Music Interviews
12:24 pm
Wed October 2, 2013

You're Only 69 Questions Away From A New Song (About You)

Originally published on Thu October 3, 2013 3:43 am

It was Dick Clark who said music is the soundtrack of your life. It's not that those songs are really about you — the best ones just feel like they are. But what if they really could be?

Every one of the 17 songs on Jim Bianco's latest album, Cookie Cutter, is inspired by a fan. It started with a questionnaire: Bianco posted 69 questions for fans to fill out, and what he got back were stories about reunited lovers, runaway pets, ballerinas, brain cancer survivors, Jesus Christ and — everyone's favorite — death.

"I really tried to capture the experiences that unite and define us as people," Bianco tells NPR's Audie Cornish, "so that not only would someone's answer be relevant to them, obviously, but to someone listening who wasn't that person."

Against her better judgment, Cornish answered the questionnaire. We find out that she wasn't allowed to date, that one of her favorite songs is "I Never Loved a Man" by Aretha Franklin, and that she fears snakes and high heels. The song Bianco wrote for her is titled "Everything in Moderation" — a phrase Cornish's dad frequently said and still says.

The results are unsurprisingly intimate. And, thankfully, Bianco didn't go with "You're So Naughty, Audie." Bianco spoke with Cornish about the rough drafts that led to "Everything in Moderation," plus how his own imagination gets in the way. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

It was Dick Clark who said music is the soundtrack of your life. It's not that those songs are really about you. It's just the best ones feel like they are. Now, what if they really could be?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "IT'S GONNA BE OK")

JIM BIANCO: When there's no one there...

CORNISH: This song called "It's Gonna Be OK" is off the new album by singer-songwriter Jim Bianco, and it's inspired by one of his fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S GONNA BE OK")

BIANCO: Songs of broken love console you.

CORNISH: In fact, every one of the 17 songs on his latest album, titled "Cookie Cutter," is inspired by a fan. He included recorded snippets of their voices in the songs. It started with a questionnaire. Bianco posted 69 questions for the fans to fill out, and what he got back were stories about reunited lovers, runaway pets, ballerinas, brain cancer survivors, Jesus Christ and - everyone's favorite - death.

Jim Bianco came to our studios here in Washington to talk more about it. Jim Bianco, welcome to the program.

BIANCO: Good to be here.

CORNISH: Tell us about the questionnaire, because it's long.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: It's long, and when I sat down to write it, I realized that the quality of the questions would determine the quality of the songs ultimately. So I really focused in and try to capture the experiences that unite and define us as people so that not only would someone's answer be relevant to them, obviously, but to someone listening who wasn't that person.

Like one of the questions was, who was your first kiss, right? You've had a first kiss, Audie. I've had a first kiss. We relate on that. But our stories are different. So I try to, like, use questions like that to capture experiences in life that everyone's had, the quintessential experiences in life.

CORNISH: And there are a lot. I mean, it, some moments felt like a credit report.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I filled out this questionnaire as well...

BIANCO: Yeah. Yeah. It's detailed.

CORNISH: You know, you're asking about your parents' full names, their occupations, current pets, past pets, current neighbors.

BIANCO: Yeah. But it's your identity.

CORNISH: Right.

BIANCO: I mean, that's what it is. It's who you are. All those things determine who you are.

CORNISH: So you actually did a song for us because I answered the questionnaire, against my better judgment. So some of the questions that inspired the song that I actually answered: What was the name of your first boyfriend? I have here, wasn't allowed to date. I don't know how you managed to pull things from this. Five favorite songs, one of them I had listed Aretha Franklin, "I Never Loved a Man." And fears and phobias: snakes and high heels, I had written. OK. And I'll...

BIANCO: Which was a great answer.

CORNISH: Oh, really?

BIANCO: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: Some wonderful things to touch upon in a song, snakes and high heels. It's amazing.

CORNISH: Well, the song you came up with, Jim Bianco, is called "Everything in Moderation." And let's hear a little bit...

BIANCO: Wait a second. May I interject...

CORNISH: Please do.

BIANCO: ...that your - one of the questions was, what is a family quote of yours that your - was passed down to you?

