“Changed the Locks” is written in a poetic scheme, though, isn’t it?
Yeah, but he didn’t think that that was the way to write a song. Needless to say I was very disappointed and disillusioned. I immediately got out my Neil Young, Bob Dylan [albums] and I said, “Screw him, whatever.” And I just kept going. But I got turned down by everybody until the Rough Trade thing. So that’s why I still didn’t feel secure about my writing.
Usually what people were saying around that time [too], all through the ‘70s and early, mid-‘80s when I first came out here, they would say, “You’ve got a lot of soul, but you need to work on your stage presence.” [Laughs] I was always so shy on stage.
Did you ever consider being a songwriter exclusively without performing?
So it was always going to be you or nothing.
Yeah, because I like the feeling of singing. And when I first started out I wanted to be like — not sound like her, but — Joan Baez. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were my two musical heroes when I was first starting out. They were involved in the whole anti-war thing and I was too when I was a teenager in the ‘60s and all that.
You’ve often said that Flannery O’Connor was an early influence on your songwriting. You actually met her when you were a kid, right?
Yeah, but I barely remember; I was only four…. I got introduced to her writing when I was in my teens, probably 15 or 16.
That had to have shaped the way you then approached the language.
I just recognized a lot of what she was writing about from growing up in Southern towns and everything. I was really drawn to that whole Southern Gothic style of writing.
There was a lot of empathy in what she wrote.
Yeah, empathy for the forlorn and forsaken…
Your songs have that empathetic quality too, whether one like “Blue” or “Are You Down.”
My dad taught me a lot about that. I was always like that from the time I can remember. I was always one of those kind of kids. Like, I remember walking home from school when I was about eight or nine, saw this little bird. I don’t know if it was wounded or dead — I don’t know — but I picked that little bird up and walked all the way home with this bird. [Laughs] I guess I buried it or something. I would always make friends with the ugly duckling in class, you know, that kind of thing.