|Ruthann Friedman at the Marina Del Rey Jetty|
At Marina Del Rey Jetty on Via Marina and Pacific Avenue, Marina del Rey
Whenever Angelenos say, “Oh, I never even go to the beach,” they’re just trying to be cool or there’s clearly something wrong with them. Being so close to the ocean is one of the best traits of this city. This is a sentiment that singer-songwriter Ruthann Friedman (primarily known for penning the Association’s 1967 hit single “Windy”) definitely agrees with.
“How can you get any better than this?” she asks as we walk along the water at her favorite spot, the Marina Del Rey Jetty. “Watching the power of the ocean, the tides, it puts things into perspective.”
As a 40-year resident of nearby Venice Beach, Ruthann first discovered this haven when she owned a little boat and would go sailing for fun.
“I used to go up the channel and out until the houses were just this big. I had to stay in view of the houses because I don’t know how to navigate. I would let the sails go, sit out there and it was almost like being on another planet,” she remembers. “When I was pregnant, my husband and I used to walk down here – me and my big belly. This is also the place where my youngest daughter and I used to come all the time. Even on a crowded beach day, nobody comes to this beach and it’s beautiful. When it’s a clear day you can see the mountains and the view is just extraordinary.”
She continues to visit the jetty on a regular basis just to soak in the nature that inhabits the area.
“I always hear a seal but rarely see it. Sometimes I think it’s just a record, like the recordings of dogs barking that people play at their houses to chase burglars away, because I try to find it but never see it,” she says with a chuckle. “There are lots of heron, egrets and sandpipers eating little crabs. I’ve seen hundreds of pelicans on the wall of rocks, taking turns getting fish. There is the Least Tern nesting area [pointing]. They put a fence around it so that the birds could nest, but what they didn’t figure on was cats! Cats didn’t care that they had a fence.”
Ruthann spent four decades in retirement from music, dedicating her life to raising her two daughters and earning her college degree (She graduated magna cum laude from UCLA in 2007.). However, when her 1970 debut album, Constant Companion, was reissued eight years ago, it sparked renewed interest in her talent, catalog and overall mark on the folk movement. Artists such as Devendra Banhart sang her praises, compilations of unreleased rarities she wrote from the 1960s through 1971 called Hurried Life and The Ruthann Friedman Songbook were released and Ruthann once again started creating songs. She just released Chinatown, her first new recordings in over 40 years, over the summer.
When asked if she had spent any of those years writing, Ruthann quickly replies, “Nope, I was raising my kids! I’ve always kept journals, though, which is probably why I still had my writing chops when I started writing songs again. After being an English major I became much more critical of my own lyrics, so now writing a song takes me a lot longer than it used to. I like metaphors a lot – who doesn’t like a good metaphor? – but it really has to mean something.”
While Ruthann became known for her songwriting, she didn’t actually start composing until she was in her late teens. Most of her childhood was spent getting lost in books and the songs of others.
“I loved it all. I read every Grimm’s and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, all the Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh books. Reading, playing the guitar and learning songs were my escapes,” she confesses. “When I came to L.A., my teacher was a jazz guitarist. He taught me technique, chords and how to read music. Then I played the upright bass in the junior high orchestra because I was the biggest girl. That was a lot of fun.”
Having been born and raised in the Bronx until age 10, the Pacific Ocean and shimmering swimming pools of Southern California were wondrous to the young Ruthann.
“My brother was just starting UCLA, and we rented a house in North Hollywood for a year that had a big swimming pool. It was so great because you don’t have swimming pools in the Bronx, then we bought a house in Sherman Oaks,” she recalls. “But as soon as I was able, I went over the hill. My dad was not a happy man. My whole family has a tendency towards depression, but thank god for antidepressants.”
While her brother and sister both went to the University of Chicago, Ruthann “just smoked dope and got in trouble” as the hippie movement was coming to life around her.
“My sister was 10 years older and my brother seven years older, so the times were a-changin.’ I had a lot of fun, but I also had a lot of problems,” she admits. “There were good people and bad people, but as far as social norms, it was a revolutionary time for women and minorities.”
Sixteen-year-old Ruthann started playing Bob Dylan songs, old blues covers and some of her own compositions at places like Barney’s Beanery and “Hoot Nights” at the Troubadour. She spent time venturing up to Big Sur and San Francisco, befriending the likes of Janis Joplin, Country Joe and Jefferson Airplane, before returning to Los Angeles where her friendship with Van Dyke Parks eventually led to an introduction to the Association.
“I met Van Dyke through guitarist Steve Mann when I was still living in the Valley. [Van Dyke and her] were kids together, having lots of fun. We walked around the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire on psychedelics,” she laughs. “Then, during the Watts Riots, I was living with the Association near Western and Melrose on the edge of it all. That was scary.”
