Nov 30, 2022
Jul 28, 2020
Apr 18, 2019
|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!
Mar 29, 2019
by Kasey Anderson
It would be easy to characterize Tim Bluhm’s new solo album, Sorta Surviving, as a “departure” from the California Soul and jam-band-adjacent aesthetic of Bluhm’s work with Mother Hips, and I suppose that characterization would be accurate enough but, at this point in his career, Bluhm has woven together a wide enough variety of styles, and meandered down a wide enough variety of musical paths, that to try and pinpoint anything as a departure from Bluhm’s “signature sound” is reductive. Sorta Surviving differs from a Mother Hips record in that the band is different, the instrumentation is different, and the presentation is different, but it’s a record that anyone with an appreciation for what Bluhm has done -- and continues to do -- as a frontman and songwriter should be able to sink their teeth into.
Sorta Surviving was recorded at Cash Cabin, the legendary property where Johnny Cash recorded the American Recordings series that re-re-resurrected his career. Bluhm described Cash Cabin as, “more like a living room than a studio; full of Pendleton blankets, old rusty stoves, memorabilia,” while talking to me from his own home studio in Northern California.
“It was sort of coming full circle,” Bluhm said, describing the sessions, noting that Rick Rubin had signed Mother Hips to his label, American Recordings around the same time the first album in Cash’s American Recordings series was released. “I listened to that Cash American Recordings album so much, back then and getting ready to go into the studio for this record.”
For Bluhm, Cash Cabin was appealing beyond its history because it sits secluded in rural Tennessee, removed from the trappings and distractions that tend to worm their way into everyone’s lives, no matter what else is at hand. “I spend a lot of time in recording studios,” Bluhm said, “I watch what people do, see their behavior patterns, and the tendency in all of us is to get distracted by our phones, our responsibilities outside of the studio, all of that stuff. You start thinking about what time you have to go feed the parking meter, what you’re going to have for dinner when you get home, little day-to-day stuff like that and it can impact the vibe in the studio, it can impact the performances and the songs. It was important for me to get away from all of that.”
At Cash Cabin, Bluhm assembled an all-star band including Jesse Aycock (guitar, vocals), Jason Crosby (piano, violin, organ), and Nashville session legends Gene Chrisman (drums) and David Roe (bass), and handed the production reins to Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools. The result is an album that draws heavily on traditional country structures and arrangements and brings to the forefront another hallmark of some of Bluhm’s favorite Classic Country songs: humor.
Perhaps the album’s centerpiece, “Jimmy West and John Dunn the Bully” exemplifies Bluhm’s wry humor as it follows the schoolyard conflict between the two title characters, Jimmy West facing down the hulking Dunn in a battle to defend the honor (and prized belt buckle) of the song’s narrator. Those with political leanings could probably find easy allegory in the David and Goliath tale but Bluhm says the song, like everything on Sorta Surviving, is grounded in one
guiding principle: “forget genre, forget everything else, just tell a good story.”
It’s a simple enough formula, and it works. It’s the stories that will keep you coming back to Sorta Surviving, and to Tim Bluhm, in whatever incarnation he chooses to present himself and his songs next.
Sorta Surviving is available today on Tim's site, Amazon, etc.
Mar 8, 2019
|Photo by Chad Cochran|
by Kasey Anderson
“It seemed odd to lose my relationship with a manager and label because I made a rock ‘n’ roll record, but that’s what happened.” Andrew Leahey is stuck in Nashville traffic, talking to me about his new album, Airwaves, the making and release of which brought Leahey to yet another unexpected career crossroads. The good news this time around was, after undergoing a life-threatening brain operation and rebounding to play 180 shows in 2016 in support of his debut album, parting ways with a manager and label was, if not small potatoes, certainly a less dire set of circumstances.
“In Nashville it’s easy to lose perspective. Nashville is the center of the Americana world so when I took this album to my label and my manager, the immediate response was, ‘Well we don’t really know what to do with this,’ which is like, really? It’s not a hard-to-understand kind of music.” In fact, for anyone who grew up during the era when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band dominated the charts, Airwaves is a very-easy-to-understand and equally-easy-to-embrace album, full of bright, chiming guitars, swagger, and anthemic choruses. According to Leahey, this was very much by design.
