Roy Zimmerman’s songs aren’t just about his progressive political views — they’re his suggestions for a better world.
But it’s OK if you have a laugh. That’s his goal.
Zimmerman, 60, a satirical singer-songwriter from California whose songs have been featured on HBO and Showtime, is bringing his one-man show “RiZe Up!” to Marysville’s Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Saturday. The concert shares the title of his new album set to be released in September.
His original folk songs, often played on left-leaning talk radio, touch on racism, gun violence, climate change, income inequality, bigotry, ignorance, war, greed. Or anything else that pushes his buttons.
He has shared the stage with Bill Maher, Ellen DeGeneres, Robin Williams, John Oliver and George Carlin. His music videos have amassed more than 8 million views on YouTube.
Here, via email, the San Francisco native talks about his upbringing, inspirations and some of his new songs.
Why did you become a satirist?
I write songs naturally. It’s the way I respond to the world. I began writing songs in junior high, and most of them were funny songs about what was going on around me.
Who was your inspiration?
There’s a record that came out in 1967 by Phil Ochs called “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.” It was a very pointed satirical song about the apathy of many Americans. It was a hit for a week and half, and I remember singing it gleefully as I jumped my Stingray bike off the curbs of Sunnyvale, California. It resonated with my natural inclination toward satire. So did the songs of Tom Lehrer.
When did your career launch?
My satirical folk band The Foremen got signed to Warner/Reprise records in the mid-’90s. We played all the major folk clubs and both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1996. I’ve been performing solo for a little over 20 years now.
Tell me about your writing process.
Some of these songs write themselves — you have to be there while they do that, of course. My wife, Melanie Harby, is my frequent co-writer. She and I will bat ideas back and forth, then we’ll come up with a hook for the song — a line or essential joke to hang the whole song on — and a melody will emerge. Then we’ll hammer out the lyrics.
We try not to waste a single line. The tighter the song, the more effective it is. We also look for the most appropriate musical style to the point we’re making.
What do you want people get from listening to your songs?
I always talk about laughter and encouragement. It is as important to me that people feel empowered to do the work of social justice as it is that they laugh. If you can laugh at a seemingly intractable problem, you’ve taken away some of its power.
Which song are you most proud of?
Twenty-two years ago, I wrote a song called “Defenders of Marriage” about the issue of marriage equality. Little did I know how much that issue would change. The song has been recorded by a number of artists and used in quite a few wedding ceremonies. People have written me in the interim saying, “That song gave me hope” and “That song gave me courage.” One young man who was contemplating suicide because of anti-gay bullying wrote to say, “That song saved my life.”
What issues have your attention these days?
Of course, the Trump phenomenon is on people’s minds. There’s enough outrage in that for a new album. But we like to write about broader issues, too, including social satire. We also like to include history in our songs. These topics are important to everyone. If we’ve done a good job, we’ve given a melody and rhyme scheme and punch lines to issues that are vital for everyone.
Why combine music with satire?
The music can help tell the story. For our song, “Religious Freedom (To Burn Our Own Witches),” we wrote a gospel-revival-type melody, for instance, that makes the point all the more pointed. That song is on my new CD “RiZe Up,” which is due out in September. Another song, called “Rise Up,” is about the inspiration my generation can take from the young people who are leading new resistances. The high school kids from Parkland, Florida, who spawned the March for Life, are an example.
Tell me about your “RiZe Up” tour.
I’ll sing some funny original tunes and some more heartfelt songs of resistance about the ongoing struggle for justice.
I’ll be singing some of my song parodies we’ve been posting on social media that have garnered tens of millions of views. “Pixie Man” (about Attorney General Jeff Sessions), “Joel Osteen” (about the “prosperity gospel” televangelist, to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”) and “The Ballad of Sweeney Trump,” among others.
Evan Thompson: email@example.com; 360-544-2999; Twitter: @evanthompson_1
If you go
What: “Roy Zimmerman: RiZe Up!”
When: 7:30 p.m. July 21
Where: Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 1607 Fourth St., Marysville
Tickets: $20 or pay what you can
More: 360-659-6621 or www.royzimmerman.com