The revolutionary songwriter is back with a new album and four shows at Philly’s Tin Angel.
Editor's Note: All four of Gil's Tin Angel appearances this weekend have been canceled due to the snowpocalypse.
On Gil Scott-Heron’s first new studio album in 16 years, I’m New Here, out Tuesday on XL Recordings (Radiohead, White Stripes), the rust-voiced revolutionary sounds as vital as ever. He’s been recording the haunting album—a mix of spooky futuristic blues; strange, drenched-in-synths soundscapes, poignant odes to his family and a few extraordinary covers—for the past few years with XL Recordings head Richard Russell, who first met Scott-Heron in 2006 when he visited him at Rikers, where he was serving 90 days for DUI.
PW caught up with “the black Bob Dylan” and the “Godfather of Rap”—terms he finds both amusing and mostly false—in advance of his four shows at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel (“One of my favorite places to play; I like that joint”) Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 6 and 7.
When did you begin writing the songs and recording the new album?
Actually, very few of those things were written for a new album. They were just things that I had written now and then and things that I had been holding onto. Plus some people that I liked that I never heard people do cover songs by. Very few people cover Robert Johnson [“Me and The Devil”] or Bobby Bland [“I’ll Take Care of You”] or people like that. I thought they were very good songs so I decided to do them myself.
The title track is also a cover tune.
Yeah, that’s Callahan. Bill Callahan. I like Bill Callahan. I think he’s got a real dry sense of humor. And I think where he’s coming from is real contemporary.
When did you first hear that song?
He’s an XL artist. I heard a couple of his albums.
When Richard Russell contacted you while you were serving time at Rikers— how did that go down?
Same way shit happens in [the record business]: you get a letter; you get a call. Someone calls and tells you that somebody’s been looking for you. I got a letter from him out there and he wanted to sit down with me and that’s the way shit happens. He said he wanted to meet up and that’s where I was so there was no chance of us meeting up any place else! [Laughter]
So was it the two of you behind the glass?
No man, it was face to face—downstairs. He’s a nice guy. He’s a friend of Jamie Byng. Jamie Byng is a good friend of mine. He’s the father of my Godson. He’s the guy who owns Canongate Books.
Is that the publisher you’re working on your new book with?
Yes. And Byng’s a friend of Russell’s. And that’s the right [kind of] reference for me. I’m saying I just don’t want to leap with everybody or anybody—fuck ‘em, you know? But Jamie’s a professional person so the fact that Richard used him as a reference was good enough for me.
Who’s playing the acoustic guitar on the title track?
Pat [Sullivan]. You know, one of Richard’s friends. He came by the studio one day and we hit it off. It adds a nice touch though, you know?
Oh yeah, it’s beautiful and different than anything I’ve ever heard you do. Will you be playing that or any of the other new cuts when you play Philly?
Probably not because the record hasn’t come out yet and I don’t like to do that till the record’s out.
So since the record comes out a few days after you play the Tin Angel, I guess no such luck of getting some live debuts.
No, but we’ll play some things that are on other albums that people can’t access that easily like —
Stuff from Bridges and 1980?
Yeah, Bridges, 1980, Secrets …
Those are my favorite albums, man.
Those are my favorites too. Maybe it’s because you can’t get ’em, I don’t know why.
Bridges is my all-time favorite.
It’s a good album, man. I think I’m going to put it out myself. I own it. It’s never been out on CD though. But I’m going to tell people if they want it on CD they can get it from me.
I love the “interludes” on the new album, the short little segments between songs. Some of them are crazy!
Ha, ha. Richard was having such a good time. We’d be having conversations between takes and he just turned the tape recorder on, man. And after awhile I forgot that it was on so those were just like conversations that we were having. None of them were recorded to be recorded. But there’s a bonus CD just of outtakes and shit like that.
They all work together though and kind of weave this theme of spirits and guidance throughout the album.
Yeah, they were used for that purpose.
Was the recording of the album a cathartic experience at all for you? It seems like the material hits on a lot of personal stuff.
Cathartic? No man, I don’t have no catharsis and shit like that. Don’t expect no motherfuckin’ psychoanalysis or personal introspections on wax. We were just talking.
For people who have missed you over the last 15 years or so since Spirits came out —
It’s their own loss, not mine.
Where have you been?
Everywhere. There’s no place I haven’t played. We play S.O.B.’s [in NYC] three or four times a year. They could have come down there; they wouldn’t of had to miss it.
You once told me that when you and the band needed groceries was when you start playing out more.
It used to be like that when I was broke. But I haven’t been broke in a long time.
You’ve played Philly a number of times over the years.
Yeah, I love Philly. I went to school at Lincoln and that was about 40 miles from Philly, so we used to be on 52nd Street all the time. The Aqua Lounge and shit like that — going out to see someone playing music.
Your music has been categorized differently throughout your career: jazz, funk, blues, R&B. What do you call it?
I call it mine. I know it’s not jazz because I can’t play that well.
The new album has a spooky, haunting vibe that’s unlike any of your previous albums.
Well, nobody bought the other ones so we figured we’d change it up! [Laughs]
There’s a lot of blues on the record too; were you dealing with a lot of pain when recording the tunes?
I don’t put my pain on records.
Well, the blues has a certain element of pain usually.
Some people say they like the blues too. The sky’s blue. It doesn’t keep people from looking up. … The blues is just about feelings. It depends on—sometimes I get the blues on nice days. I’m reminded of other nice days and the fact that I can’t go back to them.
Can we expect a follow-up to I’m New Here before 2026?
I don’t know. If people buy this one maybe I’ll see and record another one. A lot of people tell me that they like my records, but they don’t buy them! So how the fuck would I know? [Laughs]
Do you feel like you don’t get enough recognition as an artist?
They recognize me when I owe them money. They send me the Goddamned bill!
Do you feel like you were put here to make music?
No, I was put here because my mother and father loved each other. That’s how you have babies.
Home is a topic that comes up on the new album. Where is home to you?
Right here on 112th Street.
When you sing on the new album, “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around…”
Oh, that’s Bill Callahan.
Yeah, but how far gone have you gone?
I don’t know, I’m 60. How far gone is that?
What do you think makes someone “turn around,” so to speak, in their lives?
Finding out they were wrong. Finding out that something they passed up and thought was wrong was [actually] right. And they got to go back and find it. Lot of things, man.
How have your experiences over the past decade or so with the drug charges and your time at Rikers —
Oh, I only did a little time over in Rikers. You know, it was just jail. You can get a good card game, watch the ball game.
Have those experiences affected your writing or mindset when recording?
Take a listen and you’ll hear it. I mean, I’ve been out now for four years.
Are you in a place in your life now where you feel satisfied?
Satisfied? I don’t know. I don’t know if this is satisfied or not. I got some work to do. I better clean up this house! I don’t know if that’s satisfied or not.
Jeff Schwachter is an award-winning writer, a musician and the editor of Atlantic City Weekly.
The "black Bob Dylan" plays this weekend at the Tin Angel.
PW's Music Issue 2014