For Rick, with love
A Conversation with Jonas Fjeld
by Carol CaffinBandBites, Volume I, No. 8, June 15, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.
Unless you’re a die-hard Band fan, a Norwegian, or both, the name Jonas Fjeld may not ring a bell with you. And that’s unfortunate. Because Jonas Fjeld (whose given name is Terje Jensen) is not only an accomplished musician, seasoned songsmith, and charismatic singer, he’s also one of the nicest, most likable guys you could ever meet.
In 1990, Jonas was “initiated” into the magical, mythical world of The Band when he teamed up with Rick Danko and Eric Andersen for what would become a much-lauded collaboration that included an award-winning debut album, Danko Fjeld Andersen.
“He’s a big star in Norway,” Rick, ever the salesman, told me before he introduced me to Jonas. “Wait ‘til you hear him. You’ll know why.” He was right; though, before I even heard him sing, I knew the chemistry was there. It was one of those things you couldn’t put your finger on, yet you could feel it in the air. Though he was 10 years younger than both Rick and Eric, the three of them seemed to be on the same wavelength. As a lead singer with DFA, Jonas’s voice veered from rough-hewn to mellow; when singing in tandem with Rick and Eric, he proved the perfect balance, tempering Eric’s coarse, old-school, gritty folk singing and grounding Rick’s melancholy tenor and often other-worldly “on top of the melody line” harmonies.
Personally, Jonas blended well, too. On stage and off, he often was the humble, softspoken straight man, acquiescing to Rick’s good-natured, naturally comedic and larger-than-life magnetism, and Eric’s bohemian charm and intellectual and often acerbic wit. When it was time to make music, all three checked their egos at the door and became a tight, cohesive, and virtuosic unit.
Though we have communicated by email, it had been years since I talked to Jonas but, when I did, it was as if no time at all had passed.
CC: Why don’t we bring everybody up to date with what you’re doing now, and then we can backtrack, okay?
JF: Right now, I’ve been having big success with an American bluegrass band called the Chatham County Line. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, you know, to play bluegrass. I was kind of raised with it, so it’s been a dream and a goal for me for several years to hook up with some guys that had that kind of music under their skin. That means real rebels! [laughs]
CC: [laughs] And we know what they are, don’t we?
JF: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] So I got a hold of some rebels from North Carolina, and that’s Chatham County Line.
CC: How many guys are in the group?
JF: There are four guys in the group and I’m the fifth guy.
CC: How did you hook up with them?
JF: I invited them over here to Norway because I have this annual Christmas concert in the theater in Drammen that I’ve been doing for eight years. In 2005, I invited these guys over. We had four sold-out shows and I recorded them. So, that went so well and it sounded so great that we decided to release a live album [Amerikabesøk, which means ‘Visitors from America’], which came out in February of this year. It’s been fantastic—it went gold over here in three weeks, and we had a great tour in March. It sold out and it’s been just fantastic.
CC: That’s wonderful, Jonas. I’m happy for you. What are you doing with the group—are you playing guitar? Other instruments?
JF: I play the guitar and sing.
CC: Are you guys gonna do anything in the States?
JF: I hope to God, yeah. We’ve been hoping for A Prairie Home Companion. They’re gonna pass through Charlotte in October. I hope to get to play in the States again—that would be wonderful.
CC: Yes, it will, Jonas, and I know a lot of people look forward to seeing you perform. Can you tell me about the first time you became aware of The Band?
JF: That was in 1968. I was in a band at the time, a local band here in Norway, and we became great fans with the first song we heard of theirs on the radio. The first song we were aware of was “The Weight” in 1968. We immediately picked it up and played our version of it. I was the singer, but since Levon was the singer on “The Weight,” that meant the drummer in our band sang it. It was kind of a copy [laughs]. That was my first experience with The Band.
CC: How old were you then?
JF: In 1968 I was 15 years old.
CC: How did you get to know Eric Andersen?
JF: That was a coincidence. Eric was here—he played in Norway a lot—and this was 1980. He was doing a show for NRK, Norway’s NPR. We were picked to play with him on that radio show. So that’s the first time we met him, in 1980.
CC: You said “we.” Were you with a group then?
JF: Yeah, it was the Jonas Fjeld Band. We did our radio show, and I’d been a huge fan of Eric’s since I heard “Blue River,” from the Blue River album in 1972. Several years passed by since that episode. I got to meet him, but it wasn’t until the late 80s when I met him again. He remembered the radio show and we met at a music store, a guitar workshop store in Oslo. I’ll bet it was 1988 or something like that.
