|Photos by Barry Grimes|
You were born in Louisiana and the culture and sound of the bayou comes through clearly throughout Pinkville, but you spent a few years in Los Angeles, specifically around the Grand Ole Echo scene, which is still an under-the-radar scene compared to Nashville or Austin. How did big a role did Los Angeles, and that specific scene, play in your development as a writer and artist?
Los Angeles played a major role being that I had already moved there when I started fooling with songwriting. I was 19 when I first started trying to structure my own songs. I remember around age 21 putting the guitar down. It would be a year or so before I’d get back into it. Around age 24, I got introduced to the Grand Ole Echo scene. Ben Reddell started a label and funded/released my first record Parish Lines. I was big into the folks that hung around there. Dan Janisch, Bob Woodruff, Rick Shea and David Serby. These guys were 20 to 25 years older than me but they sort of took me under their wing. I looked up to them and I still do. Check out Bob Woodruff’s Dreams and Saturday Nights. It’s a great record that was released in the mid-90s through Asylum. Dan Janisch was and still is one of my favorite songwriters in L.A. “Cannot Settle Down”, “I Dream of You” and “Everybody Gots Somebody They Used to Love” are stone cold classics. I believe Mike Stinson still covers Dan’s songs. The Cinema Bar in Culver City was my favorite hang. Julie Richmond and Kim Grant guided me into the scene there. I’ll always have a special place for L.A. It gave me my start and awoke something in me I never knew was there.
Cinema Bar's a cool place. Didn't some legendary Lucinda Williams show take place there? I don't know if I have that right. And the Echo was a really cool scene, still is. I know you've talked about seeing Phoebe Bridgers there early on in her career, when you and I first met you said you'd seen me play the Echo years before. A lot of the folks who started out there strayed a little further from Americana into, I dunno, whatever other made-up genre you want to use to classify them.
Your sound, though, and especially the sound of Pinkville, doesn't immediately bring to mind Los Angeles. These are dark songs, and you and Adrian Quesada did a great job on this record of framing your voice really nicely. How did you connect with Adrian and Will Walden, and when you started writing the songs for this record, did you have that kind of darkness in mind?
I met Will through the music scene in Echo Park around 4 or 5 years ago. He used to do sound at the Silver Lake Lounge. He was only 21 years old. We’ve been playing together for over three years now. It’s funny to think about that all these years later. He’s been on every tour I’ve done. He’s my right hand man. Interesting fact: His dad is renowned tv composer Snuffy Walden. Snuffy composed and won an Emmy for The West Wing. My favorite of his is The Wonder Years score. Will inherited that trait. A few years ago I was talking to him about what I envisioned as a record intro. “Picture a platoon cautiously walking through the humid jungles of Vietnam.” He came up with the riff on the spot. That riff would eventually become the opening track of Pinkville. I connected to Adrian Quesada through Mary Jurey at Blue Elan. It’s funny because he told me recently that at first he didn’t think he was the guy to produce me. He said he thought I was more of a country/Americana artist. After I described my vision to him he changed his mind. After the last record, I told myself I’d lighten up on the dark subject matter but in the end I created something even darker than the last. I guess it’s just who I am. I gravitate more towards those kind of characters. I read In Cold Blood at a very young age. I guess it stuck.
I read In Cold Blood pretty young, too. That one and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried both come to mind throughout Pinkville. How much do you draw from outside material - books, films, news, whatever? Everything around us has a way of informing what we write but how often does something you've read or seen jump out at you to the point where you chase it down until it becomes a song? What's that process like for you?
Yeah, I read The Things They Carried right before I started working on Pinkville. I loved the mixture of brutality and tenderness. That last chapter really got me. The opening track of Pinkville was something I experienced at a young age. It stuck with me and eventually I was able to put that story in to a song. My writing process on this record was different because I pulled a lot of things from my personal life. Rehabilitation, Pinkville, Manic Depression. I am the narrator in those songs. That is something I usually wasn’t comfortable with but with age and experience it came naturally. I am inspired by lots of things. Personal experiences, books, films. Some things just come out of nowhere. Cobra came out of nowhere. I wrote the lyrics late one night. Those are the most mysterious and interesting ones to me. No explanation on why I did it or where it came from.
