A Conversation with Jimmy Buffett

We catch up with the seemingly ageless bard of the beach. Plus: Listen to a track from his new album.

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Jimmy Buffett appears on NBC News' "Today" show, Aug. 15. 2013.

Jimmy Buffett adds to his considerable pirate treasure with constant touring: traveling carnivals-slash-beach-blanket blowouts of friendly grass-skirted hedonisms. His shows are as constant as the tides, the stars and — to be slightly less romantic about the whole thing — the receipts at the end of each. But why not? At 66, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band are still good for nearly 30 songs a night, and no one’s better at suggesting escape and rum drinks are just a snap decision away.

But before he was able to convince Midwestern concertgoers they were actually watching the sun drop in someplace like Bora Bora, Buffett was an easygoing, windblown and well-lubricated storyteller from the Gulf Coast, a guy who came up in ‘70s age of Steve Goodman, John Prine, and James Taylor. His new album, Songs From St. Somewhere, out Tuesday, speaks to that; aside from first single “Too Drunk To Karaoke,” a honky-tonk number with Toby Keith, it’s a quieter, more narrative-driven effort. A few tracks on the album—recorded in St. Barts—revisit familiar Buffett-ian themes: the benefits of solitude, the isolating effect of technology and the idea of coming full-circle on things. There’s also a margarita.

Buffett talked from his Long Island, NY home about retirement, Michael Jordan, Willie Nelson and…surfing

Wait, you were really surfing this morning?

Yeah, if there are waves, I’ll be out there. It’s crowded out here [at Montauk] but the conditions were right, so I was in the water at like 7:30. It’s a passion first — well, some would say it’s an affliction rather than a passion, but whatever it is, I’ve got it. I’m an old-fart surfer, but it keeps me in shape and it generates some interesting byproducts in the way of song lyrics.

This album seems to be less about hangovers and frozen cocktails and more about stories and song lines. Was that the idea going in?

I’ve always said I don’t find stories from talking about them, but if you can listen and hear and look around you and be observant, that ability — along with the chance to record in a place like St. Barts that’s been conducive to creativity — made it work. And I like albums that have a musical thread, a story thread. There’s 16 songs on this thing, but when you own the record company and you don’t have a lot to prove, you put them all on there! As Ry Cooder said, “You don’t know what the public’s gonna buy,” but I’m happy with it and proud of all the people who contributed to it.


Mailboat Records

It feels like it was recorded in some very relaxed, comfortable environs.

Maybe 30 years ago, I took a tape recorder to the shore there at St. Barts and rented a room at Eden Rock — I think I was working on “Off To See The Lizard” then. But there was no place to record remotely except Montserrat. Now there’s a state-of-the-art studio at that same hotel where I brought the tape recorder 25 or 30 years ago. We did all the vocals in that studio in St. Barts.

The title is a full-circle thing too.

Yeah, “St. Somewhere” came from Derek Sanderson’s bar in Boston [Buffett’s 1979 track “Boat Drinks” was inspired by a late-night Boston winter cab ride, minus the cabbie; it features the line “I gotta fly to St. Somewhere”]. I’m a full-circle guy, I like to complete a story, go back to where it came from.

Do these ideas come fully formed, or is there a lot of editing these days?

I think this may be from prose writing, but they get a lot of editing. There’s two kinds of people in rock  n’ roll: The people who enjoy going into a studio and spend a lot of time and money there. And the capture-the-magic people. I was always a capture-the-magic person because I was always a live performer. I didn’t like to stay in the studio, and maybe some of the older albums suffered from that, but I had to work and get on the road. I always figured that was my way not to be engulfed or obliterated by the way the music business is run. Now you can do just about whatever you want. Two or three of the vocals on this album were original scratch vocals; after redoing things (producer/guitarist/sideman) Mac (McAnally) and I listened to them the feeling was there. The song “Einstein Was A Surfer,” that was almost a novel, that was five or six months of writing. There’s a lot of rhyming in there!

A lot of people look at Jimmy Buffett and think “That’s what I want to do when I retire,” but it doesn’t seem like you’re looking to retire from being Jimmy Buffett.

You know, Willie Nelson came out maybe a month ago and played a club in Montauk. When I was a struggling songwriter in Nashville, Willie was one of the few people who cut a few of my songs. We played a few songs; I wanted to see what 80 looked like on stage, because I’m 66.

And we were talking about it, and Mickey Raphael, who’s played with him forever and who I’ve known forever, told me a story about how last year the band had a big meeting with Willie on the bus where they asked, “Look, you’re gonna be 80 here, and we’re wondering what we’ll be doing if you’re thinking about retiring.” And Willie looked at them and he said “From what?” [laughs] I got a license to carry marijuana, we’re playing music and traveling and seeing the country, the kids are grown and happy. Retire from what? And if that applies to Willie it sure as hell applies to me, because I’m still having a good time, I still enjoy the creative aspect I’m a junkie for applause. As long as I feel that then I’ll stay there.

Do you ever see any different kinds of shows, smaller, maybe more centered on these story songs?

We do them now, we take what we call the Beatle band, the four-piece band. We opened one of our casinos playing on the beach in Atlantic City, it was a free show and 51,000 people showed up. I love the big band but I still like to know that I can get up there with a guitar in a small bar and hold a crowd. I do it a lot, more than people would even think. I’m not the best singer in the world, certainly not the best musician, but I know how to do a show. That’s the essence of what got us here. You don’t have to look far to see who’s still out there: It’s McCartney, and it’s Springsteen, and it’s us and a couple other people. Not to say younger people can’t do it, but things change. I love the fact that I come out of that era, and I think people who did know that every show should be a challenge. And boy, I can tell. I’ve been doing this too long I can look at shows and go boom, see the take-the-money-and-run-shows. You can tell.

Jimmy Buffett performs at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, on May 3, 2012.

Douglas Mason / Getty Images

When people stop you, ask for advice, for Jimmy Buffett’s keys for living, is there a standard answer you give them?

In music it’s two things: Never forget to duck, and never forget it could go to hell at any minute. Otherwise, it’s just keep your ears open more than your eyes, and listen and look. it all goes by too short. I’m going to my youngest daughter’s 21st birthday today and I’m thinking, “When did this happen?” You just gotta live it every day. It sounds cliche.

But how do you keep up that enthusiasm, summer in and summer out?

This stuck with me: I saw Michael Jordan interviewed after the Bulls had won maybe their third or fourth championship. And Jordan was kind of choked up and there was some reporter asking, “Come on, you’ve won all these championships, does this really mean that much to you?” And Jordan looked him cold in the eye and said, “Let me tell you what: I was there when there was nobody, when I got off the train and was met by one guy. I played to that venue where there was 400 people, and I never want to see those days again, and I appreciate everything from that point forward.” And that’s exactly the way I feel about it. I was there when nobody came. But now it’s still running and we’ve tricked them (laughs) and made it through the gauntlet and we’re still having a good time.

I mean, who gets to do this? Detroit went bankrupt, and on the next day we sold 41,000 tickets. And I went, “What the hell am I gonna say?” I’ve always appreciated Michigan audiences, they’ve always been there for me, so I just got up and said, look, there’s a lot of great people in this city and state, you’ve got a good future ahead and why not start the next year with a party? And I cranked up, and they went crazy.

LISTEN TO: “Einstein Was a Surfer” from Songs From St. Somewhere (on sale August 20)