mathematics - 58 years I have supported myself by being a musician.

Songfacts: Well, you certainly lived up to your definition as an artist.

Van Dyke: (laughing) That's very, very generous of you. As I look back on my deeds, many of which seem absolutely indelible given the fact that they migrated from analog to digital, from royalties to no royalties in this age of piracy - it amazes me how durable these works have been. And yet it also gives me feelings of unease because I look back on some of these things, and the first thing that occurs to me is whatever was I thinking? And of course I would like to retract some of my statements and start all over, and be somebody who's epic, to be a muralist rather than a miniaturist. But so be it. I still think my best work is ahead of me. I proceed every day with that mantra. And I'm content at this age - I'm 68 - I'm content with my effort just knowing that I've done my best and will continue to.

Van Dyke ParksSongfacts: A lot of us that are music fans and listeners don't really understand what an arranger does, how an arranger looks at music. Do you hear a finished product in your mind when you hear somebody's song?

Van Dyke: No. When I hear somebody's song, if I've been asked to arrange, I hear an unfinished product. I hear an unfinished product that, if I take on the job, it's because I've decided that it needs to be defended, and I do everything I can to defend that work. That takes a decision, whether or not to be heard or simply to be felt in the arranging. I try to frame the work. And the reason that I do that is to give it greater power of enunciation so that it will be noticed. So, to me, it would be fair to say that I try to frame the work and not, with the first order of business being invasive surgery. I try to stay out of the way. If I hear a note that is incorrect, for example, I have to make a decision about whether to hide that note, support it in its invalidity, somehow to try to validate decisions that seem at first blush poor decisions. Now, that might be in a vocal, it might be in the instrumental, in the construct of the piece itself. But what I'm trying to do is preserve the mathematics of the piece. All of which, we're talking about music here, Zappa once said, like dancing about architecture. But what I try to do is give the piece power. If I feel that it has something at the core that speaks to me in a humanistic way. If the song conveys a matter of heart that is worth defending, I'll pursue it with all my heart. I spend about a week on average, promising, no less, an arrangement, so that I can re-think myself. Every morning I wake up and look at the labor of the day before. I'm talking about all day and into the night. And I look at the labor before, and often I will just simply toss out, perhaps, 3 or 4 hours of work if I don't feel it's up to snuff.

But I think that arranging is basically a job of doing what's there and bringing proportion to it, too, to making what's there heard. So I start my process by listening. I'm all ears. I pay more attention to what is already there than I think anybody that I know of in the arranging field. I do that because I don't think that the essential job of arranging is what we should call a creative process. Arranging is a reactive process. And I don't think that that means it's any less demanding. It takes a lot to respond, to just do nothing and listen and see what's there, and then support it. So naturally, I write down every note that I hear, even if it's just simply guitar, vocal, done on a garage group laptop. I do what's there. And then I decide how I want to illustrate that song.
The Van Dyke Parks Orchestra
This is the orchestra Parks used on the Inara George album An Invitation.

3 Violins
2 Violas
Bass Clarinet
English Horn
French Horn

I've found in a process of arranging over the years that the irreducible minimum for me is a chamber group. It is getting some strings together that's 7-13, because I have 3 violin voices, 2 viola voices, 1 cello voice, and 1 bass. Those are a lot of lines. And that is so that I can get sustaining forces, rhythmic forces - and oh, by the way, to that, if a budget allows, I will put on 5 woodwinds and 1 horn. That's what I've found is the ideal for an arrangement, because it's an orchestra that's big enough to be small, to be transparent. You notice how a string quartet - let's look at something like "Eleanor Rigby" or "Lady Jane" by the Stones, if you want to go back. The smaller the string ensemble, the more in-the-face they become. You get to a point where you reach that transparency, where the strings are not in the face. So in the cases, for example, of Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright, Inara George [daughter of Lowell George of Little Feat, who Parks also worked with], of late, those, I'd say, exactly the same orchestra. Exactly the same numbers. It's almost like I found a way to arrange that I really enjoy.

Songfacts: So that's kind of your comfort zone, then?

Van Dyke: Well, that's the tool I know how to use well.

Songfacts: It feels comfortable in your hands.