“We started playing ‘Make it Last’ at shows before we had even begun working on the record and it caught on immediately,” Leahey says. “For me - for us - we play a lot so it was important to make a record where any song could kick off a show, or could close a show. Songs that were maybe bigger in scope than the songs on my last record. And as we saw people at shows responding to those songs, it was an indication to me that we were on the right path. I wanted to make a Heartland Rock ‘n’ Roll Thriller,” Leahey’s thought is interrupted by his own laughter, “on a much, much smaller scale, obviously.”
Leahey and his band, The Homestead (and friends, including the 400 Unit’s Sadler Vaden), succeeded there, and Airwaves is indeed loaded front-to-back with songs that recall Petty, Springsteen and T. Rex. “Flyover Country” edges closer to what Americana purists - if there is such a thing - may have expected from Leahey while “Working Ain’t Working” recalls some of David Lowery’s twangier leanings but, by and large, Airwaves is kindred in spirit to the bands now relegated to Classic Rock Radio.
This is not to say Leahey and his band are unwelcome in Americana circles by any stretch of the imagination. Long a fixture at Nashville venues like the Basement and the 5 Spot, and with an ongoing gig in Elizabeth Cook’s band, Leahey continues to run in the same circles he always has, maybe just a little further out towards the fringes. “It’s all the same small pond,” he says, “I guess I’m just one of the weirder-looking fish right now.”
“When I came back from the operation, I really had to start over -- to repay all my dues, with my own songs, working on other people’s records, all of it. I struggled with it but ultimately, I had to rediscover what it all meant because I’d had it taken away from me so -- not that I didn’t appreciate it before the operation -- every opportunity is meaningful to me in a very different way now.”
Perhaps because of that, and likely also because Cook is one of the most dynamic and talented artists to come out of Nashville in the last several years, Leahey isn’t looking to relinquish his role in her band any time soon. “I love playing with Elizabeth, and my hope is I’m able to continue to balance both jobs because that’s a really important gig to me. I guess if there comes a time when I’m unable to carry both workloads, that would be a pretty good problem.”
Beyond Cook’s band, Leahey mentions that in Nashville especially, he’s happy to be known as more than just a singer, songwriter or bandleader. “It’s important to me that people remember I’m a player, too,” he says, “it’s really important to have those two halves come together and make a whole.”
With Airwaves, Leahey has achieved that symmetry. There’s no filler here. Just unabashed, infectious rock ‘n’ roll from an unapologetic Disciple of Petty. But make no mistake, this is not imitation. Following in the footsteps of others without tracing those footsteps is a delicate balance but Leahey and his band pull it off admirably.
Having survived the Nashville traffic snarl, Leahey has arrived home to meet the demands of his cat, and my own dog has grown restless so we agree that this is as good a time as any to cut things off, but before we go I tell him that to my ears, this album is as much a testament to Leahey’s own survival as it is to Petty or Springsteen or Stevie Nicks or anyone else.
“Yeah,” he says. “It took everything I went through to get to this point, to get to this record. Sometimes I wish I’d had some of these realizations when I was 22 but you really don’t know anything at that age beyond hormones and being pissed off at your hometown. I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m here now.”
I tell Leahey he’s not alone. A lot of folks are glad he’s here now, too.
Jan 15, 2019
by Kasey Anderson
We’re just at the beginning of 2019 but Liz Brasher’s debut album, Painted Image (January 18, Fat Possum), is likely to end up on plenty of year-end lists. I’ve known Brasher a while now and so, rather than firing off a bunch of prepared questions, I thought I’d just continue a few of the conversations Liz and I have been having over the course of the last year or so. I’m no stranger to being interviewed myself and as grateful as I know we all are for any attention that comes our way, there are only so many times you can do the Debut Record, This Is Me! Interview before it starts to feel robotic. I wanted to give Liz a break from that and delve into the things that really inform her work, and helped shape Painted Image.
