Robbie Baldock spent an hour or so talking with Chris in the Summer of 1998. The results of their conversation are reproduced below.
Could you tell me a little about your own musical background and that of the rest of the Dedrick family, particularly the other members of the Free Design?
We grew up in a musical family, my father [Art Dedrick] was a trombonist and an arranger who had a lot of success in the 40s. But later in the 1940s when he was still a young man he had polio and he therefore had to stop with the touring and travelling with the big bands and so on. So he began teaching and he realised that there was a great shortage of music for school musicians to play so he started a publishing company called Kendor Music. He continued to have a band in the West of New York area and his wife, my mother, was also a music teacher and played piano and French Horn. So we grew up listening to good music and they were particularly fond of big band jazz and we all took musical instruments when we were young, all six of us – there are six siblings altogether in the family. Sandy was my eldest sister and she was really a fine pianist she did really well – she even studied in Europe for a while when she was in University. Then she moved to New York City to teach music in the schools there. My main instrument was trumpet and I came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Musicand actually was staying with her when we started the Free Design. The other member of the Free Design, my brother Bruce, at the beginning was a trombonist and at that point he wasn’t going into music as a profession or as a teacher or whatever although he was doing some playing. But he loved to play guitar and we used to get together and sing Peter Paul and Mary songs and other folk songs and just harmonise for the fun of it. And it was when I started writing some songs specifically for us to sing with three part harmonies but instead of just doing it in head arrangements I started writing out a little bit more contrapuntal form of vocal writing – I’d been very influenced by hearing especially the Hi-Los. So, as soon as I began to write songs, the group all of a sudden had a sound and kind of an identity and that triggered my father’s imagination in terms of what might be able to happen with us and he sponsored us for a demo recording. Then he got the tapes taken around to record companies – this would have been around 67-68 – and we immediately had a few offers. So it was really his publishing company which became our management and the publisher for all the songs that I wrote.
And that was Almitra?
That’s right – which was really a subsidiary of Kendor.
Was the Free Design your first venture into song-writing?
Yes, it really was. It was the first time that I tried to write songs and it seemed to be as the songs were created the Free Design was created, along with this vocal sound which was a result of the family blend. You can’t really label the togetherness that happems from just having grown up together.
Were you writing any poetry before that or was that really the first time you’d written anything?
Of any real significance. I might have dabbled a little bit during my teens writing a little something or other. But it was when I went to the Manhattan School of Music that I did get interested in writing a little bit of poetry. I had been writing music for concert situations, both jazz and classical, already but this was really my first foray into songwriting.
And was it also your first venture into recording?
In any serious way. I had done a little bit of recording in Buffalo but this was certainly the first time as a solo artist or group artist or anything on a really top professional level. I probably had spend a maximum of an hour in a studio before the Free Design!
Were all six siblings of the Dedrick family involved in the Free Design?
It started with the three because we were all in New York together and my younger sister Ellen was still in high school and I also had younger sister, Stefanie, who was in high school. When Ellen graduated she came down to attend Hunter College in New York City and she immediately started singing with us. My dad talked it over with me and with Sandy and Bruce and said she’d been singing in high school and she was very dynamic and said she would love to do it. But he said that we would have to look after her as she was still young but actually she was quite an addition and she came in right after the first album. She was on the second album You Could Be Born Again. The younger sister, Stefanie, sang much much later. She sang at one of the last Free Design concerts. And then she became a founding member of the Star-Scape Singers
Was Jason involved at all?
He was involved a little bit as inspiration for some of the songs, especiallyMy Brother Woody. He played the ukelele and sang – he was just a little fellow, about 8 years old when this was happening. He did play the trombone in High School and he was very musical but he didn’t take up music in further studies or anything like that. He still plays the trombone actually and some guitar. He works as a computer research consultant in San Diego.
I also know that your uncle, Rusty Dedrick, played trumpet on at least two of the albums. Did he play on all of the albums?
No, but when we wanted somebody with a bit of a jazz feel we got him in on sessions. He was making albums under his own name at that time in New York. He’d been playing with wonderful bands: Red Norvo, Claude Thornhill and so on and then when I was in the service he actually became a sort of musical director since I was not on the scene all the time and he played and led, in a sense, the group in some concerts.
Was your father involved in the music?
