The newest album by Ray Davies finds him in a reflective mood. As a young man, he wrote some of the defining songs of the 1960s and '70s with The Kinks. Now in his 70s, the British musician is looking back with Americana, a new album based on his 2013 memoir of the same name. Taken together, the book and record amount to a self-portrait of a man whose music once flooded American radio.
Davies spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep about his experiences in the U.S. and the evolution of his songwriting. Read an edited transcript below, and listen to their full conversation at the audio link.
Steve Inskeep: Often in your book, you'll be giving some narrative and then suddenly, there will be several verses of a song. I'm curious if that's a representation of what actually goes on in your life as you move about. Do lyrics pop into your head?
Ray Davies: Well, they do. I think in song. That's something that's evolved over the years: I've got this soundtrack going around in my head and I'll write a song for any kind of situation I'm in. Not a great song, but kind of background music to the world.
When I listen to your early stuff, it's really simple: It's one thought, maybe repeated 20 times. But if we advance a few years, you have stories with more specific characters and tales being told. And later on, you're writing books. How did that happen?
Well, "You Really Got Me" — not much research to do on that.
That's my point!
But then I was asked to follow it up with other songs, and I had no real life experience. So I wrote about people who I knew in my neighborhood: the well respected man; dedicated followers of fashion. I was learning about the craft of writing and it became fun. So the songs I write now, the new songs on this record, are taking writing a step further for me.
Did you consciously take on the United States as your main subject here?
Well, it's called Americana, which isn't the United States, really — it's an emotion. It deals with our history in America, which, as you know or may not know, was kind of fluctuating between good and bad.
In the '60s, the Kinks were effectively banned from performing in the United States because of alleged misbehavior on stage. Once you made it back to America, you reveled in it — even living in New Orleans for a while. But that ended unhappily for you in 2004, when you were shot by a street mugger. How did you get shot?
With a gun.
As people tend to be. What kind of a day was it? What was happening at the time?
I'd just arrived in town, and it happened just out of the blue; you can't explain how these things happen. It's well-recounted in the book and I suggest you read it.
What time of the day was it?
It was a really beautiful day. It was the day they had a football game in town, and the police were occupied looking after the crowds. Just an empty street, and suddenly somebody came along, shoved a gun in my face and I chased him down the street. He got in a car, turned around and shot me. Need I say more?
You didn't want the guy to get away with it. You went after him.
It's a flight-or-fight situation. You never know how you're going to react until you get there. My instinct said, "Get the guy and bring him down."
I think you've been kind enough to tell me a little bit of a story that it sounds like you really don't like telling, even more than a decade later.
Yeah, it's one of those moments that sticks with you, because the summation of lots of things happening in my life — leaving England and changing my life in many respects — that brought it to a halt and made me reevaluate everything.
Is the song "The Mystery Room," on this album, connected to that experience?
"The Mystery Room" is that point after a near-life-threatening situation. You drift into a world that's like a void. When I was taken to the emergency room after they picked me up from the stretcher, I didn't have any ID, so they called me "Unknown Person." The mystery room is that place where you go and you're not sure where it's going after that. It's a void between good and bad, eternity, whatever. And you never know where it's gonna end up.
What is it about the United States that inspires you?
When I was a kid, I used to see all these great films about American heroes — and obviously it's not all like that. It's just an incredible land mass. It's an incredible source of inspiration to me musically and creatively, but I still don't know it; it's such a giant space, it's impossible to. You're going around, you go to the Midwest and you go to LA and the Northwest — they're like countries in their own right. That's what I find fascinating. Not like Britain, which is tiny and compact. I think in America ... you can get lost there. You can change your identity and move to the South from the Northeast or vice versa. So it's still the land of opportunity, in many respects.
When you talk about different nations and different regions, there actually have been cultural anthropologists who've written books and tried to divide the United States into ethnic nations — saying the deep South is a different place than Appalachia, which is a different place than the Pacific Coast. It sounds like that's the experience you've had traveling across this country.
I've had that experience; it's exactly true. But somehow, something pulls America together as one country. That's the joy of it and the scary thing about it, because it's so powerful when it knows it's together as one country. It's an inspirational place but a very complex place, and I'm still trying to work out how I feel about it.
Radio producer Taylor Haney and web intern Jake Witz contributed to this story.