Van Dyke: Yeah. But at the same time, just as I enjoy immensely going and doing an orchestral - if I find a famous rock and roll group with deep pockets who can, without great personal sacrifice, hire a full orchestra, I'd be delighted to go to Prague or London or here in Hollywood and spend a lot of money on the third trombone. That's all very fine. But I try to keep an economical approach to recorded music so that artists end up making some money at the end of the day.

Songfacts: I've been curious as to why you found such a great working relationship with Brian Wilson. Is it your personalities that click, or are you on a similar wavelength that's caused you to be so good together?

Van Dyke: I have no idea what wavelength Brian Wilson is on. When I worked with him and collaborated with him, that was 40 years ago.

Songfacts: But you worked with him on the Orange Crate project, correct?

Van Dyke: Yes, I worked independent of him, if you notice in the record.

Van Dyke worked with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys album Smile. The single "Heroes And Villains," with lyrics by Parks, came out of those sessions, but the album wasn't released until 2004, when Wilson finally finished it. It wasn't until 1995 that Wilson and Parks once again worked together, this time on the album Orange Crate Art, which is officially credited to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, but all of the new songs were written by Parks.

Songfacts: Oh, I see.

Van Dyke: Yeah. I provided a record so that Brian - my main regard, knowing that that would be my last studio album at Warner Brothers in all probability, because they had a changing of the guard. They didn't want guys my age around people who might know what a contract would suggest. They wanted people that didn't know what contracts suggest. They got the young Turks in there then, and scraped off the residue of the Warner Brothers artists that had brought them so much public good will. But it was time for me to use that opportunity before I exited Warner Brothers to show Brian Wilson some gratitude for what he had done, his initial gesture, and bringing me into that Smile project. And I wanted to remind him that he had an absolute ability to go back into a studio and to be a functioning musician. And that's what Orange Crate Art did, his Rubicon, the river that he had to cross. And I did that, what I felt was turnabout of a mutual regard.
(A Charles Ray sculpture of VDP)
Van Dyke ParksYou see, I do believe you started talking about what I hear - when I get an arrangement, if I hear something. What I hear is "ka-ching." I hear the sound of the budget. I hear the quantitative demands. How much time can we spend in the studio with how many musicians and get this done? What is it going to take to lug this ball past the goal post? And it sounds quite unaesthetic or very ho-hum. But in fact, that's what it's all about. It's about the numbers of people that can engage. And that can be from a trio to quite a large number of musicians.

The job of arranging is the job of quantifying. It's a job of doing everything you can with just enough to do it. And it sounds very boring, doesn't it? (laughing)

Songfacts: When you say it, Van Dyke, it isn't.

Van Dyke: But it takes a lot of struggling to do that, to get to that point, you know. Can we afford a harp? Well, yes. Can we afford the harp cartage? No. Dammit. You know, stuff like that happens in the course of arranging.

But I do believe, although I made a distinction between creative and reactive participation, I do believe that arranging is, I'm sorry to say, a dying part of our industry. And that is because of pirating and so forth. People are spending less and less money, bean counters are looking more and more for self-contained monastic talent, that is people with a synthesizer in a little closet in their apartment who can deliver some goods, whether they are synthetic or a derivative of Bob Dylan's early solo works. They want to save money. They don't want arrangers around to complicate their picture of profit.

But arranging has been a beautiful aspect of recording for so long, I believe a lot of people come to me because they can't find anybody else. This is what I do when I'm not insisting on myself. This day, actually, is of exception, because for the next couple of weeks I'm going to finish a series of six summer singles. That means 12 different compositions. Each of them arranged with musicians, each of them packaged by artists of great renown. Each of them a 45 rpm hi-fi stereo virgin vinyl single. Each of them something you can hold, you can smell, you can see, you can possess. Each of them, of course, is available on a digital download, too, for those that are stuck in that digital ditch. But they sound better, they look better, they are who I am, a retro character, still alive, having been pushed forward by the acceptance of another generation who know that I do put my heart in my work, I do think that arranging has a highly contributive job in the way a song will sound to the casual observer.

But for anyone who's really interested in what I'm doing and that work I bragged about, that is my best work, the work that lays ahead, this day, for example, that is available on Bananastan, which is a few keystrokes away: It's a name for a shop my wife had in Paris.