He was always at the recording sessions and lent a wonderful ear – he had a fabulous musical ear. He was very very quiet but you could always count on him letting you know if anything needed to be known.
THE FREE DESIGN
Q: ‘The Free Design’ is a very unusual name for a group – was that your idea and how did you come up with it?
It was a collective creative experience. I remember sitting in New York in my dad’s hotel room, he was down from Delevan. We all were sitting around tossing around words by the hour: Bruce and Sandy and Dad. I can’t remember if it was Dad or I but somebody came up with the word “design” and we really liked the word “design” that kind of caught our attention and we were looking for something that would go with “design” and we went through a whole lot of adjectives and words and all of a sudden it just clicked when we hit the word “free” and we said “free design” and that was it!
Q: How did you become involved with Enoch Light and Project 3?
We went with Enoch Light for various reasons – the offer was a clean offer in terms of not feeling that we were playing into somebody’s already predisposed idea or agenda of what we would do for them. It really felt like we would be able to develop what we were doing and that wasn’t true of every offer we had. He also had a tremendous reputation for the quality of his product. He also came from that big band era and I think there was an affinity there, so we jumped.
Q: Were you aware of him much before that, was he quite a famous figure?
Yes, he was quite famous. His bands were considered very commercial bands compared to let’s say the Basie bands or the Ellington bands but he was very highly respected and had accomplished a great deal not only as a band leader but of course everybody knew about Command Records. Not everybody knew he had a label before Command Records which was a children’s album label and he then had Command which was tremendously successful. He sold that and called his third project Project 3.
Q: Did the Free Design make any recordings before Kites Are Fun?
Kites Are Fun and Proper Ornaments were on the very first session we ever did and that was released as a single. In fact, I was so surprised to hear it on air one night when I got home because I was quite sure the album wasn’t out yet and I didn’t know they’d already got the single out. Of course, I immediately called the radio station and thanked them for playing the record. It was quite a thrilling experience to actually hear yourself on the radio all of a sudden. And immediately the DJ,Scott Muni at WNEW, had me on the air and he interviewed me between songs for about 45 minutes just spontaneously.
Q: Did you release quite a few singles over the years?
I think that usually they had a single on the go. I think over the course of the six albums there must have been a dozen singles – they would usually pick out one or two from each album.
Q: For part of the website I researched the chart successes of Enoch Light’s recordings and, to my surprise, the Free Design appear to have been entirely absent from the Billboard Top 40 (both LPs and singles). From a singles point of view especially, I found that quite surprising because you would have thought that a single like Kites Are Fun must have been a Top 40 hit.
In certain locales it was – I think it make No 1in Buffalo on a Top 40 station there and there were other Top40 stations that played it. But, nationally, we hit the Top 100 but never the Top 40. I was told it was largely because we were having what was called a “turntable hit”: we had the airplay but we didn’t have the sales. And we ran into distribution problems because we learned that Project 3 was set up for MOR album sales and it wasn’t really set up to push a single out into the stores fast enough to generate the sales necessary to push it up the charts.
Q: On that question of distribution, all of Enoch Light’s activities were of course based on the east coast so I wonder whether the records were nationally available.
In theory. But we found that even on the east coast so many people would come up to us and say “We hear you on the air and we love it but we can’t find your records!” So, distribution was certainly a problem – I think it was a new period that the record industry had gone into at that point and some of the bigger companies had figured out how to do this.
Q: Was that same success story (being more of a local phenomenon) also true of the albums or did they not sell quite as well as the singles?
No, I think the albums sold better than the singles because they had that longevity and they [Project 3] could gradually get them into the stores. I seldom hear anybody saying they collected our singles but I hear an awful lot of people say they collected our albums! Well, the albums are very hard to come by – I’ve only managed to get hold ofStars/Time/Bubbles/Love.
Q: How were you received, both by the media and the record buying public?
Because we were not very “showbiz” people we got a very nice response – like attracts like I guess. We reached a lot of really warm and receptive people who had obviously something of a very positive experience with our music. We kept hearing that and as a result of that we did the Johnny Carson Tonight Show but we did a lot of shows with Mike Douglas who was a wonderful warm person and we did a lot of Arthur Godfrey radio shows. We did some Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin and so on but we seemed to gravitate toward the people who were family oriented and who didn’t care that we didn’t wear a lot of glitter and dance around a lot.