There's a very plainspoken approach to some of that autobiographical material. Which isn't to say there aren't great turns of phrase or really beautiful lines it's just that a lot of it is matter-of-fact. "Rehabilitation" sticks out to me as really just a recounting of the day-to-day of rehab. It's not bereft of redemption but that's not really the point of the song. It's a kind of dirt-under-the-fingernails recounting of your experience. Was that the intent? To de-romanticize and de-stigmatize rehab by laying the process out so plainly?
Exactly. Rehab is the same schedule over and over for weeks. The rhythm and groove stays the same. Though there is the occasional “oh lawd” moment. A patient escapes, a patient gets pregnant. A few months after I was out a close friend I met there overdosed. I remember during a session, they asked me to play a song. I played “Feathers.” After, he came up to me and asked me about that song. “How in the hell did you come up with that?” Three months later he was dead. “I can still see his face when they broke down the door....”
It's sort of the same way with "The Heartbreakers". Was that another instance of trying to humanize something that seems much larger than life?
Totally. I envisioned it as a Tom Petty origin story. Will started playing the riff on tour a few years ago. It was before Tom died. After he passed away I knew I had to finish the lyrics. I relate with his story because we both grew up in the swampy Deep South. We both moved to Hollywood at a young age. Not trying to sound like Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James but I related with his story a lot. It felt like the right thing to do and it’s nice seeing folks react so positively to it.
The reach of those songs and that band is just immense, so it was nice to see you distill it back down to its origins. Do you feel like that dream they were chasing still exists? When you moved from LA back to Texas, did you feel like you'd done what you could in LA and needed a change? What took you to Austin?
I’m not sure if that rock n roll dream still exists. I’m sure some form of it does. I got signed in L.A. so that’s proof that’s it not completely dead yet. Every time we’d tour through Austin it was always amazing. Saturday nights at The White Horse. Making more money in one night than I ever did in L.A. The bands and songwriters are great. It’s also a genreless city. Folks would ask if I was worried about being surrounded by so many great bands. Honestly, I WANT to be surrounded by great bands. It’s inspiring. Folks that treat music as a competition are high. Townes did his thing here and so did Roky Erickson. Best of both worlds. Niels from Blue Elan had been telling me I should make the move. He said check back in with me in two years and let me know if you made the right decision. It took me less than a year to realize I had.
It's a special place, for sure. Portland took its little slogan, Keep Portland Weird, from Austin. The whole "Keep it Weird" thing started there in Austin as a call for folks to support local businesses and was then adopted by a few other cities, Portland among them.
You've been public about your sobriety -- obviously "Rehabilitation" references that -- and about mental health issues. How have sobriety and treatment changed the way you write and perform, if at all. Do you approach songwriting differently than you did before you got sober?
I’m much more focused now that I’m sober. Nothing to cloud my brain or throw me off course. My personal life settled down so I was able to focus on songwriting and my career. It helped me mature and my responsibility level went up. Folks ask how do I stay sober playing in bars and venues. Honestly that keeps me sober. Nothing against folks that drink but it caused a lot of unnecessary pain in my life. No one to blame but myself. The guilt is still there. I feel bad for the way I treated people that cared for me. That guilt will probably never leave but I’m thankful I can wake up knowing I have no one to apologize to and I can remember everything from the night before. Hell of a thing.
Hell of a thing indeed. Tom Waits, who you cover on Pinkville, is a sober guy and when asked about sobriety affecting his songwriting process, he said, "One is never completely certain when you drink and do drugs whether the spirits that are moving through you are the spirits from the bottle or your own. And, at a certain point, you become afraid of the answer. That's one of the biggest things that keeps people from getting sober, they're afraid to find out that it was the liquor talking all along." I've always really liked that quote. If you know how to do it, you know how to do it. It seems like Waits is a pretty big touchstone for you, creatively. What drew you to his songs and, specifically, to "Goin' Out West"?
