Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Soundtrack to Protest: An interview with David Rovics

By Matt Dineen

I was in high school the first time I saw David Rovics play. His politcal folk anthems helped contribute to my growing consciousness of global justice issues, radical history and social change. Several years have past and David has gone on to travel the globe on countless tours supplying a rousing soundtrack to protests and activist conferences wherever they pop up. He has also written hundreds of new songs as there is no shortage of material lately for politcal musicians. Now David has a new album out and is beginning to tour once again. Before he took off we had a chance to discuss the recent changes in his life, Middle East politics, and the state of activism today.

When we last spoke, you discussed how working as a full-time musician--booking your own tours and playing internationally--was the equivalent of running a small business. How has that operation changed this past year now that you are not booking your own shows? Has it given you more time for other pursuits?

It's been wonderful working with Jen Angel (from Clamor), who is doing booking for me, for sure. Given that she has no background in the business, it's not changing the kinds of gigs I'm doing or anything, but it is giving me more free time which has pretty much all been taken up by my baby daughter, Leila, who was born last January 28th. I thought I might find more time to read books and that sort of thing, but that hasn't worked out so far. I'm still touring as much as ever, and I find I just have a bit more time to be human on the road rather than being constantly glued to my laptop doing booking-related email.

What other changes have happened in your life this past year?

Well, I've written some new songs, done a lot of work on the new CD and DVD, done lots more touring in North America and Europe, spent several weeks touring in Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied West Bank last September, and various other things, but certainly the birth of my daughter has been the most exciting development. Especially now that she's a little older: big difference between 4 months and 7 months, you know, they're much more interactive and they don't spend all their time sleeping anymore.

There seems to be a debate within activist communities around the efficacy of building community through travelling vs. "laying roots" by staying in one place. What is your take on this as an activist musician who is constantly travelling? How do you reconcile being essentially placeless?

I guess the debate also goes on to some extent among musicians, too. It seems to me generally that we need a lot more of both community organizing and laying roots as well as the traveling rabble-rousing kind of thing, big national and international demonstrations, etc. Lots more of all that would be very good. To me it seems like the idea that one is more effective than the other is a bit like saying broccoli is more effective than spinach. For people in my line of work, though, I'd say that the decision is largely made for us. You can't really make a living doing original music, whether political music or not, and stay in one place. You have to travel. It goes with the job. So basically if I thought staying in one place were more effective then I'd have to get a day job, or play background music in bars, and I have zero interest in either of those things, so I'll keep traveling.

You're a political folksinger in an increasingly politicized era. How have the global events of the past 5 years affected your work? More specifically, how do you deal with the dilemma of tragic world events being, in a sense, "good for business" in terms of creating and performing the music you do and building a fanbase?

I'm not entirely sure how good for business it is. I suppose among my niche market it's good for business, but generally, the vast majority of musicians are really marginalized by the music industry, especially political ones. As far as I can tell the folk music scene is pretty terrified of overtly political musicians these days, and so we're even marginalized within our own musical genre. Basically, I don't think any of us are doing it for the money!

In theory, if a large segment of the population were to wake up and smell the coffee, people like me could really do well, and I'd welcome that, and I'd deal with the contradiction: "The more bombs they drop, the more CDs I sell" kind of thing. But as it is, this is not happening. My audiences are not growing. In fact, they may be shrinking, but it's hard to tell, since they've always been small. Especially since February, 2003, people have just been retreating more and more, aside from a brief period during the presidential election when some people with Kerry buttons were coming to some of my shows.

In terms of my writing, the past 5 years have led to me writing even more songs about U.S. foreign policy, and fewer songs about IMF/World Bank protests, 'cause they have virtually ceased to exist in the U.S. since 9/11. But I was writing a lot of songs about Iraq, Palestine, etc. before 9/11, not because it was fashionable in the mainstream or even on the Left, but because it seemed important to me. Inexplicably, so many of my friends in the late 90's who were organizing against the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc., didn't seem to know where Iraq was or what the sanctions were. Now everybody knows where Iraq is and most people have forgotten about the IMF. It's really pretty depressing.
This interview was originally published on ZNet. Matt Dineen is a writer and activist living and working in Northampton, MA. For more information about David Rovics visit