Q: One question which I’m sure a lot of Free Design fans would want to ask is how the lyrics came about. Some people might listen to the Free Design and think that it was the result of indulgence in hallucinogenic drugs or something(!) but my own feeling is that you were emulating that style but without resorting to drugs, just using the ‘stream of consciousness’ style approach to lyric-writing.
You couldn’t help but be influenced by the freedom and the peace and love, the whole concept that was happening in the late 60s and to me it was something very wonderful. But I never felt you needed drugs to be in that state and I was never into drugs and none of us did drugs to do concerts or anything like that: it just didn’t fit our approach. But I felt a great affinity for all kinds of recording artists who were trying to go deeper than commercial rock ‘n’ roll or commercial MOR and they were trying to get between the words, behind their usual thoughts and there were things in my lyrics that in a way were quite naïve and in another way were trying to be open to influences that are always there but are maybe hidden in nature, hidden in music, hidden between the thoughts.
Q: I could probably talk to you for hours about where the lyrics for each song came from.
There’s a nice thing about the Varese release which is that there’s a little bit about where each song came from on that – what was inspiring the lyrics – from an interview with Elliot Kendall some of which was used in the liner notes. So that’s helpful in terms of going song by song. But that’s a whole book, in fact I’ve been thinking about doing a little book about the lyrics, tying them in with experiences at the time as kind of a slice of that period.
Q: You mentioned in correspondence that you were also thinking of doing a Free Design songbook – would that be part of the same project?
It could be the same project or it could be a different project. Right now two or three publishers have been approached to see if there’s any interest in doing a songbook and I am working on putting the materials in order to be able do one – I think it will happen.
Q: This would certainly be a good time since there’s so much happening on the Free Design front.
I know, it’s just amazing!
Q: Getting back to the song-writing, did you see each album as having an overall concept?
I think that there really was although it wasn’t all that planned. I certainly didn’t sit down and say well this album is going to be about… like an Abbey Road concept or something like that. It wasn’t like that but I think as each album was written in the same period and there were certain influences and experiences that were very ripe at the time of each one, they did tend to come out with a bit of a theme. For example, the second album You Could Be Born Again, which had nothing to do with a Christian interpretation or sect or anything like that – in fact I called that song “Beginning” and it was Enoch Light who said there’s a line “you could be born again” he said that’s a great title, why don’t we use that title? But the whole idea of that album revolves around a kind of rebirth. For example, my cousin died in Vietnam and the Elegy song was written for him and there was a sense of the rebirth of the group now that we had Ellen so it was a new sound from the three. So, it seemed that a lot of the songs started to weave themselves into that fabric.
Q: There is a subtle but strong spiritual aspect to a lot of the songs and there’s a sense of a Christian feel to some of them but I was wondering whether that was true or whether it was a more general human spirituality you were trying to address with the songs?
Yes, I think it was having the roots of a traditional Christian background and then coming to a realization in the middle of one’s teens that obviously it’s not limited to any particular church, or even any particular overall religion. There are certain universal truths and I remember feeling at the time, as many people did, that there were certain universal truths that had to be behind all the beliefs of all these different churches – and I don’t just mean Christian churches but worldwide. I was already searching and I know other members of my family were already searching for “what it is”, you know, the questions that you seem not to be able to always get answered in church because there’s a certain belief system in the church but it doesn’t necessarily answer your questions. So, we were all searching for some kind of universal truths or at least the next step in what might be the “meaning of life” or “purpose of music”. All those questions certainly were, and remain for me, the core of my life.
Q: I guess that’s something that’s quite strongly behind the Star Scape Singers.
It is, I think that the Free Design was a delving and searching and questioning and coming up with some right answers and some wrong answers even. The Star-Scape experience was taking that into a more classical approach. My inspiration was to write some music to the poetry of the Canadian musician [Kenneth Mills] who was doing this spontaneous poetry on the very topics that I was so interested in, ie: music and life and soul. So that’s when that gelled.
Q: Was it always chiefly yourself that was writing the lyrics or did the other members of the Free Design have much input into the song writing?
Well, if I wrote a song I didn’t really co-write or get involved in collaborative work although I did collaborate with Sandy. In a way, I think now looking back with a little more maturity I wish I had somehow found a better collaborative sense. I think I was just too young to know how!
