The John Denver Story starring Rick Price plays at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne from 9 to 13 June.
What's the history of your involvement with The John Denver Story?
It started back in 2011, when I did the first version of the show. The company, Room Eight, contacted me in Nashville, Tennessee, and asked me if I would come back to Australia to present the show. And I just think it’s a story worth telling and everyone has a John Denver song in their bones somewhere – I certainly did from when I was a kid – and I thought it was a really interesting challenge for me to do something that I hadn’t done before, which is present somebody else’s music and tell their life story, and that’s what sort of intrigued me in.
So what’s the John Denver song that was in your bones?
Oh, let’s see … there were many. But I would say, probably, ‘Hey, it’s Good to Be Back Home Again’.
Have you always loved his music?
I liked it when I was a kid, growing up. I think ‘Sunshine’ was one of the songs that really grabbed me first. But my uncles and my aunties – I come from a musical family – they all sang John Denver songs, so John Denver music was just like part of the furniture where I grew up [laughs]. And of course by the time I hit my teens I discovered a lot of other things: rhythm and blues music, I discovered Stevie Wonder and then the list went on from there – James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Eagles. But I guess I’ve always been into that singer-songwriter thing. That’s who I am in my bones. I kind of do my own thing – I’m not one way or the other about other artists. Like, ‘Hey, great, make records, do your thing’. That’s what I’m doing myself. But I thought this was just an interesting story to tell.
I imagine that in doing this show you’re not attempting impersonation of John Denver but, rather, performing these songs as yourself.
Yes, absolutely – it’s not a tribute show in that I’m impersonating John or trying to sound like John. That would be foolish. There’s already one John Denver and we don’t need another one. So I just present his life story and sing twenty of his songs in my own way, but I stick very strongly to the arrangements and the melodies – I don’t move away from that and try to reinvent the wheel. It is what it is – I’m there singing John Denver songs and just trying to do a good job of it.
I’m curious about the rehearsal process for this, given that your own musical life is very full – were you able just to rehearse at home in Nashville and then bring the show here, or did you have to go through a formal rehearsal process?
There’s a full band – it’s not a solo acoustic show. We have pedal steel, drums, bass, fiddle and mandolin, and I play guitar and piano in the show. So there was a rehearsal process, but they’re a really skilled, fantastic band out of Melbourne and a fellow called Ed Bates, who’s a pedal steel player from Melbourne, he’s the musical director, so he put all the music together and I basically had to do my practice at home to make sure I could show up knowing what I was doing [laughs]. And it all went very smoothly – it was probably the easiest rehearsal thing I’ve been through, because everyone plays so well and they’d all done their homework, and Ed’s a great musical director. So it was really easy – I just slotted in with them pretty easily.
A lot of people might think that singing the same songs night after night, you’d getsick of them – but are there nuances you find in performing those songs every night that makes them different every time?
I think the key is to be present in your life. In my life, if I’m present with whatever I’m doing then it’s the first time I’m doing it. It’s fresh if I decide it’s fresh. But if I’m telling the story in my mind as I’m singing, Oh, here’s ‘Heaven Knows’ again, or Here’s ‘Sunshine’ again, or whatever – I’ve done this a million times and I’m a robot going over and over it – then that’s what your performance will come across as. And we’ve all seen plenty of that. So that’s to be avoided. And the way I avoid it is I think, This is a new moment, this is a new opportunity to perform this song the best that I can, because that’s always my focus: I’m right here, I’m standing on the stage, my job is to sing this song and present it the best way that I can. I put my focus to that as much as I can. Sure, the negative thoughts come across the screen but I try to let them go. And it’s a fresh audience too, you see – if you were playing to the same audience every night, the same song in the same venue, yeah, you’d probably have to get pretty creative. But I think, as artists, that is our job, to be spontaneous and to be present. It’s the same with any performer. If you’re an actor – I’m not an actor – but they say that being present is the key, that’s what makes a great actor. So if you were doing a play every night and you’re Laurence Olivier – or you’re whoever you are – you’ve got to be in the moment, and that’s what makes a good performer.
