William Shatner on How He Came to Collaborate With Joe Jonas on Spoken Word Album: “It’s Still a Mystery”
“It’s such a work of heart,” is how William Shatner describes his newest project, the intensely personal and talent-packed spoken word album Bill. It borrows stories from Shatner’s 90 years of life, many of which have been lived in the public eye, and covers everything from schoolyard bullying (“Toughie”) and the Star Trek cancellation (“So Far From the Moon”) to a business deal gone wrong (“Just Forgive”) and Shatner’s three obsessions (“Love, Death, and Horses”).
And while it is about him, Shatner wastes no time in spreading love and credit to a circle of collaborators for bringing it to life. He starts with friend and co-writer Robert Sharenow and They Might Be Giants rocker Dan Miller, both of whom collaborated on lyrics, music and production, followed by musicians Joe Walsh, Brad Paisley, Robert Randolph, John Lurie, Daniel Miller, Joan as Police Woman and Dave Koz who appear on select tracks.
There’s another name that’s been generating a fair amount of ink and that is Joe Jonas. The Jonas Brothers and DNCE star played a huge role on Bill as it was released on Sept. 24 via his new label, Let’s Get It! Records/Republic Records. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Shatner discusses the mystery behind his Jonas partnership, ignoring retirement in favor of ongoing exploration and what else he remembers about that night on July 20, 1969, when he watched astronauts land on the moon from the back of a pickup truck parked in a pasture in the Hamptons.
When did the wheel start spinning for you to channel everything you were feeling and thinking about into a new album?
There’s a song on the album called “Monday Night in London.” I was in London to perform at the Apollo Theater for a sold-out audience of 3,500 people. Then it was announced that there was this COVID thing. I wondered if anybody would come to the show because Boris Johnson had said no more than 10 people are allowed to collect. By that evening, 3,500 people stayed in their seats to see me. It was a very emotional, loving evening in the theater.
When I came home, I had a dinner with Rob the poet and Dan Miller, the award-winning musician. Rob and I had become fast friends, even though our worlds are totally remote. He’s an executive in New York City, I’m am a performer living in Los Angeles. We met years ago and got to having a meal together every time he came into town. At the time, I had no idea that he was also a lyricist, a poet. Almost at the beginning of lockdown, we had dinner and he brought Dan, whom I didn’t know but they had been buddies since university. He’s a terrific musician.
During dinner, Dan said, “We should do an album.” Rob agreed and said, “Let’s do an album about some of the things that happened to Bill.” Bill hastily agreed. COVID hit and we continued with that theme of things that have happened to me, stories I’ve written about in books ad nauseam. Between Rob and I, we chose the material, and Rob would write lyrics and sometimes I was able to help. We then sent the song to Dan and he would write a bed of music and figure out, is it rock and roll? Is it spiritual? Is it Western? Is it a rhythm song? What kind of song goes with these lyrics? I wanted to do it all. Then we began to acquire people to accompany me on the songs. Like Brad Paisley on “So Far From the Moon.” It became a country song because of Brad Paisley. So, we slowly evolved this work of love and life and attention. We lavished everything we had on it and it is now what it is and there you are.
A nice journey. I wanted to ask about Brad Paisley a little bit later but since you delivered the segue, let’s talk about “So Far From the Moon.” The song is about a rough period after the cancellation of Star Trek. You’re on the dinner theater circuit and sleeping in a truck when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. What else do you remember of that time?
My marriage was canceled, so was my show. I was divorced, I lost my children, and even though I’d been in Star Trek, I didn’t have any money. I had booked myself in summer theater up on the Cape. I had to get there so I got a used truck and put a cab on it so I wouldn’t have to pay for motels as I drove cross-country with my dog. One evening, I was playing in Montauk in the Hamptons. I was parked in the pasture, lying down and looking up at the moon. It was a clear night, and I’ve got a four-inch television set on my chest. I’m looking at the guys landing on the moon and thinking about the teeny contributions we made. Our ratings went up and Congress voted for more money for the space program. In a way, I had been associated with the very people who were on the moon and there I was lying in a truck bed out in a pasture in the Hamptons, broke and broken.
You relive childhood bullying on “Toughie” featuring Robert Randolph, recalling how you fought back against the attacks. Where did you get that fighting spirit?
DNA. It has something to do with our behavior. As a horseman, we see DNA at work all the time. The gestation period of a horse is 11 months and so you can see in a couple of years, the behavior of some offspring. “Oh my God, that’s like the stud,” or, “that’s like the mare.” “Toughie” is a really meaningful song to me because I’m Jewish and I was enrolled at a Catholic school. The kids didn’t understand Judaism, they just knew that I was just different even though we were the same in other ways; I dressed the same, studied the same, I played ball. But this little religious deviation had me beaten up every day after school. I’d have to fight one, two, three people at the same time. A few years ago, I saw my yearbook again and it said, “Toughie.” I’d forgotten that was my nickname was Toughie. I was like, “Oh shit. Yeah, that’s right. I used to do that.” I had to fight in the snow every day in Montreal and somewhere along the line, you think to yourself, “Jesus, I’m not like anybody else. Does that mean I am bad?” But you grow up and realize, I’m not bad, but deep inside it’s hard to shake the guilty feeling that something is wrong with you. You have to fight it. It’s always there.
It is always there and I assume that was part of the inspiration for “Clouds of Guilt” featuring Joe Jonas. The lyrics talk about how guilt sticks with you. It’s a powerful song. Where are you with guilt today?