I waited long enough. I waited about 15 years to get an offer from a record company. But record companies aren't so interested in veterans. Record companies are more interested in brunettes. And I suffered that disregard 15 years waiting to get a return call, and I finally decided to put out my own records. It reminds me of a joke my agent told me. He said there are four ages to an artist. I said what are they? He said, "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" "Get me Van Dyke Parks." "Get me a young Van Dyke Parks." "Who is Van Dyke Parks?" I think he hit it on the head right there.

But I have never written music to fish for flattery or condemnation. I don't pay attention to what people think of me. I pay attention to the old fella I see in the mirror in the morning who looks like my dad on a bad day.

We spoke with Van Dyke Parks on July 29, 2011. Learn more at

Comments: 4

I agree with all of you.
-Vic from Alabama

At age 12, "Song Cycle' opened my ears' mind. It released me to be able to connect my musical curiosities, abilities,and sensibilities with whatever was going on in my life. He was the seed that provided me musical freedom.
-Countless times that freedom has been my inspiration and my salvation.
-charles from tampa, FL

Chris, you are so totally right.
-Dan from Norwalk, CA

The world needs more VDPs. What a blessing.
-Chris from California

Where are you from?
Your Comment
 security code

Yoko OnoYoko Ono
At 80 years old, Yoko has 10 #1 Dance hits. She discusses some of her songs and explains what inspired John Lennon's return to music in 1980.
Richie Wise (Kiss producer, Dust)Richie Wise (Kiss producer, Dust)
Richie talks about producing the first two Kiss albums, recording "Brother Louie," and the newfound appreciation of his rock band, Dust.
Curt Kirkwood of Meat PuppetsCurt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets
The (Meat)puppetmaster takes us through songs like "Lake Of Fire" and "Backwater," and talks about performing with Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged.
Julie Gold - "From A Distance"Julie Gold - "From A Distance"
Julie was a secretary at HBO when she thawed out her childhood piano (literally) and wrote the hit that changed her life.