What strikes me immediately about this record is how well it works as a piece, rather than a collection of songs. For some folks, their debut LP is just, “Well, these are the 12 songs I have, let’s make a record!” but - and please correct me if I’m wrong - you seem to be in a constant state of writing so I have to imagine a fair amount of material got left off this record because it didn’t necessarily fit with the way you wanted to introduce yourself as an artist. At what point in the process do you feel like you hit on, “Okay, THIS is what the record is and THESE are the songs that work”?
You're absolutely right. I am in a constant state of writing! I write a song and then move off it so quickly it almost became overwhelming trying to narrow that down to one album, much less my debut! So something close to 100 songs were left off of the record. It was basically a process of listening back and thinking through, "What right now is the best representation of who I am and what in turn make up the strongest songs that I can have on my debut?" I had criteria to meet -- what I wanted my introduction to the world to sound like. I wanted it to have a timeless sound, to be mysterious, powerful, evocative, soulful. So there wasn't a definitive moment but between myself and Scott Bomar (producer), we narrowed them down to what we felt was the best representation of me and my music.
A hundred songs! Damn. I just started work on my seventh record and I’ve written maybe a hundred usable songs in my entire life.
Yeah and that number has only doubled since the album was recorded last year! It's both a blessing & a curse, this constant stream.
There is a timelessness to the record, and there’s a purposefulness to the arrangements that really struck me. By that I mean: everything has its place and everything is working in concert to provide a comfortable place for your voice to sit. I think a lot of times, artists can end up treating certain instruments or arrangements like a novelty -- “We’re a rock band but here’s our song WITH A HORN SECTION!” -- and the finished production ends up not being of much service to the song itself. That’s not the case with your record. Because you’re in Memphis, and there are elements of what people associate with Soul Music on this record, I think those comparisons are going to be easy for people to reach for but what I heard almost immediately was a Dap Kings dynamic, where everything has its place and it’s all textural — there aren’t always these dramatic horn lines. Were there reference points you brought into the studio, like, “Okay *this* is what this song needs” or was it more generalized than that? Once you knew what the pieces were, how did you go about fitting them together within the context of an album?
I definitely had reference points I used. The Dap Kings dynamic being a huge one since I'm such a big fan of Amy Winehouse, of course so many tracks from Stax, specifically Otis Redding songs, Etta James's entire Muscle Shoals record Tell Mama.. etc., etc. but I think this is where Memphis comes into play more than anything. Memphis has a history of good horns parts in songs, especially in complementing vocalists, and this is still true today. Scott knew to go to Marc Franklin (trumpet, arranger) for the arrangement of both the strings and the horns. He has a phenomenal ear and added the exact parts that had been missing all along. They really did fall perfectly into place.
Yeah, it’s a really beautifully arranged record and there’s enough space for your voice to really come through. I read an interview with Donald Glover recently where he talked about wanting to make what he called “Everyday Music,” and he cited artists like Stevie Wonder, Badu, Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation record as sort of touchstones for the kind of music that doesn’t require a certain set of circumstances for listening. Like, I love the Pusha T record but it’s not what I’m reaching for on Sunday at 11:30am when I’m doing a crossword. You seem to have a goal similar to Glover’s — songs that fit seamlessly into the listener’s life. Is that fair to say and, if so, do you feel like you got there with this record? What would the next step be from here?
That is fair to say. Man, I love his references for everyday music. I could listen to all 3 of those artists at any given time. I always think of music in terms of either good or bad, but then I sub-categorize that to music for musicians vs. music for everyone. I'm much more interested in making music for everyone and the everyday because I know what that's meant for me. That's why I mentioned the idea of timeless music. It's music that transcends a situation or an era or a theme. It's music for humanity, to be played anytime or anywhere and to always get something new out of it. I hope this record gets there, but I think only time can judge that.
The next step from here is to keep writing. To collaborate with artists who inspire me, to constantly challenge myself, and to keep making good records that I want to hear, and hopefully the rest of the world will too.
It seems like people get caught up in the idea that there can’t be harmony between making records that are creatively satisfying and challenging and making records that are accessible when, to me, if you’re doing the former well and you have any regard at all for your audience, you’re going to end up accomplishing the latter.
