Profile: Peter Himmelman

Life in the Middle

Somewhere, there’s a teddy bear singing in the voice of Peter Himmelman. The singer-songwriter’s music spans three decades and a mélange of rock records, kids’ albums, advertising jingles and TV scores. And some of his songs issue from cassette players embedded in Spinoza Bear, a line of therapeutic plush toys designed for abused children and others in need of soothing.

Mr. Himmelman is in a class of accomplished musicians whose careers just happen to lack a “best known for” clause. Among other things, he was a pioneer of the Minneapolis post-punk scene who now hosts a DIY web series; a composer for TV series including “Bones”; Bob Dylan’s son in law; a creator of critically hailed rock and pop that barely registers on rock radio or pop charts.

Above all, he is a working singer songwriter in a business where that title is increasingly difficult to claim. Whether it’s composing music for Spinoza Bear (a job he took in the 1990s) or for ad agencies, Himmelman’s output as “a wage earner” finances his own artistic work–even as it threatens quash the inspiration required. Released in September, his latest solo album, “The Mystery and the Hum,” comes out of his reckoning with life in music’s middle class.

“I even like the word ‘middle'” Mr. Himmelman says, digging into a metaphor, one of his favored conversational tools. “In a relationship, the real romance is in the middle, the day-to-day. You have felt passion. You believe that it exists. You’re able to ignite it occasionally, and your memory of that passion is profound.”

Much of the passion that yielded “The Mystery and the Hum” stemmed from his relationship with a man he didn’t know personally. The singer, an observant Jew and a news junkie, had closely followed the story of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002, in large part because he was Jewish.

In the course of his “slightly obsessive” study of Pearl, the singer read an editorial by William Pesek, a Bloomberg News columnist who in 2007 wrote this about the slain journalist: “We first bonded over music–a Minneapolis musician named Peter Himmelman. We agreed he was greatest songwriter virtually no one had heard of and we’d go to Himmelman’s concerts together, once making our way backstage to meet him.”

The singer was stunned with emotion, realizing he’d played a role in the private life of a man he’d so admired from afar. (He didn’t recall the fleeting backstage greeting.) This uncanny experience and the resulting relationship with Pearl’s parents jolted him out of his work-for-hire routine. It also sharpened his focus on themes that have long run his through his music, including mortality, the consequences of ambition and the quest for meaning.

In 1985, then the front man of the Minneapolis rock band Sussman Lawrence, Mr. Himmelman hastily recorded a song that he’d written for his dying father. Raw with emotion, the song “This Father’s Day” and an album of the same name helped him land a deal with Island Records and launch a solo career. More than two decades later, long after scaling back his rock and roll career to be closer to his family (including wife Maria Dylan and their four children), Mr. Himmelman found himself pondering his life choices, along with the transience of life itself. Pearl was tragic proof. So was Mr. Himmelman’s sister, Sue Shapiro, who died in a car crash in 2003.

To ensure that he’d act on this inspiration, Mr. Himmelman built a trap for himself. During the 2007 writers strike that temporarily paralyzed Hollywood (putting Mr. Himmelman’s composition work on hold) the Los Angeles resident booked time in a friend’s Minneapolis recording studio. He was far from home, in a studio with sessions musicians he didn’t know and paying for the sessions himself. With a self-imposed deadline looming, he spent about two weeks writing songs, then recorded them in about four days.

“The creative impulse needs structure,” says the singer, who occasionally teaches seminars in which he requires participants a complete a song from scratch in 40 minutes. “Time doesn’t improve a song. It’s the auspiciousness of the situation that allows it to come.”

The title “Mystery and the Hum” comes from a line in the song “Raining Down From Satellite,” which traces a breakdown in communication–global, interpersonal. “Raining down from satellite, our voices intertwine, the greatest lyric of the 20th century and still it slips our minds,” Mr. Himmelman sings.

The song, “Georgia Clay,” is a sharp-edged blues reminiscent of Elvis Costello, with Mr. Himmelman singing as a character saddled with regrets: “Damn ambition, it’s a young man’s game. I’m fueled by another thing now but I do not know its name. I feel yanked along, compelled by an unseen force. Mostly dodging bullets and trying to stay on course.”

More of life’s “middle” moments come into relief on “This Lifeboat’s On Fire,” a woozy rocker whose title speaks for itself.

Last month in New York City, before the release of “Mystery,” the singer mused on his survival strategies for a rapidly changing music business. He also discussed the other items on his New York agenda: dropping off his daughter at Barnard College and the Bed Bath & Beyond mission that entailed. At age 50, Mr. Himmelman seems to relish such juxtapositions. In fact, they’ve become part of his image–not unlike the natty hats he wears—as a domesticated rocker with a career he jokingly describes as “ignominious incorporated.”

And why should rock and roll be different than any typical long-term profession, with alternating stretches of ascent and inertia, success and withering self-doubt? Mr. Himmelman, in the throes of another metaphor, refers to his freelance composition work as “truck driving,” jobs that pay the bills (and then some, when they involve lucrative TV residuals).

The key, he says, is finding ways to keep that truck moving down the road. For instance, he hired someone to promote his new songs to radio DJs, which could theoretically lead to wider exposure, which could lead to bigger musical guests on his web series, “Furious World,” which could lead to bigger fees for his TV work, and maybe inspiration his next record. All the while, “the truck’s getting bigger,” he says, “and there are more hams in the back.”



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