For many of us, he will always be Billy. But as William Corgan, front man of The Smashing Pumpkins, began to edge closer to age 50, he was having second thoughts about that. As he puts it, “I prefer to be called William. Billy is more of a stage name in my head at this point.”
Highland Park resident, business owner and Grammy Award-winning musician Corgan’s name isn’t the only thing that’s different about his new solo album Ogilala (Martha’s Music/ BMG). Produced by Rick Rubin, the 11 songs take Corgan in a dazzling new direction via stripped down arrangements that focus on his distinctive voice accompanied by piano and acoustic guitar. The results are breathtaking.
Corgan will perform in Chicago at the Athenaeum Theatre October 24 & 25.
I spoke with Corgan, who describes himself as “HP all the time,” about Ogilala and life in Highland Park shortly before the October 2017 release of the album.
Gregg Shapiro: “Zowie” is the perfect name for the first song on Ogilala because that’s probably the reaction listeners will have when they hear the gorgeous piano and vocal tune.
William Patrick Corgan: It’s funny because Rick (Rubin, producer) questioned the title when we were recording the record. It’s my little nod to David Bowie’s passing. It doesn’t sound like David Bowie, but there are certain chords that remind me of what David would do. I was thinking of him a lot when I wrote the song. I think it was around the time of his passing. It was my way of tipping my hat to David in a way that you would only recognize if you were a David fan.
GS: Wasn’t Zowie the name of his (eldest) son?
WPC: Yes. Although I think eventually his son changed his name (to Duncan Jones), because that’s obviously a weird name to have [laughs]. I even got to meet his son a few times along the way. When we’re in dream language, as we are when we’re writing songs, things kind of pop up. I don’t really question them much, as any of my dubious song titles indicate [laughs]. I go with whatever I feel at the time. Like I said, Rick raised an eyebrow to the title, but it just stuck.
GS: The songs on Ogilala have these lovely piano, vocal and acoustic guitar arrangements. Were you listening to something before or while making the album that inspired this direction?
WPC: That’s a really good question. For years I’ve listened to people who were prominent in the English folk movement in the `60s who were very influential, but many people don’t know their names, (such as) Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch and Davey Graham, as well as Pentangle and Sandy Denny, who sang on the (Led) Zeppelin album. I found myself as a listener to be really attracted to that type of music. Sometimes music can be an antidote to what we’re going through not only in life, but also in the culture. I think there is a certain synchronistic quality to how folk music was very important during the turbulent times of the 1960s. There’s something about folk music or those types of tones or chords and melodies that remind us that there’s a longer history here. Although this time seems very difficult, we’ve gotten through these times before. I found myself listening and I don’t know if it permeated my interest in what I wanted to do musically.
GS: Do you feel like these kinds of arrangements, on “The Spaniards”, “Processional”, “Aeronaut” and “Half-Life of an Autodidact”, for instance, gave you the chance to exercise different vocal muscles?
WPC: I’ve played music like this privately for 20 years. Friends would always say, “Why don’t you record more like this? Why don’t you put more than one song like this, here or there, on an album?” I would just shrug and say that it’s hard to compete in the world of Sturm und Drang with this kind of simplicity. It might also be a little bit my age where I feel confident that I can sing better. So much of that music is really about the ability to deliver the vocal. I came up as a guitar player, so vocal were always like an ancillary thing to what I did as a musician. It’s taken me a long time to feel like a lead singer first and a guitar player second.
GS: That’s interesting because your voice is so distinctive. Nobody else sounds like you.
WPC: I appreciate that. I don’t mean this in an insecure way, but my father, who was a great musician, criticized my voice. He told me to find a lead singer for The Pumpkins [laughs]. My voice has always been this polemic that divides people on whether they like the band or the songs. When I was younger, it didn’t feel like something I could stand behind because it didn’t feel like anybody was rooting for me in the general sense. Over time I started to realize that for the people who did like what I was doing, it really was about the voice. I started thinking that wasn’t a bad thing [laughs] and that’s not going to change, so I might as well just figure it out.
GS: Ogilala is being released in different formats including 180-gram vinyl, as well as limited edition blue and pink vinyl versions. As both a musician and a music consumer, what do you think of the vinyl revival?
WPC: It’s fantastic. Even here at my teahouse ZuZu’s, I encourage the staff to play more vinyl for guests throughout the day. There’s something about the warmth of vinyl that’s so much more inviting. I love the convenience of the digital world, but sonically I think that we’ve entered into a weird place where people are looking for the personal aspect of vinyl. It’s okay that it’s not perfect and that it’s a little bit distorted. I love it. I’m a collector. It’s an obsession.
GS: You mentioned you are a father. I’m wondering how much your being a father plays a part in this new solo sound?
WPC: I don’t know. I know that it’s pretty cool that my son, from his earliest days, got used to me playing the guitar around him. He’s very comfortable with touching the guitar, playing the piano. He has his own toy guitar and piano to play on his own. We don’t really watch much TV. We try to emphasize play and reading and stuff like that. There’s not a lot of distraction going on in our home other than music.
GS: Speaking of fatherhood, how would you rate Highland Park as a place to raise a child?
WPC: Great! Really! I moved up here when I was an unrepentant bachelor and I’m really grateful because this is such a great place for families. I love the community. Highland Parkers aren’t easy to get to know. They’re very into their own worlds, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that because I’m left alone and my privacy is really respected here. As I’ve gotten to know people more and become a part of the community and to contribute to the community, I’m really proud to say that Highland Park is my home. I’m also happy to be a part of where Highland Park is going as a community. I talk to community leaders all the time about different ideas. It’s great, I love it!
GS: You mentioned your teahouse, Madame ZuZu’s, which has become a Highland Park institution. What’s your favorite tea drink, hot or cold?
WPC: I’ve been really partial to the Rose Noir tea. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a very hot summer. But on a good summer’s day, that’s a beautiful drink to have. The first time I ever had true Rose Tea was at the Savoy in London. I was sitting in the vaunted tea room drinking rose tea, in this historic place that even George Harrison references, and I remember thinking, “One day, if only I could…” Years later, I have my own teahouse and I’m sitting on my front porch at Zuzu’s drinking Rose Black tea. It’s a real pleasure.
William Patrick Corgan will perform in Chicago at the Athenaeum Theatre October 24 & 25.