At the end of the day we're all human and most likely what's satisfying to me (the artist) is gonna be satisfying to the other humans (the listener).
You spent most of 2018 on tour and played with a pretty eclectic cross-section of artists, from the Zombies to the Psychedelic Furs to Emmylou Harris and your songs never seemed out of place to me, which reinforces my belief that genres in general are an absurd construct. Is that something you give much thought to?
I give a lot of thought to genres, not because I want to but mainly because the world makes me. By nature it's easier to understand something when you can classify it. This type of plant, that type of animal, this type of wall paint. But what we try to classify by genre is the most intangible 3+ minutes that exist. It's futile to box in something that by definition can't remain in a box. And even if you do place a song or band in a genre, in a few years that genres name will change and evolve. We create songs that obviously have their roots in music we have listened to or the world we've observed, but the act of actually forming the songs comes out of nowhere... like pulling it out of the air. To me it's so belittling to then put them into man made subcategories, which we most of the time don't even agree with! My approach to all of that is to just listen to as much good music as I can. I'm a record collector & when I can't spin records I'm listening to the radio or my phone or i'm at a live show. Good is literally the only boundary I put on what I listen to, which becomes my personal opinion. I'm super studious & sponge-like, so usually once I delve into an artist or album I start to spit out songs that are influenced by them. It's really bizarre & also impossible for me to ever say i'm this or that genre. In short (ha!), YOU'RE RIGHT. GENRES ARE ABSURD
This brings me to something else I’ve noticed about you: there does not seem to be much time during any given day when you’re not listening to, playing, or discussing music. This is not just a “branding” thing or the front-facing stuff we all do to some extent for whatever our “social media audience” might be; that is genuinely who you are. Has it always been that way? Was there a record or were there a few records that moved you from casual or even avid listener to someone who more or less lives and breathes music?
Yeah you just described my day. I was raised around music, so in my home as a child my mom was constantly singing, I was always rehearsing for church solos, and my dad was giving me the good secular jolt of playing the oldies station in the car. He had Elton John and Michael Jackson on the turntable at home. I played and replayed The Beatles night and day. When I discovered them, I couldn't stop. I became the weirdest kid in the neighborhood because my crush was Paul McCartney; pictures of him and the Beatles plastered all over my walls, like a serious first crush! I understood fandom but I didn't want to be a fan I wanted to be up on stage singing WITH him. I had a radio hidden in my closet where I could secretly listen to the top pop songs of the week (secretly because I wasn't allowed to listen to secular music). Once the internet got to my house and I got older I was illegally downloading every song I thought I needed to hear. Boyfriends would make me burned CDs because they knew how much more I'd appreciate that than anything they could buy me. I snuck out of the house to go see live shows many many times. There's never been a barrier to me and music. I think I'm just wired that way, to be constantly searching out and in love with this crazy thing.
Whenever I talk to you I’m like, “Man, I thought I liked music, maybe I don’t like it at all?” Because it so clearly just consumes you, whereas for me it’s *one thing* I love. We’ve talked a little bit, outside of this interview, about hip-hop and how that has influenced each of us — as you feel and hear yourself growing as a writer or an artist, do you come across things that are outside of whatever genre you know will be ascribed to you and think, “I can use that”? I know this is probably a difficult thing to answer as you’re just releasing your debut record but how would you like to see your work evolve or progress from here?
I've moved through that thought a lot. I've been using drum break samples to write entire songs to, specifically with the thought of wanting to collaborate with the hip-hop world. I write good hooks and I think they could sit well there too. I take everything in to use it eventually. I think i'd like to just see my songs evolve with me, which they're already doing.
I want to go back for a second to the idea of “good music” and what that means to you, both as a listener and as an artist. What’s the litmus test for you? How do you identify a song or a record as “good” or “not good” the first time you hear it and, conversely, when you’re writing, what’s your measure for when a song is “done” and you know it’s as good as, or better than, the songs it’s going to live alongside?
