Jackson Browne & Leslie Mendelson Team Up for Sobering 'A Human Touch': Video Premiere
Jackson Browne calls "A Human Touch," whose video is premiering exclusively below, "an assignment offered to me that I didn't want to take." But he's glad he did.
The song is the end-credits piece for 5B, the new documentary about the San Francisco General Hospital AIDS ward during the early '80s and how nurses and doctors there learned how to best treat patients during the burgeoning epidemic. Paul Haggis, who co-directed with Dan Krauss, approached Browne about doing a song, but, Browne tells Billboard, he "was in the middle of other things. I watched the movie and I thought, 'God, this is certainly worth of a song,' but I just didn't even know how to approach." Haggis introduced Browne to singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson and her regular collaborator Steve McEwan for what became a fruitful collaboration.
"They came up with this great song, most of it, really, although I added a few lines," Browne recalls. "But because it was so good and in the right direction, it wasn't hard to get involved and schedule it in. I've never done that kind of writing collaboration, where you book a room and you sit down for an hour...and it was great. I love those two, and they're great friends now." Browne was also invigorated by the discussion the three had as part of the process in building "A Human Touch."
"It was an interesting thing to collaborate on a subject like this," explains Browne, who first met with Mendelson and McEwan last December. "In very few cases and very few times have I gotten into a discussion with anybody about a line and what it's supposed to mean. Some of these songs can be indistinct in their meaning. We really got into every line and nearly every word in depth to make sure it was what we wanted to say and convey in the song, because (5B) is such a human movie and really shows the courage and humanity of these nurses and the hospital staff and the population of people who were just suddenly struck by this epidemic and were devastated by it."
Mendelson adds that, "I know the movie really struck a chord with all of us. We spoke about how brave the nurses and doctors were during a time when nobody knew what the outcome would be. It was inspiring to see so much humanity in a film. Everyone was a hero. One of the most important things in life is human contact. To feel empathy or to experience a connection with someone is why we're here. Without that we have nothing. At the end of the day, people want to connect and feel and be loved. The song speaks to those ideas and I think we've captured that in a pretty special way."
The experience of working with Browne was also special for Mendelson. "I couldn't believe how much he sounded like Jackson Browne -- I know that sounds silly, but it was quite surreal," she says. "Growing up on his records, you just know that sound. He's one of the greats."
The "A Human Touch" video, meanwhile, intersperses scenes from the movie with Browne and Mendelson performing the song in Santa Fe, N.M., while Browne was visiting one of his sons and his family there.
Browne says he's hoping to write more with Mendelson and McEwan in the future. Following 2014's Standing in the Breach, he's currently "writing songs -- at a snail's pace -- and recording them in-between stints of touring," and the veteran activist says the socio-political tenor of the times is certainly something he's grappling with. "I'm pretty opinionated, of course, so that comes out in everything I do," says Browne, who's back on the road in August, including three dates at the Venetian in Las Vegas. "Honestly, it's really hard to figure out what to talk about, how to approach some of what's going on. And with 'Human Touch' Steve and Leslie took a lot of care and kind of tempered my willingness to use words and enter into almost a polemic to raise the point of view very strongly in the song. And it was great to have that happen. It definitely worked to the benefit of the song."