I will tell you I had a wonderful experience recently. I spent time on the weekends going out and performing in front of an audience, almost an ad-lib extemporaneous talk. I will do an hour or two basically like this. Recently, I was in front of an audience to push my album a little. I said that I have “Bill” coming out and on it, there’s a song about guilt. I asked the audience if anybody there feels guilty all the time. A lot of people raised their hands. At which point, outside the theater, a siren goes off and disappears and I said, “I hope they’re not coming after me.” Big laugh, applause and it was a recognition that… oh jeez a siren. I know they are not coming after me but I feel guilty. That really now but there was a time I thought, “Christ.” Are they going to beat me up? It never leaves you. It’s way, way deep inside and if you can access it, it’s healthy. If you can write about it, it’s even healthier.
Joe Jonas appears on the song and played a big role in putting the album coming out. How did you two link up?
It’s still a mystery. It’s a story filled with mysterioso. What I would like to do, someday in the near future, is talk to my two partners with Joe and I and maybe a couple of others in a meeting and answer that very question. What did Joe hear in the preliminary tapes and when did Dan Miller bring him in to say, “Joe, why don’t you listen to this.” Joe says, “Oh, Jesus. I like that. I’d like to represent it and I’d like to do a number and here’s the number I’d like to do.” One day, there is Joe singing on “Clouds of Guilt” and it’s terrific. It has a depth to it and his gentle approach is not straightened and yet it’s there. But what Joe Jonas heard and saw, I’ve yet to hear that from him. It will be a revelation. But he did bring it to Republic and Republic brought it to Universal.
Were you a Jonas Brothers fan?
No, I know nothing about music. I don’t know the local groups but my kids do. When my three girls were teenagers, the Jonas Brothers were playing here in Los Angeles. They said, “Can we go see Joe?” Okay, so I get tickets, have a go. They say, “Shatner’s coming, can you meet them?” They meet me and my three girls who were saying, “Oh my god, Joe, Nick and Kevin!” They got to meet them, see the concert and then we left. I was thinking, “OK, those were three nice young men.” Years later, here we are. Think of that history. The universe works in strange ways.
On the track “What Do We Know,” you ponder some important and urgent questions: What do we know? Why should we care? What should we do? Those questions, I think, many were asking themselves during the pandemic when there was so much to care about but, at the same time, those thoughts could be so overwhelming. Did you have any revelations come to you as you were putting this track together?
I had heard many years ago that as you get older, you get wiser. I have, as of late, come to the truth that I know nothing. I don’t know anything. I really mean it. I don’t know anything. Because I come to understand that what I know is merely my perception of what I know. What do I know about acting? I don’t even know what I know about acting or writing. It’s a mystery, it’s like it’s out there and I don’t know. Somebody says, “Well, what do you think?” I thought, “Well, I don’t know because all I can tell you is from me. It’s my experience and my filters and it doesn’t apply to you. So how can I give you advice?”
I can tell you that I told a cinema class recently that what I know about directing is that you shouldn’t leave the set. If you’re directing a movie, don’t leave the set. I learned that from other directors. That I can tell you. But when it comes to whether you should go left or right, I don’t know. I’m flummoxed by the fact that I don’t know. I should be able to tell you, “Yeah man, I’m telling you go left.” I don’t know. That’s what the song is about and it’s filled almost with remorse that I don’t know anything. It’s humbling.
What about you, do you know where you want to go from here? I would imagine you’ve been getting this question a lot after turning 90 because people want to know about retirement or how you wish to spend the next decade of life. Any ideas?
There’s no retirement you can contemplate, it’s just an exploration. A continuous attempt to explore when I’m given an opportunity that seems to be coming my way. “Would you like to do this?” “Yeah. I’d like to do that.” It’s a new adventure, except I can’t walk too far or run too fast. I need help through electric and motorized vehicles. I’ve got a new talk show called, I Don’t Understand, which is all the things I don’t understand, which is everything. I may be visiting you one day about what you understand but it’s so I can understand. They ordered 88 half hours. Then I’ve got The UnXplained on The History Channel. I’m writing a book, doing some commercials, riding my horse and in competitions with my horses. I’ve got children, grandchildren. Life is so pounding on my head. It’s like I’m being force-fed life and I’m not gagging on it.
Back to the album, this may be a dumb question since all the tracks are so personal but do you have a favorite?
I’ve got three children, multiple horses, two dogs, five grandchildren. If you asked me, “What is your favorite?” I couldn’t tell you. The male dog is a bully and charges in and wants to be loved. The girl is more feminine. I don’t have a favorite dog. I don’t have a favorite child. They all have great qualities. Everything in life has some quality and if you search for that quality, you can fall in love with it.
Is there a plan to perform the album live at some point?
That would require a lot of preparation. I would need the lyrics in front of me and I’m thinking, “wait a minute, I have a talk show, I’ve got that show, I have …” I don’t think I have time to go on tour but also to prepare. How would I do this on a special, maybe? I could have a teleprompter. We would need the guys to rehearse and would we do the tracks with the same artists or have someone new come in? It’s a big time commitment and time is so precious to me now.
Is that something that changed for you during the pandemic?
No, I just know that I’m going to die. I’m 90 years old. (Laughs) How long am I going to be around? If I feel a little dizzy because I didn’t hydrate enough or I get up suddenly, it’s like, “Holy shit, wait a minute. Am I dying?” I was in the stable and I got up suddenly from the chair to get to the horse and I was in the middle of a vertigo episode and I sat back down. For about four seconds, I was in vertigo and that can feel like an insight into all these other diseases. I had an insight into senility and it scared the heck out of me. Where am I going? Who am I? It was profound. I didn’t know the difference between up and down in those four seconds. It frightened me to death. Then I drank some water and I was okay.
Interview edited for length and clarity.