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Singer Chuck Prophet braved disease and disaster to complete his album ¡Let Freedom Ring!


OVER THE COURSE OF HIS THREE-DECADE CAREER, Chuck Prophet has recorded all around the globe. “I’ve tried to explore music as geography,” says the gravel-voiced Bay Area roots rocker. “There’s always been a sense of adventure about making records.” Indeed, for the creation of his ninth and latest solo effort, ¡Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Rock Records, $16), Prophet headed to Mexico City, where he got more adventure than he could ever catalog, including power outages, pandemics, and natural disasters.

The genesis of Freedom began with a batch of material that Prophet describes as “political songs for nonpolitical people.”

He says, “We’re living in anxious times. I wrote a cluster of songs, and the world was creeping into them with the economic uncertainty and everything else that was going on. And somehow, it felt like it would be a good record to make outside this country.”

After scoping out possible international locations, Prophet settled on Mexico City. “It’s a strange, weird place, with unique flowers and houses and grime and beauty. In a way, it’s no different than any other bustling city,” he says. “Because of the energy of the place more than anything, it just made sense to record there.”

Picking the right studio to record at proved to be a challenge as well. “We did ultimately find a place that was totally state of the art -- for 1958,” he says, laughing. “The thing about working with older equipment is that it has a real personality, which is great if you can get that to stick onto the tape. At the same time, because it has a personality, it can be really human and turn on you as well.”

Prophet and his crew -- which included producer/pedal-steel player Greg Leisz and former E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter -- endured their fair share of frustrating technical problems during the recording. But those were only precursors to the 5.6-magnitude earthquake that rocked the region during a session. The worst, however, was yet to come, as Mexico City then soon plunged into swine-flu panic.

“While we were working, we started hearing about this deadly flu virus. The story kept building, and within a couple days, they’d shut the whole city down,” Prophet remembers. “At night, we’d come back from the studio, and it was a ghost town. We’d have to go knocking on doors of restaurants so that somebody might open the door and let us in and make some tamales for us or something. It was spooky.”

The heightened tension of that experience finds its way onto the record, in songs like simmering album opener “Sonny Liston’s Blues” and jagged funk track “Where the Hell Is Henry?”

Although Prophet’s recent work -- albums that played as complex cinematic epics -- cast him as a sonic auteur, Freedom settles on a simpler aesthetic that turns up the guitars, strips back the production, and delivers with ferocity and flavor. “We just wanted to capture the sound of four people in a room together feeding off one another,” he says. “It was more like a play than a movie this time.”

Still, the songs manage to marshal a whole range of influences -- from the brawling neo-rockabilly of Dave Edmunds to the hooky new wave of Dwight Twilley to the beat-poet punk of John Cooper Clarke -- making for the perfect mingling of pop and punch. “I always try and do something raw and regal at the same time,” Prophet says, chuckling. “But because of everything that went down, this one’s just a little bit more raw than usual.”


Prime Chuck


We pick five of our favorite albums from Chuck Prophet’s prolific catalog.

Artist: Green on Red
Album: Here Come the Snakes

(Restless, 1988)
Chuck Prophet began his career as a teenage guitar slinger in this pioneering 1980s alternative roots band. This made-in-Memphis affair is its crowning achievement of Rolling Stones–y swagger and bruised romanticism.

Artist: Chuck Prophet
Album: Homemade Blood

(Cooking Vinyl, 1997)
This album -- a semi-autobiographical suite of songs about suburban ennui and dealing with the aftermath of addiction -- served as Prophet’s solo breakthrough.

Artist: Chuck Prophet
Album: No Other Love
(New West, 2002)
A postmodern production that’s still chock-full of old-school soul, this is the perfect representation of Prophet’s work as a cut-and-paste collagist.

Artist: Go Go Market
Album: Hotel San Jose

(Evangeline Recorded Works, 2002)
Produced and cowritten by Prophet for his wife, Stephanie Finch, this distaff pop platter bridges the gap between Dusty Springfield and Blondie.

Artist: Alejandro Escovedo
Album: Real Animal

(Manhattan/Back Porch, 2008)
Prophet cowrote and played white-hot guitar on this critically lauded LP -- a concept album about life as a rock and roller -- from longtime pal Alejandro Escovedo.