Songwriter Interviews

G. Love

by Carl Wiser

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One of the most distinctive and creative songwriters in the game, G. Love helped Jack Johnson get started - now he's on Johnson's label.

What is the sauce that makes G. Love so special? It's a mixture of creative storytelling, clever wordplay, elastic grooves and commitment to the craft.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, G. Love (Garrett Dutton) spent a few years busking and playing bars before landing a deal with Epic Records along with his band, Special Sauce. He was 21 when they released their first album in 1994. Just under the radar of pop radio, they found a following through word of mouth and via the more adventurous radio stations that found them suitable for broadcast. MTV gave the "Cold Beverages" video some spins, but "Baby's Got Sauce" became their signature.

Jack Johnson entered the picture in 1999 when he and G. Love met through a surfing acquaintance. They collaborated on a song Johnson wrote called "Rodeo Clowns," a story of bar-goers who mask their misery with bravado. Released as a G. Love & Special Sauce single, it gave the little-known Johnson some big-time exposure. Two years later, his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, was released. After it went Platinum, he set up his own label, Brushfire Records. G. Love & Special Sauce were the first signing.

G. Love is known for making up his setlists on the fly, pulling from a vast catalog that his dedicated fanbase knows quite well. Johnson's influence shows up on tracks like "Booty Call," which becomes a singalong when he hits the chorus ("I can tell that we are gonna be friends"). In this this wide-ranging interview, G. explains how some of his biggest songs came together, and what he learned from Johnson.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Can you tell me how you create a song?

G. Love: I write songs a lot of different ways. Most of my tunes are written with me sitting down with my guitar in a quiet place and getting a little groove going. What you want to have happen is a natural flow, so if you have a word or a melody in mind or you have a chord progression or a riff that you stumble upon, you start to explore that in the moment. You're in the vibe, and then words start coming up that are spurred on by the music, and then that takes you to this quintessential part of the song which is known as "the chorus," "the hook," "the refrain" or whatever you want to call it. And at that time, you hope some magical sticky phrase, catch-line thing happens in this natural, uncontrived way. Then you have the song and it comes to this point where that's the name of the song, like "Baby's Got Sauce" or whatever that magical sticky phrase is going to be.

Of course, there are always different processes. Sometimes I go out to Nashville or LA or New York and write with different musicians or a producer or songwriting friends of mine. We'll actually sit down and say, "Ok we're going to write a song now," and it's on the clock, you know. We'll come up with a chord or a vibe and let it flow, and that's fun.

I find it's more of a lifestyle, like you keep your mind and your heart open to the world and you're a sponge, you're absorbing everything you see, taste, feel, touch and hear, and then you're remembering them and jotting them down. You're recording these little ideas and then when you have the time to make some songs you have all these ideas and all these catchphrases and all these lyrics that have kind of built up in your little bank, and then those become a song. So, it can be a collaborative effort, it can be a solo thing, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. It's just art.

Songfacts: So, you hit on "Baby's Got Sauce" for a phrase, and then you've got to make a whole story about that. Where did that story come from?

G: I wrote that song when I was 19. I've always said, you write three kinds of songs: When you're single and you're lonely, you're writing songs imagining this perfect love affair with this perfect person. Then you're in a relationship and maybe that's going bad and you're writing breakup songs. Then you get into a relationship and you write these love songs about your partner, and if things go bad you start all over again with the angry songs or the breakup songs.

G. Love with the Avett Brothers
With "Baby's Got Sauce" in particular, that was one of those magical things. I started writing this rap about a dream girl. I always liked tough chicks, you know, chicks with the chutzpah, and attitude. So I was writing that song about that type of tough woman, and then I got to the chorus. The expression "give me the sauce," like "you're saucy," just popped, so I had "My Baby's Got Sauce."

That's just one of a thousand songs for me. I loved it, I knew it was a great song, and it became one of my most popular tunes. I have this saying: Songs are like your children. You create them all and you put all your love into them, but only one kid can be the president or the astronaut. Obviously songs are more disposable than children, but you get the analogy - some of them go on to great success. It's more like you create all of them with equal amounts of love and passion and intention and some of them are just meant for that day.