Presence is also a practice.
Indeed it is, yes.
And it’s something I imagine that when you were starting out in your career you might not have done. Or have you always known that? Some people would discover over the course of years that they need to be present. It’s a difficult practice, I think.
It is. It requires a new mind, if you like. It requires a new way of thinking of things. It requires you to be aware. Presence requires you to be present [laughs]. But definitely it is something I have discovered over time, in my own body and experience I’ve come to understand that, but I’ve also heard other people talk about it and that’s intrigued me. Because when you do see a really powerful performer you think, What sets them aside? Why are they so good? When they’re just standing there – they’re not moving around, they’re not doing anything particularly special, but you’re engaged with them. And I think as human beings we connect energetically, in the unseen world, and that’s what makes us feel things and experience things that we can’t really understand. It’s a mystical field.
I think it’s the quantum mechanical field. Performance is quite physically demanding – a lot of people would think you’re only on stage for a couple of hours but that act of being present, being there for your audience, can be very demanding. I would imagine you’ve learnt over the years how to balance the amount of energy that goes out with the amount that comes back in.
You’re absolutely right. I do that in my entire life, really, not just on the stage. But touring – travelling, being on cars and planes, in hotels, having odd, irregular hours – all of those things can drain you. But I read this great quote recently and I’m not sure if I’ll get it exactly right, but it says, ‘If I’m present in every moment and make every moment the best moment, then the rest of my life takes care of itself’. And I think that’s kind of true. Like I’m here talking with you now – wherever you are, wherever I am, we’re connected by technology but we’re right in this moment together right now. There’s the moment and then there’s the story of the moment. So it’s the same on stage: I have to make sure that I’m not just being a little robot, you know, and I can feel it in my body when I’m being a bit of a robot. Sometimes I can’t stop it – I just damn well can’t get present sometimes – but it’s getting better. I find that I’m energised when I’m present, and I’m interested and I’m engaged, and that seems to have an automatic effect on the audience.
Well, it’s a huge compliment to them, I think, when a performer can have that extra dimension on their performance.
Exactly. You’ve put that well. I think it shows respect for your audience, and it’s the same in conversation or whatever – the best gift you can give to anyone is your presence, but we all struggle to do that 24/7. Just because we’re talking about it doesn’t mean that I can perfect it. I drift off the reservation a lot, but it’s nice to come back and realise, Oh yes, that’s right – I’m in my body, I’m here, I’m singing, I’m playing this music, and it means so much to these people - and I’m talking about The John Denver Story, because these songs are sacred to that audience. They’re part of their DNA. They’ve grown up with them and they’ve been part of their lives. Those songs are attached to the stories of their lives and their experiences. So it’s no small thing to just go out and do it. I’ve got to pay respect to that and honour that and do the best I can, which really simplifies my job, because all I have to do is go out and do the best I can – that’s it.
Clearly you feel the responsibility of this work – some people might think, It’s just a covers show, whatever, but you clearly feel that responsibility to the audience.
Absolutely. You know, at first I thought, I don’t want to go out and sing John Denver songs – to sing someone else’s music. I just wanted to be myself and talk about myself and be me and get everyone me-me-me and my songs. But then I thought, Wait a moment – this could be an opportunity for something interesting. And I was right. That voice in my head was telling me something: this can be a valuable experience if you make it valuable. And so I try to do that. I take interest in the job at hand. And then all of a sudden it’s like your black-and-white world turns to technicolour and everything’s alive and the audience is having a great time, and I feel like I’m singing well and I’m engaged with the story. That’s how I come at it – I realise that it’s not what you do, necessarily, but how you do it.
It’s still a mystical process, in some ways, for singers in particular, because I’m sure you’ve had those nights when your voice sounds like everything’s going right and it’s probably something to do with the quantum mechanical field and the audience and what’s coming back to you.
Absolutely bang on the money.
[The second part of this Rick Price interview will be published soon.]