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Interview: Harry Shearer 

Will Coviello talks to the man whose new album, Can't Take a Hint, is a mashup of comedy and music

click to enlarge Harry Shearer lends his musical gifts to humor and parody
  • Harry Shearer lends his musical gifts to humor and parody

Fans of This is Spinal Tap know Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls) has musical chops. He's not just a comedian, voice of many characters from The Simpsons, host of the syndicated radio program Le Show and documentary filmmaker (The Big Uneasy). He's received several Grammy nominations for previous albums — but all in the comedy category.

  Shearer's latest album, Can't Take a Hint, set for release Aug. 27, also is a comedy album, but Shearer has done more on the music side than ever before.

  "Before I was busy just singing," Shearer says. "I figured that when I was singing, everybody else had to be so much better than me."

  He still has a great lineup of musicians on Can't Take a Hint, but in addition to singing some tunes, he plays bass on many. On what may be described as the record's only viable single, "Autumn in New Orleans," he sits back and lets Dr. John handle the vocals. The track also features trumpeter Nicholas Payton, drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Roland Guerin, and Shearer, who wrote all the album's lyrics.

  "I have always been a fan of Hoagy Carmichael, and he had written a couple of wonderful New Orleans songs." Shearer says. "I scanned around and there were a couple of autumn songs, but no one had written this one. So I thought I'll make my move now. I am hoping WWOZ plays it."

  David Torkanowsky and John Fischbach recorded it at Piety Street Recording. If that's any indication of how serious Shearer was, the rest of the liner notes bear out his commitment. The band Fountains of Wayne perform on several songs and there are appearances by Tommy Malone, British jazz singer Jamie Cullum, bassist Danny Thompson and soul singer Alice Russell, as well as Shearer's wife, singer Judith Owen. The album also heavily features pianist (and Tulane University alum) Charlie Wood, guitarist/composer Bruce Gaitsch and C.J. Vanston (a professional musician who also has backed Spinal Tap).

  Shearer released Songs of the Bushmen in 2008, and the collection of comic tributes to various George W. Bush administration officials drew a Grammy nomination. Shearer toured briefly with a hand-picked band of ringers called the High-Value Detainees, which included noted session musician Leland Bruce "Lee" Sklar (who has worked with James Taylor), Vanston and Gaitsch. He may recruit the same trio to play promotional shows for the new album, and this time Shearer has chosen the band name Young White Coconuts (from a sign he saw in Whole Foods Market).

  With the exception of "Autumn," all the songs on Can't Take a Hint are humorous. Most of them concern politics, and a few mock musical conventions. "Your Thing" is about bad pop songs, and it includes a rap from Shearer.

  "It's a song about how dumb a pop song can be and still exist," he says. "Just repeat the same thing and have a two-note melody. Simplicity and repetition. And did I mention the simplicity and repetition?"

  Some of the material may seem familiar. Shearer originally wrote "Joe the Plumber" during the 2008 presidential election, when Samuel Wurzelbacher (aka "Joe the Plumber") became a conservative spokesman and figure. When Wurzelbacher announced his current run for Congress, Shearer updated the tune. There's also a song ("Bridge to Nowhere") about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin quitting in the middle of her term. And "Touch My Junk" is a country song about TSA airport screeners getting too close for comfort.

  Shearer has released five previous comedy albums, the last four on his own label, Courgette, and two were nominated for Grammys. The Spinal Tap album Back from the Dead (2009), which included original songs from the movie and other material, also was nominated for a Grammy.

  Long before Shearer broke into acting or comedy, his parents sent him to piano lessons, beginning at age 4. His teacher forced him to read music instead of playing by ear, and the lessons continued on and off for years. In his late teens, Shearer picked up a bass guitar and started playing along to records and the radio.

  The first band Shearer joined was Spinal Tap, which was created for a sketch on an ABC TV show in 1979. From that, Rob Reiner and bandmates Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel) and Shearer worked up the idea for the 1984 mockumentary/rockumentary.

  The three bandmates created their second band, the Folksmen, in 1984 for a Saturday Night Live sketch. It wasn't until 2003 that they made the folk music mockumentary A Mighty Wind. Originally, the Folksmen played gigs to see if they could pass and eventually were invited to conferences.

  "The Folksmen weren't going for laughs," Shearer says. "We figured they'd hear the music and think, 'I don't remember them.' But they'd be tapping their toes. That's the reception we got."

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