I think time is what sets great songs apart from not-so-great songs. Songs keep coming around year after year, and if you remember them, I think they have merit.

Songfacts: Which came first, "Baby's Got Sauce" or G. Love and Special Sauce?

G: "Baby's Got Sauce." If you want to hear the first recording of it, you can go on iTunes and get the G. Love record called G. Love Oh Yeah, which is the record that I sold out of my guitar case - it's a solo acoustic record - and I have the original version of "Baby's Got Sauce," which was just called "Sause" - spelled S-A-U-S-E, and "Shootin' Hoops" and a bunch of other tunes that have made it onto later records. That was my first 10-song record. I made 250 copies on cassettes and sold them out of my guitar case when I was a busker.

So, I had that song and the music was completely different. I was a hip-hop kid, and my drummer, Jeff [Clemens], knew where all the samples came from. So I'd play him a Gang Starr track or a Tribe Called Quest track or whoever, and he'd say, "Oh that's a Meters sample" or Stevie Wonder or whatever. So I played Jeff this track from one of my favorite records by the Pharcyde, which was a big influence on me. It was their first record, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, and it had this song called "Otha Fish" on it with that groove - I think it's 1-6-2-5 in musical terms. We had rehearsal one day and he said, "Hey, play this bassline." And then he said, "OK, sing the rap of that sauce song you have," and that was it. You can always change stuff up if you've got the lyrics. You can put them over different grooves.

Songfacts: You were talking about your songs being like your children. Which of your deep cuts stands out as one that is special to you?

G: Well, I love to play "This Ain't Living" from the first record. I love to play all my songs but that one was always very soothing for me to play live. I like the groove a lot.

But right now, I'm working on a new record. Keb' Mo' is producing it, so I'm thinking about these songs that I'm working on right now. I really feel like I've got something special on this new record and I guess the song that's popping in my head is this one called "Digging Roots" which is a song I worked on all summer.

I write differently now. I have so many songs now and we have so much recorded material that when I'm writing songs now, I'm more and more disciplined. I've set the bar higher, so if I sit down to write a song and I feel like I'm forcing it, I'll just stop. If I have some time off, I'll write a batch of songs and then the cream rises to the top - I'll see which songs are really special.

John Hammond

G is a big fan of the blues musician John Hammond, who like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, has both harmonica and guitar as musical appendages. As Hammond tells it, they first met when G came to one of his shows in Philadelphia. G was underage, so he hung around outside the venue until he could find a couple to pose as his parents. The couple he asked turned out to be Hammond and his wife. G ended up producing Hammond's 2007 album, Push Comes To Shove.
Songfacts: What's the song that came most easily to you?

G: The one that I'll always remember is "Gimme Some Lovin'" which is on the Philadelphonic record. It's a solo acoustic song. I dreamed that song and then I woke up in the morning and it was playing in my head like it was already a song. My chick was sleeping, so I went in the bathroom with my guitar and it just came out. That's weird that that happened in the bathroom and it "just came out" (laughing) - I was actually sitting on the toilet too.

But it was like it was already finished. But the best songs are often the easiest ones to write, at least the initial writing process of them, because they kind of write themselves. If you've got a groove going, if you've got a theme, if you've got something to say and then you get to that hook, it kind of writes itself. I'm sure it was the same thing with Picasso, where he was painting these masterpieces and it looked easy for him, but that's what he dedicated his whole life to - it was like breathing.

Songfacts: One of your tunes that I've always liked is "Peace, Love, and Happiness." It grooves on that vibe for a while, but then you throw in that verse about political malfeasance. Can you talk about that song?

G: Well, that was an interesting one. So, a friend of mine, my rapping partner named Jasper, who's on a lot of records including that song, he had a song called "Peace, Love and Happiness" years and years and years ago. I was down in Brazil on tour with my friend Donavon Frankenreiter. We were doing these shows and I noticed that Donavon's songs are really great and they're also really simple, with very simple words and rhyming schemes. I noticed that the crowds in Brazil, where they don't speak much English, were singing along. When I would get on stage, I had so many words in my songs that people would find it hard to latch on to them. When we went home, we went to this surf camp and we played for the kids. I wanted to write a song with a really simple message that these kids and anybody around the world could latch into, and that phrase, "Peace, Love and Happiness," just jumped into my head.

