Jefferson Pitcher interview

The other presidential songwriter

Jefferson Pitcher.

Jefferson Pitcher.

Jefferson Pitcher was the one that got the Of Great and Mortal Men ball rolling. He’s a busy man—spending the last couple weeks driving across North America—but managed to take the time to chat with SN&R.

Three years ago you decided to write about U.S. presidents. Why? Where were you musically at this point?

At that point in my life, I had become somewhat disenchanted with “popular music” and, in particular, songs with words. … I think I was bored with just about everything I was making at that time in my life, to be honest, and so as an artist I was in need of a shift. …

I’m not entirely sure how I came up with the idea of writing about American presidential history, but as soon as I had the idea, it simply wouldn’t leave my mind. It seemed to me that it was a subject ripe with both story and also great potential for an examination of history. I have had an interest in history for some time now, which I suppose likely began in primary school, and I took a good deal of history classes while doing my undergrad at UC Davis. I ended up with a degree in American studies and wrote a thesis about race relations and gender in the U.S., interestingly enough, two prevalent topics in this year’s election cycle.

Did this project change you as a musician? How?

I’m not sure that this project changed me, though I should elaborate a bit. The previous year, 2005, that I did [February Album Writing Month], which was my first time doing that, did change me. My circumstances that year were a bit odd, in that I was leaving for New York City halfway through the month, so I ended up writing 19 songs in 16 days. What amazed me after I had a bit of distance from it was how much I liked the songwriting. I have always recorded the greatest majority of my guitar parts as improvisations. I rarely ever work out parts. Instead I just press record and play along.

Which track do you most enjoy and why?

A very difficult question. Though this may sound driven by ego, I don’t think that is the case: I am stunned by [the song about President Jimmy] Carter. I have been an admirer of Rosie Thomas’ voice for a long time now, and it just brought me such an immense joy to hear her sing something that I wrote. Odd and surreal as well. She really is one of my favorite singers, and I think she did an amazing job on that song.

You worked with a lot of other musicians on the album. Who else surprised you?

This may sound odd, but I was most surprised by [Matthew] Gerken. While I’ve shared a few bills with him and really enjoy his work in Nice Monster, I was repeatedly amazed by his songwriting on this project. Some of his melodies are just so beautiful it kills me. I fully expected what [Christian] Kiefer and everyone else brought to the record, especially the names who are well-known, but Gerken just blew me away.

So, who’s gonna be No. 44?

If you had asked me this before the Democratic Convention, I would have said McCain. If you had asked me this after the convention, but before the announcement of McCain’s running mate, I would have said Obama. Now I say McCain.

I support Obama and am terribly upset, more than I ever have been in any election, to think of the Republicans winning again. I’m afraid that there are so many issues of such deep importance regarding democracy and human rights in this election that if McCain wins, we will enter into a frighteningly dark era, which seems to me nearly impossible to escape from. In 2004, I was in Madison, Wis., going door to door, trying to get hungover college students out to vote for [John] Kerry. Later that night, my wife, a friend and I were driving across Ohio en route to Canada when we heard the news about the election and we all cried. Anyway, I could elaborate on this quite a bit, but suffice it to say, I think this election is terribly important and I still have hope.