Ruthann’s stories about life in the L.A. area could fill an extra large tome. She actually wrote “Windy” while living in David Crosby’s basement in Beverly Glen. She’s lived in Palm Springs and Laurel Canyon, but Venice is her favorite neighborhood of all.
“It makes me claustrophobic being in the city now. I like to feel cozy in a spot, like the jetty where I can get to the water. On Wednesday nights they have a sailboat race, and I come to watch them,” she says. “There’s a great little club over there [points to the marina] that my friend plays at some nights called Whiskey Red’s. My youngest daughter, who is a doctor now, would go to Santa Monica Playhouse, a professional group over on 4th Street that put on children’s workshops and productions. When she was fourth grade, she ran for student body president, and out of 1,000 kids they elected this fourth grader as president. At an event she was up at the podium making a speech and was totally fearless. Her energy and enthusiasm, I attribute it to the Santa Monica Playhouse.”
Bidding adieu to the ocean, we get in the car to grab some lunch at Ruthann’s favorite local restaurant, Tlapazola Grill, and she tells me about her feelings for the city.
“I was 10 when I came here, so Los Angeles is my hometown. Trafffic – I can get from Downtown to here using all the side streets because I know the city so well. I love it, and I hate it,” she admits. “I go up and visit my friends in Northern California, and it’s so beautiful up there, but this is my home.”
We order two bowls of Ruthann’s usual, the Lemon Chicken Tortilla Soup, with big chunks of lemony chicken, queso fresco and diced avocado, and I ask her if Los Angeles’ Chinatown is the one that inspired the name of her new album.
“Whichever Chinatown you’re in, there’s always a mystery about it,” she replies. “I’ve been reading a lot of novels about Shanghai and how the Chinese came to America, Los Angeles especially, and what the community was like. The culture was so different, and that’s the mystery, interacting with a different culture in this country with so many cultures together, being able to retain your culture and still be a part of a different culture. Maybe we’ll make this a culture that includes all cultures, not a stew but a salad where everybody can get along. In a salad you can still taste a tomato as a tomato, but it goes very nicely with the green onion.”
Relationships with musicians of all genres is something that Ruthann has maintained even throughout her years away from the scene. Chinatown is evidence of that.
“Making the album was such a fun experience. It’s different hiring someone to play than having them say, ‘I want to play on this,’ and that’s what happened here,” she tells. “In fact, Aaron Robinson said, ‘I want to play on that,’ so he and Yvette Dudoit drove up with me to [Chinatown producer] John Muller’s house in San Jose to record. Aaron plays guitar, banjo and lap steel mandolin; my bass player is David Jenkins; David Goldstein added some drums; then I called Van Dyke and said, ‘I really need your style,’ so he came in and played piano on two and accordion on one.”
The album – mixed at the studio of another of her longtime friends, Jackson Browne – is a mix of many sounds, from jazz to folk, and features one cover, “Springhill Mine Disaster” written by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, that was inspired by recent global coal mine disasters. We have a bit of a laugh over one of Ruthann’s original tracks on Chinatown, “iPod.”
“I wrote that song before the advent of the Kindle. My husband had bought a Kindle, and I scoffed at it. But now I read on the Kindle,” laughs the lifelong bookworm. “I would read anything that was handed to me, and I still do now. I get lost in them; they were my escape when I was young because you never knew what was going to come through the door with my dad. I just reread Galapagos because I love Kurt Vonnegut. I love Margaret Atwood. I read a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth that was great and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I just read the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd who wrote The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a wonderful book based on a real woman.”
Aside from filling her Kindle with new titles to read, Ruthann is already working on another album.
“Chinatown has so many different genres squished together, so I’m trying to have this album go in one direction. I’m going back to my roots a little more with fingerpicking, bluesy kind of stuff,” she reveals. “I get lost playing the guitar, something strikes me and I play it more to see where it leads. That’s how I write songs, and then the lyrics come out of that generally.”
While she laments how certain L.A. venues have changed over the years and the “same old, same old” homogenized sound of popular music today, Ruthann Friedman is completely happy with her place in the grand scheme of it all.
“I appeal to a certain segment of the population; not everybody is going to love my music or lyrics, and that’s OK with me. I have long since lost any desire to be a big star. I’m quite happy to just do what I do, to get to record and play. I’m content with my life,” she says. “So many people want to be the star, and so very few people get to be the star. At a certain age you either have to be content with your life and happy with who you are, or you’re just going to be miserable because you didn’t get to be a star. I know a bunch of people who became stars, and although it’s cool that they have lots of money and can do whatever they want, I wouldn’t want their life. I’m sort of reclusive, I like to read and I wouldn’t want to be traveling all over the place all of the time. I’m happy with my life, and I have good friends – people who encourage my creativity rather than squelch it.”
Chinatown is currently available. For more information, visit ruthannfriedman.com.