CC: Was that by chance?
JF: By chance. Pure luck, pure coincidence. Then, around that time, we started to hang together a little bit. I’d meet him in Oslo, have a couple of cold ones. He invited me to Long Island several times, with the brother of his first wife.
CC: Do you mean Brad Green, Debbie’s brother? I think that was Staten Island.
JF: Yeah, yeah—Staten Island. And it was Brad. We were there quite a bit and started working on songs. That was great. That was the buildup to when they found the lost tapes, you know? [The tapes, originally recorded by Eric Andersen in 1972, were lost in Columbia Records’ vaults and finally released as Stages: The Lost Album in April, 1991.]
CC: It’s interesting sometimes how things work out, sort of like a perfect storm. There was lots of stuff going on then. That’s kind of when I was just starting with Rick, and then I met Eric, and they, like you, were each working on things that sort of led up to the Trio. When you hooked back up with Eric in the late 80s, he was living in Norway by then, right? Not just touring or visiting?
JF: Yeah, I think so. But I didn’t have any contact with him for all that time, until I met him in that music store. We all remembered the gig we’d had together, the radio show. Eric loved our stuff, you know; he loved the band. We had a lot of things to talk about.
CC: How did Rick come into the picture after you guys hooked up?
JF: Well, Eric wanted to go full circle with the Stages album, so he decided to record four additional tracks. And he invited me to come over to New York and play guitar on those four songs he was gonna do. And at that session, Rick was the bass player. That was the first time I met Rick.
CC: Which songs did you record?
JF: Eric and Willie Nile wrote a lyric to one of my songs, which became “Soul of My Song.” And “Lie With Me” is on there too, I think. And Rick was on the four songs we recorded. I had like three or four days left before I was going home, and Eric had a gig in Woodstock at that little club—what’s that club’s name?
CC: Tinker Street Café?
JF: Yeah, Tinker Street. So, I went with him up there and stayed with Rick. It was a nice show, you know, and Mick Ronson was there—it was hilarious. It was Eric’s gig. I got up on stage and sang a song, and Rick came up and sang. Mick Ronson was there playing. It was a great time, you know? Then we all went back to Rick’s house. I don’t remember but I don’t think Mick Ronson went, but me and Eric did. And that’s where we started singing harmonies. And I remember to this day how Rick loved that…he just loved it. And we all agreed that “We gotta do more of this.” So that was the start of the Trio.
CC: That was 1990, and then we know Rick went to Norway in early ’91, and of course when he came back, I started sending tapes around to anyone who would listen, all dubbed on my cheapie home deck. Pretty rough stuff…[laughs]
JF: [Laughs] Yeah, I remember! And, you know, Rick had never been to Norway, so I said I would try to get a tour in Norway, and he loved it. We got this great tour, with great gigs and, coincidence again, we said “We’re all here. Let’s record this shit! The harmonies are great—we gotta get it on tape.” And we all agreed to do it, so I called some people and got a studio, and all of a sudden, we were in the studio. And we recorded the first album
CC: Do you remember what was the very first song you guys recorded?
JF: [Pauses] Uh…good question! [laughs] You know, Carol, I can’t remember.
CC: You know what, Jonas, that’s funny, because people think that the people who are involved know and remember every single detail, but the fans often know and remember more than the artists and the others involved. I don’t remember the details either, but I remember that when Rick came back, he played “Driftin’ Away” and “Blue River.” Those were the first two Trio songs I heard.
JF: Yeah, it may be that—“Driftin’ Away” may have actually been the first one we recorded, but I’m not sure.
CC: What was the recording session like? Or sessions—how many sessions were there?
JF: We did the basic tracks in a week, and then Rick was going home, so we concentrated on getting the vocals and the harmonies. I worked on the record with some overdubs and stuff for like two weeks after that. So in about three weeks it was all in the can.
CC: There was one song, “When Morning Comes to America,”—can you tell us the story behind that?
JF: Yeah, that was with my best buddy in Nashville, James Sherraden. We wrote that like ten years before the Trio album. It had been recorded in Norwegian at some point, but I never did anything with the original lyric. So that was the first time I recorded it.
CC: How much had you done in America before the Trio?
JF: I’ve been in and out of America all my life almost, since 1977. We recorded two albums with J.J. Cale’s producer, Audie Ashworth, in 1977 and ’78. And I recorded one in ’83, I think it was.
CC: J.J. Cale, as you know, is another Band connection. I think you guys were sort of kindred spirits in a way, just waiting to meet.
JF: Yeah, definitely. And there were a lot of great people I met with the Trio—like Eric Bazilian. A lot of great players.