Q: Was that the same for the music?
Q: One of the things I really like about the Free Design is the juxtaposition between almost childlike lyrics with very sophisticated arrangements – not just the vocal arrangements but the whole orchestra. You were very young at this time and it’s almost hard to believe you could have written them!
I had been writing arrangements since I was 13-14 years old and started to write things for instruments – I just loved writing for instruments and I was always trying to figure out something interesting and unusual for them to do. And of course it was a wonderful training ground as well as a chance to try out these ideas with these wonderful musicians in New York who were the best – they could make anything sound good. I was always being encouraged to go ahead and try something different. So I was able to do some pretty interesting arranging!
Q: I think the Free Design albums must have the most rich and complex arrangements of all the Project 3 output. I can’t think of anything else that rivals them.
A lot of people felt that that was a highlight for them. In a way, the arranger side of me as a composer is always one that is central and attracts me because I think a lot of composition does have to do with just the technique of arranging.
Q: You’ve already mentioned the Hi-Los but I was wondering which other arrangers you were particularly influenced by.
For sure the Hi-Los and I was very influenced by the big bands. I mean there’s just so much amazing music: you think about the Sauter Finnegan band or the Don Ellis Orchestra or all these amazing bands that were trying something quite different. I used to go to listen to Yusef Lateef who was a classmate of mine at Manhattan School of Music. I was also influenced by Benjamin Britten and other composers of the 20th Century who had found a way of making tonality work in a new harmonic vocabulary. So just everything that I listened to pointed to discovering the magic of what happens in combinations of notes, melodies, rhythms and harmonies.
Q: When I first started listening to the Free Design I was actually reminded a lot of the Carpenters. But, of course, the Free Design had recorded most of their albums before the Carpenters even had their first hit! Do you think you were an influence on them and perhaps some other bands as well?
I’ve heard that we were. I’ve never spoken with Richard Carpenter myself but I’ve heard that they listened to us and were influenced and I think that other people have said that.
Q: Most of the Free Design’s output consisted of songs written by you but there were also quite a few cover versions. What factors governed your choice of songs to cover or re-arrange?
Those were a combination of ideas that would come from Enoch Light and sometimes from other people involved in the production from his company or my dad or something that would catch our ear. But I think a good number of them came from suggestions from the record company. They were always putting a lead sheet or a song book in front of me and saying “let’s get a few good covers on this next album, look through these” or “how about this song?”. So I would usually try to look at how I would arrange each of them and choose the ones where I could grasp an idea right away that would make them work for the Free Design.
Q: The sound of the Free Design conjures up in my mind images of the sunny west coast but of course you were all based in the east so I was wondering whether you were deliberately trying to emulate a west coast sound or were you just tapping into a more general 60s sound?
I think we were influenced by that but I also think also at the same time were influenced by what I would call the “Blue Hill sound” which was just the fresh air and the sun and the wonderful country that we grew up in western New York state which was just beautiful rolling hills and I think a lot a lot of the naïveté and the freshness of sound came from that. I had been once to California for a summer camp but I can’t say I was thinking too much about being influenced musically by the west coast [laughs]! So it was “Blue Hill Music”!
Q: A new musical genre!
Q: Did the Free Design ever perform live?
Yes, a lot of TV shows.
Q: Did you do concerts?
Quite a few – we did a lot of concerts. We did University concerts, we did some clubs and we did concerts with symphony orchestras and quite a few through the years.
Q: How did those work? Did you use a lot of the same Project 3 session musicians?
No, generally we had to do the concerts with a small group and we played ourselves. I played piano and guitar and Sandy played some keyboards as well and Bruce played some bass and guitar and we had a drummer. Later, when the group became just my sisters and I, we had a drummer and a bass player who travelled with us. Sometimes we had extra musicians, sometimes we did concerts with whole symphonies.
Q: That must have been extraordinary!
Oh yeah, it was. It was really something.
Q: Were recordings made of any of those?
Well, I used to have a tape of one we happened to do in Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve heard that others were taped. We did Eastman, the Rochester Symphony, Potsdam, Buffalo Philharmonic, Norfolk Virginia – fairly good orchestras but I haven’t been able to find any tapes. I’ve been looking for them actually!
