Jonathan Richman on songwriting, Boston, and his upcoming four-night stand
In the annals of Boston rock ’n’ roll, there are few artists as enigmatic or enduring as Natick native Jonathan Richman, who begins a four-night stand at the Middle East Upstairs this Wednesday. A contemporary of Aerosmith and the J Geils Band, Richman never attained their commercial success. But his legacy has been an outsize influence on the development of punk and indie rock.
With his first band, the Modern Lovers, Richman turned teenage solitude and affection for the Velvet Underground into a primal throb, democratizing rock ’n’ roll just when the genre was at its most rococo. The group’s lone album, “The Modern Lovers,” assembled from demos in 1976 two years after their dissolution and containing now-classics like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso,” would lay the foundation for innovators like Talking Heads and the Sex Pistols.
Richman’s second artistic epoch, which began with his 1976 debut, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, would find the artist dispensing with the fuzz and thump of his early efforts. In its place Richman installed humor, hope, and emotional insight while connecting to the sounds of pre-psychedelia America. In the 40 years since, Richman has explored flamenco. country, and alt-rock with equal aplomb.
On “Ishkode! Ishkode!,” his 23rd and latest full-length released in February, Richman’s artistic vision is as restless as ever. Intimate and conversational, “Ishkode! Ishkode!” — meaning “Fire! Fire!” in the Ojibwe language indigenous to southeastern Canada — is a melange of worldly sounds and themes. You can hear Richman’s maturity amid the youthful spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
Part of what has made Richman a cult figure is his refusal to participate in many music industry practices and rituals: For one thing, he does not do phone interviews for publications. He and the Globe conducted this conversation in writing, facilitated by Richman’s current record label Blue Arrow Records and the US Postal Service.
Q. Your new album, “Ishkode! Ishkode!,” features some of the richest arrangements you’ve used in years. What inspired you to add more elements beyond the guitar and drum formula?
A. I think sometimes, on a record, that instruments playing sort of “against” the guitar can help set off the guitar by contrast.
Q. When did you get your first guitar? When did you realize that playing guitar was an important part of your life?
A. I was 15. My dad had one lying around and he asked if I wanted it. I played guitar a lot from right then up through right now.
Q. Over the years you’ve interpolated a number of foreign languages into your lyrics, including songs on “Ishkode! Ishkode!” When do you know that English won’t do a song justice?
A. Great question! It’s not exactly justice — it’s more cadence and where the verb falls in the sentence. The rhymes change too because of these placements. English has lots of great one-syllable words! You can make up lines like these:
“I want to hold your hand”
“If I ruled the world”
“I get no kicks from (champagne)”
“She loves you yeah yeah yeah”
“Boom boom boom boom”
“I can’t get no satisfaction”
“All day and all of the night” etc.
Q. When you were growing up in Boston, what radio stations did you listen to? What drew you to those stations? What songs inspired you in those early days?
A. Radio stations: WMEX with Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg and WBZ with Bruce Bradley and Dick Summer. Songs: “Do You Believe in Magic?,” “The Watusi,” “The Locomotion,” “You’re Pushin’ Too Hard,” “The Wiggle Wobble.”
Q. Do you remember the first time you played in Cambridge? What was the scene like then?
A. They had free shows every Sunday on Cambridge Common. They let me, this skinny 16-year-old, play even if I couldn’t tune my guitar. I thought this was great. The audience wasn’t so sure.
Q. You grew up in the suburbs. How did you find out where the music was happening in Boston? Were there magazines or newspapers that you read that covered local music?
A. Hit Parader magazine mentioned The Boston Tea Party, the famous Boston rock ballroom at that time, in an article by their Boston correspondent. When I was 15 when I read that and started looking around for it and found it!
Q. This four-night stand at the Middle East is just the latest in a long history of Cambridge gigs. What makes Cambridge so special?
A. Boston’s great too. Cambridge can feel very intimate, especially if it’s 1965 or 1971 with the Elite Spa and Cardullo’s and the S.S. Tasty. You perhaps remember the smells of the old Faneuil Hall Market, yes?
Q. Much of your music has been about travel and the movement from one place to another. What do you think travel has taught you about creating art?
A. Going to places where the atmosphere is different changes us, wouldn’t you say?
Q. What helps you maintain your creativity after all these years?
A. If I indeed have, well, that’s a good thing! Thank you. If this stops being fun I’ll stop doing it. Very quickly.
Q. What does the future hold for your music?
A. Two tours next spring, around the US and Canada, and a fair amount of shows in New England, I hope.
At the Middle East, Cambridge, Nov. 23-26at 8 p.m. Tickets: $20. 617-864-3278, www.mideastclub.com
Sean L. Maloney is the author of “33⅓ : The Modern Lovers’ The Modern Lovers,” forthcoming in February 2017.