Episode #145 — Orchestrator Extraordinaire Van Dyke Parks

We don’t play favorites on our podcast. All of our guests have something unique and interesting to contribute, and that’s why we love talking with them. But every once in a while there comes along a guest that makes us stop and think about life’s bigger questions. That challenges our perspectives and inspires us. That makes us want to work on our vocabulary so that we can throw out the perfect turn of phrase at just the right moment. Or, oddly enough, makes us wonder whether Luke or Heidi would be more likely to wear seersucker. (And I think our listeners know which one would. Heidi doesn’t even make the top three in the Why? team to wear that fabric. The order obviously goes Luke, non-German Rachel, and Captain.)

So who has inspired such big questions in our neck of podcast land? The answer is this week’s guest, Van Dyke Parks. There are a lot of adjectives that could be ascribed to Van Dyke Parks — American orchestrator, songwriter, producer, philosopher, storyteller, global citizen. But he’s so unique that it feels strange to even try to describe him. After listening to this week’s episode, we know you’ll see what we mean. At the bare minimum, Van Dyke could be called a music arranger and orchestrator. But that definitely would be underplaying things, considering throughout his career he’s been asked to join such bands as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Byrds; and The Mothers of Invention. And he turned them all down. And while Van Dyke has a great saying from his friend, Ringo Starr, about the exercise of name dropping, it’s definitely worth mentioning that one of the songs he orchestrated is the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations.” He’s worked with artists including Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Little Feat, Inara George, Kimbra — as well as releasing his own albums. So whether you’ve heard his name before or not, you’re familiar with the work of Van Dyke Parks.

Van Dyke has a strong point of view and a sense of purpose about the role of music in society. We were particularly taken with his statement that “music is not a decorative device.” He talked with us about how the beauty of music can — and should — be a clarion call for meaningful change. Van Dyke also addressed how stringed instruments can evoke feelings and be relevant. (We challenge anyone who has heard a beautifully arranged swell of sound from violins, violas, and cellos to remain unmoved. Go listen to anything arranged by Van Dyke… we’ll wait!)

Our discussion with Van Dyke took us on a great cultural journey. He shared with us how many composers highlighted the traditional music of their countries (and other countries, as well), by orchestrating folk songs. Through that process, folk music is not only preserved for their respective countries, but people all over the world get to hear traditional Mexican songs, Czech music, or even discover how “Londonderry Air” produced “Danny Boy.”

We don’t want to give too much of Van Dyke’s interview away, but it contains poetry recitations, live piano performances (including an anecdote of how Steinway used weddings to sell pianos), and an urgent call for Americans to embrace multiculturalism. He spoke with us about his latest album, “Van Dyke Park Orchestrates the Music of Verónica Valerio: Only in America.” Van Dyke has an abiding love for Hispanic music, and you’ll be fascinated by his descriptions of making an album in quarantine with singer-songwriter Verónica Valerio, a musician from Veracruz, Mexico. In fact, after hearing this episode, you’ll be ready to run out and get his new EP. And we’re giving it away to one lucky listener. You’re welcome! Just go to whythepodcast.com, sign up for our newsletter, and cross your fingers that you’re the winner. (If you’ve already signed up for the newsletter, thank you and you’re already entered. Perks!) But if you don’t win this particular give-away, do yourself a favor and purchase the EP. And if you need further convincing, go to our YouTube channel for video of our conversation with Van Dyke. You’ll come away from it feeling inspired, hopeful, and ready to create. You’ll also find Van Dyke tweeting every day, so be sure to follow him! We’re off to look for his performance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” with the Kronos Quartet. It’s a rabbit hole we’re excited to go down, even if it gets our seersucker pants wrinkled.

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