Q: Did you go on conventional tours across the country.
It was pretty much run-outs – small group of concerts in a row in an area.
Q: Did you travel outside the States?
Not really – but we did do a Christmas TV Special with Pat Boone in Canada!
Q: What led to the Free Design leaving Project 3?
Well, I think after six albums we just felt that we were not getting anywhere and at one point we felt that they were going to slow down on the recording schedule and so on and we felt things had levelled off and that we should go off and try to do something different. So we did get out a little bit early, but very amicably, and the result was that we did do an album [There is a Song] for a smaller label in upstate New York. But it was pretty well the end for the group in terms of being able to hold it together. Everybody was growing up and had lives and families and things.
Q: I was going to ask about that last album. That was on Ambrotype wasn’t it?
Q: How was that different from the Project 3 recordings? Did you use other musicians?
We used other musicians and some good ones but it was a little bit smaller in terms of orchestration generally. We had excellent musicians and a good studio engineer and so on. We did a fair bit of it here in Toronto with the same engineer that had been in New York for the children’s album. It’s kind of a cusp album as we were already heading in another direction. But a lot of people really like that album.
Q: I’d like to hear it if I can ever find a copy!
Well, we’re working on getting it licensed. Great!
Q: Is there much unreleased Free Design material from the Project 3 sessions?
No. Almost none – we did a couple of solo things with Ellen that came on single but didn’t become an album. But I don’t think there was anything that wasn’t released. I can’t think of anything.
Q: Having spoken to other people like Dick Hyman and Tony Mottola I gather there wasn’t much wastage on studio time.
Yeah, that’s right. We used to do 2-3 songs in a 3 hour session while people down the hall were taking 3 days to do one song!
Q: How do you look back on the Free Design period – do you look back with affection?
Oh, with great affection – in fact I was moved when I listened to the Varese compilation. I hadn’t listened to this stuff in a while and just heard it in order from top to bottom with a lot of fondness and a lot of positiveness. You think of course “I could have done better” but at the same time I’m quite pleased with what is there and it did offer something quite worthwhile and I learned an awful lot from it. I feel the love of the family and those times and there’s a lot of good vibes in that for me.
Q: Which would you say is your favourite Free Design song?
Very very hard to say – that’s a tough one. I really like the first album because it seems to be so un-self-conscious and I like that naïveté. I really like quite a few of them I like Don’t Turn Away a lot, I like My Brother Woody as simple as it is I really like it. There’s a few I’m not crazy about but then I listen to them again and, yeah, I guess they’re alright, don’t be so down on it!
Q: Are you or any of your brothers and sisters still singing any of these songs?
Not at this moment – not over the last few years. There’s a little talk of maybe it would be fun if the records did sell well that it would warrant doing a little something and we’d probably do it.
Q: That would be nice.
It would be great – I think it would sound amazing actually.
You’re all still singing aren’t you – I imagine your voices have matured really well.
Everybody’s got a really great voice so I think it would be quite amazing.
ENOCH LIGHT PROJECT 3
Q: I’m curious to know what kind of man Enoch Light was to work with. How much of a free reign did you get as composer/arranger and to what extent did Enoch dictate the overall sound?
He gave us a lot of freedom and we basically came into the studio with the songs and the arrangements done and he heard them, often for the first time. In the case where there were cover songs he and his staff would sometimes get involved in helping to choose those. But as for the arrangements and the style and the original songs and so on he felt that he should leave that with us because that was the way to have it youthful and fresh and unique and so on. So that’s one thing we liked very much about working with him and he was very encouraging in the studio. He was of course looking for something that he felt would catch on but he understood that he was from another generation in terms of listener so he really gave us a lot of freedom to pursue that.
Q: I take it he was usually there at the recording sessions.
Yes almost always.
Q: When I was speaking to Dick Lieb he said that sometimes Enoch Light would actually lead the band. Was that the case for any of your recordings or was that something that you would do?
No, he always stayed in the booth. He never did lead the band on any of our sessions partly because it was just such a different kind of music than he was used to. But I’m sure on some of the other big band things he could well have done that. In this case he kept a hand on the talk-back keeping the session moving and he worked as a producer in the sense of helping to guide the pace of the session and so on. But he did defer quite a bit to us in terms of whether it was a take and whether we should move on and all that sort of thing.