It was weird because I had not realized that my buddy already had a song called "Peace, Love and Happiness," but he does have writing credit on it because I felt like his song was somewhere in my sponge memory.

It was a simple message, and that's what I wanted it to be. It works too because of the call and response, and it's a wonderful message. The music is kind of all the same chords - I just flipped the changes when I got to the breakdown. But it's just a simple song with a catchy hook and a profound message. I'm glad you brought that one up.

Songfacts: Did you write the dirty lyrics or the clean lyrics for "Booty Call" first?

G: I wrote the clean lyrics first. When I wrote that song "Booty Call," it was the summer when that phrase was kind of new-ish - I wrote it in 2002 when people were always saying, "Oh, you're gonna get a booty call."

I wrote the clean one first as a breakup record when I was rebounding from Aiden, my oldest son's mom, leaving. So I was pretty messed up. There are parts of the song, "from friends to best friends to part-time lovers, now you're moving in the first date of September," that are actually about her and her now-husband, who was our best friend at the time. There are ways of inserting parts of my life and other people's lives in the same song.

That was cool, and then I said, "Let me think this song over again and let me do it like, 'What is a booty call?'" So that's why the dirty one says, "Let me tell you about a booty call." That one wasn't recorded but I guess there's a bunch of live versions that kind of went somewhat viral back in the day. Now, I don't even know how the clean version goes.

That was first released on Brushfire Records. Those guys had a certain aesthetic for the label and the music they wanted to release, and it was a bit racy for the music they were putting out at the time, so they preferred the clean version, which was fine.

That's a fun song. You've got heavy songs and you've got light-hearted songs. If you're playing at shows or making a record I think it's important to have a mix of the different human experiences and ranges of emotions. I learned that from the traditional records of Bob Dylan and the blues records. Bob Dylan is obviously a very profound writer and if you look at Freewheelin', there are protest songs, there's social commentary songs, and there are songs that will make you laugh out loud. And there's beautiful love songs too. So, to me, that was always part of it: I have different aspects of the human experience on every record and in every show.

One of the more intriguing songs in G. Love's catalog is "Lay Down The Law," which tells the story of a guy named Greg, the kind of guy who will give you the shirt off his back, except when he's using, in which case he'll steal yours. There's something about the details that indicate Greg is very real. It turns out, he is.
Songfacts: Some of your songs, from a listener's perspective, we're not always sure what to make of the meaning, if they are happy songs or heavy songs or what. An example of that is "Greg's Gonna Lay Down The Law." Can you talk about that song?

G: Yeah. That's kind of apropos now with this huge opioid crisis and over 200,000 people that have died from substance abuse from pharma in our culture - everyone's been touched by it. My cousin's in rehab right now for severe alcoholism because he had terrible back surgeries and was fed all these pills. He developed a pill problem which much later turned into an alcohol problem.

Anyhow, that song is about addiction, because my buddy Greg and his girlfriend did break into my house and stole my VCR and stole my landlord's car, and at the pawnshop, they got arrested - that really happened. He's a buddy of mine and he had a terrible heroin addiction. Now he's been sober for 10 years, but he's gone missing the last six months - no one has heard from him and his numbers are off, his Facebook's off and he's not on Instagram, so I'm pretty worried about him right now.

But that song was written during a time when Greg was doing good - he was staying with me and working with me. The song did have a funny vibe because he had a loud personality. We were in the studio one night and he was talking and fooling around, and he was like "Greg is gonna lay down the law!" It was simple as that for the hook, and then the verses were all about friends having your back.

Songfacts: Thank you for that explanation. It's crazy, he's stealing your VCR but he's still your bud.

What's something that you learned from Jack Johnson?

G: Wow, I learned so much from Jack, and from Dave Matthews too. Like seeing how their melodies are what float large audiences. Jack is also a deceptively great guitar player - you don't really think of him as being much of a guitar player but he's really outstanding, his pocket is really deep and his skill for chordal movements and chord progressions is really something special.

When Jack came along it was crazy because guys like me and Ben Harper kind of introduced him, and then Ben's manager started producing him. He made his first record and he toured with Ben and with us. We both helped him out a lot in the beginning, and then he became the biggest thing since milk.