CC: Well, I never thought Eric Bazilian would have a Band connection. I was a kid when I met him. And I never thought that Eric Andersen would have a Band connection either. But they both do.
JF: Carol, Carol…I’m meeting people all the time that have Band connections. It’s unbelievable. I’m meeting young people—I met a guy who played herelast night, twenty years old. He doesn’t know The Band, but he has a Band connection big time, ‘cause he loves the music.
CC: Love for the music has always been the common thread. When DFA came out, lots of DJs played it because they loved it, even if it didn’t fit the “format.” It was hard to get it into rotation because of format restrictions, but it did get played. There was this radio format that was supposedly “new,” and that’s when “Triple A” started. Originally it was called PAR, but it was just a name for a format that had been there since The Band. That format was a Godsend, though, because it helped us get airplay.
JF: Yes, absolutely, it was.
CC: Can you tell me about the song that you wrote for Rick in ‘01? It’s so beautiful.
JF: That was my tribute to Rick. I think someone did an English translation of the lyric on The Band site. [The English translation is credited to C. Klinger and J. Hoiberg.] My friend Ole Paus wrote the lyrics—I don’t like lyrics, so I passed on the idea to Ole, that I wanted it to be about Rick. [When Jonas saw this interview in print, he told me that actually "I love lyrics, but I have a hell of a time writing them."] It’s a great lyric, a wonderful lyric. And Garth is playing accordion on it. Because me and Garth and Eric, and Eric’s daughter, Sari, did a tour here in Norway in 2001, kind of a tribute to Rick tour.
CC: Are there any stories that you want to share about working with both Rick and Eric, about that whole time after the record?
JF: Well, I was a big fan of The Band from ’68. Carol, I pinched my arm several times when I was in the States singing harmony with Rick. It was just unbelievable. I couldn’t believe that it was actually me there on stage with him. And Rick was a great, great guy who gave me courage and…when I grew up, we looked up to Americans. I felt kinda underrated, like ‘I’m not gonna sound like this guy.’ But Rick gave me great courage. It was a simple as encouraging me to believe in myself and my music. He was a great guy, you know. He was just a normal guy.
CC: Well, I don’t know about “normal,” Jonas [laughs]…
JF: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah…
CC: Why don’t we just say “regular?” [laughs]
JF: [Laughs] Well, I mean, if you go all the way through to his spirit, I mean, he…what can I say? Yes, he was a regular guy.
CC: Oh Jonas, I know what you mean. I was just joking.
JF: Well, he was something. We had some great moments. I think the last gig we did in the States was in ’97 at the Bottom Line. And Salman Rushdie came to the show. He came backstage and he asked me for my autograph. I said “You can get mine if I can get yours.” [laughs] So I got it. We traded autographs, and had a great time backstage at The Bottom Line.
CC: I was not at that gig. He was out with no bodyguards?
JF: Oh yeah, he had bodyguards, absolutely. Big time.
CC: Do you remember the Bottom Line show in ’93 when Tatum O’Neil was there?
JF: I do, yeah.
CC: I came out with Rick to watch Eric’s solo set, and then I think yours, and we were sitting at this table with Tatum O’Neil. I was nudging Rick and kind of motioning with my eyes so he would look at her and maybe recognize her and say something and he had no idea that she was there, or even a clue who she was…
JF: [Laughs] Yep. Sounds like him! There were so, so many great moments and so many stories.
CC: There were. How about when we drove from Woodstock to Boston for the DFA showcase and I got a stopped by a cop for speeding? You were with me, Rick was with Eric.
JF: [Laughs] Oh God, I forgot.
CC: You don’t remember the flashing lights and siren, Jonas? It was because of your buddy. I was following them [Rick and Eric]; they were in Ed [Kaercher’s] Caddy. They were speeding and I had to speed to keep up with them, so we wouldn’t get separated. And of course I, not they, got stopped.
JF: Oh, yeah! I remember now! How much was the ticket?
CC: The cop felt sorry for me and didn’t actually give me one. The three of them pulled over on the side of the road and put their blinkers on and waited. You and I were pulled over and I could see them laughing. I should have turned them in!
JF: [Laughs] Well, Thank God it all worked out and nobody had to pay anything. As I said, there are so many stories that I can’t share with anybody on The Band site...a lot of it I’m just gonna keep as a memory inside myself, you know.
CC: I totally understand and respect that.
JF: But again, I can’t
tell you how many times I pinched myself, just standing there
playing with Rick and singing with him. It was a dream come true. It