The litmus test is so fluid! I'm obviously not consciously thinking about whether it's a good or bad song when I'm listening to it for the first time so initially it's about a primal feeling of resonating with me. At the core, a good song will inspire. This could be lyrically, rhythmically, in form, instrumentation, ambient sounds, life... it's endless. A bad song usually just pisses me off when I hear it.
When I'm writing I try to be as decisive & limited as possible. Because options are endless, it's easy to get so hung up over little things. The more natural & without self-editing that my song can flow out of me, the better it will be. I leave overthinking to others because I don't like to do it! But I will spend hours limiting myself to 3 chords on a guitar, or seeing how many times I can phrase lyrics differently within one vocal melody, or playing a bass line over a repetitive groove all day until something clicks and everything starts to line up in my head. I can only do so much fixing - I'm mainly concerned with finishing. You can layer as many parts as you want, bring in as many top notch players, but if it's not a good song at the core it's always just gonna be a mediocre song with good shit on it. The songs will always evolve by the time I'm in the studio, or when other musicians enter the song. Andy Warhol said "Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art." That quote is so great because it's true. Sometimes I just need to get bad songs I'm writing out of the way for the good ones to come. It happens in a pattern of 3 for me.. I write 2 bad ones and then a good one suddenly appears. Although I think it's important to value quality of song over quantity written, it seems logical that the more I write the higher my chance for getting a good song will be.
It also seems like the more you write, that ratio of not-usable-to-usable will shrink. But I absolutely think there’s something to be said for just writing in the moment and going back to edit later instead of trying to dissect every song while you’re in the middle of writing it. I do a lot of editing but I try to make sure the editing process is separate from the initial writing process because they’re two very different things.
You mentioned Memphis and its history and I want to get into that a little bit if we can. Memphis is one of my favorite places to play and one of my favorite places to spend time and while it’s incredibly rich in history and people have an understanding of and respect for that, I think to some degree, especially in the last decade or so, Memphis has lived in the shadow of Nashville. Is that an accurate characterization and are there ways in which that’s beneficial to the music community in Memphis? The talent pool there is still incredible and it seems like the community there is incredibly close-knit (which is not to say that Nashville folks aren’t supportive of each other). Is it a positive thing that Memphis is discussed often as kind of peripheral to Nashville or do you feel like people are missing out because they’re not paying enough attention?
That’s accurate. Memphis has been in the shadow of Nashville. It’s beneficial in that we can keep creating what we want to and not worry about whether it’s mainstream. It makes for a more authentic and less sterile sounding creative breeding ground. It’s also the last real affordable music city in the nation, which is always a plus for artists. Historically people in Memphis have always done whatever they want to & that’s still the case. I think people are missing out on the coolest music scene in the nation, a city of super talented outcasts.
The Nashville-Memphis dynamic reminds me a bit of Seattle and Portland in the early-to-mid ‘90s. A great thing about those little communities is there’s a lot of support and I think a healthy level of creative competitiveness.
Who are some folks, in Memphis or otherwise, who are doing work that you’re inspired by? Musicians, writers, anyone whose work you’ve been moved by.
Don Bryant & the Bo Keys, Impala, Jack Oblivian, Jimbo Mathus, Mark Edgar Stuart, Steve Selvidge, Amy Lavere & Will Sexton, The Dirty Streets, Matt Ross-Spang (producer), Jeff Powell (vinyl mastering engineer/cutter), Bruce Watson at Delta Sonic Sound, the Young Avenue Sound guys, in the film world Waheed AlQawasmi & Christian Walker are representing Memphis nationally. So many many more!
Love Jimbo Mathus! The Jimbo/Eric Ambel team has produced a couple of really excellent records between them.
So when the record’s out will you do anything to mark the occasion, step back and appreciate what’s happened and what’s coming? I know as well as you that “What comes next?” Is such a strange question to get asked in these situations because the answer is, “Work.” It’s like anything else, you just go back to work but that first full-length is really a big moment and I hope you’re able to appreciate it, even if just for a second.
We're going to do a live taping of the album over at the Ditty TV studios next month. It'll be a lot of fun to play with a big band for that. You got it right, work is next!
Painted Image is available for pre-order, and out this Friday.