CORNISH: Very important.

BIANCO: And you said your dad used to say, everything in moderation.

CORNISH: Still says it.

BIANCO: Still says it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IN MODERATION")

BIANCO: (Singing) You taught me how to always stay within the lines of every situation. And mama used to tell me, you should be careful with your heart. She said, the only ones who ever drown are the ones who swim out too far.

CORNISH: Jim Bianco, I have to admit, you're here in the studio, I feel like I can't look at you in the eye, basically, after hearing this song.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: Yeah.

CORNISH: I mean, you - you'd felt very intimate in a weird way. And what is it like for you? I don't know if you interact with any of the fans after the song is written.

BIANCO: Well, first of all, I'm glad that maybe I touched upon something there. That's very cool.

CORNISH: A little scary, yeah.

BIANCO: I've seen the majority of the people since I've written the song for them in one capacity or another. And, you know, it depends on the type of song I wrote for them. Some people gave me a lot of in-depth information about their lives, and if there was something there that snagged me as a songwriter, I would write about it, if it was a deep, meaningful, you know, a loss or death.

The song means something different to them than, for example, another person who told me that one scar that she had was from a brain tumor surgery when she was a kid. And that unraveled an entire song because she shouldn't be alive. She almost died. So each person kind of reacts differently, depending on the song that I have written for them.

CORNISH: Now on your website, you write that these songs that we hear every day on the radio, while we might relate to them, they're fundamentally about someone else. But isn't that kind of the point? Like, somehow it seems like this runs opposite of the singer-songwriter ideal?

BIANCO: Well, what I hopefully succeeded, what I attempted to do with these questionnaires is take the information from someone like yourself and make the song about you, inspired by you but also relatable to someone else. I didn't want to just sit down and write a song that went: (Singing) My name is John from Ohio, you know, I like Italian food. That would be...

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: That would be a waste of time for everyone. So I attempted to make it a little broader while still using the details and information that I was given.

CORNISH: And one song that I think did sound like it started out with pretty mundane details was "Kilpatrick Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILPATRICK MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. Danny's(ph) got a big, white scar across his belly from a hernia operation.

CORNISH: Which when I heard the top of the song, you hear some pretty kind of everyday facts about this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILPATRICK MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Works in marble, for a marble restoration company. Now Dad, he was a university lecturer.

CORNISH: And the song really turns it into something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILPATRICK MAN")

BIANCO: Here I am, a Kilpatrick man. My dad was a teacher. I work with my hands, with a scar on my belly that's white as a pearl. Count the stones I have carried, the weight of the world.

CORNISH: So I have to admit when I heard, you know, hernia and Dad being a teacher, but the song actually made him sound pretty epic.

BIANCO: For me, the intersection was that he works in marble and that he has got a hernia. So in a song, you can think that if he's carrying these stones around and he got a hernia, that's where my imagination goes. I don't know what the truth. He's probably a secretary there, as far as I know. I didn't...

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: So I don't know what he does or what the reality is. But the song hopefully stands on its own as this character.

CORNISH: Were there things that tripped you up, like answers or questionnaires that you just thought, I can't make heads or tails of this?

BIANCO: Yeah. Well, with your song, first of all, I can't control the part of my brain that does all the imagining. And when I first heard that I was writing a song for Audie, I was really excited because I thought I can do, like...

(Singing) And with all things considered, I'll be OK.

And then I thought that was kind of corny and a little cheap, honestly.

CORNISH: A little on the nose maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: Yeah. And then I got hooked up with your name, and then I thought, like...

(Singing) Mm, so naughty, Audie. Mm, so naughty, Audie. Mm...

And I thought, that's just inappropriate.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: But to answer your question, if anything tripped me up, I just skipped it and didn't use it.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCO: You know what I mean? That's why there's about 70 questions there, so I can just use another question.

CORNISH: Well, Jim Bianco, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.

BIANCO: Thank you so much, Audie.

CORNISH: Jim Bianco. His new album is called "Cookie Cutter." It's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IN MODERATION")

BIANCO: (Singing) And I do everything, everything, everything in moderation...

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.