I love the theater and monologues of Tom Waits. He’s a visual artist and really paints the scene. I gravitated to Goin Out West because of the subject matter. A brute of a man is pitching himself to Hollywood. The traits he brags about are mostly criminal but at least he looks good without a shirt. Y’all get that dude an agent! I related with it because I too moved to Hollywood with hopes of being in the moving pictures. I was in a handful of really bad films. “I ain’t no extra I’m a leading man.”
Part of that song too, though, is the folly of the narrator thinking that what the people "out West" want is a renegade, an outlaw, when what they really want is a soft, beautiful face upon which to project the image of an outlaw. The juxtaposition of real danger and the illusion of danger is really at the heart of Waits's thing, I think. And we see that not just in Hollywood but in this idea of Outlaw Country, a sub-genre of a sub-genre of music that, I guess, both you and I play. People love the idea of an outlaw - they love the outlaw image and the iconography that does along with it - but when somebody actually steps up and speaks their mind, be it about the president or how under-represented female artists are on country radio, or whatever, people get uncomfortable. That's kind of a bizarre thing to me. The flipside of that is we now have this glut of artists who work very hard to present a very calculated representation of the outlaw image they believe people want to see. It's nothing new in music or film, or life even, but it seems to be prevalent again, this idea of the outlaw persona. You seem to have found a label and a team that don't try to push that on you, or push your songs into that categorization. Is that a boundary you set with the label?
I agree 100 percent on that. The label has been great about me doing my thing when it comes to the music part since the beginning. I’m very thankful for that after hearing so many label horror stories. Folks love playing dress up. A doctored up “outlaw” bio or trying to appear a certain way. One of my favorite Sturgill lines is “The most outlaw thing that I ever did was give a good woman a ring.” I’m far from an “outlaw.” Maybe outlaw in the fact that I make records my own way. Though I still enjoy playing Xbox and hold a large amount of Middle Earth knowledge. Some of these folks would never want to appear “nerdy” or admit that they enjoy these things. One of my favorite spots in Austin is I Heart Video. Tons of VHS tapes and film memorabilia. I’m also much more comfortable in a pair of Nike Cortez than cowboy boots. Sure I’ve had a few run ins with the law but I’m more embarrassed by that than proud.
To me it's always, if the songs are good, I don't care much about how they're presented or marketed. That said, you do seem to have a pretty good hold on how to be engaging on Twitter and Instagram without being panderous or persistently self-promotional. Is that a hard balance to strike for you? How do you strike that balance?
Thankfully as far as that goes I’ve been able to just be myself. The older I got the less I cared about my “online” image. That’s when I noticed folks started paying attention. Most people can tell when someone isn’t being authentic. Authenticity always shines through in the end. Whether it’s through song or social media. I enjoy that side of it. I’m surprised when folks react to things that I post. The world has a better sense of humor than I originally thought.
The record's out, you're going to Scandinavia again soon on tour, and I imagine you'll be busy this summer. Pinkville is more or less going to be your life for the next 18 months or so. Does that take a toll on you? Do you hit a point where you're ready for the next thing or have you adjusted to the timing of the album cycle at this point?
This time it was different because I felt like it was the most well prepared release yet. The team was all set, the artwork was there and a Europe and US tour was booked. I’m already seeing the difference that makes. It takes a big load off of me. I enjoy being on the road. I’ve got a great new booking agent now through Atomic. His name is Jimmy Dasher. How can you go wrong when that’s your agent’s name? I’ve done a lot of questionable tours. 4 great shows and 15 bad shows was usually the case. Though this all builds character. You have to go through this. It’s the hustle. Folks want immediate fame through reality tv music competitions. Even if you win, you are usually forgotten within a few weeks. Careers are earned on the road. Whether you are playing to 5 people or 50 people, it’s the necessary path and what it takes to build a foundation. Cue Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”.
Pinkville is out now!