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A Fireside Chat with Brad Mehldau

By Published: April 9, 2004

AAJ: How formidable is it to try to give a standard or an indie rock song its own identity?

BM: The song has an identity already. The nature of its identity is what determines whether it's a good vehicle to interpret and improvise on. What sort of form does it have? Simple is usually better. What sort of harmonic movement? Is the harmony quirky - too quirky or idiosyncratic to the original version maybe? What is the melody like on a piano for me? It may be beautiful, but almost unplayable on piano. That happens with a lot of rock tunes.

AAJ: "Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods."

BM: It has to do with my understanding of life and the redemptive power of something like music, which is probably a mix of Freud, Harold Bloom, and a little Gnosticism thrown in. You have these early experiences in life that are intensely pleasurable, followed by this disconnection from that pleasure. What leaves a mark on you, what seeps into your memory forever, is the pain that comes from the disconnection from that pleasure, I think, more than the actual pleasure itself. Pleasure depends on its temporal, fleeting quality for its existence; it can only be defined in opposition to the inevitability of its lack, which is felt as pain. So you try to make sense of that pain because you're always confronting it. You develop a love for the pain out of necessity. Romantic works are informed by that troubled love, but you can probably see why I've moved away from using "romantic" to describe that pheonomenon because this description could work for anything from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Shakespeare's Hamlet, or even something like the blues. In any case, those kinds of works don't give us a representation of the prelapsarian, untroubled pleasure before the first disconnection. They show us the moment when the "glass shattered." There's a nostalgia implied there, because they're perpetually trying to capture the first time the glass shattered in our early memories, and that early experience takes on an emblematic, legendary quality, seen through rose colored glasses. There is a folly in that, because we are willfully engaging in a misperception of something painful. So there's a quality of irony if all that gets played out in an artwork, where one can be aware of that self-deception and simultaneously engage in self-deceit anyways.

AAJ: What helps you sleep well at night?

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