Don Henley on songwriting for grown-ups

Suzy Maloy / 25 September 2015

The legendary Eagle talks about his latest solo album - the first for 15 years - and why he's writing songs for his babyboomer generation.



Q: This is your first solo album in 15 years, what took you so long? 

Two reasons, Eagles and Family. Eagles have been on tour almost every year since we got back together in 1994. It’s been pretty intense and took up a lot of my time. When I did have time off between those tour segments, I just wanted to spend time with my three teenagers. I think it’s important to spend time with them.

Q: Do you ever stress out about getting an album finished?

I get an urge to start, but I am always writing. I am writing at home or on the road. I have a recording studio at home where I can work. I believe in quality more so than quantity.  I don’t mind taking things slowly, it’s healthier. 

Q: Speaking of health, I can’t believe you are 68 years old. You look great!

I live a healthy life now. I train on a regular basis, I have a trainer with me all the time when I travel. And he kicks my ass every day for 90 minutes. I intend to live a very long life and want to put out several more albums before I die. 

The most important thing is to stay fit and staying mobile. The older generation does not believe in exercising. When I work out my trainer kicks my ass for 90 minutes. If you can maintain your body in check and keep your mind sharp, you’ll be fine. I do crossword puzzles to keep my mind occupied. I am getting smarter I think.

Q: How has your writing changed over the last decades? 

It’s still hard work. But it’s not as worrisome as it once was. I don’t stress out about it as much. I still want to write better songs, I hope my best work is still ahead of me. But there is not as much drama surrounding me anymore. 

Q: What do you mean by that?

Well, in our early days we got in our own way. We partied too much, substances get in the way, women. Recreation, etc. You can get in your own way. You have to lighten up at some point. I always have to remind myself that I can change things later. It was more enjoyable writing this album. I am more mature, and more confident as a person and as a songwriter. 

Q: This is an album for grown ups. Why did you say that?

Well, it is. I am 68 years old. These songs are written from the perspective of a man who has been on the planet for that long. Hopefully you gain some wisdom along the way, some insight into life, and we live in a very youth-obsessed culture in America. 

Q: So, you want to make music for the older generation?

A lot of songs we hear on the radio are geared towards young people. But that doesn’t mean just because you get older you stop listening and stop liking music. There’s got to be something for people that have done some living. I went in that direction. I wanted to write about the people I know, and that’s my baby-boom generation. I don’t want to trend hop. I never wanted to be the flavour of the moment. I never wanted to be part of the music factory. 

Q: Was the best music written in the 70s?

Maybe. Some people would say it was the late 60s and 70s. You got U2, but you are right, the best country music was made in the 70s and 80s. Not all of it though. I think there is a lack of authenticity today. I am seeing a lot of gimmickry today. It’s all about the costumes. It’s like Vegas now. My way of thinking may be old fashioned. I still like the singer-songwriter school. I like George Jones, Dolly Parton. Authentic voices with authentic lives. What we hear today is voices that come from suburbia. 

Q: How did you get Parton and Mick Jagger to play with you?

I call up anybody. Mick and I only crossed paths a couple times over the years. In the early 70s we did a benefit, and the Stones were playing. We opened for them. I was very nervous, and I was very scared. After we were done, the audience liked us a lot. And Mick was standing in the wings and said to me: “They like you.” – I thought that was pretty cool. 

Q: People say your voice and your music means so much to them. What do you feel about that? 

I am just lucky. I am not responsible how I am for my voice. I know the songs are important to people. I feel I owe it to my fans to give it my best. When I am on tour I don’t drink – and I love red wine – but I only drink it when I know I don’t have to perform. I have gotten more disciplined as I am getting older. 

Q: At 68 most people think about retirement, but you don't…

No, why should I? – I love doing this. I love recording songs and hearing them on the radio. It’s therapy for me. It’s a way for me to connect with people. Music has always been about building a community. It crosses all boundaries, religion, politics, it connects people in a divided world When I was a kid there would be request night, and you would send out a song to a girl you were in love with. I love the process. 

Q: What other dreams do you still have? 

I dabble in poetry as well. It’s getting harder to sing. I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old. Sometimes I have to take cortisone to continue. It’s like football, just shoot me up so I can keep going. 

Q: Does it ever surprise you when you think of the incredible success The Eagles had over the decades?

I think we did something right. We put so much effort into our songs, so much thoughts. I think people acknowledge and respect that. The songs have memorable melodies and we had good musicianship. And no matter how hard we partied, and we did party hard, we had a good work ethic. Up to this day, we have a soundcheck before every concert. 

Q: Do you ever get tired of singing the old Eagles songs?

