by Jane Roser
Chuck Prophet has a cool swagger and a distinct, purposeful voice that blends Leonard Cohen with a smooth bourbon. It’s easy to see why icons such as Heart and Solomon Burke have recorded his songs- they’re gritty, honest and pure rock and roll. Stephen King is a huge fan calling his song “Rise” “lovely, incantatory and mysterious”. Prophet’s production credits range from the Jace Everett (“Bad Things” made famous as the theme song to True Blood) album Red Revelations to Kelly Willis’ Translated From Love.
Growing up, Prophet was initially inspired by radio and records, but wasn’t thinking of music as a vocation, even when he started taking guitar lessons. “I like to tell people that where I grew up in Orange County, if you shook a tree you’d find guitar players would fall out. I grew up during a time when music was just everywhere.”
Attending concerts at a club in a burnt out synagogue in San Francisco called The Temple Beautiful (also the title of his 2012 album), Prophet was blown away the night he and his friends saw five bands play, including The Mentors. They were all different in their own way, but the common thread was the way they all put it out there on the line expressing themselves, which impressed and inspired him.
A true renaissance man, Prophet joined country rock band Green On Red when he was still a teenager and spent eight years touring with them before striking out on his own. His current album, Night Surfer, released September 23rd on Yep Roc Records, is Prophet’s 13th solo album and looks “into the psychology that makes living in San Francisco unique.”
Recorded in his hometown of San Francisco at Decibelle Recording Studio and in Nashville with producer Brad Jones, Night Surfer is the most layered album Prophet has ever created. “For some reason the previous record (Temple Beautiful) had songs that just didn’t want to be as layered or as produced,” explains Prophet, “so it was a pretty stripped back record, but on this album, we just listened to what the songs wanted and a lot of it was influenced by British glam rock, so there wasn’t the typical string section or choral background.”
When I ask if all of the tracks were written specifically for the new album or if some had been floating around for awhile, Prophet, ever witty and eloquent with his words tells me, “well, they say in the film business: there’s the movie that you write, there’s the movie that you shoot and there’s the movie that you edit, so I think this record is no different.”
As the songs came together, Prophet decided what worked and what didn’t, explaining that “sometimes you just have to take the tires off of one car and put them on another.” “Love Is The Only Thing” has been in circulation for awhile, but most of the other tracks were written specifically for Night Surfer.
“Felony Glamour” was a song that struck a chord with me because I knew this person. I really did- in the late 1990s I worked at a hat shop in Alexandria, Virginia and one employee was a young girl everyone called Felony because she was so beautiful and such a heart breaker, she spelled trouble for all the male admirers she had. I don’t even remember her real name. Prophet got a kick out of this story and told me how he’d written this song with Kurt Lipschutz, who initially came up with the title.
“We were writing this record that we thought was kind of like a dystopian novel and we had all of these characters, so Felony Glamour’s name was up on the wall and one day she just asserted herself and worked her way into a song. At a certain point, all you gotta do is get out of the way.”
“Wish Me Luck” was one of the first singles off the album and the charmingly eccentric music video stars actor Robert Longstreet (Pineapple Express, Take Shelter) and was directed by Ryan Browne. “We had wanted to make a video for awhile,” says Prophet, “but we didn’t really have any concepts that were blowing us over. The best ideas are usually the simplest and I just realized the guy in the song is just this over-confident, loveable Kenny Powers kind of guy and I immediately started thinking about this character. We only had two days; Ryan lived in L.A. and I lived in San Francisco, so we met in the middle. We had a car, a hotel and an actor (Longstreet) who I was able to get through a friend of mine. Ryan is the one who really gave the video it’s heart and it was great to work with a real actor.”
Prophet just finished a successful European tour and is looking forward to his show at World Cafe Live on November 23rd. “For the first few records we put out, we mostly toured in Europe,” says Prophet. “For one reason or another, we didn’t have a strong presence in the United States, but after a few records, we decided to give it a try. We bought a van that had over 100,000 miles on it and started playing in the States. One of the reasons I’m fond of Philadelphia is that it was one of the first places we played. We would all squeeze onto the stage at the Tin Angel and there are people who have stuck with us over the years, so that’s pretty cool.”
Ever the gentleman, Prophet is gracious and kind, thanking me for taking the time to speak with him. Wishing him a happy holiday, Prophet replies in his Leonard Cohen-y voice, “right back at ya girl- see ya on the flip side!” which totally made the rest of my day not suck.
Prophet is a prolific songwriter, an original champion bad ass and as Kenny Powers would sass: “a true champion, face to face with his darkest hour, will do whatever it takes to rise above. A man fights and fights and then fights some more. Because surrender is death, and death is for pussies.”