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Avant-garde music legend John Cale talks about his album 'Mercy'


In March 2020, John Cale was in Brazil playing festival shows with his band.


JOHN CALE: (Singing, inaudible).

SUMMERS: That's them on March 14 in Sao Paulo. Of course, COVID lockdowns were sweeping across the world, so Cale and the band cut the tour short and caught one of the last flights back to the States. Cale threw himself into his next project, recording a new album.

CALE: My studio was in shambles because it was about to get remodeled. And nearly every piece of gear I owned was locked away in a pile of rubble. So I rummage through my house and find bits and bobs here and there. And I found a new appreciation for some beat-up, old analog keyboards, alongside a few things that I had never played before.

SUMMERS: Cale is no stranger to making music in unconventional ways.


SUMMERS: In the early '60s, he left Wales and moved to New York City, where he fell into a blossoming experimental music scene. A few years later, he co-founded The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed. And ever since, he's been a stalwart of avant-garde music. But as he put this new album together, he realized he needed more than just different instrumentation to make it work.

CALE: When I came back from Brazil, the album was written already. And I was trying to figure out who could add more intrigue into the album.

SUMMERS: So he called up some friends like the singer Weyes Blood and bands like Sylvan Esso and Animal Collective. The result is a highly collaborative record called "Mercy," which is out now.


CALE: (Singing) I know you're happy when - I know you're happy when I'm sad.

SUMMERS: So what stuck out about some of these collaborators that made you want to work with them?

CALE: Most of the artists that joined me on the tracks, they had their own atmosphere to them. And I didn't try and push them in any direction. I just let them be and really inhale the spirit that they brought to the song. The emotion of the song really was joined by their performance. Weyes Blood has a very deep and emotional voice. She just warms the track. And Animal Collective really has this multi-voice personality. So I laughed a lot when we did "Everlasting Days."


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: (Singing) If I say I'm sorry...

SUMMERS: What made you laugh?

CALE: Just the quality of the voices that were there and how they sometimes abandoned what the traditional approach to the melody would be. It was really part of the process of many different voices coming to terms with many different ideas in the song.


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: (Singing) Days, days, those days, days...

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you about another one of the collaborations on this album, and that is the song that you did with the band Sylvan Esso.


SYLVAN ESSO: (Singing, inaudible).

SUMMERS: The song is called "Time Stands Still." And I'm hoping you can just bring us into the studio and into your process. How did that one come together?

CALE: I've always enjoyed Sylvan Esso's style of harmonizing and I was hoping that our paths might cross. But as I was putting the finishing touches on this song, I got a call saying Amelia and Nick were in LA and would love to drop by and say hello. And it was then I thought that the perfect time to see if they'd want to guest on the track that I was working on. I guess that's the perfect example of serendipity, but it was a natural fit. And I couldn't be happier with the results.


CALE: (Singing) Was the hook that caught the fish...

SUMMERS: I talked with Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso last year. And one of the things that I remember from their conversation that they both told me is that when they're creating music, they're constantly trying to surprise one another with the work that they create in separate, and that with their latest record, one of their goals was to really discard all of the rules, everything they knew about creating music and to really release themselves from conventions. And I wonder if any of that showed up for you in the collaboration that you had with them.

CALE: Well, I was lucky to have as much time as I did with them. And I don't pay attention to convention. And because I depend so much on improvisation, I don't stand listening to things for very long. I don't repeat choruses. I don't - the idea of the song doesn't depend on choruses that repeat themselves. And I also - I'm short-tempered, unfortunately.


CALE: And I don't - I really want to have as many new ideas as I possibly can in a song.

SUMMERS: This song is one of a couple of different places on this album where I hear some trap or hip-hop influence coming through, both in the drums and the rhythm. Was that deliberate?

CALE: Yes. Yes. I mean, I sort of fell in love with hip-hop. It has so many lively approaches to songwriting. Hip-hop is the avant-garde of today.

SUMMERS: How so?

CALE: They have unconventional approaches to emotions and creativity. They have no respect for solos and for all the other usual trappings that you have in songwriting.


SUMMERS: You've said that you always try to, quote, "create music beyond the premise set before." Do you find that hard to keep doing after all of these years of creating? And do you feel like you've done that with this album?

CALE: Yes, to the last question. But I realized a long time ago that you've got - improvisation is your way of - if you start a song with just any kind of melody or rhythm that you have, you don't just stop because you haven't got a solution yet. You're better off working at it and helping it advance its ideas, whatever they are. And your audience is then your friend.


CALE: (Singing) I can't even tell when you're putting me on. We've played that game before.

SUMMERS: You have been working on this album for some time. Your career has spanned years. I just want to end by asking you, what's next for you?

CALE: Well, yeah, it took 2 1/2 years to do, so I'm now going out on the road. And I don't want to summarize what I've just done. I mean, I have this uncanny kind of idea that if you go and end up in a corner that you feel uncomfortable in, something will happen and you will come up with a solution. So that's kind of my mantra.


SUMMERS: That's John Cale. His new album, "Mercy," is out today. John, thank you so much.

CALE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CALE SONG, "NOT THE END OF THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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