As he prefaces his current North American tour with a swing of concerts through Europe, Chuck Prophet finds himself in a position that might stifle your everyday pop/rock stylist.
The task at hand? Presenting songs from Temple Beautiful — a new album that is a loose-fitting homage to inhabitants, hangouts and happenings from the singer's San Francisco home front — to overseas audiences that might not understand English, much less the record's uniquely American story lines.
"Well, it's a visceral thing," Prophet said by phone last week from Madrid, Spain. "When I introduce a certain song (in this case, the Tom Petty-ish The Left Hand and the Right Hand) is about the Mitchell Brothers, who ran a strip club where Hunter S. Thompson was night manager and where one brother, in kind of Cain and Abel fashion, wound up killing the other, I just tell them about (squabbling Oasis frontmen/brothers) Liam and Noel Gallagher. I also tell the audiences to pray for those guys, because they clearly need each other more than they know."
Consider that summation your ticket into Prophet's compositional world. There, the stories are aloof, ironic and sometimes a bit sordid, and the music is all expertly constructed pop and rock that borrows from Americana, folk, punk, country, garage rock and more.
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"I can't really explain it," Prophet said of his songwriting skills. "It's mysterious. I mean, I write songs. Every once in awhile, I feel I even know what I'm doing. But at the same time, I don't really know anything. I don't know what it takes for a collection of songs to have that kind of charisma that just makes people feel good, songs that can almost play themselves on a bandstand.
"We kind of set out to make records that we like. And we thought other people would like them, too. That turned out not to be the case — at least, not in terms of connecting with a big audience."
He might not have topped the pop charts, but Prophet has enjoyed considerable critical praise that has gone hand in hand with lasting songwriting alliances with such like-minded artists as Alejandro Escovedo and fan bases devout enough to keep him touring regularly on both sides of the Atlantic.
But San Francisco has long been Prophet's base of operations. Temple Beautiful, in fact, was named after a famed club that was to the Bay Area punk scene of the early '80s what the Fillmore West was to the city's comparatively mainstream rock community during the late '60s and early '70s.
"The inspiration for the record was originally just something that was downloaded from my subconscious," Prophet said. "Then once I said out loud, 'You know, this could be a San Francisco album,' we just started following the clues. I mean, we knew we weren't going to be telling the truth and making the record something for the tourist bureau. But we also knew every great myth needs a hero.
"I remember walking with my friend Kurt (Lipschutz, a San Francisco-area poet, author and songwriter) and standing underneath the Willie Mays statue just outside the ball park. We just looked at it and thought, 'He is a giant. We've got to get him in one of the songs (thus the anthemic Temple Beautiful tune Willie Mays Is at Bat). It wasn't all that original of an idea. But once we tapped into it, everything, all of the music, just became so much fun. There were too many ideas to work with, really."
Although he has lived in San Francisco for a long time, Prophet feels a marked kinship with Lexington. He has played here regularly since the release of his 1999 album The Hurting Business and cites the city as one of the first major locales outside of the Bay Area to embrace his music. Prophet remembers discussing his fondness for Lexington with Escovedo, whose solo career also has established a loyal local following over the past 15 years.
"Lexington was just one of those towns where the planets lined up for us. I was joking with Alejandro when we recorded (Escovedo's 2008 album) Real Animal in Lexington. I said, 'You know, Lexington is probably the first town that gave either of us more than 500 bucks to play.'
"Really, we're only as good as our audience some nights. But Lexington has always been there for us."