Search in Songwriter Interviews
Songwriter Interviews titles
Aaron Beam of Red Fang
Aaron Gillespie
Aaron Lewis
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows
Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne
Adam Young of Owl City
Al Anderson of NRBQ
Al Jourgensen of Ministry
Al Kooper
Alan Merrill of The Arrows
Alex Call (867-5309)
Allee Willis: Boogie Wonderland, Friends theme
Amanda Palmer
Amy Grant
Andy McClusky of OMD
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash
Angelo Moore of Fishbone
Ann Hampton Callaway
Anna Canoni about Woody Guthrie
Annie Haslam of Renaissance
Anthony Raneri of Bayside
Antigone Rising
Art Alexakis of Everclear
Asher Roth
Badi Assad
Bart Millard of MercyMe
Becca Stevens
Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl
Benny Mardones
Biff Byford of Saxon
Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers
Bill Withers
Billy Gould of Faith No More
Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Montana ("More Than A Memory" - Garth Brooks)
Billy Steinberg
Bo Bice
Bob Daisley
Bobby Liebling of Pentagram
Bobby Whitlock
Boz Scaggs
Brad Arnold from 3 Doors Down
Brad Smith of Blind Melon
Brandi Carlile
Brandon Heath
Brenda Russell
Brian "Head" Welch of Korn, Love and Death
Bronze Radio Return
Bruce Robison
Bryan Adams
Butch Vig
Buzz Osborne of the Melvins
Carol Kaye
Chad Channing (Nirvana, Before Cars)
Chad Urmston of Dispatch
Chan Kinchla of Blues Traveler
Charles Fox
Charlie Benante of Anthrax
Charlie Daniels
Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go's
Chris August
Chris Fehn of Slipknot
Chris Isaak
Chris Knight
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
Chris Squire of Yes
Chris Tomlin
Chris Willis
Chris Wilson of The Flamin' Groovies
Christopher Cross
Chuck Billy of Testament
Cody Hanson of Hinder
Colbie Caillat
Corey Hart
Craig Goldy of Dio
Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets
Cy Curnin of The Fixx
Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay
Dan Reed
Daniel Moore ("Shambala," "My Maria")
Danko Jones
Danny Kortchmar
Dar Williams
Darren King of MUTEMATH
Darryl Worley
Dave Clark
Dave Innis of Restless Heart
Dave Mason
Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum
Dave Stewart of Eurythmics
Dave Wakeling of The English Beat
Dean Pitchford
Denny Randell
Desmond Child
Devin Townsend
Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)
Dez Fafara of DevilDriver and Coal Chamber
Dick Wagner (Alice Cooper/Lou Reed)
Dino Cazares of Fear Factory
Don Brewer of Grand Funk
Don Felder
Donald Fagen
Donnie Iris (Ah! Leah!, The Rapper)
Dr. John
Dropkick Murphys
dUg Pinnick of King's X
Duncan Phillips of Newsboys
Dwight Twilley
Eddie Carswell of NewSong
Eddie Reeves
Edwin McCain
El Sloan of Crossfade
Elvin Bishop
Emilio Castillo from Tower of Power
Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls
Emmylou Harris
Eric Burdon
Eric Kretz of Stone Temple Pilots
Francesca Battistelli
Francis Rossi of Status Quo
Gary Brooker of Procol Harum
Gary Lewis
Gary Louris of The Jayhawks
Gary Numan
Gentle Giant
Georgia Middleman of Blue Sky Riders
Gilby Clarke
Glen Burtnik
Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket
Gordon Bahary
Graham Bonnet (Alcatrazz, Rainbow)
Graham Parker
Graham Russell of Air Supply
Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Greg Puciato of Killer Be Killed and Dillinger Escape Plan
Gretchen Peters (Independence Day)
Guy Clark
Gym Class Heroes
Hal Ketchum
Harold Brown of War
Harry Shearer
Hayes Carll
Henry McCullough
Henry Paul of The Outlaws, Blackhawk
Holly Knight
Holly Williams
Howard Bellamy
Howard Jones
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson: "The delight in making music is that you don't have a formula"
Ian Astbury of The Cult
Ian Thornley of Big Wreck
Ingrid Croce
J.D. Souther
Jack Blades of Night Ranger and Damn Yankees
Jake Owen
James Williamson of Iggy & the Stooges
Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed
Jamie O'Neal
Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go`s
Janis Ian
Jann Klose
Jaret Reddick of Bowling for Soup
Jason Michael Carroll
Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica)
Jason Reeves
Jason Roy of Building 429
Jay Graydon
Jeff Walker of Carcass
Jello Biafra
Jeph Howard of The Used
Jeremy DePoyster of The Devil Wears Prada
Jess Origliasso of The Veronicas
Jesse Valenzuela of Gin Blossoms
Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds
Jimbeau Hinson
Jimmy Jam
Jimmy Webb
JJ Burnel of The Stranglers
Jo Dee Messina
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard
Joe Ely
Joe Grushecky
Joe Jackson
Joe King Carrasco
Joe Rickard of Red
Joel Crouse
Joey + Rory
Joey Burns of Calexico
John Doe of X
John Gallagher of Raven
John Lee Hooker
John Oates
John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls
John Waite
John Wheeler of Hayseed Dixie
