Outside, looking in

“Yesterday,” says Richard Shindell, “I had to speak to a blacksmith.”

This commonplace experience, the singer/songwriter explains, illustrates a fundamental cultural difference between the United States and Argentina, his adopted home of the past seven years.

Craft-master: Richard Shindell’s narrative-driven songs have helped him carve out his niche in the already crowded-with-talent folk circuit. Photo By Marinko Matura

“Here, you don’t just walk into the blacksmith’s shop and tell him what you want,” he continues. “You walk in; he sizes you up. He figures out that I’m not from around his neighborhood. So he pulls out a chair, and we have to chat for an hour—about everything. That’s the way it works, and I like that. It’s one of the most charming things about Argentina.”

“But, other things drive me nuts,” he admits. “Politically, it’s very, very, very complicated and … messed up. It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out sometimes.”

Fittingly enough, following high-profile tours with Joan Baez and a successful collaboration with Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky in the late 1990s, Shindell moved with his wife (an Argentine native) to the capital city of Buenos Aires just as the country was hurtling toward a political and financial meltdown.

“We moved here just before the fans started spinning really fast,” he quips with a tentative laugh. “On December 19th of 2001, everything fell apart—the entire economy fell apart; there were five presidents in two weeks; people died; there were lootings; people were sacking grocery stores … it was pretty hairy. I had just gotten here, and the thought did cross my mind that we had made a horrible mistake.”

Shindell stuck with his decision and re-emerged in 2004 with the album Vuelta, which was recorded in Argentina. Though he employed native musicians, Shindell says he has yet to incorporate Latin influences into his sound. Nonetheless, he started gazing homeward for his latest album, South of Delia, a collection of reworked tunes by luminary (mostly) English-language songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Josh Ritter.

“After I’d made Vuelta here in Argentina, with all these Argentine musicians, I had this really strong desire—almost like a thirst—to just go back and wallow in the sounds and instruments that I know best,” Shindell explains. “I went a little bit over into left field with the instrumentation, the settings, for the songs on Vuelta. I don’t regret that, but perhaps I got homesick musically. So I wanted to go back and let the pendulum swing a little bit in the other direction, and just call all these people that, for me, represent a certain kind of really essential sound. And choose instruments that just luxuriate in that sort of Americana sound.”

Though there is a certain mythic basis behind his song selection—in the liner notes, Shindell describes how he imagines 12 narrators meeting on the side of a road—re-entering the United States always has a hard-edged, forceful impact on the New Jersey native.

“I go back pretty often, so I’ve had time to become accustomed to any changes that have gone on,” he says. “However, every time I do go back, I’m struck by how rich the country is compared to other places in the world—the level of consumption, the size of everything: the cars, houses, shopping centers. The scale and economic energy of the United States is just overwhelming. Down here, everything is down about three gears. So when you go back, you have to gear up to this huge capitalist machine. You get off the plane and you just can hear it churning away. That’s shocking to me.”

“In some ways,” he continues, “I like it, because I get to buy cool gear and rent a nice car. But, at the same time there’s something exhausting and, sometimes, even obscene about it. And when I come back to Argentina, I just relax. It just feels more human, like the long arm of the market doesn’t reach into every corner of daily life here the way it does in the United States.”

Such deeply personal reflections are nothing new for Shindell. A former seminarian who was studying to become a priest/psychologist, Shindell’s academic history suggests that his music career diverted him from a path of spiritual contemplation. He insists that’s not the case.

“I went to seminary the way some people go to graduate school,” Shindell clarifies, “where you take out a bunch of loans and float for a while. Basically, I was barking up the wrong tree, so I can’t say that that was a life that I would have had.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music journalist.]

who:Richard Shindell
where:Grey Eagle
when:Sunday, Jan. 27 (8 p.m. $16. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)

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