Q: Were you yourself leading the band when you were doing your sessions?
I would lead the band and conduct the arrangement and then usually I would go in the booth and the band would then play the arrangement with me either giving some cues from the booth or just following the drummer because usually we’d rehearsed it and the chart was there and it was all there in the ‘phones: they were hearing us, we were hearing them and we just performed it together.
Q: Were the recordings done wholly live or were the vocals recorded separately from the rest of the band?
In fact most of the vocals on the first album and somewhat from then on the actual live vocals were the final vocal and a lot of them didn’t even have any overdubs. As we got further into it and we were recording material that was newer to us we would always sing live with the band but then we would often go back and do other performances and choose the best one. At that time we were on 8 tracks so you couldn’t just do as they do now with track after track and piece together something. We had maybe two tracks at the most to work with so we had to really get a good performance.
Q: Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Enoch Light’s recordings, apart from the sheer quality, was his tendency to be very audacious with the stereo arrangement of instruments. Were you interested in that at all and were you encouraged to experiment with it?
Not really – we were after the ping-pong kind of things that happened where people were showing off what stereo could do. People weren’t that keen on that, they just wanted to hear a beautiful stereo spread of sound. So the engineers when we were in the mix just tried to create a beautiful, rich, warm surrounding kind of sound without playing too many stereo games, we stayed away from that.
Q: I know that you wrote the vocal arrangements for at least two other Project 3 album, namely Spaced Out and Tony Mottola’s Warm, Wild and Wonderful. Were there any other Project 3 recordings that you arranged the vocals for?
No. I don’t believe we did any for any of the other artists.
Q: For the Tony Mottola album, I see that the vocal group is credited as ‘the Groovies’ – is that the Free Design?!
Yes! It was. I don’t know why – for whatever marketing reasons the record company decided not to use the Free Design name on that. I’m not quite sure why. I guess they didn’t want us to appear to be too middle of the road, too identified with the MOR market and when they were trying to break us more into the top 40 market so they felt the association with Tony might not work in our favour. That’s my guess.
Q: As to Spaced Out, how did you find that because that’s a fairly unusual record!
Yeah, it was [laughs] – I have to hear it again it’s been a long time since I heard it!
Q: What happened between making There is a Song and the formation of the Star-Scape Singers? Was this the time you were in the US Air Force?
Actually, some of the Free Design recordings for Project 3 were done while I was in the Air Force: the last couple were. I went into the Air Force when were doing Heaven/Earth – we finishedHeaven/Earth and I went right into the Air Force. There was one that we did that I came out of the Air Force to do. Then One by One we did just after I was out of the Air Force and I was still living in Washington DC for most of that. Then I moved to Canada and we did There is a Song while I was in Canada and then it was a couple of years after that that Star Scape began to work.
Q: When I read that you spent some time in the US Air Force this came as quite a surprise – it’s not something I would have associated with someone who had been in the Free Design! I know you ended up working with the Airmen of Note jazz band but did you see any active service?
Well, what was happening was that as soon as I got out of Manhattan School of Music I lost my student deferment, I got a draft notice and I would have had to go into the army. That meant almost positively that you would end up in Vietnam. At the same time I got a letter from the Airmen of Note in Washington saying that if I were to enlist I could be the arranger for the jazz band there and so it seemed to me to be quite a gift, so I said OK, great! So I did my basic training and got through that and then I went and lived off-base and had a very nice job writing arrangements for the Airmen of Note and a few other of the performing groups there in Washington and was able to get out after two years. So it was the best possible situation for those days.
Q: That sounds like a lucky escape.
It really was, very much so.
Q: When and why did you relocate to Canada – did you always have connections there?
I had only really one acquaintance up here so it appeared to be a rather odd thing to do. But I was certainly looking for an alternative to moving back to New York City which was not a great place to live at that time – I didn’t enjoy it there. I was looking for something less dirty and less tense and more healthy. I had dreams of being more in a country setting. So, I visited my friend who was actually a recording engineer who had moved up from New York. He had been a recording engineer on the children’s album – his name is David Green. I came up and visited him and fell in love with the feeling of the place and everything here near Toronto. I bought a house in the country and moved up in 1972.
Q: What led you to record a solo album? When did you record the album and what happened to it?