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde
Johnny Winter
Jon Anderson of Yes
Jon Foreman of Switchfoot
Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Jon Tiven
Josh Kelley
Josh Shilling
Josh Thompson
Judas Priest
Julian Lennon
Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues
Kasim Sulton (Utopia, Meat Loaf)
Keith Morris of Black Flag and OFF!
Keith Reid of Procol Harum
Kelvin Swaby of The Heavy
Ken Block of Sister Hazel
Kenneth Nixon of Framing Hanley
Kenny Vance
Kerry Livgren of Kansas
Kim Thayil of Soundgarden
Kip Winger
Kirk Franklin
Kristian Bush of Sugarland
Kristine W
Lajon Witherspoon of Sevendust
Larry Burnett of Firefall
Larry Wiegand of Crow
Laura Bell Bundy
Lee Ranaldo
Les Claypool
Leslie West of Mountain
Lindi Ortega
Lisa Loeb
Lita Ford
Little Big Town
Lori McKenna
Loudon Wainwright III
Louie Perez of Los Lobos
Lukas Nelson
Mac Powell of Third Day
Marc Roberge of O.A.R. (Of A Revolution)
Marcy Playground
Maria Muldaur
Maria Neckam
Mark Arm of Mudhoney
Marshall Crenshaw
Martin Gordon
Martin Page
Martin Smith of Delirous?
Martyn Ware of Heaven 17
Marvin Etzioni of Lone Justice
Mary Gauthier
Mat Kearney
Matt Pike of High On Fire
Matt Pryor of Get Up Kids
Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon
Matt Sorum
Matt Thiessen of Relient K
Matthew West
Max Cavalera of Soulfly (ex-Sepultura)
Meshell Ndegeocello
Mia Doi Todd
Michael Bolton
Michael Franti
Michael Gilbert of Flotsam and Jetsam
Michael Glabicki of Rusted Root
Michael Schenker
Michael Sweet of Stryper
Michael W. Smith
Mick Jones of Foreigner
Mike Campbell
Mike Donehey of Tenth Avenue North
Mike Love of The Beach Boys
Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies
Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater
Miles Doughty of Slightly Stoopid
Millie Jackson
Mitch Myers about Shel Silverstein
Mitts of Madball
Mountain Heart
Neil Fallon of Clutch
Neil Giraldo
Nick Van Eede from Cutting Crew
Nick Waterhouse
Nick Wheeler of The All-American Rejects
Nina Persson of The Cardigans
Nona Hendryx
Oliver Leiber
Our Lady Peace
Pam Tillis
Pat Alger ("The Thunder Rolls", "Unanswered Prayers")
Paul Dean of Loverboy
Paul Evans
Paul Williams
Pegi Young
Penny Ford of Snap!
Pete Anderson
Peter Lord
Petula Clark
Phil Hurtt ("I'll Be Around")
Philip Cody
Queensr├┐che founder Geoff Tate
Radney Foster
Ralph Casale - Session Pro
Randy Goodrum (Oh Sherrie)
Randy Houser
Randy Montana
Randy Newman
Randy Sharp (From Glen Campbell to Edgar Winter)
Randy Stonehill
Rebecca St. James
Reverend Horton Heat
Rhonda Vincent
Richard Hell
Richard Marx
Richard Patrick of Filter
Richie McDonald of Lonestar
Richie Wise (Kiss producer, Dust)
Rick Finch
Rick Springfield
Rick Wartell of Trouble
Rik Emmett of Triumph
Robert Ellis
Roger Clyne
Rosanne Cash
Rupert Hine
Ryan Star
Sam Phillips
Sandy Chapin
Sarah Brightman
Scorpions Rudolf Schenker
Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders
Scott Jason of Thriving Ivory
Scott Stapp
Scotty Emerick (Beer For My Horses)
Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities
Serena Ryder
Seth Swirsky
Shane Volk of One Bad Son
Shaun Morgan of Seether
Shawn Smith of Brad
Shelby Lynne
Skip Ewing ("Love, Me," "The Gospel According To Luke")
Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D.
Speech of Arrested Development
Spooner Oldham
Squeeze: Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford
Stan Ridgway
Steel Magnolia
Stephen Christian of Anberlin
Steve "Zetro" Souza of Exodus and Hatriot
Steve Azar
Steve Hindalong of The Choir
Steven Tyler of Aerosmith
Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai
Sum 41
Sunny Sweeney
Supertramp founder Roger Hodgson
Tanita Tikaram
Taylor Dayne
Terry Cashman
Terry Jacks ("Seasons in the Sun")
Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos and Lost Dogs
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
The Dandy Warhols
The Fratellis
The Limousines
They Might Be Giants
Thomas Dolby
Tim Butler of The Psychedelic Furs
Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles
Tina Shafer
Tobin Esperance of Papa Roach
Toby Lightman
Todd Harrell of 3 Doors Down and 7dayBinge
Tom Gabel of Against Me!
Tom Johnston from The Doobie Brothers
Tom Keifer of Cinderella
Tommy James
Tommy Lee James ("She's My Kind Of Rain")
Toni Wine
Tonio K
Tony Hiller and Brotherhood of Man
Tony Joe White
Travis Stever of Coheed and Cambria
Trent Wagler of The Steel Wheels
Udo Dirkschneider (UDO, ex-Accept)
Van Dyke Parks
Vanessa Carlton
Ville Valo of HIM
Vince Clarke
Vince Gill
Vinny May of Kodaline
Vonda Shepard
Wayne Hussey of The Mission
Wayne Swinny of Saliva
Wednesday 13
Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit and Black Light Burns
Will Jennings
Yael Naim
Yoko Ono
Zac Hanson
Zakk Wylde
Other Songfacts Blogs
Songwriter Interviews
Song Writing
Music Quiz
Fact or Fiction
They're Playing My Song