Ben and I have a similar approach to performance, which is really going for it and laying everything on the line with all this passion and wild energy, and Jack's approach is simply laid-back. He was just standing up there strumming a couple of chords on the guitar, and you could see people connect with it.

And then Ben wrote some really simple songs and had a hit with "Steal My Kisses," which is a really great song. It's a simple, middle-of-the-road love song with real simple lyrics and simple strum-y guitar, but it is sincerely felt.

My record The Hustle [2004] is a great example of a record where I had seen Jack's success with things like sing-alongs and whistling. He would do the "la-da-da-da-da-da" and really catchy melodies and stuff, so when I did The Hustle, a lot of that record was influenced by Jack and some of those kind of melodic, sing-along type things.

And then off the stage, Jack's just this wonderful guy. He's made a lot of money and he's donated a lot of money to environmental causes around the world. A lot of people sing about saving the world but Jack actually does a lot of saving the world with the money he makes, and I've just been really proud to have been working with him. We're still great friends and it's a relationship I really cherish and I continue to learn from him. Like, it took us so long I'm embarrassed, but we finally are plastic-free on our tour bus, so instead of having plastic water bottles every day, we all have metal water bottles and a big jug of water on the bus. So he's helped me to be a better person, helped me to be more environmentally conscious, and surely helped my music as well. Anything that I ever did to help Jack out, he's repaid me a thousand-fold. A really great relationship.

Songfacts: You came up at a very interesting time. In the early '90s nobody had the internet, there was nothing like social media, and as your career advances it goes from CDs to downloads to streaming, and now there's Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Can you talk about how that whole scene has affected you and how you reacted to it?

G: Well, thank you for recognizing that. When I got signed in 1993, the labels were nearing their peak. You can probably say that 1999 was the peak of the richness of the music industry. I think that year, N' Sync sold the most records ever or something like that. And after 9/11 hit and Napster hit, they didn't sign bands like us anymore. When we got signed, people like me, Ben Harper and Dave Matthews got signed as "developing artists" that were given a record deal so that hopefully someday they'd make a big hit. They would throw all kinds of money around with huge recording budgets. You'd get the fucking A&R guy showing up in the studio in a suit smoking cigars - that shit was real.

So, the '90s were rich, but the music industry was a million light years away. If you were a kid with a guitar there was no way you were going to be on MTV, right? I mean, how would you ever get to that? Do you know how to start? But then I did it. I went from street musician to major recording artist in two years. I kept plugging away, gig to gig, and sending tapes here and there. We booked gigs, went out and booked more gigs. It was happening and then we ended up getting on MTV, and that was pretty cool.

But then the 2000s came and we got dropped by Sony because they dropped all their mid-level artists. Then digital music came along and pretty much sunk record companies. Luckily, we found a great home in Brushfire records.

Of course, the digital thing is constantly progressing at a super-fast rate, and I caught on to the social media thing in time. I enjoy being able to outreach and communicate with fans. So, where does that leave us now? Now it leaves you where everybody can talk to you and everybody is opinionated about your music and your show or your personality - it all matters. Everything is accounted for and you also have the opportunity to reach a lot of people and show people your life off the stage and show people what you think about other than music - what your other hobbies are and what your views on the world are. That can be polarizing, but it can also be really community-building. All in all it's a wonderful time to be able to have that kind of experience with your fans. Nowadays, you gotta work way harder for a lot less money, but you can still have your dream job. Our job is to make people happy and inspire them, so that's what I base my mission statement on: make people happy and inspire them through the music.

Songfacts: That ties a bit into my last question. What is your favorite part of your job?

G: It constantly changes, but ultimately it's being on stage, because it takes a lot of tension to get on stage, and music is all about tension and release. I've always struggled with stage fright, but I've always had this tremendous release and euphoric happiness when I can sing my songs and get a reaction out of people - to see people really feeling the music and making them happy. So, being on stage is the best part of my job and that hour and a half when you get to get up there and express yourself and take people on a trip - that's what it's all about.

February 22, 2019
Get tour dates and more info at philadelphonic.com
Further reading:
Ozomatli
Dhani Harrison

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