Well, as the Free Design was winding down at that point I had an acquaintance who wanted to be a business manager and try to work with me – he was also from upstate New York. So we gave it a whirl and he did some promotion and he did some dealing to try to get me to record an album. I was going to do the master recording and he was going to go out and sell it. Unfortunately, he didn’t really have the know-how and he made some mistakes in terms of how this was put together and the whole thing for various business reasons just went sour and so at that point I just paid off the studio bills and just let it sit. I just thought “well, OK I’m going to get on with my life and not worry about that” and it’s kind of ironic that now all these years later it looks like it actually might be released!
Q: I was going to ask about that. I know there’s one track on the Varese compilation, is there a chance the whole album might be reissued?
Yes, they’re interested and so far there’s been a very good response to that one song that’s on the compilation. So, yes, they are interested and are working on that and I have hopes that it will happen.
Q: Was that an album of all your own songs?
Yes, that was completely original.
Q: Was it in a similar style to the earlier Free Design recordings?
It’s a little different of course being a solo album and it’s another chapter in terms of lyric content and so on. But there’s still obviously a connection in the writing.
Q: Was it entirely solo or did you have other musicians and vocalists?
There were other musicians – quite a few actually. I had a nice string section. I was able to get a grant from the Performance Society up here to help pay for some of that. I had a good rhythm section, actually some of the Free Design rhythm section that played on One by One and I had some back-up vocalists on a couple of tunes and the rest of the vocals were solo.
Q: How and when did you first become involved with the Canadian musician and philosopher Kenneth George Mills?
A drummer friend of mine had met a piano student of Kenneth Mills and he heard that he not only taught piano but he was giving some lectures. So he decided to go and listen to one of these lectures at a meeting room in a hotel. He was quite impressed and thought it was quite wonderful and came and told me about it. This was a drummer who had played with the Free Design and had also moved to Canada after I did. So, based on his recommendation, I went and heard one of the lectures and that’s how I initially heard about and met Kenneth Mills. I was also very impressed with the content and the delivery and it was something I think I had been looking for and we immediately became friends. He was an older man and because we were both musicians he really became a mentor and a friend. So, initially we began to talk about music and then we began to do music.
Q: So, you were actually involved with the inception of the Star-Scape Singers?
That’s right. In fact my sisters and I were the core of it because he began to help us with everything from vocal technique to writing. I was setting some of his poetry to music as well as my own and he was coming up with ideas and we began to co-write in a rather unique way where I would bring something and he would offer other possibilities and different chords and changes and melody notes and so on. It became a totally unique way of studying composition for me.
Q: Would I be right in thinking that everyone who sang in the Free Design also moved on to sing with the Star-Scape Singers?
Well, my brother had left the Free Design a few years back so it was my sisters and I. But, yes, we were there but then pretty soon my younger sister started to sing and turned out to have an amazing soprano voice. Kenneth Mills is a fabulous vocal instructor and has a way of just opening voices very instantly to an amazing range and flexibility. Stef had Gs and As and Bs above high C and there was another woman who was singing in clubs who was around at the time. She became the other soprano at that time in the group and also had incredible flexibility and high range. My sister Sandy sang alto and there were a couple of Mr Mills’ piano students who joined in and pretty well none of them had ever sung before. There was a drummer who joined in who had an amazing bass voice that opened up incredibly. So before long it became ten voices.
Q: And have you been pretty much constantly involved with the Star-Scape Singers since then?
Well, we did a lot of touring in Europe and we played Carnegie Hall a number of times and we’ve toured in the States and we did a lot of concert series in the winters up here in Canada and so on from the late 70s through the 80s. Then in the early 90s, 90-91, I left the group just to do the writing and I still compose and arrange things for the group, I’m still close to them. But I haven’t been singing in that situation since then, though my sisters still are.
Q: And are they still very busy?
Star-Scape is very high calibre but it’s not a full-time professional group.
Q: By a strange coincidence, the movie Pigeons was shown on British television not long after I made contact with you last year. I gather this was the first film for which you composed the music.
Yeah [laughs], along with some other composers.
Q: How did that come about?
That came about through Phil Ramone who gave me entrée to a number of situations as a young writer in New York. He was getting more and more into producing and not just being an engineer. He was involved in producing the music for the film and he was working with a few composers and he managed to get me involved in that one. There were a few people involved with that one but there was another film that we did with him where the Free Design was involved and I think I did the lion’s share of the writing.
