Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words.
Laura Nyro never made the Top 100 singing one of her own songs. Yet who can forget her chilling rendition of the Goffin & King classic "Up on the Roof," which sailed to #92 in October of 1970? Which would technically make its B-side, Laura's "Captain St. Lucifer," the answer to the trivia question: What Laura Nyro song sung by Laura was part of a charting record?
While she's best known for her late '60s smashes for other artists: "Wedding Bell Blues" (The 5th Dimension), "Stoned Soul Picnic" (The 5th Dimension), "Sweet Blindness" (The 5th Dimension), "And When I Die" (Blood, Sweat & Tears), "Eli's Coming" (Three Dog Night), and "Stoney End" (Barbra Streisand), her witchy persona and outsider image inspired a generation of female artists to chart their own course in an unfriendly industry, among them Janis Ian, Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, and Sara Bareilles, who sang "Stoney End" when Laura was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
"There've been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25," Laura said in her dramatic, breathy voice, when I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with her in 1984, shortly after the release of Mother's Spiritual. "You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I'd written some provocative songs. The '60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free-spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck."
Although many of my questions caused her to think long and hard before conjuring an appropriate, often poetic, response, she had no trouble at all describing why her music towered above your usual Top 40 fare.
"I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you'd never know it," she explained. "It's a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rock and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I'd read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that's what made my songs complex and emotionally rich."
You could say she was born that way. "When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom," said Nyro. "As a kid I listened to the '50s songs of urban romance: 'The Wind' by the Diablos, 'Oh What a Night' by the Dells, 'Happy Happy Birthday Baby' by the Tune Weavers. The first 45 I bought was 'Mr. Lee' by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone."
Doo-wop classics like "I Met Him on a Sunday," and "The Wind" appear on Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album-length tribute to the R&B songs Laura grew up singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. They were quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like "The Confession," one of the most quotable songs in her entire lexicon ("You were born a woman, not a slave" and "Only now am I a virgin, I confess" and "Love is surely gospel") and "Been on a Train," definitely one of the most harrowing.
"I don't think you should categorize yourself as an artist," she said. "You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that's important to me is to express life as I see it. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother's Spiritual.
"The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal. It's the culmination of a deeper experience. It's like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. I think society is competitive and product-hungry and that sometimes influences artists not to respect their own cycles. Sometimes you can write, sometimes you can't.
"Mother's Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote at night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that's when I found the space to write. I didn't work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I'd write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote 'Melody in the Sky' I heard gypsy violins."
When Merrill checked the charts for November 29, 1969, Nyro had three songs in the Top 10: "And When I Die" (#2), "Wedding Bell Blues" (#3) and "Eli's Coming" (#10).
Below is a family photo recently uncovered by Nyro's brother, Jan Nigro. It's taken at Camp Eva in Mountaindale, New York, 1964. Alan provides the caption:
"Left to right: Me (very dark and tan from hanging out at the pool), Laura, Jan Nigro and Steve Marcus (Laura's mother's sister's Esther's son). The Beatles had just come out and I was trying to grow my hair like them!"
She was equally comfortable with her life and her art. "I think that I searched and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain number of obstacles. I don't think I'm different from other people who are searching to be happy, really. And I'm kind of happy now.
"The music I'm writing today has a strong feminist base. I'm giving my support to women's culture through my art, because women symbolize peace and I know I stand for a peaceful world. Once I'm writing I'm very disciplined. I'm there for the music. When I'm writing music there's a certain magic from the music underlying life. It's like you're living at a deeper current. It's a very complete feeling. You're taking care of everyday things, but you're living at the edge of a song."
March 1, 2019
Here's our list of songs written by Laura Nyro
More on Nyro in Bones Howe and the Songs of 1969
More Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words