When singer-songwriter Kristian Hoffman decided to make an album of duets, he didn't envision a composite musical snapshot of himself with the cross-generational cream of Los Angeles pop. But by filtering his own material through such collaborators as Van Dyke Parks, Rufus Wainwright, Maria McKee, El Vez and Stew, his new collection honors the legacy of L.A. song craft while illuminating more personal concerns.
"Hopefully, even with the variety of voices, people will hear that this is an experience, like running through various permutations of pop songwriting," says Hoffman, 50, an animated, intense conversationalist whose statements often lilt upward like questions.
Wearing black jeans and a silky white shirt with silver spiral buttons, he cuts a slightly fancy figure during lunch at a restaurant in his Los Feliz neighborhood. On the chair beside him lies a green blazer with an elaborately patterned lining. His many self-deprecating comments reveal a flair for mock drama and a neurotic streak that makes you want to reassure him somehow. In other words, he's the perfect image of a smart, charming, sophisticated-yet-approachable old-fashioned pop artist.
Indeed, despite his heavy guest list, Hoffman is undeniably the glue that holds the album, titled "&," together. He first gained underground status as the keyboardist and songwriter for wild-living '70s pop-punk band the Mumps, a New York group led by the late Lance Loud, the effervescent oldest son on the PBS documentary series "An American Family." Hoffman later formed the jokey rock band the Swinging Madisons, worked with singer-actress Ann Magnuson and wrote the cult hit "Total Eclipse" for '80s oddball glam artist Klaus Nomi.
Both Hoffman and Loud, who died last December of HIV- and hepatitis C-related complications, came out of the closet as Santa Barbara teenagers during the 1973 run of "An American Family." But Loud was the one who became a gay hero. In a way, Hoffman still casts himself in the shadow of his friend, who is memorialized in the new album's final track, "Lullabye."
"He opened my eyes," says Hoffman, his blue irises widening a bit for emphasis. "We discovered music together, but Lance was the one who got there first. He was the one who knew to get the Velvet Underground record, or [the Stooges'] 'Raw Power.' He sort of held my hand during the first baby steps of getting excited about music. So anything musical I do is a lot because of him."
Released last month by Fullerton-based Eggbert Records, "&" is Hoffman's third album, following "I Don't Love My Guru Anymore" (1994) and "Earthquake Weather" (1997). The 17 alternately mournful and playful selections include the orchestral "Get It Right This Time" with Anna Waronker, the castrati lament "Sex in Heaven" with Magnuson and the funky, Bowie-esque "Series of You's" with Paul Zone of vintage New York power-poppers the Fast.
Also among the participants are Russell Mael of Sparks, New York "no wave" poet and singer Lydia Lunch, Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross.
This impressive grab bag of collaborators reflects Hoffman's musical depth, which is what attracted veteran songwriter-producer Van Dyke Parks to the project.
"I was interested in a new generation of pianist-songwriters," says Parks, who met Hoffman through Wainwright and did the string and horn arrangements on "Revert to Type." "There was a dearth of them, after the '70s had produced a great deal. Kristian reflects a broad experience in music that informs his work. He is more than ordinary. Any time somebody seems like he's been to a theater show or cabaret, that's appealing to me."
Eggbert owner Greg Dwinnell suggested the idea of a duet album when he heard that Hoffman and the Go-Go's Belinda Carlisle had talked about recording Paul Anka's "You're Having My Baby." Hoffman initially resisted. "At first, I was like, 'Well, I wanna do my album,' " he says with mock petulance. "Then suddenly it blossomed into this wonderful thing. It was like a bigger-budget movie. I got to hear people taking these fun little journeys with the songs."
The duet approach also helped to free his work from the constraints of his own voice, he says. For example, he was able to record "Scarecrow," a poignant rumination on the 1998 beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, because Wainwright could sing parts of the tune that Hoffman couldn't. Still, Hoffman, who wrote most of "Scarecrow" immediately after the incident, had doubts about including it.
"I thought, 'Can I do this again? Hasn't it been done? Didn't Elton John do it? Didn't Melissa Etheridge do it?' Then a friend of mine said, 'These are stories you need to repeat.' It's good to add to the lexicon of witnessing this outrage."