Look, we’ve always been about precision and doing things right. I don’t get tired of the songs because I know what they mean to so many people, but I do need a break after a long tour to recoup. I think no matter what job you have, you do need a break once in a while. 

Q: Why do people still listen to The Eagles after so many years?

It’s because music is so bad now (laughs). I think we knew how to write universal lyrics and people knew how to apply them to their lives. We did that on purpose so they had a broad appeal to people all walks of life. 

Q: Being a Dad of three teenagers, how do you manage your time these days?

That’s exactly what it is it’s time management. It’s so hard these days to do it right. My 19-year-old girl is travelling with me. She’s my make-up artist now. And I talk to the other two every day. And when I am nearby, I try not to be gone from home for two or three weeks. And when The Eagles tour in Europe I take them all with me. Sometimes I don’t think my kids know how they are. I think I’ve done a pretty good job being a father to them. I keep them out of the limelight. 

Q: You said you don’t like to be in the limelight so much. But how do you avoid that being who you are? 

You can’t really avoid it. And it’s not that easy for me since I consider myself an introvert. But you can find ways to stay out of the limelight if you really want to. And it’s better now that I am old and crusty.

Q: What do you make of the celebrity culture we celebrate today all over the world?

That’s exactly what it is, a celebrity culture. We as a society are obsessed with celebrities. You can be famous without having done anything substantial or worthwhile. All you need to do is take your clothes off. They are famous for doing nothing. What does that say about our values in our country. I never wanted to be part of that. 

Q: Do your kids like Dad’s music?

Yeah, some of it, but I don’t like all my music either. 

Q: Do you start taking stock and reflecting a little once you hit a certain age.

One day you wake up and you realise you are closer to the end than you are to the beginning. But I am not worried about it, why should I? – There is nothing I can do about it. I am not afraid of the end. 

What I am afraid of is to not have lived deliberately. I want to make damn sure that I lived fully. When the end comes I want to be able to say that I lived a good life, and didn’t waste too much of my time. I raised great children that are going to be all right. I am more worried about what world they face. 

Q: How important is it for you to give back? 

I feel I have a duty, an obligation to give back to our own communities. There are still things about my own community I don’t like, but I am a loyal soul, and my home town is not doing well. Agriculture is dead in my home town. Population of my town is shrinking. Cass County is poor. And it makes me sad. So I helped restore some buildings, among them the Courthouse. I bought five or six buildings and restored them. I am a landlord now, and it’s not a good thing. I am not good at it. 

Q: Your new record is called “Cass County, is it a homage to your home town? 

Thomas Wolff said: The haunting paradox in America is we only fixed in things when we are in motion. It’s a paradox. It’s my home, I can visit it, but I can’t stay there. I think everybody feels that way. I love the land, that’s inspiring to me. But I moved closer to Dallas because I had to take care of my mother. 

Q: How important is it for kids to see nature and the small town mentality? 

Very important, get them off the damn cell phones. Go fishing, hiking, experience nature. But it’s not the same way anymore. Times have changed. Today kids can’t walk home from school anymore because that’s the way we live in now. 

Q: You also said you still have things inside of you you need to get out? 

I have more things to say. I experienced bullying, cruelty from my football coach because I was so little and not a fighter, but it made me stronger. But I also had good teachers. And they made me who I am. And I still want to tell those stories. 

Q: The Eagles Tour was very successful. Do you think you will do another one with the band? 

I don’t know if we do any more touring with the Eagles. They pushed us pretty hard. By the end of it we were sick and tired of the whole thing. We’ve been singing some of those songs for 42 years. I appreciate my life and how good those songs have been to me, but after a while it becomes acting. 

Q: Do you have a favorite song on your new album? 

I like the “Cost of Living” and “Pray for Rain”. Plus it’s really secretly a song for global climate change. I am telling the story from the eyes of a humble farmer. It’s terrible right now in regards to weather. 

Q: Do politicians ever come up to you and try to rope you in for support?

They ask me for money all the time. I am not that involved anymore. I am sick of all of them now, both parties. I still send a cheque. I have not focused on a new presidential candidate yet. I don’t think we talk about the right issues. I am very disappointed in which politics goes. People in this country are intellectually lazy. It’s just a personality contest. It’s who would you rather have a beer with. 

Q: What do you make of Donald Trump?

If he is being elected President, I will move to a different country. 

Q: If Eagles were formed today, do you think they’d be as successful as you guys were? 

Music has changed so much today. There are some bands out there that sound like we did. Today it’s all about personalities and fashion. And I hope there will be a backlash at some point. 

Q: Do you still read reviews?

Yes, I do. I just got four stars in Rolling Stones Magazine, and that totally excited me. I am still somebody who likes to compete.

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