Q: Can you remember which one that was?
Happiness Cage – I think that’s the one where we were on the way to a concert and I had written all this music and the Free Design and the rhythm section all came up practically stayed overnight at A&R studios and recorded the soundtrack for Phil. But Phil Ramone was the one who helped me to get into those things.
Q: Had you always wanted to get into film?
Well, at that point that was way before I had started to do it in any volume. It was early times where I did some – I was writing some commercials and things so I was learning to work with film but, no, at that point it was kind of just one of many things that were possible to be done. It wasn’t until mid-late 80s that it became more of my profession.
Q: And am I right in thinking that’s now what you do pretty much all the time when it comes to composing and arranging?
I would say it’s certainly more than half. I’m doing some arranging and composing for the Canadian Brass and I just did some charts for Art Garfunkel. I’m still composing and arranging things for other recording artists. So that goes on but the main part of my work and income does come from television and film and I would say the majority for some time now has been television but I’m working on a feature right now. Film and television have become a lot closer to each other these days in terms of jobs than they were ten years ago.
Q: Speaking of Phil Ramone, I’ve just remembered that his name also appears on the some of the Star-Scape Singers’ publicity. In what way was he involved?
He recorded the first album. He came up to Canada and was the recording engineer for the first album the Star Scape Singers recorded which was called On this Rock and he was very keen on the group and helped to give it a start in that way.
Q: As I’m sure you are aware, the Free Design have recently started becoming more popular again, particularly in Japan where all six Project 3 LPs have now been reissued on CD. You will also be aware of the recent Spanish compilations and the compilation from Varese Vintage.
Q: I believe all this activity is long-overdue but does it surprise you that the spotlight is once again falling on the Free Design?
Well, it’s a bit surprising although it something that I always held as an image that something might happen with these recordings, and they might somehow be rediscovered because they were not really like anything else. I get interesting emails from people – I just read one last night from somebody who had heard Kites Are Fun when he was 6-7 years old and had spent years and years trying to find out who it was that recorded it but never found the record. Then finally, when he was 20 or 25, he found the record in a garage sale and took it home and played it and wept and was just so moved by it. I remember stories even back when we were first recording, one from this man who had an amazing healing from a nervous disorder that he’d had from World War II and he could just put our records on and it would take care of the problem. I don’t know, I’ve always felt there was a kind of magic, even in an embryonic form, in what was there in spite of us rather than because of us because we were really just doing one step at a time what we could do and so I’ve always felt it could find its audience again and maybe even a bigger one.
Q: The Japanese reissues on the Trattoria label were, I gather, a result of efforts by two of your most ardent fans over there, Yasuharu Konishi (of the Pizzicato Five) and Keigo Oyamada (who records under the name Cornelius). Have you heard either of these bands’ music?
No, I’ve heard about Cornelius and someone just recently told me about this connection and I really would be very keen to hear what they’re doing and I hope I’ll get over there to meet them.
Q: You’re obviously still very busy composing and arranging but are you still performing at all?
No, other than the occasional conducting situation, for example I sometimes conduct commissions that I have written, whether it’s for for children’s choir or concert band or orchestra I often conduct and I also often conduct in the studio. But other than that, I haven’t been performing for some time.
Q: Do you still get a great deal of enjoyment from music?
Yeah! It’s pretty much the main chunk of my life [laughs]. It’s great, I love it.
Q: Are the other former members of the Free Design all still involved in musical expression?
My brother’s an incredible teacher in school and he has a band of his own but I think his main satisfaction comes from teaching 5th and 6th graders to play. I’ve just heard tapes of what he’s done – they’re just beautiful. It’s incredible what he does with the kids. My sister is teaching and singing all the time and my other sister is singing all the time and also working. So, yeah, the family’s still very much into music.
Q: You mentioned previously the possibility of some concerts?
There’s always that possibility and I think everybody’s open if there were the demand. I think everybody’s life is pretty full so I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to go out and try to create that demand but if the demand landed in our lap I think there would undoubtedly be some kind of response, maybe to do an album or to go out and do some singing. Well, thanks very much for speaking with me Chris, it’s been a pleasure! Thanks for taking the time!