Noted poet, activist, psychotherapist and occasional INtown contributor Franklin Abbott has recorded his first album, “Don’t Go Back to Sleep.” He’ll perform selections from the double CD at a free concert and reading on Monday, Aug. 21, at 7:15 p.m. at the main branch of the DeKalb County Public Library in Decatur, 215 Sycamore St. The event is being co-sponsored by Poetry Atlanta and Georgia Center for the Book. I asked Abbott a few questions about his process in making the album.
After publishing several acclaimed poetry collections, why did you decide to record an album and set some of the poems to music? How did you select your own work and the poems by others that you interpreted? What was your thought process?
I am an aural poet. I write with my ear. I hear poems before I write them. Sometimes I hear melodies to the lyrics. It made sense to me to record a selection of poems from each of my books. I think they are better heard than read. I came to the songs in different ways. Half a lifetime ago I took a songwriting class. I do not play a musical instrument but I had a little hand drum. I also had a freshly published volume of Rumi’s poetry translated by Coleman Barks. I used words from Barks’ translations and my little drums to craft five Rumi songs. I carried these around in my head for decades. I also carried a song I wrote to a William Blake poem. Every now and then another poem, one of mine or one by another poet, would sing in my ear. After I started working on recording the songs two more came to me. One by my mentor, the late James Broughton and another by Shakespeare, “Sonnet 36.” I had been assigned “Sonnet 36” for a marathon reading of the sonnets hosted by Rupert Fike at Java Monkey. I found the sonnet to be a tongue twister but could render it fluently if I sang it.
Were there musicians, music, or similar projects that inspired or guided you as you made your album?
I love to listen and I listen to a lot of poets read their work. I also enjoy listening to singer- songwriters. Most song lyrics don’t do well as stand alone poems and most modern poems don’t necessarily lend themselves to music. When good poetry and music come together the impact is quite powerful. James Broughton’s poems were musical. I sang some of them in the Broughton centennial celebration. They had been set to music by a cabaret singer named Ludar. I have also read lyrics in poetry readings. Jobim’s “The Waters of March” is quite an amazing read.
Tell us about the recording process. Was it more difficult than you thought? What were some of the high points?
I was lucky to record with Ken Gregory at Atlanta’s 800 East recording studio. He is a master and made things look easy. I watched him mix and master at his control panel and it was absolutely magical. I came in well rehearsed with very fine musicians who had excellent rapport with each other. I wanted everything to happen live and 95 percent of what you hear is live recording. The most takes on any song was three and some were done on the first take.
Who were the musicians you worked with and why did you select them?
I have know and admired jazz pianist Jez Graham for years. Jez was Francine Reed’s musical director and played frequently with Col. Bruce Hampton. He is simply a musical genius, though a humble one. I approached him a couple of years ago with the songs and we rehearsed and rehearsed until we had sophisticated arrangements. I had also worked with bass player Vlamir Abbud before on a concert of Jobim songs. Emrah Kotan is a very fine percussionist who like Rumi, whose songs are central to the album, is from Turkey. Jez, Vlamir and Emrah know and admire each other. They were delighted to work together and all had worked with Ken Gregory. Ken is also a master musician and when we needed guitar or horns he contributed. These guys took me on a wild ride that was both terrifying and exhilarating.
What can people expect from the live experience?
Something different every time. On the 21st I will be performing with Ken Gregory. The Decatur Library auditorium lends itself to something more acoustic. Ken will play guitar with me on a number of the songs I sing and I will share some of the poems that compliment them. Ken and I will also perform together at the Decatur Book Festival on the Java Monkey stage. I will perform with the other musicians at future events. Hopefully, the ensemble will reunite in the near future for a full performance of the album.